Why did God change from aggressive in the OT to pacifistic in the NT?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Jesus said to one of His disciples, "put the sword down, whoever lives by the sword dies by the sword." Does that mean that Jesus is saying that we don't have the right to kill, whether it be for self-defense, having the right to kill an evildoer or during times of war? One of the Ten Commandments says, "Thou shall not murder." Is Jesus saying now that even killing is forbidden? Does it mean, starting from the New Testament, that we now no longer have the right to kill another person? Why was that not the message of God in the Old Testament? Why did God allow the His followers in the Old Testament to be more violent than His followers in the New Testament? Did God change His view towards killing? Why is Jesus saying one thing such as, "put the sword down..." while the apostle Paul says another, such as the state has the right to take the lives of evildoers (Romans13:1-7)? 

Answer: Your question is well-taken. The Bible does seem to give us mixed signals on war and violence throughout its pages. But if we look at the Bible as we are supposed to look at any piece of writing — as a synergistic work — we will see how its parts fit into a congruent whole, and that they do not fight one against the other. The following passage from the book of Ecclesiastes sets the tone for how we should look at war-and-violence and peace-and-healing throughout the Bible.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, ESV, emphases mine)

The Bible tells us that there are times that are appropriate for killing and for making war and that there are times appropriate for healing and for making peace. This takes a believer right off the hook. When God says fight, we fight. When he says make peace, we make peace. Since God can never behave illogically, and since the Bible is in synergy, the teachings you mentioned cannot be in contradiction with themselves or with any other portions of Scripture.

God’s people (which includes his historical faithful like Noah, the ancient Jews and the subsequent Christians) have always lived among people who are hostile to God; sometimes these are entire nations, and sometimes these are collections of people who merely hate him (and/or us). Our job, however, has always been to give testimony to God. Today we are called to use the voice-of-peace and a gentle mien as typified in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). But historically, God sometimes cracked heads in order to be heard — like when he sent his people to conquer the Promised Land.

These two methods certainly represent the extremes — and it is natural to question how they can coexist peaceably. But we stay out of trouble by remembering that God reveals his purposes progressively over time and that he works with his people through time. So, God’s people are always on a path… but they are also always in a process. Their destination will never change, but the very processes involved in reaching that destination will necessitate changes in methods while on the path — sometimes changing from one behavior to its opposite! From God’s perspective, this is no change at all. But we are hypersensitive to change because it scares us on some level.

In the 15th century BC, it was appropriate for Joshua to use the sword to work God’s will. In the 20th century AD, it was appropriate for Billy Graham to use his voice to do the same. These are not in conflict; they both played their part in the redemption story. Since it was determined that God would save all humankind via a kinsman-redeemer born to the Jews, it was necessary to have the Jewish nation in the ancient past… and nations come at the price of war! But after that Redeemer had completed the final atonement by dying on the cross, there was no longer need for a specific nation to carry God’s torch because the gospel message was now in the hands of the Church — the whole Body of Christ — and the Church transcends national boundaries. Therefore, where once it was necessary for the plan of redemption to fight with other nations to preserve Israel as God’s standard-bearer, this is no longer necessary.

(Please note, however, that the plan of redemption continues beyond the atonement. The world itself has yet to be redeemed. That will happen after Christ returns.)

The difference between the Old Testament methodology and what we are experiencing today is that the physical sword was a legitimate part of the history of redemption — but a metaphorical sword is the primary weapon of our age. You see, a war does indeed continue…but it is of a different sort than those of Canaan. The Gospel is divisive by nature—and it is, in itself, a sword. Today’s job is to preach the Gospel to every creature — and this is war enough! Look what Jesus said of his own message.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
(Matthew 10:34, ESV)

Concerning your statement, “Why is Jesus saying one thing such as, ‘put the sword down...’ And the apostle Paul says another, such as, the right of the state to take the lives of evildoers (Romans13:1-7)?” Jesus’ response to Peter’s aggression in the garden and Paul’s teaching on civil government are contextually discrete; as such, they do not need to be justified as if they affected the same issue at the same time.

Concerning Jesus’ command to drop the sword, remember, Jesus came here to die… and this incident in the garden was the beginning of that end. So, allowing Peter to help him escape with the aid of his sword would have thwarted God’s purpose. This was the time for Jesus to complete his mission — that’s all. This same Jesus, the one who drove the moneychangers out of the temple, was not against swords or against appropriate aggression — and he knew that Peter was carrying a sword. It was not unreasonable in that day (nor is it now) to take precautions against the world that has proven itself hostile. So, Jesus did not say, “put down the sword” by way of banning all killing; he told the disciple to put it down because the time of his being offered-up had come, and he needed to proceed to the cross unimpeded.

“Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:10–11, ESV)

As you can see, the above scenario had nothing to do with the Bible’s stand on the government’s right to punish evildoers. In fact, that is one of the few biblically approved jobs of a civil government — so, they had better get that one right! Therefore, a Christian may be a member of the civil government — a soldier, a policeman, an executioner — who, in the line of duty, might have to kill one or more of his fellow human beings. This is not murder, and this is not a congruency crisis. This is dealing with evil in a biblically approved manner.

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:1–7, ESV, emphasis mine)

What you have done is fairly typical: you have lifted passages out of context, reassembled them with no regard of the author’s intention… and then complained that they won’t fit together! This violates the most basic rules of reading… and God should not be blamed for that. No author — not even God — is required to have every word in his work mesh with every other word in his work outside of its context. Synergy is required in the author and in the reader. The Bible is no exception to this.

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