Building a Theology of Peace in the Old Testament

Would you go to the Old Testament to develop a theology of peace and your position on a Christian’s involvement in war? Or do you tend to ignore or gloss over the Old Testament on the issue of peace and participation in war because it does not fit your peace theology?

The Old Testament has been a problem and a stumbling block to the question of whether a Christian should go to war. How do we, who hold a peace position, reconcile the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament with all the war in the Old Testament. How can we explain it to our children and others in a way that strengthens their faith, and does not leave them with unanswered questians that will undermine their faith? One of God’s attributes is that He does not change. Has God changed on one’s participation in war? I believe you will see that no, He has not changed. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

In building a theology of peace, those of us who do not believe that Christians should go to war take several key New Testament passages such as “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9), “Seek peace and pursue it” (I Pet. 3:11), “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) , and define them as referring to all areas of life. We believe that it applies not only to our private lives but also to that we may not be part of the military or kill another in war.

A person who does not come from a peace position looks at these same key passages and interprets them as referring to one’s private life with no reference to involvement in the military. They see these same or similar passages in the Old Testament in a context where involvement in the military was the accepted thing and received God’s blessing (ex. David). “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21,22), or “Seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14). Therefore, they do not see the validity of our basis for not fighting for our country. The Old Testament becomes a stumbling block for them.

I believe that it is important that we move from using the New Testament as our primary basis for a peace position to using the whole counsel of God – both the Old and New Testaments. I have been discovering the importance of using both the Old and New Testaments in understanding God’s design on different issues. The Old Testament has a way of clarifying and giving understanding to many of the issues that we are facing today. This is no less true than on the peace issue.

In building a theology of peace in the Old Testament the mistake is often made of looking at the twelve tribes of Israel. The result of focusing on the twelve tribes of Israel, is either a “God and country” application for the Christian, or the problem of how to relate the God of all the war in the Old Testament to the principle of not fighting back in the New Testament.

God does not change. We see this is true in the example of thirteenth tribe of Israel. The thirteenth tribe? There were twelve sons of Jacob, and the tribe of Joseph was divided into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. That made thirteen tribes.

So what happened to the thirteenth tribe? No one talks about a thirteenth tribe. It was a tribe that was not counted in with the twelve tribes of Israel. It did not receive an inheritance in the land of Canaan. It was a tribe set apart solely for the work of the Lord. This tribe was not to participate in war. It was not counted in the army of Israel. God made a covenant with this tribe – a covenant of life and peace! It was the tribe of Levi – the tribe of priests.

The tribe of Levi was not part of Israel’s army. It was not to go to war, instead the Levites were separated for the work of the Lord. In Numbers 1, God had them number all the men in Israel twenty years old or older who were able to serve in the army. The Lord specifically commanded Moses not to count the Levites in the census of the army. Instead, the Levites were to be in charge of the tabernacle and the work of the Lord. In a special ceremony the Levites were cleansed and separated from the other Israelites and the Levites became the Lord’s.

The twelve tribes of Israel were an earthly kingdom. In that sense they were not a parallel in the Old Testament of the Church today. We often think of them as a parallel because they were called God’s chosen people. However, the tribe of Levi, and more specifically the priests, provides a much better parallel – a type and a foreshadowing of the Christian and our relationship to God. The Levites were chosen because they voluntarily gave their allegience to God and showed zeal for God’s honor. The tribe of Reuben should have been chosen because he was the firstborn, but he was rejected because of sin. As Christians we too have been “chosen” because we also have voluntarily given our allegience to God.

The fact that the Levites were not part of the military is illustrated in the life of Moses. Moses was not a military man. He was a Levite. Although Moses was a great leader, he never led Israel in battle. Joshua, the son of Nun (an Ephraimite), always led Israel in battle. Moses would give God’s command to Israel to go to war, and he held up his arms in the battle with the Amalekites so that God would bless Israel. But Moses never actually fought in war.

In looking further at the tribe of Levi, we find in Malachi 2:1-8 that God had made a covenant with the tribe of Levi – a covenant of life and peace! There in verses 4-6 God says, “You will know that I have sent you this admonition so that my covenant with Levi may continue, says the Lord Almighty. My covenant was with him, a covenant of LIFE and PEACE, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in PEACE and uprightness, and turned many from sin.”

There are several important concepts in this passage. The first is that God’s covenant with the tribe of Levi was one of life and peace. This supports God’s command in Numbers that the Levites were not to go to war, but it goes beyond it. The Levites were to be active in the promotion of life and peace.

The second concept is that this covenant of peace with Levi would continue. I believe that here God is saying that this covenant of peace is to continue to the priesthood of Believers, the Christian. Through Christ, the Church became a royal priesthood. The Christian no longer has to go through a priest to contact God and to receive forgiveness for sins. In Revelation 1:6 it says that Jesus has made us to be a kingdom and priests to His God and Father. The Christian, just like the Levite is have a ministry of life and peace, explaining the way to eternal life and peace with God, and turn many back from sin.

The principle of peace and the Levites also gives us understanding into the fact of war in the Old Testament. When it came to war, God made a distinct separation between the state and the “church”. God permitted and commanded at times the state, the 12 tribes of Israel, to go to war. The church, the priests and Levites, was prohibited from doing that.

A further insight is that we should not try to force on the government God’s command to the Christian not to go to war. This, from the example of the Levites, is not God’s intent. Israel in the Old Testament was an earthly kingdom. As an earthly kingdom, God gave them the authority to use war to protect themselves and to conquer the land. Jesus also recognized an earthly government’s use of the military in John 18:36 when He said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But NOW my kingdom is from another place.”

The word “now” in this passage is significant in that it indicates the ending of God’s earthly kingdom in Israel and the beginning of a Heavenly one. As Christians, our citizenship is actually in Heaven. Philipians 3:20 says, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is another reason for the Christian not to participate in war or even to be heavily involved in politics. Our primary citizenship is in Christ’s Kingdom.

We are but strangers and pilgrims in the secular nation in which we live. This concept, interestingly, is addressed along with the concept that we are a royal priesthood in I Peter 1 and 2. It is because we are a people belonging to God, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation; that we are to live as strangers in the world. God illustrated this concept to us through the Levites by not giving them and inheritance in the land of Canaan.

The temple and those who served it had greater significance than what appears from a casual reading of the Old Testament. They were a type, a foreshadowing of Christ and the Church. Hebrews 8:5 says, “They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and a shadow of what is in heaven., This is why Moses was warned when He was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.'”

The Bible is rich with insights. I have only tapped the surface of the wealth of the mind of God on peace and war. The concept of peace through the Levites is only a peek through the door. There is a wealth of new insights for us to discover. I challenge you to study the Bible further for yourself. Search it, and see what else God has to show us, and share it with the rest of us.

Can we go to the Old Testament to develop a theology of peace and a position on a Christian’s involvement in war? Yes we can! In doing so it greatly increases our understanding of peace and war. The Old Testament gives us a much stronger foundation for sharing the way of peace with the Christian who supports war. It gives us a basis to speak with confidence. Not only does the Old Testament help us to develop a theology of peace, it also removes any basis for the Christian to participate in war!

Related posts