N.T. Overview: Gospels

There are a number of themes in the gospel narratives that are relevant to recovery from abuse.

Peace/Nonviolence The birth of Jesus takes place in a pervasively violent context. The Roman military occupies Palestine. Shortly after Jesus’ birth Herod orders a mass execution of children.1 In spite of this the message from God in the coming of Jesus is about peace:

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."2

This is not just a nice slogan for Christmas cards. It is an announcement of God’s central agenda in the coming of Jesus. It is picked up in many different texts in the gospels:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Matt 5:9

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

And it is closely related to many other themes such as the centrality of love:

34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." John 13:34-35

And the rejection of violence as a way of responding to evil:

51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them, 56 and they went to another village. Luke 9:51-55

Jesus explicitly rejects the limited, proportional violence of "an eye for an eye" and affirms a radically different alternative–love for enemies:

38 "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.3

There is also in Jesus’ teaching a radical re-framing of the meaning of leadership and authority–one of the pillars on which many abusive relationships are built. For Jesus, authority is about serving:

25 Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:25-28

Jesus’ approach to these matters was not ‘common sense’ in his day. Nor is it common sense today. But it does represent a calling to a way of life that has no room for abuse.

Jesus’ Understanding of His Ministry Early in Jesus’ ministry he quotes the prophet Isaiah to announce his intentions. Here is how Luke tells the story:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."4

Notice two things: 1) Jesus is about Good News–proclaiming ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’. This is not ‘the year of God’s judgment’. 2) The Good News is for some unexpected folks: the poor, prisoners, the blind and the oppressed.

Jesus’ Valuing of Children There are several texts in the gospels which communicate the surprising (for the times) value which Jesus placed on children. For example:

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." 16 And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.5

Commenting on Matthew’s version of this story (Matthew 19:13-15) Frederick Dale Bruner says:

Jesus’ relation to children, expressed perfectly in this text, must have been striking to the people of this period, whose view of time spent with children (especially by scholars, who should be absorbed in Torah) might be best captured in the saying of Rabbi Dosa ben Archinos (‘Aboth 3:10), "Morning sleep, mid-day wine, chattering with children, and tarrying in places where men of the common people assemble, destroy a man"6

Another example is found in Mark 9:33-37:

33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." 36He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."7

Jesus and Verbal Abuse Notice the emphasis in Matthew 12:37 on words:

"For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”8

Jesus raises the issue again in Matthew 15 and includes two forms of verbal abuse (false testimony and slander) in the same list as murder and adultery:

But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’9

Jesus and Spiritual Abuse Jesus’ critique of spiritual abuse was a central element in his teaching. His strongest language (‘whitewashed tombs’, ‘brood of vipers’, ‘ravenous wolves’) is reserved for religious leaders who abuse their spiritual authority to do harm rather than good.

For an excellent introduction to spiritual abuse in the N.T. see the lecture by Jeff Vanvonderen

Healthy and Abusive Spiritual Dynamics

Jesus and Women The Gospel narratives give a prominent role to women. They show Jesus interacting with women in grace-full and honoring ways. Consider, for example, the final verses of the Gospel of Mark.10. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come to "anoint" Jesus body with spices as was the custom. Jesus is not there. A young man says to them:

6 "Don’t be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ " 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Notice the obvious: in the Gospel of Mark the first and only people who know about the resurrection of Jesus are women. And how do they respond? They cannot speak. They are afraid. At this particular moment, all of God’s intentions rest in the hands of terrified women. The suspense is intense. What a way to end the narrative! What will happen? Will terrified women find the courage to speak? Or will the many voices, customs and traditions which tend to silence women be more powerful? Mark knows that his original readers already know the answer to this question. These women found the courage to speak. And the whole Christian community owes it’s vitality to their faithfulness in spite of their fears. Preach it!

The Death of Jesus Many people who have been abused read the texts we have talked about so far and experience a God who is committed to peace, on the side of the oppressed, attentive to children, confrontative of verbal and spiritual abusers and respectful of women. And that sounds like good news. But when they read the gospel accounts about the crucifixion of Jesus they experience a very different kind of God. As one person put it to me recently: "All of a sudden God seems really angry. And it’s like he’s not going to calm down until some blood is shed. Sure I’d rather it be Jesus’ blood than mine, but what kind of God is that? Was this bloody, violent death really necessary for forgiveness to be possible? Maybe God needs a anger management class." This is not the place for a full discussion of the meaning of the death of Jesus and the many ways in which theologians have suggested we think/feel about this. I do, however, want to emphasize a few things. First, the crucifixion narratives in the Gospels do not suggest that God is angry about anything. There are angry people in those texts, but God is not one of them. At the point in the narrative where you might expect God to be most angry, we find Jesus urging forgiveness:

34 Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."((Luke 23:34))

Second, while there are ways of interpreting the crucifixion narratives which imply that God is an abusive God there are many alternative ways to interpret these texts. The cross could be taken, for example, as God’s radical identification with those who have been unjustly harmed. (In the worst of times–when we feel like no one can possibly understand how unfair and how hurtful the abuse was–we can remember Jesus who also suffered in this way.). Or the sacrifice of Jesus could be understood as a once-for-all sacrifice — a sacrifice which brings an end to any need for additional scapegoat violence. (When we see someone being unjustly harmed, we see the face of Jesus and say ‘never again’). Or we can see the death of Jesus as a manifestation of God’s love. (Jesus’ disciples suggested violence as a more appropriate path, but Jesus was willing to pay the price needed to show that there was a force in the world more powerful that the seemingly all-powerful force in the hands of those who abuse others.)


On peace/violence:

  • The Upside-Down Kingdom by Donald B. Kraybill (Herald Press, 2003))
  • Violent Endings in Matthew’s Parables and Christian Nonviolence, by B. E. Reid, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 66(2, 2004)237-255
  • Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics by Willard M. Swartley. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006)ISBN-13: 978-0802829375
  • The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament (Studies in Peace and Scripture) Willard M. Swartley (Editor). Westminster John Knox Press, 1992. ISBN-13: 978-0664253547
  • War and Peace: From Genesis to Revelation by Vernard Eller (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003) ISBN-13: 978-1592442331

On women:

On the death of Jesus:

  • S. Mark Heim,Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2006) ISBN-10: 0802832156
    For a brief summary of Heim’s thesis see: No more scapegoats. By: Heim, S. Mark, Christian Century, 00095281, 9/5/2006, Vol. 123, Issue 18

  • Violence and the Kingdom of God : Introducing the Anthropology of René Girard By: Marr, A., Anglican Theological Review, 0003-3286, January 1, 1998, Vol. 80, Issue 4

  1. Matt 2:16-18 

  2. Luke 2:13-14 

  3. Matthew 5:43-48 

  4. Luke 4:16-21 

  5. Mark 10:13-16 

  6. Matthew: A Commentary — Matt 13-28, Frederick Dale Bruner (W Pub Group, 1990) ISBN-10: 0849906172 

  7. Mark 9:33-37 

  8. Matthew 12:34-37 

  9. Matthew 15:18-20 

  10. The text of Mark almost certainly originally ended with Mark 16:8. 

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