This is one of my typical, topical lessons, where I look at a pressing issue around us today, and consider what the Bible has to say about it. This morning, we'll look at a very contentious issue, namely, gun control.
When I bring up this subject, your first thought might have been something like, "Mike, how can we consider what the Bible says about gun control when the Bible doesn't talk about gun control? Guns weren't even invented back then." True, but that doesn't mean God's Word has nothing to say about the concept. In fact, it says a lot more about it than I imagined when I first started writing this lesson.
Before we get started, I realize that a lot of you have some strong thoughts and opinions on this subject. I'd like to ask you all to remember that this is a Bible lesson. I'm not here to recite statistics, or hold up charts, or point out obvious facts, or rattle off any organization's talking points. Our focus is going to be the Bible, and I'd like you to keep your questions and comments focused on what the Bible says. And because I have a lot to cover and only forty minutes to do it, please hold your questions and comments to the end. Thank you.
Let's start by turning to Exodus 22:2-3:
If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.
Now, we all know those famous words from our Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This verse in Exodus shows us, beyond any doubt, that there is another right with which our Creator has endowed us, and that is the right to self-defense. A person's right to defend himself, his family, his home, and his property is not bestowed by any legislature, or executive order, or judicial opinion. It is a God-given right.
How was that right used in real life? I did a little digging, and I was quite surprized how often I found references to keeping and bearing arms. Of course, these were not guns that the Bible is talking about. The term "the sword" is the one that's used most often, but that term often stood for any weapon that a soldier might use. Except that these passages were not talking about professional soldiers. They were talking about ordinary people in everyday life, with military-grade weapons at the ready. We don't have time to look at every reference, but we'll check out a sampling of them, just so you can see what a commonplace thing it was for people to be armed.
First, there's Abraham, the man of faith. Listen to Genesis 14:14-16, which is right after four kings and their armies raided the city of Sodom —
When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his nephew Lot and all his possessions, together with the women and the other people.
This passage doesn't mention weapons. But when it says Abram and his trained men launched an attack, you can be sure they didn't use water pistols. And when it says "trained men," do you think it means they were trained in bread-making, or small home repairs? Abram had his own little army, with men trained in how to use weapons, and he commanded that little army in a victory over a marauding band of thieves and kidnappers. Why did he do this? The passage says he did it because he "heard that his relative had been taken captive;" that was Lot, his nephew. He did it to protect his family, and, to a lesser extent, to protect his property that had been stolen. Abram was not a military man by trade; he was a herdsman. But he knew how to use a weapon when he had to.
Next, we look at the sons of Jacob. This passage in Genesis 34 was not their brightest shining moment, but it does illustrate the point we're looking at today. Jacob's daughter Dinah has just been defiled by one of the locals, Shechem the son of Hamor the local prince. Shechem wants to marry Dinah, and the sons of Jacob say yes, as long as all the men in the town get circumcised. Verse 25 tells us:
Three days later, while all of them were still in pain, two of Jacob's sons, Simeon and Levi, took their swords and attacked the unsuspecting city, killing every male.
Real nice guys. But you'll notice that they had swords. They didn't have to make them, or go to a sword show and buy them. They already had them, and they knew how to use them; otherwise, the two of them couldn't have killed every man in a small city, pain or no pain. And let me remind you that a sword is not a weapon used for hunting. You don't use a sword for target practice. A sword is a military-grade assault weapon, used for inflicting deadly force on another person. It was a common thing for men to carry such weapons and know how to use them.
There are many other examples throughout the Old Testament that further illustrate this point, too many to examine in any detail. I'll just rattle off a few, we won't turn to them:
Now, someone might say, "Mike, that was normal for a primitive, violent society, but we're above that now." I'll concede the point about it being for a violent society. Take a look at the world around you; read some headlines; try to convince me that this is not a violent society. The only thing that's changed is that it's easier to do evil on a larger scale now. If anything, we have a greater need for self-defense now.
I spoke of David a moment ago, and I'd like to come back to his life for a minute. One of the things David is best-known for is killing Goliath. All of Israel's trained soldiers were afraid of this giant, but David wasn't, and he said so to King Saul in no uncertain terms:
David said to Saul, "Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him." 33 Saul replied, "You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth." 34 But David said to Saul, "Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I siezed it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God."
That was I Samuel 17:32-36. This tells us again that it was common for people in Biblical times to have weapons handy and to know how to use them. But it tells us something else very important as well: the good shepherd fights to protect his sheep. God approves of this. If someone is responsible for the physical well-being of another person, then that overseer, that shepherd is allowed to do, and must be willing to do, whatever it takes to protect that person, including deadly force.
Now, as soon I use the words "good shepherd," those of you who know your Bibles will remember John 10:11, where Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus didn't put up a fight when they came for Him, so shouldn't He be our example, instead of resorting to violence? Good question. I'll answer that two ways.
Speaking of Jesus, He had a thing or two to say about weapons. He actually told His disciples, near the end of His life here, that His personal care for them would soon end, and they should be ready to defend themselves. We see this in Luke 22, verses 36-38 —
He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written, 'And he was numbered with the transgressors,' and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment." 38 The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords." "That is enough," he replied.
So we see that the disciples were packing. They were carrying concealed. And Jesus gave His approval to this. But not unconditional approval. A few verses later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter used one of those swords to try to protect Jesus. All he managed to do was cut a guy's ear off, but that means he was aiming for the guy's head; he was trying to kill to protect his Master. And Jesus, of course, rebuked him with his famous statement in Matthew 26:52, "all who draw the sword will die by the sword." Peter didn't die by the sword, so we know that what Jesus meant was that those who live by violence, as a way of life, will die by violence. Christians are not supposed to be violent people. But why did Jesus not allow Peter to defend Him?
The obvious, theologically correct answer is that Jesus had to be taken away, tried, abused, and crucified, both to win our redemption and to fulfill prophecy. But there's another answer that ties in with our discussion. The Old Testament gives people the right to defend themselves, their families, their homes, and their property. Who gave Peter the right to defend Jesus? Was Peter Jesus' defender? Peter may have thought he was obeying Proverbs 24:11 —
Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering towards slaughter.
But that verse doesn't say anything about killing someone to save someone else. That was not a lawful use of a personal weapon. And, just so you know, anyone who kills an abortionist to save babies is making the exact same mistake. Husbands are the defenders of their wives, parents are the defenders of their children, a shepherd is the defender of his sheep, and God is our final defender. Those roles have the Biblical right to do what it takes to protect the ones under them, including deadly force. Be careful that you don't go beyond what is written and take a role for yourself that isn't yours.
Okay, let's sum up what we've learned so far. The Bible gives people two reasons to carry and use weapons: if you're a soldier in the military, or if you're protecting your family or your property. The right to protect yourself and your family is a God-given right, laid down in the Old Testament and confirmed in the New. If you own a weapon, you are assumed to know how to use it. And there is no limitation on what kinds of weapons you can own.
Now, let's talk about gun control. Or, should I say, sword control? Because we find a crystal-clear example of this in I Samuel 13:19-22. This took place while the Philistines were oppressing Israel, and King Saul was trying to break that oppression —
Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, "Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!" 20 So all Israel went down to the Philistines to have their plowshares, mattocks, axes and sickles sharpened. 21 The price was two thirds of a shekel for sharpening plowshares and mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening forks and axes and for repointing goads. 22 So on the day of the battle not a soldier with Saul and Jonathan had a sword or a spear in his hand; only Saul and his son Jonathan had them.
You may have seen e-mails or Facebook postings about how dictators love to take people's weapons away so they can oppress them. Here it is, in the Bible. It's real and it happens.
But what should we do if someone tries to take our weapons away, or puts limits on which weapons we can use? We Christians are commanded to live by a different set of standards, which we find in Romans 13. Please turn there —
1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except what God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves... 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
As Christians, we are commanded to obey the authorities over us. If you have a hard time with this, and I admit I do, remember that when Paul wrote it, the "authority" he was referring to was the Emperor Nero. And our authorities haven't gotten as bad as Nero, not yet. And even if they do, that still doesn't let us off the hook from obeying this command. No matter how odious or unjust a law may seem to us, we are commanded to obey it.
The only exception to this is if a law contradicts a passage or a clear principle in the Bible. If the law of man and the law of God collide, we are commanded to obey God's law. It says so twice in the book of Acts, both times when the apostles were on trial before the Sanhedrin —
Remember, if you take a stand on God's commands, you must be ready to pay the price for disobeying man's law. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego disobeyed Xerxes' order to worship his idol, they didn't try to weasel out of the punishment for breaking that law. God rescued them, but they didn't know that in advance. When Daniel disobeyed Darius' order to not pray, he didn't try to weasel out of the punishment for breaking that law. God rescued him, but he didn't know that in advance. And if you or I take a stand on God's word in opposition to man-made laws, we should not expect to weasel out of the punishment for breaking that law. God is still able to deliver us, just like He delivered Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Daniel, but He is not obligated to do so.
So the question arises, "What happens if my God-given right to protect myself and my family and my belongings collides with a man-made law that says I can't?" Here in Massachusetts, our gun laws are among the strictest in the nation. California is also pretty bad, New York state just got worse, and if our president gets his way, the entire nation will be up against some strong restrictions. If Senator Feinstein got her way, all guns would be illegal. So what's a Christian to do? Do we obey the law of the land, or do we stick up for our God-given rights?
I'm sorry to say that I cannot give you an answer. This is a question of conscience that each believer has to work out between themselves and God. Paul uses several chapters of Scripture to discuss these matters of conscience; Romans 14, and I Corinthians 8-10, are very good places to look. The gist of the issue is that we Christians have the same civil and legal rights as anyone else, but it is sometimes good for us to give up those rights for the sake of the Gospel. For example, Paul repeatedly relied on his rights as a Roman citizen, but he gave up some of his rights as an apostle in order to spread the Gospel more effectively. That giving-up of rights has to be completely voluntary on the part of each individual, without compulsion or pressure; it's a matter of conscience that's affected by your relationship with God, your callings in this life, and the leading of God's Spirit. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
I know what I believe, but I cannot command any of you to agree with me; I don't believe I even have the right to teach my personal convictions from a position of authority. If you ask me privately, I'll tell you, and I'll tell you my reasons why. You may ask another Christian who's considered the matter, and they may give you the exact opposite answer, and they can give you just as good a list of reasons why. There is no rock-solid commandment in Scripture that tells us what to do in cases like these. If you don't believe me, then let's look at some real-life examples of how our Christian faith and convictions can affect our thoughts about using guns, and by the time I'm done, you will hopefully be convinced that it's not a simple issue.
Situation #1: you're home alone, and someone breaks into your home and comes at you with a knife. You have a gun. What should you do?
The expected answer is, you'd shoot him. The Old Testament gives you the right to do that. But keep this in mind, in this example and in the ones that follow: when someone commits a crime using a weapon, it's more than likely that that person is not a Christian. So if you shoot him and kill him, there is a high likelihood that you're sending a soul to hell for all eternity. Does that affect your thinking?
As a Christian, it better affect your thinking, because that's the exact opposite of why we're on this earth. God leaves us here after we come to Him so we can be ministers of salvation, not ministers of eternal death. In a case like this, what is best — to use your God-given right of self-defense, or to obey Jesus' command to turn the other cheek, even if the guy kills you, so that you won't have to answer to God for sending a lost soul to the lake of fire? Of course, you have no assurance that your actions will have any effect on his thinking about God; you might throw away your life for nothing. Or what if you just wound him? If he finds out the guy who shot him is a Christian, will he ever listen to another Christian who tries to tell him about the love of Jesus? But would he ever have listened anyway? You just can't know. So what do you do?
You pray, if you can. It doesn't have to be out loud, and it doesn't have to be a fancy prayer, just something like "God, guide me!" or "James 1:5, I need wisdom!" You don't want to take an irrevocable action like that without giving God the chance to intervene. If you don't have time for even a quick prayer, then you better have talked things out with God in advance, to know what's best for you to do in that situation. Doing anything on a hair-trigger is bad in the Christian life, especially when it's a real trigger. So if you're a gun owner, it would be a really good idea to work out in your head every likely scenario when you might need to use that weapon, and ask God to guide your decisions so you're not caught flat-footed in a bad situation, or worse, so you don't choose wrongly.
Situation #2: you're at home with your family, and someone breaks into your home and comes at a family member with a knife. You have a gun. What should you do?
This one seems more clear-cut, because you have a God-given responsibility to protect your family, and when God gives us a responsibility, we don't have the right to shirk it. But the spiritual state of the guy with the knife is the same, and the implications of using a gun on him are the same. Which is more important, your obligation to protect your family or your obligation to live and die for the Gospel? You may know what you'd do — I know what I'd do — but have you considered what Jesus might say about it when you stand before Him at the judgement seat? There's no question that it's right in God's sight to protect your family, but you need to count the cost.
Situation #3: you're out in a public place — a shopping mall, a movie theater, a school. Someone walks in with a gun and starts shooting people. You have a gun. What should you do?
This one is even more complicated. If you open fire to protect the people around you, are you doing what Peter did — are you appointing yourself their protector? Or are you obeying Paul's command in Philippians 2:4 —
Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Those sound like divine permission to act in the best interest of total strangers, if your own convictions allow it. Also consider that, if you shoot the guy, he will go to hell, but if you don't shoot him, he will send multiple people to hell; which is worse? If you think you know the answer to that, then are you putting yourself in the place of God, deciding who should live and who should die? Questions upon questions, with no easy answers.
It is my sincere hope, as I wrap up this lesson, that I have either clarified your thinking in these matters, or left you totally confused. If you're confused, that means you've been listening, and you're no longer complacent about a subject that is literally a matter of life and death. There is a lot more I could have said, but I have only forty minutes.
The subject of gun control is a modern one, but the principles involved are as old as the human race. You have the God-given right to self-defense. How you use that right is a matter of your own convictions. Pray about it, and please take it seriously.