The “Do you think Jesus…” question crops up sometimes. It’s a standard argument for certain issues, especially ones involving violence. Of course, it’s a fallacious argument: Jesus is the supreme example of how man ought to live, but He Himself pointed out that there are different callings for different men (most notably in Matt. 19: 11-12), so the specific material details of His life aren’t necessarily meant to be taken as example. There are a lot of things Jesus never did and which I can’t picture Him doing (marrying, raising children, running a business, writing a book, etc.) which no reasonable person would claim to be immoral.
Regarding the specific question of war, there are two factors that would have made it unthinkable for Jesus to fight as a soldier in a war. The first was simply the practical matter that he was a Jew living in an occupied nation within the Roman Empire: military service would never have been an option for Him in any case.
Much more importantly, however, is this: a soldier, by definition, is a man fighting on behalf of something greater than himself. But there is nothing greater than Jesus, so he never could have been a soldier.
But this doesn’t apply to us. We do have many things greater than ourselves (most notably Christ Himself), so the objection of Jesus fighting a war doesn’t apply to His followers.
Did Jesus say or do anything that presents a hint as to whether his followers could be soldiers? Yes. In the first place, one of the few real people in Scripture that Jesus presents as an example to his followers is a Roman centurion (that is, real as opposed to presented as part of a parable). He’d hardly do that if being a soldier were a dishonorable profession. Nor is this man a former or repentant soldier. On the contrary, it is the soldier’s nature as a soldier that grants him the unprecedented insight into Jesus’s relation with the Father.
Expanding beyond Jesus to John the Baptist, when asked by Roman soldiers what they must do to be saved, John didn’t tell them to throw away their arms, but “do violence to no man and be content with your pay.” St. Augustine noted that, when he told them to be content with their pay, he forbade them not to be paid as soldiers.
But there is another, stronger example. When Jesus found the Temple being used as a marketplace, he reacted violently. He started knocking over tables and laying about himself with a whip. Here’s the example he sets us: Jesus doesn’t react violently on his own behalf, but on behalf of his father. When I said earlier that there was nothing greater than Jesus, I was excepting the Father (as Jesus and the Father are one).
I would like to add that I find it unlikely that, in thirty-three years of life, the incident in the temple was the only time Jesus acted out violently on his Father’s behalf. It’s the only clear description of such an event we have in Scripture (though taking the synoptics with John, it seems to have happened more than once), but considering how comparatively little of Jesus’s life and ministry we are told about (again, he lived thirty-three years and his public ministry took three years: the four Gospel’s combined could be dramatized in a moderately long film) it seems reasonable to think that this was not a one-off event, but rather apiece with how he behaved on other occasions.
The lesson, therefore, is that violence on our own behalf is wrong, but violence on behalf of something higher than ourselves may indeed be just and worthy. And that is the kind of violence that is the lot of the solider above all others. Therefore, though Jesus never was nor could have served as a soldier or fought in a war, it is not to be taken that Christians are thus forbidden from taking up arms, serving in the military, or waging war for a just cause.
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And then, of course, there’s Revelation 19…