When Jesus Brings a Sword
Rev. Tony Cooke
Note: I am currently working on a book entitled Magnificent Jesus. Here is an excerpt from that manuscript.
“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34 NKJV).
This statement is shocking to some as it seems to contradict many other things we know about Jesus. Consider these scriptural concepts that appear to communicate something different than Jesus not bringing peace but bringing a sword instead.
- It was prophesied that Jesus would be the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6 NKJV).
- Jesus himself said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you?” (John 14:27 NKJV).
- When we hear the Christmas story, our hearts are made glad by the declarationof the Heavenly host: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14 NKJV).
- Jesus told Peter, “Put away your sword… those who use the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 NLT).
So why is Jesus saying in Matthew 10:34 that he did not come to bring peace, but rather, a sword. It must be understood that Jesus here is speaking in a different sense—a paradoxical sense. Certainly, he gives peace to everyone who receives him. However, because some reject him, he becomes an occasion of division when some accept him and others do not, when some follow him, and others do not, when some obey him, and others do not.
If verse 34 seems difficult—Jesus bringing a sword—the following verses do not get any easier.
Matthew 10:35-39 (NLT)
35 I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
36 Your enemies will be right in your own household!
37 If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine.
38 If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine.
39 If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.
Clearly, Jesus wants us to love him more than anything or anyone else, including our own lives.
If you were raised in a Christian family and in a culture where the Christian faith is highly prevalent, these concepts about family members might seem foreign to you. In some countries today, a person who submits his or her life to Christ might become an outcast from their family and community, or even be killed. As far back as the first century, many of Jesus’ followers faced serious relational challenges because of their faith. Their commitment to Jesus and to Christian principles could create friction with family and community members who did not share their faith or values.
As a result, Jesus prepared his followers to deal with rejection and hostility.
John 15:18-19 (MSG)
18 If you find the godless world is hating you, remember it got its start hating me.
19 If you lived on the world’s terms, the world would love you as one of its own. But since I picked you to live on God’s terms and no longer on the world’s terms, the world is going to hate you.
Of course, Jesus did not come to arbitrarily sabotage relationships, but he knew that when people embraced and followed him, it could put them on a different path than many of their friends and family. Believers were often faced with a choice about their lifestyle and their associations. Peter writes
1 Peter 4:3-4 (NLT)
3 You have had enough in the past of the evil things that godless people enjoy—their immorality and lust, their feasting and drunkenness and wild parties, and their terrible worship of idols.
4 Of course, your former friends are surprised when you no longer plunge into the flood of wild and destructive things they do. So they slander you.
Jesus always provides spiritual peace when we trust in him, but sometimes a sword of division (truth) separates us from that which sinful and idolatrous. Of course, we should strive to have good relationships with people, but if we must choose between pleasing people (who may expect us to participate in wrongdoing) and pleasing God, we must choose God above all others.
Paul addressed a similar situation that reveals the sword that brings division.
2 Corinthians 6:14-16 (NLT)
14 Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness?
15 What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a
partner with an unbeliever?
16 And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple
of the living God.
Paul proceeded to admonish believers to “come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them” and he said that we should “cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God” (2 Corinthians 6:17; 7:1 NLT).
Does this mean that Christians should isolate themselves and have nothing to do with those who do not share their faith? I don’t think so. Jesus taught, in essence, that we are in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-19), and that we are to be salt and light in the earth (Matthew 5:13-16). How can we positively influence others if we live reclusively as hermits?
Jesus recognized that he would be a source of division and warned his disciples about upcoming challenges. However, the Bible teaches that we are to pursue good relationships with people, but that in doing so, we should not compromise with evil. For example, in Romans 12:18, Paul encouraged believers, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (NKJV). We should aim to have positive relationships with people as best we can. We are not to act as though we are “holier than thou” or that we are superior to others.
Peter and Paul both gave great counsel concerning what our conduct should be among those who do not share our faith.
Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)
5 Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity.
6 Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.
1 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)
15 if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.
16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ.
An Old Testament Example
We have a great example of this in the Old Testament, in the book of Daniel. Young Daniel and his friends (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) were Jews who were living in a foreign land during the Babylonian Captivity. They were selected to receive all the training and education that the Babylonian system had to offer. They would have even been required to associate with the “magicians and enchanters” of the realm (Daniel 1:20 NLT).
Instead of being corrupted, these four young men maintained their integrity and their faith, and they excelled above the other students. When the king issued an edict—under the threat of death—that everyone must kneel before his image, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego responded, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18 NLT). Their obedience resulted in the Fourth Man coming into the fire to rescue them.
Later, Daniel learned of the passing of a new law which required that for thirty days, no one could pray to anyone except King Darius. What did he do? “When Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God” (Daniel 6:10 NLT). This act of consecration resulted in Daniel being thrown into the den of lions, and also his glorious deliverance by God.
Because these men stood up for God, God stood up for them! People may have hated those pesky young men, but they were not going to bow, and they were not going to pray to anyone other than the One True God. They carried out their regular work responsibilities with great excellence, but they knew who their God was, and their allegiance and obedience to him transcended all other authority. They were hated by some, but the favor of God rested mightily upon them.
An Example in Marriage
Early believers were sometimes faced with a certain predicament. At times, two unbelievers were married and one of them got saved. What is the Christian to do? Because of his or her conscience, the believer might or might not be able to do some of the things they participated in before salvation (e.g., worshipping pagan gods, attending certain entertainment events, etc.). This could present problems in the relationships. Should the Christian automatically leave his or her unbelieving spouse? That is not the direction given in the Bible.
1 Corinthians 7:12-16 (NLT)
12 Now, I will speak to the rest of you, though I do not have a direct command from the
Lord. If a fellow believer has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to continue living with him, he must not leave her.
13 And if a believing woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to continue living with her, she must not leave him.
14 For the believing wife brings holiness to her marriage, and the believing husband brings holiness to his marriage. Otherwise, your children would not be holy, but now they are holy.
15 (But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace.)
16 Don’t you wives realize that your husbands might be saved because of you? And don’t you husbands realize that your wives might be saved because of you?
Clearly, the wisdom of God and the leadership of the Holy Spirit is needed in many of these cases.
Over the years, I have seen some people maintain certain types of relationships with unbelievers thinking they could influence the other person toward salvation. Instead, the believer ended up being dragged down by the unbeliever, and the Christian ended up in compromise and sin.
I have also witnessed some strong Christians being very strategic in having friendships (at a certain level) and engaging in some non-compromising activities with people who did not know the Lord, and the unsaved person was eventually saved because of the Christian’s solid and unwavering witness. They built a bridge, but they maintained their integrity.
There are many practical considerations, but the point of this article is that Jesus sometimes becomes a point of division in certain relationships. While Jesus stated this in very strong terms (see again Matthew 10:34-39), he is not the bad guy. Jesus is not randomly trying to undermine and destroy your relationships with people, but he does call you to love and honor him above all people and things. If doing so results in other people disapproving of you, you must decide whose approval you truly value. In the final analysis, it is not about you being popular; it is about you honoring Jesus.
1 Peter 2:7-8 (NLT)
7 Yes, you who trust him recognize the honor God has given him. But for those who reject him, “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.”
8 And, “He is the stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they do not obey God’s word…
For those who receive him, Jesus is the cornerstone—a great building block. But when people reject him, he becomes to them a stumbling block. We are simply not living by the same values as those who reject Christ and his authority. Yes, Jesus brings supernatural peace to those who receive him, but he also brings division between light and darkness.
“Jesus’ mission separates us from the values of our society, and society responds with persecution.”
– Craig Keener
Some of the believers James knew were not living separated or consecrated lives. He chastisted them. “You [are like] unfaithful wives [having illicit love affairs with the world and breaking your marriage vow to God]! Do you not know that being the world’s friend is being God’s enemy? So whoever chooses to be a friend of the world takes his stand as an enemy of God” (James 4:4 AMPC).
“When some great cause emerges it is bound to divide people; there are bound to be those who answer, and those who refuse, the challenge. To be confronted with Jesus is necessarily to be confronted with the choice whether to accept him or to reject him; and the world is always divided into those who have accepted Christ and those who have not.”
– William Barclay
Hebrews 4:12 (NLT) states that “the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword…”
In ancient artwork, the apostle Paul is frequently depicted with a sword and a book (Scripture). Below are two pictures of one of my favorite statues of him. This depiction of Paul stands in front of the Basilica of St. Paul outside of Rome, which is built over the traditional burial place of the great apostle.
1 Craig S. Keener, Matthew, vol. 1, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Mt 10:34–37.
2 William Barclay, ed., The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster John Knox Press, 1976), 393–394.