James M. Arlandson
I read constantly that Christians should not be proud of a verse attributed to Jesus. The verse reads:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.
At first glance it indeed appears that Jesus encourages violence and calls his disciples to practice it, presumably righteous violence. But appearances can be deceiving. A text without a context often becomes a pretext, as the old saying goes. Once this verse is read in its historical and literary contexts, the meaning will change.
It is time to set the record straight about that verse.
The historical context, we should recall, is Jewish culture, as Jesus ministers to his own people. He sends out the twelve disciples to the "lost sheep of Israel," not yet to the gentiles, who will be reached after the Resurrection. It is not surprising, historically speaking, that he would spread his word by proclamation to his own, by Jewish disciples. Second, he predicts that some towns may not receive the disciples and that the authorities may put them on trial and flog them. In that eventuality, they should shake the dust off their feet, pray for them, and flee to another city. Third, it is only natural that first-century Jews may not understand this new sect or "Jesus movement" (as sociologists of the New Testament call it), so they resist it. Does this mean, then, that Jesus calls for a holy war with a physical, military sword against his fellow Jewssay, against his own family who wanted to take custody of him because they thought he was "out of his mind" (Mark 3:21)?
Next, those cultural facts explain the immediate literary context, which shows division among family members. The context must be quoted in full to explain the meaning of "sword" in Matthew 10:34 (bold print):
32 "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. 34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
The one key element in this lengthy passage is the word "sword," and its meaning is now clear. It indicates that following Jesus in his original Jewish society may not bring peace to a family, but may "split" it up, the precise function of a metaphorical sword. Are his disciples ready for that? This kind of spiritual sword invisibly severs a man from his father, and daughter from her mother, and so on (Micah 7:6). Given Jesus own family resistance early on (they later came around), it is only natural he would say that no matter what the cost, one must follow him to the end, even if it means giving up ones family. But this applies only if the family rejects the new convert, not if the family accepts him in his new faith; he must not reject them, because the whole point of Jesus advent is to win as many people to his side as possible, even if this divides the world in two, but never violently.
Furthermore, we can reference the larger textual context in the Gospel of Matthew. In the Garden of Gethsemane, during the hour when Jesus was betrayed and arrested, Peter struck off the ear of the servant of the high priest in order to protect his Lord. But Jesus tells him to stop.
Matthew 26:52-53 says:
52 "Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (NIV)
Jesus denounces violence to accomplish the will of Godat least as Peter imagines the will of God. Then Jesus says that he has more than twelve legions of angels at his disposal. He did not come to crush the Roman Empire. Instead, he willingly lays down his life and dies for the sins of the whole world. Will it accept this wonderful gift?
Now we can appeal to even a much larger textual context. The non-literal interpretation of the sword is confirmed by a parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 12:49-53 reads:
49 "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo [my death], and how distressed I am until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
It is entirely possible that these two parallel passages in Matthew and Luke represent two different occasions. After all, when I teach the same topic in two different classes, I also change the wording a little. Neither class knows about the slight change, but this does not matter, for the meaning is essentially the same. Likewise, in the three years that Jesus taught, he most likely repeated this call to commitment several times to different audiences (though recorded only twice in the Gospels), as he crisscrossed Israel. He issued such radical calls often, telling his listeners to pick up their cross and to follow him (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27).
Whatever the case, the proper way to interpret Scripture is to let verses clarify other verses, particularly parallel passages. And now Luke 12:49-53 confirms our interpretation of Matt. 10:34. Jesus did not endorse physical violence against ones own family, but he warns people about possible family division.
So what does all of this mean?
History demonstrates that Jesus never wielded a sword against anyone, and in Matt. 10:34 he does not order his followers to swing one either, in order to kill their family opponents or for any reason. But a true disciple who is worthy of following Christ and who comes from a possibly hostile family has to use a sword of the will (never a physical sword) to sever away all opposition, even as far as taking up his crossanother metaphorical implement for the disciples. It is true that Jesus divides the world into two camps, those who follow him, and those who do not, those in the light, and those in the dark. However, he never tells his followers to wage war on everyone else, and certainly not on ones family.
It is true that the Roman Emperor Constantine, Medieval Crusaders, and Protestants and Catholics have used the sword against unbelievers and each other. However, none of them is foundational to Christianityonly Jesus is, and he never endorses the sword to spread his message. Also, Christianity has undergone Reform (c. 1400-1600) and has been put under the pressure of the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800), which demanded peace. Be that as it may, Jesus himself never calls for military holy war, and only he sets the genetic code for his movement.
There is not a single verse in the New Testament that calls the Church to commit violence to spread the gospel or to plant churches or to accomplish anything else. Rather, the New Testament hands the sword over to the State (Rom. 13:1-6). In any case, Jesus says a spiritual sword, not a physical one, may sever family ties, so his disciples must be ready for that.
Go here to begin a series on pacifism and the sword in the New Testament.
Articles by James Arlandson
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