this past week we spent some time dissecting one line of the beatitudes, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the children of God.” through the lens of the Old Testament tradition and some rabbinical writings, in addition to studying the original language, we understood that Jesus was giving divine authority or approval for his disciples to, not just abstain from conflict, battle, and war, but was telling them to actively pursue peace and reconciliation in broken and strained relationships. the foundation of pursuing shalom (oneness, wholeness, completeness in relationships as God intended) is the truth of God through Jesus Christ, who is our reconciliation, and through whom…we become ministers of reconciliation in the world.
several people began asking a question almost immediately after our gathering on sunday…and then subsequently in their house churches…about a very controversial saying of Jesus, in Matthew 10:34, “do not think i have come to bring peace on the earth. i did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” here are some of my thoughts on the subject.
on the surface…it seems as if we have a contradiction in the words of Jesus. how can Jesus, in one breath, say that a characteristic of his discipleship is that of peacemaker (matthew 5:9)…but then in another breath say that, “[he] did not come to bring peace, but a sword”?
this seeming contradiction has caused all sorts of pain and heartache within the Christian community for hundreds of years. this line has been used and abused by Christian religious zealots and fanatics as evidence that Jesus does, in fact, condone violence. this kind of thinking raises all sorts of questions. is Jesus condoning violence? and if he is, then does this give Christians the authority to use the sword against who and what we view as evil? even further, in what instances should the sword be used, and in what instances should the sword be put away? how do we determine the evil that we use violence against? does the language Jesus uses imply that instead of seeking peace, it is appropriate to use violence in any form no matter how insignificant or destructive? how about bombs? guns? torture? is ”using the sword” a black and white issue…or are there gray areas? if there are gray areas…then how do i know the instances to employ violence and the instances not to?
or maybe it wasn’t meant to be so complicated. is it possible that this line from Jesus has been misunderstood and taken out of context when measured against the rich language of the old testament prophets in their understanding that God is working for shalom (oneness and wholeness of all things as God originally intended), when measured against Jesus’ own words and actions documented in the Gospel accounts, and when measured against other new testament writings?
Jesus had every opportunity to wield the sword…but did not. why would he say that he came to bring a sword…yet never use one? it’s odd. why did Jesus tell his followers to ”never resist an evil person,” and further, to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”? why would he come to bring a sword if he was giving instruction to never resist an evil person…and to love ones enemy? who would he use the sword on? who would his disciples (who look and act like their Rabbi) use the sword on? the answer is no one.
unless you are talking about Peter…and the time in the garden of Gethsemane when Judas was about to betray Jesus. after Judas kissed Jesus…the guards stepped forward to arrest Jesus…and the militant-minded Peter pulls out his sword and cut one of the guards ears off. was Jesus cheering him on? why didn’t the other militant disciples join in? did Jesus tell Peter to keep attacking? no…he said, “put your sword back in its place.” and further, “do you not think that i cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” what is Jesus talking about? a legion was a military term that was used by the Romans to describe a military unit (like 4000 to 5000 troops). Jesus was making a military statement to describe how he could respond militarily (by calling on the 60,000 strong angel militia to kick some Roman booty)….but then says, “but how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must not happen this way?” should not happen what way? by the way of the sword? exactly. the way of Jesus was not the way of the sword…it was the way of the towel (of self-sacrificial love). always loving…always pouring himself out…always giving self-sacrificially…without responding the way the Kingdom of the world responds.
even early in Jesus’ ministry he had the opportunity to use the power of the sword. for hundreds of years the jews were anticipating the Messiah, the chosen one in the Davidic line who would restore(once and for all) as God’s chosen people…His holy nation. they were expecting that one would come that would bring peace and justice as a governmental ruler. with all of this expectation surrounding the Messiah, does it seem odd that when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert after fasting for 40 days, he would not accept Satan’s offer to have all the kingdom’s of the world? he could rule with the sword….an iron fist…he could enforce peace through legislation and the law (which we know only changes attitudes…not hearts). this could have been the easiest and fastest way to bring the power of the sword. no…Jesus said that he was going to do it God’s way. not by force…not by violence…not by redemptive violence…BUT BY THE WAY OF THE CROSS. the one act that stops the vicious cycle of violence…and is validated by the resurrection (not death and violence winning…but life through sacrificial love)! love always wins and triumphs over evil…but not with the sword. and the way of the sword was not the way of Jesus.
so what was Jesus getting at with his odd statement about not bringing peace, but a sword? with so much evidence to suggest that Jesus did NOT come with a sword to conquer and rule…how can we understand what he is saying.
here is how i undertand it. if a sword is what Jesus came to bring…but we do not have any evidence that Jesus ever used a sword violently…then it is possible that it may be symbolic. are there other instances in the new testament where the word “sword” is used? yes.
In his right hand he held 7 stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp double-edged sword. (revelation 1:17)
The word of God is active and alive, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (hebrews 4:12)
Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17)
if we are consistent…you get this idea that a sword, symbolically, refers to truth…the word of God.
Jesus did not come to bring peace (for peace’s sake)…he came to bring truth (the word of God). the word of God is sharp…it divides…even to the point of dividing soul and spirit, joint and marrow, thoughts and attitudes, and even people who are close to each other, “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, your enemies will the members of your own household.” why? because the truth is not accepted or pursued by everyone…many stand against the truth. by Jesus just “being”…he created conflict…because he is truth. the paradox…as we know…is that the truth of God brings peace (shalom) to those who seek reconciliation through Christ. peace is founded on the truth of God revealed in Christ. maybe we could understand it better this way, “ought we ever compromise truth for the sake of peace?” the answer is no. Jesus did not come to bring peace (as everyone understands it…giving in…compromising…etc.)…he came to bring the truth of God. and man…that is not the kind of peace that some people want.