Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’
The Bible presents us with many images and impressions of Jesus. Depending on where we pick up the New Testament and begin reading, particularly in the Gospels, we can come away with very different pictures and understandings of who this person is and what He claims to be. What is your latest impression? For some He may be the gentle, kind, caring pastor? The image and stories of the Good Shepherd could leave you with that picture. Is He the suffering victim we find in the passages describing His Passion and Crucifixion? If we happen to be reading chapter ten of The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, then we probably know him as a killer and warmonger. Didn’t we just hear, Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword? It’s difficult to picture the Lord and Savior of our lives as a warmonger. This demands some interpretation because the description just does not fit with the Jesus we know. We know Him as being at One with the God of love and peace, not wielding a sword and going into battle.
Before we run off and enlist in one of the branches of the military. Before we start gathering the troops or putting the wagons in a circle maybe we should take a couple of steps first. We can examine the way “peace” is used by Jesus here in Matthew 10:34 and we can look at the action taking place in the Gospel account around this passage. Maybe those two exercises will shed some light on the meaning of I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Perhaps a closer inspection of the context in which Jesus seems to be declaring war will relieve us from having to believe that Jesus wants us wielding swords, and forgetting about “peace”, and going off to war.
What is the nature of this kind of “peace” to which Jesus refers? We return to the Greek and find that ‘peace’ translates eirene. It’s the word from which we get the word ‘irenic’. It means the kind of harmonious relationships that can exist between people; men or women. If you know someone whose name is Irene, then you can tell her that her name means the personification of peace. The second part of our exercise, looking at the action taking place in this Gospel passage, shows that Jesus is preparing the disciples, through instruction, to begin their missionary journeys. He has just called the first twelve disciples. Jesus wisely and really lovingly let’s them know that when they are His servants, they will have to endure suffering. He gives them some encouragement. Then He lets them know that He comes armed with a sword and that they will have to bear a cross, if they are willing to follow Him. …and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. They are going into a battle, but not the battle that earthly armies fight.
There is a conflict but the conflict the disciples will enter will be between them and the persons not choosing to follow their teaching. It will not be peaceful because choices actually have consequences. If we choose one thing, then it means that we have not chosen another. The importance of the choice is heightened and emphasized by Jesus. It is a choice that must be made and He uses the strength of the bonds in family ties to show how powerful a choice it is to follow Him. He is trying to illustrate the amount of strength and commitment it will require of them. It is comparable to the amount of strength needed to break the bond between a son and his father, a daughter and her mother, a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law, and between other members of a family. That is the amount of commitment and faithfulness required to follow Jesus. It is not a light choice.
Choice causes division. Hence, the sword in the hands of Jesus. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. We do not like to think that loving Jesus and following Him will involve carrying a sword of division in His Name. But when you think about it, if you choose to follow Jesus, it means you have rejected something else. The people, ideas, or beliefs rejected as a result of one choice may result in division. Being prepared for that is part of Jesus’ instruction to those first disciples. In fact, Jesus is saying, Count on it. …and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
The Good News is the true freedom and liberation in choosing to stay with Jesus by being part of His Kingdom and working to bring others into His Kingdom. There is freedom from the bonds of sin even in this world and the reward of eternal life in the next life. Saint Paul writes this in his letter to the Romans. There is freedom in uniting oneself to Christ and living not under the old Law, but under the absolute assurance of God’s grace. Once one is united to Christ, the old person dies with Him and then is raised with Him to a new life. That is why choosing to be with Christ is the most important decision a man or woman can make.
We need to be careful here. Saint Paul is not saying, “Your choice to follow Christ has freed you from following any moral law.” In fact, he is teaching the Romans and all others united to Christ that being saved and free under grace does not mean we can do anything we want. No, we must read The Letter to Romans past verse 11 all the way through verse 14. There we find that once we are living our new life in Christ, we must yield (ourselves) to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. We do not continue in sin thinking that everything we do will be covered by grace. We live as witnesses of Christ with full confidence that God’s grace can direct and rule our lives.
Even in those early days of the Church, Saint Paul had to face Christians who thought they could be free from keeping a moral law like the Ten Commandments. This kind of false teaching is called antinomianism, or being “against the moral law”. This belief in its extreme form was that the more a Christian sinned, the more grace would cover the sin so the amount one sinned did not matter. Of course, it’s not true, but the belief is still around today. There are Christians who do not worry or have a concern about what they think, do, or say because they believe that Christ has already covered their sin. Their mistake is not realizing that new life in Christ means deliverance from sin and being free to have one’s whole life lived as dedicated to God in this world and live forever with Him in the next.
That is the second reward for choosing Christ; eternal life. Jesus assures the disciples as they are sent out that there will be a struggle, a battle. They will be rejected by some as they are preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, but in the end there is a reward. It is the same reward given to the prophets. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. The One who sent Jesus is God the Father. Being received by God the Father means inheriting eternal life. Choosing to follow Jesus means choosing a new life under grace and the reward of eternal and everlasting life.
There are plenty of images from the Gospels we can claim for Jesus because they’re all there: the Good Shepherd, the Crucified Lord of Glory, and if we want to, even the false image of a warmonger. I like the way C.S. Lewis answered the question in his essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” Lewis knew that there are many claims people could put on Jesus. He turned the question around and asked, “What can Jesus make of us? If we choose to believe and follow Jesus, He can forgive us, heal us, help carry our burdens, and give us a brand new life and that life is a life of the love of God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.