Peace or No Peace? That Is the Question.
What words come to mind when you think of Jesus? If you were to randomly ask people on the street to use one word to describe who Jesus was and what He was about, what do you think they would say? Many would probably say love. Others would likely say forgiveness. My guess is that many would even say peace.
There are many passages throughout the Bible that connect Jesus with the concept and experience of peace. Several of these are particularly well-known.
In Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah prophesies that a forthcoming child would be born and that he would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In Luke 2:14, the angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds and end by singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among those with whom he is pleased!” In Matthew 5:9, when Jesus delivers His famous Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” And the night before His crucifixion, when gathered with His disciples, He reassures them by saying, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
At every point along the way in the story of the Bible, Jesus is characterized by peace, advocates for peace, and gives peace. That is, at every point except for one.
In Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus speaks some surprising, if not contradictory, words:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”
I’ve never seen these verses printed on a bumper sticker or printed on a canvas hanging in the family living room. What in the world is Jesus talking about? This seems to go beyond merely being off script. In light of all the other passages listed, it seems to totally contradict much of what had been written about Jesus, and even spoken by Jesus about Himself. How can we square Jesus’ words here with the fact that everywhere else, it seems that Jesus very much did “come to bring peace to the earth?”
Jesus, the World’s Biggest Sword
Jesus’ startling statement about bringing not peace but a sword comes at the end of Matthew 10. In the preceding verses, Jesus has called His twelve disciples, commissioned them to go out in pairs, and promised them that persecution was inevitable but that they need not live in fear of those who might physically harm or oppose them.
Given this context, this hard saying of Jesus begins to make a bit more sense. But we’re still left to wonder if his statement goes too far and contradicts other statements that He himself makes about peace.
Key to understanding what Jesus is saying is understanding what He means by the word “sword.” In the Bible, the word “sword” serves as a metaphor for at least two things. Sometimes, “sword” is used as a metaphor for judgment and punishment. In Revelation 19, Jesus returns and out of his mouth comes a sharp sword by which he will strike down the nations opposed to Him in justice.
Other times, the word “sword” is used as a metaphor for division or separation. It is this second use that Jesus has in mind when he speaks in Matthew 10:34 about bringing a sword.
With the coming of Jesus into the world, and through His death and resurrection, Jesus becomes the one in relation to whom the world is now divided into two (and only two) types of people. The billions of people throughout the history of the world are in one of two categories: those who are with Jesus, and those who are not. For all the other distinctions among the billions of people throughout the world, this is the only distinction with eternal consequences.
Therefore, when He says that He did not come to bring peace, He means that He did not necessarily come to bring about a universal, superficial peace that has no real commitment to the absolute or exclusive truth claims of Jesus. True peace, the biblical concept of wholeness and contentment, only comes on the far side of disruption and conflict. A surgeon can only bring wholeness to your diseased body by cutting you open and inflicting temporary pain to prevent permanent pain.
Tim Keller writes, “He means rather that His call to allegiance brings conflict – conflicts both among people and within people. Just like any peacemaker who has ever lived, Jesus makes people mad, and He often causes struggle and strife. Yet this is the way His peace comes.” 1
Consequently, when He says that He came to bring a sword, He means that He came so that the world would be divided into people who have pledged their highest allegiance to Him, and those who have not. This is why He goes on to talk about different members of biological families being in opposition to each other. When given the choice between choosing to love Jesus or family supremely, Jesus says you cannot do both. Those who love parents or children, or any other human companion more than Jesus, cannot follow Jesus on the terms He has set. He must have the highest allegiance of our hearts and lives.
Speaking on this passage, John Piper says, “Jesus came to disrupt all human allegiances that don’t put Him first.” 2
No other rabbi would have spoken such bold and demanding words to his followers. Jesus however is no mere rabbi. He is the Lord of all creation. Supreme allegiance and devotion may sound radical, but it is the only appropriate response to the One of infinite worth.
Take Up Your Cross and Follow
In one sense then, Jesus has come to bring peace. Through repentance and faith in Him, we have been reconciled to God and have peace with Him once again. In communities of faith centered around Christ and the gospel, we can live at peace with one another, even those who might otherwise be totally different than us. And one day, Christ will return to rid the world of all sin and evil, bringing about perfect peace in a new creation where He is finally seen as the unrivaled Prince of Peace.
But in another sense, as we are united to Him, we will experience trials, opposition, and perhaps even persecution. Jesus promises His followers that if the world hated Him, then the world will hate us too.
Jesus both demands and deserves to be loved, valued, and followed above all other commitments and authorities. Nothing and no one is to receive higher allegiance from us than Christ.
Perhaps the application of this passage for us comes in the verses that immediately follow these shocking words of Jesus.
He says in verses 38-39,
“And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds His life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The truly shocking thing about this passage is that Jesus calls us to love Him not only more than our own families, but our own lives.
How can we ever render this level of devotion to Jesus? By seeing Him render that same level of devotion to us, in spite of our not even deserving it. Only when you grasp the fact that He first lost His life for you can you be willing to lose your life for Him. His allegiance to us and our salvation led Him to the cross to take on a punishment that we deserved. In His devotion to His Father and their mission to save the world, He experienced ridicule and rejection by His own family. If He did that for us, we can do that for Him.
1 Tim Keller, Hidden Christmas
2 John Piper, Ask Pastor John Episode 1447