34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
JESUS, THE ARMED REVOLUTIONARY?
Jesus has always been considered a teacher of peace and nonviolence. Yet, the intensely saucy Reza Aslan (a man who ate human brains on TV and, ironically, shares his last name with the Christ figure in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels), doesn’t think Jesus was such a peaceful guy. His whole 2013 book Zealot – which was largely ignored by Christian apologists and scholars due to its weak thesis, but widely read by those who don’t know better – is built on the idea that Jesus was crucified because he was promoting armed revolution against the Romans. (And Reza isn’t the only one to attempt to repaint Jesus in this way; I’ve witnessed angry internet atheists do their best to comb the Gospels to find a reason to condemn Jesus as anything but the traditional understanding.)
Those like Reza undoubtedly bring up two times Jesus mentions swords in the Gospels (Matthew 10:34 & Luke 22:36-38) to prove that Jesus wasn’t a peaceful man (and conveniently ignore everything else he says). Reza in Zealot calls the idea of Jesus being a peaceful man a “complete fabrication.” As we’ll see, the Jesus of Zealot is the fabrication.
CONTEXT IS KING
Hey, remember that thing called context? It means reading all the stuff around a passage to understand what the passage means. For instance, let’s imagine that someone told you Jesus claimed to be a door. Your friend says, “I kid you not, Jesus thinks he’s a door! He literally believes he’s a door! What a nut! Why does anyone listen to this guy?” Well, Jesus did call himself a door (John 10:9-16). But when you read the passage in context, you see Jesus wasn’t being literal; he was being metaphorical. Context is important. Not just important, but essential. Context is king! And if we want to understand what Jesus means by calling himself a door, we need to understand the context.
What guys like Reza do is grab an isolated quote from Jesus and ignore the context. They ignore the context not just of the big picture of the Gospels, the New Testament, and the Bible, but even the context of the tiny section of scripture it appears in, as you’ll see. So, let’s look at these verses about swords.
NOT PEACE, BUT A SWORD – MATTHEW 10
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Well, there you have it. Jesus must’ve been armed to the teeth and ready to go Rambo on anyone in his way, right? Oh wait: context! What’s the context? In Matthew 10, Jesus is about to send his disciples throughout the land to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He even gives them a way to prove the authority he has given them. How? Through a display of power with weapons? No, through a display of power through healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons.
The sword comment comes towards the end of his instructions, after he explains to his disciples that persecution will come against them. He says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He warns that they will be arrested, interrogated, beaten, and hated. Does he tell them to respond with violence? No, he tells them to flee if they have to. But he also tells them not to be fearful because God is with them. He tells them not to fear “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” So far, none of this sounds much like war-mongering.
Now, understanding the context brings things much more into clear focus when he says,
“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. (Matthew 10:34–36)
The parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel helps us understand his meaning:
Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Luke 12:51)
So, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says he came to bring a sword. In Luke’s Gospel, he says he came to bring division. Before continuing, why the different wording between the two Gospels? Easy. There’s two possibilities.
First, Jesus gave this teaching several times and he worded it differently at different times. There’s nothing odd about that. He couldn’t just make a Youtube video, so Jesus traveled around and would’ve taught the same things again and again, and like all teachers who teach the same lesson again and again, he would phrase things differently for different audiences.
The second explanation is that one Gospel writer is giving a direct quote and the other is giving a paraphrase. Despite your modern, English Bible using quotation marks, quotation marks didn’t exist back then in the ancient manuscripts in the original Greek. So, when we read Jesus’ words in the Gospels, we can’t know for sure if it’s a word-for-word quote or a paraphrase or summary. Again, nothing odd here. For example, preachers often paraphrase passages from the Bible while teaching, and the New Testament writers themselves often paraphrase the Old Testament rather than give a word-for-word quote.
That behind us, it’s clear from the context (including taking into account all of Jesus’ teachings) that Jesus isn’t speaking of a literal sword, but a metaphorical one. The sword represents division. Yes, he’s a peaceful man, but his teachings will cause division, even within families. Just before this, when speaking about the persecution his disciples will face, he says, “ Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” Jesus’ ministry even brought division within his own family (Matthew 13:53-58; John 7:3-5).
Not everyone will be a part of the Kingdom of God, and though Jesus’ mission is nonviolent, the response to Jesus’ ministry won’t always be, and though he preaches peace, his teachings will cause turmoil. He teaches elsewhere that the world will give his followers trouble and grief (John 14:27, 16:33). They should expect it. If the world hates you, he says, know that it hated me first (John 15:18-27).
*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.
NEXT: Sell Your Cloak, Buy a Sword! Luke 22:36-38.