In this instalment of our occasional series, we ask: Did Jesus really advocate violence?
‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ (Matthew 10:34)
Hutt City Corps Officer
As with all Scripture, it is critical to ensure that individual sentences (verses) are read within the context of what was happening or being said—both immediately, previously and latterly. Matthew 10:34 is no exception. Jesus (writes Matthew) is addressing his 12 disciples, who are being sent out to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near, to heal and to deliver.
It is clear that they are to expect rejection, opposition, trial (by local ‘councils’), flogging (in the synagogues), arrest, hatred, persecution and possibly death. Jesus is making it clear that this will be no picnic in the park for the disciples, hence the reference to his bringing a ‘sword’ for the disciples. There will be family disruption and enmity as a result of this message … a cross to be taken up … a life to lose (and gain).
This is all very foreign to Christians who live within the protections and guarantees of secular New Zealand. One wonders if these words take on a completely different relevance for Christians living in hostile social settings, and in places where martyrdom has taken on a completely different hue. Scriptural context is important—so, also, is our contemporary social context.
Author and Retired Officer
So like Jesus! One day all sweetness and light; the next, all trouble and woe. At least that’s how it seems to us today. We’re happy to go along with ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, bringing peace and goodwill on earth. But then, wham, this sword business! In Jesus’ day, his hearers were used to this idiomatic language which sometimes did not distinguish ‘result’ from ‘intention’.
That came from their overwhelming sense of God’s sovereignty, so that anything happening must have been meant to happen. The prophets often spoke like this, as when Isaiah talked about God making people’s eyes dim so that they would not see (Isaiah 6.10)—words Jesus also quoted. However, this was not God’s purpose, but the effect of God’s word—because of peoples’ resistance to God’s intention. Jesus was a realist.
In this passage he was warning his would-be followers that following him would be tough going, with all kinds of unintended consequences, even the break-up of families. This was about counting the cost, of going into it with their eyes open. Better to hear the truth now than to feel let down later. But God’s purpose was and still is to bring peace.
Convenor of Thought Matters
There are certain times in the political cycle of our nation in which the discourse around our dining room table highlights differing responses to the messages being espoused by one political party or another. Both the message and the messenger have the ability to polarize opinion, even within members of the same household. I have always encouraged open debate. But employing swords to make a point—even the retractable, light emitting, plastic ones associated with Star Wars—has always been off limits.
Matthew 10:34 highlights a similar polarising reality. Jesus outlines the characteristics that his disciples will need to embody as they move out in mission. He leaves them with no illusions regarding the cost and complications of this mission. He knows they will experience opposition from both the religious elite, the stranger and their own family members.
The sword noted in this verse acts as a metaphor for the inevitable separation between those who believe in Jesus, and those who do not. It reminds us that life in the kingdom is not always comfortable. The message of Jesus Christ divides people, it unsettles people, it can set one against the other—even around a family table. When one acknowledges the Lordship of Christ, it can fracture earthly relationships. As one writer notes, ‘the message of Jesus won’t bring instant universal serendipity’.
Having said that, we are wise to remember that human beings who are reconciled to God, can also be reconciled to each other. Sitting around a dining room table might be a very good place for that process to begin.
Seth Le Leu,
IHQ Governance Team
This verse does not encourage Christians to violently spread the Christian message. Jesus is the Prince of Peace and during his life he actively prevented his followers from engaging in physical violence. He does, however, call us to two battles: the first battle is the inner personal struggle we have between selfishness and caring for others; the second battle is against institutional evil forces in the world that enslave and deprive its people from realising their full potential.
We believe that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and should act towards one another as brothers and sisters in the global family. Our battle is to see this goal achieved for all the peoples of the world. And we will fight evil with the weapons of love in action, compassion for the most vulnerable, and speaking truth to power.
All people of true humanity are called to these two conflicts.