FAQ 4: Did Jesus Come to Bring Peace or a Sword?

Today we continue our blog series addressing some of our most frequently asked questions. If you missed them, see our previous posts addressing the questions Is it Really Possible to Have Peace Between Christians and Muslims?How Does Peacemaking Relate to Evangelism?, and Why Should We Bother with Peacemaking?

  

Frequently Asked Question #4:
Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). How do peacemakers understand and apply this verse?

 

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9) AND “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). How do we reconcile these two famous peace passages?

  • Does this sword verse affirm the inevitability of violence in our interaction with non-Christians?
  • Does it imply that our relationships with non-Christians will always be characterized by conflict?
  • Does it override other verses in Scripture about peacemaking?

The context of this verse about Jesus bringing a sword is him commissioning his disciples to extend the Kingdom. First, he tells them to go in peace: "If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if it is not worthy, take back your blessing of peace” (Matt 10:13 NASB). Later, when Jesus sent out the seventy disciples, he described this process in a slightly different way: "Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace be to this house.' If a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on them; but if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5-6 literal translation). This passage implies that in some sense those on mission are bearers of peace (John 14:27), whose fruitfulness depends on the discernment of peace in evangelistic contexts. It also implies that there are people of peace in the world who may or may not respond to the gospel.

The second mention of peace in Matthew 10 relates to persecution and suffering brought about because of fruitful evangelism: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:34-38 NIV).

Jesus’ followers are peacemaker-evangelists who speak the blessing of peace on families where they stay. Nevertheless, response to the message of the Kingdom will be mixed: some will accept the message and others will reject it. Because of this, families will be divided, conflict will ensue. Thus, in the sword passage Jesus reminds his followers of his supreme worth and the need to follow him regardless of the negative fallout. In a parallel passage, Luke describes the metaphor of the sword in terms of division, not violence: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:51). Thus, Jesus did not use the metaphor of the sword to depict any form of violence or belligerence on the part of his followers but rather the divisive fallout that sometimes accompanies evangelistic outreach.

Among Evangelicals, Matthew 10:34-38 (“I came to bring a sword”) seems to provide the dominant perspective regarding peace and evangelism in the New Testament, rather than Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers”). In other words, there is the assumption that conflict is inevitable. With this assumption governing our mindset, could it be that we then communicate (whether intentionally or not) in a way that promotes conflict? Could it be that this mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?

So how do we reconcile Matthew 10:34-38 with Matthew 5:9? At the very least we need to affirm both truths, since the Bible does. Walter Kaiser, in Hard Sayings of the Bible, gives wise guidance: “When Jesus said that he had come to bring 'not peace but a sword,' he meant that this would be the effect of his coming, not that it was the purpose of his coming.” The metaphor of the sword describes how unbelievers may respond to the gospel, not how we communicate it! As children of God, our purpose is to represent the Prince of Peace, regardless of the effect it has.