“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”Jesus. (Matthew 10:34) New International Version
Matthew Henry Commentary
10:16-42 Our Lord warned his disciples to prepare for persecution. They were to avoid all things which gave advantage to their enemies, all meddling with worldly or political concerns, all appearance of evil or selfishness, and all underhand measures. Christ foretold troubles, not only that the troubles might not be a surprise, but that they might confirm their faith. He tells them what they should suffer, and from whom. Thus Christ has dealt fairly and faithfully with us, in telling us the worst we can meet with in his service; and he would have us deal so with ourselves, in sitting down and counting the cost. Persecutors are worse than beasts, in that they prey upon those of their own kind. The strongest bonds of love and duty, have often been broken through from enmity against Christ. Sufferings from friends and relations are very grievous; nothing cuts more. It appears plainly, that all who will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution; and we must expect to enter into the kingdom of God through many tribulations. With these predictions of trouble, are counsels and comforts for a time of trial. The disciples of Christ are hated and persecuted as serpents, and their ruin is sought, and they need the serpent’s wisdom. Be ye harmless as doves. Not only, do nobody any hurt, but bear nobody any ill-will. Prudent care there must be, but not an anxious, perplexing thought; let this care be cast upon God. The disciples of Christ must think more how to do well, than how to speak well. In case of great peril, the disciples of Christ may go out of the way of danger, though they must not go out of the way of duty. No sinful, unlawful means may be used to escape; for then it is not a door of God’s opening. The fear of man brings a snare, a perplexing snare, that disturbs our peace; an entangling snare, by which we are drawn into sin; and, therefore, it must be striven and prayed against. Tribulation, distress, and persecution cannot take away God’s love to them, or theirs to him. Fear Him, who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. They must deliver their message publicly, for all are deeply concerned in the doctrine of the gospel. The whole counsel of God must be made known, Ac 20:27. Christ shows them why they should be of good cheer. Their sufferings witnessed against those who oppose his gospel. When God calls us to speak for him, we may depend on him to teach us what to say. A believing prospect of the end of our troubles, will be of great use to support us under them. They may be borne to the end, because the sufferers shall be borne up under them. The strength shall be according to the day. And it is great encouragement to those who are doing Christ’s work, that it is a work which shall certainly be done. See how the care of Providence extends to all creatures, even to the sparrows. This should silence all the fears of God’s people; Ye are of more value than many sparrows. And the very hairs of your head are all numbered. This denotes the account God takes and keeps of his people. It is our duty, not only to believe in Christ, but to profess that faith, in suffering for him, when we are called to it, as well as in serving him. That denial of Christ only is here meant which is persisted in, and that confession only can have the blessed recompence here promised, which is the real and constant language of faith and love. Religion is worth every thing; all who believe the truth of it, will come up to the price, and make every thing else yield to it. Christ will lead us through sufferings, to glory with him. Those are best prepared for the life to come, that sit most loose to this present life. Though the kindness done to Christ’s disciples be ever so small, yet if there be occasion for it, and ability to do no more, it shall be accepted. Christ does not say that they deserve a reward; for we cannot merit any thing from the hand of God; but they shall receive a reward from the free gift of God. Let us boldly confess Christ, and show love to him in all things.
Verses 34-39. – Fellowship with me will involve separation from the dearest upon earth, yet the reward is great. (Cf. ver. 5, note.) The progress of thought in these verses seems to be as follows: Do not be surprised at the contradiction that appears between my teaching and the immediate result; I allowed for this when I began my work (ver. 34). There will, indeed, be separation in the closest earthly ties (vers. 35, 36). But my claims are paramount (vers. 37, 38). And on your relation to them depends everything hereafter (ver. 39). Verse 34. – Parallel passage: Luke 12:51. Think not. Christ here removes another mistaken opinion (Matthew 5:17, note). There the mistake was about his relation to the Law; here about the immediate result of his coming. The Prince of Peace did not come to cast in peace as something from outside. It would show itself eventually, but from within outwards. That which he cast from without was fire (Luke 12:49), a sword (infra). Chrysostom (‘Hem.,’ 35.) points out, among other illustrations, that the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel was better than the peace which preceded it, and itself produced a better peace. That I am come; that I came (Revised Version); cf. further, Matthew 5:17, note. To send peace (βαλεῖν εἰρήνην). The verb was probably chosen because in the other form of the utterance Christ had already said πῦρ βαλεῖν, where the figure is of throwing a firebrand (Luke 12:49). By a natural transition, that phrase led to the thought of “throwing” peace or a sword. St. Luke, on the contrary, softened the metaphor to δοῦναι. On (the, Revised Version) earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers
Think not that I am come to send peace. — Truth appears again in the form of seeming paradox. Christ is “our peace” (Ephesians 2:14), and came to be the one great Peacemaker; and yet the foreseen consequences of His work involved strife and division, and such a consequence, freely accepted for the sake of the greater good that lies beyond it, involves, in fact, a purpose. The words are the natural expression of such a thought; and yet we can hardly fail to connect them with those which, in the earliest dawn of His infancy, revealed to the mother of the Christ that “a sword should pass through her own soul also” (Luke 2:35).
Matthew 10:34-36. Think not that I am come, &c. — As if he had said, Because the prophets have spoken glorious things of the peace and happiness of the world under the reign of the Messiah, whom they have named, for that reason, the Prince of peace, you may imagine that I am come to put the world into that happy state forthwith; and that universal peace will be the immediate consequence of my coming. But this is far from being the case; for, though the nature of my government be such as might produce abundant felicity, inasmuch as my religion breathes nothing but love, men will not lay aside their animosity, nor will they exercise a mutual friendship among themselves as soon as the gospel is preached to them. No; such is their wickedness, that they will make the gospel itself an occasion of such bitter dissensions that it will look as if I had not come to send peace, but a sword among men. For, as I told you before, the nearest relations shall quarrel among themselves, and both public and private divisions will follow wheresoever my gospel comes with power. Yet, observe well, reader, this is not the design, though it be the event of his coming, through the opposition of devils and men to his truth and the blessed effects of it. And a man’s foes — The foes of a man that is converted to my religion, and loves and follows me, shall be they of his own household — Persons of his own family, or such as are nearly related to him.
James M. Arlandson at ‘Answering Islam’
I read constantly that Christians should not be proud of a verse attributed to Jesus. The verse reads:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.
At first glance it indeed appears that Jesus encourages violence and calls his disciples to practice it, presumably righteous violence. But appearances can be deceiving. A text without a context often becomes a pretext, as the old saying goes. Once this verse is read in its historical and literary contexts, the meaning will change.
It is time to set the record straight about that verse.
The historical context, we should recall, is Jewish culture, as Jesus ministers to his own people. He sends out the twelve disciples to the “lost sheep of Israel,” not yet to the gentiles, who will be reached after the Resurrection. It is not surprising, historically speaking, that he would spread his word by proclamation to his own, by Jewish disciples. Second, he predicts that some towns may not receive the disciples and that the authorities may put them on trial and flog them. In that eventuality, they should shake the dust off their feet, pray for them, and flee to another city. Third, it is only natural that first-century Jews may not understand this new sect or “Jesus movement” (as sociologists of the New Testament call it), so they resist it. Does this mean, then, that Jesus calls for a holy war with a physical, military sword against his fellow Jews—say, against his own family who wanted to take custody of him because they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21)?
Next, those cultural facts explain the immediate literary context, which shows division among family members. The context must be quoted in full to explain the meaning of “sword” in Matthew 10:34 (bold print):
32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. 34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turna man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household [Micah 7:6]37 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 up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The one key element in this lengthy passage is the word “sword,” and its meaning is now clear. It indicates that following Jesus in his original Jewish society may not bring peace to a family, but may “split” it up, the precise function of a metaphorical sword. Are his disciples ready for that? This kind of spiritual sword invisibly severs a man from his father, and daughter from her mother, and so on (Micah 7:6). Given Jesus’ own family resistance early on (they later came around), it is only natural he would say that no matter what the cost, one must follow him to the end, even if it means giving up one’s family. But this applies only if the family rejects the new convert, not if the family accepts him in his new faith; he must not reject them, because the whole point of Jesus’ advent is to win as many people to his side as possible, even if this divides the world in two, but never violently.
Furthermore, we can reference the larger textual context in the Gospel of Matthew. In the Garden of Gethsemane, during the hour when Jesus was betrayed and arrested, Peter struck off the ear of the servant of the high priest in order to protect his Lord. But Jesus tells him to stop.
Matthew 26:52-53 says:
52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (NIV)
Jesus denounces violence to accomplish the will of God—at least as Peter imagines the will of God. Then Jesus says that he has more than twelve legions of angels at his disposal. He did not come to crush the Roman Empire. Instead, he willingly lays down his life and dies for the sins of the whole world. Will it accept this wonderful gift?
Now we can appeal to even a much larger textual context. The non-literal interpretation of the sword is confirmed by a parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 12:49-53 reads:
49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo [my death], and how distressed I am until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
It is entirely possible that these two parallel passages in Matthew and Luke represent two different occasions. After all, when I teach the same topic in two different classes, I also change the wording a little. Neither class knows about the slight change, but this does not matter, for the meaning is essentially the same. Likewise, in the three years that Jesus taught, he most likely repeated this call to commitment several times to different audiences (though recorded only twice in the Gospels), as he crisscrossed Israel. He issued such radical calls often, telling his listeners to pick up their cross and to follow him (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27).
Whatever the case, the proper way to interpret Scripture is to let verses clarify other verses, particularly parallel passages. And now Luke 12:49-53 confirms our interpretation of Matt. 10:34. Jesus did not endorse physical violence against one’s own family, but he warns people about possible family division.
So what does all of this mean?
History demonstrates that Jesus never wielded a sword against anyone, and in Matt. 10:34 he does not order his followers to swing one either, in order to kill their family opponents or for any reason. But a true disciple who is worthy of following Christ and who comes from a possibly hostile family has to use a sword of the will (never a physical sword) to sever away all opposition, even as far as taking up his cross—another metaphorical implement for the disciples. It is true that Jesus divides the world into two camps, those who follow him, and those who do not, those in the light, and those in the dark. However, he never tells his followers to wage war on everyone else, and certainly not on one’s family.
It is true that the Roman Emperor Constantine, Medieval Crusaders, and Protestants and Catholics have used the sword against unbelievers and each other. However, none of them is foundational to Christianity—only Jesus is, and he never endorses the sword to spread his message. Also, Christianity has undergone Reform (c. 1400-1600) and has been put under the pressure of the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800), which demanded peace. Be that as it may, Jesus himself never calls for military holy war, and only he sets the genetic code for his movement.
There is not a single verse in the New Testament that calls the Church to commit violence to spread the gospel or to plant churches or to accomplish anything else. Rather, the New Testament hands the sword over to the State (Rom. 13:1-6). In any case, Jesus says a spiritual sword, not a physical one, may sever family ties, so his disciples must be ready for that.
Go here to begin a series on pacifism and the sword in the New Testament.