The Active Nonviolence of Jesus: Not Peace But A Sword (5 of 12)

PART 5 OF 12

Not Peace, But A Sword!


“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

This week, I’d like to take one more (and final) look at the actual teachings of Jesus in regard to non-violence before we begin next week to look at Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 and then going on to each of the following questions that I promised we’d address in Part 1 (Hitler and the Allied Forces, Someone Who Breaks Into Your Home, Old Testament Violence Commanded by God, and Domestic Violence). But before we look into all of those, let’s begin this week by looking at Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel, found in verse 34 of chapter ten.

At first glance, on the surface, it may look as if Jesus here is endorsing “justified violence” for those who follow Him. Certainly there were those during the Constantinian shiftthat used the above verse to justify Christians’ picking up the sword to “enlarge the Kingdom.” But as with all of Jesus’ teachings on this subject, one usually needs only to read a few more verses to understand exactly what Jesus is saying. Of all the teachings of Jesus, His commands to live by non-violence are the clearest, yet this is the very topic that so many choose to not see. To me, it seems to be much more than a mere unintentional misunderstanding. For many, it is a determined, very intentional, effort to interpret the words of Jesus in any other way than to simply accept them as they read. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as non-violent are Christians.” There was a time in my life when I genuinely felt that Jesus’ teachings on non-violence were more tangential, but I must confess that I was wrong. Once embraced, I began to see that Christ’s teachings on non-violence are more central to the picture of God that Jesus came to reveal than I could possibly have had explained to me or that I could have understood from outside the topic, yet it’s a catch-22 as well. Embracing non-violence is not only central to our own understanding of God’s character but it’s dependent upon your picture of God as well. But again, once embraced, it unlocks every other topic related to a Christocentric picture of the Father. (See John 14.9; from your Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology, all the way down to eschatology and everything in between.)

With the same breath, Jesus continues the above passage:

Matthew 10.35-38—”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—your enemies will be the members of your own household.’ Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

What did Jesus mean by the statement that He came to bring a sword? He is not saying here that He wants His followers to take up the sword but, rather, that they would become the victims of other people wielding the sword against them because of their choice to follow Him, but they are still admonished not to return violence for violence but, rather, to take up, like their Master, their cross, too.

The Greek word translated here as sword is machaira. It can be translated figuratively to denote strife or warfare. Jesus is not saying here that those who follow Him should engage in warfare in “Jesus’ name” but, rather, that those who chose to follow Him should expect to be the recipients of strife or warfare as a result of their decision to follow Him. In the above context, it’s the father or mother that wields the sword against the child because the child has chosen to follow Jesus. It’s the son or daughter who wields the sword against the father or mother because the parent chooses to follow Jesus. And, even though these relationships were created by God as means whereby we might experience the love for which we were made, as hard as this is, these relationships are not to be given value or worth above that which belongs to “following” Jesus. Again, as hard as this is, anyone who gives these relationships a higher priority in their life than the priority they give to “following Jesus,” Jesus states, is not ascribing to their “following” the accurate degree of value or importance that following Jesus actually possesses. Jesus then states, too clearly for anyone to miss, that His followers are not to take up the sword in response to those who wield the sword against them; rather, Jesus’ followers are to take up “the cross.” Far from being a passage encouraging His followers to know when to put into practice “justified violence,” this is one of the clearest passages where Jesus is teaching us to pick up NOT the sword but the cross instead.

In Luke’s gospel, Luke records the following words of Jesus:

“‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9.22-24)

Finally this week, I’d like to focus for a moment on Jesus’ words in Matthew 13.31-32:

“He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’ He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.’”

To experience the full weight of what Jesus is saying in the above passage, please consider this relevant question:

What would happen if Christians would simply agree to stop killing each other?

It takes a moment to appreciate how disturbing this question really is. We will be looking at Romans 13 next week, but if we would agree to the above, it would quickly extend past local congregations to denominations and ultimately to Christians in American military service; then, without stopping, it would encompass Christian combatants who are brothers and sisters in Jesus’ Kingdom but are enlisted as military combatants of other nations as well. Christians would at this stage make the worst possible soldiers for whatever kingdom of this world they find themselves in. But then you’d have to ask the question, “Why are we giving preferential treatment to Christians? Shouldn’t we be extending this even for our enemies?” We will be addressing this in further detail in the following weeks, but what would have happened in Nazi Germany if the Lutherans and Catholics had embraced the above agreement to not kill other Christians? Hitler would have had no army (German Christians would have refused to kill Allied Christians).

We must remember the cultural context in which Jesus spoke these two parables. In a few centuries of the church’s actually following the peace teachings of Jesus, Constantine saw the exponential rate at which non-violent Christianity was growing. Neither he nor Diocletian could crush it. If left unchanged, it would eventually undo Rome. (If all of Rome became Christian, thus embracing non-violence, who would fight Rome’s wars? Constantine was brilliant: he embraced Christianity but did away with its unanimous teaching of non-violence.) I would submit that, over time, the non-violence of Jesus would have led to the eventual undoing of Rome. Rome would be taken over by its enemies. But Christianity would still have been present to overcome (non-violently) whatever empire took over Rome, too. Then it would have overcome the next empire and then the next empire until Jesus’ Kingdom, eventually, would have been the last one standing.

This is exactly what the Protestant leaders, in unison with the state, saw would happen in Europe as well. Yes, Europe in the sixteenth century might have been taken over by the Turks if the church had embraced the non-violence of the Anabaptists (this was the very argument that turned the tide of the community that burned Michael Sattler at the stake). But soon, the Turks would be undone by the same exponential growth of this non-violent Kingdom, too. Jesus said it best: “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed (small, with long and slow growth), which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew, subversively, and took over the whole garden, becoming the largest of all trees, till the birds perched in its branches.” Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” The implications are serious here. For those who want to see the Kingdom of Jesus be the last one standing, we are going to have to let go of all kingdoms of this world, even our most cherished one. America is not the kingdom of God but actually standing in the way of Jesus’ Kingdom’s mustard seed growth.

The world would have looked very different had the church not abandoned Jesus’ peace teachings in the fourth century. Paul foresaw that the church would fall away from or, rather, turn away from the teachings of Jesus as a point in the future (2 Thessalonians 2.3, the Greek word in this passage means “apostasy”). G.K. Chesterton once said that the history of Christianity does not prove that the teachings of Jesus have been tried and found wanting but, rather, that the teachings of Jesus have been “found difficult and left untried.” Everything changed with the Constantinian shift. The future would now look very different. (And history now proves that the mustard seed/dough principle never was allowed to work its way all the way out; in other words, the world’s suffering could have ended long before this.) It is time for those who desire the return of the King to embrace the principles of the actual Kingdom. To allow Jesus to reshape our picture of God and to be not just a savior that we believe in and worship but our Lord that we follow as well.

We will be looking at Paul’s words in Romans 13 next week. But until then, keep living in love and loving like Christ. And through embracing Jesus’ teaching of God’s radical, other-centered, self-sacrificial love, go out this week and put on display the beauty of God’s character of love. And go build the Kingdom.

I love you guys. We’ll see you next week.