When Jesus was born, the heavenly host announced, “peace on earth, among those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
Later, however, Jesus said that he had not come to bring peace: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Is this not a contradiction?
Jesus’ sayings must always be understood in their context and not in isolation. The message of peace the angels proclaimed at the Saviour’s birth was the message of salvation. Many of the key Greek words of the New Testament have to be understood against their Hebraic background, and the Hebrew shalom (peace) signifies much more than the absence of strife. It means wholeness, wellness, and salvation.
The offer of salvation
The hosts of heaven did not promise that there would not be any more conflict or war here on earth, but God was offering salvation to humanity, to people who are the objects of his pleasure, his favour. The peace that Christ was to bring is what Paul calls “peace with God” (Romans 5:1). Writing to the Ephesians, the apostle explains that “he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (2:17), that is, to both Gentiles and Jews. He “made peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).
Those who hear and accept the message of peace, that is, the gospel, who receive Christ as their Saviour and Lord, are called to be peacemakers in this world. But God did not promise that with the coming of Christ, all conflict would end.
As followers of Jesus, we pray for peace in this troubled world, and wherever we can, we seek to overcome conflict, quarrels, and strife, not only in the wider world but in our communities, our homes, our schools, and our churches. But until Christ returns, we must expect to live in a world bedevilled by conflict.
In Revelation 6:1-8, the apostle John is given a vision of the course of human history. He sees four apocalyptic horsemen, riding across the pages of history. The rider on the fiery red horse is explicitly told “to take peace from the earth.” That’s the kind of world the followers of Christ live in during this long interim between his first and second coming. And Jesus said that when his disciples heard of war and rumours of war they should not get alarmed, “for the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6). Clearly the heavenly host did not predict world peace when Christ was born, even though it is God’s desire that swords should be turned into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).
Over against the gospel’s wonderful promise of peace, stands Jesus saying that he has come to bring the sword: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). And, using words from Micah 7:6, he goes on to explain, “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 one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
A metaphor for conflict
Obviously Jesus did not bring the sword in the literal sense. On the occasion when Peter wanted to use the sword to defend Jesus, the Lord told him to stop it. And when he cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest, Jesus healed it (Luke 22:51). The sword of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 10:34 was simply a metaphor for conflict, tension, quarrels. The context of that saying makes it clear that when the gospel invades human societies, it often creates tensions, even within families. There is often profound tension when one member of the family accepts Christ as Saviour and Lord, and others do not.
In our more individualistic society, the potential for rifts in the family when one member embraces the gospel and others do not, may not be quite so acute. However, in ancient Eastern societies and in some cultures today, as well, family cohesiveness is at stake when family members choose different faiths.
Paul speaks about the tension that mixed marriages might cause, when either husband or wife becomes a believer and the other doesn’t. His advice to the believing spouse is to remain in the marriage relationship as long as the unbelieving partner is willing to live with him or her (1 Corinthians 7:15), for God has called us to peace. The apostle Peter also addresses such a situation in 1 Peter 3:1-6, and gives Christian women some suggestions how they might win their husbands for the faith.
In the writings of the early church fathers, there are numerous references to the tensions created by the coming of the gospel into a given community. This conflict was particularly acute in Jewish communities, as one can see from the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul. He made it a practice to begin his evangelistic efforts in the local synagogues, and that frequently led to quarrels, as some Jews accepted his message and others opposed it, often quite vehemently.
Today we see that the gospel brings a “sword” when a member of a staunch Muslim family embraces the Christian faith. In some predominantly Muslim countries, Christian churches are simply not allowed and conversions to Christianity are punishable by execution.
When I visited Mogadishu, in Somalia, some years ago, to minister to a small Mennonite congregation in that city, I was shown the grave of a Mennonite missionary who was killed by a Muslim for preaching the gospel. Since church buildings are forbidden in that country, we had a hard time finding a place where we could have our Bible studies. Jesus predicted, “You will be hated by all nations because of my name” (Matthew 24:9).
Jesus did not come to split up families. In fact he severely criticized those who failed to honour their parents. However, through his coming, he created a new family (Mark 3:35), and the relationship between members of this new family of God is often closer than that based on blood. When our loyalty to this new family collides with our loyalty to our natural family, we experience something of what Jesus meant when he said he came to bring “the sword.”
*Texts in this study, except for Luke 2:14, are quoted from the NRSV.
Luke 2:14, Matthew 10:34 (link to BibleGateway.com)
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.