Have you ever noticed that Jesus can be downright offensive?
Even many people who don’t claim to be Christian find Jesus very attractive. As a great moral teacher, he told some wonderful stories. He was always kind and compassionate to people in need. He “spoke truth to power” in taking on the religious establishment.
But then he says things like
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’ [quoting Micah 7:6] – Matthew 10:34-36 (NIV)
How do Christians today respond to passages like that? How should we?
Lots of Christians don’t know Scripture well enough to realize that the Bible even includes those words. If they should stumble upon that passage, it’s easy to read right past it and forget about it. It isn’t the text for very many sermons.
Some, especially people with academic credentials and scholarly pretensions, simply deny that Jesus said any such thing. After all, they say, the Bible is full of contradictions, but we know Jesus was loving. To anyone not willing to look past the surface, the passage certainly doesn’t look loving.
There are probably other ways to ignore difficult passages, but what we should do is study them until we understand what they mean. No one will ever understand any part of the Bible perfectly, but without diligent study, no one will really understand it at all.
Peace and war in the kingdom of God
We hail Jesus as the Prince of Peace. One of the last things he told his disciples is, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27).
We can begin to understand the Matthew passage once we realize that Jesus did not come to bring what the world considers peace.
He did not come to bring an absence of conflict. The Matthew passage quotes from Micah 7:6. Here is the beginning of the chapter
What misery is mine!
I am like one who gathers summer fruit
at the gleaning of the vineyard;
there is no cluster of grapes to eat,
none of the early figs that I crave.
2 The faithful have been swept from the land;
not one upright person remains.
Everyone lies in wait to shed blood;
they hunt each other with nets.
3 Both hands are skilled in doing evil;
the ruler demands gifts,
the judge accepts bribes,
the powerful dictate what they desire—
they all conspire together.
4 The best of them is like a brier,
the most upright worse than a thorn hedge.
The day God visits you has come,
the day your watchmen sound the alarm.
Now is the time of your confusion.
5 Do not trust a neighbor;
put no confidence in a friend.
Even with the woman who lies in your embrace
guard the words of your lips.
6 For a son dishonors his father,
a daughter rises up against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.
Notice that Micah describes a time when people cheat each other and the strong oppress the weak. Kind of like our society—and in fact, in one way or another every human society that ever existed. Whenever God shows up, or even when someone attempting to speak for him shows up, expect conflict. Some who have drifted away decide to return. Others get angry and take offense.
The return of Christ at the end of time is one of the central tenets of Christianity. Jesus essentially told his disciples that his return will be met with the same response Micah described.
But if Jesus doesn’t give peace like the world gives, why should we think he wages war as the world does? “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Corinthians 10:4).
“Sword” has a very special meaning in the New Testament.
In the command in Ephesians 6 to put on the full armor of God, the sword is God’s word (Ephesians 6:17). Hebrews 4:12 adds, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Here is how Jesus characterized God’s word: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Now take another look at the passage from Matthew, but in place of “a sword” substitute first “the word” then “the truth.”
Does the Bible ever divide families? You know it does, especially if some family members choose to believe it and others choose not to believe it.
The Matthew passage continues, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their 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. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39).
If you are a believer and your family is divided over it, you must certainly honor your father and mother and, so far as it is up to you, live in peace with family members who believe differently.
But if you must choose between maintaining a relationship with Jesus and a relationship with anyone else or anything else, Jesus expects you to let go of the other relationship or the other thing. Even if it means humiliation and pain like he experienced on the cross.
You have his (s)word on it!
Jesus with sword (Kosovo) Public domain.
Jesus with sword (Denmark) Mills-Kronborg Collection of Danish Church Wall Paintings, M-K 03-019
Open Bible. Photo by Amandajm. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.