Over the last few years I have seen an increase in my personal circles of Christians asserting themselves as “Warriors for God”; they observe threats against God and the Church, and feel called to stand and fight.
It seems noble and righteous from a certain vantage point. They are willing to risk reputations and relationships in order to fight for what they perceive is right. To not fight — or to pursue a faux-peace — is to be led by fear and dishonor God.
In fact, Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:34-36 seem to support this:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For 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 a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”Matthew 10:34-36
You could push even further that this was not figurative by citing a key moment Jesus called his disciples to arms:
He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied.Luke 22:36-38
One could assume there is a biblical mandate to stand and fight against any who would oppose God or His ways.
Of course, to take this position, one must ignore a substantial amount of scripture, including the context of the verses claimed as support.
“They that take the sword will perish with the sword.”
Scripture is full of swords, particularly in the Old Testament. Since we are focusing on “Christians” — Christ-followers — in this context, we will focus on Scripture as it pertains to Jesus and those who followed him. There is enough in just a few verses to indicate the “Warrior for God” that fights against others may not have been what Jesus intended.
We don’t have to go further than the context of the verses above. It seems that Jesus wanted his disciples to have swords, and you can’t blame them for using the logic of, “if he wants us to have the swords, he wants us to use the swords.” After all, why would you be told to get something you won’t be allowed to use?
When the opportunity arrives for them to use their swords — when guards came to wrongfully arrest the Son of God — what happens? Peter does not hesitate to swing his sword at the enemies. Jesus then thanks him for defending him and his mission.
Jesus instead says this:
“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”Matthew 26:52-53
He doesn’t need mere mortals to protect him; he could call down legions of angels. It was never Jesus’s intention for the disciples to arm themselves and fight for him. He says as much to Pontius Pilate:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”John 18:26
Two swords would not have been “enough” to take on a group of armed soldiers, Jesus could have called down angels, and neither option was needed because his “kingdom is from another place”; fighting wasn’t in the plan. So why did Jesus tell them to buy swords?
Maybe that’s not what he was saying. If we look at the context, we find that this “mandate” was said in reference to another mandate.
In verse 35 of the passage in Luke 22, Jesus begins with, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They replied, “Nothing.” Why would he then give a mandate to counter this, and require they secure provision and protection? Had they entered a place of lack?
If we know anything about a relationship with Christ, it’s that the more we come to understand him, the more we recognize that we lack nothing. Psalm 34:10 says, “The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Maybe Jesus was not telling them that they now needed swords, but was emphasizing the original — and continuing — mandate of trusting him.
Think of it like a form of reverse psychology, of saying something that seems counter to his normal message, which he has done before; the hope would be that they would respond by saying, “But Lord, we need nothing but you.” Instead, they were more than happy to take up the provision and protection, because it felt more secure and stable. “Thank goodness we don’t have to take that risky faith approach anymore!” It’s a path we take all too often, trading the unknowns and risk of following God, for the security and stability of doing it the “normal” way.
There is another reason Jesus tells them to buy swords. He says, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’” How did his disciples carrying swords make him “numbered with transgressors”? A better question is, who were the “transgressors” with whom he would be numbered? The context of this passage does not reference Gentiles, or Pharisees, or even the stereotypical “sinners”; this passage is directed to, and describing, the disciples themselves. Could it be that they are the transgressors?
As mentioned above, Jesus had called them to a new way of living but, when given the opportunity, they were willing to return to the old. They were quick to take up their own provision and protection. It goes further; from this moment to his capture, they resisted the hard truths Jesus shared, particularly regarding his death. This resistance bled into other areas, like their unwillingness to take efforts to stay awake as he requested in the garden, and into their responses after he was captured, crucified, and killed, such as Peter’s denial.
And, of course, Peter tried to kill a man with his sword.
“Transgressors” — ἀνόμων — can be interpreted in a few ways, but it basically comes down to “no-law,” (ἀ, “no” and nómos, “law”), i.e. lawless, or disregard for proper authority. Typically, this is assumed to mean sinners, gentiles who didn’t know God’s law, or those who knew God’s law yet chose to do otherwise.
Because we know Jesus came to fulfil the Law, we can rightly assert that whatever he spoke — and called for — aligned with the Law. In other words, if he told the disciples to do something, and they didn’t, it was as good as “lawless” for someone asserting to follow Jesus; it was a “disregard for proper authority.” If that wasn’t enough, one reason Peter’s attempt to kill a guard made him a “transgressor” is because of this very clear mandate from Jesus:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”John 13:34
Jesus hones this further when he said to “love your enemies.” So Jesus’s “call to arms” was not so that swords would be used, but to set the stage for what was to come. Swords were not a necessary tool for defense or attack, but an indicator of brokenness.
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
When we come to believe God wants things to be a certain way, we can make it our personal mission to fight for God around those claims. If we go far enough, we can see opposition — real or perceived — and calls for peace as destructive to the will of God; it amounts to compromise, prioritizing the comfort of others over the righteousness of God. Eventually, we make it clear we aren’t concerned if feelings get hurt; Jesus did not come to bring peace but the sword after all, so it is more important to stand for God than protect someone’s emotions.
While we can be convinced our zeal is rightly founded, we often fail to answer the question, “What if I’m wrong?”
When we pair our assumptions with a believe that God wants us to fight for His will, we can cause destruction to those around us, those we love, and our own souls.
Matthew 10:34-36, when used to justify personal intentions, can be distorted into a stumbling block rather than a revelation. We read Jesus’s words — “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” — and can feel justified in the way we dismiss, accuse, and attack others. We take the text as saying, “I know what God’s called me to, and unfortunately people are just going to get hurt,” and give ourselves a pass to, if needed, be against father, mother, son, and daughter, in both the natural and spiritual sense.
To be fair, Jesus’s words are perplexing here. How can the “Prince of Peace” say ” I have not come to bring peace”? How can the one who affirmed “you must love your father and mother” say that he has “come to set a man against his father… and mother”?
In addition to the challenges of processing scripture that’s been translated from another language into multiple versions, we have the challenge of understanding how to hear and process Jesus’s words. Earlier we explored how Jesus said one thing, and the disciples took it as justification for cutting off ears. At our best, we don’t understand; at our worst, we hear what we want to hear.
And right now, there are people afraid that their way of understanding and experiencing the world is being threatened, and they want Jesus to say it’s okay to fight back.
Is this what Jesus is saying?
We already know that Peace is a part of who he is, so he did come to bring peace. We know that he expects us to love our family, so he isn’t trying to divide us. How do we reconcile this? Perhaps he isn’t explaining what he desires to bring, but what he knows will be. He knows that the Truth he holds is in opposition to the logic of the world, and will be rejected. He knows his invitation to follow costs everything, and will meet resistance. So, by very nature of existing, rejection and resistance are a given.
He also knows that what he seeks to bring will be misunderstood by those who listen. If he says, “Peace I bring you”, he may mean a supernatural eternal peace, but the listeners may hear, “peace from the Roman occupation.”
In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, “I didn’t come to do what you want me to do; in fact, there will be a lot of rejection of and resistance to what I bring.”
What about the sword? Two passages may shed some light on this. First, if Jesus is not talking about a physical sword, perhaps he is talking about something more powerful:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.Hebrews 4:12
What does this later scripture have to do with Jesus?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.John 1:1-5
If Jesus was the Word, and the Word is a sword, then the sword in Matthew 10 is more important than we realize, and the destruction it causes is vital, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
In other words, the scripture some are using to say Jesus justifies them fighting against others and destroying relationships along the way, is actually scripture about the power of God’s Words to bring transformation. It is not a pass to mistreat our physical or spiritual family.
How do we know? Because that passage ends with this: “And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” How does Jesus call us to treat enemies? “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Those who say, “I don’t care if your feelings get hurt” are choosing their perception of what’s right over the mandate to love.
“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.“
But what if we see wrong things happening around us? What if God is being dishonored? Is there no place for fighting back?
Our error here is thinking God needs us to fight His battles. Some of the most incredible battles in Scripture were based around how little they needed people to succeed. God strips down Gideon’s arm. God tells Joshua’s army to simply march and shout. The Israelites simply prayed and God thundered. God often chooses to use people in His battles, but not in the way we assume.
I’ve come to appreciate Ephesians 6:11-20 in times like these. This is another passage that self-proclaimed “Warriors of God” use to justify fighting against others, as it details being fitted for war. It even mentions a sword! However, though God is inviting us to the battle, it is — again — not in the way we assume.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.Ephesians 6:13
Notice that it does not say, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, and strike down the opposition; win the war for God!” What does it say? You are given armor so that you can “withstand” and “stand.” You’ll notice that most of the armor is defensive rather than offensive, and the main offensive component — the sword — we have already noted pertains to a deeper, spiritual use.
Isn’t simply standing weakness? Not at all. Think of the classic movie trope where one person rushes up and punches a stronger person, and the opponent doesn’t flinch; no matter how much they punch, the stronger person just stands there. To stand is not weakness when you know your strength.
When we feel like we have to fight, it is often because we have forgotten how strong God is, and how strong He has chosen to be through us. All those examples above of battles being won were not because of the strength of the men, but because of God’s strength around and through them. We only feel threatened when we fear God may lose.
God won’t lose. It makes me think of the Ark of the Covenant, and the posturing of some Israelites that they had to protect it; think of the man who disobeyed the command not to touch the Ark when he tried to steady it when it nearly fell. They didn’t need to protect the Ark; in reality, the presence of the Ark is what protected them. God was capable of defending Himself; even when the Ark was captured, He made tragedy fall on the captors until they sent it back.
God does not need us to protect Him, or His will, or His ways, especially when our efforts to do so cause us to dismiss other elements of his will and ways, like “love your neighbor.”
In our best intentions, we don’t want God’s name maligned and His will dismissed, but fighting against the perpetrators isn’t the solution. Let’s go back to Ephesians 6; what does it say about enemies?
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.Ephesians 6:12
This is why Jesus knew not to fight the guards in the garden, and why he could say, “forgive them, for they know not what to do.” We can see the struggles around us with staunchly human eyes, when in reality something deeper is afoot. When we see things with human eyes, we will apply human logic, and respond with human solutions; in reality, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” If the battle is spiritual, and not against flesh and blood, then — as Jesus noted to Pilate — the human solution may be far from the right one. This is why Paul, as he writes these words to the Ephesians, does so as an “ambassador in chains”; he does not say, “suit up and save me” or ask they pray that he could secure his freedom, because he knows the battle is not about his safety or security.
Paul is suited up and standing in God’s army, even as he is walked to his execution. Jesus was suited up and standing in God’s army, even as he was humiliated, abandoned, flogged, and murdered. They — along with so many others — fought bravely and successfully, without injuring or maligning another, because they had a better understanding of that with which we actually wrestle.
They were not slothful in zeal; they were fervent in Spirit, serving the Lord. Those who take it upon themselves to fight see their fervor as God-honoring, and will hold to Romans 12:11 to justify going further and deeper into their fight against the enemy they perceive; the problem is, there is an important context around that verse:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.Romans 12:9-13
Surrounding the zeal and fervor are explicit calls to love, to honor, to rejoice, to be patient, to pray, to be generous, and to be hospitable.
Does our zeal reflect this? When we believe we are fighting for God, are we fighting His way for His purposes, or our own?
What does His way look like?
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.Romans 12:14-21
The war that raged in Ephesians 6 existed as this was written as well. This isn’t a peace-time passage, it is our marching orders.
We justify our fighting as the norm, when it is the exception. We do see Jesus make a whip and drive out the people dishonoring the Temple, but we must remember this was Jesus, who very clearly knew what his Father wanted. Jesus, Paul, and others knew that God could not be defeated — he had already won — and the best way to fight was to stand as who God created them to be.
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”
Peter was ready to fight for Jesus, even to the death: “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” He had a sword, and he felt Jesus had given him permission to use it. He knew there was a battle happening, he just misunderstood both the battle and the enemy. This is why he rebuked Jesus for his strategy of going into Jerusalem (and Jesus then rebuked him); this is why Peter denied Jesus when he thought the threat was too great. He didn’t know the true battle, and the power of God through him to stand.
What was the true battle, and how was God inviting Peter to stand? Since the battle was not “against flesh and blood” — thus the approaching guards weren’t the real enemy — what was the threat? What was Jesus expecting that led him to say “Stay here and keep watch with me”?
Out the gate we know Peter — allegedly ready for prison or death — missed it. Not long after Jesus asked them to keep watch, Peter and the others fell asleep.
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”Matthew 26:40-41
Sure, it was late, it had been a long week, and they had consumed ample wine during the last supper; however, the fact they fell asleep indicates they did not get how serious Jesus was regarding what was about to go down. When I’ve had a paper due the next day, I’ve been capable of pulling all-nighters, even on an exam week; how much more should I be if the person I’m following is about to be in attacked. After all, Jesus had communicated repeatedly what was about to happen, and before he left them to pray, he was “sorrowful and troubled.” No matter how much Jesus had said, and how much they could observe, they missed the importance of the moment.
And here is where we can discern the threat; as Jesus puts it in Luke 22:40, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.“
The threat was within.
Peter was so prepared to attack an external threat that he constantly missed the threat within. He missed it when — after rightly discerning that Jesus was the son of God — he rebuked Jesus. He missed it when Jesus told him he was about to be “sifted like wheat”. He missed it when he ignored the example of the Prince of Peace — who willingly presented himself to the guards — and tried to murder a man. He missed it when he denied Jesus three times.
We all know the classic verse, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” We often think of it as a comparison of sins; “you are calling out that person, but you’re doing bad things too!” This verse reveals depth when we think of Peter in this space. Peter saw the threats of the gentiles, the sinners, the beggars, the Pharisees, and the guards, but he could not see the threat he was to the man for whom he was ready to die.
It is possible for us to genuinely seek God, desire to find Him, and base our actions off of what we think honors Him, and get it heartbreakingly wrong. Peter was more devoted to Jesus that most of us on a good day, and he wildly missed the mark. The difference between Peter and Judas — who also followed Jesus and missed the mark — is that Peter owned his missteps and incapacity, and came back to Jesus. Jesus, of course, knew Peter’s limitations and impending transgressions, and was ready to receive him back after.
Christians, right now many of us, like Peter, believe we are honoring and defending God. We have drawn our swords with zeal in the name of righteousness. And though Jesus has tried to warn us, we are choosing the wrong path. Too many of us have taken up our figurative swords and are slicing ears, not realizing the damage we are causing, and the ways we are dishonoring the One we seek to protect.
God is inviting us to the battlefield, but it is not against the enemy we understand, nor are we to wage war in the ways we understand; the battle is not “against flesh and blood”, and as for the way we wage war:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ2 Corinthians 10:3-15
I implore you to consider who you perceive is the enemy, and the way you are waging war. There are many issues to confront, and many ways to do so, but only one way — the way of Christ — can have supernatural results and an eternal impact.
This post is not a call to Pacifism; it is not a mandate to never fight. That is not the point.
The point is this: do not use the sword in God’s name when God did not call for it.
Do not claim your insults of another, your dishonoring of authority, your refusal to love, is reflective of Christ when it is not.
We are Ambassadors of Christ, and what we say and do paints a picture of him to others. We can rightly present the God in whose image we are made, or present a god we have made in our own image; we can convey the supernatural love of a good Father, or the condemning rejection of a broken humanity.
Many spiritual leaders — and our own logic — are saying to sell our cloaks and buy a sword. “We are being threatened”, we hear, “and the time to sit back is gone!”
Jesus gave the disciples an opportunity to say, “Jesus, we don’t need a sword, we only need you; scripture says you can call down angels, so what is a silly sword in light of that?”
He gives that opportunity today, to choose to trust Him; not our logic, not our pursuits, not our fears, but him. God does not need us to fight for Him, but He has called us to represent Him well by “Loving God and Loving Others.” We can show more bravery, and have a greater eternal impact, by standing as Ephesians 6 calls us, than in our fiercest attempts to fight.
Let us be like the many heroes in scripture, who were willing to stand — and when they did all else, to keep standing — and trust God to thunder.
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