Peace on Earth, or a Sword?

December 2016: One Scripture we’re likely to hear at this time of year is Luke 2:13-14: “Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men.'” The angels were announcing the birth of Jesus Christ to the shepherds, and what they said about peace on earth is true. Yet, what, exactly did they say? Years later, Jesus Himself said, “Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). This would certainly seem to be the opposite of the angels’ good news. Is what Jesus said a contradiction of the angels’ message? If not, how can both of these things be true?

Jesus Also Said He Brought Peace

Jesus did not contradict the angels. In fact, He said to his followers, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, give I to you. Don’t let your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful” (John 14:27). Yes, Jesus most certainly gave us peace, but notice what He says in another statement about peace: “I have told you these things, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have oppression; but cheer up! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In Jesus we have peace; in the world we have oppression. This begins to help us understand.

Jesus’ Peace

The world into which Jesus came had been divided into two major groups ever since God instituted the Old Covenant. The people of Israel were God’s covenantal people, and everyone else was outside of that covenant. In Ephesians 2:14, Paul writes of Jesus: “For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition.” Within the outer walls of the temple in Jerusalem, there was a court from which the Gentiles could observe. It was separated by a wall from the more inner court that only Israelites could enter. This was a tangible symbol of the separation between Jews and Gentiles. Paul is saying that in Christ, this separation is broken down.

Paul elaborates on this idea further in Galatians 3:26-28: “For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is the peace that Jesus brought to the earth. He ended the division the Old Covenant made between Jews and Gentiles. At the same time, He also ended for those in Him the divisions between nationalities, between free men and slaves, and even the societal distinctions of the time between men and women that caused men to consider women to have an inferior spiritual position. Those who trust in Jesus “have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator, where there can’t be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondservant, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:10-11).

The word “peace” in the verses we have been looking at is eirēnē. It comes from the root, eirō, which means “to join.” Thus, the peace Jesus brought to the earth was the joining of all kinds of diverse people in Him. The sword that He also brought does the opposite of joining, but with different groups.

Jesus’ Sword

In a parallel Scripture to Matthew 10:34, Luke records Jesus saying, “Do you think that I have come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, no, but rather division” (Luke 12:51). What Matthew records as a sword, Luke records as division. Jesus sword is one that divides. “Division” is translated from the Greek word, diamerismos. It means “a thorough partitioning.” So, at the very time that Jesus was breaking down the middle wall of partition, He was creating another partition. Between whom?

Luke records Jesus as explaining: “They will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against her mother; mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Luke 12:53-53). Why would Jesus create a division among family members? Because some will be believers and others will not. Jesus explains this more clearly in Matthew 10:34-39:

Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me. He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me. He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

No Contradiction

But isn’t this still a contradiction between what Jesus said and what the angels announced? No, because the angels told of the same peace Jesus did, the peace among believers, and that peace does not contradict the division between believer and the unbelieving world. Jesus spoke of leaving His followers with peace. He never said He gave peace to the world. He specifically said He did not give (Matthew 10:34 says “send,” or, literally, “throw”) peace to the world. To the world, he sends (“throws”) the sword, division, between His people still in the world but not of it, and the unbelievers surrounding them.

Remember that the angels announced “on earth peace, good will toward men.” Even as it is translated, it does not have to be taken as a universal that applies to all the earth and all men. Taken in context with the rest of the Bible, we see it applies to the peace that God gave to the believers on the earth through His Son. But many Bibles translate Luke 2:14 more clearly. The Weymouth New Testament, for example, says, “Glory be to God in the highest Heavens, And on earth peace among men who please Him!” And we know that “without faith it is impossible to be well pleasing to him, for he who comes to God must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). So, it is peace to and among the faithful, the believers, and division between them and the unbelievers.

Of course, Paul rightly taught us, “If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). We must certainly work for this peace. Nevertheless, there is a great separation between believers and nonbelievers. The partitioning that was between Jews and Gentiles is now gone. People of all races and nationalities who become believers are one in Christ, one Body, one new nation (Romans 12:5; 1 Peter 2:9). But the middle wall of partition that was between Jews and Gentiles was a type of the separation that is now between believers and non-believers. That is where the sword divides.

The peace that Jesus brought was the healing among diverse people who are in Him through faith. They have become members of the kingdom of God and are no longer divided among themselves. At the same time, however, God makes a division between the believers and non-believers. That division is caused by the double-edged sword—the Word of God. The Bible literally makes a division between those who believe it and those who do not. This is the way in which Jesus left peace with His followers and sent a sword upon the earth.

(If, when you found this article, you were looking for information on Christian nonviolence, you may want to read, “G.I. Jesus?“)

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