Matthew 10:34–39 (ESV): Not Peace, but a Sword
This passage is still a continuation of the speech Jesus is giving to the Apostles, before sending them out on their first missionary journey. Much of this speech has been a warning to them, and this passage is more of the same.
Jesus tells the Apostles not to think that he has come to bring peace to the earth—contrarily, he has come to bring a sword! And he’s not talking about war between nations, but in fact there will be “enemies” even within a person’s own household (verses 35–36) (ESV).
This is sad, but some things are more important than peace; Jesus tells us that anyone who loves their parents, or their children, more than they love Jesus, is not worthy of Jesus. Anyone who doesn’t take up their cross and follow him is not worthy of him (verse 38 (ESV)). In fact, not even your own life should have more importance than Jesus:
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (verse 39 (ESV))
What does Jesus mean by bringing a sword? What does he mean by saying that, “… a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (verse 36 (ESV))? Simply put, and there should be no surprise here, Christianity is not going to be accepted by everyone. When a person becomes a Christian, other Christians rejoice—but non-Christians do not. If a person comes from a Muslim family, or a Jewish family, or a Hindu family, or a Buddhist family, and becomes a Christian, that person’s family is probably not going to rejoice that this person has abandoned their faith and their culture, by becoming a Christian. People in the West have a very fuzzy notion of Islam, and we immediately start thinking about things like Sharia law (which few of us understand, but we’re pretty sure we know enough to be sure that it’s bad), and people being killed for becoming Christians, but I’m not even talking about that; I’m just talking about the feeling of betrayal that a person’s family might feel, when that person becomes a Christian. That person is now on a road to a fulfilling relationship with God, that will last through all eternity, and He will enable that person to cope, but Jesus doesn’t want to sugar-coat the issue, either: This will cause real problems for families, and one has to be prepared to face that, when one comes to Christ.
The person’s family doesn’t even have to belong to another religion; if you come from a family where everyone is atheist, they’re going to feel betrayed if you become a Christian. (And, on top of that, probably think you’re a fool.) If you come from a family that generally considers themselves “christian” (notice the small c), and they go to church every Easter (almost without fail), and suddenly you become a true believer, and start trying to live your life right, and start actually enjoying going to church because you like fellowship with the saints and with God, they may still get rather uncomfortable, and wish you weren’t so overzealous about it, and maybe try and convince you that this Christianity thing is all well and good, but you can over do it, you know…
In terms of Jesus talking about taking up your cross and following him, in verse 38 (ESV), I am required by law to make the next point: When Jesus said this to his disciples, they knew exactly what he meant: He meant that they had to be willing to die. The cross was an implement of execution. I’m sure you’ve heard a hundred preachers say this before, so say it with me now: it’s as if Jesus was saying to them, “take up your electric chair and follow me.” There is both a literal aspect to this, and a figurative aspect to it.
Literally, we have to be prepared to actually lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel, if it comes to it. Personally, I live in Canada, so I doubt that will ever happen, but if it does, I should remember that there are some things that are more important even than my own life. If my death will bring God glory, then it’s a death well died.
Figuratively, we can also take this to mean killing our old nature, so that our new nature can live more freely. Putting to death the sin that so easily besets us, so that we might live (Romans 8:12–17 (ESV)). Whether or not we’re called to literally die for Jesus, this is a sacrifice that we’re all called to make—and make no mistake about it, it is a sacrifice. This is a major change to our character. Not to put too fine a point on it, we like our sin. We don’t want to give it up. Once we have given it up, we’ll find that we’re happier with God, and in a better relationship with Him, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to give up in the first place.
Of course, living in North America, it’s very easy to say that we’d die for Jesus (especially since we can be pretty sure we’ll never have to), but it’s harder for us to just be good, day-to-day Christians. “I would die for him,” we say boldly, “… but I will not sit next to that person in church!” (I believe I’m stealing this line from my pastor; I’m sure he’s used a similar example, either from the pulpit or in some other context.) We have a thousand petty little things we won’t give up, or won’t give in on… so how can we so boldly claim that we’d die for him?
I like the way the ESV Study Bible put it:
Matt. 10:38 take his cross (cf. 16:24). Crucifixion is a shocking metaphor for discipleship. A disciple must deny himself (die to self-will), take up his cross (embrace God’s will, no matter the cost), and follow Christ.