But to bring a sword

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"I came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword" is one of Jesus' most controversial statements[1] because its meaning has many interpretations. The immediate context is the entire verse of Matthew 10:34, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." More meaning is gleaned from greater context.

Important context includes other of Jesus' quotes (discussed below):


Jesus has grabbed a money changer by the tunic and has raised his fist in preparation to strike.
A 14th century rendition of the Cleansing of the Temple.

The controversy is that Jesus seems to advocate physical violence by sword—a view that is rejected by the traditional, pacifist branches of Christianity. In the Christian faith, Jesus is the "Prince of Peace" mentioned in Isaiah 9:6, and they are taught in Romans 12:18 to "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." But Luke 22:35-38 cements the controversy providing ample evidence that it is a physical sword:

And he said unto them, When I sent you forth without purse, and wallet, and shoes, lacked ye anything? And they said, Nothing. And he said unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet; and he that hath none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a sword. For I say unto you, that this which is written must be fulfilled in me, And he was reckoned with transgressors: for that which concerneth me hath fulfillment. And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.

Yet the sword can be a metaphor for a Christian-kindled "ideological division":

I have come to cast fire upon the Earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49–53)

Jesus holds a whip in his hand in striking position while merchants scramble away, or brace for blows.
A 19th century rendition of the Cleansing of the Temple.

The following "division" means interpersonal, ideological conflict, not physical conflict.[1] The disciple is commissioned to either "let your peace come" to the house of the host, or "let your peace return" to the disciple themself:

And as ye enter into the house, salute it. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, as ye go forth out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city. Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.(Matthew 10:14-10:16)

Hebrews 4:12 uses "two-edged sword" and "division" in a metaphorical and ideological way: "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." In John chapter one Jesus himself is metaphorically "the Word" of God.[2]

Abraham carries a lit torch in his left hand and a sword in a belted scabbard while leading his heavily burdened son uphill as two onlookers and their donkey gawk.
Abraham carries fire, a sword, and unrevealed intentions for his son carrying a heavy load uphill.

After the sword of verse 34, there occurs a metaphorical sword in verses 35–7, pertaining to the ideological division of a family:

Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came 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 man's enemies will be the members of his 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 is not worthy of Me. (Matthew 10:34–39)

In the Douay-Rheims Bible, Gen. 22:6 says "And [Abraham] took the wood for the holocaust, and laid it upon Isaac his son: and he himself carried in his hands fire and a sword." That sword was not metaphorical, rather it was for slaying a family member (although it wasn't used), eerily akin to verses 35–7.

The disciples had two swords. An unnamed disciple cuts off an ear of a Roman who is arresting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. That was not a metaphorical sword either. (Jesus ordered Peter to withdraw and healed the ear, saying that"all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." (Matthew 26:52, King James Version)) Jesus' earlier statements, that the swords were only for show, not for use, was obviously not yet fully understood by the disciples.[3]

The Little Commission[edit]

Micah tries to make a point about God to some well-armed Danites who are too busy doing other things than to listen.
A 17th century woodcut showing the setting of the Book of Micah.

Matthew 10 is the "Little Commission", out of which the controversial verse 34 arises. Jesus sends his original disciples out on the first mission to minister to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel". Starting in verse 13, Jesus then goes on to inform his disciples that they will not always be warmly received and instructs them to depart from homes and cities that will not receive them. He then adds in verse 15, "Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city."[4]

Jesus then warns his disciples that they will encounter violent resistance on their ministry. In verse 16 he is quoted as saying, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."[5] In verse 21 Jesus is quoted as saying, "And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death."[6] This echos Micah 7:6, but Jesus does not express his views on the matter, other than saying "And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved" in verse 22.[7] He then instructs his followers to flee to a different city when they are persecuted.

He then exhorts his disciples not to fear. He assures them that faithful proclamation of his message will have its rewards. "Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven." (Matthew 10:32–33) Immediately thereafter Jesus makes the comment in question, verse 34, saying that he came not to bring peace, but the sword, followed by a direct quote of Micah 7:6 in verse 35–36.

In the Great Commission the situation is echoed again concerning Paul and Barnabas in Antioch

When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust of their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

General remarks[edit]

The greatest context, and hence more possible meanings, comes from the most general, sweeping views. Here we consider Christian scholars, and a non-theistic take.

  • Adolf von Harnack considered the sword of verse 34 ideological so that Jesus' mission was a peaceful one.Therefore Protestants are not only free, but bound, to criticize it. His vision of the authentic Jesus led him to criticize the existence of certain parts of the church and Bible. He blamed overly literal interpretations of a New Testament on the Greek's style in the Greek myths; he saw the Book of John, the Apostles' Creed, and Catholicism in general as overly complicated and thus corrosive to the mission of salvation for all.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Cim, David. "The sword motif in Matthew 10:34". Theological Studies; Vol 56, No 1 (2000), 84-104. School of Theology, Australian Catholic University. doi:10.4102/hts.v56i1.1698. 
  2. ^ In literary theory, text is any object that can be "read". On the other hand Korzybski famously said "The map is not the territory", meaning that "the word is not the thing indeed, that it refers to.
  3. ^ Arlandson, James Malcolm. "A Brief Explanation of the Sword in Luke 22:36". Answering Islam. "he would fulfill his mission to die, in a death that looked like one of a common criminal, just as Isaiah the prophet had predicted hundreds of years before (Is. 53:12)." 
  4. ^ Matthew 10:15
  5. ^ Matthew 10:16
  6. ^ Matthew 10:21
  7. ^ Matthew 10:22
  8. ^ Nathan, George Jean Nathan; Henry Louis Mencken (1951). The American Mercury. p. 572. "The compilers of the late seventh century manuscript, The Book of Kells, refused to adopt St. Jerome's phrase "I come not to bring peace but a sword." (" . . . non pacem sed gladium.")To them the phrase made no sense and they altered it ..." 
  9. ^ Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge. "Jesus' Mission, According to His Own Testimony". Monergism.com. Christian Publication Resource Foundation. 

External links[edit]

But to bring a sword
Preceded by
John the Baptist Beheaded
Ministry of John the Baptist
New Testament
Succeeded by
Feeding the Multitudes
Miracles of Jesus