Does Jesus bring peace or ‘division and a sword’?

The Sunday lectionary reading (Trinity 9, Year C) continues on its journey through Luke’s ‘special section’ of Jesus’ ministry and teaching on road to Jerusalem from Luke 9.51 to Luke 18.14. In this short (and again, inexplicably truncated) reading from Luke 12.49–56 (you might choose to read on to verse 59 to complete this section) Jesus makes some startling claims about the nature of his ministry and the conflict that will arise for his followers.

Some parts of this section in Luke are unique to this gospel, and the emphasis on division stands out. Parts of it (the central question about peace, and the division within a household) have parallels in Jesus’ second block of Matthean teaching in Matt 10.34–35, though in a slightly briefer form, and the sayings about weather signs come between Matthew’s third and fourth blocks of Jesus’ teaching, in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees.

The saying about ‘not peace but a sword’ comes in Matthew 10 in the context of Jesus sending out the Twelve on mission, and a following collection of teaching that appears to merge the immediate context with the anticipation of a coming eschatological crisis—at points Jesus’ teaching here parallels his teaching Matt 24–25. A powerful theme here is the redrawing of boundaries of kinship loyalty, so that not only are Jesus’ disciples ‘brothers [and sisters]’ to one another, but they are also the kin and representatives of Jesus (compare Matt 12.50), so that ‘whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ (Matt 10.40). The primary issues here, then, are belonging to one another in mission in the face of opposition.

In Luke, this teaching comes in a rather different context in Jesus’ teaching. As we have seen in previous weeks, there has been a relentlessly theocentric focus across different issues. The ‘rich fool’ in Luke 12.13–21 is so focussed on the accumulation of his possessions that he fails to attend to the one to whom he must give an account; in Luke 12.22–34, when we focus on God and his kingdom we are freed from anxiety about our material needs; and in Luke 12.35–48 we are challenged to focus on the coming of God in the return of Jesus the Lord, which will lead to us being energetic and faithful servants ready to welcome him when he comes. Though there are numerous verbal and thematic links between these sections, there has been a steadily growing focus on the issue of eschatological judgement and our standing before God when we come to give an account of ourselves to him, a theme that was introduced in the first section of the chapter in Luke 12.1–12.

Within the passage itself, there are several very striking elements that it is easy to pass over when we read too quickly. The first is the opening phrase in English (the verb is in second place in Greek): ‘I have come…’ It is not really possible to understand this in a merely local sense (‘I have come to Galilee/Jerusalem/Jordan…etc) because of the cosmic nature of the language here. His purpose is not really to ‘bring’ fire (NIV) but to ‘cast it upon the earth’ (Greek βαλεῖν, to throw; see ESV and AV),  a quite apocalyptic image offered from a heavenly vantage point. Simon Gathercole, in his book The Pre-existent Son, notes the importance of ‘I have come…’ sayings in the Synoptic gospels, and highlights the ten most significant:

  • “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1.24)
  • “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (Matt 8.29)
  • “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1.38)
  • “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5.31–32)
  • “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5.17)
  • “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12.49)
  • “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10.34)
  • “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—” (Matt 10.35)
  • “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45)
  • “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19.10)

It is worth noting (in passing) that the language of Jesus ‘coming’ is often thought of as Johannine: in John’s gospel Jesus appears to have a very developed sense of his pre-existence, particularly when talking about ‘coming into this world’ (John 5.43, 8.14, 12.46, 14.28, 16.28, 18.37 and elsewhere). But noticing this kind of language in the Synoptics helps to close the gap with John, and remind us that the sense of Jesus’ transcendence and pre-existence was a very early feature of the first communities of Jesus-followers (see Phil 2), and is present in the Synoptics who do not ‘merely’ present a picture of a human Jesus. Luke’s Jesus is an exalted man, but he is always more than that.

The second striking phrase is precisely the language of ‘casting fire on the earth’. There is something of an abrupt contrast here with the desire of the disciples just three chapters earlier, when they wish to call fire down on the opposing Samaritans in Luke 9.54. The difference is that the disciples want fire to express their own frustration and anger, but the fire that Jesus brings is the presence and judgment of God—a judgement that has, for a short while, been postponed until all Israel has had the chance to repent.

The language of fire offers a counterpoint to the watery language of baptism in the next verse, which would literally mean being immersed in and overwhelmed with water, but (as elsewhere) has the metaphorical sense of being plunged into some overwhelming experience. Here we are offered another glimpse of the real human tension that Jesus feels about his ministry, a tension that comes into sharp focus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and one that, from the beginning, we have been warned will affect all those close to Jesus.  Rather than finding himself in a broad, open space, Jesus discovers that obedience to his Father’s call means constraint—the same constraint that Paul felt in his compulsion to preach the Word (Acts 18.5), that comes with the compelling love of Christ (2 Cor 5.14), and that even pulls Paul in tension between this life and the life to come (Phil 1.23, all these verses using the same verb). How constrained do you feel by God’s call on your life?

Jesus now appears to anticipate his listeners‘ objection to these comments (whether the listeners are his disciples or the crowd continues to be unclear), as Luke might well anticipate the objections of those hearing his account of Jesus’ life. And the objection will be particularly sharp for readers of this gospel, since a repeated and relentless theme in Luke is that Jesus brings peace.

As noted above, the word ‘peace’ does not occur frequently in Luke-Acts. Nevertheless, peace is critical to the narrative; it is announced at highly significant moments, and it is woven into the very fabric of Luke’s two-volume work, especially the Gospel of Luke…

The word ‘peace’ makes its first appearance in the Benedictus, which ends on the word ‘peace’; it is the culmination of Zechariah’s hope/prophecy—the reality that his son John (the Baptist) will prepare and that the Messiah will bring (Luke 1.68–79). God will mercifully guide the people out of the ‘shadow of death’ into ‘the way of peace’ (1.79), meaning deliverance from enemies, forgiveness and salvation, and service to God in security…

These first three peace texts in Luke—the promise of imminent peace to be brought by the Messiah (1.79), the inauguration of peace in the birth of the Messiah (2.14), and the confession of Simeon (2.29–30)—are programmatic for Luke’s gospel and his entire theological project…

If the Gospel of Luke begins on a repeated note of peace, it also culminates on such a note…All of this is why Peter, in Acts 10.36, can allude to Isaiah 52.7 and 61.1 and rightly summarize God’s activity in Jesus as ‘preaching the good news of peace by Jesus Christ. (Michael Gorman, Peace in Luke and Paul Grove booklet B76).

All through this gospel, Jesus’ ministry is one that brings peace—but along with peace, it unavoidably brings trouble as well. Those who accept the invitation to live in this peace will be, in some sense, at war with those around, as their loyalty and their lifestyle will be out of step with those with whom they would naturally relate, associate and belong. Jesus is the cause of ‘the rise and fall of many’ and ‘a sword will pierce your heart also’ (Luke 2.35). It is worth noting immediately that this ‘sword’ is entirely metaphorical, and elsewhere in the NT is the sword that comes from Jesus’ mouth, that is, his teaching and his claims about himself, the kingdom, and the nature of God—so there is simply no grounds for endorsing violence as part of the way of discipleship.

In order to make clear the implications of this division, Luke then includes Jesus’s saying about the divided family. It is actually a near quotation from Micah 7.6 and refers to the loss of moral probity that results from the people’s drift from God’s teaching—but here Jesus appears to be drawing on the wider theme of the chaos to be expected in the time just before God comes to his people again—so the theme is eschatological expectation, as fits with this whole section of teaching in Luke. As an incidental, the comment also offers us some insight into the social realities of first century households, which in this case comprises five people: father; mother; son; daughter; and daughter-in-law. This fits the assumption of the nativity narrative in Luke, where Mary and Joseph have come to live with Joseph’s family in Bethlehem before later settling near Mary’s family in Nazareth. But it needs to be read in a culture quite different from most of ours, where one’s first and enduring loyalty was to one’s immediate family and relations; in this context, Jesus’ redefinition of kinship loyalty in relation to his own demands was radically disruptive.

The final imagery, about signs in the sky which tell us about the coming weather, come later in Matthew, but are included here in Luke because of the verbal connections with what has gone before. The contrast between fire and watery baptism relating to Jesus’ ministry come now in reverse order: the threat of a watery deluge of rain (which might lead to dangerous flash floods); and the burning heat of the desert wind. The topology assumed fits a setting in Judea-Samaria-Galilee, rather than Greece, where some commentators posit Luke’s location when writing. Weather from the West coming to Israel has crossed the Mediterranean and so the clouds are laden with water which falls heavily over the hill country. Winds from the south (and the east) come from the deserts of Egypt, the Negev and Jordan; they are a regular part of the seasonal changes in Spring and occasionally in Autumn, and are traditionally thought to occur over a fifty-day period, giving rise to the Arabic name khamsin. I remember experiencing this weather when I lived in Israel; these hot winds have also picked up orange dust from the desert, so you can easily see them approaching, and the dust gives them an almost fiery colour. I remember watching this orange cloud travel relentlessly along Mount Carmel from the south-east, until this fiery cloud was spewed into the coastal plain north of Haifa along the hills of lower Galilee.

If Jesus’ listeners are able to see and interpret these signs, why is it that they are not able to understand the signs of Jesus’ teaching and the implications of his proclamation of the coming kingdom of God, with the division it will certainly bring? Here, ‘hypocrite’ does not really refer to someone who is play-acting as we might think, but rather someone who refuses to face the reality which is set before them.

What does this mean for us in practice? When previously commenting on this teaching in Matthew, I highlighted a pair of complementary questions which arise from Jesus’ teaching here:

a. Seek unity wherever we can find it. This is encapsulated in Jesus response to his disciples’ desires for factionalism in Mark 9.40: ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’. Those who are working for the kingdom, even if in a different group or in a slightly different way, are allies and we should build partnerships with them.

b. Seek truth wherever we can find it. This is urged on us by the opposite saying of Jesus, giving in a context where his teaching is being challenged by his opponents in Matt 12.30: ‘Who is not with me is against me’. When the teaching of Jesus is being undermined, we need to have courage to stand firm, since it is by the word of truth that God’s people are sanctified, protected from the world, and made one.

The two questions we then need to ask of those with whom we are in some tension are: Is this person in Christ? and Is this person speaking truth? When the answer to both questions is the same, then life is straightforward. When the answer to the two questions is different, then we have the challenge to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Eph 4.15) in a way appropriate to the context.

In its context in Luke, I wonder if the questions that arise might be cast in slightly different terms:

a. We should seek and proclaim the peace of Christ wherever we can;

b. We should be prepared for conflict and division when people are not willing to embrace the peace that Christ offers and respond to the claims that he makes.

There is no doubt that Jesus brings peace within—peace within the heart and life of the believer, and peace within the community of believers as they share their lives together. But there is also no doubt that Jesus also brings division, between his followers and their relations, and between the community of followers and wider society. We can trace the first examples of both peace and conflict in Luke’s second volume, as both of these are worked out in the life of the apostolic community.

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21 thoughts on “Does Jesus bring peace or ‘division and a sword’?”

  1. Thank you.

    Some of these articles of yours are so good. Love will often be costly, and opening up to love and giving it to another person can make you vulnerable and exposed, and at risk of alienation by other people. Jesus went through all this. The very openness of love is sometimes too much for people to stomach. Love comforts and protects, but it also exposes and brings things out into the open that people sometimes would prefer to keep hidden deep below the surface.

    Love is the baptism we have to undergo, as we open to God, and trust in God, and open to the flow of love and grace in our own lives.

    The eternal household of God is our kinship and home: though of course, we should still cherish and try to live in peace with our earthly families if we can.

    I really enjoyed your article, Ian. It is a joy to explore the Bible and you are very good at drawing contexts and connections with various themes, and grappling close with the text.

  2. Much appreciate any piece that rescues Jesus of Nazareth from Jesus of California, and this does the job with admirable concision. 🙂

    Division and conflict are inescapable consequences of Jesus’ exacting ethic of personal moral perfection and corporate regeneration of Israel. Instead of hiding from it, churches should embrace it, and study how Jesus approached it.

    Avoiding conflict is a path to amoral appeasement. We need to learn how to challenge injustice peacefully and effectively, and here, the gospels have much to teach us.

    • Serious questions James. Why do you think they don’t and how has that position been arrived at.?Can it’s history be traced?

      • Strongly suspect that the 17th century European wars of religion are to blame: Europeans fought to create heaven on earth and instead provided their own hell. It’s left a scar on the Western consciousness (even among those who’ve never heard of it) and sowed the seeds of religious toleration.

        I treasure that legacy, but don’t see why it can’t be modified to again embrace moral courage expressed peacefully and tolerantly. (The Christian resistance to the Warsaw Pact’s a great example.)

      • Strongly suspect that the 17th century European wars of religion are to blame: Europeans fought to create heaven on earth and instead provided their own hell. It’s left a scar on the Western consciousness (even among those who’ve never heard of it) and sowed the seeds of religious toleration.

        I treasure that legacy, but don’t see why it can’t be modified to again embrace moral courage expressed peacefully and tolerantly. (The Christian resistance to the Warsaw Pact’s a great example.)

        • I listened a while back to Radio 4’s “In Our Time” with Melvyn Bragg. The subject, which I can’t remember, was around the 16th/17th centuries but what caught my attention was a throw-away comment from Bragg that “Of course, those wars are no longer seen to be religious.” Coming from the knowledgeable atheist Bragg, with eminent historians his guests on the programme, I took this seriously.
          But I need to flesh this out a little. Can anyone on this trail help me or point me in the right direction? In particular, is this a valid response to those who point to that period to try to demonstrate the problems with Christianity?

          • Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, has a chapter on the period. IIRC he produces a dizzying array of cases where actors in the wars of religion went against what their religious affiliations would suggest. I think that’s the basic case.

    • James,
      I’ve not heard of this Jesus of California. It would be good to be enlightened. Please elaborate.
      Have heard of British Israelites.
      I am aware of the fallacy, heresy, of Jesus of Jesus of history not being Jesus of faith, of that separation. And Jesus of the Jesus Seminar, And of Jesus just being a good human teacher, a Jew. From where did they all emanate?
      I am aware of the 39 Articles of faith, and Jesus of the Creeds, of Jesus of the Reformation, its genesis in Europe.
      This is a suggestion. Did the church, Christianity not spread, through split and division, in oppression, over belief, scripture and theology rather than in times of relative prosperous ease, other than in times of revival?
      As you are aware Bonhoeffer’s God returned him to his death, even if you don’t like the way I’ve put it. Not many of us have or will go to those lengths.
      Other questions: how do you evaluate the truth of justice or injustice, is it objective or subjective, time and space (including geography) bound, is it moral justice and/or justice according to the law?
      You mention appeasement, and I agree, but you have said in a comment on the previous post, that you may disengage, “whatever helps you make it through the night”(P) I think was your phrase. While I can understand sleepless nights as could the psalmists, the phrase brought to mind the exact same phrase used by a Consultant Psychiatrist.
      I was helping, as an independent advocate, a young man(Y) in his conference with his Consultant Psychiatrist (C). Y wanted to emphasise that at night, living in the community, his fears and thoughts magnified and he took illegal drugs to try to overcome it, and sleep. He greatly wanted to come off those drugs, didn’t know how they’d react with the prescribed psychotropic medication. P was the advice from C.
      What to make of that self harm and the disengaged non intervention response. How do we define , harm, even unrecognised or denial of self harm, or even against the common good and also brings together the classic law v morals debate, which found its way into book form, between law Lord Devlin and Prof Hart.

      • Jesus of California’s the snarky nickname for the Jesus Seminar’s wandering Cynic sage, who just happened to resemble the kinda chilled hippy who’d appeal to his creators. He’s thankfully met his end in academia.

        Christianity spread via its merits, but attainted hegemony thanks to Constantine’s conversion.

        As for objective ethics, ya got me, we can’t “prove” morality. We must do the best we can, with evidence and reason our lodestars.

  3. BTW Martin Luther King didn’t separate the good news gospel from social action and justice, a far cry from the noisy social justice warriors and twitterarti of today.

  4. Such ‘division’ happened in my own family, with my dad. I remember when I was a teen, before I became a believer myself, listening to the arguments between my dad, an atheist, and my sister, a Christian. They often became heated due to my dad’s temper, and I remember wishing my sis would just stop talking about her beliefs or even give them up for the sake of peace (unfortunately my parents often quarrelled and this was something else to add to the atmosphere). He was a kid in the 20s and 30s and from what he said experienced real poverty, and sadly saw the ‘church’ doing very little about it.

    When I became a Christian, of course similar arguments occurred between me and my dad, though typically as I saw them going nowhere I tended to try to end the discussion – his anger just gave me anxiety.

    My sis thought he may have come to some sort of belief in his last few weeks. I dont know, only God does.


  5. If Ian permits , here is something which is deeply significant, an illustration, in relation to the article and the example given of Desmond Tutu by Susannah and James:it is the gospel preached in action:
    “The scene in a recent courtroom trial in South Africa
    ” A frail black woman rises slowly to her feet. She is something over 70 years of age. facing across the room are several white police officers, one of whom, Mr van der Broek. has just been tried and found implicated in the murders of both the woman’s son and husband some years before. He had come to the woman’s home. taken her son, shot him at point blank range and then set the young man’s body on fire while he and his officers partied nearby.
    ” Several years later, van de Broek and his cohorts returned to take away her husband as well. For many months she heard nothing of his whereabouts. Then almost two years after her husband’s
    disappearance, van der Broek came back to fetch the woman herself. How vividly she remembers that evening, going to a place beside a river where she was shown her husband, bound and beaten, but still strong in spirit, lying on a pile of wood. The last words she heard from his lips as the officers poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame were, “Father forgive them…”
    “Now the woman stands in the courtroom and listens to the confessions offered by Mr van der Broek. a member of the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission turns to her sand asks, “So what do you want? how should justice be done to this man who so brutally destroyed your family?”
    “I want three things,” begins the old woman calmly, but confidently. ” I want first to be taken to the place my husbands body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.”
    ” She pauses, then continues. “My husband and son were my only family, I want secondly, therefore, for Mr van der Broek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can pour out on him whatever love I still have remaining in me.”
    “And finally,” she says, “I want a third thing. This is also the wish of my husband. And so I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr van der Broek in my arms and embrace him and let him know he is truly forgiven.”
    ” As the court assistants come to lead the elderly woman across the room, Mr van der Broek overwhelmed by what he has just head, faints. As he does, those in the courtroom, family, friends, neighbours – all victims of decades of oppression and injustice-begin to sing, softly but assuredly. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”.
    From “A Barrel of Fun” J John & Mark Stibbe.(2003)Yes in the context not an appropriate title.

    • Thank you Geoff. This account reminds us of the power of forgiveness. I find it very moving. Having said that, although there were cases of incredible forgiveness like this, this particular account may fall between truth and story, as there is no record of it in the meticulous records of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, and it seems to have first been published on a Mennonite website in the US, which took it down when its veracity was challenged.

      I don’t rule out that it may have happened, and as a reflection of the general process of Truth and Reconciliation it is moving and inspires. But the word ‘Truth’ in the proceedings is important, and this particular episode may be partly or completely fictional. Views are expressed here on the subject:

      and in the responses below this article:

  6. Hello Susannah,
    It is indeed stunning and affecting.
    The book source it comes from does not cite the original source. I was unaware of any contention over it, even a recent as last year. Thanks for bringing it to light.
    The gospel of unmerited grace, of new life given to a dead- man-walking, being raised from the dead as it were, (all of us as van der Boerk, – there being no gradation of sin, of grace of redemption, of the grace of God, in Christ Jesus coming to us, descending , from outside us, not through any ability to work up to God, to repay, are all, and more are found here.
    I employed the illustration in a service I took in the Methodist Church, around the year the book was published.
    There was an awed but unsettled – presence of God silence as we moved to immediately end, unsurprisingly, with the Song.
    The service was not replicated.
    As a side matter of interest, is is noticeable to me how the use of the present tense is an intensive, adding weight, a now-ness, of being there. The narrative of any illustration was always introduced by , “there is a story told about…” or similar.
    In a series of three sermon illustration books by the same authors, there are similarly affecting stories, for example, from the Columbine school massacre, from years ago. Again the original source is not cited and I’d would not cite anything as fact without believing its veracity, believing its reliability, other than clearly fictional or cinematographic illustrations. The stories are not to be manipulated and it would be abhorrent to invent such stories and pass them off as true.

    There is a stunning true story of forgiveness by Corrie ten Boom. I think it is in her book “The Hiding Place.” When, after release from a concentration camp, (there because they hid Jews, but were found out) where her beloved sister Betsy, died, she was approached, after a speaking engagement in which she talked about forgiveness, by a senior camp officer. But that enough. Listen to her own recorded voice, her own words of testimony here :
    It is followed by an other, an interview.
    Maybe you are aware of them and this is just a reminder.
    God bless

  7. Thank you for bringing this to light. I wasn’t aware of the contention over it, when the book was bought when it was published nor even as recent 2018 The authors of the book don’t cite the source.

  8. Can I suggest an alternate reading? I have to preach on this tomorrow and my first instinct in these troubled times was to pick up the conflict meme which is so dominant in our culture: Jesus does conflict. But I am struck by the shift in tone. This reads more like a Shakespearean aside. There are clear speech markers Little flock. The exchange with Peyer us or them and then the turning to the crowd to talk about weather signs. Jesus has just explained that bad servants beat other servants but then warns using the passive tense that the master will be beating the different servants with heavy and light blows. It is always fascinating to overhear Jesus talking to the Father but what about Jesus soliloquising? The conflict is within himself the fire and the baptism. Whether it is the cross or the final appearing of the kingdom, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. So he expresses impatience. The new relationships of the flock will break the old familial connections. And the family quote lifted from Micah 7 needs to be followed through. OT quotes are not complete, they are open quotations that you read on from But as for me I will wait for God my Saviour, my God will hear me. He will bring me into the light. I will see his righteousness. Then he turns to the crowd. So I would summarise this as Jesus working through conflict and its consequences and putting his trust in the salvation of God ( the judge referenced at the end of the discourse) . Or am I jumping around too much?

    Im also struggling with the application because this feels a little too ‘devotional’. You suggest we announce the peace of God. This feels like a Get ready for the day of the Lord. Which takes us back to keeping our lamps trimmed and burning.


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