Why did Jesus come to ‘bring division and a sword’?

In my five-part series of talks at New Wine on the question of why Jesus came, the final one focussed on a more surprising say of Jesus, which appears to stand in contrast to his purpose of bringing good news and reconciliation, but connects more obviously with his aim of ‘destroying the works of the evil one‘:

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)

Like the other ‘I have come…’ sayings, this subject speaks profoundly into our current situation in both church and society. In contemporary discussion about questions of unity and division, I observe two powerful but opposite tendencies: factionalism and fudgery. In the current debates about sexuality (which happen to be the focus of the main debates around unity and division; in other times the vehicle for these discussions has been something else) I am often taken about by the degree of factionalism on display. Just last week I was being told by someone that, unless I agreed with exactly the viewpoint of the other person, then (despite the fact that we have many things in common) I was part of the problem, not part of the solution, and on the wrong side of the dividing line. It felt to me as though this person was defining the truth so narrowly that his church would consist of one person—himself. On the other hand, one of the major themes in the debate is that we all need to hold together and find a way of living with ‘good disagreement‘, which is only possibly by fudging the important issues.

So what light does Jesus’ saying here throw on the strong pull we feel in one of these two directions?

In reading the saying in Matt 10.34, we first need to stand back and look at the wider context in Matthew. The first thing to note is the way that Matthew collects together the sayings of Jesus. In Matt 5.1 we see go up a ‘mountain’ (oros) in order to teach the word of God. This first block of teaching extends to the end of chapter 7, where we find the saying ‘when Jesus has finished saying these things…’ (Matt 7.28). After two chapters of ministry action, we have a second block of teaching in chapter 10, containing our saying, and again concluding with ‘After Jesus had finished…’ (Matt 11.1). Ministry and conflict continue through chapters 11 and 12, then a third set of teaching, this time on the nature of the kingdom, comes in chapter 13, concluding with ‘When Jesus had finished…’ (Matt 13.53). A fourth block of teaching comes in chapter 18, ending with ‘When Jesus had finished saying these things…’ in Matt 19.1, and the fifth and final section of teaching relates to judgement and The End, in chapters 23 to 25, again concluding ‘When Jesus had finished saying all these things…’ in Matt 26.1. These are not the only places where Jesus engages in teaching, but they are distinctive, and have a shared final saying—and are very easy to spot if you are reading a ‘red-letter’ Bible.

It is often noted that Matthew is, in this way, portraying Jesus as a ‘new Moses’, going up the mountain to bring the word of God to his people in five recognisable sections. But for our purposes here, we just need to note Matthew’s organising principle. He groups sayings together not because Jesus necessarily said these different things at the same time, but because they share a theme. This is particularly clear in chapter 10. The opening verses share the theme of calling the disciples, and so Matthew elides the call of the Twelve (which comes in more detail in Mark 3.13–19 and Luke 6.12–16) with their sending out by Jesus in kingdom ministry (which occurs in Mark 6 and Luke 9). In Matthew the Twelve have no time to learn their trade before they are out practising! He then elides the teaching about mission now (up to verse 16) with teaching that relates to the time after Jesus has been raised and the opposition the disciples with face in the time until Jesus returns, in parallel with Mark 13 and Luke 21—even repeating a saying word for word that occurs again in Matt 24.13 ‘He who endures to the end will be saved’! The language of ‘hating’ and the comparison between teacher and student comes very close to Jesus saying in John 15.18: ‘If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.’

In bringing all these things together and linking them in Jesus’ teaching, Matthew is telling us some important things about the ‘division and sword’ saying. First, it comes in the context of Jesus’ call and the disciples’ vocation to mission. It is in following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom that the disciples will first encounter the sense of division arising from differential response to the message that they bring.

Secondly, the response to Jesus’ redraws the boundaries of loyalty, so that whatever pattern of loyalties and affiliations people had previously, these are now radically challenged and reconfigured by their response to Jesus. In the first century, one’s primary loyalty was to one’s family and kinship group—which is still true in many parts of the world today. (At its best, this gives people as sense of communal solidarity; at its worst it leads to tribalism and conflict between kinship groups.) Jesus’ call on the disciples has already driven a cart and horses through this kinship loyalty; we mostly miss the most poignant phrase in the call narrative of Mark 1.20:

…they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him…

This is a constant theme, and comes again twice immediately following the ‘division and sword’ saying:

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—your enemies will be the members of your own household.’

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

The first of these sayings is rather puzzling, since it quotes from Micah 7.6 and refers to the lose 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. The second saying appears to be Matthew’s softening of the saying in Luke 14.26 ‘Unless you hate your father and mother…’ which of course deploys characteristic Jewish polemical contrast to highlight the importance of loyalty to Jesus—in a context where ‘honouring your father and your mother’ (Ex 20.12) was paramount.

This redefining of kinship allegiance in relation to Jesus becomes quite explicit two chapters later when Jesus is challenged by and about his actual family:

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12.48–50)

The third, related theme is that of participation. The radical loyalty to Jesus demanded of the disciples in fact means that Jesus is (in effect) present where they are present, so that response to the disciples (‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’) which again has Johannine overtones. This connects with Paul’s understanding of the nature of the ‘church’, and Dick France in his longer NICNT commentary on Matthew declares that this is the nearest Matthew gets to a Pauline theology of ‘the body of Christ’. (So perhaps Matthew, John and Paul are not as far apart in their theology as we are often led to believe…)

This dynamic of calling, redefining the boundaries of loyalty, and participation in Christ are also found in the classic passage, supposedly about unity, in John 17, Jesus so-called ‘high priestly prayer’. The prayer recapitulates many of the ideas and themes from earlier in the gospel, including the ‘hour’, ‘glory’, ‘light’, ‘life’ and ‘the world’. At the heart of the prayer, Jesus’ key concern is for the protection of the disciples in the midst of the world in which they remain but to which they do not belong. ‘Make them holy in the truth; your word is truth.’ The language of truth goes to the heart of a key theme in John; as Andrew Lincoln and Mark Stibbe have pointed out, the whole of John can be understood as a form of trial narrative, with witnesses called to testify to the truth of Jesus’ claims and identity, and the Father even called to the witness stand (John 8.18). That is why the conflict is so sharp with the ‘leaders of the Jews’ in chapters 5 to 8, because they are the prosecuting counsel, and that is why John’s account of the crucifixion naturally includes the extended dialogue with Pilate (conveyed to us by one of the servants there) which is not included in the synoptics.

‘Your word’ here cannot refer to Jesus himself, even within the ‘logos’ Christology of John, not least because Jesus has already talked of the cleansing and sanctifying work of his words, that is, his teaching of truth, in relation to abiding in the vine (John 15.3). To be holy involves remaining in the person and work of Jesus, and remaining in his teaching which reveals the truth about us, God and the world. It is into this context that Jesus then longs for the unity of his people. The parallel with the unity between Jesus and the Father cannot be exact, not least with hindsight we have following the Nicene expressions of our understanding of the Trinity. But it is about the unity of commitment, will and understanding; just as Jesus does the will and work of the Father, and just as the Father’s testimony is completely unified with the testimony of Jesus, so his disciples are to have that one commitment to true testimony which reveals the truth of God—and which will then lead many who have not themselves been witnesses of Jesus also to believe (John 20.31). There is no sense here that the unity of the believers in and of itself, disconnected to the truth, plays any role in the conviction of the world.

Jesus finishes the prayer with an inclusio return to the theme of glory, but does so with a unique address to God as ‘righteous Father’—only the third time John uses the term ‘righteous’ (after John 5.30 and 7.24) and the only time in the New Testament that God is described in this way.

So Jesus’ prayer for unity is tightly bound with concerns for the truth, for holiness, for the distinctive testimony of his people over against the world to which they do not belong, leading to the revelation of the glory of God and by which, through faithful testimony, many in the world will come to believe that Jesus is the only true revelation of the Father who loves them and draws them to himself.

Once more, we find this double concern for unity and truth in Paul’s writings too. It is very striking that, in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul castigates the Christians in Corinth for their factionalism:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephasa”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? (1 Cor 1.12–13)

and then discusses at length the centrality of God’s work, and the relative unimportance of the individuals through whom that work has been done. But by the time he reaches chapter 5, he is castigating them for their fudgery, urging that (in the words of Deut 13) they should ‘expel the immoral brother!’ (1 Cor 5.13).

What does this mean for us in practice? The teaching and practice of Jesus suggest two overarching principles when faced with questions of division:

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.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

7 thoughts on “Why did Jesus come to ‘bring division and a sword’?”

  1. My eldest son said you were absolutely brilliant at NW – and I gained kudos in his eyes knowing you 🙂

    Thanks Ian for all you do to help us in thinking theologically

  2. Ian, I have tended to draw a slightly different contrast on why Jesus appears to use opposites when there was conflict about who was really working with him: the Mark account relates to a guy who was inspired to do works of faith but was not very knowledgeable of Jesus; the other relates to the Pharisees who CLAIMED religious knowledge and so had an arrogant, rejecting attitude to Jesus – the harsher remark was directed to them.
    I suppose we can’t get away from the connection of the dividing sword and family relationships even though it is an emotionally difficult matter. As you say, connecting it to the spiritual warfare against the works of the devil, and your excellent posit that the gospel message is really ‘Jesus is Lord’, we may have to accept that some of our close relatives (and friends) will sadly be amongst those who express their rejection of Jesus in the words of Luke 19:14 ‘we will not have this man to reign over us’!

  3. Ian. Your feature on “Why did Jesus come “to bring division and a sword”? was most welcome. There comes a point, as you say, where “factionalism” and “fudgery” come in conflict. A lot is said about “good disagreement”: but I often feel rather unhappy about this, if what this means is we do not stand up for “truth.” Yes – we show love but in truth….

    Thank you for your stimulating feature.

    More generally I am on the staff team – I am a Lay Reader aka Licensed Lay Minister – in an Anglican church in Cornwall. The team is fairly diverse in out theological viewpoints. We have been using at our staff meetings “How to interpret the Bible” – a chapter at a time. This has worked very well.


Leave a comment