The disciples of Jesus, like their Jewish contemporaries, believed that when the Messiah came, he would come as the “Prince of Peace,” bringing political freedom and material prosperity (Isa. 9:6–7; Zech. 9:10). Moreover, Jesus taught them that peacemakers were indeed blessed (Matt. 5:9) and told them to offer greetings of peace as they entered a home (Matt. 10:12–13). Perhaps some were even aware that He was to bring “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). Yet, Jesus also said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).
Jesus did not deny that peace would result from His work. He inaugurated the rule and reign of the kingdom of God; it is characterized by lasting peace, resulting in the destruction of God’s enemies, eradication of sin and its effects, and the presence of the salvation of God. But the road to this peace is not marked with tranquility. Instead, it is filled with division and conflict. This is what is meant by the term “sword.” Luke’s account makes this even more explicit as “sword” is replaced with “division” (12:51). Division is inevitable because Jesus and His kingdom message demand a response. While some welcome Jesus, many reject Him and His message, sometimes passionately. Conflict is expected because with Jesus comes a new kingdom. Meanwhile, the prince of this world does not sit idly by.
Jesus explained the severity of this conflict with a reference to Micah 7:6. One sign of sinfulness in the time of King Ahaz was that the people of Israel no longer trusted one another, even their own families. The situation in Micah pointed to Jesus’ own day when families were strained to the breaking point by Jesus and His message. We see this even today as many face separation and division from family because of their faith in Jesus.
Yet Jesus calls upon His disciples to persevere. He prepared them for inevitable rejection and hostility. The response of the world to Jesus and His message of peace was anything but peaceful, and we who are His disciples today should not expect anything different. While the way of the cross is far from easy or worry-free, Jesus reminds His disciples that by losing they gain, and by dying they will live.
Rev. Joel E. Kim is president and assistant professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, Calif. He is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and has served as a pastor in several churches in Michigan and Southern California. He is coeditor of Always Reformed. Rev. Kim is also a Ph.D. candidate at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich.