Not Peace But a Sword
February 18, 2016
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“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (v. 34).
It’s hard to imagine Jesus with a sword.
We’re so used to thinking of Jesus as being meek and mild that we have a hard time with the idea of our Lord wielding a sword. It sounds too violent, too extreme. Frankly, it sounds dangerous.
Why would Jesus carry a sword?
Why would Jesus carry a sword?
The answer is simple. He carries a sword so he can divide humanity. He wants to make clear who is on his side and who isn’t. He wants the world to know who is on “Team Jesus” and who isn’t.
It’s obvious today some people are wearing the jersey who aren’t really on the team. But the time is rapidly approaching when we’ll all have to take a stand. This text forces us to think about whether or not we want to be on the Lord’s team when the going gets tough.
There are three great movements in this text. It starts with a confession that leads to a division that leads to a decision. Today Jesus asks each of us this question, “How far are you willing to go with me?”
First There is a Confession
“Therefore, everyone who will acknowledge Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in heaven” (vv. 32-33).
We need to take this literally.
Jesus means we either confess him before men or we deny him before men. Andrew White has been called the “Vicar of Baghdad” because he pastors a large Anglican congregation there. He can only spend part of his time in Iraq because ISIS wants to murder him. When we interviewed him on American Family Radio, he told us no matter what we had heard or read about the ISIS atrocities, the reality in the Middle East is far worse. Not only did ISIS close every church in Mosul (which is the Old Testament city of Nineveh), they have systematically destroyed every mark of the Christian faith in the territory they control. As a result, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and thousands have been brutally murdered. In an interview with CBN, Canon White told the story of four Christian children under the age 15 who were captured when ISIS took over a town in northern Iraq.
We live in strange and dangerous times
The terrorists demanded those children say the words of conversion to Islam or they would be killed. What would they do?
“The children, all under 15, four of them,” he recounted, “they said, ‘No, we love Yeshua (Jesus), we have always loved Yeshua, we have always followed Yeshua. Yeshua has always been with us.’ They said, ‘Say the words!’ They said, ‘No, we can’t.’”
“They chopped all their heads off,” said Canon White. “How do you respond to that? You just cry.”
We live in strange and dangerous times. Muslim terrorists have struck in New York, Ottawa, London, Paris, Istanbul and San Bernardino. They murdered 147 students at Garissa University in Kenya. They beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. They shot and beheaded 28 Ethiopian Christians in Libya. They threw a dozen Christians overboard on a migrant boat crossing from Africa to Europe. They kidnapped 220 Christians in Syria. They used a suicide truck bombing to kill 60 people at a police training camp in Libya. They put a bomb on a plane flying from Egypt to Russia and killed 224 people.
In a column called A Global Slaughter of Christians, but America’s Churches Stay Silent, Kirsten Powers recounts instance after instance of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa. Here is one particularly chilling example from Syria:
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil
In Syria, Christians are under attack by Islamist rebels and fear extinction if Bashar al-Assad falls. This month, rebels overran the historic Christian town of Maalula, where many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The AFP reported that a resident of Maalula called her fiancé’s cell and was told by member of the Free Syrian Army that they gave him a chance to convert to Islam and he refused. So they slit his throat.
At the end of her column, she quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Then she adds, “That pretty well sums it up.” Sadly, we must say her indictment is deserved. Jesus said His followers would be persecuted for their faith. We see that happening around the world today.
How far would you go to save your children?
We all wonder how we would respond if our faith was put to the test. Would we have the courage of our convictions or would we give in to save our life? Canon Andrew White told another story of a Christian father in Iraq who was told by ISIS, “Either you say the words of converting to Islam or we will kill all your children.” What do you do then? Under enormous pressure, the man caved and said the words of conversion even though he did not mean it. He did it to save his children. Later, deeply ashamed of what he had done, he phoned Andrew White and said, “Does this mean that Yeshua (Jesus) doesn’t love me anymore? I said those words because I couldn’t see my children being killed.”
That sort of question makes you stop and think. Before you condemn the man, consider how far you would go to save your children. It is good for us to hear these stories so we will know what is happening to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. They also help to prepare us for what we in the West may face sooner than we think.
Here’s the best way to be ready: Confess Christ every day right now!
That Confession Leads to a Division
“Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (v. 34).
Jesus is the great divider of humanity.
Do you want a non-controversial Jesus? You’ll have to look somewhere other than the Bible. The gentle Jesus who smiles and makes everyone feel happy bears no resemblance to the mighty Son of God who came to bring a sword of judgment. Does he bring peace? Yes, and the peace he brings will one day cover the entire earth.
Jesus divides humanity
But that day is not this day.
To quote a line from a famous gospel song,
“This day the noise of battle,
the next the victor’s song.”
Today we fight.
Today we put on the armor of God and advance against the foe.
Today we pick up our sword and enter the fray.
Today we stand up for Jesus, knowing not everyone will cheer us when we do.
This day the noise of battle,
The next the victor’s song
This is no time for “sunshine soldiers” or “Laz-Z-Boy Christians.” It’s all hands on deck, man the battle stations, and prepare for war. As Doug Wilson remarked, “Well-behaved Christians rarely change the world.” Do not be surprised when close friends oppose you or family members ridicule you. Jesus said it would be this way.
The truth about Jesus cuts both ways. One brother believes, another rejects. A father follows Jesus, a mother goes her own way. Twin sisters part ways over the gospel. Some of our closest friends and relatives will not understand why we believe in Jesus. Some may be openly hostile to us. Converts from Islam often experience this truth in very personal terms. Following Jesus won’t make you popular in many parts of the world.
That Division Leads to a Decision
“The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it” (vv. 37-39).
Jesus says some very hard things to his followers:
You must love me more than your parents.
You must love me more than your children.
You must take up your cross and follow me.
You can lose your life, or you can find it.
Truth cuts both ways
Which will it be?
In many ways it is hard to comprehend these verses. If you love your parents, they are hard to understand. If you love your children, they are even harder. Perhaps the best way to think about it is to concentrate on the last part about saving or losing your life. In February 2015, Emily Phillips was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She only knew one thing: she didn’t have long to live. Knowing her days were short, she penned her obituary. It went viral on the Internet when it was published after her death in April 2015. She was 69 years old when she died. Her obituary is by turns autobiographical, sentimental, and humorous. Here is the first sentence:
“It pains me to admit it, but apparently I have passed away.”
Later on she speaks about her various roles in life, as a wife, a mother, a teacher, a friend and a grandmother.
“And if you don’t believe it, just ask me. Oh wait, I’m afraid it’s too late for questions. Sorry.”
You have to admire someone who maintains her sense of humor as she exits this world. But then there was this telling sentence:
“So . . . I was born, I blinked, and it was over.”
I was born, I blinked, and it was over
What a way to sum up 69 years on planet earth. It reminds me of James 4:14, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (ESV). We are like the vapor on a window pane in the winter. When I was growing up, I would blow on the window pane and then try to write my name with my finger before the vapor disappeared. I could write “Ray” but not “Pritchard.” Life is like that. Moses reminds us we are like grass on the prairie that springs up quickly and just as quickly disappears:
“In the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers” (Psalm 90:6).
We aren’t here very long. As Charles Barkley likes to say when talking about aging athletes: “Father Time is undefeated.” No one stays in their prime forever. I read this week about a Christian leader who died recently. Someone who spoke with him a few days earlier noticed he was having trouble gathering his thoughts. “Is there something wrong?” the friend asked. The man gave a two-word answer: “Old age.” I ran across a website with this motto: “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” British playwright George Bernard Shaw wryly observed, “The statistics on death are quite impressive. One out of one people die.”
Father Time is undefeated
Hebrews 9:27 puts it rather starkly, “It is appointed unto man once to die” (KJV). That may seem like a downer, and maybe it is to some people, but it’s just sober reality. Did you know over 150,000 people die every day? That works out to 56 million deaths each year. But statistics like that numb the mind. I find it easier to think about what Emily Phillips said:
”So . . . I was born, I blinked, and it was over.”
We’ve all seen gravestones with a name, a date of birth, a date of death, with a dash in between. Think about that “-“ for a moment. Fifty or sixty or seventy or eighty years. Hard work, laughter, tears, traveling, moving, getting married, raising a family, building your career, starting a new job, building your nest egg, planning for retirement, and one day death knocks on your door. What do you have to show for those years? This is what you get on your gravestone. A “-“ to cover your whole life. So the question becomes, What are you doing with the dash?
A Faint Star in the Sky
Most of us know about Jim Elliot, the missionary martyr who died in Ecuador in January 1956 when he and four other missionaries were killed by the Auca Indians (now called the Waoranis). The story made headlines around the world and inspired books, films, and generations of Christian missionaries. His wife Elizabeth told the story in several books, including the bestselling Through Gates of Splendor. More than a half-century later, we still repeat Jim Elliot’s famous words,
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Jim Elliot’s story gripped the evangelical world, making him arguably the most famous missionary of the 20th century. Most people don’t know he had an older brother who went to Peru as a missionary in 1949. During his 62 years on the field, Bert Elliot established 150 churches. He died on February 17, 2012, at the age of 87. When Randy Alcorn interviewed him in 2006, Bert described his younger brother this way:
Jim and I both served Christ, but differently. He was a great meteor, streaking through the sky.
“Why doesn’t God take care of us?”
Bert Elliot was home on furlough when Jim and the other missionaries were killed. He and his wife wrestled with whether or not they should return to the field:
“Why doesn’t God take care of us?” he remembered asking. “If we give our lives to serve him, how come there’s not the protection?” The answer that came to him then became the hallmark of his own life. “It’s in dying that we’re born to eternal life,” he said. “It’s not maintaining our lives, but it’s giving our lives.” So a few months later, Bert Elliot and his wife, Colleen, returned to the jungles of Peru.
Randy Alcorn described Bert Elliot as a “faint star that rose night after night, faithfully crossing the same path in the sky, to God’s glory.”
Jim Elliot was a great meteor, streaking through the sky.
Bert Elliot was a faint star, crossing the same path night after night.
Which one did the greater work?
Why did one die young and the other live 87 years?
The world behind me, the cross before me
No one can answer those questions because the answers are hidden in the mind of God. It is enough to know the call of Christ is the same for all of us. Jesus calls us from the cross, and he calls us to the cross. Years ago we used to sing this verse:
The world behind me, the cross before me.
The world behind me, the cross before me.
The world behind me, the cross before me.
No turning back, no turning back.
ISIS understands this better than we do. That’s why they call Christians “People of the Cross.” That’s why they have crucified some of their victims. They understand that following Jesus always leads to a cross.
If you try to save your life, you’ll lose it in the end. If you lose your life for Jesus’ sake, in the end you will save it.
Is it worth it to serve Jesus?
You’ll have to make up your own mind.
His Kingdom is forever
Martin Luther framed the issue this way:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still.
His Kingdom is forever.
When we look at the world around us, we may find many reasons to be discouraged. These are troubling times, and it’s true that Christians are under attack around the world. But if we believe the Bible, and if we are Christians at all, we must not despair.
No Supreme Court decision can put Jesus back in the grave.
No terrorist attack can reverse the Resurrection.
They can burn our churches, but they cannot destroy the gospel of Jesus. Remember that the church was born on the wrong side of history. We’ve been on the wrong side of history since Rome, and it was enough to turn the world upside down.
We’re not the first generation of Christians to find ourselves unpopular. We’re not even that bad off. Just talk to our brothers and sisters in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and those Christians being systematically eradicated in the Middle East.
Christ has won the victory.
He is risen indeed!
No one can put him back in the grave.
No one can put Jesus back in the grave!
God’s not surprised by the Supreme Court.
He’s not floored by Planned Parenthood.
He’s not intimidated by ISIS.
We preach a risen Christ who is coming back soon.
We preach a Christ who will save anyone.
We preach a Christ who will rule over the nations.
Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” No one ever said it would be easy. Following Jesus isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes the path seems steep and hard and dangerous. Jesus still says, “Follow me.”
Here is his question for all of us: “How far are you willing to go with me?”
What answer will you give?
Lord Jesus, may we never be ashamed to follow you, even when the road leads to a cross. Amen.