By Ray Fulmer
The imagery of ‘sword’, ‘war’, or conquest in the New Testament has often been used by various groups towards diverse and often contradictory ends. Most recently the Pope’s statements concerning Islam have provoked a backlash from the Muslim world, including, from certain quarters, the counter-indictment of Christianity as a ‘violent religion’ based on select New Testament sayings of Jesus. The claim that Jesus preached violence has predictably centered on the sword imagery deployed in the New Testament, namely Matthew 10.34:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. [Mt 10.34 NRSV]
On the surface the verse might seem rather self-condemnatory, but the truth is quite different. In this case a little extra reading immediately sheds light on what is actually being taught:
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. [Mt. 10.35-39]
For a reader with any sense of textual continuity the connection between the ‘sword’ Jesus brings and the familial turmoil that his followers can expect for following him would be difficult to miss. Also, the explanatory text places the sword firmly into the realm of metaphor, especially by reference to cross bearing as the source of confronting familial turmoil.
There’s little difficulty in exonerating the sword imagery in the tenth chapter of Matthew from charges of Jesus expressing warlike tendencies, yet it’s hardly the only place in the New Testament where swords or warlike motifs are used as metaphors. But is the sword ever treated as a viable human solution to the problem of physical enemies in the NT? If not, can it be said that there is a consistent use of the sword imagery throughout the literary corpus of the New Testament?
By tracing the use of ‘sword’ imagery through different divisions of the New Testament a consistent anti-violence theme emerges. The sword in the NT is always a metaphor, either for struggle generally or for Christ himself. Most importantly, the New Testament never allows for the use of violence by followers of Christ against physical adversaries. Moreover, reading an acceptance of violence into the New Testament is a distortion to the Christian gospel.
In order to categorize the issue the paper will be divided into three traditionally recognized sections of the New Testament: Synoptic Gospels, Pauline writings, and Johannine writings, and will show how the imagery is used in each group of writings. Even though this survey will be insufficient to treat the issue in depth, it should give the reader an overview of the use of warlike imagery in the corpus as a whole.
Although Mt. 10.34 is the most often cited use of the sword in the New Testament, it’s not the only time a sword is seen in the Synoptic Gospels. All four Gospels (Synoptics and John) contain an account of the arrest of Jesus. As opposed to Matthew 10.34, these three other passages mention the use of swords in a very literal sense. They’re also remarkably similar in their narrative structures.
Firstly, the crowd that comes to arrest Jesus carries clubs and swords. It’s the same wording in all three synoptic Gospels. In all three accounts the significance of the swords and clubs lies in their relationship to the pattern of arresting a robber. In each account Jesus offers the crowd the same rebuke: “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?” Jesus then points out that he’s always been in plain view, especially in the temple, and they had never seized him.
Secondly, and perhaps of more importance, in all three accounts one of the disciples uses a physical sword against the slave of the high priest who is with the crowd by cutting off his ear. Here the accounts differ slightly, but retain similar tones: In Mark the ear chopping is passed over as a non-event in the sense that the event occurs but no judgment is rendered on the action. Certainly the violent action by the disciple is not in a positive light since his action of striking the slave doesn’t change the outcome.
Arguing that Mark’s gospel is against the disciple’s use of the sword would be an argument from silence, but in Matthew and Luke the rebuke of the offender comes across as more striking:
Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? [Mt. 26.51-53]
When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him. [Lk. 22.49-51]
In both cases the use of the sword in defense of Christ is unacceptable; the offending disciple is chastised, and the authority of heaven is asserted over and against the power of force. According to Matthew the sword’s proper “place” is in its sheath. In Luke no similar speech is given regarding the relationship between the use of the sword and perishing by the sword, but the particular “this” of which there is to be “no more” is exactly the resort to violence and physical power against an enemy in order to dictate a preferred outcome. By healing the high priest’s slave Jesus has chosen not only to condemn the use of violence in order to coerce preferred ends, but the statement “no more of this” is left broad and unspecified in order that the injunction can be understood in a more universal sense – no more of the way of the sword. The cycle of violence resulting from human ways of coercive power comes to an end with Christ – no longer will that be a legitimate way to solve problems for a child of God.
Even the book of John, which is often of a different literary tenor than the Synoptics, is amazingly parallel in this recounting:
So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’ Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he’, they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.’ This was to fulfil the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’ Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ [Jn 18.3-11]
Literary use of swords and combat in Paul’s writings are notably sparse and easily identified as metaphors within the writings themselves. Paul has an unequivocal stance of accepted martyrdom as the paradigm for Christian likeness to Christ. For Paul baptism into Christ is baptism into his death, and acceptance of the mind of Christ is de facto acceptance of the servitude and self-denial of earthly power. For Paul martyrdom is the paradigm for salvation since that is the focal point of Christ’s own ministry.
Two passages will serve to illustrate Paul’s understanding of being in the image and likeness of God by sharing in Christ’s death to the worldly passions (i.e. sin) and also by adopting Christ’s method of servitude-in-power in service to God:
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. [Rom 6.4-12]
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Phil. 2.3-11]
Being ‘alive’ to the fleshly life, to the passions and desire for worldly power as opposed to earthly servitude and acceptance of burdens, contradicts the entire notion of becoming an image of Christ, who alone is the image of God in which humans were created. Turning outside of the paradigm of self-sacrifice in order to promote the plan of God is automatically a distortion of the methodology given by God in the flesh. Christ’s method of self-sacrifice is, for Paul, the only legitimate way of confronting evil in the world.
Paul views resorting to violence as an a priori mistake in identifying the nature of Christian adversaries since by taking the martial metaphor as a physical command the locus of evil would be placed in the flesh of other human beings rather than in the misguided state of their souls. Paul is explicit that spiritual corruption is the guiding force behind physical evils and not vice-versa. To battle physical opponents is to misdirect efforts and therefore misdiagnose the sickness that underlies physical evil. Paul illustrates this view in his passage on ‘spiritual warfare’ from Ephesians:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. [Eph 6.10-17]
A look at all of the metaphors regarding the spiritual warrior in Ephesians shows that only one part of the equipped warrior is an aggressive instrument – the sword of the Spirit, which Paul immediately identifies as “the word of God.” Here the “word of God” could be taken in different ways. Certainly it cannot be understood as “the Bible” because that’s anachronistic; no such thing existed for centuries after the writing of Ephesians. “The Word of God” in Christian theology is also taken as referring to Christ himself, who is the Word that takes flesh (see John 1.1-12), although this terminology is not common in Paul’s writings. The Greek word for ‘Word’, logos, might also be instructive here as it’s the root also for ’logic’ and ‘rationality’, which would render a reading something along the lines of the sword being the logic of God – God’s true plan for the world - which Paul elsewhere identifies as the folly of the cross which scandalizes the wisdom of the world:
For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. [1 Cor 2.11-13]
However coherent the ‘Word’ interpretations above might be, the best interpretive tactic is to situate the statement within the remainder of the reading from Ephesians:
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. [Eph 6.18-20]
By reading the Ephesians passages as one cohesive passage the reader can see that the single aggressive item in the Christian spiritual arsenal, the sword, is equated to the Spirit of God, which is in turn linked to the word of God. Paul then goes on to ask for prayers “in the Spirit”, namely for himself, who needs the spirit in order to proclaim the gospel to his captors. It’s the Spirit that Paul is counting on to “open his mouth” – the Spirit is the power that enables the “word” to come forth from Paul. It’s an attack of sorts, against the earthly kings, who serve false gods, by the kingdom of the true God, by the spiritual warrior Paul. So the sword in this passage is the proclaiming of the mystery of the gospel.
Johannine and Apocalyptic Writings
Of the apocalyptic literature in the New Testament the most striking is Revelation, aka The Apocalypse of John, which makes abundant use of sword and war metaphors. Although there’s no way around acknowledging the martial imagery in Revelation two questions must be asked as to its nature: 1. Is this martial imagery completely without internal or external textual qualification? In other words, is it speaking of a physical warfare unlike Ephesians? 2. Is the prerogative of using the sword given to followers of Christ, or is it reserved for Christ himself?
Clearly Revelation is set up as a kind of battle scene between the kings of the earth and the kingdom of God, which is ruled by its King, Jesus Christ and represented by the seven churches to whom the letter is sent.[i]
The royal language is hard to miss:
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. [Rev 1.4-6]
Next is a graphic metaphorical description of the returning king that culminates in the vision of the double-edged sword:
Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. [Rev 1.12-16]
The figure of the son of man explains the symbolism of the lampstands to John:
As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. [Rev 1.20]
By qualifying the lampstands John has forewarned the reader that the vision is not an entirely literal version of things to come. Symbolism is part of what he writes to the churches. As the letters begin to the individual churches the imagery of the double-edged sword reappears:
‘And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: ‘I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling-block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practise fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ [Rev 2.12-17]
In the passage above the sword is equated with his mouth, which is a typical biblical literary trope for the teaching which is being presented (dealing with a mostly oral culture here). Alongside sword imagery, the language of conquest is repetitive. “To everyone who conquers” the figure promises variously to eat from the tree of life (2.7), avoidance of second death (2.11), hidden mana and a white stone (2.17), authority over the nations to rule them with an iron rod (2.26-27) and the morning star (2.28), to become a pillar in the Temple of God in the Heavenly Jerusalem (3.12), and a place on the throne besides the victorious conqueror Christ (3.21). But what does it mean to ‘conquer’?
In the early portions of the Revelation text the idea of conquest is explicitly linked to repentance for the transgressions of the Churches themselves. The message is meant to exhort obedience to Christ in the audience addressed. Using 2.16 above as an easy example, repentance will put the church community on the right side of the Lord’s impending conquest. Repentance is required because the people are not doing the Lord’s work and living by his commandments as they were given to the churches at the time of their founding. The main problem is that the churches are being infiltrated with false prophets and poor morality. Thus the letters are basically meant to say that the conquest is synonymous with repentance against failures of the community in question and return to the commands against fornication and idolatry, which are viewed as being caused by Satan and his servants ‘the nations’.
The idea that holding fast to the true faith and the commandments of God that accompany that faith is analogous to victory over the nations, indeed over the entire broken world, is seen more straight forwardly in another of John’s other writings, 1 John 5:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? [1 Jn 5.1-5]
A striking literary coherence between the verse above and the exhortations to the churches at the beginning of Revelation is created by the tying in of ‘blood’ in 1 John with the constant promptings to endure suffering on behalf of the faith in Revelation. In fact Revelation has a parallel passage where the conquest over Satan and the nations is equated with the confessing martyrs:
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. [Rev. 12.10-11]
As for the ‘sword from the mouth’ and the ‘two-edged sword’ mentioned in the first two chapters of Revelation there is also similar imagery employed in the so-called ‘mini-apocalypse’ of 2 Thessalonians and in Hebrews that are of value in understanding the metaphors. Although they’re not Johannine, they’re useful insertions here as references. There are a couple of reasons to do so: Firstly, they come from the same literary matrix as the Johannine writings (late first century Christianity) 2. 2 Thessalonians is the other apocalyptic text in the Epistles. So to continue:
For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. [2 Thess 2.7-10]
Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs. Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. [Heb 4.11-13]
In both passages the imagery of the word of God is linked to a weapon, be it a breath weapon or a two-edged sword, which is used to discern who is a believer and how they will be separated from non-believers at the time of the Lord’s coming. However, in no instance are the followers asked to participate in the Lord’s separating and judging. They’re passive instruments except that they are to prepare themselves for the judgment. Defeating the Satanic lies of the kings of the earth, who’s kingship is beholden to idols and false-gods and thus against the kingship of Christ, is the measure of their victory, which will be consummated by the Lord Christ himself at the time of the second coming. It is the failure to love the truth that will condemn the servants of Satan.
Lastly we turn to the most famous vision of the Apocalypse in Revelation, that of the rider on the white horse. It’s worthwhile to quote the text at length:
Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’. Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in mid-heaven, ‘Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.’ Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. [Rev 19.11-20.5]
John echoes his own Gospel prologue here by giving the rider the title ‘Word of God’, which is the name of Christ (Jn 1.1-13). The sword that smites the nations is the sword from his mouth, which is none other than the Faithfulness and Truth which he embodies making war on the false gods. The motif of the “sword” from Ephesians is echoed here since it’s the mouth of Christ, i.e. his teachings, that make war on the adversaries.
Earthly rulers are identified as the ones who array for battle against the rider, led by the false prophet who worked signs for those who worshipped the beast in order to mislead them. The beast and his legions are in service to the Dragon, who is Satan, and it’s the Dragon who ultimately must be dealt with by throwing him down into the pit. But what does this act accomplish?
Despite the language regarding the Word’s smiting of the nations, this doesn’t appear to be a final outcome. According to the text, the final result of the “war” which the Word waged against the Dragon, the Beast, and their kings is not the physical death of all nations who opposed the white rider, but rather “that he [the Dragon] should deceive the nations no more.” Destroying the powers of evil doesn’t destroy humankind. The nations are still around, but they are no longer misled by false kings who follow the false prophet of a false god. It’s the demise of falsity and the turn by the nations towards the true King and the true God, not the physical destruction of the nations, which is affected by the rider on the white horse.
While the martyrs (those “beheaded for their testimony”) will rule with Jesus, they have no part in judging the unrighteous or in establishing the Kingdom. Earlier in Revelation they had even been told to wait for God to judge in His own time, and that he would not avenge them for now, but instead that their numbers would be added to for an undisclosed length of time to come. In other words, until Christ establishes his kingdom then his followers will have to accept the bitter sting of martyrdom and not ask God to judge the wicked before God’s time has come. To quote the earlier text:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed. [Rev 6.9-11]
Although the victory is assured, the earthly consummation of the heavenly victory has not yet come to earth. Textually speaking just the opposite has occurred, the devil, having been thrown out of heaven, is now on earth accusing the believers and causing misery in the “earth and the sea”, in other words over all creation (see Rev. 12.12).
An interesting point is that the false prophet of verse 20 is shown to be in the image of the beast (20.4), much as Christ is in the image of God the Father (see Col 1.15-20). Also, identification is made between those who serve the beast in his likeness and who share in his fate and those who share in Christ’s death and thus share in his glory – the martyrs. Similar imagery is used to show how close the resemblance of the beast and his followers will be to Christ and his followers. False salvation looks dangerously alike to real salvation.
The Dragon and the beast look deceptively close to the truth in other ways as can be seen in the way that the hymn of praise sung to the Dragon via the beast is uncomfortably similar to the way the people of Israel extol the greatness of God through his King – “They worshipped the dragon, for he had given authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast saying “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”” (Rev. 13.4) And, just as the Word wages war with the “sword from his mouth” against the false gods, so too the beast wages war against God with his mouth, from which he utters blasphemies against God and the Kingdom (see Rev. 13.5-6). He will be given victory over the saints and will conquer them, but they are not to resist. They are rather to endure and persevere in faith, as they have been commanded. But what’s really striking about this command is the reiteration that the saints absolutely cannot prevail by force against the beast. The beast is being allowed to conquer by God, and if the saints take up the sword against him then they will be killed by the sword. Returning to the text:
The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also, it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. [Rev 13.5-10]
For Christians the sword is virtually always symbolic of the message of the preached gospel, proclaimed with boldness through the spirit, and their sufferings on behalf of that truth.
We’ve seen time and again through the scriptural reflections above that where God commands the sword to be wielded, it refers to the message of the gospel against the invisible powers of the world. When followers of Christ resort to the use of physical violence in the scriptures they are uniformly chastised for their error of judgment – they’re misunderstanding who the enemy is, which is not other humans per se, but rather the evil spirits that mislead earthly people.
Whether disciples or saints take up the sword in defense of Christ or his church the result is the same – they’re told that this is not the way of God. Additionally, using the sword, as Jesus stated in Matthew, is a denial that God is the author of human events. According to the Scriptural corpus, for a Christian to use coercion is a refusal to understand that God demands that his followers be willing to sacrifice themselves in order to avoid the ways of the world, namely violence. The idea of accepting an unfair burden on behalf of showing the love of God to another human being who will not pay you back in kind is at the heart of the Christian gospel, and to resort to violence is always a tacit distortion of that ideal.
It should be clear from these brief reflections that the martial imagery employed by the New Testament is not a license for Christians to use physical violence against physical enemies.
Christians must confront earthly evil, of that there is no doubt, but the methods they use are ubiquitously non-violent according to the New Testament scriptures. The Christian must have enough faith to trust God in matters of ultimate justice and vindication.
If Christ is the paradigm, and for Christians there can be none other, then evil is confronted properly only when the Christian can accept up front that the world hated Christ first, and that he was killed precisely by those he came to love and save. It is not ultimately in loving those who love us back that Christians show their faith in God, but by loving those who aren’t worthy of it, and who would not repay kindness with kindness. In expressing this fundamental truth of the Scriptures, this author bows out in deference to the words long written down by the foremost prophet of the Christian faith:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [Rom 12.17-21]
* All Bible Quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise stated. All emphases throughout the paper are added.
[i] N.T. Wright makes an excellent case in numerous works that the very name ‘Jesus Christ’ is more properly understood as a title – ‘King Jesus’.