How to respond to disciples who take the sword

This essay looks at Peter’s espousal of the way of the sword and Jesus’ espousal of the way of the cross. The contention is that in these narrative episodes we find guidance for how disciples who take the way of the cross should respond to those who teach and practice the way of the sword.

Jesus’ disciples and the sword

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus had to resist Satan’s pressure to take the way of worldly power – the way of the sword instead of the way of the cross. He refused to listen to Satan (Matthew 4:8-10). This test occurred again when the crowd wanted Jesus to be their earthly king. He hid himself from them (John 6:15).

But, perhaps the greatest opposition came from his own disciples, who did not understand his way. In Matthew 16:21-22 Peter had just declared that Jesus was the Messiah. So he could not at all understand why Jesus would start talking about suffering and being killed. Peter thought of the Messiah as a warrior who would establish an earthly kingdom. He held to the popular view of who the Messiah should be. That is why it says, “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord!’ This must never happen to you’” (v. 22). He was focused on “human things” (v. 23) – human glory and power as opposed to the shameful death that God willed for Jesus.

In Matthew 20:20-28, James and John wanted to be at the right and left hand of Jesus when he came into his kingdom. It is clear that they were thinking of an earthly kingdom, where Jesus would rule as an earthly king rules. From Jesus’ response we see that they were thinking in terms of how the Gentiles hold power over their subjects by the power of the sword. James and John wanted to be great like these rulers are great.

In Matthew 26:31-35; 47-51 the disciples were ready with swords while they were in and around Jerusalem (Luke 22:38). Peter said that he would never desert Jesus. Even if he had to die with Jesus, he would not deny him. All the disciples said this (vs. 33; 35). They were thinking of fighting in a battle next to Jesus with their swords. They were ready to die a heroic death fighting for Jesus’ cause. And sure enough, when the Jerusalem officials came to arrest Jesus the disciples asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” (Luke 22:49). But before Jesus spoke, Peter took out his sword and wounded one of the men (v. 51; John 18:10).

The disciples clearly had bought into the idea that you either fight or you flee. These were the only two options in their minds. For once they saw that Jesus did not support their fighting, they fled; one left so quickly that he ran away naked (Matthew 26:55; Mark 14:51-52). They did not understand the way of the cross which involves neither fight or flight.

What to do when other disciples pressure you to take the sword

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’”

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?’” – Matthew 16:21-26

What happened to Jesus in this story still happens to his followers today. The most notable, the most famous, the majority of Christians say to us today – “No!” They rebuke us for walking in the way of the cross. “God forbid it” they say, “this is not right!”

In this episode Jesus gives us a model for how to respond to this kind of pressure to take up the sword.

1. Tell them to Stop: Jesus told Peter to stop saying these words to him. He heard in Peter the same voice of Satan that had tempted him earlier. This was a stumbling block to him, to get him focused on human things and not on God’s will for him.

We must also tell disciples today who pressure us to  believe in the way of the sword to stop. They must stop offering to us a temptation to give up the way of the cross. No one wants to suffer or be lowly. It is not easy or desirable. This is why their voice is a “a stumbling block” to us, counseling us to do exactly what Satan wants us to do. Satan wants us to take the easy way and not the hard way that God calls us to walk in.

2. Teach them the way of Jesus: After rebuking Peter Jesus taught him again about the cross. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (vs. 24-25). Jesus then continued to teach the disciples, as we saw in Matthew 20:20-28. Instead of seeking and using earthly power, they are to serve others and sacrificially give their lives for them. Instead of the sword they are to take up their cross.

We should also patiently teach disciples who advocate the sword the words of Jesus. We teach them that:

  • The cross is the only way to follow Jesus. He neither taught nor bore the sword (v. 24).
  • The cross is the only way to find our life. We find our life by losing it, not by fighting for it (v. 25).
  • We should not be ashamed of Jesus’ words or his way (Mark 8:38).

What to do when other disciples use the sword

“While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.’ And he came up to Jesus at once and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you came to do.’ Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut 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? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?’  At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.’ Then all the disciples left him and fled.” -Matthew 26:47-56

What happened in this story of Jesus’ arrest still happens today. Jesus’ disciples still fight with the sword, claiming to represent or defend his cause. Like Peter they strike without first listening to Jesus. We must follow Jesus’ example here as well.

1. Tell them to Stop: The disciples show once again how clueless they are as to what is going on around them and what Jesus is up to. This becomes painfully clear when Peter actually uses his sword. Jesus is clear – don’t do this! It is enough! Put your sword away!

This is also what we must do. We must tell these disciples to put their swords away. They must learn to live according to the teaching of Jesus.

2. Teach them the way of Jesus: Jesus once again taught them. He said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (v. 52).

We must teach disciples today that those who take up the sword will die by the sword, but those who walk in the way of the cross will find their lives (Matthew 16:25).

3. Help heal the damage: After Jesus rebuked Peter for cutting off the man’s right ear, “Jesus touched (the man’s) ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51).

In the same way when others suffer violence by those who claim the name of Jesus, we should minister to their needs. In this way we preserve the true witness of Jesus before the eyes of the world.

The importance of our example

There is nothing more useless than piously talking about the way of the cross when we are not yet taking up our cross. But there is also nothing more powerful and convincing than to see it in action. This is what truly persuades others that the way of the cross is the way that God has chosen to work in the world.

This is what finally convinced Peter and the others to lay aside the sword and take up the cross – giving up their lives just as Jesus did. They saw that God overcomes evil and evildoers in this way. They saw that God vindicates those who take the cross and gives them justice. They had to see it in action in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the same way, our example of overcoming through our suffering is the best possible testimony for the way of the cross.

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William S. Higgins – 2003