The Prince of Peace once told his disciples “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Many antagonists have interpreted this to mean that Jesus incites his followers to acts of violence—if not physical violence, at least relational. In their view Christians are cruel, Christians are mean, Christians are eager to separate themselves from anyone who disagrees with them.
But any fair reading of the Bible will show that sword is not meant to be understood literally. No, sword is meant metaphorically, as a representation of conflict—the inevitable conflict that will come to Jesus and to those who follow him. Just as a sword divides, Jesus will divide. But who will he divide? What will be the nature of this division? “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 a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” This sword will disrupt and at times even destroy the most natural, precious relationships any of us can have. Fathers and sons and mothers and daughters will be sliced apart, divided from one another.
Jesus is the sword. His gospel is the sword. Every Christian soon finds that the most divisive thing he can do is tell someone else about their sin and their need for a Savior even or especially the ones he loves most. He finds that living for Jesus brings even greater and deeper division. The thrusts of this sword are acts of love, care, concern, pleading. I think of Keith Green and his “Song To My Parents:” “There’s a heaven waiting / For you and me / I know it seems every time we talk / I’m only tryin’ to just make you see / And it’s only that I care / I really only want / Just to see you there.” His relationship with his parents was strained and breaking because he had turned to the Savior and now pleaded with his parents to do the same.
The gospel that is beautiful and transforming to God’s people is ugly and odious to those who are not his people. The gospel that so satisfies those who believe it revolts those who reject it. This difference in taste, this difference in perception, brings division. It divides so that the One who brings peace to the Christian’s soul also brings division to his relationships. One commentator says it well: “Hostility against Christians results not from their making themselves obnoxious but from the sad fact that … sometimes the gospel so alienates unbelievers that they lash out against those who would love them for Christ’s sake.” It isn’t the believer who pushes away the unbeliever, but the unbeliever who pushes away the believer. This distance is caused not by the believer’s hatred but by his love—love that is rejected and despised.
Christian, you cannot be surprised when you experience division. You don’t need to seek this division or long for it or glory in it, but you do need to expect it. Jesus and his gospel bring division between those who embrace him and those who reject him. As Matthew Henry said, “Christ came to give us peace with God, peace in our consciences, peace with our brethren, but in the world ye shall have tribulation.” Even with those you count nearest and dearest to your heart.