“All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

It is interesting to think about how the ancient gods are all long dead. Not that they were ever alive, of course, but they had the illusion of life when their lifeless idols were being propped up by the men who worshipped them. As such, depending on the power of the kingdoms which worshipped them, each of the pantheon of gods, whether of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans, had their own time on the world stage when they were feared above others. Now they are all but gone—fallen and slain by the sword like their worshippers—and are merely the stuff of legends today. On the other hand, the God of Israel, a nation which never had very much political strength even in its heyday during the reign of Solomon, has remained worshipped throughout the millennia and by billions today.

The power of Jehovah was never limited or tied to the power of the sword, and the religion of the Nazarene who reigns in heaven has shown its great resilience to outlast its political opponents all around the world even without picking up a sword. The point in our Lord’s statement here about taking up the sword and perishing by the sword is not to teach pacifism, forbidding the use of martial force even for self-defence, which would make no sense of his earlier command to his disciples to buy swords (Luke 22:36), nor is this the prohibition of Christianity being a state religion and of God’s moral law being enforced by corporal or capital punishments (cf. Romans 13:4). This is a proverbial and not an absolute statement—many have taken up the sword who have not perished by the sword, and many have died by the sword who may have never touched a sword, including perhaps most of the Apostles themselves (since they only had two swords). What Christ is here forbidding is us ever thinking that the advancement of his kingdom depends upon our ability to wield any of these political or military machineries.

This is not only a New Testament doctrine, but a lesson that God had been trying to teach his people throughout the Old Testament, beginning from the very birth of the nation in the Exodus from Egypt, but which, except for a few notable exceptions, they failed terribly at learning. Centuries down the road after God had first glorified himself over the Egyptian military might, the prophets still returned to Israel with the same message: “Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help; and stay on horses, and trust in chariots, because they are many; and in horsemen, because they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the Lord!” (Isaiah 31:1). There is a closer connection between political power and idolatry than I think we are comfortable admitting.

Christ’s proverb is perhaps also a veiled prophetic warning of the great tragedy that awaited the Jewish zealots who failed to understand this lesson and sought to regain political independence through violent revolution. Christ made sure his disciples had no part in such uprisings which eventually led to the utter desolation of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans. And yet, in what seemed like the death blow to the worship of Jehovah, God’s kingdom was not diminished in the least but, having been freed from its geo-political limitations, had already begun its unstoppable conquest of the world.

Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword

Au Yeong Hau Tzeng is a graduate of The Masters University (Santa Clarita, California) and Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), and an associate pastor at Pilgrim Covenant Church in Singapore, but also ministers across the border at Johor Bahru Covenant Fellowship in Malaysia.

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