In Matthew 10:34 Yeshua makes a surprising and troubling statement: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
This statement is troubling for several reasons. Did not the angels say at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)? Furthermore, Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). And isn’t the Messiah supposed to be called the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6)? So what did Jesus really come to bring: peace or a sword?
The Scriptures indicate that the Messiah is supposed to bring peace. Isaiah 2:4 prophesies that the Messiah “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
To many Jewish ears Jesus’ statement about having come to bring a sword strikes a nerve on a deep level. It sounds as if Jesus is prophesying about the future persecution against Jewish people by Christians. It evokes images of the Crusades, inquisitions, expulsions, pogroms, and the Christian anti-Semitism in Europe that paved the way for the Holocaust. But surely Jesus was not condoning violence!
What Is the Sword?
To understand Yeshua’s mysterious statement, we must first clarify what he meant by the word “sword.” He did not come wielding a literal sword. “Sword” here must be a figure of speech.
One might compare Jesus’ words with a similar statement that Jesus made in Luke: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51). Could it be then that the sword is not meant to be a violent image, since in this passage Yeshua merely contrasts peace with division?
This idea might seem to be further supported by the next few verses, which continue with a description of division within families: “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” (Matthew 10:35-36).
Christian commentators sometimes say that the sword Jesus speaks of is the Word of God, which addresses people as individuals and elicits a personal response. In other words, some accept him as their Savior; others do not. According to this perspective, when Yeshua says that he did not come to bring peace on earth, people interpret his words to mean that he never intended to bring earthly, political peace but only spiritual peace in people’s hearts. But does this explanation hold up when seeing the Gospels in a Jewish context?
It is true that in a Jewish framework, a sword can symbolize God’s Word, in particular the Torah. But that is not Jesus’ meaning here—at least not directly.
The word for “sword” in Hebrew is cherev (×—Ö¶×¨Ö¶×‘), and it is a common Hebrew idiom for violence or destruction. This is especially common when it is used in contrast with peace (shalom, ×©Ö¸××œ×•Ö¹×).
For example, Leviticus describes the promises of covenant faithfulness by saying, “I will give peace in the land … and the sword shall not go through your land” (Leviticus 26:6). In other words, the land will not experience violence and destruction.
And when the Prophet Jeremiah was warned about the destruction of Jerusalem, he responded, “Ah, Lord GOD! Surely You have utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘You will have peace’; whereas a sword touches the throat” (Jeremiah 4:10 NASB). Here the sword that Jeremiah contrasts with peace is the coming destruction of the city.
So if the sword is not an analogy of the Bible, what is Jesus talking about?
Jesus' Words Explained
The key to understanding this passage is in the Old Testament. Yeshua’s description of division in families is a quotation from Micah: “For the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house” (Micah 7:6). By referring to this verse in his statement, Yeshua was alluding to its entire context, in which Micah condemns his own generation for its corruption and warns the people about the coming destruction. As Jeremiah and Micah did, Jesus was announcing the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple: “there will not be left here one stone upon another” (Matthew 24:2).
Like the ancient prophets, Jesus was warning that the destruction of Jerusalem rather than the Messianic Era of peace was soon to come. However, this is not to say that the era of physical, political, earthly peace will never come. One day Yeshua will restore the kingdom to Israel. In that day, swords will be beaten into plowshares, and the Prince of Peace will reign from the rebuilt Jerusalem.