All They That Take the Sword

These words of gentle rebuke were spoken by the Lord Jesus to His devoted disciple, Peter, just after Judas betrayed the Master. Peter had just drawn his sword and cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest, when Jesus said to him: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52; John 18:11). The Lord made it very clear that He did not desire that His disciples rise up in defense of Him, no matter their good intentions.

But what may not be quite so clear to Christians is the enigmatic commentary of the Lord Jesus, found only in Matthew’s gospel, in which He seems to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between using a deadly weapon and suffering death by its instrumentality. What lesson did He want to teach Peter, and by extension, all of His disciples down through the centuries to us?

I believe we can rule out a couple of possible meanings of those words taken at face value. When Jesus said,”all they that take the sword shall perish [by] the sword”, it would seem obvious that he didn’t mean that statement in the most literal sense, for millions have taken up the sword and other weapons and have lived long lives and died natural deaths.  On the other hand, many Christians who have refused to defend themselves using deadly force, or who have had conscientious objections to taking up the sword in wars against foreign powers, have suffered violent deaths for their faith and their stand for the truth of God’s word. In witness to the truth of that, one has only to call to mind the violent death of Jim Elliot (at 28 years old) and his compatriots in 1956, who could easily have dispatched their Auca Indian murderers by using the guns in their possession, but chose not to “take the sword” in self-defense.

However, it would be a careless handling of the Scriptures to minimize or pass over this saying of the Lord because it can’t be taken literally.  He never said one idle word, nor one phrase that we can afford to take lightly. You or I might have said something like that with the best of intentions during such a “teachable moment”, but were we pressed on it after the fact, we might not be able to make a coherent case justifying our hasty utterance. Not so the Lord Jesus; His words were full of meaning, and it is left to His disciples to search out that meaning. “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honor of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2).

Consider this:  Taking up a weapon puts one on the ground of violence, or perhaps more particularly, on the ground of resorting to violent means to bring about a desired end, whether selfish or apparently selfless in nature.  Many have admired the methods of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Ghandi, both of whom clung to the ideal of non-violent resistance to oppression (although we must note that taking that non-violent stand did not save either King or Ghandi from violent deaths at the hands of assassins). They took the ground of non-violence, and they reaped a reward for it, in terms of their legacies among their people, and in terms of the admiration that much of the rest of the world still has for them. “They have their reward” (Matthew 6:2).

Which ground ought a Christian to take then?  It seems abundantly clear that the Lord sought to impress upon His disciples that taking a non-violent position is the higher moral road, and that taking up carnal weapons against perceived evil¹ puts one on the low road where death prevails and the Lord’s approval is missing.

Ulrich Zwingli, a leader in the Swiss Reformation, apparently despised the non-violent example of the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren and took up arms with many other pastors to defend Zurich from an invasion by the Catholic cantons of Switzerland in 1531. He voluntarily put himself on the ground of violent resistance, and suffered death in short order on the battlefield at 47 years of age. Zwingli even suffered the posthumous indignity of having Martin Luther celebrate in recognition of God’s sovereignty at the news that he and his partisans lay dead.

Now you may be asking: If a violent death came early for both Jim Elliot and Ulrich Zwingli, regardless of the respective moral ground they took (which, in both cases, seemed to hasten their demise), then how can we make the claim that their positions really mattered after all?

I would suggest that Zwingli’s choice was a foolish one, and while he may have been a true believer in Christ, taking the sword was really just building with stubble², to be burned up in the end as a fleshly attempt at building the “temple of God”.  But Jim Elliot died “building” with the fireproof materials of gold, silver, and precious stones², a true martyr for the cause of Christ, and 60 years later there is general agreement among Christians that he was “no fool”.³   He chose by faith the high moral road of refusing to take the sword to defend against persecutions, resulting in much fruit for Christ in this world, “and in the world to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:30). Jim Elliot and his friends did not venture onto the ground of violence and death, but chose rather the way of spiritual life and peace (Romans 8:6).

 

¹  See also Matthew 5:38-40; John 18:36; II Corinthians 10:3-4

²  I Corinthians 3:10-17

³  Elliot wrote in his journal on October 28, 1949: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

The Communion of Saints

I suppose I have seen or heard the term “breaking bread” used with its Biblical connotation more often in recent years in secular and political contexts than in Christian contexts.¹  Perhaps this is because most of Christendom has gone away from actually breaking bread in their worship meetings, in favor of a pre-allocated portion to be taken by worshipers as part of their communion service. Digging even a little deeper for the root cause, one might be permitted to suggest that the loss of the terminology of breaking bread stems from a loss of understanding of how breaking bread with others relates to the concept of fellowship, or communion.  Well-read journalists and politicians may be credited for understanding that if you “break bread” with another party, even figuratively, you have established a common ground, a participation, a fellowship with that party and its principles and ideals.

The term “fellowship” is, however, rather commonly used among Christians. Some use the word to denote their particular assembly of believers in a single locale, others may use it when speaking of a gathering of friends and family for fun and natural refreshment. But what does fellowship mean, and what are its connotations, when looked at in the Scriptures?

In the New Testament, both fellowship and communion are translations to English (from Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots, respectively) of the Greek word “koinonia” in its several forms. These terms denote a sharing with or participation in a cause, a person, or an association of persons. Koinonia is also translated using other English terms, and found in many contexts, including:

  • That blessed and permanent association with the Father and the Son, into which Christians are called based on the work of the Lord Jesus Christ for us in bringing us to God. See I Corinthians 1:9 and I John 1:3-7.
  • That association or participation we as Christians are privileged to have with others in body of Christ, which is effected and enjoyed by breaking bread together at the Lord’s table. See Acts 2:42; I Corinthians 10:16-21; and Philippians 2:1.
  • The participation Christians may have in the work of the Lord by the sharing of their time and resources.  See II Corinthians 8:4; Philippians 1:5 and 4:15 (“communicated”).
  • The participation in others’ sins that Christians are liable to be implicated in if they are not vigilant and fail to apply Scriptural safeguards.  See II Corinthians 6:14; 5:7-11; and I Timothy 5:22 (“partaker”).

Why is it important to understand the meaning of fellowship within the context of the various passages of Scripture where it is found?  First of all, I believe, it is because God desires to have fellowship with His redeemed ones, sharing with us what He values about His Son, for the Lord Jesus was always, and will always be, the preeminent object of the Father’s heart (John 1:18 and 17:24). How could the Father not have an immense desire to share Him with us, for whom He gave the darling of His bosom, His only-begotten Son?

Secondly, referencing the last three points above, it is the great desire of the Lord Jesus that the members of His body here on earth have fellowship with each other in practice, on the basis of the truth of the Word of God.  For that fellowship to be pleasing to Christ, we must be watchful that the apostles’ doctrine is maintained, that our fellowship is truly “of the Spirit”, and that we, individually and collectively, are not tainted or corrupted by fellowship with falsehood or idolatry.

Returning now to the collective act of breaking bread – the one loaf representing the “one body” of Christ referenced in I Corinthians 10:  The apostles’ fellowship may be beautifully expressed by those that are Christ’s in the breaking of bread, and we have the privilege to do so often, just as the apostles did.²  And from another aspect, it is in the act of breaking bread with other Christians (appropriate care being taken as to whom we partake with) that we really prove and maintain “communion with the altar”³, and with all other saints who are sound in doctrine and godly in practice.

Christian fellowship with others is not a casual matter, nor is it open to all comers without discrimination. Neither is it simply a local association of Christians meeting in one building. Fellowship as practiced by saints is a precious thing in the eyes of our God.  Perhaps we could even speak of it as being delicate, with all the beauty and fragrance of a flower that must be maintained with care.  May we seek to honor the Lord Jesus in our fellowship, until He comes and transforms our imperfect expressions of it into perfection.

 

¹  (Outside of a few circles where the term is regularly used.)

²  Acts 2:42; 20:7-11; I Corinthians 11:26

³  I Corinthians 10:17-18, JND translation (The altar is an allegory of the Lord’s table.)