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.”