“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” Jesus told his disciples, twelve fresh recruits who on hearing that must have wondered what they were getting into. Jesus would later rebuke Peter for wielding a literal sword, and by that time the twelve must have had at least a hint of the deeper meaning behind Jesus’ words.
As I reviewed Luke’s familiar account this Christmas season, it struck me that the shadow of a sword hangs over Jesus’ birth as well. We tend to recall the story in cheerful tones, having heard its words recited singsong style by children decked out in their parents’ hemmed-up bathrobes, surrounded by friends waggling sheep tails and donkey ears. That first Christmas, however, menace filled the air. Of all people, mad King Herod best sensed the threat posed by Jesus’ arrival; he responded by slaughtering infants and forcing Jesus’ family into exile in Egypt.
Jesus’ cousin John seemed to recognize his famous relative in utero: “the baby in my womb leaped for joy,” Elizabeth told Mary when she learned of Mary’s pregnancy. “He will be a joy and delight to you,” an angel prophesied to her husband, Zechariah, about their son John—yes, and a worry too, for when the boy left home reports circulated about him eating bugs in the desert and taunting the royal family.
Ironies abound in Luke’s story. The angel Gabriel, indignant over Zechariah’s skepticism, rendered him temporarily mute and thus unable to vocalize the best news he’d ever heard. Joseph and Mary, far from home and robbed of the traditional serenade by neighbors on the birth of a son, instead got a choir of angels who heralded the news to lower-class shepherds. The baby himself began life on earth as he would end it, wrapped in binding cloths as if suggestive of the restraints he accepted in visiting this dark planet. God’s Son—“the bread of life” he would later call himself—spent his first night in a feeding trough slick with animal saliva.
While news of Elizabeth’s advanced-age pregnancy spread like gossip throughout the hill country of Judea, and her son John became a local hero for a time, poor Mary chose to slip out of town to avoid the rumor mill, and her son would be chased from town by a murderous crowd. “A sword will pierce your own soul too,” the old man Simeon had warned Mary, a statement she no doubt pondered during Jesus’ tumultuous time on earth.
A historian, Luke carefully dates the birth stories. “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah”: that simple conjunction foretells a plot line that will define much of human history, the uneasy relationship of church and state. Herod the Great sought to kill the baby Jesus. The monarch’s son, another Herod, would later behead Zechariah’s son John as a party trick and torment Jesus in a mocking trial. And after Jesus’ death Romans would persecute his followers, as would Mongols, Huns, Turks, Vikings, Russians, Chinese, Albanians, Arabs, Sudanese, Iranians, Iraqis, and a host of others.
Zechariah prayed for “salvation from our enemies,” a timeworn Jewish prayer that assuredly never got the answer he yearned for. Like so many who encountered Jesus, he expected a different kind of Messiah, one who would lead armies to triumph astride a stallion, not ride a donkey toward his arrest and crucifixion.
Of all the characters in Luke’s birth story, Mary seems to have the best grasp of the sword about to descend. Though often set to beautiful music, her Magnificat has a fierce and revolutionary tone, with proud rulers scattered and the rich sent away empty, even as the humble are exalted and the hungry filled. In a kind of counterpoint, Zechariah’s song ends with a plea that sets a lofty tone for the spread of the good news about Jesus: “the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Some theologians have likened Jesus’ advent to the D-day invasion, a beachhead in the cosmic war against evil, one that would rely on the improbable weapons of love and sacrifice. Jesus’ “sword,” the instrument of a new kingdom, brought division to family, neighborhood, and nation by disrupting the unjust order of planet earth. As the Misfit in one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories puts it, “Jesus thrown everything off balance.”
Looking back over two millennia of Christian history, I see much evidence of battles not yet won. At this very moment bombs are falling in Ukraine, the region of Jesus’ birth convulses, and the global church shows more division than unity. I find myself repeating Zechariah’s song of joy as an urgent prayer, wishing that Messiah’s visit would indeed be seen as a dawning of light and annunciation of peace.
The apostle Paul, who once wielded weapons against Jesus’ followers, later grasped the true nature of Jesus’ sword. As he told the Ephesians and Galatians, it works by destroying barriers, severing “the dividing wall of hostility” between God and humans, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. “For he himself is our peace,” Paul concludes. And we who follow Jesus are asked to bring that spirit of peace and reconciliation to a fractious, broken world.
The sky lit up the night of Jesus’ birth as angels announced, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” If only we humans could consistently live out those words that filled the air that Christmas day so long ago.
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I am just now reading this two weeks after Christmas. Just when we think we may have the story figured out, you remind us that the wonder does not cease. To follow this Savior hopefully includes a wealth of wonder along the way. It keeps us humble and thankful. May we continue to pasd on this peace to others during tough times.
A blessed Christmas to you, Philip!
Thank you for sharing your time and insightful thoughts, always so thought-provoking.
Since we usually read the Bible in bits and pieces, it’s good to see the continuity of the Scriptures, the broader meaning of the topics.
The song, “Mary Did You Know” caused me to wonder what she knew apart from what the angel said, what she said in her song, what the angel told Joseph, what the magi said, and what Simeon and Anna said.
She knew about “the sword”, but probably was puzzled as to what it meant. It’s good that God doesn’t tell us the details, especially in this case. In her song she was “troubled”, but we don’t know the details of what was troubling her. We could speculate, but might be wrong.
Thanks for helping me think more about the Christmas story on
my 76th Christmas week. There’s always something new God wants to show me.
Jesus is the sword, He is the word and the word became flesh. ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’ Ps. 119:105
‘For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’ Hebs. 4:12
Such a delicate balance of Jesus bringing the sword but offering His peace; ‘Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’
An interesting study, that sword, because when He returns; ‘From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.’ Rev.19:15
Grace and peace Philip
Very Nicely said. Tnx so much for your insights. If Traditional commentaries is to classical music, your writings since the “The Jesus I Never Knew” is Jazzy, setting an offbeat to tone to stimulate a connecting awareness to present global and Biblical perspectives. Godbless.
Micah 4:3b-4. All wars will stop, and military training will come to an end. Everyone will live quietly in their own homes in peace and prosperity, for there will be nothing to fear. The Lord has promised this.” NLT.
Oh how I wish this prophecy was for no, today, not for the last days.
Greetings Phillip, I have been studying the first three centuries following His advent, using ” THE Anti Nicene, Nicene, and Post Nicene Church Fathers “, as my textbook, and currently reading the earliest deep understanding of the analogical dissection of the Gospels. Along with the ” Missing Gospels ” I have a more clear, and deeper understanding of the deep meaning of Christ’s messages for humanity. You have been the catalyst for my journey to fully understand why we are here and what we need to know. Peace, Grace and Blessings Philip 👍 🙏🙏🙏
Please give us more insight on “the sword” in the mission and ministry of Jesus. That passage has always confused me.
Thanks Philip as always for a “road less travelled” perspective on the gospel and the Kingdom, that helps us digest it more fully, and travel in and to it more wisely!
Sobering thoughts. Sword and Salvation. But you’re right, there’s always been a sword between Truth and Tyranny.
Peace be with us here on earth – Maranatha!
Jesus was probably wrapped as most of the babies were at that time. I’m sure Mary knew her baby was due and took along what she would need for a new baby…
A beautiful reflective article. Does any of Philip Yancey’s other articles delve deeper into this idea of the dividing sword? I would like to read that and meditate deeper on this topic.
Thank you, Philip, for a very different perspective on the Virgin Birth. We don’t usually associate swords with Christmas. Merry Christmas!
Gladly sharing this! I’ve been re-reading your book, The Jesus I Never Knew. With new eyes and new understanding, I plan to go back to the beginning and read it again as it has touched me so. May God continue to bless you and your ministry.
Thanks for so many “preachable” thoughts and phrases. I was asked at nearly 80 to preach New Year’s Day “one more time”. Your may inciteful thoughts will enliven as “elderly” message to a young group of listeners. Thanks, Master Yancey for your words that “light up” the WORD for all to hear, touch and see.
Thanks for showing us new ways of looking at God’s love for us. Beautifully done.