That very sound Biblical scholar George Bradford Caird specialized in the figurative language and pictorial theology of Holy Scripture. The kind of studies he majored in as an expositor of the Word enrich an understanding of divine revelation and steer us away from both an over-literal interpretation of the text when it is actually addressing us in terms of imagery, and our own idiosyncratic and fanciful notions as to Scripture’s intent. The combination of these two tendencies is especially noticeable in popular commentaries on Revelation and certain prophecies in the Old Testament. If we do not approach the Bible with a certain poetic and pictorial sense we are bound to misuse and abuse it. The Roman Catholic Church arrogated civil authority to itself by a misinterpretation of the above quotation. St Augustine got the wrong end of the stick when he took the words of Jesus in the Parable of the Great Banquet to justify physical compulsion in bringing people within range of the gospel: Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in (Luke 14:23). Jesus possessed an amazingly creative and agile mind, to say the least, and we do not do his teaching justice if we do not endeavour to get behind the words to gain his true meaning. Every statement of the Son of God invites us to dig and delve with prayer and purposeful investigation. The essence of the gospel is simple but not shallow. Scripture is a deep mine of good things. The Bible is a beautiful blend of literal, historical, and figurative truth. Our task is to discern the differences and often we will seek the help of specialists, among whom there will not be complete agreement, but prayerful common sense can usually discern the point whatever genre we opt for.
Professor Caird points out “Jesus’ fondness for violent metaphor”. We are not to understand this is as a delight in cruelty, horror, and malice but as an emphasis on urgency, preparedness, readiness, and resolve. The issues of personal redemption or ruin are of supreme import and eternal significance and our sluggish minds need to hear the alarm call of the Saviour. He has to verbalize with vigour or we are likely to be dismissive of his message. We are impervious to spiritual truth. And even when we are aroused it is temporary and we soon recline into customary mental comfort and illusions of ultimate wellbeing. Violence can often be necessary as when we heave back a person from a stumble or fall or thrust them away from impending danger. Violence may often be a positive force for good. We shout when someone stands under a falling object or in the way of a speeding vehicle. We grab or shove a person in peril if we are near them at the time of thereat to their welfare. Jesus is violently engaged in the conflict with the kingdom of evil for our sakes. He deals with hostility and harmfulness in our interests. He overcomes our violent resistance to the divine love and mercy. The strong Son of God exerts his mighty power in judgment and salvation. He urges us to be realists in the opposition that we shall confront, the battles we shall wage, and the dangers we shall encounter. As he faced the enmity of his accusers and the agony of the cross he warned us of hard times ahead. If our Captain is so ill-treated we can count on similar rough handling from the haters of the Lord.
Jesus tells us in this particular passage that we shall need to avail ourselves of every means of provision and subsistence in an unfriendly society ill-disposed towards us (Luke 22: 35-37). We are foolish to rely on the generosity of our fierce opponents. Persecutors will not provide for our essential needs. And because they will inevitably attack our most vital need will be for protection. Jesus is not proposing that we should arm ourselves with weapons for our physical defence but that we should be equipped with the strength and methods of the Holy Spirit to preserve ourselves from evil, its assaults and influences in circumstances that are unfavourable. The followers of One alleged to be a criminal will be charged with criminality also and “punished” accordingly. Rough treatment may be in store for us as war is waged between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. Jesus employs the image of a sword and stresses its necessity even above a night cloak essential for warmth through the cold hours of slumber because our lives must be guarded at all costs and above every other priority. We are in combat with the slayer of souls and every means of grace is crucial for our spiritual survival.
Contemporary western Christianity is not ready for this tribulation which always bears down upon the people of God with varying degrees of intensity. We are not ready for this state of militancy and adversity that Jesus refers to. It is a serious warning from One so near to such great suffering himself. Our cross and conflict are coupled with his. We are to be fighters not faint of heart. Jesus is disappointed at the disciples’ notion of literal sword play. When they proffer two swords to him in naïve understanding of his exhortation he responds, “Enough. You’ve missed the point. You must be “en garde” for the enmity of the world”.
Jesus warns us that truth will divide and that this division may occur in the midst of our most natural and intimate relationships. The closest of hearts can be separated by allegiance to the Lord Jesus. A sword represents sharp disagreement and even heated antipathy as the believer loathes the ways of a rebellious world and
others love the world, its mores and fading rewards. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34ff).
Spiritual hardship and warfare are on the agenda for the earnest Christian. In that sense we have too many pacifists, compromisers, and backtrackers from the fray. The militancy of the Christian’s life is not characterized by hatred and harshness but by the love of God and righteousness that subjects them to the taunts and even torture of those who declare war on God and his kingdom. Evil must be avoided, resisted, and even grappled with as circumstances dictate. Our enemy and his troops are not tame. He is tyrannous and his army savage. The forecast is: trouble ahead!
Jesus speaks of the sword. It is the sword of the Spirit wielded in dependence on the strength of God and the skills he supplies to praying and reliant people. Paul speaks of the whole armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-18). Violent metaphor suffuses Scripture and spreads throughout it. The opponents of its message denigrate the Bible as gratuitously warlike, but evil is itself the source of conflict and references to the warring savagery of a “primitive tribal god” is satanic propaganda designed to make us drop our guard apologetically and expose ourselves to the onslaught of the most murderous being in existence, that lying soother of deluded minds, the devil himself.
The sword is an image we must keep in mind as commanded by Christ himself. It keeps us alert to danger, cowardice, and surrender. It reminds us that we are in alliance with Christ and the cause he came to effectuate. He told us to arm ourselves as he spoke from the shadow of the cross (v37). We are to expect the battle and gear ourselves for it. The cross he had to bear is ours also. Onward Christian soldiers!