Open Matthew 10:34-39.
A military career in the ancient world meant heading off with your regiment in search of fame and glory. Unworthy of the empire was any milksop who couldn’t leave his father and mother. A soldier marched where the army needed him, even if it meant his children grew up without him. Real soldiers didn’t run for cover to save themselves! They grasped their swords and gave their lives for the sake of the empire.
What about the kingdom of God? Do its people face struggles like the kingdoms of the world? Or is it an idyllic life of shalom: no life-threatening situations, no dilemmas of family versus kingdom, no conflicting priorities, no need to run to save your own life?
Apparently Jesus expected his kingdom people to face conflict:
Matthew 10:34-36 (my translation)
34 Don’t think I came to bring peace to the land. I came not to bring peace but a sword. 35 For I came to split a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law, 36 and a person’s enemies will be from their own family.
37 To choose father or mother over me is to be unworthy of me. To choose son or daughter over me is to be unworthy of me. 38 To not grasp your cross and follow me is to be unworthy of me. 39 To find your own life is to lose it. To lose your life on my account is to find it.
The head of heaven’s kingdom spoke these words as he prepared his troops for their first mission. If they expected peace on earth and goodwill from all mankind at this point, they were delusional. This is sheep-among-wolves time, but worse. Unlike regular combatants, sheep and wolves don’t wear uniforms, so you can’t always tell them apart. People from your own town — even from your own family — may turn on you without warning. Jesus’ presence exposes what’s hidden inside people. Blood isn’t always thicker than water.
The world divides over allegiance to King Jesus. That’s primary: you’re unworthy to be his servant if you have a higher loyalty.
You can’t serve the king and keep your life. To serve in his army, you take up your weapon and lay down your life.
Except … Jesus doesn’t give them a weapon to kill their enemies. He gives them a weapon for their enemies to kill them, for that’s what a cross was.
Imagine how this sounded to the twelve. They know nothing about Jesus’ cross yet. All they know is that if they see a guy carrying a cross down the road, he’s about to die. Imagine Thomas whispering to Simon the zealot, “What? We’re on our way to be executed?”
Imagine Jesus replying, “Yes. Follow me. We’re on our way to confront evil’s reign, so of course we’ll be killed. But if you don’t pick up your cross and follow me, you’re not worthy to be appointed to my government. Go find your own life rather than lose it with me if you must; but lose your life with me if you want to find out why you’re alive.”
How can Jesus’ agenda ever work? Surely the world doesn’t become a better place if good people are wiped out. Jesus had no confidence in the systemic evil rule of humanity, but he did have confidence that God would restore his reign — not by war but by divine intervention. Again, we see how Jesus believed the kingdom methodology espoused by Micah the prophet for the people of God:
Micah 7:5–8 (ESV)
5 Put no trust in a neighbour; have no confidence in a friend; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms; 6 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.
7 But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. 8 Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise.
Are you prepared to bet your life on that vision? I can play it safe and live for my own petty purposes. Or I can risk everything for a world where humanity lives in love and earth finally blooms as intended. Is it worth giving your life so people are restored, so everyone gets a fair go, so everything is set right in a community established through the one who gave his life for his people?
Jesus is only asking us to do what he did: to give our lives as he gave his. Perhaps people will see his kingdom vision progressing as they see us carrying our gallows.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 407, 411:
The very purpose of Jesus’ coming is “not peace but a sword,” because the message of God’s kingship is one which always has and always will lead to violent response from those who are threatened by it. …
That is the prospect Jesus holds out before any “worthy” disciple: a savage death and public disgrace. Jesus himself will literally go through that experience, and he offers his followers the prospect of the same. The language of discipleship … thus takes on here the macabre sense of following Jesus on the march to execution.
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 329, 331:
The demands of the kingdom are so offensive to a world already convinced of its rightness that they provoke that world’s hostility. …
In Jesus’ day “taking up the cross” meant being forced to bear the instrument of one’s execution past a jeering mob to the site of one’s imminent death as a condemned criminal.
John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos, 2010), 370 (on Micah 7:7):
Nothing is more difficult than to refrain from doing wrong, when the ungodly provoke us; for they seem to afford us a good reason for retaliation. … When the faithful themselves are provoked by injuries, there seems then to be a just reason for doing wrong; for they say that they wilfully do harm to no one, but only resist an injury done to them, or retaliate fraud with fraud: this they think is lawful. The Prophet, in order to prevent this temptation, bids the faithful to look to God.
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