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Matthew 10:34-39 “Unity with Jesus’ Agenda”

“Do not think that I came to bring peace upon the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to turn a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law. And a man’s enemies will be the members of his house. The one who loves father or mother above Me is not worthy of Me and the one who loves son or daughter above Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever does not pick up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. The one who finds his soul will destroy it and the one who destroys his soul for My sake will find it.”


The final section in Jesus’ instructions to the twelve apostles reaches something of a climax in these verses. He has already (1) detailed their mission objective and the manner of its execution (vv. 5-15), (2) informed them as to the situation they are about to enter (vv. 16-23), and (3) has been moving toward a conclusion by drawing attention to the imperative charge of oneness with Him (vv. 24-33) and now His agenda (vv. 34-42). The call to unity with Jesus’ agenda begins with perilous warnings (vv. 34-39) before ending with positive encouragement (vv. 40-42). The point here is to explicitly reveal Jesus’ agenda of causing separation among men and to impress the dire consequences of failing to choose Him totally and exclusively.


Agenda Revealed (vv. 34-36)

These verses contain no less than three “I came” (ἦλθον) statements and thus are given as a window into the purpose of Jesus’ advent. This revelation begins with a correction of popular conceptions regarding Messiah’s coming (v. 34) and moves on to offer a sobering explanation (vv. 35-36). 


Correction: Jesus Reveals His True Agenda (v. 34)

Do not think that I came to bring peace upon the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

This verse begins with the edge of a strong command[1] and mimics the language of Jesus’ thesis statement in the SM (Do not think I came to abolish the Law and the Prophets – 5:17). This statement assumes that what follows will be hard to hear and may even be met by the response “surely it is not so!” Jesus is correcting an idea that is popular and well circulated but is in fact not true. This observation draws a line of comparison between the two texts. In 5:17, Jesus issued this warning as a preparatory command, getting His audience ready for a shocking revelation. The same is true here. In 5:17, Jesus makes certain that His audience knows He has no intentions of altering (much less abolishing) a single pen stroke from the Old Testament. This was an important point to make because He then went forward to utterly destroy the popular rabbinic teaching of the Old Testament (5:21-48). Something very much like that is happening here.

Jesus corrects the notion that He has come to bring peace upon the earth. Why would He feel so strongly that this idea must be corrected? The answer to this question flows along two lines of reasoning. The first has to do with what Jesus has already said. Early on in the SM, Jesus pronounced blessing upon those who make peace on account of their special relationship with God (5:9). In addition to this, Jesus ordered the twelve to pronounce peace upon those who are worthy in receiving them and the gospel of the coming kingdom (10:13). By these statements alone it would seem that Jesus is one who intends to bring peace.

The second line of reasoning assumes Jesus’ true identity as the seed of David, rightful king of Israel, and Yhwh’s Messiah. After all, the coming child is to be called the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6), the coming king is to usher in peace (Ps. 72:3, 7), and the coming suffering servant is to be chastised for the peace of Israel (Is. 53:5). To associate Jesus with the coming Messiah is to associate Him with peace: the final secession of hostility between God and man as well as the complete harmony in creation. Jesus says nothing to indicate that He is not Messiah, though He is quite adamant that the twelve give no thought that He has come to bring peace. Jesus is warning against cherry-picking prophetic texts. The prophets certainly wrote about a coming time of peace once Messiah’s kingdom is established. But they also wrote that the coming Day of the Lord would be darkness and no light (Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18), would bring destruction from the Almighty (Joel 1:15; Is. 13:6), would be accompanied by cosmological disorder (Joel 2:31), and that no one would be able to endure it (Joel 2:11). The peace of the kingdom comes only after the destruction of the sword.

Jesus has spoken to great lengths about the physical harm and persecution that His disciples will suffer in their mission but has not mentioned that they will be subjects of eschatological judgment. By stating that He brings a sword instead of peace, Jesus is not in any way making an eschatological statement. In fact, this addition of a sword enforces the idea that Jesus has not already come[2] to usher in the eschatological kingdom. Rather than peace, Jesus has come for the purpose[3] of bringing a sword, the opposite of peace. Traditionally, the Old Testament use of “sword” indicates either divine judgment (Is. 27:1; 66:16; Jer. 12:12; 25:29; Ezek. 38:21) or oppression from enemies (Judg. 3:21; 2 Sam. 2:16; 20:10; Job 5:20; Jer. 2:30). The following context strongly indicates the latter.[4]

The point then is this. Jesus corrects any false notions His disciples may have concerning Jesus’ advent and the implications it has on their mission. Though they preach the nearness of the kingdom, Jesus did not come to usher it in. Far from it. Jesus boldly proclaims that He has come for the expressed purpose of bringing a sword of division rather than world peace.


Explanation: Jesus Reveals the Depth of Division (vv. 35-36)

For I came to turn a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law. And a man’s enemies will be the members of his house.


Such a statement requires an explanation.[5] What does Jesus mean by a “sword”? The sword Jesus intends to bring is a sword of division. Jesus speaks plainly that He intends to turn the average home upside down. The picture being formed is of a single family consisting of five individuals. The older generation (father and mother) are set against[6] the younger generation (son, unmarried daughter, and the son’s new bride). This explanation reveals the depth of division caused by Jesus in several ways.

First, we must consider the shock of Jesus’ words upon His audience. The family unit in the context of the first century ancient near east was the nucleus of society. While men may speak of loyalty to one’s country, religion, or race, nothing so naturally assumed and demanded loyalty than the family. The sons would not move away but bring their bride into the home of his father. The daughters that were unmarried did not declare independence and move out but remained under their father’s roof as an aid and companion to their mother. A bride would leave her father’s house to join her husband by becoming part of his family. Jesus states that He purposes to disrupt this fellowship and family ties. This seems devious and even contradictory to God’s established plan for the family. Why would Jesus do this? This can be answered by observing where Jesus’ words come from.

Second, we cannot but help noting that Jesus is alluding to Micah 7:6. The context of Micah 7:6 is key to this understanding. Micah’s prophecy revolves around the thesis that Israel is in desperate need for David’s promised seed to rule and reign as king. The final section (6:1-7:20) outlines the need for this coming king to be a righteous king. The problem is, there is no righteous person in the land (6:1-7:8) and yet, the righteous king will come (7:9-20). By quoting from Micah 7:6, Jesus picks up on the same thread that the prophet laid down: the time before the coming king will be marked by such wickedness that the family unit will be dissolved. This makes a similar point as v. 21 in that the commandment to honor father and mother is not only discarded but inverted. Jesus will divide the family by cutting all ties. There will be those who follow Him (father and mother) and those who hate His followers because of Him (sons, daughters, brides). These things marked the days of Ahaz in Judah and will continue to mark the people until the righteous king does come to bring peace.

Third, there is a hint that Jesus points back to v. 25 with the use of “household” (οἰκιακός). If anything, the family unit should all go together. That was the implication of Jesus’ illustration in v. 25, that the members are not safe from being insulted when the head is slandered. There’s a sense of assumed solidarity within the family. Yet here, Jesus warns that one’s enemies would come from the least likely of places. Those who he thought he could count on most (those under his own roof) will be the ones to turn on him. There is perhaps another illusion to the fact that Jesus will be betrayed by one of His own.

Finally, we must have a healthy understanding of what this division is. Division is impossible where there is complete unity. Had Jesus never come into this world, there would be consistent unity among all men in that as rebellious sinners they would by uniformly damned. By coming into the world as light in darkness (4:15-16), Jesus caused division between those who followed the light and those who remained in darkness. More than being inescapable, this division is necessary. The unity of rebellion is now divided, and all men reside within one of two camps which stand in opposition.[7] 

This understanding explains why Jesus came as a suffering servant rather than a conquering king. The lost must repent because the kingdom is coming (4:17; 10:7). Otherwise, the king would have no subjects and only rebels to execute. This division seems harsh, but without it, there would be no loyal subjects to the king. And loyalty is what the king demands.


Agenda Applied (vv. 37-39)

Jesus goes beyond warning the twelve of the division that He causes to now clarifying the loyalty that He demands. This loyalty must surpass the most sacred bonds of society (vv. 37-38) and must even override natural self-interest (v. 39).


Priorities of Loyalty (vv. 37-38)

The one who loves father or mother above Me is not worthy of Me and the one who loves son or daughter above Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever does not pick up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.


That the disciples are heading for trouble has been well established (vv. 16-23). That this trouble results in their connection with Jesus has already been mentioned (vv. 24-33). That Jesus is the immediate cause of this trouble is the near context (vv. 34-36). Here we see how Jesus causes this trouble and division. These two verses contain three parallel statements that specify how and why Jesus causes division among families.

In v. 37, Jesus addresses the natural familial love that exists between parents and children. The issue at hand is that of priority. Simply put, Jesus does not share the place of prestige or precedence in one’s life. First, Jesus addresses the perspective of a child and refers to him as a lover[8] of father or mother. It is good and right for a child to have friendly and affectionate love (φιλέω) for their parents. That is not the issue. What is wrong with this situation is that this love supersedes the love for Jesus. The same construction used to indicate the inferiority of the disciple/slave to their teacher/lord in v. 24 is used again here.[9] The point is that this familial love for parents is placed in front of and exceeds the love for Jesus. Jesus states in the simplest of terms that such a one is not worthy (ἄξιος) of Him. The discussion of worth/worthiness returns from vv. 9-15 with a similar idea. Before, acceptance and reception to the gospel and the gospel preacher constituted worthiness. Here, the priority of Jesus above everything is what Jesus values and considers worthy. This must be carefully thought through and seen through the eyes of context. The idea of worthiness is not inherent to the individual but is based upon, even revealed by their actions. The worker is worthy of food (v. 10) by virtue of his work. The individual/house in the city is worthy (v. 11, 13) by virtue of their reception to the gospel message. Their worth is not determined by their actions so much as it is revealed. The same is true here. To love Jesus less than one loves their parents and even children does not make them unworthy so much as it reveals their unworthiness of Jesus. Jesus is jealous for one’s allegiance. Total, undivided attention is what is required.

In v. 38, Jesus takes a bit of a turn from the attention one gives to their beloved family to the attention they might reserve for themselves. This parallel statement refers to one’s willingness to follow Jesus to death. The image is somewhat lost upon us who are (a) so far removed from the then common practice of public execution via crucifixion and (b) used to numerous misuses of this image. It is common for one to speak of “bearing one’s cross” to refer to any number of trials ranging from an annoying neighbor to lifelong physical ailments. These are said to be “our cross to bear”.[10] This is not what Jesus has in mind. The image conveyed here is that of a condemned criminal whose final act in life is to carry the crossbeam of his cross to the place of execution where he will be crucified. Once a person takes up his cross, he is on a one-way trip and will not return.

With this in mind, there are several other things to notice here. First, while it is not the primary focus, Jesus’ own future crucifixion is in view. The picture of following after Jesus while carrying one’s own cross allows only two possibilities. (1) That Jesus is the one who is going to crucify them. This is not only a poor fit for the context, but flies in the face of everything Jesus has said up to this point. He is not the source of hostility. The wolves (v. 16), synagogue officials (v. 17), Gentile government officials (v. 18), family members (v. 21) and basically everyone not associated with Jesus (vv. 24-25) are the source of aggression and violence. Therefore (2) Jesus is leading the procession carrying His own cross. Jesus has already mentioned that the bridegroom will be taken away (9:15) and alluded to His return (10:23). Here, with the first mention of the cross (σταυρός) in Matthew’s gospel,[11] we see an allusion to Jesus’ atoning death.

Second, there is no qualifier regarding the picking up the cross such as “willing to” or “ready to”. There is no way to water this statement down to a mere theoretical situation to which the twelve may or may not be called. If unity with Jesus means death, then the one who is worthy of Jesus is revealed by his unflinching determination to see it through. There has been a shift from v. 37 where unity with Jesus means estrangement from family to here where unity with Jesus means departure from this world. This is not a command to court death or the cross. But once death looks the disciple in the eye, he unblinkingly follows Jesus while carrying the means of his own destruction. The image is that of a condemned man who faces death readily and willingly as he unwaveringly follows Jesus.

Taken together, vv. 37-38 address Jesus’ priority over all things. Jesus will not take a back seat to even the highest forms of human love and devotion. Neither will He accept the excuse of self-preservation to excuse complete fidelity. This point is made clear with the next verse.


Paradoxical Promises (v. 39)

The one who found his soul will destroy it and the one who destroyed his soul for My sake will find it.


This verse is purposefully paradoxical and seemingly antithetical in order to cause the hearer to carefully consider and mull over these words. The translation offered above differs dramatically from most English translations that speak of “life” rather than “soul” and “losing” rather than “destruction.” Yet, Jesus uses the same terms from v. 28 (ψυχή – soul and ἀπόλλυμι – to destroy, ruin, perish), something that we should at least acknowledge before pressing on to an interpretation.

Regarding the soul (ψυχή), we should shy away from simply considering it as a reference to the immaterial part of man. Not once in Matthew’s gospel is the term ψυχή used to distinguish between the physical and the immaterial parts of man but rather is used to describe the totality of man (2:20; 6:25; 10:28, 39; 11:29; 12:18; 16:25, 26; 20:28; 22:37; 26:38). A person is much more than a physical body but is comprised of incorporeal aspects as well. The Bible uses ψυχή in one of two ways. (1) To specifically describe one of these incorporeal elements (1 Thess. 5:23) or (2) to describe a person as a whole and united being (Gen. 2:7). This second point is what is in view here.

The one who found[12] his soul is the one concerns himself with his being. Every decision he makes, every moment he spends is in pursuit of his life, limb, happiness, and contentment. He is one who seeks to fulfill himself. This one will by virtue of his search destroy himself completely.[13] Men who spend their lives trying to find their place in this world bring only destruction upon themselves. On the flip side, the one who destroyed[14] his soul for Jesus’ sake will find it. There is nothing sadistic or masochistic in this statement, a thought avoided by the important prepositional phrase “for My sake” (ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ). The one who loses everything, who’s being is destroyed for the sake of Jesus (standing witness for, testifying on behalf of, refusing to place others above, etc.) will find his life (body, soul, and spirit) safe and intact. Here is more than a hint of a promise of restoration.

The overarching point is rather simple: Jesus demands complete devotion and unity to Him and His agenda. No one can supplant Jesus as the chief object of our devotion and affection. Nothing can stand in the way of dividing us from Jesus. Jesus argues from the greatest things of value to humanity (family and life itself) without bothering to mention things of lesser worth (social standing, career, possessions, etc.). Jesus goes right to the heart of man’s affections and demands supremacy. If one is ready to walk away from one’s family and even one’s life to follow Jesus, then nothing else will stand in the way of following Jesus alone.

[1] Negated aorist subjunctive (μὴ νομίσητε). The same construction as vv. 9, 26 (perish the thought!).

[2] The three-fold use of ἦλθον (aorist active indicative of ἔρχομαι) conveys a broad picture of the event. Yet the context points to the fact that these are past tense. Jesus has already come. Thus, these statements refer exclusively to His first advent.

[3] As per Quarles (p. 108) and Turner (p. 281), all three infinitives in vv. 34-35 (to bring – βαλεῖν(2x), to turn/set - διχάσαι) indicate purpose.

[4] Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 404.

[5] Epexegetical γὰρ.

[6] Κατά with the genitive indicating opposition: against.

[7] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 415.

[8] Substantival participle from φιλέω (ὁ φιλῶν) identifies the individual by their actions. The present tense indicates one who is loving and continues to love parents/children above Jesus.

[9] Ὑπέρ with the accusative indicating a marker of degree of excelling scale or superiority (more than, beyond, over and above).

[10] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 476.

[11] Archibald Robertson, Matthew and Mark, vol. I, VI vols., Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p. 84.

[12] Substantival participle from εὑρίσκω (ὁ εὑρὼν) identifies the individual by their actions. The aorist tense takes a general, big picture view of this one. He is identified as a finder of his being.

[13] The future tense (ἀπολέσει) points to a future action as the result of, or at least is connected to, his “finding”.

[14] Another substantival participle, this time from ἀπόλλυμι (ὁ ἀπολέσας) identifies the individual by their actions. The aorist tense again takes the general, big picture view of this one and identifies him as a destroyer of his being.


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