A Christmas Sword
The coming of Christ means peace on earth. But it’s not that simple. Jesus often brings peace through struggle and strife.
This is a Christmas text, a birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke. When Jesus’ parents brought him to the temple to be circumcised on the eighth day, there was an old man present, Simeon, who had been waiting for the Messiah. When the family went by him, he was prompted by the Holy Spirit to perceive Jesus’ true identity. He took the baby in his arms and spoke now-famous words, called the Nunc dimittis, that have been chanted in Christian worship liturgies over the centuries. The Nunc dimittis is usually rendered something like this: “Now, Lord, let thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for my eyes have seen thy salvation.” Simeon is thanking God that he lived just long enough to see the Messiah.
The Nunc dimittis is contained in Luke 2:29–32, but that is not all Simeon said. Luke tells us that, after Mary and Joseph listened in amazement to his initial words, Simeon then looked right at Mary and added:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34–35).
It’s understandable why this second statement from Simeon is relatively unknown. It has not been put to music; it is not read at Christmas services around the world. But I think it should be, because it is part of what the Bible tells us about the meaning of Christmas, and because we need to hear it. Why? Both the secular and church celebrations of Christmas focus almost entirely on sweetness and light. They are all about how the coming of Christ means peace on earth.
And certainly it does. But it’s not that simple. How does a surgeon bring peace to your body if it has a tumor in it? The surgeon spills your blood, cuts you open, because that is your only path to health. How does a therapist help a downcast, depressed person? Often she does it by bringing up the past, getting the patient to confront painful memories and terrible feelings. The surgeon and therapist often have to make you feel worse before you can feel better.
In Matthew 10:34 Jesus goes so far as to say, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He quickly goes on to show he does not mean that he comes to incite violence. He means rather that his call to allegiance brings conflict—conflicts both among people and within people. Just like any peacemaker who has ever lived, Jesus makes people mad, and he often causes struggle and strife. Yet this is the way his peace comes.
He Causes Conflicts Among People
The first part of Simeon’s prophecy is that Jesus will cause “falling and rising” and be “a sign that will be spoken against.” In other words, people will be polarized, and many will oppose Jesus. This will cause conflicts.
We have explored part of the reason for this reaction from people—the magnitude of his claims of authority. But there is more to it than that. Jesus says in John 3:19–20 that people “love darkness instead of light” and hate the light because it exposes them for what they are.
Even at a very basic level you can see this principle worked out. I once knew a white family in a neighborhood that was very welcoming to the first African American family who moved into their area. Their white neighbors were furious with them. For years these neighbors had given any new nonwhite families the cold shoulder. The friendly family made others feel the pressure to be more open and engaging and they didn’t like it, not at all.
I once knew a policeman who, after converting to Christianity, would not take the money that the local pimps quietly passed around his precinct so that the police would not arrest their prostitutes. A couple of other policemen approached him and said, “You’d better watch it. You are making the other guys very nervous. You have to take the money.” He refused, and after getting some anonymous threats, he had to move to another city.
See the principle played out? You don’t have to be Jesus Christ to get people furious at being exposed for what they are. Just living an honest, moral life will expose gossip in the office, corruption in government, racism in the neighborhood. The manger at Christmas means that, if you live like Jesus, there won’t be room for you in a lot of inns.
A New Kind of Worshipper
In the early days of Christianity, Roman society was virtually awash with gods, religious cults, and mystery religions. In that culture it was expected that you should have your own private faith and your own gods. Yet when it came time to give public honor to the gods of the particular city or to the divine emperor himself, you had to participate. Roman homes, civic and public agencies, marketplaces, associations of tradespeople, and military units each had their own patron gods and regular public ceremonies dedicated to them. Even most formal dinners included acknowledgment of the local gods. To refuse to participate aroused suspicion, resentment, and anger—and a fear of divine reprisal against the whole community.
It quickly became clear that Christianity was quite different from these other religions. Not only did Christians have no priests, sacrifices, or temples, but they saw sacrificing to any other god as idolatry. The exclusiveness of Christian belief, and their conviction that Jesus was not just a god but the God, put Christians on a collision course with nearly everyone in that religiously pluralistic society. Intolerant Christians appeared to be a threat to the whole social order. Historians explain that early Christians were, as a result, often disinherited, excluded from government jobs, cut out of the best business relationships, and occasionally physically abused and imprisoned.1
In our secular society today, non-Christians do not fear divine reprisal, but increasingly our culture also sees Christians as a threat to the social order. Traditional Christian beliefs are once again seen as dangerously intolerant, and some kinds of restrictions and exclusions may be in our future as well. So the Gospel message brings hostility because it is seen—now as then—as intolerant.
As we have seen, there is a hostility to Christianity that is even more fundamental. Romans 1 tells us that at bottom we know we need God, but we repress the knowledge (Romans 1:18–20). All human beings have a motor of self-justification deep in their hearts. We need to believe we are competent to run our own lives and save ourselves. Anything that prevents this motor from functioning makes us very angry. Nothing is a bigger problem for this whole complex of repression and denial than Jesus himself. Everything about his life says to us, “You are not your own; you are bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19). No one wants to hear that. It is not surprising that they got mad at him. If you identify with Jesus and you don’t hide your connection, some people will get mad at you too.
There is a danger in talking about this, because Christians are flawed human beings, and we often bring censure upon ourselves through hypocrisy and bigotry. We must not try to justify our own flaws and missteps by complaining that we are being persecuted. Sometimes people are simply offended by us, and they have a right to be. But Simeon is saying that there is an offensiveness to Jesus himself, and in every time and place it will find expression, and anyone who identifies with him will be included.
The coming of Jesus into our lives makes us peacemakers, yet it also brings conflict. If you are a committed Christian, then, you will know both the triumphs of peacemaking and the heartbreak of opposition.
This article is excerpted from Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ by Timothy Keller, published on October 25, 2016 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Timothy Keller 2016.
- Larry Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2016), pp. 73–94.