I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Jesus is the world’s greatest troublemaker. He disturbs the peace and causes fights. Jesus arouses conflict and turns family members against each other. Some people even end up dying because of Jesus. Here’s what Jesus himself says:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.
Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:34-39).
We might expect such words from an anti-family religious nut or from the leader of a wacko suicide cult. But the troublemaker who says these things is Jesus.
Those aren’t the first words most preachers quote when calling people to Jesus. Those of us who are preachers usually figure that if we want to “sell” people on Jesus, we’d better advertise him as a problem solver, not a troublemaker. We’d better picture Jesus as a source of peace in troubled times, not as a cause of conflict. We’d better present him as a therapist for troubled families, not as someone who divides families. We speak of him as the one who can save your life, not as the one who makes you lose your life. We say things like, “If you want peace in this troubled world, come to Jesus. If you want help with family problems, come to Jesus. If you want your life to be all it can be, come to Jesus.”
“Be all that you can be”—that’s an old slogan of army recruiters, and sometimes we preachers sound like those recruiters. Recruiters for the military know that strife is the army’s job. If your commanding officer orders you into combat, you must be willing to go wherever he commands. You must be willing to abandon father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even your own life. You must obey your commanding officer, no matter what. Army recruiters know this—but do the advertisements show a lonely soldier longing for people back home, or family members who are sad and angry at their loved one for leaving, or horrifying scenes of combat and death? No, recruiters produce ads that look exciting and inviting.
We preachers do something similar. We try to enlist people in Jesus’ army by telling them all the advantages and none of the troubles. For some reason, though, Jesus himself doesn’t stick to such positive advertising. Yes, he promises great things, but he also speaks about strife and division, family problems, and loss of life—the sort of troubles that any combat commander causes. What if we preachers, in our eagerness to recruit people for Jesus, aren’t telling the whole truth about him?
You may find it hard to think of Jesus as a troublemaker. With so many preachers talking about a nice, helpful Jesus whose only goal is to help us be all that we can be, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to crucify him. But people who met the real Jesus had no problem at all seeing him as a troublemaker. They saw him as strange, even dangerous. “Even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5). His family once tried to stop him from teaching and wanted to take him home, because they thought he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21). Some religious leaders concluded that Jesus was possessed by the prince of demons (Mark 3:22). Some of the common people also thought he was demon-possessed (John 7:20). If you doubt that people saw Jesus as a threat and a troublemaker, why do you think they killed him? Maybe you’ve imagined Jesus as helpful and harmless. But what if he’s really the fighter and troublemaker he claims to be? What then? Will you follow him?
It may sound foolish, even crazy, to follow Jesus if he’s a troublemaker. He says, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword… a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” What does Jesus mean?
Let’s be clear about one thing right away: Jesus doesn’t cause trouble just for the sake of trouble. He comes as God to reclaim a world which has turned against God, and that means a fight. Whenever a ruler starts to reclaim territories and people who have turned against him, it’s impossible to avoid strife. Jesus came into this world to reclaim it for God and to rescue it from enemy occupation by Satan and his demons. Jesus’ coming arouses resistance from the realm of demons. Jesus’ coming divides people between those who continue to side with sinful powers and those who side with Jesus. So if you enlist in Jesus’ army and follow him, you had better be ready for conflict.
Worthy of Complete Loyalty
Your loyalty to Jesus is bound to create problems with people around you, even with family members. Jesus calls for absolute, undivided loyalty. We must follow him even if it causes trouble, not just if he makes our family life easier. We must be willing to alienate ourselves from people we love in order to follow Jesus.
This may sound troubling at first, but think about it. Suppose you decide to follow Jesus on the grounds that he might help you to succeed in your family life or in your business. You don’t love Jesus or care about him, but you figure he can help you out in some things that really matter to you. Well, Jesus isn’t interested in that kind of a relationship. He wants you to love him, not use him.
What would you think of someone who pretended to be your friend just to get what he wants from you? How eager would you be to marry someone who is only interested in your money? Not very appealing, is it? So why should the Son of God put up with being used by people who don’t love him? Don’t come to Jesus for what he can do for your family life or your business. Come to Jesus simply because you love him more than anyone and because he deserves your highest loyalty.
If Jesus were just one more religious nut who causes strife and disrupts families and demands complete loyalty, it would be crazy to follow him. But Jesus isn’t just some crazy guy who thinks he’s God; Jesus is God. As God he is supremely worthy of our love, since his divine love is far greater than that of any person we know. And as God he is also supremely worthy of the absolute, unconditional obedience that a soldier owes to his supreme commander. No matter what trouble it might cause in your other relationships, love and absolute obedience to Jesus come first. That’s the only fitting response to who he is as God.
It’s also the only realistic response. You might as well know what you’re getting into if you’re thinking about following Jesus. If an easy, trouble-free life is what you’re after, then Jesus the troublemaker isn’t for you. If you like your relationships just the way they are, and you’re unwilling for any of that to change, then forget about Jesus. He changes everything, and not all of the changes will be pleasant for you, at least not in the short term. Yes, Jesus promises to bring you joy and deliver you from many troubles; but he also warns that you will have troubles that you might not have had if you didn’t follow him. Jesus is very honest about that. He wants you to know what you’re getting into right up front, with no fine print or deceptive advertising.
Jesus wants you to know that as long as you put family ties first, you can’t follow him. Your loyalty to Jesus must be unchallenged by any other loyalty. Your love for Jesus must come ahead of all lesser loves. You can’t let anyone else get in the way of your relationship to Jesus. What does this look like in everyday life? Here are some examples.
Suppose you come from a family that doesn’t follow Jesus. You identify with your mother and father, your brothers and sisters, and with your family’s way of life. Perhaps you even have a bit of ritual or religion in your family, but not a living faith in Jesus. If that’s the case, you can’t follow Christ unless you turn away from what your family members are like and what they expect you to be like. That’s not easy. It’s terribly hard to admit to yourself that Jesus is right and your family is wrong. To you it may feel like you’re hating and rejecting your family, and it may feel that way to them too. In some societies, family members actually try to kill their relatives who leave their family’s religion to follow Jesus. And even if your family doesn’t do that, you may sense that your family isn’t comfortable around you once you’ve become a Christian. You feel strong pressure from them to return to the way you were. Only by rejecting your family’s wishes can you follow the way of Jesus. Loyalty to Jesus comes first.
Another kind of relationship where Jesus causes trouble is romance. Once you become a Christian, Jesus doesn’t permit you to marry someone who doesn’t also belong to him. You shouldn’t even have a dating relationship with such a person. Samson was a mighty man, but he became attached to the ungodly woman Delilah, and she was his downfall. Solomon was a brilliant king, but he married women who worshipped other gods, and they turned his heart away from the Lord. So unless you’re stronger than Samson and smarter than Solomon, don’t violate your relationship with God by pursuing romantic relationships with non-Christians. Love for Jesus must come ahead of all lesser loves.
Olivia Langdon was raised in a Christian home by devout parents, and she claimed to be a Christian herself. One day, she met the brilliant writer Mark Twain. She was charmed by his intelligence and humor. Mark Twain was an open critic of religion, but Olivia thought she could marry him and then help him become a Christian.
At first, it seemed to be working. As one biographer puts it, Twain’s “natural kindness of heart, and especially his love for his wife, inclined him toward the teachings and customs of her Christian faith … It took very little persuasion on his wife’s part to establish family prayers in their home, grace before meals, and the morning reading of the Bible chapter.”
As time passed, however, Twain got tired of pretending. He told Olivia, “Livy, you may keep this up if you want to, but I must ask you to excuse me from it. It is making me a hypocrite. I don’t believe in the Bible; it contradicts my reason. I can’t sit here and listen to it, letting you believe that I regard it, as you do, in the light of the Gospel, the Word of God.” Olivia had failed to persuade her husband to become a Christian.
But the worst was yet to come. Some years later, Olivia told her sister that she no longer believed in a personal God who cared for every human soul. Then came a time when Olivia felt crushed by the death of a loved one. Twain told her, “Livy, if it comforts you to lean on your Christian faith, do so.”
She replied, “I can’t. I haven’t any.”
That story has been repeated many times. People think they can marry a non-Christian and continue to follow Jesus, but already in making that choice, they have put loyalty to their loved one ahead of loyalty to God. All too often they either end up abandoning faith in God, or else living at odds with their spouse. That’s why the Bible says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers…What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). If you’re a Christian dating a non-Christian, end the relationship. Follow Christ.
But what if this warning has come too late for you? What if you’re already married to someone who doesn’t follow Jesus? In that case, you may have a hard road ahead of you. But you can still follow Jesus if he moves you to love him more than you love your husband or wife. Ask Jesus to forgive what you’ve done. Commit yourself to following the way of Christ. Live by the Bible’s teachings. Worship each week with other Christians. If your husband or wife becomes upset about any of this, don’t let it stop you. You can’t compromise your commitment to Christ in order to make your marriage easier. Jesus matters even more than your marriage.
Please don’t misunderstand. You shouldn’t try to cause trouble with your spouse, and you can’t end a marriage the way you can end a dating relationship. You’ve made those marriage vows, and you must take them seriously. God hates divorce. He doesn’t want Christians trying to get rid of unbelieving spouses. Still, the fact remains that if you become a living, active follower of Jesus, you will be different than you were before. If your husband or wife can accept the new you, great! If you keep living as the person Jesus calls you to be, you may win your spouse over to Christ. But even if your spouse is uncomfortable with your new life in Christ, don’t stop following the Lord just to make your marriage more comfortable. You have no choice but to follow Jesus, even if your spouse finds it hateful.
You must love Jesus more than husband or wife, and you must love him more than your sons and daughters too. If loyalty to your children comes before loyalty to Christ, it can distort and destroy your faithfulness to God. How can this happen? Here are a few examples. Your daughter decides to live with a man, and you think, “Maybe marriage isn’t the only proper context for sexual intimacy as the Bible claims.” Or your son informs you he is gay, and you figure the Bible must be wrong to say that homosexual behavior is sinful. Or some people you love reject Jesus to follow another way, and you can’t bear the thought of them going to hell. You become more concerned about them than about God’s honor and truth, and you start to wonder if maybe Jesus isn’t the only way to eternal life. Your ideas change to suit the behavior of your loved ones. Your love for them eats away at your convictions about God’s truth.
Cruel to Be Kind
The sad irony in all this is that if you love other people more than you love Jesus, you’re not in a position to help them. You can’t accept the plain teaching of the Bible, so you can’t help your loved ones to change their ways. You say only what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. They are so important to you that you can’t risk offending them or losing them. And because you can’t risk losing them now, you instead allow them to be lost for all eternity. Only when you oppose their behavior for Jesus’ sake can you truly love them and help them come to the Lord they need so much. Even if it feels cruel to put loyalty to Jesus ahead of loyalty to loved ones, you must be cruel to be kind.
So far we’ve seen some examples of what happens when you love unbelieving, sinful family members more than you love Jesus. But what if the people close to you are devout Christians? Well, even then, it can wreck your faith to love them more than you love Jesus. Suppose God takes those people from you. What then?
The Bible tells about Job and his wife. They had a close-knit, God-fearing family, and they were prosperous. Then tragedy struck. Their children were all killed, their wealth vanished, and Job was struck by an illness that caused excruciating pain. How did Job’s wife react? She wanted nothing more to do with God. She told her husband, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” Job replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (Job 2:9-10)
When God allowed Mrs. Job’s children and her prosperity and her husband’s health to be taken away, she began to hate God. Why? Because all along she had loved her children and her wealth and her successful husband more than she loved God. Job wasn’t like that. Job loved God even more than he loved his wife and children, more than he loved his own life. He grieved his losses and asked many questions, but he refused to stop trusting God. And by loving God more than his children and by rejecting the advice of his own beloved wife, Job held on to God and called his wife back to God as well. In order to have a faith strong enough to survive tragedy, you need a love for Jesus that is greater than your love for anybody else. A half-hearted relationship to Christ can’t survive. When your loyalty is tested, you would rather abandon Jesus than lose a relationship with someone you love.
Counting the Cost
When Jesus tells you all this, is he trying to discourage you from following him? No, quite the opposite: he’s calling and urging you to follow him. But he wants you to know what you’re getting into. Jesus is an honest recruiter. He wants you to count the cost ahead of time. There are great and eternal rewards in following Jesus, but there are also risks and losses. God may give you many blessings, but he may also take away some things and disrupt relationships that are important to you. Do you love him enough to follow him even then? Jesus doesn’t want fair-weather friends. He wants disciples who love and follow him, no matter what.
Maybe it sounds like Jesus is demanding too much. But as you count the cost of following him, make sure you also count the cost of not following him. If you try to hold onto your own life on your own terms, you will lose it. You will forever cut yourself off from the Lord and his blessings. That is a terrible price to pay.
Count the cost of following Jesus, count the cost of not following him, and then count one more cost: the cost to Jesus of coming into this world to rescue you from enemy forces and to make you his own. If you think the Lord demands a lot from you, keep in mind that he has given far more than he demands. The Jesus who calls us to give up everything for him is the same Jesus who gave up everything for us. And he had a lot more to give up. Jesus left his place in heaven at his Father’s side to become a tiny baby. He gave up his position of power to become a weak human being. And that’s not all he gave up. Here on earth, there were times when Jesus had to ignore the human family he loved so much. They wanted him to stop preaching and come home. But Jesus decided: “No matter what my family says, I’ve got to do what God sent me to do. My real family is anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mark 3:21, 31-35).
Jesus even laid down his own life, in order to please his Father and to save us. His death was horrible for him, and it pierced his mother’s soul. But Jesus loved his heavenly Father even more than he loved his mother and brothers, even more than he loved his own life, and so he took up the cross and laid down his life as his heavenly Father directed him. So yes, Jesus may cause trouble for us, but not nearly as much trouble as he suffered on our behalf. He ignored his own welfare and the wishes of his family in order to carry out God’s plan. And in doing so, he opened the way to eternal life for his mother, his brothers, and for everyone else who comes to trust in him.
What’s your response to Jesus the troublemaker? Have you enlisted in his army? Do you trust and obey him as your commander? Some troublemakers are bad, but Jesus is one troublemaker you can’t live without. You can’t live without the troubles he suffered for you. You can’t live without him troubling your status quo with his revolutionary gift of new life. You’ve heard his outrageous demand to love and follow him no matter what. You’ve also heard his outrageous love and sacrifice for you. Now what? How are you going to respond?