Article Jun 4, 2018

Why Jesus requires our self-denial, not our sword

All that lit the dark night were torches carried by soldiers sent to the garden to arrest Jesus. Imagine the irony of that. Roman soldiers arresting Jesus is like a flock of centipedes harnessing the wind. Even the soldiers knew the futility of their assignment as they bowed to the ground when Jesus introduced himself. Stumbling to understand, looking at Judas, they asked again. Jesus confirmed that he was the man they came to arrest.

At that moment, determined to protect Jesus from this injustice, Peter drew his sword and actually cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant, Malchus.

Blood flowing and tempers soaring, Jesus picked up the ear, miraculously replaced it, and instructed Peter to put away his sword. It wasn’t Malchus’ blood that was required that day. “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Jesus asked. Peter said nothing and watched as Jesus put his hands, still stained with the servant’s blood, into the soldier’s hands to be led to Annas, then to Caiphas, then to Pilate, and then to the Cross of Golgotha.

“My kingdom is not of this world.”

The courage that motivated Peter to defend Jesus in the garden soon turned sour, causing him to deny Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest. Peter didn’t mind fighting a war he couldn’t lose, but when self-denial became Jesus’ weapon of choice, he wasn’t so sure. As the smoke of that charcoal fire filled his lungs, a battle raged in his heart. Jesus often spoke of suffering, sacrifice, and losing one’s life to follow him, but he also spoke of salvation, a future hope, and the kingdom of God.

When Peter put away his sword, Jesus invited him to a different kind of life altogether.

So when Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, Peter’s life took a whole new turn. The rejection the band of 12 brothers had faced for three years was just the beginning, not the end as he had hoped. The kingdom Jesus spoke of was not a political coup after all. The promises Jesus made would not be realized through conventional methods of war. When Peter put away his sword, Jesus invited him to a different kind of life altogether.

Only a few hours later, Jesus would explain this to Pilate when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). There it is. Ears would have been flying everywhere if this was Jesus’ kingdom, but it wasn’t and it isn’t.

Abandoning our version of the kingdom

Like Peter around that charcoal fire, we often struggle with the implications of building Jesus’ kingdom rather than our version of it. We fear losing our rights and privileges. We wonder how much will be asked of us. We resist releasing entrenched personal convictions. We feel pulled away from our national identity. We aren’t sure that loving people like God loves people will serve us well in the end. And perhaps most of all, we abhor the thought of losing our cherished idol of safety.

Yet when the rooster crowed and Peter and Jesus’ eyes met across the courtyard, Jesus did not shame Peter. Instead, I like to think Jesus gave a reassuring nod that said, “This is hard and painful and dangerous, but it is good and right and beautiful, and I still want you with me as I build my kingdom.”

Making disciples, by definition, invites a new generation of Jesus followers to deny themselves and take up their cross. This language is the language of loss. But it’s not merely a philanthropic loss of donated time or money. It’s not a “no-pain-no-gain” loss that promises a big payoff for hard work. It’s not the kind of loss that sweats bad karma from our pores. And it’s not a loss that sits by and expects the weak to endure abuse at the hands of the powerful.

The cross provides something more atomic than any of that. Jesus’ innocent death at the hands of sinful humanity satisfied the just demand of a holy God, so that taking up our cross is not our attempt to make additional payment for our sin. Instead, when we put away our swords and take up our crosses, we are accepting his payment for our sin, identifying with him in his death, burial, and resurrection, and thus announcing Jesus’ kingdom and God’s offer of forgiveness and reconciliation to a waiting world. We are trading our life for Jesus’, our influence for his gospel, and our future for his kingdom.

So as we invite the next generation of followers to live for Jesus’ kingdom, we, like Jesus, must insist, “Put away your sword.” Here are three simple applications for this:

1. When we put away our swords, we discover the gospel is greater than the horror of sin.

When Peter removed his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear, his intent was not to ignite a violent uprising. He was simply taking things into his own hands to remedy an injustice. He was noble. He was brave. But he was wrong. He was wrong because despite his good intentions, he could not fix the actual problem of spiritual brokenness, and neither can we.

The next generation of Jesus followers put away the sword by surrendering aspirations of self-made success and humbly accepting Jesus’ sacrifice that conquers sin, Satan, and the flesh. No longer can we afford to assume the upwardly-mobile life answers our greatest problems. No longer can we depend on the next political regime to secure our future. The stakes are too big to trust that which produces so little.

As Peter watched the soldiers take Jesus away, he realized just how short his best efforts fell. Soon after the resurrection, however, Peter discovered grace that was greater than all his sin, he abandoned even his good intentions, and he humbled himself by running to the feet of Jesus. It was there that Peter discovered that the greatest work, the gospel work that reconciles sinful men and women to God, was already fully accomplished for him in Christ.

2. When we put away our swords, we announce that sanctification is greater than self-preservation.

This is not a Second Amendment issue. Jesus’ command to Peter in the garden was not a universal prohibition on bearing arms or self-defense. Neither is it a call to pacifism in rolling back injustices or in coming to the aid of the distressed and defenseless. It is, however, a reminder of Paul’s words to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul’s identity was so wrapped up in Jesus that his human existence was lived by faith in Jesus’ life and work rather than by his own personal sight or might.

Jesus’ goal for Peter was bigger than our traditional view of success measured by popular influence and increasing affluence. It was, instead, that Peter and every believer would be washed in the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb, be freed from the dominion of sin, and be restored to intimate fellowship with God. So it’s sanctification, our holiness, that is the real success for which we aim. It’s sanctification that frees us to flourish with the life-giving joy of Jesus. It’s sanctification that satisfies our soul, even when it requires the suffering of exchanging our lesser ambitions for God’s greater ones.

3. When we put away our swords, we make a gospel impact that is greater than our personal influence.

The shore of the Sea of Galilee was the location of one of the most powerful conversations recorded in Scripture. It was there that over a different charcoal fire the resurrected Jesus asked the repentant Peter three times if he loved him. Peter answered, “Absolutely!” on every occasion, to which Jesus replied, “Then feed my sheep.”

Peter was a fisherman by trade, so Jesus wasn’t suggesting a career change. This was not a “get back in your boat and be who you were created to be” Ted Talk. Jesus wasn’t simply redeeming Peter to restore Peter’s fallen reputation. Peter’s personal influence was not Jesus’ primary concern.

Feeding sheep nurtures and sustains sheep that depend on the care of a shepherd, and Jesus often used sheep to describe the people in his care. So it seems that Jesus was calling Peter to provide for Jesus’ people, but there was just one problem with that. Jesus didn’t have any people. As Peter looked around, he saw a few disoriented fishermen, but he was hard-pressed to find a flock of sheep. But Jesus knew something Peter still didn’t know: An awakening was coming fueled by the Holy Spirit of God. Thousands of people would hear and respond in saving faith to Peter’s gospel preaching, and a church planting movement would begin that would multiply disciples of Jesus among every nation, tongue, and tribe.

Political empires rise and fall. Vocational trends ebb and flow. Financial markets boom and bust. But put away your sword now because there is a kingdom coming that knows no end. Our greatest work is not to protect our way of life or to build our platform, but to dispense the grace of the gospel that has moved us from death to life. Whether in a fishing boat, a c-suite of a global corporation, a school classroom, or at a nurses’ station, our greatest work is to pass on the gospel that has been entrusted to us.

We may not see all the sheep from where we sit today. We may not see how God can use us, but he is at work, the Holy Spirit is able, and Jesus still saves. So in this moment, God calls the next generation of believers to live as missionaries, putting away the sword, and taking up their crosses to make disciples who live for his kingdom for generations to come.

This article originally appeared here.

ERLC2018