Not Peace, But a Sword
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (ESV)But doesn't Jesus tell us that He came not to bring peace but a sword? Is this a contradiction to Paul telling us to live peaceably with all? Does not Paul himself describe the Christian life in terms of warfare? Obviously, I do not believe Scripture contradicts Scripture, so how we to reconcile these statements?
First we have to understand that the latter statements are indicatives of what will occur, not imperatives that we are to instigate the conflict. This is why Paul says at the start of Romans 12:18 "so far as it depends on you." We will always have conflict, but we should not be the ones who cause the conflict. I think the command in Romans 12:18 is harder than we like to think.
The comparable command from Jesus is found in Luke 6:27-36:
27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.Notice that final line. Our acts of mercy are to reflect God's act of mercy. Mercy that bore the cost of sin, our offense against Him, without demanding anything in return from those that turn to Him. The simple act of trusting in His goodness is sufficient to finding forgiveness and peace. We should be a people where others know that forgiveness is always available.
32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (ESV)
Second, then, we must see that Romans 12:18 is an imperative - a command. A command based upon the Gospel, that we who were enemies of God have been reconciled to Him. Therefore we must display that Gospel forgiveness, meaning that to all who will live peaceably with us, we will live peaceably with them. And to those who will not live peaceably with us, we must still try to live peaceably with them.
Peter tells us the same thing as Paul, saying (1 Peter 3:13-18):
13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.Most of us who have been Christians a while can paraphrase v. 15, that we are to be ready to give a defense, but note the character of that defense in v. 16 - gentleness, respect, and a good conscience. If I'm honest with you, and me, gentleness is not that a trait many people would use to describe my giving a defense. In football, a good defense means you "stick it" when you are tackling someone. There should be no doubt that they know you were there. Football is popular, of course, because it reflects many of the ways of this world.
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit . . . (ESV)
God calls us to a defense that is gentle and full of respect, even for those who have no respect in this world. We are to remember two critical points - first, that every human being bears the image of God, and therefore should be treated like an image bearer; and, second, that every one of us, including ourselves, have marred that image through sin. I am not better than the dealer, the gang member, the addict. I have dealt sin to others, forced my will on others, and not been able to escape the grip of my habits. Despite my salvation, I still struggle with these things.
So Paul commands us to live peaceably. It will not just happen, it will take effort. My natural tendency is to react with resentment, bitterness, and anger at those who do not pay me the respect I feel I deserve. But what if God reacted that way when I did not pay Him the respect He really does deserve? But Peter reminds us that Jesus suffered in our place, bearing God's just judgment against my lack of respect, my animosity, my raised fist with finger extended, my angry rebellions.
In light of that forgiveness, how do I justify my anger at those around me? How do hold a grudge against those that have committed slight or grievous offenses against me? Because I forget. I forget the greatness of my sin, and the even more abundance of His grace. My goal is to look to the cross when I feel I've been mistreated. To remember that Jesus deserved nothing of what He received. Yet He prayed, "Father forgive them . . ."
This raises at least one more question - how do we deal with those who absolutely refuse to live peaceably with us? I hope to have that up by the end of the week, but I fly to Charleston tomorrow and will be there at least until Thursday evening. I'll hopefully have some time in the evenings, but there will be a large group of us there, and I'm expecting long days and late dinners that will not be quick.