Matthew 26:52—Is Jesus advocating pacifism and denouncing capital punishment in this passage?
Problem: When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter took out his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus told Peter to put back the sword because those who take up the sword will die by the sword. Some use this verse to support pacifism and to oppose capital punishment, which the Bible affirms elsewhere (Gen. 9:6).
Solution: Total pacifism is not taught in this Scripture. Indeed, Abraham was blessed by the Most High God (Gen 14:19) after engaging in a war against the unjust aggression of the kings who had captured his nephew Lot. In Luke 3:14, soldiers come to inquire of John the Baptist about what they should do. John never told them to leave the army. Likewise, Cornelius, in Acts 10, was a centurion. He was called a devout man (v. 2), and the Scriptures say that the Lord heard the prayers of Cornelius (v. 4). When Cornelius becomes a Christian, Peter does not tell him to leave the army. Also, in Luke 22:36–38, Christ says that the one who has no sword should sell his robe and buy one. The apostles responded saying that they had two swords. Jesus responded saying that “it was enough.” In other words, they did not need to get rid of their swords. The Apostle Paul accepted the protection of the Roman army to save his life from unjust aggressors (Acts 23). Indeed, he reminded the Roman Christians that God had given the sword to the king who did not bear it in vain (Rom. 13:1–4). When Jesus returns to earth, He will come with the armies of heaven and will war against the kings of the earth (Rev. 19:11–19). So, from the beginning to the end, the Bible is filled with examples of the justification of war against evil aggressors.
What, then, did Jesus mean when He commanded Peter to put away his sword? Peter was making two mistakes in using his sword. First, while the Bible permits the sword by the government for civil purposes (Rom. 13:1–4), it does not endorse its use for spiritual ends. It is to be used by the state, not by the church. Second, Peter’s use was aggressive, not purely defensive. His life was not being unjustly threatened. That is, it was not clearly an act of self-defense (Ex. 22:2). Jesus appears to have endorsed the use of the sword in civil self-defense (Luke 22:36), as did the Apostle Paul (Acts 23).
Likewise, capital punishment is not forbidden in Scripture, but rather was established by God. Genesis 9:6 affirms that whoever sheds man’s blood, the blood of the killer will also be shed. Numbers 35:31 makes a similar statement. In the NT, Jesus recognized that Rome had capital authority and submitted to it (John 19:11). The Apostle Paul informed the Romans that governing authorities are ministers of God and that they still possessed the God-given sword of capital authority (13:1, 4). So Jesus in no way did away with the just use of the sword by civil authorities. He simply noted that those who live lives of aggression often die by the same means.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.