“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
This verse is often used as a key text for pacifistic teachings, but does it really mean that any who handle weapons will die by them? Clearly, experience shows this is not the case, so what did Jesus mean in speaking these words?
The answer is found by looking closely at both the context and the wording of Matthew 26:52. It must be remembered that when Jesus made this statement to Peter – after the disciple drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of the men sent to arrest his master (Matthew 26:51) – it was following Jesus’ own instruction to his disciples to have a sword with them (Luke 22:36-38).
When we look closely at the wording in Matthew 26:52 of what Jesus told Peter, we see that he did not tell him to get rid of the sword, but simply to “put it back in its place” – its sheath. In fact, the Greek is literally to “turn away” (apostrepson) the sword, meaning to turn it to a different use, to return it to its place till a more proper need arose. Jesus then states that all who “take” (the literal meaning of the Greek) the sword will die by it. There is a stress on the word “take,” and this seems to indicate that Jesus is talking about those who actively choose to habitually use the sword when it should not be used.
The context makes it clear that Jesus did not want to resist arrest – that he willingly submitted to it, although innocent, in order that his purpose could be fulfilled. But Jesus would not have had his followers fight against the properly constituted authority in any case (John 18:36). Besides, Peter acted impulsively and struck first – his action was not even one of defense, but an attack, which Jesus certainly rejected. Remember that two of the disciples had swords that evening (Luke 22:38), but Jesus spoke only to Peter (“your sword”) who had used the weapon he carried aggressively.
So, when viewed in context and in detail, Jesus’ words to Peter seem most naturally to mean that those who utilize the sword for improper purposes – gratuitously or against rightful authority – will suffer the penalty that will normally be the eventual result of those crimes. His words seem to have had less to do with the concept of pacifism, than they had to do with the fact that self-initiated violence causes its own punishment – something Peter needed to grasp and live by.
Finally, we should also understand that the words “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” are regarded by a number of scholars to have possibly been added at some time after the original composition of Matthew’s Gospel. This and the next two verses are not found in Mark or Luke, and some suspect that these words may even have been added later based on Revelation 13:10: “…he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword …” This possibility cannot be proven either way, but it is always better not to try to decide doctrinal matters based on verses that are of an unsure origin.
Even if Matthew 26:52 is accepted as being completely authentic, its message seems most likely to have been one against the improper use of weapons, rather than against any use of weapons.