And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
Jesus does not mandate pacifism in this passage, which clearly speaks specifically to His situation in the context of the narrative: i.e., that to rescue Jesus with violence would be wrong because Scripture could not then be fulfilled. But there is more to these words of Christ than their context in the Passion narrative; this saying is a commandment not only applicable to the disciple but to the Church. John's Gospel reveals that the swordsman was none other than Peter, who typifies the Church with His confession "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!" that is the rock on which Jesus promised to build His Church. Thus, the Church today must be careful to take heed of this commandment and its implications for our lives as Christians in this world.
The commandment is this: simply, that the Church must not attempt to defend their Lord with violence. For although Christ's body is not under threat now in the same sense it was in the Garden of Gethsemane, His name is blasphemed throughout the earth, spat upon by those who hate Him and His Church. Mockery outside the Church blasphemes the name of Christ, heresy blasphemes Him from within, and sin both inside and outside saddens and offends against our Lord. But Christ makes it clear that, although the world's sin against Him is great, that the Church is not to restrain or punish offenders against Him with force and violence.
For Jesus has satisfied the wrath of God with His own blood, spilled violently upon the cross, and demands no more sacrifice but is full of mercy. We are saved by the grace of God through Christ, and cannot find God's favor in our works on His behalf, nor can we satisfy His wrath by restraining the evildoer, for His wrath has already been satisfied. Although sin certainly saddens God, we are not called to subdue the sinner with coercion, which would sadden Him even more. As Jesus reminded Peter that He was perfectly capable of defending Himself, so He also reminds us today that vengeance against the evildoer is His responsibility, not ours, and that if the Church resolves to use violence, it will surely be a victim of the same, for "All who take the sword will perish by the sword." Therefore, when we hear people mock Christ or see them engage in immorality, we should not try to silence or stop them but instead engage them, pray for them, and trust God to deal with them justly.
This is an especially relevant commandment for today's American Church, in which the controversies tied up in the so-called "culture wars" have created great divisions within and without the Body of Christ. The problem with the culture wars is not the opposition of various ideas and principles (as if debate was a bad thing) but the use of force on the part of Christians and the Church in order to defend the name of Christ and advance His kingdom by regulating immoral behavior. Simply, the more literally that "combatants" take the term "culture wars," the worse they are going to get. Of course, there are not many Christians who prowl the streets looking for sinners to restrain by force. But when the Church appeals to the government to do the same - to make certain behaviors, substances, or types of speech illegal - they violate this command of Christ by proxy, since they themselves do not use violence but rather encourage others to use it for their ends. For laws are by nature coercive, and when the government passes a law, it includes the threat of violence as a punishment for breaking that law. When the Church, then, attempts to influence the government to pass laws restricting immoral behavior, it becomes complicit in the use of violence against sinners. When the Church acts in this way, it becomes no different from the Pharisees, who had to be stopped by Jesus from stoning the woman caught in adultery (John 8).
For all Christians are soldiers of Christ and members of His Kingdom, but the Kingdom of God does not come by forceful behavior modification. Rather, Jesus has inaugurated a Kingdom that comes through Word and Sacrament in the vessel of the Church, the true Body of Christ here on earth. The proper response to the depravity of our culture is not for the Church to appeal to the government, a coercive institution, but simply to preach the Word, for in Scripture, Christ Himself speaks to us, and the Holy Spirit comes in power to work faith in the hearts of men and to "call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify" the Church and its members (Luther's Small Catechism). This is the subversive reality of the Kingdom of God: that its weapons are not guns and grenades, but "the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Ephesians 6:17), the drowning of baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and the body and blood broken and shed for us in the Lord's Supper. Although He has prohibited violence, Jesus has not left Himself and His Church defenseless. Let we believers, then, truly wage Spiritual warfare, not according to the principles of this world, but according to Christ, who leads His people into battle armed with the power of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament.