What will you do with the Lord with a sword? I am referring to the picture of Jesus found in his letter to the church in Pergamum. In it Jesus introduces himself as “The One who has the sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 2:12).
Why is Jesus holding a sword? And what does he plan to do with it?
Should I be worried?
Why does Jesus have a sword?
Contrary to what you may think, the picture of Jesus-with-a-sword has nothing to do with punishment or anything like that, as we will see.
First, some context: Pergamum was a provincial capital and home to a Roman governor. Some Roman governors held ceremonial swords (the ius gladii) which meant they held the power of life and death. The sword-wearing governor of Pergamum had the power to punish those who refused to worship the emperor.
In short, he could kill Christians.
In Roman times, the sword or gladius was the symbol of absolute authority, and it is a Roman sword that Jesus has here. He’s not holding an Oriental scimitar or a Greek makhaira, but a sharp double-sided sword such as a Roman governor would possess. Out of the seven Revelation letters, the letter to Pergamum is the only one that mentions Jesus with a sword because Pergamum was the seat of power.
What is the significance of the Lord-with-a-sword?
Jesus is introducing himself as the true and eternal ruler of Pergamum.
Some more context (you might want to grab some popcorn): Pergamum had a long and bloody history of swordplay. It had been conquered by Greeks, Persians, Thracians, then more Greeks, before being given to the Romans and their sword-wielding governors. The Roman emperor ruled by the power of the sword, but the Lord-with-a-sword is the Lord of all and the true lord of Asia. The Romans, Goths, Sassanids, Byzantines, Seljuks, and all the other rulers of Pergamum have come and gone, but the kingdom of the Lord endures and will never be destroyed.
The Lord-with-a-sword was a powerful revelation for the power-conscious Pergamenes. It is also a great comfort for those who are oppressed. Jesus is saying, “Fear not, for your Protector is mightier than your oppressor. He who is for you is greater than he who is against you.”
Which is nicely reassuring. But there is another reason why Jesus appears here with a sword.
In the Gospels, Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). He was referring to the sword of truth that sets a son against his father and a daughter against her mother. It’s not that Jesus is in the business of wrecking families, but people divide themselves by their response to truth.
Such a divide was forming in the church at Pergamum. A group called the Nicolaitans had introduced a destructive teaching and were leading some people led. Jesus came to them with his sword of truth to slice through the lies and set them straight.
Is Jesus going to slay the false teachers?
Some commentators say Jesus will kill the Nicolaitans and their followers with his sword. “Balaam was killed with a sword. What happened to Balaam will happen to them.” Except Jesus has no intention of killing those he died for.
The kingdom of God is not advanced by running people through. The sword of his mouth is the word of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). It’s the word of truth that sets men free.
We must take care not to imagine Jesus as a merciless Roman governor. Far better to let scripture inform our image of the Lord-with-a-sword.
In the Old Testament, an angel with a sword opposed Balaam and the intent was to get Balaam’s attention (Num. 22:31). It’s the same thing here. Jesus loves the Nicolaitans. He hates their deeds, but he loves them. He went to the cross for them. He stands before them now with a sword to get their attention. “Come to your senses and turn to God.”
What will Jesus do to the Nicolaitans?
He will combat their diabolical lies with the cold steel of truth. The true enemy in Pergamum was Satan (Rev. 2:13). It was Satan’s message the Nicolaitans were preaching. But Satan is no match for the Lord-with-a-sword. Just as light defeats the darkness, God’s truth will defeat the enemy’s lies.
What does this mean for us?
Some people don’t believe in the power of grace. They prefer rules and discipline and the threat of Jesus swinging a big sword. “Watch out or Jesus will chop your head off!” It’s a terrible image, yet it is one I have often encountered. Apparently the Jesus of Revelation is a sword-wielding slayer of sinners and slackers.
We need to renew our minds and read the words of Jesus through the lens of the cross.
Jesus does not kill people who are lost or have gone astray, not even false teachers. So what will he do with people like the Nicolaitans? Either he will treat them the way he treats all sinners (with love and mercy), or he will rebuke them like Pharisees. It’s the latter action that is implied here.
Why do you put up with the Nicolaitans… Enough! Don’t give in to them; I’ll be with you soon. I’m fed up and about to cut them to pieces with my sword-sharp words. (Revelation 2:15–16, MSG)
Balaam ignored the angel with the sword and was cut to pieces by the Israelites. If the Balaamites of Pergamum ignore the Lord-with-a-sword, they can expect to feel the sharp edge of his words. They will get the same message that Jesus gave to the stubborn Pharisees: “Woe to you.”
What is the takeaway?
When we find ourselves bullied and pushed around by life, we need a revelation of the Lord-with-a-sword. If the Lord-with-a-sword is for you, who can be against you (see Rom. 8:31–34)? The powerful may oppress you, even take your life. But the Lord-with-a-sword shall deliver you, even from the grave.
The sword of the Lord is for your protection, not your punishment. If you stumble and fall, Jesus defends you; he doesn’t accuse you (1 John 2:1).
And he certainly doesn’t stab you with his sword!