When the arresting party seized Jesus at Gethsemane, Peter drew his sword. In close proximity was the high priest’s servant, Malchus, who lost an ear as Peter swung it (Matt. 26:51; John 18:10).
Jesus responded immediately: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus issued a command and grounded it in proverbial wisdom.
First, the command. Jesus told Peter to sheathe the sword (Matt. 26:52a). Peter was going to defend Jesus, who had just been seized by the armed crowd (26:47, 50b), but Jesus stopped this intervention. Jesus emphasized the fulfillment of Scripture (26:54): the arrest must continue so that the Suffering Servant could be led like a lamb to slaughter.
Second, the proverbial wisdom. After commanding Peter, Jesus said, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52b). Like other examples of proverbial wisdom, this is a general truth. Those who sow violence may reap violence. Those who respond with physical force may be overcome by physical force themselves. There are exceptions to this proverbial wisdom, of course, since not everyone who takes the sword will necessarily die by the sword. Yet Jesus’ words serve as a fitting warning in a fallen world.
Now the question: does Matthew 26:52 teach pacifism for believers? I say no. To insist that the verse teaches pacifism would be to absolutize what is a contextually-governed command. Jesus is speaking to Peter, not to all believers. Telling Peter to “put your sword back into its place” doesn’t, by implication, mean every believer must do the same. In fact, he told his disciples earlier to sell their cloaks and buy swords if they didn’t have one (Luke 22:36).
Consider, too, the circumstances, which also shed light on the command. Peter was trying to stop the arrest. Every passing moment was a moment closer to Jesus’ death on the cross, and nothing must thwart the proceedings. Peter surely meant well, for he courageously stepped in to defend his Messiah, yet Jesus had already taught his disciples what “must” happen. Jesus must suffer many things from the religious leaders (Matt. 16:21), he would be delivered into the hands of men (17:22), and he would be condemned to death (20:18). So in a specific set of circumstances, and to one disciple rather than to all believers, Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place” (26:52a).
I don’t believe Matthew 26:52 negates a believer’s actions to defend the helpless, protect the innocent, and intervene with physical force when it would be wise and just to do so. Such opportunities, and the arguments for them, are beyond the scope of this post. Nevertheless, to use Matthew 26:52 in support of pacifism is to burden the command with weight it cannot bear.