Did Jesus really say that all they who live by the sword will die by the sword? How could Jesus have said something that is so obviously not true? There have been many hundreds of thousands of career military men and women who have died peacefully in old age. Yet “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” is a common saying. An Internet search turned up millions of hits. Wikipedia asserts that the “proverb” comes from Mathew 26:52. Many other sources attribute the expression to Jesus, but let’s take a closer look at exactly what Jesus said and why.
Matthew 26: 52 Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “live by the sword.” He said, “take the sword.” Some versions render this line as, “draw the sword.” There is a big difference. Living by the sword is a lifestyle. Drawing the sword is a one-time act. The context of this statement is the night Jesus was captured to be held for “trial” and then crucified. A great number of men had come with swords and staves.
Matthew 26:47 And while he yet spake, lo, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people.
Matthew 26:51 And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus [The gospel of John tells us that this was Peter] stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear.
52 Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
53 Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?
54 But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?
Peter was not the only one of Jesus’ disciples present with a sword. Others present who were armed asked Jesus if they should fight with their swords. Peter was just the only one who began to do so without asking.
Luke 22:49 When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword?
Jesus’ statement recorded in Matthew 26:52 above was a response to Peter’s action and the disciples’ question. It was relative to the situation at hand, not intended to be a proverb for all times and conditions. They were surrounded by a “great multitude” of armed men. Jesus told his disciples that if they fought they would die. He fixed what Peter had done by healing the man’s ear (Luke 22:51). Then he told his disciples that he could call in more than 12 legions of angels [a legion was at that time probably 6826 soldiers, 12 legions would be 81,912] if he wanted to get out of the situation, but that he needed to go with the men and fulfill what the Scriptures said would happen to him.
So the proverb is probably derived from Jesus’ words in Matthew, but it should not be attributed to Jesus. It is a corruption of what he said, ignoring the context in which he said what he did.
PS: You might want to also look at the sequel to this article here.