Nonviolence and the Christian: But What about the Swords?

"But what about when Jesus tells his disciples to buy swords?" That was the response of several in response to my post last week about nonviolence and self-defense.

Last week’s post on whether or not it was appropriate for a Christian to kill another person in the defense of oneself or another sparked quite a bit of conversation and push back. I’m grateful for both the tone and content of the responses. The topic of violence is a thorny one. I'm still trying to work out what a consistently biblical ethic regarding violence is.

The strongest counter to my argument that the Bible teaches an ethic that disallows us from taking another person’s life, even in the defense of oneself or another, is found in the episode about buying swords that several mentioned. I am going to push pause and answer that question about the interaction in Luke 22 as best as I can before finishing our series next week addressing the question of violence and the military.

The exchange between Jesus and his disciples happens right after the Last Supper and before Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives (and is subsequently arrested by the Roman cohort).

And [Jesus] said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They [the disciples] said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”[i]

This is the clearest biblical text that supports self-defense.[ii] It seems pretty cut and dry. Jesus tells his disciples to buy swords. So, how would I interpret this text? First, let me say that I believe that it is possible that Jesus could be endorsing self-defense here. In the end, though, I don’t think that is what is going on.

Everyone acknowledges that this text is strange. It is the only time Jesus talks about weapons or arming oneself in the entirety of his ministry. The fact that this is the only time he talks about arming oneself is particularly surprising given the messianic expectations at the time. The Messiah was expected to be a warrior-king who would re-establish David's throne. A 1st Century Jew would have expected anyone claiming to be Messiah to do so by means of overthrowing the Romans in Jerusalem, where he would reign over the new Kingdom of Israel. At various times in his ministry, Jesus actually repelled his followers because he was clear that he was not going to lead a political revolution (see John 6:15, for instance).

Why does Jesus bring up arming themselves with swords now? At the very end of his ministry?

Given that Jesus knows what he is about to do: head to his death at the hands of the Romans and Jews and leave his disciples, two swords would have been far from adequate by means of self-defense for this group. And then, stranger still, hours later when one of the group uses one of the swords to prevent Jesus from being arrested, Jesus rebukes him: “No more of this!”[iii] And then Jesus heals the man’s ear that had been cut off with one of the two swords that the disciples told Jesus they had.

Jesus clearly didn’t intend for the swords to be used to protect himself. Did he intend the disciples to use the swords to protect themselves? The disciples didn’t seem to think so. All but one of this group of eleven was martyred and yet there is not one recorded incident among them or their followers of defending themselves. If they understood this exchange with Jesus to be an allowance to take the life of another in the defense of oneself or another, there was ample opportunity to do so following his death, and yet they never did so.

And there is the final question of incongruity with the two times Jesus sent out his disciples. In both Luke 9 and 10, Jesus sent out groups of disciples with the admonition to “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money: and do not have two tunics.”[iv] Why such a drastic change in direction from Jesus? Why are they to take along moneybags, a knapsack, and now a sword with them when before they were to take ‘nothing’? How does one square Jesus’ rational for this admonition – that “he was numbered among the transgressors”—with this call. I don’t understand what Jesus means by this rationale if he is asking them to bring swords along. Why does the fact that Jesus is to be "numbered among the transgressors" mean that the disciples ought to use weapons for self-defense?

So, what did Jesus mean? There are at least two viable alternatives to the self-defense interpretation. The second possible interpretation is that the statement by Jesus is symbolic. New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall says that the command is “a call to be ready for hardship and self-sacrifice.” Similarly Darrell Bock says that the call to buy a sword symbolically “points to readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge.” In this interpretation, this is the New Testament version of “gird up your loins.” When Jesus concludes, “It is enough,” then, frustrated that they are misunderstanding him, he ends the conversation with a terse:  “enough of this.”[v]

There third way to interpret this passage that hinges on that strange reference to Isaiah tucked into the middle of the passage. Jesus explains his admonition to buy a sword by pointing to Isaiah 53:12, which predicts that Jesus will be “numbered with the transgressors.” In this view, knowing that he is going to be arrested, Jesus wants to give Rome grounds to incriminate him as an insurrectionist.[vi] When Jesus says “it is enough,” he is saying that all they need is two swords to be convicted among the revolutionary “transgressors”.

Which of these three interpretations makes the most sense? That Jesus is advocating the taking of another life in self-defense? That Jesus is speaking symbolically about the hardship to come? Or that Jesus is setting up his own conviction as an insurrectionist?

I don’t pretend that the answer is easy. But given the teaching of Jesus throughout the gospels and the fact that the disciples seem to have never armed themselves in self-defense, despite the constant danger they and the communities they lived in faced, I believe the second (a warning of the hardship to come) or third interpretation (Jesus intentionally setting himself up for charges of insurrection) make more sense than self-defense. To me, Jesus’ rationale in Isaiah 53 tips the scales toward the final interpretation, but I think that even the second interpretation makes a bit more sense than the first.

Please let me know what you think about this difficult passage. Next week we will consider what this conversation means for the military.


Photo Credit: Freely/Brandon Rowe


[i] Luke 22:35-38

[ii] Esther 9 is the second strongest text, in my opinion, but the cultural distance as well as the lack of clear word of approval of their self-defense makes Luke 22 stronger in my view.

[iii] Luke 22:51

[iv] Luke 9:3

[v] Craig Evans, New International Biblical Commentary: Luke, 320.

[vi] Preston Sprinkle, Fight, 239.

For more on the Nonviolence and the Christian series, see:

Part 1: Nonviolence and the Christian: the Old Testament

Part 2: Nonviolence and the Christian: Jesus’ Ministry

Part 3: Nonviolence and the Christian: Self-Defense

Part 4: Nonviolence and the Christian: But What About the Swords?

Part 5: Nonviolence and the Christian: the Military