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Did Jesus instruct his followers to buy a sword?

Then Jesus asked them, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?" "Nothing," they answered. He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: `And he was numbered with the transgressors' ; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment." The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords." "That is enough," he replied. (Luke 22:35-38, NIV)

This is the one New Testament passage which may be taken to advocate the use of a sword (or any other weapon) in self-defence. But while Jesus does indeed tell us followers to buy a sword, several features must be noted:

  1. While in general it is a good principle to look at a Bible passage on its own before comparing it to the rest of the Bible, in this case the narrative continues later that night: when on of the disciples used a sword, Jesus rebuked him for doing so.

    A rebuke is recorded in three of the four gospels: Matthew 26:52 ('"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.'), Luke 22:51 ('But Jesus answered, "No more of this!" And he touched the man's ear and healed him.'), and John 18:11 ('Jesus commanded Peter, "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?"'). Mark does not record a rebuke, but does note that while one disciple used a sword, Jesus allowed himself to be arrested peacefully (implying that he disagreed with the use of force).

    Some commentators cite John 18:11 to suggest that Jesus was only opposed to the use of weapons on this particular occasion, because it was God's purpose for Jesus to be arrested. But the rebuke recorded in Matthew is far more wide-ranging ('for all who draw the sword will die by the sword'), and appears to condemn, or at least very strongly discourage, all use of weapons.

  2. The group comprised Jesus and the eleven remaining apostles, and possibly some others. Two swords were not enough to defend such a group. Why then did Jesus say 'That is enough'?

  3. Jesus ties the use of the sword to the Scripture being fulfilled ('And he was numbered with the transgressors'). So does the use of the sword only refer to this present occasion, when Jesus was to be arrested like a criminal (transgressor)?

  4. On the other hand, there was not time for them to sell their cloak and buy a sword, suggesting Jesus was looking towards the future.

  5. If Jesus was telling them to have a sword handy (for self-defense) as they went into the world preaching the gospel, why then do Acts and the epistles consistently show the disciples accepting persecution peacefully? (Darrel Bock's commentary gives the following examples: Acts 4:25-31, 8:1-3, 9:1-2, 12:1-5).

Generally, commentators have taken one of two different approaches to this verse:

  1. The first approach is to see Jesus' words as a symbolic or metaphorical. He was not really telling them to buy or use swords. He was simply using the metaphor of a sword to describe the current crisis. When the disciples took his words literally ('See, Lord, here are two swords'), Jesus simply drops the subject by saying 'That is enough'.

    This approach works well except for one thing: why did Jesus need to use such a metaphor at all, given the confusion that arose from it? (Beginning later that night with the disciples, but continuing to the present day!)

  2. The second approach is to see it as a reverse of the rules for mission given in Matthew 10:5-14, Mark 6:7-13 and Luke 10:1-12. (And which Jesus refers back to in Luke 22:35, above). Under those instructions, the disciples went out on mission essentially with no provisions, and trusted God for all their needs. But Jesus is now reversing those rules: they are to provide for themselves, and that includes self-defence.

    The problem with this approach is its apparent contradiction with Jesus pacifist statements elsewhere, including Matthew 26:52 ('for all who draw the sword will die by the sword') later that night. Perhaps that latter statement can be taken to apply to that time only (so have a meaning like, 'if any of you disciples draw a sword, you will get yourself killed'). In any case, if this interpretation is favoured, Jesus' pacifist statements must also be taken into account, and so violent self-defense becomes appropriate only in the most desparate of situations.

  3. Between these two extremes is the suggestion that swords were appropriate for this time only - that is, time of Jesus' arrest.

    While this has the positive that Jesus ties the crisis to prophecies concerning his arrest ('It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors' ; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me.'), there are still two problems. Why does he advocate swords at this time only, and then tell his disciples not to use them? And why does he tell his disciples to sell their cloak and buy a sword, when there is no time to do that? Therefore I would suggest that this solution does not work.

  4. Finally, there is the suggestion that Luke 22:35-38 is a tradition in favour of self-defence, and is in direct contradiction to the passages which condemn the use of violence.

    I am sure many will be attracted to this view. I do not think it is necessary. The problem (in my mind) is not contradiction, but that we do not have sufficient information to decide whether given passages are metaphorical or literal, timeless or specific.

    Christians who take this view still have the problem of deciding between the competing claims of Luke 22:35-38, and pacifist passages such as Matthew 26:52 and Matthew:38-48.

I think we can definitely rule out option (3), and I see no benefit in option (4). That leaves options (1) (the sword is metaphorical) and (2) (self-defence is OK). My personal opinion is that metaphorical interpretation is harder to justify and so this passage provides a limited justifcation for fighting in self-defense.

If that is so, and God does allow the use of violence in self-defence, we must note the following caveats:

  1. Violent self-defence (i.e. the use of weapons in self-defense) can only be used as a last resort. There is no record of Jesus or the apostles ever resorting to it, despite extreme persecution.

  2. If we are fighting attackers off, we must still continue to love them. To me, that means taking all possible means to minimise harm to all parties - as if the attacker was a member of our own family.

  3. Violence must never be against a ruling authority, however much we dislike or disagree with it, because in such a situation peaceful resistance is always possible. It can only be used in the chaos of a simple violent attack on ourselves.

    In light of Romans 13 (Click here for a fuller discussion of Romans 13), which says that all authorities (even the enemy) are ordained by God, we may add two further principles if we allow war in self defence:

  4. If the defence is won, there is no justification for then proceeding to attack the other country, because their government was instituted by God also.

  5. If the defence is lost, then the new government must be accepted. While it may be opposed peacefully, there is no justification for a continued guerilla war against it. This goes against both Romans 13 (the accepting of governing authorities) and the principle of loving our enemy.

So yes, Luke 22:35-38 may provide some justification for fighting in self-defence. But, in light of other teaching of Jesus, it can only be used in strict self-defence, and must not be divorced from his command to love our enemies.


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