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Should Christians Carry Swords?

Posted by Gary Labels: , , , ,

Well, it's a new year! I've been reading quite a bit from the Old Testament lately (which means in English), and it makes me impatient. My strength lies in New Testament studies, and I don't want to get rusty. So, I've decided to make a post about Jesus' statements on the Sword. The first passage in question is Luke 22:35-38, which says

He said to them: "When I sent you without a purse or bag or sandals, you didn't lack anything, did you?" They answered, "No; nothing." Then he said "But now, let whoever has a purse take it, likewise a bag also; and may whoever doesn't have a sword sell the shirt off his back to buy one. For I tell you that this which is written will soon find its end in me: 'He was counted among the lawless,' and that [which is written] about me is at its time of fulfillment." And they said: "Lord, ah! Here are two swords." He replied: "That's enough!"

I've heard something to the effect that Jesus can't really be made to fit pacifism completely, that Christian pacifism must be a personal ethic, more or less. With all due respect, I believe careful study of the New Testament, its historical context, and the writings of early Christians would quite strongly support the idea that Jesus was indeed one-sided on this debate.

So, without further stalling, let's look at this passage. We're at the evening of the Lord's Supper. The disciples just quarreled about who is greatest, then Jesus solemnly told Peter he would deny Him. Now Jesus gives a dramatic warning. Given that this occurs between Peter's denial and the final prayer, Jesus has His own death in His mind.

In this passage He reminds them of when they were sent out (see Luke 9) and gives them the idea that, after the Passover, they will again be scattered. If they believe His claims about Him dying, then they realize they'll be fleeing. If they don't believe He'll die, then they think He's gonna send them out again.

In either case, He tells them to take a purse (wallet) and a bag (backpack) -- if they have one. They don't necessarily have to buy one if they don't own one. But they'd better have a sword, each and every one of them. There's a powerful emphasis on them having a sword, even if they have to sell the shirt off their back to get one. [Strange, also, that swords replace sandals.]

Why does He say this? He has His death in mind. He is going to be counted with the lawless. And then He predicts His death quite painfully in v 37. Literally it's "for indeed the about me has an end." If we supply "written" as context would urge us to do, then this phrase means "for that [which is written] about me is about to be fulfilled." But there's more! The way this is phrased seems to have an undertone of him referring again to His death.

Now how do the disciples respond? They remind Jesus that there are two swords there [in the house they were using for the Passover. Ownership of the swords is not specified]. Wait a second. What happens when the disciples respond to Jesus, as a general rule? Think of a few times when the disciples' response is recorded. They are seldom right, and pretty much never completely right. Usually the disciples are incorrect in their statements, and then Jesus clarifies for them as a good rabbi would do.

But not this time. He doesn't correct them. He casually dismisses the conversation "that's enough!" Perhaps more colloquially, "forget it" or "drop it." (Here I reference Richard Hays' Moral Vision of the New Testament.)

Now, I apologize if this is a complicated explanation. But what is the alternative explanation for "that's enough"? Jesus switched from "no bag, purse, or sandals" (Luke 9) to "a bag and purse if you have it, and make absolutely sure you have a sword." And then when they said there were two swords among them, Jesus just changed His mind about many swords were needed? That explanation simply won't do, so I argue that taking "that's enough!" as a dismissal of the conversation is the more coherent understanding of this passage.

Oh, and He dismissed the conversation because they mistakenly took Him literally (a mistake many casually make today with regard to this passage, yet I've just shown that taking Him literally here would make Him inconsistent). So what did He really mean? Well, He didn't elaborate because He dismissed the conversation. It's fair to say it was another prediction of His death and a warning of coming persecution.

Now, much more quickly, I'm going to discuss Matthew 26:52, which says
"Then Jesus said to him: "Return your sword to its place! For all who wield the sword shall perish by sword! Or do you not think ..."

What happens to all those who wield the sword? They will perish by sword. "Sword" is one of God's calamities that He uses to judge nations and individuals. Note also the verb: perish. What does it mean to perish? It's worse than dying. Everyone dies, but bad people get their just punishment when they perish. Go to and do a keyword search. See how many occurrences of it have to do with wickedness! Try Psalm 1 or John 3:16 or Luke 13:1-5. I don't know if the NIV usually retains the perish-die distinction, so you might want to try KJV.

So, in short, Jesus is saying that God will cause punishment on those who wield the sword. The kind of punishment that makes you perish. A case can be made that those who perish end up going to hell, but that argument is inconclusive. It can't be denied, however, that perishing is for the wicked.