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Purchasing Swords to What End? An Article on Self-Defense in Light of Jesus’ Instruction to His Disciples, Part I

And [Jesus] said to them, ‘But now, whoever has a money belt is to take along, likewise a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his cloak and buy one’” (Luke 22.36; NASB).1

Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword’” (Matt 26.52).

INTRODUCTION:

The Eagles had a hit single in 1976 entitled “A New Kid in Town.” That song serves as a semblance of my life growing up. Several times during my adolescent years, I was the new kid in town that everybody was talking about. And it was during this time of my youth I found out the hard way not everyone likes you.

Sometimes this is your fault. Maybe you have a bad attitude, and this leads to diarrhea of the mouth. Not a popular position to be in if you are spewing words in the wrong direction. There is perhaps an unspoken correlation between vulgarity of the mouth and that which spews from down below as both are fit for the refuse pile (i.e., skubalon).2 Talking in such a way to the wrong person will, more than likely, end up bringing about an uncomfortable situation. One where we are left with a little color on our face and a slab of cool meat to ease the swelling; or worse.

Other times, though, living in the fallen world that we do, the dislike of others is not our fault. The fact is some people will enjoy your personage and others will not. This was a lesson I learned early on as a youngster and I have witnessed little change in this reality as I’ve reached adulthood. Most of the time, the dislike of another rarely leads to what some would consider an act of violence (e.g., fist-fight; i.e., conflict). The dilemma, however, was what to do when such activity became unavoidable (e.g., self-defense).

As a result, I had to learn very early that there were times when fighting was the only option. Violence, aggression, combat, war, battles, are not names normally associated with the Christian worldview. I would imagine that many Christian parents loath the idea of their children getting into an altercation with a fellow classmate. No question, peace is to be preferred (cf. Rom 12.18). My wife and I have six children (two of which have grown and left home to start their own lives), and we prefer, I think as all parents do, that they experience a peaceful coexistence with their peers. Alas, this is not always possible. Remember we live in a world filled with sinful, carnal creatures that have a great inability to see things beyond the concerns of self-gratification. According to the biblical worldview, this inevitably leads to various shades of conflict (cf. James 4.1-2).

Therefore, I taught my children the same lesson I learned when I was growing up: “Do not start anything with anyone, but if another attacks you…make sure you finish it.” To be honest, I thought such a life lesson was common sense. Experience, however, has taught me differently. Interactions with other parents and school administrators at various levels have helped me see how difficult the concept of self-defense is in our current cultural climate. Even a significant number of professing Christians display a knee-jerk reaction against it.

A brief explanation…

This has continually left me with a desire to carefully define and articulate the actual position I am advocating for. Though I personally find the process a bit tedious I realize that providing proper categorical qualifications is necessary, for much of the confusion or denial of seeing self-defense as a legitimate response to counter wanton acts of violence or aggression in certain situations is because people do not take the time to critically think through the issue.

Self-defense while appropriate and normative as an act of protection or deterrence, is only practiced (to be applied) in unique cases. Meaning it is something prepared for with the hope that it is never necessary to use. For example, I have spent many years of my life learning various arts of self-defense; boxing, martial arts and some grappling techniques. I have competed in a few competitions with decent results. Many of my children have shared in these experiences personally as my wife and I thought it necessary to teach such things in case the need called for it.

But one of the key aspects of such training is that you don’t want to use it outside of the ring or dojo unless no other option is available to you. The goal is to avoid confrontation at all costs. In fact, one of the first lessons we were taught in Matsubayashi-Ryu (Pine Forest Style, an Okinawan form of Karate also known as Shorin-Ryu) was to avoid conflict3 (to flee) if the opportunity is presented. Not only to protect oneself from injury, but you may have to live with injuring another, perhaps permanently. Lethal force is always a last resort. The same is true with firearm training. You never point your gun at another unless no other alternative presents itself and you never place your finger on the trigger unless you intend to shoot.

Self-defense is not violence, although it uses violence as a form of protection or deterrence. Self-defense, properly defined, is never vengeance but a guarding of life—either yours or another. Predators go for weak prey in the animal kingdom. Unfortunately, there is little difference between human or animal predators. For a human predator is more akin to a beast than a fellow image-bearer.

Biblical justifications…

So far I have sought to be reasonable regarding this issue. (Actually, I have attempted to do this for some time as I have worked through what I believe were pertinent issues raised as a result of the national debate sparked by the Kyle Rittenhouse case). I realize that this topic is a worldview issue, and depending on what a person’s worldview is they will have already drawn their own conclusions regarding it. Contrary to popular opinion, facts and pieces of evidence do not lead a person’s thoughts on a given issue, their presuppositions do. As Greg L. Bahnsen explains,

“The unavoidable fact is…that nobody is a disinterested observer, seeing and interpreting the facts without a set of assumptions and pre-established rules. All men have presuppositional commitments prior to their examination of various hypothesis

Each worldview has its presuppositions about reality [metaphysics], knowledge [epistemology], and ethics [law]; these mutually influence and support each other. There are no facts or uses of reason which are available outside of the interpretive system of basic commitments or assumptions [i.e., presuppositions] which appeals to them; the presuppositions used by Christian and non-Christian determine what they will accept as factual or reasonable, and their respective presuppositions about fact and logic will determine what they say about reality.”4

In short, people are not neutral. They are not neutral when they look at issues. They are not neutral when presented with proofs. Nor are they neutral when they reason (think through) subjects like self-defense. Individuals will have prior commitments that will shade their understanding and limit what they accept as truth. This is true for members of the believing and unbelieving world.

And so, the question is ultimately by what standard do we appeal to in order to decide a matter? Since I am convinced that nothing makes sense of reality besides the revealed Word of God, this is where I go. The Bible lays out the purpose, principles, and justification for the “what and why” of all reality. A point that I have been attempting to make through various posts related to self-defense. In this post, I begin to look at Jesus’ command to His disciples which seems to offer biblical justification for Christians to practice self-defense. In a follow-up post, I will address what many think is a counterclaim to this command.

Figurative or according to the letter?

At the beginning of this post, I cited a couple of biblical texts where Jesus spoke about swords with His disciples. The first text mentioned was Luke 22:36. To avoid confusion let us look at this verse within its surrounding context.

And He said to them, ‘When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything did you? They said, ‘No, nothing.’ And He said to them, ‘But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that which is written must be fulfilled in Me: ‘And He was counted with wrongdoers’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ And He said to them, ‘It is enough.’” (Luke 22.35-38; NASB).5

Notice in this passage, Jesus is telling His disciples what they are to do in the days ahead. For, He compares their former mission with the next one, illustrated by the phrase: “But now…” (Luke 22.36a). Previously, the Lord had sent them out in pairs to share the gospel of peace. At that time they were instructed to carry no “money belt…bag…[or] sandals” (Luke 22.35; cf. Luke 9.3; 10.4). It was a faith-building exercise. They had little to fear, for they were under divine protection. A change was about to occur. Hostilities would increase. They would be venturing outside of their nation (Israel) to other nations. This is not to say that they would no longer be under God’s protection, for Jesus reminds them that they “lacked nothing” in terms of need (Luke 22.35; He does this with the use of a rhetorical question). God provided everything. He would continue to do so. As Abraham said of the Lord God, “He provides” (Gen 22.8, 14).

The training wheels, however, were about to come off. The days ahead, Jesus warns them will be of greater difficulty, and so they need to be prepared.6 He instructs them

But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his cloak and buy one" (Luke 22:36; emphasis added).

Many of the commentaries that I read tend to say that Jesus was only speaking about “selling your cloak and buying a sword” in a figurative sense. This is a popular notion among many Christian leaders.7 They secure their interpretation of the text on Jesus’ response here (Luke 22.36, 38) and in the subsequent narrative in the Garden of Gethsemane during His arrest (Matt 26.52). (Later on, we’ll address the one in Matthew, but for now, let’s keep focused on the instructions recorded in Luke.)

In Luke 22:38 Jesus’ disciples respond to His instruction in Luke 22:36 with the following statement, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” To that, the Lord says, “It is enough” (Luke 22.38).8

Supposedly, the idea is to take Jesus’ comments about swords in a figurative sense, or as John Calvin asserts, in a spiritual sense. He wrote,

“It was truly shameful and stupid ignorance, that the disciples, after having been so often informed about bearing the cross, imagine that they must fight with swords of iron…it is evident, at least, that they were so stupid as not to think of a spiritual enemy.”9

I don’t deny that spiritual enemies are real enemies. Nor do I deny that spiritual enemies are to be fought off with the Sword of the Spirit (cf. Eph 6.17; Heb 4.12). If that is what Jesus meant by his early words in Luke 22:36, then I have no problem with it.

Some key questions…

However, if we are going to say that purchasing swords is meant to be taken figuratively to protect oneself from spiritual enemies in the future, then shouldn’t we take “money belts” and “bags” to carry one’s luggage in a figurative sense as well?

I mean, if we are concerned about being consistent.

If, however, the text does not allow for us to take “money belts” and “bags” in a metaphorical sense of just “being prepared for hard times ahead,” then where does it allow for us to go from taking “sword” according to the letter?10

Context takes precedence…

In order to answer these questions, biblical commentators attempt to pin their interpretation of “it is enough” to Jesus’ comments about Peter’s misuse of the sword (cf. John 18.10) in Matthew 26:52. But as we shall see in my next post that is an entirely different context. Jesus’ concern while talking with His disciples is in light of what they shall face after He is “counted with wrongdoers” (Luke 22.37), not during. The purchasing of swords and the selling of cloaks in order to obtain them is post-arrest, not pre-arrest. First, Jesus must be counted with sinners on the cross, and then afterward there would come a time when preservation of life in terms of self-defense would be necessary.

Exegesis is not playing hopscotch, it is dealing with the details available in the text. Exegesis is concerned about drawing the meaning from Scripture rather than reading one’s ideas into it. Luke is the only one that recorded Jesus’ instruction for the disciples to prepare for the dark days ahead by purchasing a sword. He stressed the urgency of it by telling them that if they didn’t have one they should sell their cloak to buy it. A cloak (outer coat) in the 1stcentury world was of paramount importance. It was what protected a person from the elements and gave them something to snuggle in at night. To sell it and buy a sword meant to forfeit one form of protection from danger in light of obtaining another.

I believe that Jesus’ comments in Matthew 26:52 are important. They need to be properly weighed. But they are not necessary for understanding what Jesus says in Luke 22:35-38. For it is my contention that two different matters are being dealt with in those two different passages of Scripture. Something that I will do my best to prove in my next post.

To Be Continued…

ENDNOTES:

1All Scripture shall be of the New American Standard Bible, 2020 Update (NASB); unless otherwise noted.

2According to J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan the apostle Paul’s use of the term skubalon (G4657) “‘Dung,’ [is] the prevailing sense of this word…its original meaning thus would be “refuse” (RV marg.); but ‘dung’ is probably what Paul meant in Phil 3:8, the only occurrence of the word in the NT.” The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament: Illustrated from the Papyri and other Non-Literary Sources (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1929), 579, PDF E-book.

3Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of this particular style of martial art writes, “Karate ni sente nashi (There is no first attack in karate).” Meaning that karate is not a violent martial art but only one to be practiced in self-defense, a method of preserving life. Shoshin Nagamine, The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, [1976], 1992), 13. Italics in original.

4Greg L. Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, Joel McDurmon, ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision & Covenant Media Press, 2011), 25, 26, PDF E-book. Emphasis added. This will be found under the heading “The Necessity of a Presuppositional Approach.” I include this since the page number may be different depending on what electronic book reader one uses. For example, my copy of this book in my Adobe Digital Editions will show the quoted material above on page 27.

5All Scripture shall be of the New American Standard Bible, 2020 update (NASB).

6This is not fatalistic teaching. Fate does not determine the outcome. The actions of God, the Creator, and man, the creature bring about the causal experiences of life. God provides for His people. This is true. He gives us food, wealth and health (life), but this does not eliminate our responsibility to work and enrich the talents, the tools, He’s given us. Farmers that desire to see a blessing from the Lord must work the ground in accordance with God’s commands. The farmer cannot hope to see a crop yield without working the soil and planting the seed. Laziness will bring him nothing but an empty hand and stomach. This is true of all our endeavors. Salvation is from the Lord (Jonah 2:9), but in order for a person to be saved, we must do the work of proclaiming the gospel of Christ (Rom 10.14-15). God provides but He also instructs us to be prepared for the days ahead, not knowing what they will bring (Prov 27.1; Isa 56.12; James 4.13-16).

7For example, Paul Carter, a contributor to the Canadian version of the Gospel Coalition, denies that Jesus was instructing His followers to sell their cloaks and buy a physical sword. After citing a few biblical commentaries, he writes,

“On balance it seems that Jesus is not telling the disciples to buy actual swords. He is saying that they are about to enter into very perilous times and they will need to keep the sword of the Spirit ‘half drawn’ at all times.”

Paul Carter, “Did Jesus Tell His Disciples to Buy Swords?” The Gospel Coalition: Canadian Edition, December 9, 2017, accessed February 14, 2022, https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/jesus-tell-disciples-buy-swords/.

An unnamed writer for Biblestudy.org states, “It is difficult to imagine Jesus telling his disciples to buy swords, considering that he would soon state the following” comments found in Matt 26:52. A little later and the same writer claims that the Greek term machaira is better understood as a knife according to a popular layman’s Greek to English concordance:

“But in Luke’s 22:38 Strong’s Concordance acknowledges the Greek word machaira (Strong’s #3162) is defined as a knife, dirk or sword…The disciples would need certain provisions [after the Lord’s ascension], including a knife for preparation of food, cutting wood for fuel, and possibly to fend off robbers for which the area was noted. So, once Jesus’ ordeal was over, they should make sure they each had a knife.” The writer then claims that the disciples claimed to have “two knives, and Jesus said, ‘It is enough.’”

“Why did the disciples buy swords?” Bible Study—Newsletter, accessed February 9, 2022,https://www.biblestudy.org/question/why-did-jesus-tell-disciples-to-buy-swords.html.

Another is John Piper, but I will deal with his arguments in the near future.

8Or it could be translated as “it is sufficient.” Interesting that this possible translation of the text is largely ignored by a great number of English Bible versions (translations). Young’s Literal Translation is one of only a couple that I have found that offer “it is sufficient” as a possible rendering. Although, if “sufficient” is what Jesus meant, rather than “enough” as many biblical commentators like to delimit it, this would remove their “figurative” understanding from consideration.

9John Calvin, The Complete Biblical Commentary Collection of John Calvin: Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, William Pringle, translator, Kindle Edition, loc 395406. Italics mine. For the moment I will limit my references to this one, penned by one of the greatest lights of the Reformation period.

10Normally the term “literal” would be used. Both “literal” and “letter” mean the same thing. They both emphasize “according to” the “literature” or the use of “language” (i.e., letter) in light of the given context.