“But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and a whoever has no sword is to sell his cloak and buy one…They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ And He said to them, ‘It is enough.’” (Luke 22.36, 38; NASB).1
So did Jesus tell His disciples to purchase swords because He was teaching a deeper spiritual truth about being prepared to fight demonic teachings in their near future? The correct understanding of purchasing swords is spiritual, not physical; metaphorical, not literal? Is that how we are supposed to understand Luke 22:36, 38?
How far do we need to go in order to draw the right conclusion? Is the only way to determine Jesus’ meaning (spiritual or physical, metaphorical or literal) is by going outside of this text? Were the disciples just too dense to figure out the true meaning of Jesus’ instruction?
My argument near the close of my last post was that the answer is right before our eyes. Jesus is giving His disciples instructions before He partakes of the cup (cf. Luke 22.42) that His Father in heaven had prepared: “[to] be numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22.37; ESV).
Jesus calls to their attention the manner in which He had previously sent them (see Luke 9.3; 10.4) and then, contrasts it with how things will be in their near future. “But now…” (v. 36) serves as a point of difference; “last time you brought nothing,” Jesus says, “but this time you will bring the following…and if you don’t have this item (a sword) then you should sell your cloak and buy one if you can.”
But what of verse 38? Some argue that Jesus’ statement, “It is enough” after the disciples tell Him they have two swords already, is demonstrative of a rebuke by the Lord. But, the phrase can also be translated “It is sufficient.” Meaning, “you have enough for now,” or “that will do.” I find this more acceptable than the more commonly accepted “We are done talking about this! (since you’re not really getting My intent).” You have to assume a rebuke for the language of the text does not imply anything more than a simple declarative response by our Lord. However, to draw support for the supposition that Jesus must rebuke His disciples because they are too slow in understanding Him about purchasing swords (spiritual rather than literal), many will turn their audiences’ attention to Matthew 26:52.
A Brief Look at Matthew 26:48-54
Although it will be lengthier I will cite a larger portion of the passage in order to provide context for the reader:
“Now he who was betraying Him gave them a sign previously, saying, ‘Whomever I kiss, He is the one; arrest Him.’ And immediately Judas [Iscariot] went up to Jesus and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed Him. But Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you have come for.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested Him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. 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. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then would the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?” (Matt 26:48-54).
Verses 48-50 show that Judas Iscariot, along with a mob of armed men (cf. Matt 26.55), betrayed Jesus, his former teacher (rabbi), having Him arrested. Verse 51 highlights the response of one of His disciples in reaction to the events as they unfold around them. Verse 52-53 reveals Jesus’ rebuke of the disciple. Verse 54 shows that the concern of the Lord is that God’s Word is upheld regardless of how mankind may view it. Obviously, the key text for our current discussion is Matthew 26:52, but the key part in determining the meaning is accomplished through observation. The surrounding details are vital to a proper understanding.
The reason for the rebuke…
"Then Jesus said to him, 'Put your sword back in its place; for all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt 26.52; emphasis added).
Here we see the Lord rebuking one of His disciples for cutting the ear of “the slave of the high priest” (Matt 26.51). What we are looking for is the reason for the rebuke? A couple of quick points before we attempt to see the flow of thought here. First, notice that Jesus tells His disciple (Peter according to John 18.11) to put the sword “back in its place.” He doesn’t tell him to get rid of it. He doesn’t say there is no value to it, but He does indicate that now is not the time a sword is to be used. Second, Jesus is specific in saying that it is those who “take up” the sword who will, in time, fall by it. As I have stated before in previous posts related to this issue, life is sacred and it is not to be taken lightly. Jesus’ reminder here points us back to Genesis 9:5-6. As a general rule violence is not the path that God’s people take.2 There are mitigating circumstances3 when this general rule does not apply, when the preservation of life may require such action, but not here.
What transpired during Jesus’ arrest…
Before Peter (John 18.11) pulled the sword out of its sheathe and attacked those who came to arrest his Master (Matt 26.51; Luke 22.50), the disciples asked a quick question: “Lord shall we strike with the sword?” (Luke 22.49). Unfortunately, they didn’t wait for an answer. Or, at least Peter didn’t. He jumped the gun, even though, you can understand why he reacted in such a way from a human standpoint. Those that came to arrest Jesus in the garden were armed to the teeth. The Lord even challenged them, saying,
"Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as you would against a man inciting a revolt? Every day I was with you within the temple grounds teaching, and you did not arrest Me…" (Mark 14.48; also Matt 26.55).
Before He did that, though, He rebuked Peter and healed the wounded man (Luke 22:50). Then Jesus commands His disciple to put the sword back, offers a reminder of the general rule against wielding the sword (Matt 26.52), adding the following statement:
"Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? [But] How then would the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?" (Matt 26.53-54).
A Few Questions
Did Jesus’ comments in Matthew 26:52 to Peter and the rest of the disciples standing there mean that all uses of the sword (physically) speaking were forbidden? Is the pacifist right that a true follower of Jesus should never act violently towards attackers?4 Does the Lord’s rebuke (Matt 26.52) add further support to the idea that He was only speaking of purchasing swords in a metaphorical sense, not a literal one?
Let me answer those in reverse.
Purchasing Swords in a Metaphorical Sense…
According to Albert Barnes, Jesus words in Luke 22:36
“…were not made with reference to his being taken in the garden, but with reference to their future life…They were going into the midst of dangers. The country was infested with robbers and wild beasts. It was customary to go armed. He tells them of those dangers—of the necessity of being prepared in the usual way to meet them.”5
In other words, appealing to what transpired in the garden as grounds for denying that Jesus did tell them that in the days ahead a sword may be necessary, in the sense of defense, is uncalled for. Though the passages are near one another, Jesus telling Peter to put his sword away is not an endorsement of a figurative understanding of the Lord’s earlier words.
Would you be surprised to learn that it was customary for people in the 1st-century to go about armed as they traveled? Thus our tradition here in the United States to be armed in the home or on the road traveling is not a historic anomaly. As one author’s astute observation puts it:
“Jesus knew very well His disciples had weapons, for He was with them for three years. Christ allowed His followers to pack weapons…He never corrected [them] because [they] didn’t need [to be] corrected.”6
Is the physical use of a Sword forbidden?
The comments of our Lord telling His disciple to “put the sword away” followed by the proverbial truth, “for all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword” was not an indictment against the use of the sword in all circumstances (see note #2). The issue at that moment was that it was God’s will that Jesus be arrested. As a recitation of Zechariah 13:7 verifies,
"'Awake, sword, against My Shepherd, and against the Man, My associate,' declares the Lord of armies. 'Strike the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered; and I will turn My hand against the little ones.'" (cited in Matt 26.31; Mark 14.27).
It was the explicit purpose of God that Jesus is taken that night, that He is crucified as a substitute for His people, and that after His resurrection He might draw those that were given to Him into His fold. Jesus is the Shepherd that was struck, and His disciples were the sheep that were meant to flee, and it was in demonstration of God’s power (i.e., hand) against those who were defiling His land (earth).
Notice what Jesus says after He tells His disciple (Peter) to put the sword back in its sheathe. He explains that if He so willed to fight at that moment a myriad of angels were at His disposal to eliminate His foes (Matt 26.53). Those are not the words of a pacifist. But they were the words of One who desired that all Scripture be fulfilled (Matt 26.54). Since it was God’s purpose for our Christ to die in order to be raised, then so be it. Jesus desired that the Father’s will be done. Instead of being saved from the cup of divine wrath, He was about to partake of, in Love (Matt 26.42; Luke 22.42).
What’s my point? That the circumstance determines the action. There are times when the use of the sword is not wrong, contrary to those who argue that Matthew 26:52 nullifies the self-defense position. Armed defense, whether it be with a sword, a club, or a gun is allowable in certain situations. The taking of another’s life is a worst-case scenario, one that should not be looked forward to with excitement but disdain. Luke 22:35-38 authorizes the use of the sword to the disciples of Christ as a deterrent from harm in the pursuit of the preservation of life. Matthew 26:52 does not counter Jesus’ instructions there, nor does it make the use of the sword metaphorical. As I’ve already stated, “circumstances determine action.” There will be times when the use of the sword spiritually speaking is warranted, and there will be times when the use of the sword physically speaking is justified. Wisdom based on the knowledge of God is the standard by which we are to make such determinations.
In some forthcoming posts, I will be critiquing the writing of a popular Evangelical pastor—John Piper. The article is a bit dated (2015), but his various points are popularly held by many within the Christian context. My goal in writing the critique is not personal. I’m not attacking anyone’s faith, rather I am attempting to reason through the arguments he presents to see if they hold any validity. It is my hope that this forthcoming article and others along this same genre are of some benefit to those who read them. Until then, God bless.
1All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the New American Standard Bible, 2020 update (NASB).
2John Calvin asserts the following:
“But here a question arises. Is it never lawful to use violence in repelling unjust violence? …First we must make a distinction between a civil court and the court of conscience; for if any man resists a robber he will not be liable to public punishment, because the laws arm him against one who is the common enemy of mankind. Thus, in every case when defense is made against unjust violence, the punishment which God enjoins earthly judges to carry into execution ceases. And yet it is not the mere goodness of the cause that acquits the conscience from guilt, unless there be also pure affection. So then, in order that a many may properly and lawfully defend himself, he must first lay aside excessive wrath, and hatred, and desire of revenge, and all irregular sallies [outburst] of passion, that nothing tempestuous may mingle with the defense. As this is of rare occurrence, or rather, as it scarcely ever happens, Christ properly reminds his people of the general rule, that they should entirely abstain from using the sword.”
In other words, self-defense is the last resort and the taking of life is to be avoided if possible. But as Calvin notes the Law of God does not forbid it altogether. John 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 395867-75.
3“Thou shall not kill” (Exodus 20.13) is pretty straightforward, but there are exceptions. Based on the ninth commandment’s prohibition against lying—“Do not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exod 20.16), most would agree it is likewise straightforward, but there are exceptions to this one as well. Two examples may be given where lying was not only allowed but praised by the Lord God: The Hebrew midwives in protecting the male offspring of birthing mothers while in Egypt (Exod 1.15-21); Rahab the prostitute in misleading the king of Jericho about the whereabouts of Joshua’s spies (Josh 2.1-7; 6.25). Based on the ethical teachings in Scripture, we should not be surprised to learn that there are exceptions to “killing” as well. Bear in mind that the taking of life must be investigated by the civil authorities over us in order to determine whether or not the killing was justified or accidental (cf. Numbers 35:9-34).
4D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with New International Version: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol 8, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1984), 547-48. Carson notes the following attitudes regarding Jesus’ words to His disciples, “Some take Jesus’ response—’for all who draw the sword will die by the sword’ (v. 52)—as a call to pacifism, whereas others observe that Jesus told Peter to put his sword “back in its place,” not throw it away. Both views ask the text of no immediate relevance.”
5Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, Explanatory and Practical (1872), theWord Bible Software, Luke 22:36. Emphasis mine.
6Jeff Robinson, God and Guns: Freedom in a Time of Crisis, (Xlibris, 2012), Kindle Edition, loc 281.
This is a really really good post; nuanced consideration of various passages
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Thank you. I’m glad you liked it. The subject has intrigued me for quite a while. And from what I’ve found, it isn’t a subject enjoyed by many Christians. My personal assessment (and I could be wrong though I’m not sure I am) is that many here in the West have been weaned on a cultural outlook that deems taking up the sword as contrary to being a suffering servant; a false dichotomy. Whereas I have become convinced that the biblical outlook should be strive for peace as long as possible but use the sword when it isn’t. Life—if sacred—needs to be protected. The difference for the persecuted Christian who is sometimes martyred is one of categories—1) laying down ones life for love 2) a defender. We are called to lay down our lives for Christ (ie. Being willing to die if the situation calls for it), and we are called to fight to preserve life (where in extreme circumstances godly violence—use of the sword—calls for it). Our responsibility as the Lord’s men is to discern (know) the difference.
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