Is it morally permissible for faithful Christians to carry firearms? Yes. But don’t take my word for it: Jesus himself instructed his disciples to arm themselves with swords for self-defense.
Sell Your Cloak and Buy a Sword
In Luke 22, Jesus addresses his disciples shortly before his arrest, trial, and eventual crucifixion. He reminds them of how their earthly needs were providentially met when he sent them out to do ministry work (Luke 9:1-6). However, Jesus warns that he will soon no longer be with them, and that in his absence they cannot expect the same level of protection and provision they received when he was physically present with them. Thus, Jesus instructs the disciples to take appropriate measures to be ready to provide for themselves. Purchasing a sword is explicitly mentioned as one of these measures. Here’s the relevant passage:
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They 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.” (Luke 22:35-37, ESV)
Jesus refers to the fulfillment of scripture (Isaiah 53:12) in order to explain to the disciples why they must be prepared to be self-reliant. Up until this point, their needs were providentially taken care of, such that they did not “lack anything.” For Jesus to say that they must now prepare to be self-reliant would likely have been surprising to them, so he reminds them of his mission on earth. He is essentially saying: “Remember when I sent you out and you didn’t have to worry about these things? Well, scripture is soon going to be fulfilled, and after that happens, I will no longer be physically with you. In my absence, you will need to do these things to make sure that your needs are met.” His reference to being “numbered with the transgressors” is referring to his impending crucifixion between two thieves.
Jesus refers to the heavy outer garment worn by Jews, known as the simlāh. It provided protection from the elements and was for that reason regarded as one of an individual’s most important possessions. We’re told in Exodus 22:26-27 that if one takes another’s cloak as collateral for a loan, that it must be returned to its owner before sunset. Otherwise, the owner has nothing to cover himself with as he sleeps. Clearly, one’s cloak was an item of significant value.
That Jesus would instruct his disciples to sell such a valuable item in order to buy a sword speaks volumes about the tremendous importance of guarding one’s life. One might be able to get by if he loses his outer garment, but the same cannot be said if he loses his life. Hence, it would make sense to prioritize a means of self-defense over an article of clothing. In telling his disciples to prepare to defend themselves, Jesus is implying that self-defense against physical threats is a proper object of concern.
It’s also noteworthy that in talking about the moneybag and knapsack, Jesus does not say anything about selling one’s possessions in order to acquire them. This is likely because they were commonplace items that the disciples already had. But when it came to swords, the disciples were to go out of their way to obtain them, to the point of giving up an item of great importance. Again, we see just how much value and significance is attributed to owning a means of self-protection.
The sword that Jesus refers to was the machaira, a small sword or dagger that functioned mainly as a sidearm. Some argue that the machaira could also double as a utility knife, but the term is constantly used throughout the New Testament in contexts that clearly suggest a combative meaning. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, its use in Luke 22 refers to “a weapon for making or repelling an attack.” This is also suggested by the context: given their respective functions, trading one’s cloak for a defensive weapon makes much more sense than trading it for a utility knife.
When the disciples respond by producing two swords, Jesus responds with “it is enough,” as a sign of approval. Some have suggested that “it is enough” should be understood admonishingly, as in “Enough of this talk about swords!” But this doesn’t fit the text—it was Jesus himself who mentioned the sword, and so it would be strange for him to rebuke the disciples for responding appropriately to his own instruction.
But perhaps Jesus was admonishing the disciples for misinterpreting his instructions. Some argue that Jesus was speaking symbolically. He was talking about spiritual swords and spiritual warfare, which the disciples failed to understand when they produced actual swords. This interpretation just doesn’t fit the text. In alluding to the time where their provisions were met when he sent them out to do ministry work (Luke 9:1-6), Jesus was clearly referring to the disciples’ literal earthly needs. The reference to a moneybag and knapsack, which do not seem symbolic, indicate that the sword was meant literally.
Another suggestion is that Jesus was using hyperbolic language to instruct his disciples to be ready for what is to come. But once again, the reference to the moneybag and knapsack (which are ordinary items that do not seem hyperbolic) are hard to fit in within this rendering. Moreover, even if we grant the use of hyperbolic language in referring to a sword, the fact that a weapon is used to make the point strongly suggests that violent self-defense is being implicitly endorsed. A general who instructs his men to “blow the enemy into pieces” is endorsing the use of force even if he doesn’t literally mean for his men to blow the enemy into pieces.
However, if Jesus was really talking about self-defense, then why did he say “it is enough” when he was presented with just two swords? After all, there were eleven disciples at this point. Two swords wouldn’t have been enough for all of them. But Jesus doesn’t say that the swords were enough for all of them. He just says “it is enough.” Enough for who? The command itself provides a helpful clue: “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” The sufficiency being expressed is that of meeting an individual’s need. Jesus may have been saying that the specific disciples who brought him the swords were each sufficiently armed, or he may have referred to the swords as examples of what each disciple should have, along the lines of “Those swords are suitable (i.e. good enough) as weapons.” However we render it, the overall context clearly indicates self-defense.
Living by the Sword, Dying by the Sword?
Notice that each of the three things mentioned by Jesus have to do with meeting earthly or physical needs: money is required to exchange for goods and services, a knapsack is necessary to carry one’s essential items, and a sword is crucial for effective self-protection. None of these things are mentioned as solutions to spiritual matters. Thus, when Jesus sharply rebukes Peter later for drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of Malchus, saying that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” (Matthew 26:52) he is not condemning any and all use of swords. He is instead rebuking Peter’s specific misuse of the sword to interfere with God’s plan (John 18:11: “shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”). In other words, Jesus is saying that we may not advance the kingdom of God by force (John 18:36).
The two verses immediately following the rebuke give context: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” If Jesus wanted to be defended, he could request help on a scale much greater than what the disciples could do with their swords. But in accordance with scripture, he has decided against this option, and any attempt to force another outcome will not succeed.
As Tim Stratton has noted in Love Thy Neighbor & Pack Thy Heat, Jesus does not tell Peter to get rid of his sword. Instead, he merely commands him to put his sword “back in its sheath” (John 18:11; Matthew 26:52). Indeed, John’s description of the rebuke completely omits any negative reference to the sword, reporting only the command to sheath it. Likewise, Luke (who is the only Gospel writer who mentions the command to buy a sword) reports Jesus’s rebuke as simply him saying “No more of this!” The sword is not mentioned. In separating the rebuke from the sword, John and Luke appear to be drawing a distinction between the sword itself and how it is being used in that particular situation. It is the latter that is the subject of rebuke.
Luke’s omission of the sword from the rebuke is particularly telling. In the two verses prior, the disciples ask Jesus for permission to use their swords. No other Gospel writer reports this detail. Verse 49 indicates that when they realized that Jesus would be arrested, they asked “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” Although they were not supposed to prevent Jesus from being arrested, the disciples had evidently understood his earlier command to buy a sword in terms of self-defense. But if this was not in fact what Jesus had intended, then why didn’t Luke include the reference to the sword when reporting Jesus’s rebuke? In Luke’s version of events, Jesus does not correct the disciples on their understanding of the sword, even though they explicitly asked him for permission to use in self-defense just two verses prior. Instead, he tells them to cease what they are doing at the moment without mentioning the sword.
Thus, both Luke and John omit the sword from the rebuke because they want to focus on what the rebuke is really about: the attempt to interfere with the Jesus’s mission on earth. Matthew’s mention of the sword is meant to illustrate that any human attempt to interfere with God’s plan will fail. This is why in that passage Jesus immediately contrasts the sword with his own ability to summon forces that are far more powerful than a mere sword.
All this indicates that the problem was with how Peter used the sword, not that he had a sword to begin with. As implied by Jesus, the place of the sword (along with the moneybag and knapsack) is to address earthly or physical matters, not spiritual ones. Elsewhere, Paul affirms this when he ascribes the power of the sword to the “governing authorities,” (Romans 13:1-4) whose role is to tend to earthly matters (Matthew 22:17-22). Thus, when Jesus told his disciples to buy a sword, he was emphasizing the need for individual self-protection as we go about our affairs in the earthly kingdom. He was not advocating the use of swords to advance the kingdom of God. Christian pacifists are therefore wrong to say that Jesus is prohibiting all use of swords in self-defense.
The Swords as Fulfillment of Prophecy?
Some suggest that Jesus commanded the disciples to obtain swords so that scripture could be fulfilled, not because he wanted them to be able to defend themselves. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington argues that the disciples themselves are the transgressors, while pacifist theologian Preston Sprinkle argues that swords provided the legal ground for Rome to convict Jesus as a potential revolutionary. Sprinkle argues that “with swords in their possession, Jesus and His disciples would be viewed as potential revolutionaries and Jesus would therefore fulfill Isaiah 53 to be numbered with other (revolutionary) transgressors… Jesus is providing Rome with evidence to put Him on the cross.” Thus, the role of the sword was not for self-defense but to facilitate the fulfillment of scripture.
There are at least five reasons why this interpretation is not supported by the text.
First, it is directly contradicted by Mark 15:28, where the prophecy of being “numbered with the transgressors” is stated to have been fulfilled when Jesus hung between two thieves. Now although Mark 15:28 is a textual variant that does not appear in the earliest manuscripts, it does provide valuable insight into how Luke 22:37 was historically interpreted. In Luke 23:32-33, the thieves are referred to as “criminals” and placed between Jesus on each side of the cross. That Jesus is being numbered among transgressors here is a natural reading of this passage. Indeed, note the full context of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:12: “because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Being numbered with the transgressors is linked to Jesus’s pouring out his soul to death, which suggests that the prophecy found its fulfillment on the cross.
Second, the suggestion that the disciples themselves are the transgressors denigrates the character of Christ. If Jesus commanded his disciples to obtain swords so that they might become transgressors, then it would imply that Jesus commanded his disciples to sin. Even worse, why then would Jesus rebuke Peter for doing something that he himself commanded the disciples to do? One might respond by saying that the disciples became transgressors only because they misunderstood Jesus’s command to buy a sword, but that would imply that his command also had a non-prophetic component, which ends up reaffirming the self-defense interpretation.
Third, the fulfilled prophecy interpretation does not make sense of the reference to the moneybag and knapsack. If Jesus mentioned the sword strictly to refer to the fulfillment of prophecy, then why did he also mention the moneybag and knapsack? These two items had no relevance to the prophecy that Jesus be “numbered with the transgressors.” The more natural interpretation is that Jesus was talking about the totality of his disciples’ earthly needs. Three different items were mentioned in order to highlight the fact that one’s earthly needs are many.
Moreover, the fact that Jesus begins by specifically asking the disciples about the time in which their needs were met provides the immediate context for the instructions that follow. He is speaking directly to the specific issue of having their needs met. Jesus’s statement that “Scripture must be fulfilled in me” was meant to explain why the disciples needed to start becoming self-reliant.
In other words, Jesus was not saying “You will need these things before scripture can be fulfilled” but rather “You will need these things after scripture is fulfilled.” Why do they need these things after scripture is fulfilled? Because Jesus will no longer be physically with them like he was during his earthly ministry. The special providence they enjoyed during their journeys will no longer be there.
Fourth, the timing of the instruction to buy a sword does not fit well with the fulfilled prophecy interpretation. The events of Luke 22 take place during the last supper. If Jesus was saying that the disciples needed swords that very night in order that he should appear as a criminal, then it is strange why Jesus would tell them to go buy swords at supper time, with only a few hours’ notice before his arrest. Given the time of day, it would be very difficult to find a merchant still doing business. It is more plausible to suppose that Jesus’s advice to buy a sword was intended for a later context, not the events of that night.
One might respond by pointing out that Jesus already knew that the disciples had swords in their possession. This response only creates another problem: if Jesus already knew that the disciples had the swords required to fulfill prophecy, why issue the command to obtain something they already possessed?
Notice that Jesus is addressing those disciples who did not have swords (“let the one who has no sword buy one”) and telling them to obtain them. But if Jesus already knew that the two swords among the eleven disciples were enough to make him appear as a transgressor, then there was no point in instructing those who did not have swords to obtain them, especially when they couldn’t have done so given the time of day. Again, the more natural reading of the whole passage is that Jesus is encouraging each of the disciples to become self-reliant at a future time. The fact that the command to buy a sword is bundled with the command to buy a moneybag and knapsack lends additional support to this.
Fifth, at no point during the trial of Jesus are swords even mentioned. If the swords were supposed to facilitate Jesus’s appearance as a criminal (as Sprinkle suggests), then why didn’t the Sanhedrin use that charge against him? Indeed, when they were searching for false testimony against him, nobody mentioned the swords (Matthew 26:59-61)! This silence is especially strange when we consider that Peter chopped off Malchus’s ear in front of a large audience. If someone wanted to portray Jesus as a criminal, there was a convenient example they could have used. And yet nothing was said about it. Instead, Jesus was convicted because he claimed to be the Messiah (Matthew 26:63-66).
We see the same silence when Jesus was brought before Pilate. As the Roman governor, Pilate would have been especially attentive to any news of a potential revolution. And yet, there is still no mention of the swords. All this strongly suggests that the swords played no part in Jesus’s conviction.
Guns, Swords, and Trusting in God
The world has always been a difficult and dangerous place. Jesus was keenly aware of this fact, so he instructed his disciples to make necessary preparations for their earthly needs to be met. One of these preparations involved arming themselves for self-defense. What application does this have for us today?
The contemporary equivalent of a sword is of course a firearm. Much like swords, firearms make it possible to put up an effective fight by enhancing one’s ability to defend himself and others. The reasoning behind Jesus’s instruction to buy swords can therefore be extrapolated to gun ownership.
A large body of research shows that using a gun in self-defense is very effective at reducing injury and property loss. Research also consistently shows that the number of defensive gun uses greatly exceeds the number of criminal uses. Moreover, there does not seem to be any kind of connection between gun ownership and homicide. Therefore, purchasing, learning how to use, and carrying a firearm appears to be a prudent and effective way of being a wise steward of our own lives and the lives of others around us. Outside of Jesus’s command to buy a sword, there are also strong moral and philosophical arguments for gun ownership. I have written on these arguments in a number of places.
But what about trusting in God? Isn’t relying on an earthly weapon for protection a sign of spiritual weakness? Not anymore than providing for our own food and water are signs of spiritual weakness. God of course does provide, but many times he provides through earthly means. The residents of Jerusalem during the rebuilding of the wall understood this when they both prayed to God and set up an armed guard as a means of protection (Nehemiah 4:7-9). It is not wrong to trust in earthly means, provided that we recognize that it is ultimately God who works through them (Proverbs 21:31).
Okay, but didn’t Jesus say that if someone slaps us, we are to “turn the other cheek”? Yes, absolutely. The “slap” that Jesus refers to was a kind of demeaning insult, not a physical blow meant to cause physical harm or injury. Jesus was saying that we should not attempt to “get even” with those who insult or demean us. His comments are directed against the desire to address a bruised ego. He was not ruling out forceful responses to threats of serious bodily harm, which as we have seen is explicitly authorized in his instruction to buy swords.
Perhaps carrying a gun is not for you. That’s OK. What is clear from Jesus’s teaching about the sword, however, is that self-preservation is important. We have an obligation to take care of ourselves and others. Whether that involves carrying a gun, a knife, pepper spray, learning martial arts, or just facilitating an escape is a matter of one’s own conscience. Not everyone is called to carry a gun, but everyone is called to care for themselves. To that end, violence is sanctioned.
The role of the sword (and firearm) is to provide a response to wrongdoing on earth. Peter’s use of the sword was rebuked because it was an attempt to use the sword in a way that went beyond its limited earthly role. Christian pacifists are guilty of making the same kind of mistake that Peter did, though in the opposite direction. They view the world as though the vision described in Isaiah 2 is indicative of how things should be right now. Yes, one day Jesus will return and reign. When that happens, weapons (along with many other things) will be unnecessary. But that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s foolish to pretend that it has.
Until then, “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.”