The prophet Isaiah describes a vision in which the Messiah returns to reign on the earth. All the nations of the world beat their swords into plowshares. All war and conflict comes to an end. These things have no place in a kingdom ruled by the Messiah.
We should long for the day that this vision is made reality. But until that happens, what shall we do when faced with evil? Obviously it would be better to live in a world in which we did not need swords than a world in which they were needed. It would be better if swords were turned into plowshares because they no longer served a purpose. But that is not the world we currently live in, and we pretending that our world is like that is unrealistic and dangerous. In the actual world, bearing the sword in self-defense is necessary, proper, and morally required. None other than Jesus himself understood this, which is why he explicitly instructed his disciples to arm themselves for their own protection.
In Luke 22, Jesus addresses his disciples shortly before he is arrested, put on trial, and eventually crucified. He reminds them of how their physical 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 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 start being self-reliant. Up until this point, their needs were providentially taken care of, such that they “did not lack anything.” For him to say that they must now 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.”
The cloak that Jesus refers to was the simlāh (the Greek term being “himation”) or heavy outer garment worn by Jews. 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, then, 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 take adequate measures to defend themselves, Jesus is implying that self-defense against physical threats is each person’s moral obligation.
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. Indeed, the mention of a sword (which functions as a force multiplier) indicates that self-defense is something to which Christians should be seriously committed.
When the disciples respond by showing him 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. Again, this 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, suggest that the sword was meant literally.
Others suggest that this phrase refers to prophecy: the swords are “enough” for Jesus to be “numbered with the transgressors.” But this doesn’t fit with the context. Again, Jesus mentions the sword in the context of the disciples’ earthly needs (hence the reference to the moneybag and knapsack). If it was just the prophecy he was referring to, then there would have been no need to mention the other two items. The fact that they are included means that Jesus was talking about something else. This is especially clear when we see that Jesus begins verse 35 with a leading question that specifically frames the discussion in terms of their earthly needs being met.
But 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? We’re not told. But we do know what it is enough for: the context suggests self-defense. Jesus may have been saying that the specific disciples who brought him the swords were sufficiently armed, or he may have referred to the swords as examples of what the disciples 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 on 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 misuse of the sword to interfere with God’s plan (“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).
Note that Jesus does not tell Peter to get rid of his sword. Instead, he commands him to put his sword “back in its place.” 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 moral responsibility of each individual to protect himself as he goes about their affairs in the earthly kingdom. He was not telling them to use their 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.
Some suggest that Jesus commanded the disciples to obtain swords in order so that scripture could be fulfilled, and not because he wanted them to be able to defend themselves. 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.
This interpretation is not supported by the text. As we saw earlier, it 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 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 context for the instructions that follow. He is speaking directly to the specific issue of having their earthly 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.
Finally, at no point during the trial of Jesus are swords even mentioned. If the role of the swords was to facilitate Jesus’s appearance as a criminal, 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 pretty opportunistic example they could have used. And yet nobody brought it up. Instead, Jesus was convicted because he claimed to be the Messiah (Matthew 26:63-66). The mention of swords in Luke 22:36 does not refer to prophecy.
Guns and Swords
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 in order 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, they 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 is equally applicable to firearms.
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. There does not also 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).
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 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. He was not ruling out forceful responses to threats of serious bodily harm, which as we’ve 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 not optional. We have a moral responsibility 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.
The role of the sword 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 acting as if it has is foolish and dangerous.
Until then, “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.”
For more regarding this topic see Tim Stratton’s article, Love Thy Neighbor & Pack Thy Heat.