"Go Buy a Sword!" Luke 22 and Christian Gunslingers
Pic from Creative Commons

Whenever I talk about Christians and violence, guns and self-defense, it's inevitable that

Luke 22 will come up. Supposedly, this passage supports the view that Jesus wants his followers to pack some heat while they go about preaching the kingdom of God. Jerry Fallwell Jr. recently used this passage to show that Christians should arm themselves so that "we could end those Muslims before they walked in..." Better think twice before bringing your muslim friends to hear the gospel at a Liberty chapel. They may be met with the good news of Smith & Wesson before they hear about a crucified Lamb. 

John Piper has recently called Fallwell out for using sloppy exegesis of this passage. And Piper is right. Without further ado, here's Jesus's supposed command to "end those Muslims" with our guns:

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 22:35-38)

So, Jesus tells them to go buy a sword, and lo and behold, two of them (probably Peter and Simon the Zealot) had swords already. “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” Jesus ends the discussion with a curious phrase: “It is enough.” Which raises the question: enough for what?

This has always struck me as odd, since two swords for 11 disciples are not enough for self-defense, especially if they go out two by two as they did before. Plus, nowhere else does Jesus allow for violence in self-defense. Is Jesus now adding some footnotes to his Sermon on the Mount?

A few years ago I remember searching 10 of the most respected commentators on Luke—many of whom definitely aren’t pacifists—to see if I was the only one who thought the "violent self-defense" view was a bit odd. I wasn’t. Of the 10, I found only 1 that took the self-defense view. And he didn’t give any scriptural support for this view.

The late New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall says that the command to buy a sword is “a call to be ready for hardship and self-sacrifice.” Darrell Bock says that the command to buy a sword symbolically “points to readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge.” Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer writes, “The introduction of the ‘sword’ signals” that “the Period of the Church will be marked with persecution,” which of course we see throughout the book of Acts. And the popular Reformed commentator, William Hendrickson, puts it bluntly: “The term sword must be interpreted figuratively.”

As I searched and searched, I couldn't find any credible, non-pacifist Bible scholar who argued that Luke 22 is talking about self-defense. (I've since found that Wayne Grudem also assumes the self-defense view, but again, with little to no biblical argument and he doesn't wrestle with the other contextual features that go against this view.)

So when Jesus tells them to buy a sword, he could be speaking figuratively about imminent persecution. According to this interpretation, when the disciples eagerly reveal that they already have two swords, they misunderstand Jesus’ figurative language (this wasn’t the first time). When Jesus sees that his disciples misunderstand him, he ends the dialogue with, “It is enough,” which means something like “enough of this conversation.”

This interpretation makes good sense in light of the context. But there’s another interpretation that I think does slightly more justice to the passage.

Notice that right after Jesus says “buy a sword,” he quotes Isaiah 53:12, which predicts that Jesus would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37). Then, the disciples reveal that they already have two swords, to which Jesus says “it is enough.” Now, Rome only crucified those who were a potential threat to the empire. For Jesus to be crucified, Rome would have to convict him as a potential revolutionary. And this is the point of the swords. 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. If Rome didn’t have any legal grounds to incriminate Jesus, there would have been no crucifixion.

This interpretation makes good sense of the quote from Isaiah 53 and the flow of Jesus’s ethical teaching. Up until Luke 22, Jesus has prohibited his followers from using violence, even in self-defense. Is Jesus now changing his mind by telling his followers to use the sword in self-defense? It seems better to take his command to buy a sword as we have suggested: Jesus is providing Rome with evidence to put Him on the cross.

So we could view Jesus’ command as a figurative expression about their coming suffering or as a way of ensuring His own crucifixion. Either way, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus encourages violent self-defense here.

In fact, just a few verses later, Peter wields one of the two swords and Jesus rebukes him: “No more of this!” (22:51). Peter, along with some interpreters, misunderstood Jesus’s previous command to buy a sword. And remember: When Jesus rebuked Peter, it wasn't just because Jesus needed to suffer and die. He followed up his rebuke with a categorical statement about swords (guns) and violence: "all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt 26:52).

Whatever you think about these two possible interpretations, every responsible interpreter must deal with (1) Jesus's statement that "it is enough" and (2) how this event fulfills Isa 53:12. Interpretations that don't deal with these aren't responsible interpretations.

Whatever Jesus meant by his command to buy a sword, it doesn’t seem that he intended it to be used for violence.

*This post was adapted from my book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence