Jesus did not teach that Christians should use violence to protect themselves from their enemies. He taught that Christians should live with attitudes that are antithetical to violence (Mt. 5.3-12). He taught His disciples not to resist evil people (Mt. 5.38-42). He taught us to love our enemies, pray for them, and bless them (Mt. 5.43-46; Lk. 6.27-37). He taught us to follow His example of taking up a cross, even though He could have crushed His enemies with force (Mt. 16.24-26). Jesus’ teachings about how Christians should treat their enemies are clear, and stand in stark contrast to the “common sense” approach typically shown by people in the world. Notice that Jesus’s approach towards enemies includes doing good to them, lest anyone should mistakenly conclude that they can love their enemy in their heart, while doing them harm.
But what about Luke 22.36? Did Jesus give His approval of preparing to use force against evil? Here is the verse in context:
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
Did Jesus instruct us to arm ourselves? How did Jesus anticipate His disciples to understand this request in light of His other non-violent and enemy loving commandments?
How should this text be applied by Christians today? Should we all be getting our concealed carry permits? Should we all start arming ourselves when we go to worship? What steps should Christians take to protect themselves against imminent threats of danger? What should loving our enemies look like in light of this verse?
Loving Our Enemies Does Not (Always) Contradict Self-Defense
There is nothing wrong with self-defense, unless of course our method of defending ourselves requires us to deny Christ or His teachings. Faithfulness is always more important than safety. Loving our enemies is more important than safety. Doing good to our enemies is more important than safety. But as long as we maintain faithful obedience to God, there is nothing wrong with taking steps to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe in the face of imminent danger.
There are several New Testament examples of self-defense. When King Herod sought to kill Jesus as a child, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to keep Him safe. When Saul of Tarsus was ravaging the church, the early Christians fled Jerusalem for safety. When Paul’s life was sought by the governor of Damascus, he took steps to defend himself by escaping through a basket in the wall of the city. These early Christians didn’t flee out of fear, but they didn’t actively seek to be martyred either. They valued self-protection, and we should too.
Luke 22.36 Does Not Teach Self-Defense
Even though self-defense is not wrong, Luke 22.36 does not teach that Christians should use weapons to defend themselves against the wicked.
First of all, the math just doesn’t work. Two swords for the self-defense of twelve men? And yet Jesus says that two swords are enough? Hardly!
Secondly, just a few verses later, Jesus rebukes his disciples when they tried to use their swords for that very purpose.
While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kill him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” – Luke 22.47-53
The disciples, when threatened by enemies, did what most people would do: they pulled out their weapons for self-defense. But when they drew their swords, Jesus rebuked them. “Enough of this!”
(As a side note, the KJV has a more literal translation “Suffer ye thus far!”. The Greek, “eao heos toutou” carries the idea of “letting something be” or “permitting” something, but only for a limited amount of time. That is, carrying the sword for self-defense was something that had been tolerated, but time was up! “Enough of this!”, although less literal, carries this same idea in more natural modern English.)
However we are to understand Jesus’ command to buy a sword, the one conclusion the text does not allow is that Jesus was approving of using the sword for self-defense.
Why Did Jesus Command His Disciples to Buy a Sword?
So what was the reason for buying the sword? Thankfully we are not left to guess for ourselves. The text answers this question for us.
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.’” – Luke 22.36-37
The text gives us one reason why Jesus would command his disciples to buy a sword: to fulfill prophecy. That’s it. That’s the reason the text gives us. Nothing more. Nothing about self-defense. Nothing about preparing to use the sword against enemies in worst case scenarios. Nothing that would contradict His earlier commands to “do not resist the evil one” and love our enemies.
Two swords were enough to fulfill Isaiah 53.12.
Because he poured out his soul to death
And was numbered among the transgressors;
Yet he bore the sins of man,
And makes intercession for the transgressors.
When Jesus and his disciples carried swords, this was enough to provoke a response that was usually reserved for violent transgressors. Notice the way the text points how Jesus’ enemies changed their approach towards him.
Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour and the power of darkness. – Luke 22.52-53
When Jesus was in the temple without a sword, they did not come out against him. Now, they came out against him as a robber. Earlier He was not numbered among transgressors, and now He was. Why? What was the difference? The swords.
Matthew’s account adds some additional clarity to the role the swords played in causing Jesus to be numbered among the transgressors.
And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew is sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword in your place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 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 be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” – Matthew 26.52-56
Buying the sword was all about fulfilling scripture. As soon as Jesus and His disciples carried swords, their lives were threatened with swords. Jesus used this moment to teach a proverb about how violence usually provokes more violence: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus disarmed his disciples. Jesus disarmed all of us.
Jesus then used the opportunity to do good to His enemy.
And he touched his touched his ear and healed him. – Luke 22.51
Two swords were enough to fulfill Scripture.
Two swords were enough to be numbered among the transgressors.
Two swords were enough for Jesus to rebuke Peter for using violence for self-defense.
Two swords ere enough to give Jesus an opportunity to demonstrate the love we are to show our enemies.
Two swords were enough for Jesus to teach us that we should not use violence against our enemies.
The Impact of Jesus’ Teaching
Peter was as passionate about using force against evil as anybody can be. And yet, it seems that Jesus’ rebuke in the garden had a tremendous impact on Peter. Later in life, Peter would look back on that night and draw this conclusion:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. – 1 Peter 2.21-23
Jesus set an example of what it means to really entrust yourself to the One who judges justly. Jesus set an example of how to respond to enemies when faced with imminent danger. Jesus showed us how to love our enemies and resist not the one who is evil. And Jesus expects us to follow in His steps.