Don't Forget to Take a Sword With You!

For the few months leading up to a class I took on the book of Luke, I listened the audio of Luke multiple times on my ipod as I drove to various places. It is interesting to me how much fresh insight you can gain when you hear the Scriptures as opposed to reading them. When I listen, I try to imagine that I am in one of the churches that Paul had planted or supported through his Apostolic ministry, and that I am hearing the text for the first time in one of our small house-church gatherings. I know that this is done with much naivety, for I know next to nothing about what it would be like to be a first century male living under the rule of the emperors. Nevertheless, I do all I can to hear the text with fresh ears.

As I did this with Luke’s gospel, I was struck by the odd dichotomy of verses about peace with verses about swords and violence. Why would Jesus say so much about peace and instruct his disciples to carry swords? Is Jesus a walking contradiction or is there more to the story? This semester, I learned that there is indeed more to the story.

The insight has to do with Luke 22.35-38:

35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” 
”Nothing,” they answered. 36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” 38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” 
”That is enough,” he replied.

On the surface, the above passage seems to be a contradiction to most of what Jesus has taught thus far in the gospel. However, this is when we need to take into account the language that is used here. Jesus tells his disciples after having enjoyed the Passover/ Last Supper together, that they will be facing a dark road ahead. In the past, Jesus had instructed them to not worry about taking anything with them such as: a purse, bag, or sandals because God would supply all that they need; however, this time around things will be different. Surely God will still be with them, but they need to be prepared for impending difficulty for the kingdom. Jesus will be handed over to be crucified, and animosity will surely come to the disciples now and in the near future (so much that Peter will deny Jesus on three separate occasions). In prior missionary endeavors, the disciples could expect hospitality, but now they will be met with animosity. Jesus tells them that they need to take a purse and bag with one addition; they will need to get a sword. Jesus will be handed over as the Scriptures foretold, and great frustration is awaiting them in the hours and days to come (even in Acts). The sword serves as a metaphor for the coming strife that they will face. But instead of understanding the metaphor, the disciples are so dense to what is about to happen that they take the idea literally! They actually grab two swords! But they Jesus answers them back again with, “That is enough” or as Joel B Green puts it, “Enough of this!” The way of the kingdom is difficult, and violence will not be returned with violence from Jesus followers. They must be ready to endure the coming persecution.

There are a few good arguments to defend this position. The first is that Jesus in all the gospels is known for his metaphorical and parabolic language. He seems to constantly use metaphors in his teaching, most of which would have made sense to the listener in the first century, but may have lost their impact in some ways to the modern reader. Second, it seems that violence goes against the theme of Jesus’ life and ministry. He never uses any form of violence towards another human being. He actually refuses to be violent in any way when violence is done to him. Third, when one of his disciples uses a sword and cuts off the ear of the priest’s servant, Jesus responds by healing the wound rather than condoning such behavior (Luke 22.49-51). Fourth, Luke has already used the sword as a metaphor for animosity (see 12.51-53). Finally, most scholars, nonviolent or not, interpret the passage as I have expounded above, not as an opportunity for the disciples to be prepared to use self-defense.

How have you read this passages (and others like it) in the past?

What other interpretations have you heard of this passage?

How do we discern metaphor from the literal?

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  • This is really good. I love to listen to the scriptures. It’s a double pleasure to listen AND read. Sight and sound are engaged which heightens my understanding.

  • Rarely does anyone mention Luke’s explicit statement (v. 37) that they needed swords because “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me.” In other words, having swords was proof positive that they were transgressors.

    Doesn’t exactly strike me as a resounding endorsement of carrying weapons for self defense…

    • No it doesn’t, but it also sounds like he actually told them to bring swords. Which personally, I think, that it’s one thing to have a sword, it’s another to use it.

  • jin_roh

    I’ve always been skeptical of the “Jesus was non-violent, therefore the swords must be metaphorical” argument. It has always seem to run the risk of circularity.

    Good post though. I have never been clear on this passage myself to be honest.