Lord, here are two swords

Peter Smites Off the Ear of Malchus A common objection to Christian pacifism is the curious passage in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus says, “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.” (Luke 22:36)

Brian Pendell voiced just such an objection in a conversation about Christian imperialism early this week, stating, “After all, the same Jesus who tells us to turn the other cheek also tells us to sell our cloaks to buy swords. It’s funny how many people ignore the second verse while trumpeting the first. But both are needed to understand what Jesus was teaching. And if one is not literal, why should the other be?”

That’s a good question and an important challenge, so I would now like to answer Brian and others more fully than I was able to at the time. So, here goes.

The context of betrayal

Firstly, in addressing this challenge I think it is important for readers to familiarise themselves with the whole of Luke 22, a chapter which focuses on the many ways in which the disciples betray Jesus, particularly Judas and Peter. Many misunderstandings of scripture arise from proof texting (aka cherry picking) and the two swords saying is no exception.

Having read Luke 22 observe the following:

1/ A pro national defence stance is the least tenable interpretation of Luke 22 read holistically, because if Jesus was seeking to defend himself against anyone this evening it was against the national leaders – here represented by the chief priests, elders and officers of the temple guard. The guards were the nation defenders here, not Jesus.

2/ A pro insurrection stance is a similarly untenable as an interpretation of Luke 22 read holistically, as Jesus explicitly rejects this, saying, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”

3/ Two swords would not have been nearly enough for twelve men to defend themselves against a crowd of heavily armed guards. Yet curiously Jesus said, “That is enough.” Enough for what then? Jesus seems to suggest, enough to be “numbered with the transgressors.” Curious indeed.

The story which emerges

So let’s look at the context and narrative arc of the swords saying more carefully. Jesus commences the evening with a prophecy of betrayal and execution, together with instructions about the upside down power structure of the government of God. Jesus then says “if you don’t have a sword … buy one”, which is strange, because it seems very much at odds with the prediction and the instruction. Immediately following this and the prediction of Peter’s betrayal, Peter produces two swords, to which Jesus dismissively suggests, “That is enough,” even though it is clearly not enough for defence against their enemies. No more swords are purchased though, so the disciples are still largely defenceless when the hour comes. Jesus again countermands Peter when he actually uses the swords, and dismisses the idea that swords were necessary to capture him.

Could it be that Peter’s use of the sword, against all the previous teaching of Jesus, and against all the prophecies of Jesus, is the beginning of Peter’s betrayal? Could it be this resorting to swords was symptomatic of Peter’s doubts about the new covenant coming through faithfulness in the face of death. That the seeds of Peter’s betrayal began with the swords? That Jesus’ talk of swords was laced with irony? That it was part of the betrayal prophecy? Maybe Peter needed more faith that God would win the war for him?

It is difficult to be definitive about so enigmatic a saying, but in either case there is a general hermeneutical principle that, when weighing up many clear verses against one confusing verse, the interpretational weight should be placed on the many clear verses over the one confusing verse. The sword saying is just such a verse. It’s confusing, yes, but this very difficulty should prompt us to ask if theologies with vast implications should not be constructed on it without caution.

Logical yoga

So how do pro-Christendom Christians co-opt Luke 22:36 as a national defence proof text despite the hermeneutical difficulties and the wider witness of the New Testament? Well for those who actually think about it (and unfortunately in my experience that’s a minority), it is often by switching from a direct to an indirect consideration of political context. Rather than recognising the political location of Jesus as an enemy of the state, Luke 22:36 is extracted out of its political context, and by necessity, its narrative context as well. It is then co-opted into conversations about self defence, which on the surface seem more tenable. Then, with a hat tip to highly emotive family defence scenarios, it is exported to alternative (and often contradictory) political contexts where it may be drafted for military service. It is by these logical contortions that Jesus, an enemy of the state, is morphed into a mascot of the state.

But if we are serious about scripture we cannot ignore the direct political and narrative context of Luke 22:36. We should not shy away from the implications just because they are uncomfortable and countercultural. As with Jesus, I say, “No more of this!”

17 thoughts on “Lord, here are two swords

  1. I really appreciate this because I have been struggling with what Jesus is asking of us as far as personal, group and national approaches to violence, safety, and war.
    I can not see any reading that allows for personal violence; turn the other cheek, return good for evil etc seem to make that clear and so as Christians I don’t see that we can choose violence as a response for injury or harm done to us. I can not see any reading of what Jesus taught that would allow me to come to any other conclusion.
    Then you get to nations and government. I am not aware of a Christian Nation. A primary duty of government of nations is the protection of it’s citizens and justice. This is where is gets murky to me. How to stop Hilters without violence and war? Clearly there hasn’t been a unified stance in the world because since the Holocost there have been other genocidal actions and the world still isn’t sure when and how to respond but is it an appropriate response to stop great evil even with violence? Can a Christian join the military to share in their nations goals of self defense and justice?
    I don’t know. I am conflicted on this point. I think they can but it could be pretty risky because the obedience demanded in the military could put a Christian in the position where they would have to refuse to obey their commanders to obey Christ. I totally respect those Christians that have completely decided against war under any circumstance but I am not sure that it is wrong to join the military and fight…I see the men who fought to stop Hilter as heros.
    Also what about police? Do we reject using that kind of violence to protect ourselves?
    Please feedback!


  2. I am considering doing a series of posts on objections to Christian pacifism and am already working on post which addresses the police question so watch this space. As for Hilter and the Holocost, in response I would pose some counter questions:
    1/ Would the holocost have been more or less likely to occur if German Christians had, enmass, questioned the Christendom interpretation of Romans 13 as an instruction for Christians to violently support whatever government they found themselves under? In this case, the Nazi government? If less likely, shouldn’t then we question the Christendom interpretation as well?
    2/ Are we absolutely confident the Third Reich would have lasted a thousand years as per Nazi propoganda, or might it have crumbled under the weight of its own self contradictions as the Soviet Union did after a few short decades? I mean, who back in the 1950s would have imagined the Berlin Wall would have come down through non-violent activism? Could it never have happened for the Nazis?
    3/ Where does faith come into this picture? Is God limited to our strength? Or is God’s strength seen in our weakness? Have we forgotten the exodus, where God parted the Red Sea? Are we so confident God won’t act, that we’ll loose if we don’t have superior armaments?
    4/ Have we too easily left the resurrection out of the equation? To what degree should we allow the resurrection to shape our actions and attitudes towards death and the fear of death? Who is the more powerful witness to the crucified Messiah, the Christian martyr or the Christian soldier? Is martyrdom something we should be free to discuss?
    I expect I may revisit Romans 13 more fully as well, but while we are on Luke 22:36, what’s your response to what I’ve written above. Do you still see Luke 22:36 as a plausible objection or not?


  3. Clearly there were alot of points at which Hilter could have been stopped before it got so far. The antisemitism strain the church (which I don’t see how anyone gets to reading scripture) certainly played into it. Having let things get so out of hand in Germany, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, etc…what do we do then?
    4. I think is your most powerful point. Who is more powerful? As Christians; our answer has got to be Christ but as with so much else do we REALLY believe it?
    In day to day living look at where our trust gets put; money, pensions, savings…but who provides for us? Again do we really believe it?
    I don’t see Luke 22:36 as an obstacle but more in reading old testament. clearly sometimes God asked for peace but also at times a armed contingent so small as to ensure that everyone was aware that HE was fighting the battles.


  4. Nice post Matt, I came about these when I was looking for some help to deal with a cuple of questions myself:
    Jesus and the Two swords
    A stubborn (mis)interpretation
    Christian miliatias
    Nonviolence: but what about Hitler?


  5. The anabaptist articles are helpful.
    I can not see how one can escape the mandate for peaceful and nonviolence action for personal and church behavior.
    Government is more tricky as I’m not aware of any government that is Christian. Still praying about this one.
    All explanations offered aside I don’t know what Jesus meant when he talked about the swords.
    I think Matt what you said about trust was the most helpful. IF we TRUST God then it does change everything.


  6. Cherry-picking, is it? 🙂 I am preparing a most thorough response to your thoughts here, Matt, and we’ll see about ‘cherry picking’. Should be up in an hour or so while I figure out the FTP controls to my web space. Until then, God bless. And afterwords, too :).
    Brian P.


  7. Brian,
    I think you made some good points especially as government goes.
    I think the early church did opt for pacifism at least as an individual repsonse. I think Chris Smith recently put out a series of early church essays. The New Testament seems to reflect this as well.
    I am still praying about this issue.


  8. Robyn, your point about the Old Testament is an important one. Even where God led Israel into war in Old Testament times, faith was the crucial issue, not armaments. Even if we ignore the New Testament revelation it would still be difficult to reconcile modern military reliance on military superiority with Old Testament injunctions against doing so.
    But as soon as we raise the Old Testament we must content with an equally important issue: are we defending Jerusalem or Babylon? Pro war theologies seem to presume Jerusalem. But the German Christians were operating out of the same presumptions. Were they defending Jerusalem, the holy people? If they could be confused, why not us? Why is it so unconscionable to ask the question?


  9. Robyn, the question is: do we have a mandate for ethical dualism? Do we have a mandate for applying one ethic in personal and church spheres and an opposing ethic in public and state spheres? If so, what’s the biblical basis? Did Jesus advocate ethical dualism? They are some of the critical questions I have. These may be tough questions emotionally but what’s our calling? The wisdom of the world says we must trust in national defences. It’s foolishness to the world that we should trust anything else. But that’s precisely what I see Jesus asking of us.


  10. I think the trusting God is the most important point you make. Who do we trust and rely on?
    I see alot more evidence that Jesus asked us to take a different road and respond to other people with radical love and not in the way of the world.
    Most of his instructions are downplayed; The most famous is that you don’t have to like someone to love them…try that sometime!
    God gave me a gift last year to open my eyes just a little to see others as he does (a little folks; not claiming to see as HE does). He loves us to the very core I believe he meant us to share with others, give to those who ask, turn the other cheek, return good for evil and that he forgives us as we forgive others!
    Not generally reconcilable with violence of any kind.
    Still thinking about group responses.


  11. Brian, you raise many important issues for discussion, which I am still wading through (time is extremely limited at the moment) but I have to say that, far from demolishing my argument you’ve actually demonstrated its validity quite nicely.
    In the final paragraph I suggested Luke 22:36 could only be co-opted for Christendom “by switching from a direct to an indirect consideration of political context” and ignoring the events of the evening. This is precisely what you’ve done, thus legitimizing everything I said.
    The occasion for the two swords saying was not a sudden increase in outlaw activity (for it is nowhere mentioned in Luke 22) but the imminent betrayal of Jesus to armed forces representing the law in Israel (which is explicitly mentioned in Luke 22). In your wide ranging defence of your interpretation of Luke 22:36 you have drawn on anything you could other than the rest of Luke 22.
    By doing so you’ve bypassed the challenge rather than face it squarely. I shall address the rest of your statements as time permits, but the central challenge remains unaddressed.


  12. Now, as for your comments on Jesus and the book of Revelation and the judgement of God, I have outlined my understanding in some depth here: http://mattstone.blogs.com/christian/2010/04/apocalypse-of-peace.html
    Rest assured, I do not see Jesus as a “pansy” as you put it, but fully affirm injustice will be judged. I do not deny God judges, I merely point out that God says we should leave judgement to God, as only God is just. Is the usurping of God’s role for ourselves that causes me the concern.


  13. As for your Old Testament tour. Though I could deal with these references one by one I think there is a deeper issue here, the issue of theological method. It seems evident to me that you’re operating out of a Covenant Theology framework and I’m operating out of a Christocentric Theology framework. Quite simply, your respences aren’t Christocentric enough for me and that’s where the real dispute resides. See http://www.christinyou.net/pages/dthcthchth.html


  14. Matt, first I don’t think you can say that the Berlin Wall came down via non-violent activism. It came down after decades of cold war brinksmanship.
    My other reaction is about your Nazi regime sustainability comment. The Nazi government was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions between 1936 and 1945. What would have been the cost of multiple decades of their policies?


  15. The two swords are in reference to the two witnesses in revelation. Not the actual swords. Their swords come out of their mouths. In the form of words. Consuming their enemies with fire. See you at the wailing wall.


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