Of swords and words

I love talking with friends about how to live like Jesus. This will not be a surprise to most of you, as I never really shut up. One of my favorite topics to discuss is the pacifism of Jesus. This is a complex topic, and like most topics, I have friends across the entire spectrum of beliefs. But most of these conversations inevitably turn to the topic of swords. Is this because swords are awesome? Probably.

Zen and the art of Xenophobia

(Image only slightly related, but I love it.)

Here are the three most common “sword passages” that I’ve seen used in this way:
Matthew 26:52- “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
Luke 22:36- 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.
Matthew 10:34- Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

If you are anything like me, you are likely to focus on one of these passages; because Bible verses about swords are kind of like actual swords- double-edged. Personally, as a pacifist, I grab onto the first of the three because it confirms my worldview. And I have traditionally flinched when somebody brings up the second one, and then I ignore it because Jesus telling his disciples to buy a sword makes me uncomfortable. But it finally got under my skin enough that I had to do more research.

Looking at Luke 22:36 in a vacuum seems to be a clear endorsement by Jesus of the awesomeness of swords. Let’s look at not just the surrounding verses, but the context of what was happening here. This is during the Last Supper, in Jerusalem, as tensions mount. The religious leaders are trying to trick him into betraying himself through His words and actions, and Jesus knows one of his own disciples is going to betray him. Their very next stop is Gethsemane and Judas has already left to search for the authorities. It makes sense to make preparations to defend yourself in these circumstances, right?

Here’s the whole passage:
He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.”
He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.
For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”
They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.”
He replied, “It is enough.”
-Luke 22:35-38

First of all, what are two swords among 12 men “enough” for? Especially against the Roman legions? If Jesus wants to put up a fight He makes it abundantly clear that He can call on a legion of angels.

Jesus tells us exactly why the swords are needed in verse 37, but I had always skimmed over that. As I’m not a first-century jew, I had no idea what scripture He was referencing. For the record, it is Isaiah 53:12 (The whole chapter is a beautiful prophecy of Jesus.) The swords aren’t required for offense or defense, but to make Jesus and his disciples look like criminals or rebels.

This fits in with my (former) favorite sword verse, as within twenty four hours of this conversation Peter is slicing the ear off of a servant with one of those same swords. (Sidenote: I’ve heard some pacifists argue that Jesus never meant they should literally buy swords but I think that argument has no scriptural ground to stand on, largely because of this passage.) Jesus rebukes Peter, heals the servant, and He is arrested. The swords are not “enough” to defend Jesus from what comes next, because that was never the point of the swords. The swords served their purpose. Not to keep Him off the cross, but to get Him on the cross between two criminals.

Peter’s reactionary sword-swinging is the final example we have of any of the disciples engaging in what could be called self-defense. The apostles, like us, were a little slow sometimes- but this lesson appears to have sunk in. The majority of them met an ugly end, and I’m not aware of a single apostle who went out “guns blazing.”

To be honest, I still have no idea what to do with the final sword verse I listed: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Any thoughts? Is this verse as scary as it sounds? Is there another verse I’m missing? (Does this mean we can stop singing “Prince of Peace”?)

11 thoughts on “Of swords and words

  1. I think in this very specific case, the sword is a metaphor for painful division. The context is the disintegration of the family structure because of Jesus. We see in the early Church persecution that spouses, parents, children were turning family members in for following Jesus. I think those events are the fulfillment of Jesus’ words. Everything surrounding that verse is about family loyalty in opposition to faithfulness to Jesus, preparing His followers for coming loss of family, reputation, and even lives.

      • I think it definitely challenges some of our current “family friendly” ideas about the faith. I also think this falls into the same category as other conversations regarding persecution today. There are believers in other countries to whom this literally applies the exact same way; they will be tortured or killed if family members turn them in for becoming Christians. In Peoria, right now? I’ve seen it most clearly in youth ministry, parents who want their kids to serve over the summer but freak out when the kid at 20 years old wants to become a missionary or move to the slums to serve the poor.

  2. While I am pretty sure Mandy’s explanation is probably spot on and certainly more erudite than anything I could come up with I just want to say it reminds me of Hebrews 4:12, (probably because it is one of VERY few scriptures I have committed to memory.
    “For the word of God is quick and powerful and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
    A excellent example of making the Scripture say what I want it to say.

  3. Have been thinking about this post. Was it illegal at the time for the Jews to own swords? That would make sense to me being as they were under Roman occupation and rule. And, that would certainly satisfy the “enough” statement, in that it was enough to make them criminals but then raises a couple more questions. How is it that the swords were readily available and assuming this band of Jews would have been law-abiding, submitting to authority types, seems a bit strange the disciples didn’t seem to bat an eye at being told to purchase swords. All this being the basis of my first question.

    • I’ll have to look into that- I didn’t come across any reference to the legality of owning swords either way. I imagine they didn’t hesitate to get swords because of the Jewish idea of the Messiah as a conqueror and liberator. I’ll get back to you.

  4. Coming very late to this discussion but I’ve only just discovered your page :-)

    “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

    I agree with those saying this is about division. I’ve always understood this verse as applying to dividing people one way or another, for Jesus or against Him. When faced with the person of Jesus, a person can’t be neutral (even if they think they are!), you either accept Him or reject Him, and this is the division of all humanity.

    Although Jesus offers everyone peace, not everyone accepts this.

    That’s my very late contribution!

    Thanks :-)

    • Jesus also told his followers that “the world will hate you because of Me”, which is important to understanding the metaphorical language of the passage in question. As I understand it, Jesus was actually saying that sword He was bringing into the world was quite simply the Truth of His Gospel.

      As most people in this world are enemies of that Gospel (because it defines them as inherently sinful and demands a change in both behavior and heart), yet incapable of directing their hatred directly at Jesus, they will instead address their hatred upon the members of Christ’s Church.

      Jesus knew that this would be the case, which is why He declared to His followers that He was not bringing peace into this world. Now with this in mind, the question I challenge everyone to ask of themselves is whether or not you are presenting the Gospel in such a manner that has regularly led nonbelievers to hate you, or are you only presenting a fluffy, polished-up and worldly version of Christ, which is typically met with politeness by those who choose to reject Christ? If your answer to this question is the latter, you might want to reconsider your approach to Evangelism.

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