Whenever we talk of Jesus being nonviolent there are always those who protest that Jesus was indeed violent. Often they embrace violence and use Jesus for justification. We have discussed other inadequate ‘proofs’ of Jesus’ ‘violent’ side, such as his cleansing the temple and saying that he brings, not peace, but a sword.
Today we discuss the claim that Jesus promoted violence in telling his disciples to carry swords.If You Don’t Have a Sword Sell Your Cloak and Buy One
Jesus’ only mention of carrying swords was on his last day with his disciples. Knowing he was about to be arrested and executed, Jesus shared with them a variety of last-minute things before going with them to Gethsemane—where his arrest would take place.
Luke 22 says:
Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”
“Nothing,” they answered.
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.”
Only Luke mentions this, but Mark 6 tells us of Jesus’ earlier instruction to the twelve when he first sent them out two-by-two:
Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.
Jesus wanted them to be entirely dependent. Being so unprepared must have been frightening to his disciples but, as Luke indicates, they lacked nothing. However, now Jesus tells them that from now on they should go prepared—and that includes swords.
Luke 22 continues:
The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied.
And then they left for Gethsemane.
Why Did Jesus Tell His Disciples to Carry Swords?
Some believers think Jesus instructs his followers to carry swords to fight off attackers. While this is possible it seems to go against all Jesus’ taught about how to treat people. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
He also talks in various places about his followers being arrested and killed, but he never tells them to resist with violence. It is contrary to the purpose of the kingdom of God.
If this is so, then why would he tell his followers to carry swords?
1. Protection against wild animals
Traveling through the area during the time of Jesus sometimes involved encounters with dangerous animals. Swords were necessary as protection against them.
2. Defense against robbers
For the disciples, having a sword might also deter a robbery; but I cannot imagine an agent of the good news of the kingdom killing someone, as it completely contradicts the message of the kingdom itself.
3. Blades are used for utilitarian purposes
When I was in elementary school, I carried a pocket knife everywhere—even to school. I carried it all the time, as most guys did, but I never remember a knife being used as a weapon. I used a knife to clean my fingernails, sharpen a pencil, or peel a delicious orange. Even machetes are primarily used for cutting brush, chopping wood, opening coconuts, and such.
I admit swords are most known for their military use, but the disciples needed swords for common utilitarian purposes that did not imply violent use.
What did Jesus mean by ‘That’s enough!’ in regard to the two swords? There are two common suggestions. The first is ‘two swords are sufficient.’ If so, how could two swords be sufficient against the guards arresting Jesus? The second thought is that Jesus meant ‘that is enough about swords’.
Jesus Talks about Using Violent Force
I think Jesus reveals his attitude about violence on three occasions related to his arrest and trial. In the same chapter Luke says:
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
When Peter attacked the man, Jesus corrected him and healed the man’s ear. Peter had the wrong idea about the kingdom—violent defense, even of of Jesus, is inappropriate.
Then John 18 reports that Jesus makes a very revealing statement during his interrogation:
Pilate…summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.”
The kingdom of God is not like other kingdoms. Political kingdoms use force and violence to gain and maintain power, but this is not the way of the kingdom of God—it spreads within all political kingdoms from one person to another without using violence.
Finally, in his last words Jesus demonstrates personally how to respond to violence: Father forgive them. Our task as followers of Jesus is to spread the good news of the kingdom with love, peace, and reconciliation. We cannot do that with violence.
Articles in this series: Does Jesus Demonstrate Threats and Violence?
Does Jesus Demonstrate Threats and Violence?
Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So
Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree?
What does it Mean that Jesus Brings, not Peace, but a Sword?
3 Possible Reasons Jesus Told His Followers to Carry Swords
Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment?
Jesus’ Final Act of Anti-Violence—Crucifixion
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