Tuesday, November 29, 2011


In the dialog between Christians about whether or not following Jesus entails embracing a non-violent lifestyle, there are certain verses in the New Testament that have to be addressed.

For example, whenever non-violent Christians quote Jesus saying, “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26: 52), there are pro-war Christians who will respond by saying, “(Jesus) 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.’” (Luke 22:36)

In other words, some Christians believe that Jesus fully endorsed owning and using weapons for self-defense (or for use in war), and other Christians believe that Jesus categorically prohibited His followers from using violence. What’s the real story?

Well, those verses where Jesus forbid violence are numerous and they are not difficult to understand. In addition to the one quoted above, we also hear Jesus declare that we should love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, turn the other cheek, and forgive those who seek to harm us. These are not figurative passages and taken together they paint (in my mind at least) a pretty straightforward picture of Jesus’ expectation that his disciples would not do violence.

In addition to Jesus’ commands we also have His example of forgiving those who crucified him, healing the ear of the soldier who came to arrest him in the Garden, restraining the Legions of angel soldiers at his command, and telling Pontius Pilate that his Kingdom was not of this Earth, and if it was his disciples would fight, begging the question, “If His disciples do fight then are they not part of Christ’s Kingdom”? (see John 18:36)

But this one verse where Jesus tells his disciples to go out and buy a sword is right there in the Bible, isn’t it? What’s it there for? If Jesus didn’t intend for us to own or use swords then why did he say this? Especially if, later on, he was going to contradict himself and rebuke Peter for using the sword he told him to go out and buy?

Well, here’s what I think is going on. First of all we need to look closely at this passage in Luke. Notice that right after Jesus tells his disciples to buy a sword he goes on to say, “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 22:36-38 ESV)
Right away we can see that Jesus’ statement about the swords is directly related to prophecy (“…this Scripture must be fulfilled in me”) and what is the prophecy that must be fulfilled? The one in Isaiah that says, “And he was numbered with the transgressors”.

Was the statement about buying a sword about self-defense? Probably not. Why? Because first of all, two swords are not “enough” to defend 13 guys against a legion of Roman soldiers. Also, because when Peter uses his sword in self-defense (or to protect Jesus from the soldiers) he is harshly rebuked with the verse we’ve already looked at, “Put it away! Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword”.

Clearly, Jesus is not a fan of self-defense here. At least, not according to the overall context in this passage. However, he does tell the disciples that he wants them to have those two swords with them so that the prophecy about the Messiah being numbered with the transgressors may be fulfilled in Him. That’s why two swords are “enough” for Jesus; to fulfill the scriptures, not to endorse war or physical violence.

Are we sure that Jesus only meant this in light of fulfilling the prophecies about Himself? Yes. How? Because after Peter cuts off the soldiers ear, listen to what Jesus has to say, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:53-54)

See? Jesus tells them to get a few swords so that the prophecy in Isaiah will be fulfilled. Then, once it’s fulfilled in the Garden he makes a point of saying that this is what he had in mind in the first place. So, it’s all about fulfilling the prophecies, not a statement from Jesus endorsing violence.

As sincere followers of Jesus we must take into account all the many other teachings of Jesus regarding turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, and not resisting an evil man. We must also be careful to interpret the Old Testament scriptures in light of Jesus, not the other way around (i.e. – trying to fit Jesus into the Old Testament context).

Jesus came to fulfill the Old Covenant, and He accomplished this in full. The Old Covenant is obsolete. (see Hebrews 8:13) We don’t need to refer back to it again when it comes to guiding our daily lives. We have Christ. We have the Living Word of God who has come to make His home in us. Jesus gave us a New Covenant and He lived a better example for us to follow.

“Jesus said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." (Luke 6.27-28)


C said...

I've not heard that take on the verse before. It's an interesting idea, and I will think on it some more. However, my immediate thought is this. I see nowhere else where Jesus went out of his way just to self-fulfill a prophecy. Maybe I'm missing those, and if so, please do point them out to me. But it seems that Jesus simply went about his ministry following the Father's will, and all the prophecies simply fell in line according to God's providence. This manipulation of events for the sake of prophecy fulfillment strikes me as "cheating" so to speak. Again, these are just my initial thoughts and are not intended to create a concrete argument.

My main thing is this. All throughout the Bible and throughout history, God has used different people to serve him in different ways, some of which seem very contradictory to eachother. I think that if we take the Bible as a whole (and it must all be taken into account, not just the NT), we see that God has had different plans for different people. Undeniably, he called many people in the OT to righteous violence. He also called many to pacifism. While I would certainly agree that pacifism should be the default for Christians, I would not wish to say that God might never require some to use self defense.

I firmly believe that God wants us to be so closely walking with the Spirit that we will seek his direct guidance in all areas. Assuming he never tells me to use force to defend myself, I would gladly submit to whatever circumstance I am in. If, however, God called me to defend myself (or more likely to defend others who could not defend themselves), then I would follow God's leading at that time.

Still, yours is a very interesting take, and I do appreciate your taking the time to write it out.

Allen said...

Hi Keith, I don't have an agenda in asking this question and I sure you must get it a lot, but what about people living in dangerous countries where violent crime is more prevalent than in America (such as South Africa in my case) what happens in the situation where lets say one man breaks into your house and violently threatens your family (lets says he's holding a knife, normally these guys come in with guns) what do you do then? I generally hold to a pacifist world view, but in this situation I can't see any other option than me getting involved and essentially fighting this guy, especially when the alternative is watching your family get violently attacked and potentially murdered. What is your opinion on this? It may seem like a far fetched extreme example, but with all seriousness this is a very probably situation for your average South African and this is a very serious question from my side.

Keith Giles said...

I agree that we live in a violent world, but for those who count the cost and decide to follow Jesus, the only response is love. And I don't say that lightly. I understand that it can be very difficult.

Ultimately, what matters is that we seek the Lord in those moments and do whatever He asks of us.

He may choose to rescue and protect us, or He may ask us to give up our lives.

Allen said...

In response to your comment Keith,

I think the scenario I described is one of those situations where we certainly have an idea what we should do in that situation,, but until we are actually in that situation, we never truly know what our response will be.

I remember being hijacked at gun point with my friend in South Africa, we were knelt against a wall (facing the wall) with the hijacker holding a gun to the backs of our heads and I remember thinking this could be my last moment on earth, I may never see my wife on this earth again, I may never have the pleasure of watching my kids grow up. I remember thinking that this was one of those moments that few people the world ever experience, where we all imagine ourselves in these situations and we imgaine what we would do, but few actually experience them. You learn a lot about yourself when you literally look death in the eye. Obviously when someone is holding a gun to the back of your head your options are limited to prayer, which I did and thankfully I'm still here to comment on your wonderful blog.

All I'm saying is if I were in a similar situation where I was facing an opponent with a knife, which would mean I had greater options for defence of my family, I truly don't know what I would do, I don't thing any of us truly know what we would do until we encounter that situation.

Anyhow, I sincerely enjoy reading your blog so please keep it coming.


Keith Giles said...

I totally agree - none of us really knows what we would do until we're actually in such a situation.

For example, I should share what I have with the person in need, but in actuality I might walk on by and ignore them.

As followers of Christ we're called to a radical form of love and compassion. Our calling is to practice this love, and even if we sometimes fail, we should not give up the practice, or our devotion to obedience concerning Christ.

Anonymous said...

I am struggling with interpreting this scenario of Jesus telling them to buy a sword and then not condoning the use of it.Did he instruct them to buy one so it would be said they had swords but let him be taken away without using them?
Did he instruct them to buy one because there is one mentioned in a specific prophesy he is fulfilling? If so, what verse in the bible is that prophesy?
Then also considering God has called some to commit violence even against innocents (to us) like when he had Moses kill half the people that originally escaped Egypt including their children and then Jesus comes and says to turn the other cheek it is confusing as to what we are supposed to do.
Why does it seem that God's personality changed between the old and new testament considering Jesus and God are considered one.

John E. Ayala said...

Keith, I looked it up in my newly purchased IVP Bible Background Commentary - New Testament, Craig S. Keener 2nd Edition (2014), this is what it says on that verse, 'By mentioning the "sword" here Jesus is not inviting revolution like the Zealots and other revolutionaries did. Instead, Jesus calls for a temporary and symbolic act - two are sufficient (v.38) - so he may be charged as a revolutionary and hence "reckoned among transgressors" in accordance with Isaiah 53:12.'

You are right on my friend!

Love your blog and all of your Facebook posts by the way. Keep up the Kingdom work!

Thanks and God bless,
John A.