Most Christians I have encountered believe strongly that Jesus advocates the use of violence for self-defense. To bolster their position, they often quote Luke 22:36, which says:
And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.”
At first glance, it may seem as if Jesus was indeed instructing his followers to buy swords for self-defense against the people who were about to arrive at the Garden of Gethsemane.
And some have extrapolated this to mean that Christians are also to have weapons for self-defense (including guns) in order to resist a tyrannical government.
For example, on January 18, 2013, Chuck Baldwin published an article entitled, “The law of the sword.” In it he argues that “God’s eternal law” includes the right of Christians to keep and bear arms. He concludes:
The Second Amendment guarantee that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” is as much a sacred right as it is an American right. The principle of armed self-defense is rooted in both Natural and Revealed Law. That Barack Obama and Dianne Feinstein want to strip the American people of this right should be met with the most vociferous resistance, and that includes FROM CHRISTIANS!
As you can see, in the face of government efforts to disarm Americans, Baldwin advocates “vociferous resistance […] from Christians.” He advocates this based on his interpretation of scripture.
But I disagree with Baldwin’s conclusions, and in this article I will seek to offer an opposing viewpoint, also based on scripture.
First, it is helpful to lay some groundwork to understand the character of Jesus and his expectations for his followers.
In Matthew 5:38-44, Jesus instructs his listeners:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This clear teaching seems diametrically opposed to the view that Jesus advocates violent self-defense. Because here Jesus says that we should not resist a violent man, and that we ought to “turn the other cheek.”
This instruction aligns with the prophecies about Jesus. Prior to his birth, it was prophesied that he would be the “Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6 says:
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
So Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5 supports his claim as the Prince of Peace. But Jesus did tell his disciples to buy swords. Why did he say this? How do we reconcile Jesus’ admonishment to “turn the other cheek” with his instruction to buy swords?
Let us examine in context the passage in Luke 22, starting with verse 35 and concluding with verse 38.
And He said to them, “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.”
And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.
“For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And He was numbered with transgressors’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.”
They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.”
Two things stand out to me. First Jesus mentions a money belt, bag, and sandals. But in the next verse he mentions a money belt, bag, and sword. And of the three items, only the sword is to be purchased if necessary.
It seems the sword was the most urgent item to acquire, while the disciples were to take along a money belt and bag if they already had these items. There is a reason for this, and I will get to it in a moment. First, let us look at Mason Wheeler’s interpretation:
Up until this point, the disciples had operated under the aegis of both Roman and Jewish law. They were seen as just another group of disciples of some charismatic Rabbi. If he had some strange ideas he was teaching, well, so did plenty of others.
But now, all that was about to change. He was going to be taken by the Jews, tried and convicted and put to death by the Romans. Suddenly their Master’s public status was about to go from “eccentric Rabbi” to “criminal condemned for stirring up trouble with the Romans,” which would turn those who supported him into fugitives, at least temporarily.
Here, he was trying to explain to them that they would need to be prepared to stay mobile (side note: the word fugitive comes from a Latin root meaning “to flee”): they would need to always have a purse (for money) and a bag (to carry basic supplies) ready, and that a sword (for protection against other men) was to be more important to them than a cloak (for protection against the elements) in the days to come.
I agree with Wheeler in principle. Part of what Jesus said was to prepare the disciples for the days ahead, during which they would be considered fugitives.
But I disagree with Wheeler regarding his conclusion that the disciples were to acquire swords for self-defense. Clearly, this would contradict Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5.
And if the disciples had interpreted Jesus’ words this way, we would expect that many of them would have been killed while violently resisting the authorities. But this was not the case. All the disciples except for Judas and John were martyred, and they did not resist their deaths.
But let’s get back to Luke 22. Jesus explains in verses 37 and 38 why the swords were needed. It was so that Jesus would be “numbered with transgressors.” This is why when the disciples say, “Here are two swords,” Jesus says, “It is enough.”
One sword would not have been enough because Jesus was to be numbered with transgressors (plural). Therefore, two swords were needed to fulfill the prophecy. (This prophecy was fulfilled yet again when Jesus hung on a cross between two thieves.)
When “the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders” came against Jesus, his disciples asked, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” Note that Jesus does not reply.
Peter then draws his sword (one of the two swords the disciples had among them) and strikes Malchus, the slave of the high priest. It is easy to imagine Peter aiming for Malchus’ neck or the crown of his head. It is also easy to imagine Malchus attempting to dodge the blow, causing Peter’s sword to cut off Malchus’ ear.
After this incident, Jesus reveals more of his peaceful nature when he commands his disciples, “Stop! No more of this,” and then heals Malchus’ ear.
So the two swords were needed for that very moment in the garden, and Jesus allowed the violence to happen to fulfill the prophecy that he would be numbered with the transgressors. In fact, this is how Jesus explains it himself.
What does this mean for us today? Should Christians have swords and guns for self-defense?
I believe that is up to each Christian to decide for himself. At the same time, I think it is important to remember that God has given us a better sword — “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). Hebrews 4:12 says:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
We see the power of this better sword in the same scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. When Jesus asks, “Whom do you seek?” They answer, “Jesus the Nazarene.” When Jesus says, “I am He,” they all drew back and fell to the ground (John 18:6). That’s powerful!
It is also important to remember what Paul says in Ephesians 6:12-13.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
And yet so many Christians do not understand this. They are still struggling against flesh and blood and encouraging other Christians to do the same.
I personally think this advice is misguided.
Rather, we ought to imitate Jesus, turn the other cheek, and rely on the better sword that God has given us.
Read Part 2 here:
How Should Christians React to a Military Threat from Another Nation?