Jesus and the Two Swords: reflecting upon Luke 22:35-38

October 21, 2008Mark Van Steenwyk

In a recent email exchange with a serviceman named James (who has commented here a few times) asking what I do with Luke 22:35-38:

Then 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. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied. (for the record, this is probably better translated as “enough of that” …for more on that go here)

This passage is often bundled with Jesus’ conversation with the centurion as proof that Jesus wasn’t entirely committed to non-violence. And while the passage ought to give a pacifist pause, I don’t think it proves that Jesus thought that there were legitimate uses for violence.

Greg Boyd’s Take: Two Swords are Enough

Greg Boyd has done an ok job interpreting that passage non-violently…but I don’t think his argument is completely satisfying. Greg argues:

I think a close look at the passage reveals Jesus’ purpose. Immediately after telling them to buy a sword (Lk 22:36) Jesus says, “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”(vs. 37). To fulfill prophecy, Jesus had to be viewed as a transgressor. He had to at least appear to be a political revolutionary to the Jewish authorities for them to feel justified in arresting him. His cleansing of the temple a few days earlier was probably calculated for the same effect. So, to fulfill the prophecy and to provoke the Jewish authorities, he had to have enough weaponry to justify being viewed as a law breaking revolutionary.

While I agree, I typically don’t find “Jesus did X so he could self-consciously fulfill prophecy” a good enough argument. Furthermore, while it certainly makes sense that Jesus needed to give some semblance of being a political revolutionary, I am fairly confident that he could have gotten crucified without appearing to endorse violence. In other words, Jesus’ nonviolent revolution was sufficiently subersive alread to warrant the death penalty. I see no need to add some weapons as props to push his enemies into arresting him.

Greg Boyd’s take is one of the better ways of interpreting this passage. Some folks dismiss this passage as a later insertion by those who want to legitimize violence. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that this passage legitimizes self-defense.

Enough of this!

Jesus knows that things are going to go down. He knows that, in a little while, his disciples will be outlaws. And so, to prepare them for the coming reality, he reminds them of an earlier time.

He reminded them of when they were sent out with nothing, yet they lacked nothing. But now, things were going down, so he asks them (rhetorically, I believe) to carry a purse or bag, and for them each to carry a sword.

Jesus asks them this because the words of Isaiah 53:12 must be fulfilled: “And he was counted with lawless people.” One could use this reference to someone indicate, as Greg Boyd does, that Jesus needed to appear to be with brigands in order to facilitate his arrest. But it seems best to take the reference as a foreshadowing of the fate that is to come. In other words, the carrying of the swords doesn’t fulfill the prophecy…rather, Jesus tells his disciples to carry swords because the prophecy is about to be fulfilled. That is a subtle yet important distinction.

Taking Jesus literally, they inform Jesus that they already have two swords among them. Jesus seems to find this exasperating, since he cuts the conversation short by proclaiming “enough of this.” It seems that the disciples, yet again, are missing the point.

The words with which Jesus concludes do not mean that two swords are enough…the Greek doesn’t require this translation and it doesn’t really make sense. Two swords are profoundly insufficient against the soldiers who are on their way to arrest Jesus (Luke 22:47ff).

During the arrest, the disciples ask if they should use their swords and one of the disciples (elsewhere we learn that it is Peter) pulls out one of those swords and uses it—and gets rebuked for it. So, clearly, this whole conversation about swords doesn’t indicate that Jesus intended for his disciples to use swords.

So, what’s going on here? Jesus tells his disciples to each have a sword…they feebly respond that they have two already…Jesus gets frustrated. And later, when he’s arrested, Jesus rebukes Peter for using one of the two swords that they already had.

What’s the point? Why does Jesus tell them to have swords? Given the context and Jesus’ larger teachings on nonviolence he was trying to make a larger point that his disciples were too obtuse to get. Which is why he told them “Enough of this!”

Jesus is being ironic. It is the only thing that makes sense of the passage. Jesus, on his way to being arrested, knows that the time of trial has come. And in order to prepare them for the hostility that is to come, tells them, in effect, to posture themselves for war.

But they take Jesus literally, still unable to interpret the words of their Master in a way that fits with his overall teaching on the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ words mustn’t be taken as justification for armed resistance or self defense. Rather, he is calling his disciples to face the coming confrontation boldly, doing revolution in the way he taught them. Jesus taught them a peaceful way to resist the Enemy. Paul’s teachings on resisting the powers (rather than flesh and blood) aren’t his innovation—they flow out of the teaching of Christ. Yet here, in this passage, at this point in the story, the disciples still don’t get that.

At any rate…it seems clear to me (whether you read this as simply Jesus fulfilling prophecy so that he can fulfill Isaiah 53 or you see Jesus as being ironic) that this passage simply cannot be used to legitimize self-defense. That isn’t the point…and the context actually refutes that point.

  • http://returngood.com dcrowe

    The Center for Christian Nonviolence has a good audio file on this passage that fits pretty well with your second point. Go to: http://centerforchristiannonviolence.org/resour… and scroll down to “Questions and Answers on Christian Nonviolence.” There is a “Buy a Sword?” link that starts an audio file. BTW, i highly recommend every audio file on that page. :)

  • http://returngood.com dcrowe

    The Center for Christian Nonviolence has a good audio file on this passage that fits pretty well with your second point. Go to: http://centerforchristiannonviolence.org/resour… and scroll down to “Questions and Answers on Christian Nonviolence.” There is a “Buy a Sword?” link that starts an audio file. BTW, i highly recommend every audio file on that page. :)

  • http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com Blake

    I think you missed a link. You wrote:

    “(for the record, this is probably better translated as “enough of that” …for more on that go here)”

    Where is “here?” Thanks for posting this. I have a paper due tomorrow on this passage, so you'll make a great reference. :-)

  • http://joelspages.blogspot.com joel

    “Some folks dismiss this passage as a later insertion by those who want to legitimize violence, ” or perhaps the early Church seeing in Jesus' saying, “enough” (however he meant it), as being their “proof” that the “proof text” prophecy “he was counted as a brigand” was indeed a one more proof that he indeed was the One of whom Isaiah spoke. In other words, it is the early Christian community saying not that “Jesus said” but that “we can see here Jesus saying this and we understand this now that he is the One of Isaiah because it is just what Isaish said!” Throughly enjoy your posts Mark.

  • http://markvans.wordpress.com markvans

    Oops. It has been difficult to find an online source that treats the passage in the same detail as some of the articles I can access through my seminary web portal. I've added an ok link for now, but was hoping to link to something a bit beefier.

  • http://www.hartvillemennonite.org joet

    mark, ok it has been a few months since i posted anything. i just had to say that i really enjoyed your take on this passage. it makes the most sense. i never really knew what to do with it.

  • http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com Blake

    I think you missed a link. You wrote:

    “(for the record, this is probably better translated as “enough of that” …for more on that go here)”

    Where is “here?” Thanks for posting this. I have a paper due tomorrow on this passage, so you'll make a great reference. :-)

  • http://joelspages.blogspot.com joel

    “Some folks dismiss this passage as a later insertion by those who want to legitimize violence, ” or perhaps the early Church seeing in Jesus' saying, “enough” (however he meant it), as being their “proof” that the “proof text” prophecy “he was counted as a brigand” was indeed a one more proof that he indeed was the One of whom Isaiah spoke. In other words, it is the early Christian community saying not that “Jesus said” but that “we can see here Jesus saying this and we understand this now that he is the One of Isaiah because it is just what Isaish said!”

  • http://markvans.wordpress.com markvans

    Oops. It has been difficult to find an online source that treats the passage in the same detail as some of the articles I can access through my seminary web portal. I've added an ok link for now, but was hoping to link to something a bit beefier.

  • http://jonathanstegall.com/ jonathanstegall

    Good thoughts on this passage. There is a good look at this passage, as well as some of the others where Jesus uses language or actions that seem violent to us (brood of vipers, coming to bring a sword rather than peace, cleansing of the Temple) available at http://www.christian-thinktank.com/violentx.html.

    I'm very satisfied with these explanations of the instruction to carry a sword and so on. In my embrace of nonviolence, I have a lot more struggle, personally, with the cleansing of the Temple as it is very possible that it would have, and suggested by Roman documents that it did, cause a riot involving violence. I don't know of any responses that address this in light of nonviolence, since of course the text doesn't indicate that there was a riot, and many of the more critical scholars who would reference the Roman documents don't believe the event happened.

    Anyway, I'd love to see thoughts on this particular issue. I am not at all promoting that we should abandon what I believe to be the passionately nonviolent message of Jesus, but I am interested in wrestling with this text and its implications to better understand it.

  • http://www.hartvillemennonite.org joet

    mark, ok it has been a few months since i posted anything. i just had to say that i really enjoyed your take on this passage. it makes the most sense. i never really knew what to do with it.

  • http://jonathanstegall.com Jonathan Stegall

    Good thoughts on this passage. There is a good look at this passage, as well as some of the others where Jesus uses language or actions that seem violent to us (brood of vipers, coming to bring a sword rather than peace, cleansing of the Temple) available at http://www.christian-thinktank.com/violentx.html.

    I'm very satisfied with these explanations of the instruction to carry a sword and so on. In my embrace of nonviolence, I have a lot more struggle, personally, with the cleansing of the Temple as it is very possible that it would have, and suggested by Roman documents that it did, cause a riot involving violence. I don't know of any responses that address this in light of nonviolence, since of course the text doesn't indicate that there was a riot, and many of the more critical scholars who would reference the Roman documents don't believe the event happened.

    Anyway, I'd love to see thoughts on this particular issue. I am not at all promoting that we should abandon what I believe to be the passionately nonviolent message of Jesus, but I am interested in wrestling with this text and its implications to better understand it.

  • http://resurrectingfootpaths.blogspot.com chad m

    oh man am i glad i checked out the site today! we just had a discussion with our small group about this topic…i claimed Jesus is anti-war and Christians should be non-violent. someone responded: “what about Jesus telling the disciples to buy swords?” not sure where this came from other than his hope that Jesus actually wants us to have swords and weapons to fend off the enemies of Christ…

    Yoder asks, “Can a Christian simutaneously wield the sword and turn the other cheek?” i think not! why do Christians want to, desire to, legitimize violence? why? why are we so quick to defend violence and excited to find the one random passage that seems to question all of Jesus' and the other biblical authors non-violence and peaceful commands?

    ahhhhhh!

  • http://resurrectingfootpaths.blogspot.com chad m

    oh man am i glad i checked out the site today! we just had a discussion with our small group about this topic…i claimed Jesus is anti-war and Christians should be non-violent. someone responded: “what about Jesus telling the disciples to buy swords?” not sure where this came from other than his hope that Jesus actually wants us to have swords and weapons to fend off the enemies of Christ…

    Yoder asks, “Can a Christian simutaneously wield the sword and turn the other cheek?” i think not! why do Christians want to, desire to, legitimize violence? why? why are we so quick to defend violence and excited to find the one random passage that seems to question all of Jesus' and the other biblical authors non-violence and peaceful commands?

    ahhhhhh!

  • MJMcEvoy

    I 've read that passage as Jesus knew the 12 were not ready and would not/could not follow his example. He could not teach them to NOT use a sword if they didn;t have one.

  • MJMcEvoy

    I 've read that passage as Jesus knew the 12 were not ready and would not/could not follow his example. He could not teach them to NOT use a sword if they didn;t have one.

  • http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com Blake

    My most recent blog is an adapted form of the paper I wrote on the topic. I'd love to have your feedback Mark. http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com/2008

  • http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com Blake

    My most recent blog is an adapted form of the paper I wrote on the topic. I'd love to have your feedback Mark. http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com/2008

  • http://julieclawson.com Julie Clawson

    This passage really needs to be read as a whole – at supper the disciples argue about greatness and power and Jesus rebukes them. And in the garden right after he rebukes that same attitude. so it makes no sense for in between for him to support violence and domination.

  • deadrev

    what do you think about Jesus knocking over all the folks that came to arrest him? i have discussed this with others and have never got a good explanation of what that meant in relationship to his otherwise nonviolent life.

    personally i used to see this passage as a justification of the use of non-lethal force. but now i view it as more of demonstration of reality. the reality that they only could take him because he allowed them to do so and of course the reality that he was one with the great I AM

  • http://markvans.wordpress.com markvans

    I'm not sure if these soldiers falling over means that they were struck or knocked over. Their reaction seems to be supernatural…a response to the numinous (awesome presence of the Other)

  • Casey

    The argument that Jesus was being ironic in this in this passage makes sense, but the interpretation is not without difficulties. Specifically, how do we deal with passive resistance and non-violence from a pastoral perspective? How do we view Paul's approval and acknowledgment of the sword in Romans 13? What are our spiritual weapons and how do we use them in faith? A correct interpretation of this passage only deals with half the issue; the church needs to be equipped with Scriptural alternatives to violence, revenge and coercion.

  • anonymous

    If all violence is unjust, then how do you explain Crusades? If all violence is unjust then where is God's justice when people die violent deaths, not necessarily through bloodshed, but people dying due to drunk driving accidents, for instance? Are you are saying that God is unjust….. na'oozobillah!

    Use of jihad by abusive interpretation is reprehensible and not condoneable! Especially, when defenseless people are persecuted.

    Those who live by the sword have to die by it, is Jesus telling you that Mohammed's (SAW) son Hussain (AS) will die in that way for the whole of mankind! What he was saying is that is the way Justice of God works! Not the feeble interpretation that one should always abstain.

    Jihad was meant to protect the then feeble nation. Not the abusive modern interpretation.

  • jason

    i believe Jesus was preparing them for for what was just ahead and that was the betrayel of Jesus and peter decided to act violently and Jesus then says,”he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.
    Jesus new what was going to happen and when he tells them to bring two swords ,he new a spirtual battle would take place and perhaps the swords represented the sword of the Spirit and he was telling them it is a spiritual battle not flesh and blood so be ready with the words of my Spirit .
    and also iron sharpens iron.
    when they heard Him say bring two swords they were thinking fleshly and Jesus rebuked them.
    and all at the same time he knew peter would need a sword because he would act violenty which only set up
    Jesuses non violent motive

  • http://hewhocutsdown.blogspot.com hewhocutsdown

    You are assuming that God is directly enacting these deaths by violence, nature, etc. You also won't find anyone here, I think, trying to justify the Crusades as much more than misguided and barbaric.

    We hope to hear more from you – peace to you. I'll leave you with this:

    nastagh-firuka ya Hakam
    ya Dhal-Jalali wal-Ikram
    Isa ruhu-lah 'alalihis-salat was-salam
    ya Halim, ya Qahhar
    ya Muntaqim, ya Ghaffar!
    la llaha ilallahu, Allahu Akbar!

  • http://www.grenholm.net/micael.html Micael Grenholm

    People have always misinterpreted Jesus' actions. I know I read that jews qountinued to baptize people after John the Baptist although he had poiunted at Jesus so well. And remember that the thessalonians interpreted Jesus' next coming as a reason not going to work. So that people saw Jesus' actions in the temple as a reason for a riot, that is a misinterpretion, and there is no evidence what so ever that Jesus supported that. The text in Romans 13 isn't a text supporting war (the sword mentioned there was a short dagger not used in war) but on the contrary a text hindering the Christians doing rots. Even if Babylon is a whore, we shouldn't start a violent revolution against her, but instead show the alternative: the beaty Jerusalem.

  • http://www.grenholm.net/micael.html Micael Grenholm

    People have always misinterpreted Jesus' actions. I know I read that jews qountinued to baptize people after John the Baptist although he had poiunted at Jesus so well. And remember that the thessalonians interpreted Jesus' next coming as a reason not going to work. So that people saw Jesus' actions in the temple as a reason for a riot, that is a misinterpretion, and there is no evidence what so ever that Jesus supported that. The text in Romans 13 isn't a text supporting war (the sword mentioned there was a short dagger not used in war) but on the contrary a text hindering the Christians doing rots. Even if Babylon is a whore, we shouldn't start a violent revolution against her, but instead show the alternative: the beaty Jerusalem.

  • http://www.grenholm.net/micael.html Micael Grenholm

    People have always misinterpreted Jesus' actions. I know I read that jews qountinued to baptize people after John the Baptist although he had poiunted at Jesus so well. And remember that the thessalonians interpreted Jesus' next coming as a reason not going to work. So that people saw Jesus' actions in the temple as a reason for a riot, that is a misinterpretion, and there is no evidence what so ever that Jesus supported that. The text in Romans 13 isn't a text supporting war (the sword mentioned there was a short dagger not used in war) but on the contrary a text hindering the Christians doing rots. Even if Babylon is a whore, we shouldn't start a violent revolution against her, but instead show the alternative: the beaty Jerusalem.

Previous post:

Next post: