BUY A SWORD, BUT DON'T TAKE UP THE SWORD: COMPARING JESUS' STATEMENTS IN CONSIDERATION OF ARMING OURSELVES
Putting aside liberal versus conservative agendas - putting aside the biases of culture and experience - should we Christians arm ourselves for any reason? Should we carry guns (or any weapons), whether for self-defense or war? While the 2nd Amendment is a bulwark of American life, does it have any place in Christian life? As Jesus is our Lord, giving and defining life for us, we must carefully consider what He might say about the 2nd Amendment, if He was to step into this society today. And we need not look too hard for help from Him on this issue, as He left for us some poignant statements about the sword that should shed some light for us, as we consider them together. What He said about the sword also applies to the gun.
BUY A SWORD
We start with Jesus apparently telling the first disciples to buy swords for self-defense:
Something had changed since their previous mission trip. Before, they took nothing and lacked nothing. But this time, Jesus' popularity was waning, as those in power were coming to see Him as more and more of a threat to their power, and they were making Jesus out to be an outlaw, in prophetic fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12. Therefore, this time, the disciples would need to be more self-sufficient, not being able to rely on public support like before. They would need money for food and other supplies, bags for extra clothes, and something else most people might never expect Jesus to say: swords.
Now, let's not jump to trying to interpret our way around what Jesus said, just because it might make us uncomfortable. Let's look at His instruction at face-value. He told them that anyone of them that did not have a sword was to buy one, even if that meant selling his coat to have enough money to buy one. Jesus seems to have been saying, with this attention-getting statement, that they were in more danger from His enemies than they were from the cold. And so, they were to arm themselves for their self-defense.
Many believe that Jesus did not mean this literally at all, and they warrant their interpretation by jumping to what seems to be a rebuke from Jesus in verse 38, when the disciples misunderstood Him. Now, I can see how the disciples might have misunderstood Jesus, but in this way: taking Him to mean that it was time to take up swords to advance His mission as the Messiah - that He was signaling the time to initiate His military campaign to return Israel to world dominance, which many Jews believed the Messiah would do. Perhaps they pulled out their two swords as if to say, "We're ready to get started." If so, Jesus' "That's enough" was to shut that kind of thinking down. Or, the disciples simply meant to show that they did in fact have two swords already to take on the road with them, and Jesus' "That's enough" was just His way of acknowledging that and moving on from that conversation.
Either way, an interpretive twist must be made to use verse 38 for completely dismissing His instruction in verse 36. If that was Jesus' intention, He could have made that quite clear. He could have told them that He was only speaking figuratively for them to be highly aware of the danger they would face, but He didn't. He could have told them to get rid of the swords, but He didn't. If He was an absolute pacifist, He could have forever put that down in the pages of Scripture, but He didn't. He let them keep the swords for self-defense, along with any other practical purposes swords were used for. But, as we will now go on to see, one of them misjudged when to use his sword.
DON'T TAKE UP THE SWORD
Now, we will look at one of the most extremely interpreted statements by Jesus in all of Scripture. I hate to think how many Christians have unnecessarily adopted a position of absolute pacifism, allowing unnecessary harm to themselves, their families, or their neighbors, because of misunderstanding what Jesus says here. However, there is a warning from Jesus to be heeded here, so, we need to think carefully about His caution and the context.
This was a volatile situation in the Garden of Gethsemane. At the very moment Jesus was announcing the arrival of His betrayer, "Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a large crowd with swords and clubs, who came from the chief priests and elders of the people." (Matthew 26:47) And Peter(1) was ready to fight. In his mind, this moment was the time to put their swords to good use and stop this madness. So, he went right at the guy right in front of him, probably swinging to split Malchus'(1) head but only cutting off his ear as Malchus probably tried to dodge Peter's sword.
Peter was getting something wrong here. Peter's use of his sword was out of place, as made clear by Jesus telling him to put his sword back into its place. Jesus did not reprimand Peter for having the sword nor demand that he get rid of the sword, but that he put it back into its proper place in that time and place. And His next statement is the one that must cause us to pause and consider the use of the sword in any time and place: "all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword." To understand this statement, we must look at it in the immediate context of their situation, as well as the greater context of Scripture.
First, for Peter and the disciples to stop Jesus' arrest with lethal force would have been to take the law into their own hands. Apart from God's intervention, they would have been arrested and executed for that capital crime. Very literally, taking up their swords would have led to them perishing by the sword of Rome.
Second, how could they think that the Son of God needed their protective intervention? Remember, while they trembled with fear, He stilled the violent wind and waves with just a word, filling them with even more fear of Him (Mark 4:37-41). Were they to think that He then needed the strength in their arms and blades to save His life? Believing that He was from the Father, why did they not take for granted that the Father had multiple legions of angels on high alert at His command, with their flaming swords and their "horses and chariots of fire" (2 Kings 6:17)? And if He did not issue the command for the obliteration of Judas and the crowd, why did the disciples not take for granted that He had a reason? -Which was His messianic fulfillment of the Scriptures that prophesied His crucifixion and resurrection for the redemption of God's people. His messianic mission was to be advanced with the cross, not the sword.
We need to see clearly here, then, that Jesus did not intend for His words in Matthew 26:52 to be taken as a universal, permanent prohibition against Christians wielding the sword. If that was what Jesus really wanted to convey, He would not have told Peter to put his sword back in its place, but that his sword had no place. Jesus prohibited wielding the sword at the wrong time, in the wrong place, for the wrong reason, and we are especially to understand that the sword is not to be taken up to advance God's redemptive purpose in the world, as we now follow Jesus in taking up our own crosses, not swords, in sharing the Gospel (Luke 9:23).
BE WISE WITH YOUR SWORD
What might Jesus say about the 2nd Amendment? Let's be careful not to put words in His mouth, but to carefully consider the words that have already come out of His mouth. Based on His words here, I think it is safe to say that Jesus wants us American Christians to see the 2nd Amendment as a permitted allowance, not a primary initiative. We exist to primarily get the Gospel, not a gun, into every home. But we may own and encourage others to own guns for the defense of our homes.
Buy a sword, but be wise in knowing when, where, and why to take it out and take it up. There are dangers in this world that God allows the use of the sword to defend against. However, there are agendas in this world in which Christians have no place in using the sword to advance. The sword is an instrument we can use, not an identity we can adopt. The sword does not symbolize us. Only the cross of Christ does.
Let me know in the comments below anything else you would like to see on this issue.
*Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures are from the NASB.
1. John 18:10
The men of Issachar understood the times and knew what Israel
(1 Chronicles 12:32)