Pacifism and the Sword in the Gospels

Did Jesus endorse and encourage violence in the four Gospels, presumably a righteous kind of violence? Did he call his original disciples to this? Did he order all of his disciples to really buy swords? Two verses may indicate that he did these things. Matthew 10:34 reads:

34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword (New International Version, NIV)

And Luke 22:36 reads:

36 [Jesus] said to [the disciples], "But now the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag; and the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one." (New Revised Standard Version, NRSV)

Cited in isolation, those two verses suggest that swords and violence are a possibility. It seems as if Jesus carried and wielded a sword. It seems as if all of the disciples should go out and buy one each. After the death and burial of Jesus, they would have to face the world alone without him, so they thought. However, what happens to the apparent meaning of the two verses when they are not read in isolation, but in context? Did Jesus really wield a sword and want all of the disciples to buy one? This article is Part Two in a series on pacifism and the sword in the New Testament. Matthew 10:34 Scripture must be read in context. As the old saying goes, a text without a context may become a pretext. The context of Matthew 10:34 (in bold font) is quoted in full to explain the meaning of "sword" :

32 "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. 34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law-- 36 a man's enemies will be the members of his own household [Micah 7:6] 37 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

Thus the verse cannot legitimately be used as a call to a military holy war on society. The context, rather, is family relationships. The meaning of "sword" is now clear. It indicates that following Jesus in his original Jewish society may not bring peace to a family, but may "split" it up (Micah 7:6), the precise function of a metaphorical sword. Are his disciples ready for that? Now we can appeal to the larger textual context. The non-literal interpretation of the sword is confirmed by a parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke. Luke 12:49-53 reads:

49 "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo [my death], and how distressed I am until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

The proper way to interpret Scripture is to let verses clarify other verses, particularly parallel passages. And now Luke 12:49-53 confirms the non-literal interpretation of Matthew 10:34. Jesus did not endorse physical violence against one's own family, but he warns people about possible family division. For more information on Matthew 10:34, such as the cultural context, click here. Luke 22:36 The historical context of Luke 22:36 demonstrates that for three years Jesus avoided making a public, triumphal entry in his visits to Jerusalem because he understood that when he set foot in the holy city in this way, he would fulfill his mission to die, in a death that looked like one of a common criminal, just as Isaiah the prophet had predicted hundreds of years before (Isaiah 53:12). He needed to complete his work outside of Jerusalem. Now, however, Jesus finally enters the city famous for killing her prophets (Luke 13:33-34), a few days before his arrest, trial and crucifixion, all of which he predicted. Religious leaders were spying on him and asked him trick questions, so they could incriminate him (Luke 20:20). These insincere questions, though they were also asked before he entered the city, increased in frequency during these compacted tense days. But he answered impressively, avoiding their traps. Despite the tension, each day Jesus taught in the temple, and crowds gathered around him, so the authorities could not arrest him, for fear of the people. Judas volunteered to betray him, saying that he would report back to the authorities when no crowd was present (Luke 22:1-6). As Passover drew near, Jesus asked some of his disciples to prepare the Seder, the Last Supper. He elevated the bread and the wine, representing his body and blood, which was broken and shed for the sins of the world in the New Covenant (Luke 22:7-20). However, during the meal, Judas slipped out to search for the authorities because he knew that it was the custom of Jesus to go to the Mount of Olives to pray (Luke 21:37), and that night would be no different. At this point we pick up the textual context of Luke 22:36 (bold print). He is eating the Last Supper on the night he was betrayed. Luke 22:35-38 says:

35 [Jesus] asked them [the eleven apostles], "When I sent you out without a purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?" They said, "No, not a thing." 36 He said to them, "But now the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me: 'And he was numbered among the lawless'; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled." 38 They [the disciples] said, "See, Lord, here are two swords." "It is enough," he replied. (NRSV)

The textual context reveals at least two truths. First, Jesus contrasts his ministry before his arrival in Jerusalem with the tense few days in Jerusalem when spies and the authorities themselves were seeking to trap him. But does the tension play a part in understanding why he told his disciples to go out and buy swords? This is answered, below. Second, he says that he would be arrested and tried as a criminal, as the prophecy in Isaiah 53:12 predicted. Does this have anything to do with swords? Do criminals carry them around? This too is explained, below. Jesus may have a deeper meaning in mind than the violent use of the swords. What is it? The interpretation of the verses can follow either a strictly physical direction in which swords must be used, or a non-physical one in which swords must not be used, during Jesus' last hours. The surest and clearest direction is the non-literal one, but first we analyze why the literal one will not fit into Luke 22:34-38 and into the passage about the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-53). The violent use of swords Jesus says to the disciples to buy swords, but when Peter shows him two, Jesus says they are enough. The first direction, the literal one, is inadequate for two reasons. First, the obvious question is: two swords are enough for what? Are they enough for a physical fight to resist arrest? This is hardly the case because during Jesus' arrest a disciple (Peter according to John 18:10) took out his sword and cut off the ear of the servant (Malchus according to John 18:10) of the high priest. Jesus sternly tells Peter to put away his sword, "No more of this!" and then he heals the servant, restoring his ear (Luke 22:49-51). Resisting arrest cannot be the purpose of the two swords. Second, were the two swords enough for an armed rebellion to resist the authorities and to impose the new Jesus movement in a political and military way? Jesus denounces this purpose in Luke 22:52, as the authorities were in the process of arresting him: "Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs?" The answer is no, as he is seized and led away (22:54). So the physical interpretation of Luke 22:36 (the two swords were intended to be used) will not work in the larger context. Two swords are not enough to resist arrest, to pull off a revolt of some kind, or to fully protect themselves in the Garden of Gethsemane. The contextual meaning of swords In contrast to the literal interpretation of using swords physically, the following interpretation works smoothly in context so that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. First, Jesus reminds the disciples of his mission for them before he arrived in Jerusalem (Luke 9:3; 10:1-17). Did they need a purse, a bag, or extra sandals? No, because people were friendlier, and their opposition to him was spread out over three years. Now, however, he is in Jerusalem, and he has undergone the compacted antagonism of religious leaders seeking to trap him with self-incriminating words. When the authorities are not present, they send their spies. The atmosphere is therefore tense, and the two swords--no more than that--represent the tension. Jesus' mission has shifted to a clear danger, and the disciples must beware. However, he certainly did not intend for his disciples to use the swords, as we just saw in the literal interpretation, above, for he is about to tell Peter to put away his sword. Second, "For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me: 'And he was numbered among the lawless'" (Luke 22:37). By far the clearest purpose of the two swords is Jesus' reference to Isaiah's prophecy (53:12). He was destined to be falsely arrested like a criminal, falsely put on trial like a criminal, and even falsely crucified like a criminal. After all, he was hung on the cross between two thieves, which is also a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy (Luke 23:32; 39-43). What are criminals known for carrying with them? Weapons, and to be numbered among criminals, Jesus must also have weapons. That is why he said that only two swords would be enough--to fulfill this prophecy. Also, Matthew mentions fulfilling prophecy (26:54). If Peter had kept on physically using the sword to prevent Christ's arrest, then his death would not have taken place, so prophecy would have been thwarted. That is why Jesus told him to put his sword back in its place (Matthew 26:52). And in Luke he says to Peter after he cut off an ear, "No more of this!" (22:51). The third and final non-literal interpretation says that Jesus frequently used physical objects (seeds, lamps, vineyards, coins, lost sheep and so on) to teach non-physical, universal truths, and the same is possibly true of the two swords. This interpretation is supported by Matthew 10:34: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword." As we have seen, above, in context, he does not mean a literal sword that divides the family, but a spiritual and moral one. And it is precisely Luke who clarifies Jesus' meaning of "sword" as non-literal in the two parallel passages. If Luke does this in 12:51, then why not in 22:36-38? Early Christian history The foregoing interpretation of the non-physical use of swords does not say that the two swords did not exist (verse 38). They are not mere symbols, nor were they imaginary or invisible. Peter really did cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest with one of them (Matthew 26:50-51; Luke 22:49-51). Also, Jesus said to Peter in the Garden, "Put your sword back in its place," meaning, back in its scabbard or holder or in Peter's belt or another article of clothing. He never said to throw the sword away, off to the side at a distance. Therefore, it is entirely possible that some disciples carried them after the crucifixion and burial when they lived in hostile territory, and maybe some did after the Resurrection and Ascension. However, later reliable tradition says that none of the apostles fought or even tried to fight their way out of fiery trials with swords, as some sort of misguided, twisted, violent martyrs. Instead, tradition says that all of the original apostles but John were martyred as a direct result of persecution (John died from natural causes in old age). Evidently, the example of Jesus throughout his life and in the Garden of Gethsemane made an impression on them. Though this is an argument from silence (drawing conclusions from what a text does not say), it is a significant silence of the historical records that speaks volumes. As we shall see in future articles, this silence will have the support of words. Summary The events in the Garden of Gethsemane and the commands of Jesus there teach the apostles nonaggression. He said to Peter: "For all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Peter and the others heard those words that clarify the use of swords. Therefore, a lifestyle of the sword must not be part of the disciples' new walk with the resurrected Christ, as they preached his message of hope. As I concluded in Part One in the series, Jesus waged kingdom or spiritual warfare. He preached the kingdom message. And the Church must follow its Lord in waging only spiritual warfare and preaching only the kingdom message. And this much is bedrock: the Church--as an institution--is never permitted to spread the gospel or to impose personal righteousness by the sword, for Christ's kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). So only in this sense is the Church--as the Church--a pacifist body. That is, ecclesiastical leaders do not convene a special council and general assembly to vote on raising an army or militia in order to wage war. Rather, its warfare is only spiritual and moral (Ephesians 6:10-20 and 2 Corinthians 10:4-6). Thus, the Church and the State must never be fused together. But the Church, by its nature and purpose, is commanded to exhort, teach, guide, and counsel the government about the ways of God. The Church proclaims peace, or it may counsel a just war, depending on the circumstances. If the Church were to teach only pacifism, it would violate its own Scriptures (Romans 13:1-7). But the Church and the government are the not same. So if the Church as an institution is not permitted to have an army and to wage war, are individual Christians permitted to join the military and law enforcement of the State, according to the New Testament? Yes, and that complex question is answered more fully in future articles in the series. For now, applying Matthew 26:52 is sufficient. "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." Clearly, that timeless truth in context refers to criminals, rebels, and revolutionaries. Whether the cause of revolutionaries is just or unjust, they (and criminals and rebels) use weapons, so they are at risk of dying by such weapons. However, lawful soldiers and police officers also place themselves at a higher risk, more than average, law-abiding citizens do, who do not have to use weapons. This does not mean that lawful soldiers and police officers are on the same level as criminals, rebels, or revolutionaries--far from it. But the servants of the State, working in the two God-ordained institutions of the military and law enforcement (Romans 13:1-7), must be forewarned of the danger and risk before they follow their noble careers. This theme will be repeated throughout the series: Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar are different and distinct. He did not purpose to reestablish the theocratic kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6-7). The Church as an institution (also distinct from the kingdom of God, which creates the Church) is "pacifist" in its own actions and internal policies because it follows the commands of the kingdom of God, his active rule and dynamic reign. The Church must wage only spiritual warfare. Thus, church leaders in the name of the Church or of God should never convene a council or general assembly in order to raise an army to fight battles and to coerce heretics and opponents to conform. Rather, the mission of the Church, waging only spiritual warfare, is to save souls, teach believers, and help the needy in practical ways, not to bloody and kill people with swords. And it continues its true mission to this day, turning the world right side up. For other translations of the Bible, please click here. James M. Arlandson may be reached at