The Gospels and the Sword
James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.
This article is designed to be contrasted with the next one about the sword in the Quran, in our comparative study of the two religions.
According to the Gospels, is it possible to be honored by Jesus and other Gospel figures and be a weapon-carrying soldier or law enforcement officer, at the same time? Do the Gospels approve of soldiers and officers of the State? Do the Gospels condemn the military? If not, may individual Christians serve in law enforcement and the military? Were individual members of the early Jesus movement, which soon evolved into the church, permitted to carry swords for self-defense? Do the Gospels encourage the church as an institution to form militias and armies to wage war against its enemies or stamp out heresies?
To answer these questions, we look at three episodes in the Gospels: John the Baptist and some soldiers; Jesus and a centurion; and two swords during Jesus’ arrest.
John the Baptist and Soldiers
According to the New Testament, John the Baptist, coming in the spirit of Elijah, was the forerunner of Christ. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. One day, during the short life of John the Baptist – short because Herod the tetrarch beheaded him (Matt. 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29) – some soldiers, likely Jews serving the government in Jerusalem, traveled out to the Jordan River to see him. While they were listening, he told a large crowd that they must bring forth fruit (good character and actions) worthy of repentance, not just get wet at their baptism (Luke 3:8). After different classes of people ask what fruit they must produce, the soldiers ask a pertinent question about their own careers.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely – be content with your pay." (Luke 3:14)
It seems, then, that these soldiers were deeper than curiosity seekers. They asked about repentance. It is important to note what John says and does not say. He tells them to follow after justice. Apparently, it was common knowledge that soldiers generally used their power and authority to intimidate people and extort money. He also tells them to be content with their wages; logically, this implies that they may remain in the military as soldiers. That is what he said. But what he does not say is that they should quit the army. The silence is significant. John never denounced them as soldiers, exactly at the moment when the fiery preacher could have done so. One of the requirements of their repentance did not involve walking away from their career. They could repent of their sins and belong to the military. They did not have to repent for carrying weapons or belonging to the military. This also implies, historically, that they could use their weapons, if necessary.
However, sometimes rulers in the Roman empire and at other times in history, even today, act unjustly. John was beheaded by Herod the tetrarch because the prophet had denounced the petty king’s marriage as unlawful (Leviticus 18:16). Herod had married his brother’s wife while the brother was still alive. In anger towards John, Herodias, the wife in question, asked for John’s head, and Herod granted it – reluctantly because the people regarded John as a prophet and Herod himself may have been interested in the ascetic’s teaching (Matt. 14:1-12). John did not die because he had swung a sword at Herod or raised a militia against him. This is a case in which a nonviolent, innocent, and righteous preacher was wrongly executed for telling the truth. He was a true martyr, the first one in the Gospels and Acts.
Jesus and a Centurion
Centurions in Israel were mostly recruited from outside Galilee, not necessarily Rome or Italy, but from such regions as Lebanon and Syria. Centurions were the backbone of the army, keeping the peace and issuing executive orders. They commanded a lot of power. What happens when a centurion and Jesus meet? Matt. 8:5-13 reads:
5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 "Lord," he said, "my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering." 7 Jesus said to him, "I will go and heal him." 8 The centurion replied, "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." 10 When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour. (Matt. 8:5-13; see Luke 7:1-10)
We can learn at least four lessons from this episode.
First, the centurion was kindhearted, for he cared for one of his servants. The centurion asking help for a servant indicates desperation as if he were a moral father, perhaps. He certainly was a caring head of household and commander. Also, the parallel passage in Luke says that some elders of the Jews encouraged Jesus to help the soldier, pleading, "This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue" (Luke 7:4-5). What is the timeless truth drawn from this first point? It is fitting for a soldier to be helpful to a nation that he enters. The (local) elders of the Jews praise this gentile who built their synagogue. It is possible to be godly and to serve in the military, wielding a sword.
Second, the centurion shows some humility. He tells the Lord that he is not worthy of Jesus coming under his roof. This wins the heart of Jesus, catching his attention. Such humility is doubly important for persons in command. Sometimes power corrupts good character, causing us to become arrogant.
Third, the centurion understands the chain of command. If he tells a soldier to do something, then the soldier does it. In a similar, but spiritual way, if Jesus tells the disease to depart, it will obey. The centurion recognizes that Jesus has spiritual authority that transcends time and place. Jesus does not have to be on location to heal, so the centurion wisely discerns. This is truly a remarkable insight.
Fourth, it is now important to note what Jesus says and does, and what he does not say or do. He honors the centurion’s request and heals his servant. Next, he praises the centurion to high heaven for his insight, using superlative language: "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith" (v. 10), not as great as the gentile commander’s faith. What does Jesus not say or do? He does not denounce the centurion as a military servant of Rome. He never says, "Leave the army, for it is corrupt and intrinsically evil! If you don’t, I’ll never heal your servant!" As a moral example and teacher, if he wanted to point out behavior and practices that harm the people doing them, then he would have done so. But he did not.
The Gospel of Luke mentions real swords at the time of Jesus’ arrest. Did he endorse and encourage violence in the Gospels, presumably a righteous kind of violence? Did he call his original disciples to this? Did he order all of his disciples to buy swords? One verse (36) may indicate that he did.
The historical context of this verse demonstrates that for three years Jesus avoided making a public, triumphal entry of 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. Then 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 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 22:17-20). 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. They are eating the Last Supper on the night he was betrayed. Luke 22:35-38 says:
35 Then Jesus asked [the eleven apostles], "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?" "Nothing," they answered. 36 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. 37 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." 38 The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords." "That is enough," he replied. (Luke 22:35-38)
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. Does the tension play a part in understanding why he told his disciples to go out and buy swords? 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?
Jesus may have a deeper meaning in mind than the militaristic use of the two real swords. What is it?
Jesus says to the disciples to buy swords, but when they show him two, he says the two are enough. 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 in 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. 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 are 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 (v. 54).
So the militaristic interpretation of Luke 22:36 that says 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 the apostles and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Then what are the two swords for?
In contrast to the militaristic interpretation, another interpretation works smoothly in the context so that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. 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, for he is about to tell Peter to put away his sword.
Verse 37 says: "It is written: ‘And he was numbered among the transgressors.’" By far the clearest purpose of the two swords is Jesus’ reference to Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 53:12). He was destined to be arrested like a criminal, put on trial like one, and even crucified like one. 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 (Matt. 26:54). If Peter had kept on physically using the sword to prevent Christ’s arrest, prophecy would not have been accomplished smoothly and without hindrance. That is why Jesus told Peter to put his sword back in its place (Matt. 26:52). And in Luke he says to Peter after the disciple cut off an ear, "No more of this!" (Luke 22:51).
This contextual interpretation does not say that the two swords did not exist (Luke 22:38). They are not only symbols, nor were they imaginary or invisible. They were real. Peter really did cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest with one of them (Matt. 26:50-51; Luke 22:49-51). But it would be misguided to build church doctrine on such a reaction in the heat of the moment, during Jesus’ arrest at night.
However, 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 the two weapons after the crucifixion and burial when they lived in hostile territory, and continued carrying them even after the things got calmer.
However, the New Testament and 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 violent martyrs. Therefore, a lifestyle of the sword was never part of the disciples’ new life, as they preached the message of hope. Evidently, the example of Jesus throughout his life and in the Garden of Gethsemane made an impression on Peter and the others. Though part of this is an argument from silence (drawing conclusions from what a text or history does not say), it is a significant silence of the historical records that speaks volumes, and it will be backed up by later articles in this series.
Jesus did not intend the early disciples to multiply the swords, as he did the loaves and the fishes, and then raise a secret or open militia to preach the gospel and threaten people if they did not receive their message or opposed the disciples outright. Two swords are not enough for such an odd goal. Instead, they were to follow the kingdom message and stay away from the path of violence as a matter of policy or an alternative method of getting people to convert. He called his disciples to rise above their culture of violence.
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 episodes with John the Baptist and the soldiers and Jesus and the centurion confirm the division between the government and the church. Neither John nor Jesus denounces the military.
Under the direction of a just government, the military has a place in the world. It uses the sword to bring justice when people go astray or to protect the innocent. The government may wage a just war with an army or impose the peace by law enforcement.
The events in the Garden of Gethsemane and the commands of Jesus there also confirm the separation between the state and the church. The events teach the apostles nonaggression. He said to Peter: "For all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matt. 26:52). It is not the church’s mission, as an institution, to muster out a militia or army to bloody people with swords.
Yet, the two swords in Luke 22:36-37 were real, and it could be argued that they were used for self-defense of individuals while the disciples made their way back to Galilee and lived there for a time. Then they may have kept the swords as they moved back to Jerusalem and eventually scattered to the known world, preaching the gospel.
Therefore, an individual Christian today may own a weapon to defend his home, for example. But he must obey the law and avoid vices like machismo and recklessness. Also, he owns a weapon privately. He does not officially represent the church as an institution in his ownership; he is a citizen of society.
Alternatively, a Christian is certainly free not to own a weapon. The New Testament offers a choice and therefore freedom.
However, self-defense for an individual is not the same as the church raising an army to stamp out heresies and nonbelievers. The church and the government are not the same. Rather, the church, by its nature and purpose, is commanded to exhort, teach, guide, and counsel the government about the ways of God. The church exists to save souls, teach believers, and help the needy in practical ways, not to bloody and kill people with swords.
So we must follow the New Testament teaching on the separate kingdoms of God and of Caesar. Then we will have clarity.
Articles in the Series: