Saturday, February 24, 2018

Two Swords

Two Swords

“He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 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. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed, what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” Luke 22:35-38 (NRSV)
The recent South Florida school shooting has produced several intense Facebook debates, a few of which I have participated in. One subject that came of a couple times which caught me completely off guard was the Christian use of Luke 22:36 as justification for carrying a firearm. Now, I’ve been saying for a while there is a lot of questionable theology out there, but this literally shocked me; I simply could not believe what I was reading. After a few days to recover and think things through I decided to check my conclusions against other biblical commentators; in other words, I Googled it. Evidently this question is much more common than I thought. One site (under the search heading ‘orthodox interpretation of Luke 22:36) actually displayed an ad for a Facebook page titled ‘ActiveSelfProtection’ showing a hand holding a handgun, the holster on the belt, and the caption “Not Just a Constitutional Right. But, in Fact, a Biblical Command” below with Luke 22:36 quoted in full above.
Now, proper interpretation of any Biblical passage requires keeping a few things in mind. First, we must remember the Bible was not written for 21st Century United States readers. That is not to say it does not speak to us today; it is to say we must first determine what it said to the original audience. In this case, what was Jesus saying to His disciples? What was Luke trying to say to his readers? How does the message fit into the entirety of what the Christian Scriptures say and teach? Only then can we successfully determine what is being spoken to us here and now. Was Jesus really telling his disciples to buy swords? Do we take his words literally? Jesus often spoke in parable and metaphor; is this what is happening here? My first thought was Jesus is not speaking literally because nothing like this appears anywhere else in the New Testament. A literal interpretation simply does not fit.
The second principle of interpretation is to keep things in context. Here we need to ask what is going on around Jesus. Is this a stand-alone verse or part of a larger narrative? The context here is Jesus’ farewell discourse to His disciples. Luke’s narrative contains elements common to the Biblical farewell discourse: revelation of the speaker’s coming death (given in the institution of the Lord’ Supper (vs.14-23), final orders to disciples (vs.24-27), naming a successor (28-32), reflections on the speaker’s life and warnings about the future (33-38). The misunderstanding centers on the final orders; specifically, the meaning of the two swords.
Luke tells us Jesus had previously “...sent them [the twelve] out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” after giving them “…power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases…” Luke 9:1-2 (NRSV); and again “After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them…see, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…Luke 10:1-4 (NRSV; italics mine). Jesus may be sending out His group as lambs amid wolves but note in this instance He does not advise them to carry anything for personal protection (or anything else, for that matter). Jesus has full confidence in the sufficiency of the Father to meet all needs, protective and otherwise. Which leads directly to the two swords.
Jesus now tells His disciples their situation is about to take a turn for the worse; He is about to be tried and executed. Not as a violent revolutionary-in which case His entire group would be executed as well-but as the leader of a non-violent movement. Rome’s policy in the case of non-violent insurrection was to execute the leader as a warning to the followers. Persecution will come to the disciples, but not just yet. Conditions will change; they must be prepared. Welcome will become hostility. The Father (and the Son, and the Spirit as well) will still be present. So will persecution. The time will come when the best interests of the Kingdom will mean martyrdom for the disciples; tradition holds all but John will die for their faith. Luke’s companion volume-Acts-records many of these persecutions and imprisonments but nowhere does Acts record a violent response from the disciples (including and especially Paul). I say again-the two swords are noticeably missing from Acts; and from the rest of the New Testament as well.  What then was their purpose, if not for self-defense?
Considering vs.37, where Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12, some hold the two swords were just enough for Jesus to be ‘numbered with the transgressors”. Jesus and the twelve, by virtue of two swords, now become criminals. We have already shown this is not the case; if it were the disciples would have been arrested as well. The full quote reads “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah 53:12 (NRSV; italics mine).
I believe ‘numbered with the transgressors’ refers to Jesus place between the two thieves-the transgressors-where He indeed ‘bore the sins of many’. Two swords were certainly not enough for self-defense, nor were they so intended; when Peter struck the servant’s ear slicing it off, Jesus rebukes Peter’s violent response and heals the ear. My position is the swords, as well as the bag and purse, were never meant to be understood literally. The statement in its entirety was metaphoric; Jesus was telling His disciples conditions were about to change, so get ready. The modern equivalent would be something like ‘better get your stuff together’. The disciples, taking Jesus literally and missing the point, as they were prone to do, produced Jesus’ exasperated response ‘that’s enough’; end of discussion.  
The two primary themes of Luke-Acts are concern for the marginalized and the restoration of Israel as a light to the world. After the birth narrative, Luke shows constant movement outward-from Galilee to Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth. Luke presents the Gospel-under the careful guidance of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit-moving ever outward. Gospel preachers-particularly Paul-would face constant danger, persecution and threat of martyrdom. And yet, never once in Luke or Acts or Matthew, Mark, or John do we ever see anything remotely resembling a violent response from Jesus, His disciples or His followers. In fact, the Gospels are filled with the exact opposite (see, for example, Mt.5-7 or John 9:51-56, esp. the NRSV text note).
 To pull one verse completely out of context and use it to justify the Second Amendment is not only bad theology but irresponsible and dangerous as well. Scripture interpretation, as I have said, requires consistency. Two swords as justification for handgun carry simply does not fit and is, in my opinion, one of the worst cases of allowing personal politics to influence personal theology. You want to carry a handgun? Fine. You believe in the Second Amendment? Fine. Don’t use the Bible to justify yourself; it does not, and in doing so you may well miss the most important, and most revolutionary, message Jesus has for us; the one we most desperately need to hear.
Peace JRG


  1. Great interpretation of this section of The Bible. Thank you, JRG.

  2. Thank you for talking about this issue! It's always great to hear others' thoughts on issues that aren't always easy to understand. I'll leave you with a few of my thoughts/observations/opinions.

    The first thing that caught my attention was the use of the NRSV. I have never (as far as I know) encountered it and the app that I use does not have it available. I honest had to look up info about the New Revised Standard Version. I only bring this up for one reason: as a brother in Christ, I ask you to beware of anything that seems... not quite right when reading it. This translation is praised for being more modern as well as being as literal as possible. More importantly, there are some versions of it which include all books that belong to the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox canons (Source: of which some are apocryphal.

    Back to the topic at hand (which is pretty much the same regardless of translation). I completely agree that Jesus is not advocating violence. Exactly how Jesus was trying to convey His desire for the disciples to/not to carry swords is tricky for us to interpret. It would be easier if we could hear the tone of His voice or see His facial expressions; but obviously we don't have those. As you said, we have to rely on events around the current conversation. That being the case, here's why I believe the instruction to buy a sword is to be taken literally:

    As the Bible says (and you've pointed out) the disciples were instructed to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals in Luke 10:1-4. We can certainly assume that this is to be taken literally for them to learn to rely on their Heavenly Father to provide for their needs. Given this, I don't believe it makes sense to assume that their "updated instructions" shouldn't also be taken literally. You yourself pointed out that we are looking for consistency. I would think that if Jesus was referring to the swords metaphorically, He would have corrected His disciples literal response on the spot. Since He did not, a learning experience happened in the garden as Jesus was being taken. He made it clear that the swords were not to be used offensively just to get their way (commit a crime). I believe it is safe to assume that Jesus was instructing His followers to carry swords for 1 (or more) of 3 possible reasons: self defense; defense of the weak, poor, fatherless, or oppressed (Psalm 82:3); or as a deterrent against robbers.

    Until next time, God Bless! -MB