In my blog post of the other day titled “Buy a sword, said Jesus” I said that the sword was a literal sword and that by implication it meant Jesus’ approval of self-defense. At least one person took exception to that and while I do not like how they took exception I do want to address the essence of their disagreement. The essence seems to be is the sword a literal sword and does Jesus mean to approve of the use of a sword for self-defense (Luke 22:36-38).

To have a sword or not have a sword is not the major point of the passage. I believe that Jesus is teaching the disciples something about self-reliance and the sword, money bag and knapsack, whether literal or figurative, illustrates by example what he means.

The passage appears in the larger context of the Last Supper and Jesus’ betrayal by Judas that would lead to his crucifixion. Jesus knows what the disciple’s have not fully grasped and that is he will be leaving them physically and they will not be able to rely on him in ways they had in the past.

The “sword ” passage is preceded by Simon Peter’s bravado as Simon Peter seeks to prove to Jesus that he will not be the one to betray Jesus. Peter boldly proclaims that he is ready to go to prison and even to death with Jesus. Jesus replies that Peter too will betray him although not exactly in the same manner as Judas. In fact Peter will act quite cowardly by denying he ever knew Jesus.

Jesus predicts Peter’s fall and continues his instruction by making a comparison. He asks the disciples how he had previously sent them out, that is, without money bag, knapsack, or even sandals. He asks if they lacked anything and they reply, nothing.

“But now” things will be different. Why?

Answer, the Scripture must be fulfilled. He will be betrayed and he will be crucified. Therefore, (but now) you must be prepared to not rely on me like you previously did. Now you will need a degree a self-reliance (or mutual reliance) and must prepare to carry on missionary activity. You can do this by providing for yourselves a money bag and knapsack.

The comparison is not exact because Jesus drops the sandals and yet adds a sword which he tells them to purchase.

The question then becomes did Jesus literally mean for them to buy a sword (if they did not already have one)?

Clearly, the disciples took Jesus literally because they reply that they have two swords among them. Jesus replies “it is enough” thus raising the question what did he mean by “it is enough”?

Did he mean two swords would be enough or did he mean “enough talk”?

I think the flow of the conversation indicates that he meant that particular conversation was over and it was time to move on to fulfill the Scriptures. However, it could equally mean that two swords among the eleven is literally enough since it was Jesus himself who brought up the issue of purchasing a sword in the first place.

If the main point of Jesus’s teaching in the passage was to emphasize a degree of self-reliance when he was gone then whether or not the disciples had one sword, two swords or eleven swords seems irrelevant. It is clear they had two.

Jesus’ message seems to be prepared, not be armed to the teeth. Certainly, Jesus’ response ended the conversion about swords as well.

All that to say I can find little reason to make the sword reference to mean anything other than a literal sword.

But as I said, some take exception to that interpretation so let’s wade through the popular interpretations of sword. Is it literal or a metaphor?

There are three major interpretations regarding the sword by evangelical scholars.

The first is that the sword was literal as I’ve noted. Critics of this interpretation point to the fact that Jesus rebukes Peter for his use of the sword when he lops off the servant’s ear. Whatever else we might say about Peter what he did with his sword was not cowardly seeing as the group coming to take Jesus was armed to the teeth (swords and clubs according to the text). Presumably, Peter’s sword was one of the two the eleven had in their possession on that fateful night.

William Hendriksen, an evangelical scholar whom I greatly respect takes the view that since Jesus rebukes the use of the sword when Peter lops off the ear that this must mean the previous sword must not be literal.

I’ll be the first one to admit that I am not a scholar nor a trained exegete. Nevertheless, I find what the majority opinion may be to be quite the reach. I fail to see how a real sword used to lop off an ear makes the previous references to swords to be metaphors unless off course Peter lops off a metaphorical ear as well.

It would not have been unusual for people in a first century Palestine culture to run around armed. Brigands and robbers and murderers were as common then as they are now. Having some means of self-defense would not be thought of as unusual. When the disciples tell Jesus they have two swords among them he does not seem all that surprised, nor does he rebuke them for concealed carry. He simply says “no more of this” meaning I’m not going to resist, the Scripture must be fulfilled and that’s the priority. He then heals the lopped off ear. Why that did not make more of an impression on the armed group I am not sure other than to say that the Scriptures would be fulfilled so maybe the armed mob is not impressed.

Also, consider this from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

SICARII (Greek, σικάριοι = “assassins,” “daggermen”):



Term applied, in the decades immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem, to the Jewish Zealots who attempted to expel the Romans and their partizans from the country, even resorting to murder to attain their object. Under their cloaks they concealed “sicæ,” or small daggers, whence they received their name; and at popular assemblies, especially during the pilgrimage to the Temple mount, they stabbed their enemies, or, in other words, those who were friendly to the Romans, lamenting ostentatiously after the deed, and thus escaping detection (Josephus, “Ant.” xx. 8, § 10;idem, “B. J.” ii. 13, § 3). Although Felix had cleared the country of the so-called “robbers,” their place was taken by the Sicarii, who were not so easily to be suppressed. The high priest Jonathan was assassinated by them at the instigation of Felix, who did not hesitate to make use of the Sicarii in this way. During the procuratorship, of Cumanus they killed an imperial servant on the open highway near Beth-horon, an act which resulted in lamentable consequences.

Some evangelical scholars speculate that Judas Iscariot was an early zealot and a daggerman. As noted above the “sicae” (Latin) was a small dagger, easily concealed. The zealots used them to dispatch Romans and Roman collaborators. The point is, it was a violent time and the word “sword” in our text could feasibly mean “small dagger” and that leads me to the next possible interpretation.

Some would turn the “sword” into a smaller weapon or utility knife. Pastor John MacArthur makes the observation in his study bible notes that the two swords the disciples produced were probably of the smaller variety of sword. I think that is very possible.

When we think of a sword most of us think of the long-bladed, knightly variety used in the middle-ages. In first century Palestine a long sword of that type would have been extremely rare and then would have been of northern barbarian origin.

Roman Gladius

Roman Gladius

Roman soldiers carried a gladius, a short sword used for thrusting rather than slashing which is how northern barbarians used their longer swords. The gladius was less than 24″ long. Roman soldiers also carried a back-up weapon and/or utility knife called a pugio. The length of a pugio was between 7″ and 11.”

Hendriksen says that if “sword” means “small-sword” it must mean “knife” as in a utility knife of some sort possibly of the variety of a butcher knife. He dismisses this interpretation on the basis that Jesus said those who live by the sword will die by the sword and substituting the word “knife” just does not cut it. No pun intended. Personally, I think Hendriksen has simple misunderstanding of what first century Palestine people would call a sword.

So, in my opinion, the word sword could mean any sword-like weapon that measured between 7″ and 24″ although it would be extremely unlikely that the disciples would be carrying anything like a Roman gladius and their sword would be more like the Roman pugio being between 7″ and 11″ in length.

Hendriksen then concludes by saying: “The term sword must be interpreted figuratively. The meaning is that in the circumstances that are about to arise The Eleven will need all the courage they can muster.”

I would not disagree that the eleven would need all the courage they could muster but I would take issue when Hendriksen says “the term sword MUST be interpreted figuratively (or metaphorically). One paragraph later Hendriksen walks back the term “must” when he says his favored interpretation is probable (meaning, he really cannot say so definitively).

I am a soteriological Calvinist myself and so have a great deal of respect for Reformed theologians. I have noticed however, that at times, some will prefer a figurative interpretation when the text does not demand a figurative interpretation. And in my opinion, a figurative interpretation is not required when a plain reading of the text can certainly accommodate a literal sword of some sort and length.

And I am not alone in that view. Wayne Grudem, another well-known evangelical, Calvinistic theologian and scholar says in his Politics , According to the Bible that some people who take a pacifistic approach to the sword issue do so because of a misinterpretation of Matthew 5:38-39. In that passage Jesus tells the disciples to turn the other cheek if someone slaps you on one cheek. The pacifist leaning individual would take the passage to mean that Jesus was prohibiting all self-defense in any circumstance.

Grudem responds by saying Jesus is prohibiting the taking of personal vengeance when insulted (slapped) and not forbidding any and all forms of self-defense.

Grudem further notes and I think accurately it is not wise to take several of Jesus’ words as absolute commands but rather as examples of how Christ like conduct would look especially in regards to personal relationships.

As a point aside pacifistic groups as a whole misinterpret the Sermon on the Mount which is why they do not serve in the military and have historically been classified as conscientious objectors. Their argument descends from the greater to the lesser. If they believe it is wrong for them to serve in the military and defend their country then it’s obviously wrong to defend oneself when personally attacked.

Grudem will go on to argue that swords means swords in Luke 22:36-38. Minority view or not, I think he is right.

To interpret swords metaphorically does damage to the text since money bag and knapsack and sandals are all literal so why assume otherwise for sword?

I would further argue that the main point of the exchange between the disciples and Jesus is that Jesus is preparing them for his departure and that they will need a bit of self-reliance along with the necessary courage to speak the gospel. I do not think the self-reliance is apart from reliance on Jesus in an absolute sense since Jesus did tell them he would send the Holy Spirit to be their helper.

Given this line of reasoning it is not too much to imply that Jesus would approve of self-defense depending upon the circumstances.

One friend of mine noted that the passage has gun-control connotations and I believe he is right. If the Bible authorizes a sword (a weapon) for self-defense then it certainly morally acceptable to have a gun for the same purpose.

Below is Luke 22:31-53 to give the reader the flow of events and dialogue.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no money bag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a money bag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:31-34; Luke 22:35-53 ESV)

Interesting comments on Judas Iscariot and his possible connection to the zealot daggermen.

Works consulted

Link to Amazon William Hendriksen, Commentary on Luke

Link to Amazon Wayne Grudem, Politics, According to the Bible

Link to Amazon, John MacArthur, Study Bible, ESV