To fight or not to fight, that is the question? In the realm of Christianity the typical proof texts for justifying the act of violence or resistance abound. American citations of the Second Amendment and the instruction of Jesus to “go and buy two swords” find themselves the primary content of discussions on this very topic. Whether or not the Christian should arm or use a weapon in defense of their persons and family becomes an important question. It is even more important when you weigh such acts against the entire corpus of Jesus’ teaching concerning violence.
Situational ethics make for great conversations and debates. But, they seldom answer the personal question of whether I am being obedient to what I believe Jesus has taught me. Early in my spiritual life, I believed the ideology of Augustine, Eusebius, and other ‘Just War’ advocates to be sufficient rationale for resisting an evil man. After all, I have an obligation to kill and defend myself against would be attackers; as long as they do not attack me while I am preaching the gospel. Then it becomes a matter of applying the teachings of Jesus and not the Second Amendment.
Luke 22:36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. 37 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.” 38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”
One of the Biblical passages that find themselves central to the discussion is Luke 22:36-38. Upon meditating on this particular passage something became clearer to me than my previous understanding was. Of course, being careful to not try and discover something novel that really is not there, it seemed way too obvious to not explore. Suddenly, the statement of Jesus to those without a sword was to “sell his cloak and buy one” suggested more than many of the previous commentators cared to elaborate on.
The first century outer garment referred to as a cloak/coat provided valuable warmth and security. The cloak/coat held such significant value that to hold it as collateral for a loan beyond nightfall was against Jewish law (Ex 22:26-27). To sell something of such significance to purchase a sword causes need for re-evaluation of such a statement.
Without diving too far into other explanations of the text, I wanted to explore the idea of selling your cloak for a sword. Most commentators on this passage remain consistently on one side or the other. Of those I have surveyed, none evaluate the importance of selling your cloak to make such an untimely and uncouth purchase.
What some commentators are saying:
- The suggestion that they go and buy two swords presents a dilemma if they are to be purchased for immediate use as Jesus would be arrested much sooner than they could complete such a task.
- The weapons would be for future defense in a growing hostile environment.
- The two swords eventually produced by two of the disciples were to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 and provide legal-political cause for Rome to crucify Christ.
- The suggestion for using swords is figurative and to be taken as an instruction for self-sufficiency and/or readiness.
I was not able to discover a commentator that eagerly encouraged Christian self-defense based solely on Jesus’ suggestion or the presentation of the two swords from the two disciples. Sadly, this lack of evidence does not stop many Christians from using this text as a reason to fight or resist would be attackers and support military action.
As I kept coming back to the role of selling your cloak I placed myself in the Garden of Gethsemane. Personally, I may seek personal comfort all too much; but if the Lord was telling me to sell my cloak for a sword, I would probably ask why? Not having your cloak in first century Palestine might result in some very cold nights. You see, the cloak was a valuable garment used to protect oneself from the elements and also used for sleeping.
Mantle: The typical Hebrew slept on the floor with his mantle (cloak) used as a covering to keep him warm. This was especially true for travelers, shepherds, or poor people, so a person’s mantle was not to be kept as collateral for a loan (Ex. 22:27). (Illustrated Dictionary Of The Bible, Thomas Nelson, 1986, Pg. 312)
The cloak, mantle, or robe: was a large, loose-fitting garment, which for warmth and appearance was worn over all other articles of clothing as a completion of male attire. It was distinguished by its greater size and by the absence of the girdle. (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Zondervan, 2011, Pg. 374)
I am aware that the suggestion of the intrinsic value of this cloak suggests it to be appropriate that selling it would provide enough money to purchase a weapon of some sort. The value of the outer garment even finds itself in play on Calvary. There we read of the Roman soldiers casting lots to possess the outer garment (cloak?) originally belonging to Jesus (Jn. 19:23-24). The mere reference to it being without seam implies it to be of significant worth and not to be torn in two (another prophetic fulfillment as well, Ps. 22:18).
Now, even though having a sword for future defense suggests that it would provide some sort of security, I am not convinced that it would be wholly profitable to use the sword itself for protection from the weather and sleeping. It would not be very comfortable snuggling up to cold steel. It was probably hard enough camping out on the floor. I do not believe air mattresses were readily available to first century mankind.
The biblical evidence makes some salient points concerning the value of the cloak:
- The cloak could be used for collateral on a loan, but only temporarily, and to be returned by nightfall so that its owner would have it for warmth and bedding. Does Jesus suggest his follower’s place more emphasis on arming themselves for a physical battle instead of remaining protected in their travels?
- The cloak was a target of thievery and litigation as well as subject of Jesus when he taught one who is sued for his outer-garment should give to them also his inner-garment. Selling one’s cloak for a sword contradicts the very teaching of Christ to go a mile further instead of retaliating. (Mt 5:40-41)
Jesus also makes it clear that his life and words rebuke the use of violence toward others, regardless of the circumstance:
- Peter is commanded to put his sword back and reminded that living by the sword results in death by the sword. (Mt. 26:52)
- Jesus heals the man assaulted by the zealousness of his sword bearing “protector” and undoes the damage caused by this wrongful reaction. (Luke 22:51)
- The sword is not to interfere with the present obligation of Christ to fulfill his duty and drink the cup the Father has given him. (Jn. 18:11)
- The life of Christ and the actions of the disciples had a reputation that did not warrant the intrusion of the temple guard and the Roman soldiers as they came forth and treated Jesus as if he were a robber who would resist their arrest. (Mk. 14:48-50)
Whether the command was to provide weaponry for the coming arresting band of men, or to equip them for future defense of their persons in a dangerous and perilous period in human history, Jesus stated “it is enough.” I cannot believe he contradicts himself, but in turn ends a lesson gone wrong and resulting in the disciples misunderstanding. This we could all agree on is something the disciples were well-known for doing.
Conclusively, the evidence drives my understanding in a completely different direction than that of those would imply the purchase of swords as a defense of using violence against another person. Without considering all of Jesus’ teachings regarding physical violence, the references reviewed here provide ample information for us to learn that Jesus could not have been instructing his followers to react violently. It is even more interesting to evaluate the scriptures in light of Jesus suggesting you give up one security (cloak) for another (sword).
If we find ourselves trying to be obedient to Christ, would it be better to permit the taking of our cloak from an aggressor or litigant because we thwarted them with a sword? Or better to obey Christ and give them more of our possessions than they originally intended to take. Literally, it is the disciple’s obligation to give someone the shirt off thier back.
Contemporarily, would you sell your house to buy groceries? It would be rather awkward storing and preparing them without a place to provide you protection to cook and eat no?
If the usage of the swords were for future occurrences, why did the disciples not find warrant for their use in the face of later persecutions? (Acts 4:25-31, 8:1-3, 9:1-2, 12:1-5 (Darrel Bock))
Even better, how does one heap hot coals on the head of an enemy if you have already killed him and prevented him from experiencing the joy of your not returning evil for evil? (Pr. 25:22, Rom. 12:20)