Why did Jesus command his disciples to buy swords in Luke 22:38?
Now, however,” He told them, “the one with a purse should take it, and likewise a bag; and the one without a sword should 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 is reaching its fulfillment.”
So they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That is enough,” He answered. (Lk 22:36-38)
A lot of people assume that it was in order to defend themselves, and use this as an argument for warfare and liberal gun laws. But if it’s one thing we can be sure of, it is that Jesus definitely didn’t intend the swords to be used for self-defense.
See, when a disciple (according to the Gospel of John, it was Peter) later uses one of these very swords for self-defense, Jesus rebukes him:
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. (vv. 49-51)
I bet Peter was quite surprised by this. The very reason he struck the ear was that it would fall off, and now Jesus insists on putting it on again!
According to Matthew, Jesus pointed out to Peter that he doesn’t need violence to be protected:
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Mt 26:52-54)
When the Savior later met with Pontius Pilate, he pointed out that his disciples wouldn’t fight because of the nature of his Kingdom:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (Jn 18:26)
Some have suggested that while Jesus didn’t want his disciples to use the swords in order to stop his arrest, he did want them to use them for self-defense later. But this is not supported by the text.
Jesus says that two swords are “enough”, which doesn’t make much sense if these swords are supposed to protect all eleven apostles or even the whole church (which in a few weeks’ time would encompass over 3000 people). Furthermore, These swords, or any other swords, never show up again in the forthcoming narrative. Luke also wrote the book of Acts, and the only swords there are used to persecute and kill Christians (like James in chapter 12).
If the disciples had been armed, they would had at least tried to kill persecutors like Paul. Instead, it seems like they loved their enemies and turned the other cheek, allowing Paul to be converted by a supernatural vision instead.
Also, note that Jesus told his disciples in Lk 22:36 that it was so vital that they had swords that they sold their cloaks to get one. This clearly expresses urgency and importance. The cloak was among the last thing one sold in Biblical times, especially travellers were very vulnerable without cloaks. Jesus isn’t expressing long-term usage of swords, but that they immediately need them around.
If there’s nothing in the text that supports the idea that the swords were used for self-defense, what were they used for? There are a number of alternatives. Some have argued that Jesus spoke about spiritual, metaphorical swords, that they would get ready for spiritual battle. When they mistook him to speak about literal swords, he cuts them off, and later rebukes them when they use literal swords for self-defense.
Another similar theory is that he knew that they would take him to mean literal swords, and so he let them act out on their mistake so that they would learn that spiritual swords are the only ones that matter.
Personally, I don’t think Jesus talked about spiritual swords. But I don’t think he wanted literal swords to be used violently, either. Pay attention to the motivation he gives when he has just commanded the disciples to buy swords:
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 is reaching its fulfillment.
This quote from Isiah is the key to this text. Jesus would be numbered with transgressors. That’s why he wants the disciples to buy swords. I believe he plays prophetic theater, just like he does when he rides a donkey into Jerusalem or when he picks twelve apostles. He fulfills and reinforces prophecy not just in his words, but in his actions.
You may have another theory on why Jesus gave this command, and that’s perfectly OK. But I hope I have shown you that the theory of self-defense doesn’t match with this narrative: it’s a modern idea that the biblical text doesn’t support.
Micael Grenholm is a Swedish pastor, author and editor for PCPJ.
Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!