Sword Talk

Two swords are enough. Really? Not!

This enigmatic statement by Jesus in Luke 22:38 has created some stir in the history of Christian thought. Some have even allegorized it to mean that Christians carry two swords—the word of God (Scripture) and the state weaponry (real swords). I’m reminded of the statue of Zwingli in Zurich holding a Bible and a sword. As a result Jesus’ “it is enough” comment has been used to sanction not only self-defense but just war.zwingli

To read the text that way is to miss the point as widely as the disciples themselves did, and we are at least in a better narratival position to understand it than they were. After all, in the next few hours when a disciple draws his dagger and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus rebukes the disciples by redemptively healing the servant. The narrative rejects the use of the sword. The story of Jesus in the Garden returns good for evil and rejects returning evil for evil, which—of course—is consonant with Jesus’ own message in his ministry (cf. Luke 6:27). Jesus practices what he preaches. Amazing stuff, huh?

So, how are two swords “enough”? Enough for what? To defeat those who are coming to arrest Jesus? Jesus refused their use. Enough for the advancement of the kingdom against Rome? Hardly. But the disciples apparently thought it was for either self-defense or for the prosecution of the kingdom since when they saw the threat that Judas brought into the garden they asked, “Should we strike with our swords?” With perhaps some frustration in his voice, Jesus retorted “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51.)

Maybe we are going the wrong direction here. Maybe Jesus did not intend to say that “we have enough swords.” Or, if he did, perhaps there is a strong tinge of sarcasm here or perhaps frustration. Maybe Jesus means something like “Enough of that; no more sword talk” (The Message). Maybe Jesus intends the same meaning that Yahweh had when he said to Moses, “That is enough,” the matter is closed…discussion over (Deut. 3:26).

I feel like that with my teenagers sometimes. As we become more involved in a discussion they miss my meaning or they don’t have the maturity or experience to catch the point. And so I say something like, “discussion over…this is fruitless…let’s move on.”

So, perhaps Jesus was not really talking about swords at all. Perhaps he was using the “sword” to make a larger point. When the disciples took the exhortation to sell their cloaks and buy swords literally, Jesus says, “Enough of that; you guys don’t get it, do you?”

Jesus was contrasting the hospitality of their Galilean ministry with the hostility of their present circumstances. While in Galilee they could depend on the warm reception of the villages, here in Judea—indeed, in the next few moments—the disciples will encounter hostility. The situation has changed. Whereas before they needed neither purse nor sandals, now they need a sword instead of a cloak (a necessity for staying warm at night). The urgency of the contrast is startling. They will need a sword more than they need warmth. The point is not that the disciples need to literally secure a sword, but they need to realize the charged and changed atmosphere in which they now move.

They need to prepare themselves for a trial. Satan is about to test them, just as he is about to test Jesus himself. They should get ready to face the hostility. But Jesus does not mean to literally face it with a sword or a purse or a bag, but to prepare their hearts, to steady their faith and get ready for the trial they are all about to endure. Danger is in the air—secure a sword, be prepared for battle. But not a battle that wields a literal sword, but one that engages the Satanic influences that filled the air that night.

When the disciples took the reference to the “sword” literally, Jesus ends the discussion—perhaps a bit frustrated similar to his experience on the boat in Galilee which Mark narrates (a case where they took “yeast” literally to Jesus’ utter amazement, cf. Mark 8:14-21). One can almost hear Jesus again saying, “Do you still not understand?” as he leads his disciples to the garden where they will be tested…and fail.

Jesus is not interested in swords. He rejects the use of the sword. The one who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Jesus is interested in preparing his disciples for their test, their trial. They fail, but Jesus nevertheless prays for them, pursues them, and expects to again sit at table with them in his kingdom. They fail, but Jesus is gracious. They take up the sword, but Jesus forgives them. They flee, but Jesus still wants them. They ultimately return and Jesus accepts them and gives them a place at his table—not just a place, but a throne at the table. They are royalty at the king’s table.

We, too, misunderstand, and even use the sword. And, no doubt, Jesus is frustrated with us. But he continues to pray for us, pursue us and invite us to his table.

But only if we could learn that we don’t need any swords. When will we learn? Two swords are too many in Jesus’ kingdom.



8 Responses to “Sword Talk”

  1.   Milton Stanley Says:

    Good word. I linked to it today at my blog. Peace.

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Milton.

  3.   Keith Brenton Says:

    Those who would quote Revelation in defense of weaponry often miss the description that Christ’s “sword” is always issuing from His mouth. It is truth that is His ultimate weapon, truth that pierces spiritual heart; truth that vivisects living souls – not bodies – and anticlimactically brings a swift end to the ultimate conflict that has been brewing until the close of the book’s 19th chapter.

  4.   contratimes Says:

    Dear John Mark Hicks,

    Following the recommendation of Milton Stanley, I came here to read your essay. I am glad I did, as it has forced me to spend some time with the Gospels (which is always a good thing). So, thank you.

    I think this is the most important point you make:

    Jesus was contrasting the hospitality of their [the disciples’] Galilean ministry with the hostility of their present circumstances. While in Galilee they could depend on the warm reception of the villages, here in Judea—indeed, in the next few moments—the disciples will encounter hostility. The situation has changed. Whereas before they needed neither purse nor sandals, now they need a sword instead of a cloak (a necessity for staying warm at night). The urgency of the contrast is startling. They will need a sword more than they need warmth. The point is not that the disciples need to literally secure a sword, but they need to realize the charged and changed atmosphere in which they now move. …They need to prepare themselves for a trial. Satan is about to test them, just as he is about to test Jesus himself. They should get ready to face the hostility.

    Yes, exactly. Things were about to heat up for Jesus and the disciples: things were never going to be the same again.

    But I think you miss the point of the swords. You see, it is clear that Jesus wants the swords in order to keep up appearances, namely the appearance of Isaiah’s prophetic scripture: He was named among the lawless. The Jerusalem Bible paints the picture perhaps a bit more clearly:

    “…if you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one, because I tell you these words of scripture have to be fulfilled in me: He let himself be taken for a criminal. The NIV translates this as being “numbered among the transgressors,” which, if I am not mistaken, in Greek could be translated “He was counted among the lawless.”

    So, what does this all mean? It means that Jesus wants to almost make a parody of what his band of disciples actually is: it is a Monty-Pythonesque bunch of men who have no idea how to use a sword; that if they are true revolutionaries, well, what a zany, incompetent and unintimidating bunch of revolutionaries must they be, with but two swords among them. In the darkness, perhaps they do look like brigands, like thuggish miscreants; perhaps rumors were true that Jesus was leading a military revolt. But in the light of the torches what a sad leader He must appear to be? What kind of rebel leader hides in a garden with but two swords? What threat could such a man pose?

    Plus, in the three synoptics we read Jesus asking his imprisoners, “Am I a brigand?…” (JB); “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.” (NIV) This fits perfectly into Jesus’ overall picture: Since He knows what is about to happen to Him, He has told His disciples to bring swords so as to make Him look like a criminal in order to fulfill prophecy; yet anyone about to arrest Him would know that the image of Him with weapons is not only an incongruous one, it is even a bit absurd, like a Monty Python skit indeed. That is why “Two swords is enough.”

    And I am grateful that Peter (according to St. John) lopped off the high priest’s servant’s ear (proving his incompetence with a sword)! For now a crime has indeed occurred (Jesus is indeed with criminals!). Also, now Jesus has an opportunity to show the high priest, through his servant, that He (Jesus) is infinitely more than the high priest testifies to; that He is capable of real power (you know the servant will eventually tell the high priest what happened). Moreover, Jesus’ healing of the wounded servant is not a rebuke of the disciples’ violence (as you suggest), it is an act which proves His divinity (a proof which will change at least one of these who have come to arrest him), and it is an act which spares Peter of criminal arrest. For it would be hard to prosecute a group of bumbling idiots who can’t even injure a mere servant: Christ destroys the evidence of Peter’s outburst.

    Just think of the image for one second: A sword wielded by a Christian disciple cuts off your ear. Metaphorically, this is powerful stuff. But alas, this is no metaphor. Now just imagine having your ear repaired instantly by the very Word of God, the Very Sword of God: your ear has been cloven by a sword and yet healed by the Sword of Swords, the Word of words, Who speaks and all things are, or are not. Now, just think how difficult it will be to testify to this miracle: the very act of healing becomes a sword itself, severing the servant and the witnesses apart from those who will not receive their testimony; who will not believe since the evidence is destroyed. This whole scene is rife with sword imagery––that Christ has come not to bring peace, but the division of a sword’s slice: even in the act of making the servant whole Jesus fractures him.

    Lastly, I am not sure that we understand what Jesus meant when He said that “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” (The JB says, “Those who draw the sword shall die by it …”) For there are all kinds of Christians who have used the sword who have not died by the sword; there are Christian soldiers right now in Iraq who will not die violent deaths but will die natural ones, perhaps even 60 years from now. King David did not die by the sword, though he surely lived by it. C.S. Lewis fought in WWI, and yet he died an old man’s death. What does Jesus mean?

    Anyhow, thanks for forcing me into the New Testament. It is an important place to spend time. And thank you for an engaging post.

    Peace to you, in Christ.

    Bill Gnade

  5.   Small Group Guy Says:

    I believe that if we take the word sword and insert tongue when it is referenced in the bible it makes sense some of the time.

    Heb 4:12 “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

    I have always been shown this as the sword being the tongue. James talks about the power of the tongue to heal or do damage, to guide or to tear down.

    Those of us in pastoral ministry know that the tongue is a powerful tool. We can use it to build up (hopefully) or tear down (may it never be) and we can use it as a powerful weapon.

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Bill,

    I think your response was longer than my post. 🙂

    I don’t think carrying swords necessarily identifies one as a lawless, nor does carrying bags or wearing sandals. Two swords would not be enough for that, and carrying these types of daggers was quite common for travelers. I think the reference to Isaiah 53 is an further indication of the hostility they will encounter–Jesus will be treated as one is lawless; he will be treated as a criminal…whether he has a literal sword or not. I don’t think Jesus’ band looks at all like a group of criminals, but they will be treated as such…not because they have two swords, but because the authorities seek to kill Jesus.

    Thanks for taking the time to reflect on this with me.

    John Mark

  7.   Ryan Says:

    I’m sure there is more relation to the sword in the Bible; Jesus is the Word and the Word is sharper than a two-edged sword, but it still cleaves and cuts, meaning it is like a sword. Doesn’t that mean that those who live by the Word will die by the Word? It may serve as a warning, but I think that it is also a statement of strength.

  8.   weeksi Says:

    thanks for that, we were looking at this passage for home grp and it helped to shed some light on the matter.

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