If Jesus was Non-Violent, Why Did He Tell His Disciples to Buy Swords?

Stained glass image of saint holding a Bible and a sword

There are a few—and just a few—New Testament passages that people like to use to buttress their argument that Jesus was not really non-violent but in fact at the very least accepted violence in certain circumstances.

I don’t know why people feel the need to do so, but they do, so let’s have a look at one of them.

All four of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest have one of the disciples drawing a sword and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant, only to be upbraided by Jesus. But only Luke precedes that story with this:

“[Jesus] 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.’” (Luke 22:35-37)

Well, there it is. Jesus clearly tells his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords.

So let’s go buy some AK-47’s.

I’m sorry, was that snarky? That was snarky, wasn’t it?

Yeah, that was snarky.

Why does Jesus tell his disciples to go buy swords? In order to fullfill the scripture that the messiah would be counted among the lawless.

He’s referring to Isaiah 53:12—”Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

All the English translations of this verse use the word “transgressors,” which is just another word for “sinner.” Indeed, the Greek version of the Old Testament—which was the version used by most New Testament writers—uses the word for “sinners,” hamartias, instead of the word for “transgressors,” parabatai.

Luke doesn’t use either of those words; he uses anomos, “lawless.”

The Hebrew word used in Isaiah can be translated as “sinner” or “transgressor,” but Luke is drawing on another sense of the Hebrew word, which is “rebel.”

Jesus is saying that they need some swords so that he can fulfill the prophecy that the messiah was be counted among the insurrectionists. This is clear when Jesus says to those who come to arrest him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? (Luke 22:52 NRS) The word for bandit doesn’t indicate a common thief or robber; it referred to Jewish guerilla fighters who attacked Roman supply lines, among other acts of rebellion.

Indeed Jesus was crucified between two bandits, and the charge was insurrection, as indicated by the sign nailed on his cross, “The King of the Jews.”

Back to the swords. When Jesus tells the disciples to buy swords, they respond in verse 38, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” Jesus replies, “It is enough.”

Enough for what? Not to fight back against those who come to arrest him. Certainly not enough to mount a rebellion against the Romans. Two swords among twelve people is not enough for anything.

Except to give his enemies cause to trump up a charge of insurrection against Jesus, thus fulfilling Isaiah. In fact, that’s the only thing they are good for, and it’s all that Jesus wants them for.

He clearly doesn’t want the to actually use the swords because when one of them does, he says, “No more of this!” and heals the servant’s ear.

It’s important to Jesus that people see him as an insurrectionist because that’s what he is.

The non-violence of Jesus is not a passivity that just sits by and watches the unjust oppress people. It’s a tool that he used to change the world, to turn it upside down, to bring down those who rule by the sword rather than by justice, mercy, compassion, and sacrificial love.

It’s not just his tool; sacrificial love is how we are to change the world as well.

So no more of this. Put those swords down and put on sacrificial love.

And watch what God will do.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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