A very good interpretation of self-defense in Christianity. I get this question a lot from military and police officers. Please read and pass along.
Jesus’ Prescription of the Sword
Rev. G. C. Hammond
Chip Hammond is the pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Leesburg, VA.
The Old Testament is replete with images of God as the Divine Warrior who defends his people and destroys his enemies (e.g. Ps. 3, 7, 35, 68). In view of the fact that Christ came as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies (Mt. 5:17), it is perhaps curious that since the time of the early church, there has been a committed pacifistic segment within Christianity. Why has this occurred?
The Scriptures indicated that Christ came to eradicate sin, and negate the effects of the curse. Since the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), it stands to reason that this Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6) would destroy death itself (Rev. 21:4), and the instruments that represent it, i.e. weaponry (Is. 9:5). Bound up with his advent is the hope that people would “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Mic. 4:3).
No Christian can gainsay this much. It is clearly what the Scriptures teach. But the question must be asked whether these descriptions are properly to be identified with, and effective at his advent (first coming) or his parousia (second coming).
Put another way, may the Christian ever lawfully engage in combat of any kind, or does the Bible prescribe pacifism for the followers of Christ? A plain reading of the Scriptures indicates that the Bible does not support pacifism. Of central importance to this issue is Luke 22:35-38:
Then Jesus asked [his disciples], “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied. (NIV)
“If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” The words are disturbing to many Christians. If Jesus is “The Prince of Peace;” if it is because of him that nations would “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;” then why would Jesus tell his disciples to obtain swords, even at the cost of necessary clothing?
Many modern commentators maintain that Jesus was speaking figuratively. This is a legitimate thesis, but evidence for it is lacking. A thesis must be successfully argued; it cannot simply be stated. The person claiming this as a figure of speech must explain what figure is being used, and what the sword stands for.
It is very difficult in the context to maintain that this is figurative, though. Walter Liefeld, who is against taking what Jesus says at face value, struggles with this portion of Scripture: “This short passage is difficult. It is common to solve the difficulties by taking Jesus’ words as ironical, but if that were so, [his later words] ‘that is enough’ would be hard to understand. One would have expected a correction of the disciples’ misunderstanding of it.”
Liefeld is right. It was Jesus’ pattern to correct the misunderstanding of the Twelve. We see an example of this in Matthew 16:5-12, in which Jesus warns them to be on “guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” In response to this, the disciples begin to discuss literal bread, to which Jesus replies “How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” If Jesus was speaking figuratively when he prescribed the sword, we would have expected the same kind of correction.
Older commentators did not have so much difficulty with the evident meaning of the text. Matthew Henry, whose commentary was first published in 1706, states plainly, “The swords were to protect themselves from assassins and robbers.” Any plain reading of the text leads to this conclusion.
Jesus prescribed the sword here because he was preparing his disciples for his departure. During his earthly ministry, the disciples were protected by an extraordinary providence. This, however, was about to change.
In the “High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus prayed, “While I was with them I protected them and kept them safe by the Name you gave me” (John 17:12; italics added). There are numerous instances of the protection of this extraordinary providence in the Gospels. In Luke 8:22-25, for example, we read the account of Jesus and his disciples being in a boat when a squall came upon them. The text explicitly tells us, “they were in great danger” (8:23). And yet, Jesus rebukes them for exhibiting “little faith.”
The reason for his rebuke is that Jesus was not going to die by drowning. Nor was he was going to die at the hands of robbers. He was going to die on the cross. And so, as long as he was with them, no harm could possibly come to them. But now he was going away, and with him the protection of an extraordinary providence. The disciples must now rely on the ordinary means of God’s protection. And so he says, “But now … if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”
What too many Christians overlook in their consideration of this passage is the implicit directive that Jesus here gives his disciples to love one another. Francis Schaeffer, the great twentieth century Christian philosopher wrote,
“I am to love my neighbor as myself, in the manner needed, in the midst of the fallen world, at my particular point in history. This is why I am not a pacifist. Pacifism in this poor world in which we live – this lost world – means that we desert the people who need our greatest help … I come upon a big burly man beating a tiny tot to death … I plead with him to stop. Suppose he refuses? What does love mean now? Love means that I stop him in any way that I can, including hitting him. To me, this is not only necessary for humanitarian reasons; it is loyalty to Christ’s commands concerning Christian love in a fallen world. What about the little girl? If I desert her to the bully, I have deserted the true meaning of Christian love – responsibility to my neighbor.
Nor is this perspective limited to Reformed Christianity. Norman Giesler, who does not stand within the Reformed tradition, states, “Any man who refuses to protect his wife and children against a violent intruder fails them morally.”
What is perhaps confusing to people is that Jesus, having just prescribed the sword to his disciples, prohibits the use of that sword in Luke 22:49-51. Why would Jesus, having just told them to obtain swords, now forbid their use?
The vitally important point made here is that Christ’s Kingdom is something that cannot be promulgated or enforced by the sword. His Kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36). The weapons used to advance his Kingdom must not be the weapons of the world (2 Cor. 10:4-5). The Kingdom that Jesus was establishing would be advanced through the weakness of the cross, not by the wielding of the sword. Thus, the weapons of the world must never be taken up by Christians to advance the cause of the Christ. The sword must be used for defensive purposes only. Jesus explicitly proscribed the sword as a way of advancing his Kingdom.
The Kingdom that Jesus established will one day dominate and do away with all others (Dan. 2:31-45, 1 Cor. 15:24-25). Because the Prince of Peace has come, the day will eventually come when we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. But that day is not now. “Now,” the Master says, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”