Why Did Jesus Command His Disciples to Buy Swords? – Intro Draft

I have been working on an essay. Here is a draft of the introduction.

What do you think? Shall I finish the essay? Do you have any suggestions about how it should unfold that won’t entirely derail me? Any encouragement for a slow writer? 🙂

You may share your feedback in the comments below. Thank you!

Here is a PDF of the entire introduction draft: Why did Jesus Command his Disciples to Buy Swords – Intro Draft

Here is a link to download it: Why did Jesus Command his Disciples to Buy Swords – Intro Draft

And here is a part of what you can read in the PDFs above:

Why did Jesus Command his Disciples to Buy Swords?

On the night when he was betrayed, our Lord in his kindness said many things that troubled and confused his unprepared disciples. Of all his words from that night, few still confuse his disciples today more than this statement: “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36  ESV).[1] An online survey using Google reveals how much this statement still cuts Christians into opposing interpretive camps today. Among current scholarly commentators there is less diversity of opinion, but still not a clear consensus interpretation of what Jesus meant.

This essay will consider two primary interpretive questions: (1) Was Jesus teaching his disciples to use swords in human combat? (2) What is the relationship between Jesus’ sword command and his subsequent quotation of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:12 that he would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37)? These two questions are not the only important questions raised by Jesus’ sword command. When combined as variables on a two-dimensional graph, however, they offer four interpretive quadrants or positions (see Table 1), and these four positions represent the most important interpretive options held today by both popular readers and biblical scholars:

  1. Self-defense: Jesus told his disciples to buy swords so they would use them, to defend themselves from enemies.
  2. Among transgressors: Jesus told his disciples to buy swords so they would use them, so the prophecy would be fulfilled that he would be “numbered with the transgressors.”
  3. Appearance of transgressors: Jesus told his disciples to buy swords so the prophecy would be fulfilled that he would be “numbered with the transgressors,” but he didn’t want them to actually use them.
  4. Metaphor for dangerous times: Jesus told his disciples to buy swords but didn’t want them to actually buy or use them; he was speaking figuratively about dangerous times to come.

What interpretation will this essay defend? Before I gave this verse much thought, my assumptions were probably most in line with interpretive option…

[1] The English Standard Version (ESV) will be used in this essay unless otherwise noted. Note: The Greek syntax behind this statement is somewhat difficult to parse, as technical commentaries usually discuss. But no matter how the syntax is understood, the resulting instruction is the same: The disciples are urged to buy swords.


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6 thoughts on “Why Did Jesus Command His Disciples to Buy Swords? – Intro Draft”

  1. Would another possibility be that Jesus was testing His disciples? In this view they should have questioned His command immediately based on His earlier teachings, but since they didn’t Jesus allowed them to persist in their error until Peter used the sword in Gethsemane. That ultimately provided an opportunity for Jesus to show His great love miraculously and also a pedagogical opportunity to warn His disciples that those who use the sword will die by the sword.

    1. I think I have heard that suggestion before, though it is certainly not common. It is somewhat related to other questions I’ve pondered about whether Jesus would intentionally “lead his disciples into temptation.” It seems to me that such questions are not always deeply pondered by those who affirm that Jesus wanted his disciples to buy swords but did not want them to actually use them. Your suggestion, of course, is different from that, but related in the sense that “testing” and “tempting” are sometimes hard to distinguish.

      Thanks for your comment!

    2. I prefer to take Jesus’ admonition at face value. There was no hidden meaning behind bringing clothing or money. Most people who carried a sword didn’t disembowel anyone. The sword can be used for many non-combative purposes. Cutting fire woof, brush, tent poles as well as defending against wild animals as well as highwaymen. It just meant that they must now interact with the world on a physical level as any other workman

  2. Dwight, as you know, I grew up in an evangelicalism that regarded serving in the military as the God-honoring duty of a citizen to join others in defense of their country when the cause was just. I wasn’t inclined to question this, but as I came to maturity, and realized the horrors of warfare, I found the non-violent position very appealing. But I have not really studied the Biblical case for and against that position. I lately have wanted to ask you to lay out briefly for me the Anabaptist case for non-violence.

    That is the context for my comments here: When you laid out the four most commonly-held interpretations, I found two things that were new: the assumption that to bear the sword was to be a “transgressor,” and the possibility of taking Jesus’ s words in a metaphorical sense. At first I thought that was just a convenient way of getting around the problem. But even thinking about your question briefly, I find I have problems with the first three; as to the first, defending yourself is very different than obeying the call of your country to serve, and doesn’t seem to fit with Jesus’s words about not only being willing to endure mistreatment, but responding with generous love, in the Sermon on the Mount. The second and third undestandings seem strained.

    So I considered again the fourth interpretation. I had already felt that Jesus is clearly talking about a change. When the disciples were sent out, they took nothing; Jesus said he was sending them out as “lambs among wolves.” Now he gravely issues the imperative (sell your cloak) of being armed! Why the change and what does it signify and how does that bear upon the possibility of seeing his words as metaphorical? This is what has occurred to me: He is alerting his disciples to the reality of the spiritual battle they will be in relentlessly after his resurrection, until He comes again. (Eph 6) Why are the lambs now warriors? Because they can be! Because they are now equipped to fight victoriously; their Captain has won the victory! He has secured the Kingdom of Heaven by his death and rising again. Those who are his have no choice; they will be in opposition to the flesh, the world and the devil. But they do not fight against flesh and blood, as God’s Word states clearly. Seen this way, the metaphoric reading of these words suddenly makes complete sense to me. It is metaphoric language that accords with Scripture. I think what throws us off–and perhaps you will discuss this–is that the cloak that is sold to buy the sword seems to be literal, which gives us an ungrammatical mixture.

    Thank you for causing me to think about this in a new way. I look forward to your essay.
    (These are new thoughts, so I hope this is not so poorly expressed as to be a hopeless muddle.) It is an exciting prospect–that we are called to be equipped with the armor of God for our daily battle.

    1. Lois, it’s good to hear from you. And such good questions and observations!

      For an overview of the Anabaptist understanding and practice of nonviolence (typically called nonresistance by Anabaptists), here is an article in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO): http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nonresistance Even if you just read down past the first photo you will get a good basic introduction. If you read further you will get a lot of detailed history and also some theological variation in understanding about whether nonresistance is consistent with political engagement or not.

      Back to my essay intro. You wrote: “I think what throws us off–and perhaps you will discuss this–is that the cloak that is sold to buy the sword seems to be literal, which gives us an ungrammatical mixture.” Yes, you are right! That needs to be discussed. One possible solution is to understand that even with his statements about cloaks and purses Jesus was being more-than-literal. Yes, he was describing literally what items they would need in the coming time of persecution, but the items he named were representative of more than themselves; they were intended to be suggestive of the sort of dangerous climate facing the disciples. Another possible solution (not incompatible with the above) is to note that Jesus elsewhere also mixed literal and figurative language in somewhat similar ways, such as when he told his disciples “deny yourself and take up your cross daily and follow me.” The middle command is definitely figurative; the others less obviously so (but perhaps on a strictly literary level the other two are also?).

      At any rate, that is exactly the sort of questions that must be pondered to try to understand what our Lord was meaning when he spoke his words. Thanks for your comment!

      (PS: I took the liberty to divide your comment into several paragraphs to make reading easier.)

  3. I am, of course, not Dwight, and I hesitate to barge in uninvited, but I don’t think we need to consider ‘getting rid of the cloak’ as literal in this case, especially if we consider a change taking place, from a temporal strife or struggle to a spiritual one, and if we decide to tie Ephesians 6 in with Jesus’ statement, then laying aside the cloak becomes a preparation for taking up the sword as part of the ‘full armor of God’.
    Although that may be an over-extension of the metaphor possibly.
    Good thoughts Lois, if I may say so.

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