Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

210. "He that hath no sword, let one" (Luke 22:35-38)

The instruction of Jesus to his disciples to acquire a sword is one of the most perplexing in the whole range of the gospels. The words have been quoted as evidence that it is right and proper for the servants of Christ to fight. That such is not their meaning is easily demonstrable. From that point of view, the passage need be only small cause for anxiety. For:

  1. Very shortly afterwards Jesus declared that "they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Mt.26:52); and "my kingdom is not of this world, else would my servants fight" (Jn.18 :36).
  2. The whole demeanour and example of Jesus refutes any such understanding of the words.
  3. The reply of the disciples: "Lord, here are two swords", together with his comment: "It is enough," should be sufficient to show that equipment for literal fighting was not intended, for what would be the use of two swords among eleven men?
But what precisely did Jesus mean? To show what he did not mean presents little difficulty, but the same can hardly be said about the positive interpretation. The words have been interpreted in at least five different ways.

The swords were intended as a defence against wild beasts which might be encountered in the course of the missionary travels of the disciples. There is a double difficulty here. Firstly, there seems to be little in the context to suggest that such an idea might be in the mind of Jesus. Secondly, the immediate reason given for buying a sword is: "For . . . this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors'—a reason which has no possible connection with wild beasts.

A second view is based on an ingenious re-translation of the passage: "Let him take his purse, and likewise his scrip (i.e. wallet for food, or—just possibly—a collecting bag); and he that hath no sword (to sell, that he might buy a wallet), let him sell his cloak and buy one (i.e. a wallet)". But, again, all the difficulty of harmonizing with the context, as already mentioned, still has to be met. How would the disciples be accounted "transgressors" by such a policy? And there is also the further problem as to why Jesus should specify precisely the selling of a sword. Why not, for example, sell fishing gear or household furniture?

Whereas each of the two suggestions mentioned hitherto foundered on the unsuitability of the context, the next to be considered gains all its strength from the context.

It is suggested that Jesus wished his disciples to be equipped with swords at that particular time only, precisely in order that in a few hour's time (or less) when he was arrested in Gethsemane, they would be tempted to use their weapons in his defence, and so the prophecy would have literal fulfilment "He was numbered with the transgressors." It is further pointed out that for this purpose two swords would be "enough". But there are big objections to be urged. First, and sufficient in itself, is the moral difficulty: Would Jesus deliberately lead his disciples into temptation in this way? Second, with one exception (for which there was particular reason), Jesus did not go out of his way to ensure the fulfilment of various odd fragments of Old Testament prophecy. When prophecy was fulfilled in him, such fulfilment came about "naturally", and not at all as a result of his own careful devising.

Another possibility is to take this saying as spoken entirely in an ironical vein, as who should say: 'You went out before on your preaching mission with full faith and confidence in me who sent you. But now that faith is at its lowest, your present inclination is to rely on yourselves; you would rather depend on your own strength and resources. Well, go ahead and try it. You will achieve -nothing except to gain a name as malefactors, and make me a transgressor, by reputation, along with you.' The incipient effort to defend Jesus from arrest, and later Peter's wrong-headed reliance on his own ability to look after himself at the high-priest's palace, certainly chime in well with this point of view, as also does the somewhat sardonic: "It is enough" in reply to their "Lord, here are two swords." The fact that some of them were already equipped for fighting showed that Jesus' assessment of their frame of mind was an accurate one.

There remains now the suggestion that almost the entire passage is to be taken in a figurative sense, that Jesus was not intending to be taken literally. Consider, first, the following examples in which "the sword" is obviously a metaphor for the Word of God:

"He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword" (ls.49:2).

"Out of his mouth went a sharp, two-edged sword" (Rev. 1 :16).

"I will come . . .and fight against them with the spirit of my mouth" (Rev.2 :16).

"The sword of the spirit, which is the word of God"(Eph.6:17).

Further, the garment or cloak is in several places mentioned as a hindrance to direct energetic action:

  1. "The witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of...Saul" (Ads 7:58).
  2. Bartimaeus, "casting away his garment, rose (RV: sprang up), and came to Jesus" (Mk.lO:50).
  3. Peter "stretched out his hand (the words imply that it was hindered by a cloak), and drew his sword" (Mt.26:51).
Taking the words of Jesus in this figurative sense, then, he is to be understood as sayinq: 'Hitherto you have led a comparatively sheltered existence as my disciples. But now that I am to be rejected and crucified and my name execrated by all, your experience will be vastly different. Instead you will be reckoned as transgressors, and punished as such, for the servant is not greater than his lord. So, prepare for a strenuous time of difficulty and hardship; rid yourselves of all spiritual hindrances, and perfect your mastery of the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, for there will be much contending for the faith.'

That Jesus may have meant his words in some such figurative sense seems to be supported by the context.

When his words were taken in a baldly literal sense: "Lord, here are two swords", the rather curt reply was: "It is enough", as who should say: 'Enough of this matter; I see that you do not understand me.' For such an interpretation of the phrase, reference might be made to the parallel experience of Moses and Elijah: "But the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me (i.e. his plea that he might enter the land) and the Lord said unto me, "Let it suffice thee (the Greek version here is almost identical with Lk.22 :38); speak no more unto me of this matter" (Dt.3 :26). "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers" (1 Kgs.l9:4).

It is possible that Jesus was at this time almost reduced to despair by the spiritual obtuseness of his disciples.

The closeness of the parallel with Elijah is not without point. For Elijah slept and rose, and on the third day began his forty days journey in miraculous strength to the mount of God. In like fashion Jesus rose the third day in divine power and on the fortieth day found himself in the very presence of God.
"For the things concerning me have an end." The phrase is usually taken to mean: 'all prophecy concerning me must be fulfilled.' This might well be the meaning. But another very different view is possible. "And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end", i.e. comes to nought, is destroyed (Mk.3 :26).

If similar significance be given to these other words of Jesus, they mean: 'All I have striven for is in ruins, for even you, my chosen disciples, seem hardly at all to understand and appreciate my teaching.'

Such a view is possible, but cannot be pressed.

The chief difficulty which this fifth (figurative) interpretation encounters is that the opening words of Jesus are certainly as literal as they could well be: "When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes lacked ye anything?"

Yet this objection is not fatal, for there is no lack of passages of scripture where the literal switches suddenly to the figurative, and vice versa; e.g. "And there shall be signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars (figurative); upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity (literal); the sea and the waves roaring (figurative); men's heart's failing them for fear" (literal) (Lk.21 :25,26).

It would seem, then, that there is fair Biblical evidence for the view that the counsel of Jesus to "buy a sword" was a hyperbolic way of exhorting to spiritual fitness and preparedness, rather like the nautical metaphor: "Clear the decks for action."

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