Disciples With Swords

Why did Jesus ask His disciples to buy swords (Luke 22:35-38)?

Jesus’ address to His disciples sounds a little strange and has been interpreted in different ways. I will provide a brief summary of the passage, a discussion of several views, and a specific reading of the passage.

1. Reading the Text: Jesus is alerting His disciples that when fulfilling their mission, things will not be as they were before. When He sent out the 70 (Luke 9:1-6), Jesus told them not to make any particular preparations—“I sent you without purse, bag or sandals” (Luke 22:35, NIV)—because they would not face significant opposition and would not lack anything.

But now the situation is different. From this moment on, the disciples would face opposition and persecution, and they needed to be ready for it. Now they should take “a purse and a bag,” and if they did not have “a sword” they should buy one. To demonstrate that the situation is different, Jesus spoke about what He would experience. He would be treated as a transgressor (a lawless one), but it would happen in fulfillment of a messianic prophecy (Isa. 53:12). This is one of the places in the gospel in which Jesus announces His death and gives it redemptive significance based on Isaiah 53. In order to save them, He would suffer the fate of the wicked as their substitute.

The disciples seemed to miss the point because of their concern about swords. They asked Him whether two swords would be enough for their protection. Jesus’ answer: “That is enough/enough of this!”

2. Literal Interpretation: Some find in this passage indications that in some way the historical Jesus was willing to identify Himself with the goals of the Zealots in their opposition to the Romans. They see the call to carry swords as a call to attack them. This interpretation is hardly defensible, and most commentators have rejected it. Others take the language literally, arguing that after Jesus’ death the disciples would need better equipment for their mission. They would have to provide for themselves and carry swords because traveling throughout the Roman Empire would be dangerous and occasionally they would have to defend themselves. The context suggests that Jesus is alerting them about facing opposition for the sake of
the gospel.

Jesus’ reference to His own experience illustrates the way His disciples should face their enemies; there was no violence in Him. In fact, when He was arrested, Peter used a sword to defend Him, but Jesus reprimanded him (Luke 22:49-51). A literal sword was not going to be part of the disciples’ equipment when they faced opposition. In a more allegorical way, the two swords have been interpreted in Christian history as the temporal and spiritual powers of the church. This view is not based on the text but in the history of the church (the union of church and state).

3. A Figurative Interpretation: Based on the fact that the words of Jesus are illustrated by His own experience, it is better to interpret the language of His speech figuratively. Jesus is asking the disciples to prepare, because a time is coming when they, like Him, will face ferocious opposition. They need to prepare themselves, as much as possible, to face the enemy.

This is described using the language of a soldier. Good soldiers provide for their own food and defense. The disciples would need to be thoroughly prepared for their spiritual conflict. They would even need “a sword,” because they will be involved in a mortal, spiritual battle (see Eph. 6:10-20).

The disciples interpreted the words of Jesus literally: “Is He saying that each one of us should have a sword? That could be expensive. How many swords should we have?” There were two: “See, Lord, here are two swords” (Luke 22:38, NIV).

Jesus, somewhat frustrated, answers them, “Enough of this!” (i.e., stop this nonsense [cf. Deut. 3:26; 1 Kings 19:4]). The phrase is explained in Luke 22:51: “No more of this!” (NIV), rejecting the use of physical swords. Jesus uses literal language to refer to spiritual realities in the conflict against spiritual powers.

We need to be fully equipped; we need a “sword.”

Date: 
11/16