Answers to Common Questions

Did Jesus advocate the use of a sword for self-defense purposes (Luke 22:36-38)?

Jesus is well known for His continued emphasis on love, forgiveness, and "turning the other cheek." It is therefore surprising to find Jesus advising the disciples to buy a sword in Luke 22:36: "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." Did Jesus in this verse advocate the use of a sword for self-defense purposes?

This is an issue over which Christians have vehemently disagreed for many centuries. Following is a summary of the two basic views of how Christians have interpreted Jesus on this issue.

THE PATH OF NONRESISTANCE. Christian pacifists believe it is always wrong to injure other humans, no matter what the circumstances. And the same principles supporting pacifism carry over to nonresistance--the belief that any form of self-defense is wrong. This view is usually based on the exemplary life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

According to Christian pacifist John Yoder, Jesus rejected the existing political state of affairs and taught a form of radical nonviolence. Central to Christ's teaching, Yoder says, is His biblical mandate to "turn the other cheek" when encountering violence (Matthew 5:38-48).

In Yoder's view, the way to victorious living is to refrain from the game of sociopolitical control. Jesus exposed the futility of the violence engrafted in the present world system by resisting its inclinations even to the point of death. Hence, Christians are to refuse the world's violent methods and follow their Savior to the cross (Matthew 26:47-52). When Jesus told the disciples to buy a sword (Luke 22:36), pacifists suggest He was only speaking figuratively.

"TURN THE OTHER CHEEK" ALWAYS? It is true that Jesus said to turn the other cheek in Matthew 5:38-42. However, many scholars do not believe pacifism (or nonresistance) is the essential point of His teaching in this passage. These scholars do not believe Jesus was teaching to "turn the other cheek" in virtually all circumstances. Even Christ did not literally turn the other cheek when smitten by a member of the Sanhedrin (see John 18:22-23).

The backdrop to this teaching is that the Jews considered it an insult to be hit in the face, much in the same way that we would interpret someone spitting in our face. Bible scholar R. C. Sproul comments: "What's interesting in the expression is that Jesus specifically mentions the right side of the face [Matthew 5:39]....If I hit you on your right cheek, the most normal way would be if I did it with the back of my right hand....To the best of our knowledge of the Hebrew language, that expression is a Jewish idiom that describes an insult, similar to the way challenges to duels in the days of King Arthur were made by a backhand slap to the right cheek of your opponent."

The principle taught in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:38-42 would thus seem to be that Christians should not retaliate when insulted or slandered (see also Romans 12:17-21). Such insults do not threaten a Christian's personal safety. The question of rendering insult for insult, however, is a far cry from defending oneself against a mugger or a rapist.

In terms of following Christ's example, one must remember that His personal nonresistance at the cross was intertwined with His unique calling. He did not evade His arrest because it was God's will for Him to fulfill His prophetic role as the redemptive Lamb of God (Matthew 26:52-56). During His ministry, however, He refused to be arrested because God's timing for His death had not yet come (John 8:59). Thus, Christ's unique nonresistance during the Passion does not mandate against self-protection.

THE BIBLICAL CASE FOR SELF-DEFENSE. It is noteworthy that the Bible records many accounts of fighting and warfare. The providence of God in war is exemplified by His name YHWH Sabaoth ("The LORD of hosts"--Exodus 12:41). God is portrayed as the omnipotent Warrior-Leader of the Israelites. God, the LORD of hosts, raised up warriors among the Israelites called the shophetim (savior-deliverers). Samson, Deborah, Gideon, and others were anointed by the Spirit of God to conduct war. The New Testament commends Old Testament warriors for their military acts of faith (Hebrews 11:30-40). Moreover, it is significant that although given the opportunity to do so, none of the New Testament saints--nor even Jesus--are ever seen informing a military convert that he needed to resign from his line of work (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 3:14).

Prior to His crucifixion, Jesus revealed to His disciples the future hostility they would face and encouraged them to sell their outer garments in order to buy a sword (Luke 22:36-38; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:26-27). Here the "sword" (Greek: maxairan) is a dagger or short sword that belonged to the Jewish traveler's equipment as protection against robbers and wild animals. A plain reading of the passage indicates that Jesus approved of self-defense.

Self-defense may actually result in one of the greatest examples of human love. Christ Himself said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:14). When protecting one's family or neighbor, a Christian is unselfishly risking his or her life for the sake of others.

Theologians J. P. Moreland and Norman Geisler say that "to permit murder when one could have prevented it is morally wrong. To allow a rape when one could have hindered it is an evil. To watch an act of cruelty to children without trying to intervene is morally inexcusable. In brief, not resisting evil is an evil of omission, and an evil of omission can be just as evil as an evil of commission. Any man who refuses to protect his wife and children against a violent intruder fails them morally." 

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