Does Jesus Want You To Buy A Gun?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Luke’s Gospel records Jesus saying to his disciples “if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Lk 22:36). If Jesus is advocating nonviolence why does he say this? Would Jesus advise Americans today “if you don’t have a gun, sell your laptop and buy one”?

In my book Disarming Scripture I discuss this passage in detail, and point out that in the very same chapter, when Luke tells of how the disciples then tried to use those swords to defend their Lord, Jesus sternly rebuked them for it, healing the person Peter struck, and yelling at him “No more of this!” (v. 51). Matthew’s account of the same incident records Jesus as saying to his disciples “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword!” (Mt 26:52).

So why did Jesus tell his disciples to buy swords in the first place? Or said differently, why would Jesus tell his disciples to buy swords, but then rebuke them for using them?

There are a number of explanations that biblical scholars have proposed to make sense of this, but let’s face it: Understanding Jesus is hard. Maybe that's why the Gospels record over and over how the disciples got Jesus wrong, as Luke does here, and why we still do today. Jesus speaks in paradoxes and parables. He says confusing things like “if you want to be the boss, be a slave” and “love those you hate” and “if you want to be first, be last.” Jesus commonly says things that are intended to throw people off, in order to make them question their assumptions. So if you are not thrown off by the things Jesus says, you just aren’t paying attention.

The question for us as his followers is how we can properly adopt his teachings and way. A reader wrote to me asking this very question,

“On the question of why Jesus told them to buy the swords, are you open to the idea that this was for self-defense? Jesus is speaking about a huge change in their situation. Before when the disciples went out preaching, they didn’t need a moneybag and a knapsack because people were happy to welcome them and generous to provide for them (v. 35). But following his death their message will no longer be welcome. They will have to face persecution and can no longer count on people’s generosity (v. 36). “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack.” In that context he tells them they should buy a sword. I think he is saying that they will need one for their own protection. But he did not intend for them to use swords on this occasion to prevent his arrest and crucifixion.”

As discussed above, Jesus directly rebuked his disciples for using a sword to defend him, but is it possible that Jesus was telling them to use the sword later for their own self-defense?

Based on how the disciples and early church responded to the persecution they encountered, I think the only possible answer to that question is that they did not think so. The fact of history is that the disciples and early church did not defend themselves with swords, even though their lives were endangered, even though it would have been clearly a case of self-defense, and their contemporaries commonly did reach for their swords.

Instead, they were persecuted and killed. That is just a fact of history. The early followers of Jesus (for the first few centuries, pre-Constantine) were in fact known for refusing to defend their lives with violence, and associated this with faithfulness to Jesus. That’s the whole idea of being a martyr for Jesus.

Now, does that mean that we as Christians today should not defend ourselves when our lives are in danger? Some would say yes. They would understand Jesus’ teachings as forbidding the use of violence. Nonviolence here is primarily about what you are not permitted to do, similar perhaps to saying “no sex outside of marriage.”

I don’t want to necessarily disagree with that, but I do want to propose that if this is all we get from Jesus, we are missing the real power of his teaching. A focus on what one should not do is reflective of a low level of morality. The more morally advanced question is, what can we do to make things better – what can we do to restore and reconcile?

For example, take divorce: One could easily take Jesus’ words to say that divorce is categorically forbidden. On a low moral level we ask questions of permission and prohibition. So the question here becomes, “Am I allowed to get a divorce or not?” But the deeper and more important question to ask is “What do we need to do to have a good and healthy marriage” and more specifically “How can we break out of our patterns of hurt and conflict, and restore trust, and the joy, surprise, and closeness in our relationship again?” After all, I think we can also all agree that no one likes divorce. It’s a painful and tragic experience. So the goal is to see if it is possible to help marriages to be restored.

That’s a totally different question, because the focus is not on “am I permitted to do this” but rather on working towards restoring, reconciling, and redeeming. This focus on redemption is the core focus of Jesus. Again, it’s not a focus on what is forbidden, but a focus on redeeming and healing and making broken things whole. When we instead focus on what is permitted/prohibited we really miss the very heart of the message of Jesus and his gospel which was all about restoring broken humanity. That’s what Jesus spent all his time doing. That’s what he’s in the business of doing today.

That means that wherever Jesus finds us, no matter what imperfect place we are at, the focus is not a legalistic one of condemning us. If you are divorced for instance, the point is not to say that this was some kind of moral failure. The point is to ask, no matter where we are, what can be done right where we are at that will lead to life? This is an approach that is not naive or idealistic, but very aware that our human experience is one of imperfection and struggle. It begins right in the middle of that, and seeks to move us towards love.

In regards to self-defense, I totally understand why a person would want to defend themselves or their loved ones. So would I. You will get no condemnation from me there. But what I do want us to try to do is think together about what we might be able to do to promote peace and resolve conflict. How can we work towards that, while of course caring for the safety and well-being of everyone involved?

As long as we are asking the question of “is this justified?” we will not be able to get to that bigger and harder question of “how can I work towards making things better?” In the case of divorce, a trained couples therapist would certainly not forbid a couple from getting a divorce. Of course that’s an option. But the focus would be on working to repair and restore the relationship. Perhaps we can say the same with the use of violence for self-defense. In fact, it may be for many of us that we can only get to asking how we can work to resolve conflict and reduce violence after we first allow ourselves to say it’s a justifiable and understandable response. Perhaps we need to say to each other,

I can’t condemn you for resorting to violence in self-defense. I might do the same if I were in that situation. But let’s work together to see if we can find a better way. Let’s find out how we can actively work to lessen violence, resolve conflict, and restore relationships. Let’s learn how to work for justice and peace.

The big picture here, exegetically speaking, is that we need to get away from reading a particular verse or sentence from Jesus and turning this into a rule or universal principle. What we instead need to do is immerse ourselves in all of what Jesus taught until we actually get it and can then run with it, expanding and developing it, living it out in our lives and world. That’s a very different approach to biblical interpretation than most of us have learned, but it’s one that will lead us to a much deeper understanding of the way of Jesus, and why it is truly the way to life.

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At 1:42 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent nuance, as always.

Immerse rather than emerge in last paragraph?

At 2:54 PM, Blogger Tony Corsaro said...

Yup... As I read the title, thoughts going through my mind were things like... he'll probably approach this from a position of learn to think forward rather than be stuck on what Jesus might tell you not to do... lol Idk. Was just reminded of a famous speech by the late John F Kennedy where he said in effect... Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. It was a very others focused idea. Does that play here? I think so. Ask not what Jesus forbid but how he thought. Did he really tell people 'don't do this or that' or did he encourage people to think outside the rigid box they had been raised in?

And yes.. I think you meant immerse rather than emerge in that last paragraph... :)

Good as usual, Derek. Thanks!

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yup, it was a typo. I meant immerse. I changed it :)

At 7:19 PM, Blogger Joel said...

I grew up on a farm, around guns. Learned to hunt and trap as a elementary and junior high student.

While I am no longer interested in hunting, I still enjoy going out for a day target shooting or a series of clays.

I refuse to pursue a carry permit, however, as I believe it does cross the line to self defense and I do believe Jesus would not approve.

I realize, with all the publicity on shootings and gun control over the last several years, it's hard to separate this but the gun is a tool. One that can be used in both healthy and unhealthy ways. The same can be said for the sword's that were mentioned in Jesus' narrative. Jesus used them to fulfill prophesy while his disciples used them for self defense.

At 7:19 PM, Blogger Joel said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Dale said...

My take from your article is that, while the disciples and church didn't understand Jesus' words this way, you are not opposed to self-defense as long as peace is being pursued. We should not look for justification for our actions in particular sayings of Jesus. Our actions stand on their own merit.

I can agree with that. The question of why Jesus would say these words was a puzzle and needed to be answered exegetically in context. That the disciples misunderstand Jesus on this point is clear from his response to them, so they are no help. That the church idealized martyrdom and submitted itself as sheep to the slaughter when persecuted instead of resisting is a topic which may deserve its own book. I think this was largely based on a desire to follow the model of Jesus. But I think it is legitimately questionable whether Jesus would want us to follow him in this.

I do not think that defending ourselves and our loved ones goes against the spirit of Christ. There is a world of difference between having a vengeful spirit and protecting yourself. And, as you frequently say, we should be suspicious of any rules that lead to harm, and any rejection of self-defense certainly leads to one’s own harm and must be rejected.

At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


We should distinguish between "keeping yourself safe," and "defending yourself." "defending yourself" implies harming another person in order to yourself safe and so the question then becomes, "is it possible to keep yourself safe without harming the other person" or even "what are ways I can keep myself safe and do as little harm as possible to the other person."

I think that's the direction we need to be thinking in. Thinking of ways to reduce violence while keeping people safe.

At 9:08 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


It is a tool. So is a car. We have laws about who can drive, how fast, under what conditions, and so on. We need similar laws to regulate the safe use of guns too. Currently the US is alone among developed nations with its lax gun laws. That's like being the only country that does not require cars to comes with seat belts.

Tools are good. We just need to regulate the dangerous ones so they can be used as safely as possible.

At 5:46 AM, Anonymous Bernie Kopfer said...

What seems strange to me is that the gospels were "written" years after the fact. Surely the early Christians had thought about this passage and its context and its implications. And yet years later the writer/compiler chose to include this passage. If I were to believe in direct inspiration this would be hard enough but if Luke could pick and choose what he wrote down why did this get included?

At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think that's because the writers of the Gospels were not collecting stories that they liked, or felt were good moral tales, rather they were trying to faithfully convey the oral traditions they had heard of Jesus. It's a early form of a historian, but in many ways similar.

Personally I think Jesus was just making the point that stuff was going to get dangerous in the future, and so was warning the disciples about that. He described that metaphorically by speaking of "needing swords" but when they took him literally, he corrected them.

At 4:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dale. I do agree the church idolized martyrdom when it shouldn't have. What we have to ask ourselves is what does the kingdom of heaven that Jesus so often talked about look like. In context it was never a far off thing but here and now. In the Kingdom of heaven here on earth would we rather kill someone else to preserve our life and continue the cycle of killing (even for self defense) or stop it here and now with enemy love.

At 5:12 AM, Blogger Dale said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:19 AM, Blogger Dale said...

I agree with Derek that the first step in protecting oneself and one's family should involve fleeing the danger rather than attempting to fight. And even if one is forced to fight, most violent situations wouldn't have to end up with someone's death. If you had a gun, shooting in the arm or leg would usually be preferable, unless you were dealing with a monster who couldn't be stopped at anything less than death. I imagine that would be quite rare.

Restorative justice and enemy love are beautiful models that should be followed whenever possible. I can't imagine ever wanting to buy a weapon myself. But I don't have a family either. If a man could stand by and watch his wife and children being molested and tortured (just imagining the worst case), I couldn't have any respect for such a person. I think he must do whatever he can to protect his family. Killing should always be the very last resort.

I think everyone would agree that enemy love should never stop us from loving our family. It does not involve placing our enemy's needs above those of our family. Our love for family and friends has to outweigh the love we show to enemies.

At 11:29 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Comparing non-violence to no sex before marriage is well done, but there really is no argument for having sex outside of marriage in the Bible...I still appreciate the realism of the argument.


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