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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Two Swords

Consider this passage in Luke’s gospel for a moment:

“And he said to them, ‘When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘Nothing.’ He said to them, ‘But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” For what is written about me has its fulfillment.’ And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.’ And he said to them, ‘It is enough.’ ”

Two swords. Hmm. A call for a more militant Christendom, maybe?

Buy a Sword

I think that unlikely.

In those days there was nothing unusual about carrying a sword in Judea even if you were not a Roman citizen. There do not appear to have been “sword-free zones” in Jewish universities and concealed carry permits were not required. In the upper room, when the Lord made his remark about buying a sword, twelve disciples promptly produced two, suggesting that walking the streets of Jerusalem well equipped for self-defense was far from a rare occurrence.

That doesn’t mean all the disciples immediately understood why the Lord would tell them to go buy one.

Three Stabs in the Dark

William MacDonald lists a few possible explanations that have been given for the Lord’s words, most of which I find unconvincing. Like this one:
“Some suggest that He was referring to the sword of the Spirit …”
Uh, no. If the sword is not to be taken literally, then, as MacDonald points out, moneybag, knapsack and cloak must be allegorized as well.

Or this one:
“Williams says that the sword means the protection of an ordered government, pointing out that in Romans 13:4, it refers to the power of the magistrate.”
This explanation runs into the same difficulty: allegorize one, allegorize them all. Further, how were the disciples supposed to appeal to the protection of an ordered government? What might be the “cloak” they could sell to buy that protection? And why would the Lord say of the two literal weapons they produced, “It is enough” rather than simply pointing out that they had misunderstood him entirely?

Or this one:
“Some think that the sword was for defense against wild animals only.”
If this is the case, a few swords might have come in awfully useful when wandering all throughout Galilee and Judea preaching the coming of the kingdom. But the Lord had never mentioned such a thing then. Why suddenly bring it up now?

I think there may be a more logical explanation to be found in the passage itself.

Let Every Person Be Subject

First, these swords were not instruments of revolution. They were never intended to be used against secular or religious authorities. Paul’s instructions to the Romans make it impossible to construe the Lord’s words as a call to arms. This was true even when the authorities misbehaved themselves and failed to function as God intended, a circumstance which occurred shortly thereafter.

More importantly, the swords were definitely not intended to prevent the Lord Jesus from being “numbered with the transgressors”. Later in the same chapter the Lord rebukes his own disciples for attempting to prevent him from being taken by those who had come out “as against a robber”.

Nor were the swords intended for general use in the service of God now that Jesus was going to the Father. Going about armed was not the “new normal” for discipleship, a fact which is evident from the Lord’s statement that the one who had no sword should “sell his cloak and buy one”. A cloak was a necessary garment; something one might make use of every day. But unless you made your living as a soldier, a sword was only needed in times of peril. The cloak is normal; the sword exceptional. Selling one to obtain the other is certainly something one might feel compelled to do in a crisis, but come cold weather or peaceful times, most everyone would prefer the cloak.

Part of a Package

Moreover, the sword does not stand alone. It is part of a package that also included moneybag and knapsack. Neither of the latter two had been necessary when the Lord sent out the twelve in Luke 9, nor were they necessary when he sent out the seventy-two in Luke 10. He had turned his followers out into the countryside without provision, reserves, or even the next meal in full confidence that God would provide for those who he had called into his service. And God did.

So Jesus had already taught his disciples, both verbally and through practical experience, to expect that provision and protection are the normal state of affairs while in the service of God.

This would continue to be the case when he charged them with taking the good news of salvation to all creation. Anticipating his own resurrection, he could say in that same upper room, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Many Christians continue to claim this promise today, and when truly asking “in his name” find it repeatedly fulfilled.

Numbered with the Transgressors

But we need not look too far afield for answers. Jesus tells his disciples exactly why it is they need swords: “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ ” The word “for” [Greek: gar] links this statement to the command to buy a sword, implying a cause-and-effect relationship between the Lord’s own imminent ‘numbering with the transgressors’ and the disciples’ imminent need for swords, knapsacks and moneybags.

The Great Shepherd could say to his Father about his sheep, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them.” This was about to change, at least for a short time.

The eleven most visible earthly representatives of the kingdom of heaven were about to find themselves huddled behind closed doors, their Master dead and buried, their hopes dashed and their heads whirring with confusion and fear — while the Lord was being “numbered with the transgressors” and while the scripture was being fulfilled in him. In such a situation, a few bucks, a change of clothes and the reassuring presence of a weapon were the gracious accommodation of a Shepherd concerned for the well-being of his sheep while he himself was absent from the fold.

But being left to their own devices was a blip, not an ongoing state of affairs. The moneybags, knapsacks and swords were for a brief interval only.

How They Took It

This is surely how the disciples understood the Lord’s words ... eventually. Once they had recovered from their initial fear, his followers saw no need of swords; you will search the book of Acts for a sword-wielding apostle in vain, despite the fact that they and their fellow-workers were regularly imprisoned and mistreated at the command of authorities both religious and secular.

Thus it seems to me highly improbable that the Lord was advocating for some sort of general Christian militancy. Much more likely he was simply making provision for his loved ones in a moment of need.

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Photo credit: Max Pixel.

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