There’s much talk these days (and these decades) about second amendment rights in the U.S., the particular amendment that focuses on the right to bear arms. For those Christians who champion this right, one obvious goal is to find biblical support for the claim.
Many times, there is a naive perspective floating around that says something like this: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.” If God “said it” in his word (the keyword being “it,” referring to bearing arms), then we are now authorized to practice it.
One of the main go-to Scripture passages for those who promote the private right to bear arms (and use those arms) is found in Jesus’ words in Luke 22:
36 He said to them, “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. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied.
The highlighted portion contains the most important of words.
But what is really going on in the text here?
For starters, as we refer to it, this is Christ’s “passion week.” Jesus has just had his “last supper” with his closest friends and now he is to be betrayed by the infamous, Judas Iscariot. This is all headed towards the greatest act of self-sacrificial love ever known to humanity – the crucifixion of God’s son and messiah.
Jesus has just reminded his friends about an earlier expedition he had sent them on. In preparation, he had told them not to take purse, bag or sandals. Standing before his disciples now, he asks a simple question – Did you lack anything?
Their quick response was, “No.”
But the tables have turned of sorts. Jesus says it’s now time to take up purse and bag. Of even greater interest is that he replaces the word sandals with sword. If they didn’t have a sword, no problem. They could sell their cloaks to obtain one.
Hardship was coming; enemies were on the prowl. Grab your stuff and get ready for the attack; get ready to defend yourselves with sword.
At least that’s what it seems to suggest on the surface.
Yet, what many fail to do is to continue reading the Gospel narrative.
Jesus immediately quotes Isa 53:12: And he was numbered with the transgressors.
It’s interesting how this little statement about being numbered with transgressors is embedded within the context of Isaiah’s final servant song (52:13-53:12). Though originally the Isaiah passage spoke of the old Hebrew people within the context of their own collective suffering, we as the followers of Jesus identify the song as expounding upon the most gruesome of events in history – the crucifixion of God’s messiah, the holy and innocent one.
In this Isaianic poem, we are told the innocent messiah would be reckoned as a transgressor, or literally as a rebel. He was no transgressor; he was no rebel. He was right, good and innocent. Still, he would be counted as such.
This is what was taking place: Jesus’ words were employing a prophetic drama that would be integral in playing out his own sacrifice of self. However, what he was not doing was laying forth some kind of “command for all time” about weaponry that he expected his followers to embrace. These words were not arguing for personal self-preservation; they were not prescribing an opportunity to kill any intruder; they were not advocating retributive violence. Nothing of the sort.
If they were, then the cross means absolutely nothing!
Take up arms to defeat your enemies!
That’s the exact opposite message of the cross.
This becomes clear when Jesus’ friends say, “Hey, we have two swords!” Jesus responds with, “That’s enough.”
Were two swords really going to defeat the onslaught that was forthcoming? Really?! Two swords for a mob? Two swords when facing Rome’s contingency over the next couple of days?
Of course not.
I’m not quite sure of the body language and tone in Jesus’ statement, “That’s enough,” but I imagine a deep sigh and a looking up to the Father as if to acknowledge his friends just don’t get it.
Not only that, but if we dip into the other Gospel accounts, we find a rebuke when Peter actually does pull out his sword to lop off one of the soldier’s ears: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52).
What was taking place is that those who were his closest friends were abandoning the ways of Jesus, invoking the ways of rebels and Rome, embracing violence through the sword. Hence, as the well-known suffering servant song went, Jesus was going to be counted amongst the transgressing rebels.
However, we are certain of one thing: In this atrocious act of capital punishment at the cross, the great evils of the age, the powers and authorities, would be disarmed (Col 2:15). Jesus did this not with a sword, not with a weapon, but with self-sacrificial love expressed in a bloody death.
And, as Isaiah expresses elsewhere, this was to propel us toward a new day and era:
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. (Isa 2:4)
We still await that day, at least fully. The followers of Jesus can begin now. If we do, it would resemble the one we are named after. That’s exactly what our early sisters and brothers did. In the midst of grave injustice, great persecution, and the slaughtering of many, they maintained the perspective of self-sacrificial love. Read the stories in church history.
It’s difficult. I cannot even imagine – for Jesus or his early followers. But that is the call of the cruciform life shaped after the crucified one. I imagine the grace will be sufficient at the time it is needed.
There are many other Scripture passages worth considering on the topic of bearing arms. My great challenge here is that we stop mis-utilizing Luke 22. Those words do not empower Christians (Christ-followers) to bear arms. America might allow one thing, and we have to wisely and collectively consider what our government allows. But the words of Jesus in Luke 22 and the second amendment are not one and the same.