Why did Jesus tell his disciples to buy swords?

This is one of those Bible verses that, for the longest time, didn’t make sense to me. I heard about it when I was around 14. And I read it in the strangest of all places, the “Letters” section of Guns and Ammo magazine. (I don’t remember the context, but given the magazine, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it was offered as some type of justification for self-defense.)

For those who don’t know, I have been a gun enthusiast since I was about five years old. I was probably the only 12-year-old that was paying for his own Guns and Ammo subscription. And not surprisingly, I went on to work in the industry for about seven years.

As far as weaponry go, this Bible verse is much less-often cited than the more popular, “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”

Here’s the verse:

“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. 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.’

The disciples said, ‘See, Lord, here are two swords.’

‘That’s enough!’ he replied.

Luke 22:36-38

The context around it when Jesus said it makes it even stranger: they were sitting at the Last Supper. Judas had already gotten up to go and meet the Romans and Jewish leaders to betray Jesus. If you remember, when the soldiers came out to arrest Jesus, He didn’t put up a fight. He even chastised Peter for drawing a sword. (He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Matthew 26:52)

So then, why these words from the Prince of Peace?

Sidebar:
I wonder who held the second sword? If I had to choose, I’d bet on Matthew. Judas seems like the obvious choice, but he had already left. If he didn’t leave it behind, I’d guess Matthew for the sole reason that he actually died by the sword, stabbed to death in Ethiopia. Anyways…

So Jesus confirms that they have two swords among them, and a few hours later, Jesus and His disciples are in the Garden of Gethsemane. After Jesus finishes praying, they hear the soldiers approaching.

Now, I’ve heard from a few different Bible teachers that, given the translations of the titles of the Roman officers in charge of the soldiers coming to arrest Jesus, the actual number of soldiers would have been around 600. Some sources list it at 500. Plus the Temple Guard. (The Jewish leaders had tried to kill Jesus before, outright, and in the open, but He miraculously passed through their grasp. This time, they brought a lot of people – professional soldiers.) Even if the number were six soldiers, there was no earthly benefit to Jesus’s disciples putting up any kind of resistance. The disciples were fishermen, lawyers, and tax collectors. Luke was a doctor. These guys weren’t soldiers, and as impassioned as they may have been, they weren’t taking out the professional killers. Besides, Jesus didn’t need their help to defend Him. In His words, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53)

A legion is 6,000 soldiers. And, considering that in 701 BC, a single angel killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night, 72,000 angels could do some serious damage. (By the way, 72,000 angels each killing 185,000 people equals about 13 billion deaths, or about 5 billion people more than are currently alive on the Earth today. In one night.)

Sidebar:
There is secular documentation of this event. Some scholars argue over how it happened, but pretty much everyone agrees that it did. The full story is amazing and inspiring. You can read it here.

So, Jesus neither needed nor wanted the Earthly body guard. So then, why the swords?

Look back a little further, about 500 years, to the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi. “‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Malachi 3:1)

This prophecy is usually ascribed to John the Baptist, as he’s the “voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'” (Isaiah 40:3) We hear this reading a lot during Advent. Mark 3:3 also references this same passage about John the Baptist.

But there’s something else going on here. By arming his disciples, Jesus was once again sending a messenger before him. In this case, to the high priest that would preside over his trial.

How?

Of all the disciples, Peter was probably the most… passionate. When Jesus walked on the water toward His disciples (who were in a boat), it was Peter that jumped up and said, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28) He was also the first one to say, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (Matthew 26:35) There are lots of other examples. So when the crowd of soldiers and temple guards came to arrest Jesus, Peter jumped up to defend Him.

In Luke’s gospel, as the arresting party approached, one disciple asked, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” (Luke 22:49) All four gospels tell us that “one of the disciples” drew a sword and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. It was then that Jesus said, “put away your sword. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”

Sidebar:
Only John’s gospel tells us that it was Peter. Some pastors have humorously speculated that John (who identifies himself in the Bible as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”) was in some type of rivalry with Peter (who Jesus claimed to be, “the rock upon which I will build my church”.) John is the only one who points out (by name) that it was Peter who swung the sword. And on the first Easter when two disciples were running to the tomb, John points out that “the other disciple (John) outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” (John 20:4) Basically recording for all eternity, “there was a foot race, and I won.” I want to ask John and Peter about this in Heaven one day.

Now, if I were Peter in this moment, I would have been so confused. “Lord, didn’t You just say a few hours ago that we should have swords? Or that we should sell our clothes and buy swords?” Here’s the part that I believe Malachi was talking about.

As they moved in, Peter drew his sword ready to fulfill his promise of dying for Jesus. We can infer that some type of scuffle must have broken out. (Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ has a pretty good scene illustrating it.) I’ve heard that the Greek word that the scriptures use for “sword” here refers to something more like a dagger or knife someone would carry discretely. It wasn’t like a sword for war, like a sabre or a Roman gladius.

Sidebar:
Pause there for a moment. The modern equivalent of this would be that two groups of people meet somewhere late at night, a fight breaks out, and one guy pulls a knife and tries to kill another guy. We read about this all the time in the news.

Scripture doesn’t say much about the actual fight that night, but it doesn’t take much imagination to fill in the blanks…

The melee breaks out. Peter, filled with rage, swings a sword at the guy who was probably giving the order to arrest Jesus, the high priest’s servant, named Malchus. But, being a better fisherman than swordsman, I’m guessing he swung blindly overhand, aiming for the head. Luckily, he missed and just caught the side of Malchus’s head, removing his ear. Now, I like Mel Gibson’s depiction of this scene, but I doubt that Peter actually stabbed for the face, and I doubt that the high priest’s servant was wearing armor. Malchus (the servant) was a combination butler and secretary, and I doubt he even owned body armor, for any purpose. Plus, I don’t think that he would have been willing to defile himself before Passover by borrowing Roman armor to wear. (And, I’m sure that if he had asked the soldiers for a suit of armor, they would have laughed him out of the room.) No, instead, I’m guessing he was probably wearing has semi-regal attire showing his status.

So what?

Well, think about swinging a sword at someone’s head and landing a glancing blow that takes off their ear. Peter’s follow-through probably hit Malchus’s shoulder, too. Grab a ruler and walk through it yourself in front of a mirror, but I don’t think there’s any way to swing a sword in rage at someone and cut off their ear without cutting their shoulder, especially if you’re an amateur. My point is that, probable-shoulder-wound or not, Malchus blead a lot on his clothes that night.

And then, he had to go back and report to his boss, the high priest Caiaphas. How do you think that conversation went?

Caiaphas: “What happened to you?”
Malchus: “Jesus.”
C: “What? Did you get him?”
M: “He put it back on.”
C: “What are you talking about?”
M: “My, my ear. He put it back on.”
C: “Malchus, what are you talking about? Both your ears are right there, the same place they’ve always been. Why are you covered in blood?”
M: “He… he put it back on. We went to grab him, and his followers put up a fight. One of them grabbed a sword and swung at my head. He cut off my ear. And then… Jesus… he he put it back on.
C: “Did you catch him?”
M: “Yeah, but Caiaphas, I don’t think…”
C: “Good. I will go out to meet him.”
M: “But Caiaphas, wait. I don’t think we should rush into this. No one could have just put my ear back on like that if he weren’t a man of God. I’ve never even read of anything like it before. I’ve never read about these kinds of miracles anywhere. Even in the scriptures. Maybe we need to talk to this man more.”
C: “The time for talking is done. Change your clothes. Clean yourself up. We need to go out to a trial. Come on.”

You see, Malchus was the messenger.

Remember Malachai 3:1 – “Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” The Jewish leaders had been trying to arrest Jesus for months, and now Jesus was coming to the “temple” where His trial would take place. (Actually, it was the house of the high priest, though all the temple leaders were there for this.) As Jesus knew He was going to the cross, He still tried to reach out to the high priest who would preside over His sham trial that night.

Without the disciples having swords, Malchus wouldn’t have lost his ear, Jesus wouldn’t have reattached it, and whatever conversation took place between him and Caiaphas that night, wouldn’t have happened.

I think about this from Malchus’s perspective, and there are two things that really stand out.

First, how hard it is to stop everyone from doing wrong when their minds are made up. At this point, there was a ton of social momentum working against Jesus. As the high priest’s servant, Malchus probably knew that it was against the law to start a capital trial after sundown. And he also knew that Jesus was not the blaspheming revolutionary that so many of the rulers thought Him to be. And, pardon the pun, Malchus even had the ear of the man who could stop it, simply by doing what was right and lawful at the time. But, again, when people’s minds are set on evil, there is no derailing their plans.

Second, this story is a reminder to me of God’s desire to value “souls” above “bodies”. He values bodies a lot: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1) And, Jesus healed the afflicted bodies of thousands, yet He allowed someone to cut off another man’s ear and probably wound his shoulder, just to try and reach the heart of yet a third person. And why not? These bodies of ours are dust – on loan from the collective library of the ground. We use them for a while, then give them back. But the soul lives on for eternity.

From the human perspective, the offense that occurred that night was between Malchus and Peter alone. But, remember Isaiah 55:8-9: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'”

How many of us would let one of our enemies cut off one of our ears, so that another one of our enemies might learn about Jesus? That seems like quite a sacrifice, and yet, the Lord thinks the trade is worth it.

Remember that during your next physical trial. So many times, the temporal suffering of these short-lived bodies is used to bring eternal souls closer to God, and even though it might not seem obvious at the time, it is completely worth it. Don’t let it go to waste.

But fear not, Jesus always looks after His own. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus and said they were looking for Him, “Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.’ This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: ‘I have not lost one of those you gave me.'” (John 18:8-9)

All of His disciples escaped unscathed that evening. And what’s more, He even saved Peter from a legal charge of attempted murder of the high priest’s servant. Had He not reattached the ear, there likely would have been four crosses on Calvary that weekend.

He’s watching out for you in the same way. Just trust Him enough to put down your sword.

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