Christ and the Sword

All four of the Gospels report an incident during Jesus’ arrest in which Peter attempts to defend Him by drawing his sword and attacking the mob, cutting off the ear of one of the crowd. Jesus rebukes Peter for this and heals the injured man before He is taken away.

Each of the Gospels provide different descriptions of the incident:

Mark’s Gospel (Mark 14: 47) mentions it in passing, without either identifying Peter or even including Christ’s rebuke to him. It comprises a single verse just prior to Jesus’ ironic comment to the crowd: “You have come out to my arrest with swords and clubs, as if I were a robber; and yet I used to teach in the temple close to you, day after day, and you never laid hands on me. But the scriptures must be fulfilled.” (Mark 14: 48-49).

Matthew’s Gospel includes the same basic description as Mark, but includes the most elaborate (and best known) account of Christ’s rebuke: “Whereupon Jesus said to him, ‘Put thy sword back into its place; all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword. Dost thou doubt that if I call upon my Father, even now, He will send more than twelve legions of angels to my side? But how, were it so, should the scriptures be fulfilled, which have prophesied that all must be as it is?” (Matthew 26:52-54).

Luke’s Gospel expands on the scene by including a previous detail unmentioned in the other Gospels: that while they were at supper, Jesus commanded His apostles to procure swords for themselves, even if they had to sell their cloaks to do so. They then show Him that they already have two of them at hand, which He tells them is ‘enough’ (Luke 22: 36-38). Then, when the mob comes to arrest him, Luke portrays the Apostles specifically asking “shall we strike with our swords?” before one of them, apparently not waiting for a reply, goes ahead and does so. Luke then provides the softest version of Christ’s rebuke; he simply says “Let them have their way in this” before healing the slave’s ear (Luke 22: 51).

John’s version of the scene is notable for being the only Gospel to specify both that it was Peter who wielded the sword and that the slave’s name was Malchus. Christ’s rebuke in this version runs “Put thy sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink that cup which my Father Himself has appointed for me?” (John 18:11)

Each Gospel describes the Apostles attempting to defend Jesus with a sword. Three of the four have Him rebuking them for this, and one (Matthew) includes what appears to be a condemnation of arms as such. In all four, He reminds the Apostles that what is happening – His arrest – must be allowed to happen and cannot be prevented.

Now, what are we to take from this? A few points to remember:

First: an element that is often overlooked is the mere fact that Jesus allowed, and at least in Luke’s Gospel, commanded the Apostles to carry swords. Peter and at least one other Apostle apparently went about armed as a matter of course. Or perhaps, sensing the growing threat to their Master, they had procured swords recently while in Jerusalem (I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that the Roman authorities permitted Jews to carry or manufacture weapons, which raises the question: did Peter and the other Apostle buy them from revolutionaries?). In any case, they owned and carried weapons, and Jesus did not prevent their doing so, nor can I imagine that they made any effort to hide the fact from their Master. On the contrary, I would think they talked it over with Him and received permission before acquiring the weapons. It seems, therefore, that Jesus had no objection to His disciples being armed.

Second: Jesus does not tell Peter to throw away his sword, but only to “put it away” or “put it back in its sheath,” therefore permitting him to retain his sword even after he had misused it.

Third: note that Jesus always reminds His disciples that what is happening must be allowed to happen, and they can’t prevent it. It is God’s Will, and indeed the primary purpose of His life, that He should undergo this.

The common theme here is that the sword itself is not the issue; the issue is using the sword in this situation. This is not the time for the sword, because there are bigger things at play here.

Another element is that Jesus is trying to protect His disciples. In John’s Gospel, right before Peter goes on the attack, Jesus tells the crowd “If I am the man you are looking for, let these others go free” (John 18: 8). In context, we can imagine that the crowd fully intends to arrest all of them, but that is not God’s will. Peter’s rash actions put him and the others at risk, hence the rebuke. Indeed, Peter himself appears to belatedly realize this, as John specifies that a member of the mob and a relative of Malchus later recognizes him, prompting Peter’s third and final denial of Jesus in response to his accusation (John 18: 26-27).

Side note: This implies another possible reading of Peter’s actions that night; on the one hand, he seems fully prepared to fight to the death for Jesus. Then, scant hours later, he denies even knowing Him. One possible reason is that he belatedly realized that his actions in the garden were likely to land him in jail (especially if, as I suspect, he wasn’t supposed to be carrying a sword in the first place). Thus he denies that he was there, not necessarily out of fear of being arrested as Jesus’s disciple, but fear of being arrested for assault with a deadly and illegal weapon. I don’t know whether that reading would hold up, but it’s interesting to think that this might have been at least part of his motivation.

This may imply another reading of Christ’s troubling rebuke “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Peter, in fact, does perish by the sword, in that his actions with the sword set up a situation in which he does precisely what he swore up and down he’d never do: deny his master.

I call the rebuke troubling because it seems to be a condemnation of carrying arms as such, even though, as we’ve seen, this would appear to contradict Christ’s own words and actions, not to mention the whole tenor of Christian teaching down for most of its history, which likewise permitted and often praised or commanded the use of arms.

Digging a little deeper, I find that the Latin word in the Vulgate is “accipere,” which means “to receive, to take, or to accept.” Thus, Christ’s words run “all who accept/receive/take the sword will perish by the sword” (reading the original Greek would be a lot more helpful, but I don’t read Greek yet).

Now, I wonder – and I don’t know whether this is true, but in context I suspect it is – whether “receive / accept,” in this context, means something more along the lines of “rely upon.” That is, Jesus is warning Peter against accepting the sword and depending upon it as his first and only means of protection. Hence the follow-up “Dost thou doubt that if I call upon my Father, even now, He will send more than twelve legions of angels to my side?” Jesus isn’t saying that no one must ever take up the sword; He’s saying that if you depend on the sword, it will betray you to your doom. Peter thinks that the only way to protect his master is to engage an armed crowd in a suicide charge when only he and one other Apostle have weapons. Basically, he was about to get himself well and thoroughly killed before Jesus ordered him to stop and warned him not to place his trust in arms and fighting.

But not relying on arms is not the same thing as foregoing them entirely. Jesus permits Peter to keep his sword, and just a few hours earlier He had warned His disciples to arm themselves in the days ahead: “But now it is time for a man to take his purse with him, if he has one, and his wallet too; and to sell his cloak and buy a sword, if he has none.” (Luke 22:36). This warning, as I understand it, is that the Church (here represented by the Apostles) will be in the world and will have to meet the world as a human institution; the Church will need to have money, property, and arms if it is to survive. Christ seems to lay especial emphasis on the need for arms; a man need only bring his purse “if he has one,” but if he doesn’t have a sword, he needs to get one even if he has to sell his cloak.

I’ve read some people who interpret the following verse, in which the armed apostles present their swords and Jesus answers “it is enough” to mean that He is rebuking them for taking ‘sword’ literally, and that it is only meant as a spiritual sword (i.e. the Sword of Truth). I don’t see that; I think it requires a bit of a leap to go from “it is enough” to “you misunderstand me; get rid of those things and acquire spiritual swords.” Obviously, Christ’s words can and should be interpreted in a spiritual sense, but that doesn’t preclude the literal sense, nor can I read His two word answer as anything as elaborate as it’s made out to be.

What I think He meant is “it is enough for now.” Note that the Apostles specify “there are two swords here” and so His answer is “that’s enough for this place at this time.” But, since he ordered men in general (“a man” or “who”) to procure swords, it seems unlikely that He means “it’s enough universally.”

The cumulative lesson here, it seems to me, is that the Church will never be dependent upon arms in the same way that, say, a secular nation would be. Arms, and all that they imply, however, will be a part of her experience in the world. From the very beginning, the night of the Last Supper, the Church went into the world armed at her Master’s behest. Yet at the same time she was never to accept the sword in the sense of depending upon it: she was always to remember that obedience to the Will of God came first, and that He, rather than any weapons, was her best defense.

I admit I do like the idea that the Apostles went forth to preach with swords at their belt, though, apart from this incident in the Gospels and Jesus’ commands to that effect, I don’t believe there is any evidence of it. I’m positive that there are no accounts of the Apostles actually using swords in the Acts or the Epistles. However, I don’t think it’s outside the range of possibilities that, during their wanderings, they may have had cause to defend themselves or the innocent against brigands or wild beasts or other foes. Certainly, I imagine that the Devil did everything in his power to cut their mission short, which might very well have included forcing them to fight for their lives.

The Church in our age is not armed, except for the Swiss Guard (interesting note: I once read that during the Nazi occupation of Rome, Pope Pius XII equipped the guard with machine guns just in case the Nazis ever attacked St. Peter’s). There are no Knights Templar or other fighting orders. We generally consider this a good thing; a sign that the Church has grown humbler and more peaceful, but with so much of the world growing increasingly hostile toward us, I wonder whether it really is such a good thing after all. Every age has its particular virtues and particular follies; I’m not entirely sure which this is. Christ permitted and even ordered the Apostles to go armed; shouldn’t the Church take steps to follow that order?

I’m not saying I want another Crusade, or that the Pope should raise his own private army or anything like that. I’m not even sure I’m advising anything at all. I just think this is a topic we need to consider very carefully, because it’s probably going to become a pressing issue before too much longer.


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