New Testament texts
Luke 22:35, 36, and 38 are the only direct New Testament statements about self-defense. Jesus had previously sent His followers on various missions with instructions regarding what provisions and equipment they were allowed to take with them. In sending out the Twelve, He permitted no staff, bag, bread, money, or extra shirt (Luke 9:3). When He sent out the Seventy, He disallowed purse, bag, and sandals (Luke 10:4). These were not, however, intended as permanent, normative commands for all believers for all time. That is clear since Jesus contrasts these earlier restrictions with what would be necessary after the Crucifixion.
In Luke 22:35, 36, and 38 Jesus explicitly commands His followers to take the sort of provisions they were previously asked to leave at home: “He who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack” (v. 36a). But now a new item is added to the list. They are told to buy a sword (machaira), even if they have to sell their cloak to do so (v. 36b). This was not a butter knife for their bread or a paring knife for peeling apples. The machaira was, as BDAG (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament) defines it, “a relatively short sword or other instrument, sword, dagger,” which is most commonly referenced in the New Testament as an instrument for killing (e.g., Mark 14:43; Luke 21:24; Acts 12:2; 16:27; Heb. 11:37; Rev. 13:10).
Although the specific purpose of the sword is not stated, the implication seems clear: the disciples should be prepared for their ministry as they are once again sent out following Jesus’ death and resurrection, whether with money (“money bag”), provisions (“knapsack”), or means of defense (“sword”). Though the book of Acts records no specific incidents in which they actually used swords in self-defense, they were to be prepared for such exigencies. As I. Howard Marshall comments, “The saying brings out the extreme plight of the disciples. A garment for wear at night was an utter necessity; to give it up for a sword implies that dire circumstances are at hand.”
Despite the force of the context and the parallel, non-metaphorical instructions to take money and provisions, many commentators insist that the statement regarding the sword must be taken metaphorically. This appears to be based not on the context, but on a prior commitment to a pacifist position. Among the major commentators who choose this option, none gives a substantive defense beyond a statement of pacifism.
At times the argument becomes a diatribe filled with loaded, emotional terms that take the place of evidence. David Garland is perhaps the most extreme example of this. He portrays the interpretation of Jesus’ statement about taking two swords to be a choice between a metaphorical statement that the disciples “will need every resource they have” (except, of course, a sword!) and those who would “live by the sword” and “become expert in war,” of whom “it is laughable to think Jesus pronounces them combat ready” with two swords, who are “armed to the teeth…in case God lets them down” as they are “engaged in an arms race and counterviolence…via strong-arm tactics…with brass knuckles.” Such purple prose will sway anyone who thinks the choice is between pacifism and militarism, but that is a false dichotomy.
Certainly Jesus is not advocating violence or a pugnacious approach to ministry. An alternate understanding fits the context and social setting and makes much better sense of the text: Jesus may well be preparing His followers to travel some dangerous roads as they carry the gospel message across the Roman Empire. In doing so, Christians have just as much right to defend themselves against highway robbers as anyone else. As John Nolland puts it, “The sword is thought of as part of the equipment required for self-sufficiency of any traveler in the Roman world. Nothing more than protection of one’s person is in view.” This is not a covert, violence-oriented mission, but one that assumes the right to protect oneself if violently assaulted.
The disciples apparently understood the need for these items, since they promptly produced two such weapons (v. 38) without the need first to go and sell a cloak to buy them. Carrying a defensive weapon was not a new concept to these men. Jesus does not rebuke them for having these swords, but He does indicate that two were apparently adequate for the group of twelve (“It is enough,” v. 38b); not everyone need be armed, but some should be.
It is sometimes objected that later that night when Jesus’ disciples offered to put their swords into play and Peter drew his sword and clipped off an ear, they were rebuked by Jesus (Luke 22:49–51). The conclusion is drawn that Jesus was now forbidding self-defense. The point is poorly taken.
First, interpreters should not assume that Jesus is so fickle as to have changed His mind about the utility of carrying a sword within the space of a few hours. He did not tell Peter to get rid of his sword, but to put it back in its place (i.e., keep it).
Second, the specific context is Jesus’ imminent substitutionary death in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and God’s plan—something that Jesus had just indicated to them during the earlier discussion about swords (Luke 22:37) and of which He subsequently reminded them (Matt. 26:53, 54). Jesus never intended that His disciples defend Him with swords from going to the cross. It was a necessary part of redemption. This particular case, however, says nothing about the original point of their being adequately prepared for their coming ministry.
Third, that Jesus’ destiny to die for the sins of the world involved passively accepting the awful events about to unfold says nothing about the experience of His followers, whose deaths would not be redemptive for others. Theoretically, were Jesus to have chosen to escape death, God’s salvific plan would have failed. The same cannot be said of the disciples. If they fled persecution (as they did in Acts 8), the gospel would be spread elsewhere. Were they to defend themselves against violent aggressors, they would be able to continue sharing the gospel.
Fourth, even the seemingly broad statement about drawing and dying by the sword does not relate to the purpose for which Jesus instructed them to obtain a sword. Yes, those who would live this way, drawing a sword unnecessarily, must be prepared to die by the sword. Peter had been unwise in this regard, thinking he was defending his Lord against aggression, yet all the while contravening God’s purpose. Initiating violence is not condoned. Those who do so risk the loss of their lives if they attack someone else similarly armed; that is the point of Jesus’ statement. Defending oneself against life-threatening aggression is not in view here.
Much of the discussion regarding the Christian and self-defense is couched in negative terms by those opposed to the use of force. That is, the positive argument for such action is countered by proposing general principles that are thought to oppose it. Several common objections are given along this line. Some appeal to the prohibition, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13, KJV). Were this a blanket prohibition of all killing, the argument would have force, but the intent is clearly to prohibit murder, since other killing is explicitly commanded by God (e.g., Gen. 9:6; Exod. 21:12–17, 28–32). The New Testament command to “love your neighbor” (Matt. 22:36–40) is sometimes cited as if this precluded any form of self-defense. But which is the more loving act? To defend one’s family (or any group of people) by killing a depraved person intent on killing the entire group? Or by “loving” the aggressor and allowing him to kill unchecked, thus taking the lives of many others? No, in these cases the most loving thing to do is to stop the attack by any means possible or necessary, even if that means taking the perpetrator’s life.
In connection with His statement of the Golden Rule, Jesus commands His followers, “I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39). Though the particulars can be read one of two ways (this is either a backhanded slap or a left-handed slap, in either case a calculated insult), this is not a matter of self-defense. One’s life is not in danger. In such situations Jesus tells us not to retaliate. Interestingly, in the only instance of this recorded in the Gospels (John 18:22, 23), Jesus is slapped, and He rebukes the one who struck Him rather than turning the other cheek! That would seem to imply that this is not an all-inclusive statement that covers every possible scenario. Turning the cheek is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. No statement is made here as to the appropriate response to life-threatening aggression.
Romans 12:17–21 is also sometimes used to justify a pacifist position:
Repay no one evil for evil…. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The assumption appears to be that self-defense is evil; thus if one is violently attacked and he defends himself, he has repaid the evildoer with evil. That assumes, however, that all self-defense is, indeed, evil. If, however, God allows the defense of life, the argument is facile. This passage does not address legitimate self-defense, but revenge and repayment. That is quite different from defending one’s life. God promises to handle the punishment end of such situations and has ordained human government as part of the means toward that end (Rom. 13:1–7). To live peaceably with others is certainly commanded “as much as depends on you,” but it does not always work that way. At times an aggressor intrudes his evil intent into another’s life in such a way that peace is not possible. It may at times be possible to minister to an “enemy” by feeding him or giving him a drink to show him the love of Christ, but that is not feasible when he has a knife at your throat—or the throat of your spouse.
In summary, the explicit Biblical warrant noted thus far includes one specific text in the law that allowed for self-defense against an intruder in a home invasion and a New Testament text that appears to justify believers carrying defensive weapons. The two texts together seem to warrant the conclusion that New Testament principles have not contravened the principle of self-defense found in the law, but have rather validated it for the post-law period. Other texts considered were either not relevant or taught principles quite different from pacifist concerns often based on them.
(Part 3 will conclude by examining our present-day setting, practical concerns, theology and ethics)
Rodney J. Decker (ThD, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) was professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary, a member of Northmoreland Baptist Church, Tunkhannock, PA, and author of many books and articles. He went to be with the Lord in 2014.