It’s easy to get distracted by the strange-sounding instructions that Jesus gives to acquire swords. But those instructions need to be set within at least the framework provided by Luke 22:31-38. In that little section we see the three principle enemies of the Christian life: the world, the flesh and the devil. What’s more, we also see the indiscriminate designs of our enemies set against the particular designs of our redeeming Lord.
English readers are prone to miss the fact that Satan’s demands are corporate. He doesn’t just demand Peter for sifting. He demands them all. The “you” of verse 31 is plural. No doubt the great deceiver had special designs on the apostolic band, and even on Peter in particular. But his demand included them all. And his desire to ‘sift’ also extends to us.
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Pet 5:8 ESV)
His hatred extends to all that God loves. Any who would bring God glory and honor is subject to his ‘sifting’.
By sifting, he means testing. The image comes from the wheat harvest. The harvested grain is piled on a threshing floor and the kernels are beaten out of the husks. Then the entire pile is ‘sifted’, thrown into the air where the wind can carry away all but the edible grains. Satan is betting that there’s nothing redeemable in the disciples. He’s betting that they will be nothing but chaff, blown away by the winds.
And didn’t they? Didn’t they all flee? And didn’t Peter’s spine turn to jelly in the face of a servant girl, so that he denied his Lord not once, but three times? How does that fact reflect on the efficacy of Jesus’ prayer? After all, while Satan’s designs were plural and indiscriminate, Jesus’ prayer is particular. The plural “you” of verse 31 becomes a singular “you” directed to Peter in verse 32. So Jesus prayed particularly for Peter, that his faith would not fail. Was our Lord told “No” by his Father?
Not at all. Let us read with care the prayer that Jesus prayed. He prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. He did not pray that Peter would not stumble. Indeed, while Jesus might have prayed that, it would have been a disaster for Peter if he had. And here we see another enemy of our walk with Christ, viz., the flesh.
Peter’s confidence did not lie in his Savior’s intercession, it lay in his own strength. He believed that his steely nerve would see him through the trials ahead. But fleshly confidence is diametrically opposed to the humble posture of even a citizen of the kingdom, let alone a leader. In other words, if Peter had actually followed Jesus to prison and to death in his own strength, he would never learn the humble dependence necessary for him to be a true leader (cf. Luke 22:24-30).
This is why God chose the weak, poor and foolish things of this world, that he might shame the strong, the rich and the wise (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). He places the treasure of the gospel and of the Spirit in weak vessels to demonstrate that all the power and all the glory are his.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor 4:7–11 ESV)
If we were to succeed in a flesh-driven effort, such ‘success’ would ultimately be failure, and of no value, either to the community or for God’s glory.
But this latter reference also sheds light on the final enemy of our walk that is addressed in this passage. While not so very long ago (Chapter 10), we saw the disciples enjoying a welcome reception from those among whom they evangelized, those days are soon to be over. And so, he instructs them to take provisions henceforth.
This is not to suggest that God would not provide for them. The whole point of sending them out empty handed in chapter 10 was to teach them to trust in the provision of God. Jesus is not unteaching that lesson with these instructions. But we ought to note that miracles attended the ministry of Christ and the apostles, but that ordinarily our sovereign God uses ordinary means. We pray for healing, but we go see a doctor. That is often the means that God uses to answer our prayers for healing. And likewise here, Jesus instructs them to be prepared for the evangelistic journey ahead, because people are not going to be so welcoming as they once were. In fact, they can expect persecution.
In this same historical context, John records these words:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:18–20 ESV)
And so they need to be prepared.
Swords for Self-defense
That preparation is to include the day’s weapon of personal protection, the sword. It is odd that most of us would regard it as prudent for a missionary to secure pledges for his support before getting on a plane. We would probably also advise him to ensure that his support includes funds for his retirement when he is no longer able to serve in the field. Yet, while we take Jesus words about a moneybag and a knapsack as prudent, we struggle against the notion that our Lord would counsel the acquisition of weapons. In just a few verses, the disciples will use a sword in defense of their Lord and be rebuked for it. And so, we reason, the sword here must be figurative. But if the moneybag and knapsack aren’t figurative, it is unlikely that the sword is.
Most who would interpret the sword literally explain Jesus’ words in v. 38 that two swords “is enough” as a Semitic idiom meaning, “drop it,” as if Jesus is frustrated by the slow wit of the apostles to pick up on the figure of speech. While no doubt the disciples were slow with this sort of thing, and while I’m not ready to dismiss the possibility of such an idiom, the fact of the matter is, our Lord just didn’t operate this way. When his disciples misunderstood him, he took time to clarify (for example, see Matthew 16:6–12). And when we remember that these are some of Jesus’ last moments with his disciples, does it seem plausible that something worthy of being said at such an important moment would not be something worthy of further explanation? I, for one, think not.
But it does raise for us the issue of when the use of such a sword would be appropriate. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is helpful here. As it explains the ten commandments, the catechism analyzes what is required by each commandment as well as what is prohibited. With regard to the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, this is what is required:
all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others. (WSC Q 68)
A world of instruction is provided there. On the one hand, self-defense is not only permissible, it is required. On the other, it is restricted by the law. And that explains why the incident with Malchus in Luke 22:49-51 doesn’t stand in conflict with a literal understanding of the sword in vv 35-38. Those who took Jesus into custody had legal authority to do so. The disciples’ use of the sword there was not lawful. Nor was it proper, since it was necessary that the Son of man go as had been determined.
One of the chief reasons that some are uncomfortable with taking Jesus’ instruction here literally is that there is a well-placed concern that the church not attempt to spread the kingdom with the sword. Unlike Islam, there is no such desire in true Christendom. The sword is not good news, and cannot be used for evangelism. But that is not what Jesus is talking about here. This entire passage is about building up and protecting the church. Satan’s desires are corporate and indiscriminate. Jesus’ intercession is particular, but it has a stated purpose:
When you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:32 ESV)
Jesus’ instructions fit this context as well. And this is, perhaps, the ever-elusive answer to how two swords is “enough.” Jesus does not have in view protection from the Roman government. Not only would two swords be insufficient for that, their use in that instance would not be a lawful endeavor to preserve life. But if what is in view is less centralized attacks, then perhaps two is enough. Not everybody in a home needs a gun for the house to be protected against intruders.
As easy as it is to get caught up in the “swords” instruction, we ought to keep the whole passage in view. There are three enemies that the Christian faces. The world is only one of them. Our own flesh and the dark forces of evil are the others. We need to be sober-minded and watchful. But we need also to take confidence in the fact that our redeemer is also our intercessor (Isa 53:12; Heb 7:25). Ultimately that is what distinguished Peter from Judas. Jesus was praying for Peter. Yes he stumbled. He needed to. His flesh had deceived him. But his faith never failed. And when he turned again, he was prepared as he never would have been, to lead others to humble themselves and take all their hope and confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ.