Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. 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...” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough,” he replied. Luke 22:35-38
Jesus has just celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples. He will shortly go with them to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will bow before his heavenly Father in an agony of prayer. Then will come his arrest in the garden, his abandonment by his disciples, his betrayal by Simon Peter, and his lonely trial and terrible crucifixion.
But before he heads off to Gethsemane, he needs to make various things clear to the twelve. One of them is about how they need to be equipped for their mission after he has gone from them.
And so we get this strange conversation (a conversation which Luke alone has preserved for us). In essence, Jesus tells his friends that one phase of their ministry has gone for ever, and that they must now approach that ministry in a new way - even to the extent of equipping themselves with swords. “But now...” are the key words.
Two big questions stand out.
1. What has changed to require such a dramatically different approach?
When Jesus first sent the disciples out to preach the kingdom of God he told them not to trouble themselves with luggage or with plenty of cash (see Luke 9:1-6). Everywhere they went, they would be provided for. Yes, there would be hostility and danger. But there would also be people who welcomed them, giving them a bed for the night and food in their stomachs. Relatively speaking, they would have an easy ride. And it would be only for quite a short period anyway.
But now, all that is about to change. They will be the followers of a condemned and crucified master, not of one respected and admired. And so they must expect that same animosity to be directed at them. So now, he says, take your purse! take your baggage! And if you are able to get hold of a sword, well, do that too. Get tooled up!
How might this apply to us today? The simplest answer is that most of the church, two thousand years later, is in a similar position to the disciples after the crucifixion. We too minister in a hostile world, not a welcoming one. And so we need to be clear-headed and practical, as well as deeply spiritual. Even in those easier, early days for the disciples, they were told to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). How much more now!
Shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves... it’s a tricky balance to achieve. But if you look at Christian people you love and respect, I think you will find that this is one of their hallmarks. Pray that it will become more and more one of yours.
In a word, times change. And while God’s word is unchanging, God’s people need to learn how to adapt themselves to new circumstances.
2. Did Jesus really want his disciples to equip themselves with swords?
I suppose it’s just possible that Jesus was giving them permission to defend themselves in dangerous situations.
But it seems to go against the whole tenor of his teaching: love your enemies, pray for those who abuse you, turn the other cheek to those who insult and attack you.
Indeed, it’s worth noticing that just a few verses later in this same chapter we get the story of Jesus rebuking the disciple who drew his sword and injured the servant of the high-priest. (John 18 tells us that it was in fact Simon Peter, and that Jesus plainly told him “Put your sword away!”)
We have to conclude, I think, that when Jesus told his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords, this was a vivid figure of speech, a way of underlining the need to be on the alert in every practical way as they went out to carry out Jesus’ great commission. The gospels as a whole show us that Jesus was fond of striking and even quite disturbing figures of speech - you only have to think of his command to “gouge out your eye” or “cut off your hand” if they lead you into sin (Matthew 5:29-30).
If this is so, it means that when the disciples triumphantly produced two swords, and Jesus said “That’s enough”, he wasn’t saying “Fine, that should do it.” No, he was saying, sadly and wearily, “Let’s drop it - you obviously haven’t understood.”
I wonder how often he feels that way about our shallow understanding of his truth?
Lord Jesus, in this troubled and puzzling world, help me to be as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove. And, by your Spirit, please help me to understand your words aright. Amen.