Pacifists’ second “proof text” is Jesus’ comment upon Peter cutting off Malchus’ ear. “…Put your sword back into its place, for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Matt. 26:52. Once again, we must never take a verse out of context to prove a point. The context of Jesus’ statement clearly shows that He did not mean that Christians should not bear and use weapons. So we must study all four gospel accounts of what Jesus said at the last supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane to understand his command to Peter. I can’t lay all this out in this short article, but you can study it in detail in my book, A Time to Kill: The Myth of Christian Pacifism.
First, Jesus announced at the Last Supper that His sacrificial death was at hand. In the conversations surrounding that announcement, He told them that He was leaving them in a tough world. Mark 14:22-28. Up to the point that Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples were under Jesus’ divine protection. John 17:12. Luke 22:35-38 tells us of Jesus’ new command. Jesus previously had told them to take nothing with them on missions. Now, though, He instructs them to take their wallets, their backpacks for clothes and food, and a sword each! He told them that a sword was so necessary, that they should sell their most valuable personal possession, their outer coats, and buy a sword. (See, Ex. 22:26-27 for the importance of a cloak.) When they said they had two swords, Jesus stopped the conversation because the swords were for use after He ascended into heaven. Notice that a sword is the only thing that Jesus ever orders us to buy (and to sacrifice any valued possessions in order to get). If Jesus was a pacifist, don’t you think that the moment they said they had two swords, He would have ordered them to get rid of them? He certainly would not have commanded them to go buy one!
What would Jesus’ apostles need swords for? In 2 Corinthians 11:24, 26, Paul tells us that he had often been in danger of death on his missionary trips: from robbers, from Jews who hated him for his conversion, likewise from non-believers who hated him for turning people against their false gods, dangers in cities and the countryside (felons and wild animals), and from traitorous, false Christians. In all these situations the apostles would have found weapons useful and necessary.
Jesus said we are not to be naïve about the world. Matt. 10: 16. Christians did not try to fight Rome, because it was the legitimate government. But it was also a losing proposition. When Romans defeated rebels, Tacitus said, “They make a desert and call it ‘Peace’.” (They wiped out whole populations.) Yet even the worst persecutions of Christians were mainly regional. They could hide among sympathetic pagan locals, or flee to another part of the Empire. The earliest Christians fled Jerusalem to escape persecution. Acts 8: 1-2. Paul fled to escape martyrdom. Acts 14:1-7, 17:13-15, 19:19-25. Jesus told us to flee persecution. Matt. 10:23.
Jesus’ main concern in the Garden where He was arrested was to be willing sacrifice in order to fulfill Scripture. Jn. 18:11; Is. 53:7; Zech. 13:7. If the disciples fought, He could not fulfill His prophesied role. He knew everything that would happen that night. Matt. 26: 54-56; Jn. 18:4. The posse was already terrified of Him. When He identified Himself, they fell down terrified that He would zap them with lightning! Jn. 18:6; 2 Ki. 1:1-15. Thus He didn’t need to fight. He told Peter that if He’d wanted, He could have called 72,000 angels as backup. Matt. 26:53-54. Knowing what was coming, Jesus wasn’t surprised that Peter had a sword. Peter’s use of a sword in the garden was an impediment to Jesus’ goals that night. We know that though Peter asked for permission to strike, he didn’t wait for it. Lu. 22:49-51. Peter didn’t even go after Judas, but an innocent bystander! Jesus ordered Peter to stop, then healed Malchus’ ear. Then, did “Jesus The Pacifist” order Peter to throw his sword away, break it, or pawn it and swallow the ticket? No! He told him to RE-HOLSTER it, until the proper time and a justifiable use! Matt. 26:52; Jn. 18:11.
It was then that Jesus told Peter “…for all those that take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Matt. 26:52. So what did Jesus mean? Did He ask about swords at the Last Supper so He could set Peter up for a blunder in order to preach pacifism? Absolutely not! Jesus didn’t work that way. He doesn’t order us to do something just to pull the rug out from under us to “teach us a lesson.” When Jesus talked of needing swords, He was clearly talking about AFTER He ascended, NOT before! They had specifically come to the Garden to PRAY! As we saw in last week’s article, Jesus endorsed self-defense, and passed up every opportunity He had to preach pacifism.
So what did Jesus mean? First, Peter’s action led the skittish posse to believe all the disciples were armed, and hesitate long enough to let them flee, which fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy. Zech. 13:7. Next, Jesus was teaching us not to resist legal authority by force. Until and unless the government orders us to disobey God, we are to be good citizens. Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:1-7. Those who illegally use force against legitimate authority deserve death. No state allows a bank robber, rapist, burglar, or attempted murderer to plead self-defense “Because the cops fired first!”
Next, Jesus says that the gospel is defended by love and logic, not force. That’s why He healed Malchus’ ear, to show Peter the right attitude and action. Jesus does not endorse giving pagans the choice of “Convert or die”, as Charlemagne did. Nor would He approve the Crusades as a religious war, or the wars of the Reformation, nor the Inquisition. Finally, those who rely on brute force, war, and intimidation to achieve their earthly goals and even win arguments are doomed to failure here and in eternity. The Hitlers, Capones, and those who would persuade by violence: radical Muslims, the ANTIFA thugs, KKK, and domestic abusers are all doomed, Jesus promises. By telling Peter, “Live by the sword and you’ll die by it.”, Jesus was not condemning the use of force for legal and moral purposes, but only in those cases where we rely on force to advance our own agendas against the will of God. At the moment that criminals come at us, Jesus does not love criminals more than He loves us or our innocent families! 1 Tim. 5:8. He was never a pacifist, and He will stand by us in righteous self-defense.
photo credit: jcolman “Peace Please” sign at the peace rally and march on Washington, DC via photopin (license)