Not many years before Christ was born, the Roman poet Virgil died. In the decade preceding his death, Virgil was writing the Aeneid, a poem that has been called the national epic of the Roman empire. In the second half of the epic, Virgil brings his skill as storyteller to the subject of anger, revenge, violence, and bloody warfare.
In a visionary book that explores the limits of violence and war, and skillfully shows the benefits of peaceful change, the late Jonathan Schell puts his finger into history at the time of Virgil and Christ to write about two coexisting yet conflicting traditions. One is worldly and violent, Schell writes. It is “a system, at its best, of standing up for principle with force, right with might; at its worst, of plunder, exploitation, and massacre.” This tradition, Schell notes, was exemplified by Virgil in the Aeneid, whose opening words set the stage: “Of arms, and the man I sing.”
Not long after Virgil was writing “Of arms, and the man I sing,” Jesus, Shell writes, was speaking words that would become much better known: “Put up thy sword, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” And “it was in the heat and fury of [a] bloody altercation, not from the quiet of a philosopher’s study,” that Jesus said this. Jesus, Schell continues, “sang of the man without arms,” and since then “the two conflicting traditions – one sanctioning violence, the other forbidding it – have coexisted,” each retaining its power in spite of the other. But, he concludes, “Force can only lead to more force, not to peace. Only a turn to structures of cooperative power can offer hope” (The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People).
I was disturbingly reminded of the diametric tug of these two perennial traditions upon the human heart when I watched a recent television interview of Christian author and speaker Rick Joyner. For those unfamiliar with the name, Rick Joyner founded MorningStar Ministries in 1985 and became fairly well known within charismatic Christian circles for his books and for teaching about his many dreams and visions, which he claimed were prophetic. In 2004, MorningStar purchased part of the former Heritage USA complex, once owned by Jim Bakker and PTL, in North Carolina. Bakker and Joyner have been close friends for decades and it was Bakker’s interview of Joyner that I listened to.
The interview aired on September 11, 2020, on “The Jim Bakker Show” and ran for nearly an hour, slowly developing from much mutual back-patting to this question from Baker: “Where are we in the prophetic time line?” What follows is a long and disturbing conversation in which Joyner mentions a dream he had in 2018 about what he calls a “civil war” being fought in the streets of American cities.
As the interview progresses, Joyner sounds more closely allied with Virgil’s violent warrior Aeneas than with the gospel’s peaceable Jesus. Joyner asserts that America is now in that civil war and that followers of Jesus take up arms and fight in it. Although Joyner briefly mentions that he “hates to say this,” and that “some people don’t even want to comprehend” it, any fellow feeling meant dissipates before his contention that followers of Jesus get out their guns and join together in what he calls “good” militias to fight bloody battles in the streets of their cities against American citizens whom he identifies as “the bad people.”
One cannot listen to the second half of the interview and conclude anything other than that Joyner is talking about followers of Jesus getting their guns and participating in a violent civil war. That is the plain message, which Joyner loads with comments such as: “we’re already into it”; “we’re gonna have to fight for what we believe”; “it’s time to choose sides”; “we’ve gotta fight to win.”
Joyner’s battle cry to Christians is not compelling. There are many reasons why, more than can reasonably be assembled here, including the dubious, if not flawed, enlistment of biblical texts to support the call to arms.
But one particular text must be discussed, Luke 22:35-38. It is a brief word from Jesus to his closest followers about forsaking the violence of swordplay and instead follow the gospel’s way of self-sacrificial love of others, including enemies. Strangely, Joyner flips this word about non-violent resistance around to mean the opposite of what Jesus meant. He lifts Jesus’ comment about a sword out of its context to justify today’s followers of Jesus heading out into the streets to fight a literal civil war in American cities. I want us to spend some time with that text here, as its meaning cannot be quickly understood. But when understood in both its immediate and larger contexts, Jesus’ words actually undermine the entire call to arms.
In the interest of full disclosure I should perhaps first say that I am offering this critical analysis of Joyner’s interpretation of the Luke text as someone who in principle is not opposed to what the New Testament identifies as the gift of prophecy, which, being part of “the way of love,” is meant to be spoken to people “for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort,” or, in short, for edifying the church (1 Corinthians 14:1-4).
I spent most the first fifteen years of my new life as a Christian in charismatic fellowships where, blessedly, mature expressions of the gifts of Spirit were operative, including that of prophecy. If someone stepped out of line, the leadership appropriately addressed the situation. I personally benefited from this learning curve. Although I was eventually called to serve (so-called) non-charismatic congregations, I greatly enjoy, and benefit from, being invited since then to teach or preach in charismatic fellowships, where I try to minister among them as best I can in the way of love, for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. (For the record, I am not a fan of the word “non-charismatic” applied to churches.)
If memory serves, I became acquainted with Joyner through two of his books in the mid-1980s, when I was still active full time within the charismatic tradition. (I don’t recall those books as objectionable in any fundamental sense within what I understood as charismatic theology.) In 1990, however, Joyner’s name and ministry dropped off my radar. Until recently.
Now let’s get down to business. Here is a typical translation of Luke 22:35-38:
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. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That is enough!” he replied.
During the interview with Bakker, Joyner places Jesus’ comment about the sword in the service of motivating today’s Christians to fight in a literal civil war in American cities. Joyner offers no explanation why he believes in this equivalency, which he makes when talking about followers of Jesus forming “good” militias and heading out into the streets to kill the bad guys. “We need to recognize the times, be prepared for them,” he explains, while confessing to viewers his worry that “God’s people” won’t become “part of the militia movements, the good militia” to fight the “bad people.” And then this: “Jesus himself said there’s gonna be a time when you need to sell your coat and buy a sword. That was a physical weapon of their day. And we’re in that time here. We need to realize that.”
Bakker makes not a peep of protest to what Joyner is saying. Nevertheless, prophecies and interpretations of dreams and visions presented to the body of Christ as authoritative have to be tested, examined to determine if they are credible, authentic, or morally acceptable. After careful consideration of the Luke text, I believe that Joyner’s contention fails the test.
Jesus’ meaning about the sword, when considered in both its immediate and larger contexts, cannot be interpreted as call to arms but instead undermines that call. Here’s why.
The immediate context is the Last Supper, where only Jesus’ twelve closest followers were assembled with him. The larger context is the three-year unconditional witness of Jesus’ life and ministry on the hillsides and in the towns of Galilee and Judea among countless amounts of people. During those exceptional years on the road with Jesus, the Twelve had witnessed Jesus countless times personally and intentionally modeling acts of self-sacrificial love of others, including of enemies. That is who Jesus is; his ministry is one with that. In all sorts of relational encounters – whether someone needed counsel, or healing, or was up a tree – Jesus graced the lives of others with all sorts of various and diverse good. Day in and day out, the Twelve not only saw the beneficial effects of Jesus’ agape on others, they even a hand at times in making it so.
But something else essential was also taking place. It wasn’t only through his acts of compassion that Jesus sought to instill his normative practice of self-sacrificial love of others into the lives of the Twelve. It was also through his teaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount, which, arguably, can be understood as the Constitution for his followers to live by. Their having been diligently taught for years by their Rabbi, whose acts cannot be separated from what he taught, you can be forgiven for assuming that the practice of self-sacrificial love of others would have by the time of the Last Supper become normative ministry for the Twelve. But the text in Luke reveals that a strong pull to take up arms against others swayed them.
The Gospels reveal that in the weeks leading up to the Last Supper, Jesus knew he would soon be enduring a violent religious and political opposition that would put him to death, crucified as the archetypal act of self-sacrificial love. He also knows he is not going to resist it with arms; he even refuses to command a legion of angels to fight for him (Matthew 26:53). With that understanding, try to enter the sights and sounds of the Last Supper.
All kinds of conversations and activities are going on among the thirteen men, who have gathered privately to remember the Passover, a ritual meal that takes several hours. Jesus knows his arrest and violent death is imminent and that this would be their final meal together. In what has been called his final discourse, he many words of comfort and instruction for the Twelve and a prayer with them (John 14-17). Yet at some point during those hours of communion in that room, Jesus detects a rising attitude of violence among the Twelve that needs to be addressed. So he brings up the subject of their purses, bags, sandals, and swords. He is, in effect, wanting them to know that although things are going to be different now, his message is not changing. It is still the gospel of peace. The good news. And they are to preach it and live it after he is gone.
Why, then, was Jesus telling them to go buy a sword? The answer is, he wasn’t. The Luke text intends for us to understand that no one at the Last Supper slipped out of the room to buy a sword. They did not need to. Two of the Twelve had arrived carrying swords: Lord, we’ve got two swords right here, they tell Jesus, no need to go buy any. As if he hadn’t noticed. Of course Jesus saw their weapons. If you have dinner guests over and two of them are packing, you may not notice that, but you’re sure going to notice if they arrive armed with swords.
What’s with the sword comment, then? The answer will emerge from clues in a few other scenes during this period. One is found in John’s Gospel, which describes a scene during Jesus’ arrest that identifies the bluntly outspoken Simon Peter as one of the two with a sword (John 18:1-11). The personal identification seems more than coincidental. Not many days before the Last Supper, Jesus had revealed to the Twelve, in plain language, that he was going to get arrested, suffer, and die. Hearing that, (Simon) Peter tried to talk Jesus out of going the way of the Cross. For having that attitude, however, Peter got rebuked by Jesus in no uncertain terms. Then Jesus immediately added: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:21-25). Yet again, Jesus was seeking to instill in his followers a heart attitude of self-sacrificial love toward others, including enemies.
Did Peter take the hint? Apparently not. The arrest scene described in John’s Gospel implies that Peter arrived at the Last Supper armed with a sword. Maybe he regularly carried that weapon. Maybe he was carrying it the day he rebuked Jesus for wanting to go the way of the Cross. The Gospels are silent on these matters.
Another clue to Jesus’ meaning about the sword is found in Matthew’s Gospel in a scene described after the Passover meal. Jesus takes his inner circle to the Mount of Olives, where he again explains that he is soon to die. This time, Peter does not try to talk Jesus our of going to the Cross. In stead, he declares that he won’t desert Jesus; he will go to prison and die with him, and “all the other disciples said the same” thing (26:35).
How Jesus understood that agreement among his inner circle is an important clue. Under Roman law there would be no legal reason for Peter, or any of the Twelve, to be in jeopardy of prison or death unless they broke the law, which they would have done had they brandished weapons and fought against the Roman authorities who were coming to arrest Jesus. Yet the night of the Last Supper, the Twelve were being motivated by a spirit of violence. Locked and loaded and ready to fight the bad guys, the entire inner circle (now sans Judas) was intent on becoming a band of street fighting men for Jesus, a militia.
In other words, the weapons had not been carried in to the Last Supper or to the arrest symbolically. They had been given a literal meaning by the entire inner circle. They will take up arms to defend Jesus. Is it difficult to imagine how troubled Jesus must have been by that attitude? He does not want them to get arrested, tried, and executed for acts of violence. But they are intent on that. If they succeed, end of them, end of story. No Book of Acts. What must Jesus he have been thinking and feeling – with the entire group – after he had dedicated three years of his life to teaching and training them to have a heart to practice the peaceful way of the gospel?
This is their final meal together. He is going away. They are going to carry his message of self-sacrificing love of others forward, out into the world of violent hearts and minds. Or are they? Jesus sees a spirit of armed resistance animating the Twelve, in conflict with the message of the Cross. What the heck? They’ve brought swords and mean to use them. They’re going to try to prevent my arrest by fighting for me. What’s up with these guys? What’s going to happen to my message of love of others, love of enemies? Why do I even bother?
“They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to he deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’”
Gethsemane, in the Aramaic language, means “oil press.” Jesus has gone there to pray about what lay just ahead for him; that imminent future is being clarified to him through the agony he endures in that garden. In Mark’s description, the three English words “deeply distressed,” “troubled,” and “overwhelmed” soften for us the unbelievable weight of Calvary that is being clarified to the Suffering Servant. A more accurate and piercing rendering of the Greek would be: “aghast,” “depressed,” and “grief-stricken.”
It is not a leap of faith to read the Luke text within the likely understanding that Jesus is deeply troubled when his inner circle wants to take up arms to defend him. His brief words to them, then, about a purse, bag, sandals, and a sword may be heard not as a call to lock and load but as a frustrated cry of grim humor perhaps, or something along the lines of a heavily ironical parable about non-violence. But they don’t get it. And they produce swords to prove it.
It is not difficult to see why the inner circle gave a literal meaning to the weapons. They had absorbed that meaning since childhood. By the time they reached adulthood it had become a given in their worldviews. All around them, for all their lives, they see Roman legionnaires carrying a gladius (short sword), a pilum (six-and-a-half-foot javelin), and sometimes a pugio (dagger). How often any of the Twelve saw these weapons used in violence, your guess is as good as mine. What does not need guessing is that the sight of these weapons on a regular basis was inescapable to anyone who lived in the Roman empire, and that since childhood everyone knew what the weapons were for. Jesus alludes to that widespread understanding in an arrest scene described in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?”
What other meaning can there be to the swords carried by his followers? I offer that in the Luke text Jesus, through grim irony, gives the weapons another meaning. Consistent with his message of the gospel of peace he eschews the literal meaning and instead gives the swords a symbolic meaning: the violence in heart that objects to following his practice of self-sacrificing love of others. That agape toward others, including is enemies, is about to be emphatically demonstrated by Jesus in the sacrificial meaning of his death. Yet his intimates have decided to move in the opposite spirit. Deeply troubled, Jesus bursts out, “I’ve had enough of this! Let’s go!”
Although that is not how any translation I’m familiar with captures the meaning of the Luke text, at least two paraphrases get it. Personally I am not partial to paraphrases, at least not for serious study of biblical texts. But I do enjoy the occasional fresh insight that can be derived from their language, and even the occasional gem, such as about our Luke text.
Then he said to all of them, “When I sent you out empty-handed, did you lack anything?”
“Not a thing,” they answered. “God provided all we needed.”
Jesus said, “But now I say to you: Take what you need. If you have money, take it—and a knapsack and a sword. Danger is imminent. For the prophetic Scripture about me ‘He will be accused of being a criminal’ will now come to pass. All that was prophesied of me will be fulfilled.”
The disciples told him, “Lord, we already have two swords!”
“You still don’t understand,” Jesus responded.
Then Jesus said, “When I sent you out and told you to travel light, to take only the bare necessities, did you get along all right?”
“Certainly,” they said, “we got along just fine.”
He said, “This is different. Get ready for trouble. Look to what you’ll need; there are difficult times ahead. Pawn your coat and get a sword. What was written in Scripture, ‘He was lumped in with the criminals,’ gets its final meaning in me. Everything written about me is now coming to a conclusion.”
They said, “Look, Master, two swords!”
But he said, “Enough of that; no more sword talk!”
Why no more sword talk! What don’t they understand? They having gotten it through their thick heads that the way of the gospel is absolutely not the way of violence. Yet even during the heat and fury of his arrest Jesus has a last go at changing their hearts. When a band of Roman soldiers and Jewish religious officials come to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. To that violent act Jesus immediately responds with a twofold action whose meaning could not be clearer: the sharp rebuke to Peter – “Put up your sword, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” – and the healing of the servant’s ear (Matthew 26:52; John 18:10-11; Luke 22:49-51). Jesus is literally acting out the symbolic meaning have gave to the swords at the Last Supper.
That was not the only time Jesus laid a stern rebuke on members of the Twelve for being motivated by a violent spirit. Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, the brothers James and John (the Sons of Thunder) cited an incident from the ministry of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:12) to try to justify calling fire down from heaven to destroy an entire village. The error of James and John is as subtle as it is profound. They knew their Bible but they drew the wrong conclusion from the Elijah incident. Jesus “rebuked them and said, ‘You know not what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man [has] not come to destroy lives but to save them’” (Luke 9:51-56).
There is this also. In our Luke 22 text, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12: “And he was numbered with the transgressors,” which Jesus explains, “must be fulfilled in me.” Christians understand Jesus’ execution on a Roman cross as signaling the public disgrace and horror associated with criminals, the lawless, transgressors of the law. In the ironic humor of Jesus’ reference to the purse, bag, sandals, and sword, we may also be hearing him indicate that the Twelve, by their very attitude to the swords at the Last Supper, are numbered among the transgressors (see 5:3-12, 21-22, 38-48).
Isaiah chapter 53 also indicates that Jesus is the suffering not the military servant. Sure, followers of Jesus may and do face violent opposition. If that hour arrives it is the time for them to come boldly before the Throne of Grace for divine help in their time of need, to cry out for the grace of sacrificial love toward others, include toward enemies, real or imagined.
Things are going to be different, now, Jesus is in effect saying in the Luke text. Times are changing. But my message to you to love others is not changing, even when you are threatened with violent religious or political opposition. You have not been called to take up arms but to open arms of love toward others, including to enemies. I have come into the world not to add violence to violence but show you through the peaceable gospel the way to subtract violence from the world.
Jesus’ followers eventually got the message. Authentic love toward others became the unconditional witness of his followers who received the Holy Spirit after his death and resurrection. There is no place in the Book of Acts, or in any of the other Epistles, where Jesus’ followers carried swords (never mind used them to slice someone up).
From our close look at the Luke text in context, it is safe to assume that Jesus’ comment about buying a sword was not in the end taken by his closest followers, or their followers, or the early church, as part of their marching orders, even in the face of violent political or religious opposition. Even the apostle Paul’s appeal (as Roman citizen) to the state – to be taken to Rome to stand trial before Caesar – eventually leads to his execution.
The early church faithfully communed with, practiced, the meaning and message of the Last Supper after Jesus was gone and the Holy Spirit – who testifies about Jesus (John 15:26) – took up residence in their hearts. Jesus’ self-sacrificing way, agape, became their normative witness to the world, even for the zealots among them.
We may not realize it, but every time we partake of Communion we are agreeing to intentionally incarnate that self-sacrificing love, including of enemies, in our daily lives. Whatever a church chooses to call it – the Last Supper, the Lord’s Table, the Eucharist, the Breaking of the Bread, Communion – at the heart of each person’s reception is an assent to commune every day with, to practice, the grace-giving life of self-sacrificing agape toward others. Will we not be judged as bearing false witness to Christ’s love if we if we take Communion one day and take up arms the next? What in the hell are we thinking, church of Christ?
There is another sword spoken of in the New Testament. It is not the sword of a violent, murderous world. It is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17), which we are called to study and rightly divide (2 Timothy 2:15). And “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Here are admonitions to let the word of God search our hearts and open them in an utterly personal way to God’s refining fire, including to how we interpret meaning of Luke 22:35-38 in the heat and fury of our national moment.
Today, choosing between the two perennial traditions – the one violent, the other forbidding it – is being placed before us. As followers of Jesus, will we walk humbly in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit into the pages of our own Book of Acts? Or will we take up arms to participate in the kind of violence that killed our Lord?
Top photo: Sword sculpture photo by Andrea Brizzi. Lower photo: Grunewald’s-Isenheim Altarpiece. Star flower and two paths images courtesy of Creative Commons.
©2020 by Charles Strohmer