Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
John 18:10 – 11
And when those who were around Him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.
Luke 22:49 – 51
And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
Matthew 26:51 – 54
Two Swords and the Apostles
Every gospel gives account that one of the apostles, identified as Peter in the gospel of John, attacks with a sword one of those who comes to seize Jesus. Each account save one also records Jesus rebuking Peter for his actions, and two record Jesus healing Peter’s victim. Here, Peter is fulfilling his promise from Matthew 26:35, expressing his willingness to die beside Jesus; but the problem is that Peter isn’t really willing to die for Christ here. He’s willing to kill, which is something far different.
In Luke 22:35 – 38, Jesus tells his apostles that a time will come where they will want to gather supplies, collect their savings, and arm themselves. He says this in contrast to how they had previously gone to evangelize Jesus with no defenses or supplies. At that time, they trusted in Jesus. Here, He foretells that they will lose their trust in Him and again trust in the things of this world. This would come true that very night.
After Jesus says these things to them, the apostles point out two swords, to which Jesus replies, “It is enough,” or, “That’s enough!” depending on translation. There are a lot of takes on what Jesus means here; whether He approves of them taking the swords, or He says it sarcastically since two swords would clearly not be enough for all of them, or it is an expression that the matter is closed. I lean toward the latter, for it seems that this is yet another occasion where Jesus is trying to show them something deeper about events to come, and they just don’t get it.
The Sword in the Garden
However Jesus meant this final phrase before departing for the garden, at least one of those swords come along, carried by Peter. Peter carries the sword; unsheathes the sword; uses the sword; and Jesus rebukes him for it. John and Luke record very short reprimands, basically telling Peter to stand down and let Jesus fulfill prophecy. Matthew contains a longer rebuke, with Jesus telling Peter that those who live by the sword shall also die by it, and that He is more than capable of calling down legions of angels to defend Him if He really needed it.
The second century theologian Tertullian had this to say about the account:
For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.
Tertullian asserts (rightly, I believe) that Jesus’s words to Peter affect us all; that, like Peter, we are also to lay down violence as a tool and choose a different way. Peter brought a sword into the garden so that Jesus could teach him, and us through him, what it is to reject violence as a method of defending Christ or His kingdom.
But the Conquest of Canaan…
How do we reconcile this with the bloodshed of the Old Testament? God established Israel by force; He defended Israel by force; and, when necessary, He punished Israel by force. David, a man after God’s own heart, slew numerous enemies (yet, according to I Chronicles 28:3, David would not build the temple because of the blood on his hands). So how does God defending His kingdom by physical violence in the Old Testament translate to the new kingdom of the church being nonviolent in nature?
Several months ago, I wrote about the different laws contained in the Bible, how each is separate and distinct, and how keeping a statement or command in the context of the covenant in which it was given is important to harmonizing and understanding God’s word. Without rehashing that whole post here, I believe the differences between the Old Testament and New are intentional, and they show us a better way.
Hebrews 8:3 – 7 says this about the transition from old to new:
Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant He mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
The Hebrew writer calls the Old Covenant a “shadow of the heavenly things.” It’s not the reality; it’s a representation of reality. Christ is the reality, and He brings us a better way. He oversees a kingdom, not defined by geopolitical borders, ethnicity, or economics; rather His kingdom is a boundless spiritual kingdom. That means our warfare is not physical but instead spiritual.
Take Up a Spiritual Sword
Paul explains our conflict this way in Ephesians 6:12:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
He goes from here to describe the armor and defenses of God, and one of these defenses is indeed a sword. He calls it the Sword of the Spirit, which he defines as God’s word. That is our defense in our spiritual battles; that is where we place our trust rather than in physical weapons and strength. This is the lesson the apostles had a hard time comprehending, and this is where Peter failed in the garden. He trusted more in his sword than he did in God’s plan.
We need to learn the lesson of Peter. Christ’s church is not here to wage wars against other peoples. It is not here to be a superpower. It is not here to conquer lands. Instead, we are to wage war against sin and the death it brings; we are lifted up when we humble ourselves; and we conquer hearts and minds with the sword of truth. We do not take prisoners. Rather, we convert souls. As God’s people, we need to stop giving in to the allure of physical power and the violence it brings. Instead, we should lay down our swords and completely give our trust over to the Prince of Peace.
Yes, we should be willing to die for Christ, but we should never be willing to kill. The only death a Christian should be responsible for is death to self so that Christ can live in us.