Jesus’ Disciples and Self-Defense

There’s a passage that comes up all the time in discussions of peace theology. (Even Lewis alluded to it in his essay against pacifism, which surprised me.)  Just before his arrest, Jesus told the disciples that now was the time to buy swords, because things were going to get rough (src).

I’ve dealt with this passage before, and suffice it to say that for a number of reasons, I don’t think it’s an example of Jesus condoning violence.

But I realized tonight while reading that other than the presence of the word sword, the burden isn’t really on the pacifist to explain why this passage doesn’t lend itself to a pacifist reading.  Because, first, there is the obvious fact that only a few verses later Peter is rebuked by Jesus for using one of the swords, with the famous dictum that “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword,” but moreover, the entire tenor of Jesus’ missional teachings and the New-Testament church  practice is against it.

Jesus missional teachings

  • Matthew 10:17-22 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues.  You will even be brought before governors and kings because of Me, to bear witness to them and to the nations. But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you should speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour, because you are not speaking, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking through you.”
  • Matthew 5:12 “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me.
  • John 15:18-20 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
  • John 16:2-3 “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.”

In sum, Jesus taught that his followers would naturally be persecuted and treated in much the same way that he was.  Specifically, Jesus did not instruct or seem to expect that his followers would combat this injustice.  No mention is made of swords, nor of resistance, nor of any kind of supernatural intervention.  In fact, Jesus taught that the Spirit would use these times to witness to the gospel, which is precisely the example we see throughout Acts and Paul’s letters.

New-Testament church practice

  • Acts 5:17-18 “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail.”
  • 1 Timothy 3:12-13 “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
  • Acts 7:54-60 “When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’  Then they screamed at the top of their voices, stopped their ears, and rushed together against him. They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They were stoning Stephen as he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” And saying this, he fell asleep.
  • Acts 16:22-23 “The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods.When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely.”
  • Philippians 1:12-14 “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.”
  • Revelation 6:9 “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had.”

In sum, the early church’s practices and teachings were consistently in line with the expectations Jesus laid out in regard to his followers’ mission and persecution.  Never do we see armed resistance, or the expectation of armed resistance.  Instead, we see persecutions, stonings, beatings, unjust imprisonment, and, most impressively, those being killed using the opportunity to preach forgiveness to their killers, through the gospel.

Basically, it seems like the New Testament letters and the Book of Acts is describing a bunch of pacifists.

So what are we left with?  No compelling argument for pacifism, surely.  But the person who wants to argue that Jesus told his followers to buy swords for their own defense in the time after the resurrection (which is a terribly flawed argument on its own terms), has to fit that view into the largely unmatching trajectory of the New Testament witness, where those swords are never seen or their absence noticed.

(Certainly, it is not acceptable to force a dichotomy into the text between unacceptable violence in defense of the gospel and acceptable violence in self-defense.  From the New Testament perspective, all of life is in service to the spreading of the gospel.)

So I have a question (perhaps a thinly veiled challenge?).  For those of you who do believe Jesus advocated the possibility of armed self-defense, how do you read the Book of Acts?  Was it an exceptional time in the church’s growth?  Or are there implicit violent undertones?  Or was violence not outlawed but simply impractical, given the low social standing of the church leaders at the time?

Conclusion:  I’m having a hard time seeing how anyone could read Acts and not conclude that they believed Jesus modeled nonviolence.


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