Untwisting Scripture: Gun control edition


November 29, 2018 by jmar198013

Untwisting Scripture is an occasional feature of this blog. In each edition, I’ll be looking at a biblical concept or passage that’s commonly misunderstood, and therefore misused and misapplied. I explain where we’ve gotten it wrong, why it matters, and how to get it right.

This edition of Untwisting Scripture focuses on a weird twist on a passage from the Last Supper I’m seeing more and more lately.

Considering I only just heard this passage used this way in the last five years [1] it’s a novel interpretation.

I have no problem with new discoveries. Since I believe the Christian scriptures are inspired by God, I don’t believe humans can ever plumb their depths completely. We will discover new things about scripture, and new ways to apply them faithfully, until Christ returns.

So my issue isn’t that this is a rather novel interpretation. My issue is that the scripture is being ripped out of context to fit an agenda.

So here’s the problem. It’s how I’ve seen certain pro-gun people–even ministers–using Luke 22.35-38. Let me explain up front, I’m not anti-gun. I’m not anti-Second Amendment. (I’m not particularly pro-gun, either–I’m not a partisan in that fight.) I’m certainly not anti-people-being-able-to-defend-their-families.

am absolutely, resolutely, unabashedly anti-irresponsible use of scripture to make a point neither God, the human author, nor anyone speaking in the text was trying to make!

So here’s the text:

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” (NRSV)

So, the way I’m seeing this text being used now goes like this: Jesus commanded us to keep weapons handy to defend ourselves.

That’s literally it. That’s the takeaway an increasing number of people get from this text.

And I know people well enough to know that no one reading this text on their own would ever reach that conclusion. Someone they trust has prompted them to read the text that way! That’s the only conclusion I can reach for more and more people coming away with such a bizarre interpretation of these verses.

Now, this text is a bit obscure on first read. But it’s not completely opaque!

And it has nothing at all to do with modern gun control debates.

First of all, whatever else this text does, it does not command Christians today to do anything. Jesus told the disciples who were with him the night he was arrested to get swords. That’s an important distinction to make. The command to buy swords was specific to those disciples that night.

Jesus no more commanded Christians today to purchase weapons in this passage than he commands us to take a donkey that doesn’t belong to us in Luke 19.29-34.

We instinctively understand that Jesus telling his disciples to commandeer a donkey was a one-time event, having to do with the fulfillment of prophecy. No one would ever dream of using that text to justify stealing farm animals now!

Well, guess what? The same goes for Luke 22.35-38! When Jesus told the disciples to get swords, it was specifically because this scripture must be fulfilled in me (Luke 22.37 NET). In other words, getting swords was necessary to fulfill a prophecy.

Before we talk about that prophecy, let’s take a deeper look at the context.

This conversation about securing swords takes place during the Last Supper. It was a tense night. Jesus knew he would be arrested in a matter of hours, and crucified the next day.

He was trying to prepare his disciples.

He had just revealed that Peter would deny him that night, but that wouldn’t be the end of Peter’s story (Luke 22.31-34). And just after our passage, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives, where he was arrested (Luke 22.39ff).

In the midst of all that turmoil, Jesus sought to reassure his disciples. They would be without him for a while. They would be scattered. But God’s grace would protect them, just as it always had.

It’s in that context that Jesus told them:

the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.

Notice, again–why did he tell them to get swords if they didn’t have them? For self-defense later on?

No. So that a prophecy about him could be fulfilled that night.

Specifically, the prophecy was: he was counted among the lawless. Other translations say among criminals (CEB); with the transgressors (NET); or, among the rebels (NLT).

The specific prophecy is found in Isaiah 53.12, which is part of a larger prophecy about the death of Christ.

The command to buy swords had nothing to do with his disciples or any other future generation of believers buying weapons for self-defense. It had everything to do with those disciples fulfilling a specific line of prophecy: that Jesus be counted among rebels.

In other words, that’s the pretext the authorities would use to arrest Jesus that night. He was a charismatic popular leader surrounded by armed men. That would give the authorities the opportunity to haul Jesus into court on trumped-up charges of sedition.

Which would set the wheels on (in)justice in motion, leading to his crucifixion.

That was literally the only reason Jesus wanted to make sure those disciples got swords.

This is confirmed in v38:

They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” [2]

Two swords weren’t enough for twelve dudes to fight against the soldiers who were coming to arrest Jesus that night! And they certainly weren’t enough for the disciples to defend themselves at a later time.

But it was enough for the local rulers to gin up charges that Jesus was a bad person trying to plot a rebellion with some rabble.

That Jesus never meant for them to actually use those swords on anyone is further confirmed later in the chapter. Look what happens when Jesus is being arrested:

When those around him recognized what was about to happen, they said, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” One of them struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.

Jesus responded, “Stop! No more of this!” He touched the slave’s ear and healed him. (Luke 22.49-51 CEB)

The other three Gospels tell the same story, too (Mark 14.47-48Matthew 26.51-56; [3] John 18.10-11).

Jesus didn’t even mean for those swords to be used for self-defense that night. Much less at a later time. And certainly, he wasn’t thinking about Christians 2000 years later buying guns for self-defense.

You know what else confirms all this? The book of Acts! How many times were the disciples’ lives in danger? How many times were believers, like Stephen, actually taken and killed? And yet not a single time did any of them pick up a weapon and defend themselves!

Were they all disobeying Jesus?

In the words of Cousin Balki from “Perfect Strangers”:


They were doing exactly what Jesus had commanded them to do (Matthew 5.38-48; Luke 6.27-38). [4]

Or what about all those faithful martyrs of the first three centuries of the church? None of them grabbed weapons to defend themselves. In fact, they were all known for not having weapons, and not fighting to defend themselves.

Were all those faithful witnesses who died for their faith disobeying Jesus? No! We all know that’s patently silly.

Look, that doesn’t mean there’s never a time for Christians to use force to protect their families or vulnerable people.

And there are actually scriptures in the Bible that give us guidance about such matters. Including the limits of self-defense and violence in the name of justice.

Those passages include:

  • Genesis 4.23-24 (you can’t kill someone for wounding you–proportionate response)
  • Genesis 9.6 (human life is precious and must be defended and avenged)
  • Exodus 21.24-25 (and other eye for eye passages–not self-defense passages per se, but teach proportionate justice)
  • Exodus 22.2-3 (if someone breaks in at night, you can kill them in self-defense, but not if they break in during the day)
  • Nehemiah 4.14 (a call to fight and defend homes and families from invaders)
  • Esther 8.11, 9.5 (the Jews allowed to defend their lives and families from genocidal neighbors by any means necessary)

None of those passages speaks directly to the current, heated debates around gun control. Which suggests that faithful Christians can take either side of those debates.

But they do give guidance to the larger questions of use of force in self-defense, defense of neighbors, and in pursuit of justice. So they all have their place in those ongoing discussions. They’re all appropriate jumping off points for Christians who are trying to figure out where they stand on those matters.

But Luke 22.35-38? Absolutely not.

It is not a teaching about arming ourselves for self-defense. It is an instruction that only applied to those particular disciples on that particular night for a specific purpose: to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.

Christians would do well to remember that although everything in scripture is written for us (2 Timothy 3.16-17), the scriptures were not written to us. Keeping that in mind, we should have the humility to recognize that not everything in the Bible is about us.

In other words, the biblical authors didn’t have social, moral, and political debates we’re having now in mind when they wrote the Bible. They didn’t write what they did to enhance our present agendas. We are not that special, y’all.

But the big takeaway from this edition of Untwisting Scripture is this: There are passages in the Bible that provide guidance for self-defense and use of force. But Luke 22.35-38 is most definitely not one of them.


When you twist the scriptures by yanking them completely out of their obvious literary context to score points in your argument, that makes your argument weaker. Not stronger.

For an even deeper, fuller explanation of what’s going on in Luke 22 and why it’s inappropriate to use it as a talking point in the discussions around gun violence and gun control, listen to Michael Heiser and David Burnett’s deep dive into this passage from the Naked Bible podcast.

[1] I had heard, long before that, Luke 22.35-38 used as justification for owning weapons in self-defense. From what I’ve written, I obviously don’t agree with that interpretation, either. But in the last 5 years or so, I’ve seen more and more people sharpening the point of that interpretation to make it a binding command on believers for all-time. Jesus commanded us to purchase weapons to defend ourselves. Um, no. You’re doing it wrong.

[2] Another reading of Luke 22.38 is possible, and makes sense in light of what happened that night. This reading is presented in the CEB of v38:

They said to him, “Lord, look, here are two swords.”

He replied, “Enough of that!”

In other words, instead of saying, These two swords are enough; Jesus is exasperated as he sees them miss the point and get itchy to fight. So he says, basically, That’s enough! Knock it off!

[3] Notice that in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus himself refers to being arrested as a rebel, outlaw, etc.

Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, like an outlaw [or, bandit NRSV]? (Mark 14.48 CEB)

Am I some dangerous revolutionary, that you come with swords and clubs to arrest me? (Matthew 26.55 NLT consistently renders it as dangerous revolutionary, which is implied in the actual word Jesus uses)

Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, as though I were a thief? (Luke 22.52 CEB; or, as we see above bandit or revolutionary)

These words from Jesus confirm the reason for the swords: so the authorities could accuse Jesus of being an enemy of the state, fomenting rebellion, and count him among the rebels.

[4] It’s worth noting, of course, that peacefully suffering persecution for your faith in Jesus may be a very different thing than defending your family or a vulnerable neighbor from criminals and predators. I believe that’s a valuable distinction to make in discussions around defense and use of force. However, there’s a counterpoint to that as well: Aren’t you always attacked as a Christian? In other words, doesn’t your identity in Christ supercede every other identity you may bear as a parent, a spouse, or someone with a uniform that invests them with authority? I believe that’s a great question that should chasten our discussions of using violence or force to protect or dispense justice. But I would also argue that being a Christian means you can’t give wolves (violent predators) the same hospitality and consideration you give to the sheep (Matthew 7.15-16; Mark 9.42-43; John 10.10). Jesus doesn’t even seem to hold out any hope for wolves to be rehabilitated. In prayer we hand evildoers who hurt us over to God, who is alone capable of judging them. But in practice there may be times when, to protect the vulnerable, we must hand them over to God in our best judgment–which might even involve using lethal force against them to defend and protect others.


2 thoughts on “Untwisting Scripture: Gun control edition

  1. A good discussion of the passage and issue. I suspect, however, that some Christians fear that an “Esther” or “Nehemiah” scenario might be at hand, citing judicial and political actions that they interpret as hostile to Christianity and the perceived threat of Islamic terrorism. These are factors, in addition to adoption of the Second Amendment of the U. S. Constitution into personal canons of Scripture that may be driving such interpretation.

    • jmar198013 says:

      Agreed on all of the above.

      We need to be so, so careful about how we use the scriptures for practical moral reasoning. Because when you take a passage and say, “Okay, this is the only right course of action. Here’s God’s stamp of approval on it. No further questions”–you very well might have backed into taking the LORD’s name in vain (by invoking God in something God never meant).

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