Before I start, let me first make it irrevocably clear that the point of this article is not to push forward any political agenda. I am not going to be using Scripture to support the Republican side for gun rights or the Democrat side for no gun rights. (Full disclosure: I support Americans’ 2nd Amendment rights.) The point of this article is to clear up a common misinterpretation using by gun rights advocates. The passage comes from Luke 22:36-38.
Christians these days are infamous for cherry picking the Bible just as atheists do—grabbing verses out of context that seemingly support their worldview and interpreting it in a way that supports their presuppositions (aka eisegesis, versus exegesis). If you grab this passage alone, it looks as if Jesus would support the purchase of weapons for the use of deadly force. When we look at the passage in its proper context, however, we see something else entirely. As we study this text, we will find that such gun advocates are not really arguing for gun rights so much as they are for violent retaliation in self-defence, which is a different topic altogether. So, let’s look at it in its context. It comes from Luke 22:36-38, 49-51:
He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about Me has its fulfilment.” And they said, “Lord, Lord, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.” …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.
The right-wing gun advocates pay no attention to this context (vv. 49-51). All they see are Jesus’ words in verses 36-38 as a call to arms. To say these words of Jesus condones violence is to go against the rest of Jesus’ ministry that preaches non-retaliation and willing self-sacrifice. In John’s gospel, we learn the culprit who cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear was Peter, who, like the right-wing gun advocates, interpreted Jesus’ words from just a couple hours earlier that acquiring the swords was Jesus’ endorsement of violent resistance for a just cause.
However, Jesus vigorously rebukes him, “No more of this!” In Matthew’s gospel, he records more of Jesus’ reprimand, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52b). Obviously, Peter thought violent resistance for a just cause was appropriate, but Jesus’ rebuke says otherwise. If Jesus truly endorsed owning a weapon to attack our enemies and defend those we love for a just cause, then He would’ve let Peter continue. However, the conservative will argue, “Well, He said the people who were going to arrest Him needed to come in order for the Scriptures to be fulfilled, so of course He told Peter to stop.” Yes, these people needed to arrest Jesus in order for the Scriptures to be fulfilled, but God doesn’t need our cooperation to fulfil His will. He might use us to accomplish His will, but He doesn’t necessarily need our cooperation. Suppose that after Peter attacked, the other disciples followed through and they killed all those who came to arrest Jesus. Would this have ruined God’s plan in sending His Son to die for our sins? Of course not. Other people would’ve come to arrest Jesus anyway. So using that rationalisation is a pathetic misapplication of Jesus’ teaching. Also, since Jesus knew He needed to be arrested in order for the Scriptures to be fulfilled, why would He tell the disciples to purchase swords with the intent for violent resistance? That’s illogical, and Jesus was certainly not an illogical man.
So, if Jesus was not advocating violent resistance for a just cause when He told the disciples to purchase swords, why did He say it? When we place what Jesus said here into the larger context of His pedagogical method, the answer is not difficult to arrive at. Jesus’ pedagogy is known for using hyperboles to bring His listeners’ attention to a deeper point in His call to discipleship. Here are a few examples:
Matthew 5:29-30, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Was Jesus really saying to literally gouge out your eye and cut off your hand if either of them cause you to sin? Of course not. Did His disciples take these words literally? No, they did not. What He meant was should any thing in your life cause you to sin, remove it immediately from your life. For example, if you indulge in pornography, take measures to immediately remove it from your life. Or, if a boyfriend or girlfriend causes you to sin, you may need to end the relationship. In a past relationship of mine, for example, I unfortunately lost my virginity to someone. After realising our sin, I told her we need to confess our sin before God and stop engaging in the sin, but she wanted to continue having sex with me. After many efforts to bring us to repentance as a couple and her constant refusal to reform, out of my love for God I had to end the relationship (and I am better off for it).
Matthew 17:20, “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Was Jesus really saying that if they believed hard enough, His disciples could move actual mountains? Of course not. What He meant was even with the smallest amount of faith, God can accomplish more than they think. Through faith, God can move mountains of doubt and sorrow. For example, I have no idea how God is going to provide for me for seminary. So, I did the only thing I could do: I prayed and exercised faith even while in the midst of doubt. And now, virtually all my tuition for seminary is going to be paid for through a plethora of scholarships.
Luke 6:29, “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Was Jesus really saying we should encourage more abuse when somebody harms us? Or was He saying when provoked, we should not insult in return but instead, “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21)? This is really difficult to do, even for me. When I say an unpopular opinion on Facebook, for example, and someone insults me for having a difference of opinion, my initial reaction is to insult in return. Yet if I were to put Jesus’ words here into practise, I wouldn’t give an insult in return but rather “turn the other cheek” and willingly receive another. What this looks like in practise is this: when addressing the psychological harms of transgenderism on Twitter, someone attacked me for my Christianity. (I didn’t mention anything about Christianity; they addressed it because my Twitter handle is @WriteousChristn.) In an effort to engage in an intellectual dialogue with her, I told her how she set up a straw man fallacy by failing to address the substance of the issue and we should talk more about the actual issue. In response, she said I was being hateful and bigoted and proceeded to call me a homophobe. I could have responded with an insult or a defence, but recognising she had no intention of engaging in intellectual dialogue, instead I said nothing while she continued to tweet hateful and discriminatory tweets at me. Eventually, I blocked her as I got tired of being demonised and demoralised.
There are more of these hyperboles in Jesus’ pedagogy than what I’ve listed, but I’ll discuss one more example. In Luke 18:22, Jesus told a rich man he needs to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor in order to inherit eternal life. There are Christians today who still think Jesus was being literal in saying this, making the same mistakes as the monastics did in the Medieval Catholic Church. Was Jesus really saying that in order to inherit the kingdom of God, one must sell all their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor? Or was He wisely exposing this man’s pride and sin that was preventing him from having true discipleship with Jesus, forcing him to make a choice: his love for money or relationship with Christ?
Returning to Luke 22:51, Jesus rejected Peter’s misinterpretation of His words from just a couple hours before. Since He rejects Peter’s misinterpretation, what do we make of His words in verses 36-38? Considering His common use of hyperboles in the larger context of His pedagogical method, He was preaching a larger message: one of vigilance. He was teaching the disciples to be prepared for a spiritual battle they’ve never experienced before, which requires active vigilance.
The key to understanding this is when Jesus says, “It is enough” when they find two swords. Really? Two swords? Two swords are not “enough” for the kind of resistance the Romans and Jews were soon to unleash against Christ. It would require an entire army. So if Jesus was really advocating violence for a just cause to protect those you love, He would’ve told them to get more. After all, Jesus is wise and all-knowing and gathering an army would’ve been the wise thing to do. Instead, He says two swords are enough when they’re not.
Either Jesus made a mistake and this means He was just a man and not the Son of God, or in His holy and divine wisdom as God, violent resistance was not the message He was preaching. When Jesus said, “It is enough,” most scholars believe Jesus was abruptly ending the discussion since He knew the disciples misinterpreted what He said about acquiring swords. Other scholars perceive He was being sarcastic. Either way, most theological scholars acknowledge Jesus was not promoting violent resistance in these words, especially considering the larger context of His pedagogical discourse.
Discipleship is a journey. The disciples in Gethsemane at the time Jesus was arrested were still young in their journey. Gun advocates who use Luke 22:36 as advocacy for their political agenda will find no support from theological scholars. Their interpretation of Jesus’ words here are only possible by ignoring the larger context and method of Jesus’ teaching. They become like Peter, misconstruing God’s Word for aligning with the worldview of man. Someone once asked me if someone pointed a gun at her and I had the chance to shoot the threat, would I just allow her to be shot and die? She also asked would it not be Christian for me to protect my neighbour out of love?
Now we’re getting more specific. This is an entirely different subject than above. Would I, if I had a gun on me, shoot a man threatening her life? My answer: Of course I would! You might ask, “You’ve argued Jesus doesn’t advocate violent resistance even to protect a loved one, so why would you protect her?” I would answer that you have a keen mind. I would also answer that what I have discussed above is that Jesus does not support violent resistance in that context. The issue is whether Jesus advocates such violence in that context, which we have seen He does not. With this new question, then, we are moving from an exegetical discussion of the text to an ethical discussion that cannot be arrived at from this text. So, we have to move elsewhere: the field of philosophy.
I could write a whole other article on this ethical dilemma, so I will try to keep it succinct and have that suffice. Christian ethics is deontology—that is, Christian ethics concerns our obligated moral duty to our neighbour. Within this ethical system includes what’s called conflicted absolutism, which is the ethical perspective that says there are universal laws (or morals) that conflict and when they conflict, to obey the greater law. The particular moral dilemma in this situation is: protect my neighbour by shooting the criminal or protect the criminal by not shooting and allowing him to harm my neighbour? The answer should be obvious, but it’s not, hence our discussion.
Christian deontology is based on God’s Law, particularly the Ten Commandments. His Law says not to commit murder and it also says to love our neighbour as ourselves, hence the conflict. Which law is greater? I contend loving your neighbour is greater for two reasons. First, protecting your neighbour by taking the life of another is not murder. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “murder” as “the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.” So, consider the law of your land. Is self-defence unlawful even when the potential murderer is killed? The answer is likely no. Is your action to protect your neighbour being done under malice and with the pre-planned intent to take the person’s life. No, it is not. Therefore, under this definition, it is not murder. (For more on murder, see Cornell Law’s definition of murder.) The Old Testament, if anything, speaks to this. Many times God commanded His people to go to war with other nations and kill them because they were evil nations. In Israel’s historical context, these nations were guilty of sacrificing infants and children to their pagan gods in large pits of fire, cultic prostitution practises, violent and slavic treatment of women, and many other things. These wars were not murder and therefore not unlawful under God’s Law since God gave them legitimate reason to take their lives: to destroy evil—to exact God’s justice.
Second, now that murder is an improper definition of protecting your neighbour, that leaves us with the two greatest love commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). With murder out of the question, all that’s left is to love God and love your neighbour. It is through people in which we also show our love for God. If you would protect yourself, love for neighbour demands you also protect your neighbour. Even if you wouldn’t protect yourself, God’s Law defines life as sacred since we are created imago Dei and as such defines the two greatest commandments of His Law as loving Him and loving neighbour. Failing to protect the sanctity of life, therefore, is a failure to uphold God’s Law.
Yet the criminal’s life is also sacred, which is why this is a moral dilemma to begin with. Protect the neighbour’s life, yet if protecting his or her life comes at the cost of taking the criminal’s life, taking his life is still a sin. Loving your neighbour does not justify the sin, which is what graded absolutism argues. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the distinction between cheap grace and costly grace. To keep it brief, cheap grace justifies the sin whereas costly grace justifies the sinner, the latter of which is biblical. Under cheap grace, the sinner lives a life of sin since, he thinks, he can do whatever he wants since he is justified. Paul addresses this particular issue in Romans 6 (esp. vv. 1-4)—the grace of God does not permit living in sin. If you believe justification means Christ left you to wallow in your sins, you misunderstand the Gospel. The sin is not justified. Rather, the sinner is justified. This is costly grace, Bonhoeffer says, because it cost the life of God’s only Son and it is costly because we can humbly approach God’s throne and confess our sins as He moves to transform us in the Holy Spirit.
If we take a criminal’s life to protect the life of an innocent, we are still sinning. Yet as justified sinners, we are able to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). As Luther once said, “Be a sinner and sin boldly [for your neighbour], but believe ever more boldly and rejoice in Christ, who is victor over sin, death, and the world.” Many moral conflicts result in guilt. Confession and forgiveness is Jesus’ answer for us. Because of the freedom of forgiveness, the important question for ethics is not whether it’s sin but whether it’s good for the neighbour through God’s commands. We ought to be more concerned with our neighbour’s life, not whether or not what we’re doing is good. If we’re more concerned about the goodness of our actions rather than the life and well-being of our neighbour, we miss the mark of Christianity.
What About the Military and Law Enforcement?
I could also do a whole study on this on a separate article, but to keep it short, this is when vocations come into play. Romans 13:1-5, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.”
God institutes government to protect people from sin—from evildoers. It is the government’s job to protect people from evildoers even if that means using violence. As the passage says, the government does not bear the sword for no reason. God gave them this authority for a reason, which is to protect people from evil and to bring God’s justice. So when soldiers are at war killing threats to their nation, and police offers and other government agents kill, they are fulfilling their vocational duties in protecting others as agents of the government’s authority given from God, the source of all authority.
Does Jesus advocate for gun rights? No, because in the context discussed, it is not relevant. But that does not mean He would be opposed to gun rights either. For, as discussed, our love for neighbour is our greatest deontological duty. We live in a fallen world, which means moral dilemmas are going to occur and universal laws are going to conflict. Sometimes, sin may be unavoidable, such as in the case of protecting a neighbour’s life with the result of possibly taking a criminal’s life. Yet as Christians, we are able to sin boldly for our neighbour for the sake of preserving their life while we can approach God’s throne with confidence to receive forgiveness.