Pacifism, Jesus, and Christians

Was Jesus a pacifist?  There were no guns in the first century, but the sword was a prevalent weapon of self-defense.  The Gospels make no mention of Jesus having or carrying a sword.  But in His discussion with His disciples the evening of His arrest, He said, if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one (Luke 22:36).  I think it is safe to assume that if Jesus carried a sword and knew that they already had swords He would have said something else.  What did Jesus mean?  Was His statement permission for all of His disciples to feel free to arm themselves?  To understand, consider the context: earlier He had said, I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (Luke 22:14).  Later, He added, But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table (Luke 22:21).  The context was His imminent arrest, suffering, and death.  His statements provoked the disciples to think about their reactions, with Peter asserting, Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death (Luke 22:33-34).  But Jesus answered, I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me (Luke 22:34).  Jesus was warning His disciples of the violence they would see that very night; in that context, He asked about swords.

If we stop there, we might assume that Jesus intended self-defense, at least for His disciples.  But that would be an incorrect assumption.  When the confrontation came about a little later, we can read that His disciples assumed the same: When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.  But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him (Luke 22:49-51).  Jesus’ words and actions clearly show that He did not want His disciples to fight.

So, what did Jesus intend?  Let us look back at what He said immediately after telling them to buy a sword.  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’s enough!” he replied (Luke 22:38-39).  Jesus was ensuring that everything that took place was as prophesied.  The swords were not for defense but to allow His accusers to claim that He was among criminals.

Further evidence that the disciples did not carry swords lies in the rest of the New Testament, most notably, the book of Acts, which never mentions weapons or self-defense as an option for Jesus’ followers.

Nonetheless, this evidence does not imply that Jesus was a pacifist.  Jesus later told Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).  Under different circumstances and the age of the Kingdom of which He would reign, His servants are free to fight.  Indeed, most prophecies of Jesus’ return to reign in His Kingdom predict the use of violence against those who oppose Him.  See 2 Thessalonians 2:8 as one example. 

Did the Apostles and the early Church defend themselves with deadly force?  Again, the whole New Testament, particularly the book of Acts, gives no evidence of fighting or self-defense by Christians.  They did a lot of fleeing from violence, as we read in Acts 8:1, On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Those who persecuted them were fewer in number than the thousands of church members in Jerusalem; why didn’t they stand their ground instead of fleeing?  Paul later admitted, I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison (Acts 22:4).  Those who were unable or unwilling to flee experienced violence against them; why didn’t they fight back?  Could it be that they believed that those who threatened them might someday become their fellow believers – their brothers and sisters in Christ?  That is exactly what Paul became.  If one of the many first-Century Christians that were his victims had slashed him with a sword, there may never had been an Apostle Paul. 

Although nothing suggests that these early Christians had or used weapons against other humans, 2 Cor. 10:4 says, The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. Their weapons were spiritual.  So, literally they were not pacifists.  They knew well to fight in the realm of the Kingdom of God, as Jesus said they would.  Also, they understood that there are God-ordained authorities who are authorized to fight when necessary, and these people carried swords, as mentioned in Rom. 13:4: But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.  Some of those people with such authority were Christians, as was Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment (Acts 10:1).  Nothing in his story, or that of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:23-36) suggests that their responsibilities changed after they became Christians.