Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
I’ve always been confused by Luke 22:36-38; it reads,
He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 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 is enough,” he replied.
What just happened? Jesus makes this big speech about how it’s so important to have swords that you should even sell your coat in order to buy one, then when he finds out that the disciples already have two on hand he quickly says, “Oh, ok, that’s enough then.” The confusion is further compounded when just a few lines later Jesus is arrested and one of the disciples actually uses his sword. The Bible records,
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike them 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).
After this big deal of having swords, when they actually get used, Jesus rebukes the guy who used said sword. These two passages have been a real head-scratcher for me for a long time. So, I asked the Holy Spirit what was going on, and he explained what we’re supposed to get out of them.
Before starting, the Spirit reminded me that Jesus often speaks beyond the fourth wall, that is, he’s speaking to us readers. Understandably, this sort of action frequently confused the disciples and they’d act or try to respond based on what Jesus was actually saying to us; and since those would cause moments of confusion, they’d end up being stuck in the disciples minds, and therefore end up in the Gospels we read- so Jesus was successful in his speaking, confusing as it may have been. If you want to read more about this, check out Accustomed to Confusion. Anyway, the above passages were not meant for the disciples directly, but they were instead meant for us readers, and in turn the disciples acted thinking that Jesus wanted them to arm themselves, something he rebuked them for.
So what is going on here? Jesus is actually referencing a couple of other verses for us that the disciples wouldn’t have known (as they weren’t written yet). Check out Ephesians 6:17: “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Our sword is the Word of God, that is, the Bible. This is backed up in Hebrews 4:12 where we read,
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Make no bones about it, when there’s a sword in a New Testament writing, it’s likely referring to the Bible. So when Jesus is telling us to sell even our jacket and buy a sword, he’s really telling us how important the Word of God is in our lives. The Word helps us to fight evil. Before listing off the varied pieces of spiritual armor we should equip ourselves with (including the sword of the Spirit), Paul notes why we should do so, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11). Even when he was being tempted by the devil, our Lord and Savior used the Scriptures to deflect Satan’s attacks. We can see this in action in Luke 4:1-4,
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’
When the devil tempted Jesus to use his powers to feed his own needs, the Christ responded with Deuteronomy 8:3,
He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
In doing this, Jesus showed us how we too can call on the power of the Word of God in order to fight against the devil. In fact, since Paul calls it a sword, we can assume that the Bible is our main offensive tool against evil. So I’d have to agree with Jesus that if you don’t have a Bible yet, sell your coat if you have to in order to get one.
Ok, so we can use the Bible as our sword to fight evil. Why is it then that when Jesus’ disciples actually try to use their swords he rebukes them? This is a lesson that many well-meaning Christians need to remember: The Word of God is a weapon against the devil, not against people. Jesus was very strong on this point throughout his ministry. For during Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were using the Law against the people instead of using it to fight evil. For example, the Law stated,
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles’” (Leviticus 21:16-20).
Now, when the leaders of the religious ruling class in Israel read this, they assumed that because the people who had handicaps were not allowed to burn the sacrifices for the people, that something was wrong with them. Since most problems were attached to a lack of ceremonial cleanliness in the Law, it was natural to assume that someone with a defect was unclean. And generally speaking, the main thing that made people unclean was sin. Therefore, everyone who was not perfect (either in body or actions), in the eyes of the Pharisees, was unclean. They used this to wield power against the people. Even after Jesus healed the man born blind, the Pharisees used the Law against the man in order to silence his testimony. John records this use of the Word against a person,
The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out (John 9:30-34).
Notice that the Pharisees said that the man was in sin since he was born. So instead of wanting to help and comfort the man born blind, the assumption was that God had blinded him, even before birth due to sin. Therefore, since he was unclean, his testimony was meaningless- healed or not. This sort of misuse of the Law greatly angered Jesus and he even pronounced a curse on the teachers of the Law of his time. We read in Luke 11:46, “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’” We should never, ever use the Word of God as a weapon against our brothers. The Bible was meant to fight evil, not each other. So when you get that urge to attack someone with the Word, stop. When you feel like writing a Bible verse on an angry sign, stop. We were given a sword, yes, but not one to kill our brothers with.
So, the Word of God is our sword, but we are not to wield it against people. But why two? When the disciples quickly searched what they had and found out that they already had two swords, Jesus said that two were enough. The two swords represent the two covenants; that is to say: they represent the two Testaments. We have the Old Testament and the New Testament. Many Christians think that we only need the New Testament since Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets by his coming, death, and resurrection, and that now the Old Testament is no longer needed. However, that’s not what the Bible has to say on the matter. Jesus himself noted,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18).
Now I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen heaven and earth disappear yet. Paul agrees and goes a step further to say that not only is the Old Testament not to be discarded, but it still to be studied and utilized in our fight against evil. He writes, “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Notice that Paul says “all Scripture.” Even if we don’t understand parts of the Bible, it doesn’t mean that we can discard them.
However, we need to remember that two is enough. Jesus’ disciples had been told to sell their cloaks if need be to buy swords, but when he found out they already had two, he quickly stopped them and said that two was enough. What can we learn from this? God gave us the Old Testament and the New Testament, two swords are enough. There are many religions out there, though, that are trying to add new texts to the Bible. For example, the Mormon movement has a whole extra set of books. Religions like the Baha’i try to combine Christianity with other faiths. Even many Christians are trying to marry the Bible with Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” But God says that two swords are enough. The Lord is pretty strong about us leaving our two Testaments untouched, too. For the Word says,
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy in this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (Revelation 22:18-19).
So delight, dear Christian (or Christian-to-be); for the Word of God is sufficient in your battles. And our Lord is a sufficient God who takes care of us. And our savior’s sacrifice was sufficient to save your soul. But you don’t have to take my word for it, check it out yourself!