Why did Jesus tell his disciples to take swords with them?

Paul says that God sent his Son to Israel “in the likeness of sinful flesh” and probably “as a sin offering”. By so doing he “condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3–4).

I maintain that the phrase “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is not a reference to the paradoxical ontology of incarnation but a more realistic, though somewhat opaque, allusion to the fact that Jesus was wrongly crucified as a malefactor, a bad guy.1

Attempts to avoid the apparent docetism of the expression, therefore, are misplaced. Moo, for example, says that it cannot mean that Christ had only the “appearance” of flesh. He suggests that homoiōma here

probably has the nuance of “form” rather than “likeness” or “copy.” In other words, the word does not suggest superficial or outward similarity, but inward and real participation or “expression.”2

But if homoiōma means “form”, then Paul must be talking about Jesus’ external or physical appearance, not some inner quality, which I think is exactly the point. He simply means that Jesus looked like a criminal, an insurrectionist, an agitator, a militant, a false prophet, a false messiah, a threat to the security of Israel. Paul is here a former member of the Pharisaic elite remembering the historical circumstances of Jesus’ death.

This is the same sort of carefully stage-managed, dangerous provocation as the entry into Jerusalem on a colt and the protest in the temple. Jesus is a master of prophetic theatre.

The idea is not altogether unique to Paul. The author of Wisdom of Solomon describes the persecution of righteous Jews by the wicked (Wis. 2:12-20). The righteous have suffered and died, but they had a hope of immortality. In the eyes of those who watched them suffer, they were being punished—as wrongdoers. But “in the time of their visitation they will shine out, and as sparks through the stubble, they will run about. They will judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will be king over them for ever” (Wis. 3:7–8). This is not just the language of Daniel 12:2-3; it is the essence of New Testament eschatology.

It may also be that Jesus himself deliberately contributed to the impression of sinfulness.

In a series of very helpful posts (listed below) outlining ways in which a more historical reading of the Bible might be “applied” in the life of the church today, Phil Ledgerwood draws attention to Jesus’ instruction to the disciples, after the last supper, no longer to go out empty handed but to take swords with them (Lk. 22:35-38). The reason for the change in policy? That this prophecy might be fulfilled in him: “And he was numbered with the lawless (anomōn)” (Luke 22:37). As Phil puts it:

Now, he’s asking his disciples to buy swords. Why? Because, at least as far as Luke’s text is concerned, he has to be associated with criminals (presumably so that he’ll be arrested) and his disciples carrying weapons around will do the trick. And they scrounge up a couple of swords and that’s good enough to make it work.

I think he may be right.

Jesus is not interested in the practicalities of their mission. He does not explain that they will need to protect themselves against robbers or wild animals. His point is only that he and they must be perceived as “lawless”, and it looks to me as though this is the same sort of carefully stage-managed, dangerous provocation as the entry into Jerusalem on a colt and the protest in the temple (Lk. 19:28-40, 45-48). Jesus is a master of prophetic theatre.

The “servant” of Isaiah 53:11-12 LXX bears the sins of many in Israel, is given over to death, and is “reckoned among the lawless”. A zealous Jew like Paul would have regarded Jesus as a “prophet who teaches lawless things (anoma), who will be destroyed from the people (Is. 9:14-15 LXX). He eventually came to believe that he was given up for the sins of his people, a sin offering, a propitiation (Gal. 1:4; Rom. 3:25; 8:3).

The Hebrew word translated “transgressors” in English versions of Isaiah’s text is poshʿim, which has clear overtones of rebellion or revolt. For example: “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled (poshʿim) against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Is. 66:24 ESV). In other words, Jesus is saying that he will have the appearance of someone who is leading a revolt against God and the political order that he has put in place.

One of the disciples (Luke doesn’t tell us it was Peter) gets a little carried away with his role in this dramatisation of Isaiah 53:12 and strikes the servant of the high priest on the side of the head—a clear, if ineffectual, blow against the political order that God has put in place (Lk. 22:49). Jesus promptly calls time and heals the wounded servant. But he makes sure that they all get the point of the little show that they have put on:

Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:52–53)

His “as against a robber” equates to Paul’s “in the likeness of sinful flesh”—except that “robber” is probably an inadequate translation. In this politically charged scenario a lēistēs is much more likely to be a rebel.

Barabbas, who had “committed murder in the insurrection” and was currently imprisoned with the “rebels” (stasiastōn), is referred to by John as lēistēs (Mk. 15:7; Jn. 18:40). We should not miss the profound soteriological significance of the fact that Jesus died “in the likeness of sinful flesh” in the place of a man who had led a violent revolt against Rome.

And, of course, Jesus was crucified as a disgraced messianic pretender, alongside two other lēistai (Matt. 27:38; Mk. 15:27), one of whom at least saw through the disguise, beyond the “likeness of sinful flesh”, and recognised that Jesus had done nothing wrong (Lk. 23:40-41).

  • 1. See my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom (2010), 113-14.
  • 2. D.J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (1996), 479.
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Hi Scott, that may or may not have something to do with why I chose that passage as an example. :)

I added your blog to my feed aggregator. I noticed you graduated from Covenant Theological! I graduated from the college version.

Submitted by Phil L. on  Wed, 05/13/2020 - 00:30

Thank you very much for the mentions and the encouragement! When you talk as much as I do, you’re statistically likely to say something right every so often.

Submitted by Samuel Conner on  Fri, 05/15/2020 - 12:41

Thank you Andrew (and Phil); this is helpful.

One gets the sense that Jesus understood his adversaries considerably better than they understood him. Accurately reading the times, he knew what “buttons to push” to induce the authorities to take the actions he reckoned were necessary to accomplish his mission.

I would go beyond fulfillment of prophecy to suggest that Jesus intended to provoke his execution. Having become the public leader of the “redemption of Israel” movement (Lk 24:21), he decapitated the movement by dying as its head, a leader who died before the war even started — what a miserable failure in the eyes of his militant followers — and thereby preserved peace for a generation.

That’s highly speculative, I guess, though it looks compelling to me. One would love to have more detail on the conversation between Jesus and Pilate, Pilate wanting to release Jesus and (on this hypothesis) Jesus wanting to avoid that outcome. Perhaps the “King of the Jews” notice was Jesus’ idea?

Submitted by Matthew on  Sat, 05/16/2020 - 13:06

Intriguing interpretation. One question I have about it is why Jesus would also command the disciples to purses and bags with them at the same time. It doesn’t seem relevant to this interpretation, yet it occurs in the same breath.

I’ve also seen it suggested that Jesus couldn’t have been proposing the disciples buy swords to provoke Jesus’ arrest, since Jesus was already about to be arrested that night (before any merchant would be in business), making the bit about buying a sword impossible to fulfill before his (forseen?) arrest. Similarly, if Jesus managed to make himself seem dangerous, why wasn’t it recorded as brought up at trial?

Anyway, long-time listener, first-time caller, etc. I’ve profited from the blog!

Hey Matthew.

I think one of the keys is that Jesus envisions this as scriptural fulfillment. He says that this must be done to fulfill the scriptures that he was numbered among the transgressors, and he says that the scripture is also in the process of being fulfilled (a reference to his arrest, maybe?).

Andrew used the term “theatre” for this, and I think it’s a good framing concept. Whether this provokes an arrest or not, the swords perform the function of making the disciples outlaws, or at least perceived outlaws. Jesus (or Luke’s author speaking through Jesus) sees this as necessary to fulfill scripture. Whatever actual legal ramifications this ended up or didn’t end up having are somewhat irrelevant and we could certainly debate how much it did or didn’t have.

As for the purse and bag, my knee jerk is that this parallels their mention in v. 35. The disciples were originally sent out without provisions and people took care of them, but that time is over. The sword is a new addition to the list.

I would definitely say insurrection is brought up at the trial (Luke 23:2).

There’s some supposition in all of that, sure, but I don’t know that it’s any more supposition than other proffered interpretations.

Thanks. It is definitely a tricky passage.

I presume the instruction that each of them should now carry a moneybag and knapsack reflects the fact that their situation is about to get a lot more precarious. It seems significant, though, that when they present two swords to him, he declares that it is enough. So they don’t each need a sword. They are just props. A couple of swords is enough to convey the impression that they are transgressors in the mould of Barabbas. It’s not so much about provoking arrest as invoking Isaiah 53:12 in this politically charged atmosphere.

Phil rightly brings out the implications of the accusations brought against him in Luke 23:2; he is executed as messianic pretender in the place of a violent insurrectionary.

That seems to more or less work (as well as anything for this passage!). I just read a philosopher defend a sort of “Jesus was telling them to be prepeared to engage in self-defense” kind of reading. But I think it didn’t deal as well with the fact that Jesus says two swords are enough.