SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.
Our saucy friend Reza Aslan, a man who ate human brains on CNN (Don’t believe me? Google it!), doesn’t think Jesus was such a peaceful guy. His bestselling book Zealot is built on the idea that Jesus was crucified because he was promoting armed revolution against the Romans. The book was largely ignored by Christian scholars and apologists due to its weak thesis, but widely read by those who wouldn’t know any better. To be fair, Reza isn’t the only one to attempt to repaint Jesus in this way. I've witnessed angry internet atheists do their best to comb the gospels for any reason to portray Jesus in an unflattering light.
Like so many who try to reinterpret Jesus, Reza first claims that nothing can be known about the “true Jesus of history” and then, ironically, proceeds to tell us with the utmost confidence what the New Testament gets wrong about Jesus. Likewise, we’re told the gospels have been so infected with invented material that fact can’t be separated from fiction, sort of like how my kids mash up all their different Play Doh colors and once that happens—well, that’s it—I hope you like that ugly color, kid, because it’ll never be red, green, or yellow again.
In Reintroducing Jesus, we see why the physical evidence of the ancient manuscripts says quite the opposite about the New Testament. Reza ignores textual criticism and grossly contradicts himself by writing a book telling us exactly who Jesus was and what he said. Apparently, Reza has some mutant superpower to see through all the supposed hubbub in the gospels to the truth underneath. He accuses Jesus of being “a man of profound contradictions” and also calls the idea of Jesus being a peaceful man a “complete fabrication” . Ironically, Reza is the man of contradictions and Zealot is the fabrication.
CONTEXT IS KING
Those like Reza undoubtedly bring up two times in the gospels Jesus mentions swords as proof that Jesus wasn’t a peaceful man. (They also conveniently ignore everything else Jesus says about loving enemies and praying for your persecutors [Matthew 5:38–48; Luke 6:27–36, 10:25–37]). Hey, remember that thing called context? It means reading all of the stuff around a passage in order to understand what the passage means.
For instance, let’s imagine someone told you Jesus claimed to be a door, saying, “What a nut! Why does anyone take this guy seriously?” Well, Jesus did call himself a door (John 10:9–16 ), but when you read the passage in context you see Jesus wasn’t being literal; he was being metaphorical. Context is important. Not just a tiny bit important, but essential. Context is king! And if we want to understand what Jesus means by calling himself a door, we need to understand the context.
What guys like Reza do is grab isolated quotes from Jesus and ignore the context. They ignore the context not just of the big picture of the gospels, the New Testament, and the Bible, but even the context of the smaller section of scripture it appears in. Reza is like a corrupt cop who isolates the verse in an interrogation room and gets it to confess something that’s not true.
So, let’s look at these two verses about swords in context.
NOT PEACE, BUT A SWORD
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Well, there you have it! Jesus must’ve been armed to the max and ready to go John Wick on anyone in his way (or Rambo, if you prefer, if you grew up in the 1980s). Oh wait: context! What’s the context?
In Matthew 10, Jesus is about to send his disciples throughout the land to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He even gives them a way to prove the authority he has given them. How? Through a display of power with weapons? No, through a display of power of healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons (Matthew 10:7–8).
The sword comment comes towards the end of his instructions after he explains to his disciples that persecution will come against them. He says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). He warns that they’ll be arrested, beaten, and hated. Does he tell them to respond with violence? No, he tells them to flee if they have to. But he also tells them not to be fearful because God is with them. He tells them not to fear “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:23, 28).
So far, none of this sounds like war-mongering. Now, understanding the context brings things more into focus when he says,
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. (Matthew 10:34–36)
THE SWORD THAT DIVIDES
A parallel passage in Luke’s gospel helps us understand his meaning:
Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Luke 12:51)
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says he came to bring “a sword.” In Luke’s gospel, he says he came to bring “division.” Before continuing, why the different wording between the two gospels? Easy. There’s two possibilities.
First, one gospel writer may be giving a direct quote and the other may be giving a paraphrase. Despite your modern English Bible using quotation marks, they didn’t exist back then. They’re absent from the ancient manuscripts. So, when we read Jesus’ words in the gospels, we may be reading a word-for-word quote or a paraphrase or even a summary. This is nothing to be concerned about. Christian teachers and writers throughout history regularly paraphrase passages from the Bible, and the New Testament writers themselves often paraphrase the Old Testament rather than give a word-for-word quotation. (For traditional, orthodox Christians, even paraphrases and summaries in the Bible are understood to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.)
The second explanation is that Jesus gave this teaching several times and he worded it differently at different times. Again, nothing odd here. He couldn’t just make a Youtube video, so Jesus traveled around and would’ve taught the same things again and again. Like all teachers who teach the same lesson multiple times, he would phrase things differently at different times for different audiences. The quote from Luke’s gospel appears in a different context—at a different time—than the quote in Matthew’s gospel. So, this appears to be the reason for the difference, and this gives us insight into Jesus’ meaning.
It’s clear from the context (which includes taking into account all of Jesus’ teachings about peacefulness elsewhere) that Jesus isn’t speaking of a literal sword, but of a metaphorical one. Yes, he’s a peaceful man, but his teachings will cause division, even within families. Just before this, he says, “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death” (Matthew 10:21).
Though Jesus’ mission is nonviolent, the response to him and his disciples won’t always be. Though he preaches peace, his teachings will cause turmoil. He teaches elsewhere that the world will give his followers trouble and grief (John 14:27, 16:33). They should expect it. If the world hates you, he says, know that it hated me first (John 15:18–27). The sword represents something that divides.
TWO SWORDS TO DEFEAT AN EMPIRE?
Moving on to the second sword passage, it looks like Jesus is in favor of using weapons when we read it in isolation. Yet, again, upon digging deeper, it’s unlikely. As Luke’s gospel draws near to the grand climax—Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection—Jesus addresses his disciples, making reference to when he sent them out earlier (the same event connected to the first sword passage). He says to his disciples,
“When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 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. (Luke 22:35–36)
Then, Jesus makes reference to his impending execution:
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 fulfillment.”
After, we’re told:
And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:38)
So what are we to make of Jesus telling his disciples to get swords?
First, we have to (once again) take into account all of Jesus’ other teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks (Luke 6:27–36; Matthew 5:38–48). Nowhere do we see Jesus encourage any sort of armed uprising or violence towards anyone. Let’s also keep in mind, no writer of the New Testament nor any of the early church fathers, all of whom were closer to Jesus than we are, ever understood Jesus’ teachings as anything other than nonviolent and aggressively peaceful.
Secondly, let’s use some common sense here. When Jesus’ disciples said they had two swords, how did Jesus respond? “It is enough.” If Jesus were telling his disciples to buy swords for an armed revolt, would two swords be enough? Perhaps if your “armed revolt” was robbing a first-century convenience store! So, no, two swords are definitely not sufficient for taking down the mighty Roman Empire.
This verse has often been used in another way, one less fantastical than Reza’s creative writing project. Jesus isn’t telling the disciples to start a revolt (with—I just have to point out again—two swords), but he’s telling them to defend themselves. This passage is often used by Christians as evidence that Jesus was okay with using violence for self-defense. This is much more plausible, but this is still missing Jesus’ main point. Jesus’ enemies are about to make their big move; Jesus will soon be arrested and executed. Things are about to get intense. The followers of Jesus are about to enter into a new period of hardship and opposition. Could Jesus be telling them to get swords to defend themselves? It’s possible. But, on the other hand, if Jesus were telling them to get swords to defend themselves, would only two swords be enough for twelve men?
Again, it seems Jesus isn’t speaking literally. He’s communicating to his disciples that hardship and hostility are coming. But I don’t think his disciples get his point. Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ disciples constantly misunderstand him, especially when it comes to his mission. They know he’s the Messiah, and they expect him to start a revolution and drive out the Romans, but Jesus keeps telling them: My mission is to die to fulfill scripture. In this passage, the disciples totally overlook his reference to his coming death and instead zoom in on his mention of swords (not unlike us today). Even if Jesus is suggesting swords for self-defense, it’s not the thing he wants his disciples to focus on.
What makes more sense?
Jesus: Things are about to get intense; you may want to buy a sword. I’m about to be arrested and executed to fulfill scripture.
Disciples: Hey, we have two swords!
Jesus: That’s enough swords. Sounds like the twelve of you are ready.
Jesus: Enough about swords. You’re still not getting it. I just said I’m about to die to fulfill scripture!
Written in a time where Christian scholars apparently valued unfiltered bluntness, the esteemed John Calvin calls the disciples “stupid” for thinking Jesus was telling them to take up arms . If you have any doubt about this nonviolent understanding of the passage, you only have to keep reading Luke’s gospel—and not very far. (Context! Context! Context!) A mere eleven verses later, Jesus is arrested on the Mount of Olives and his disciples literally ask him, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” Then, one of his disciples, Peter, does—cutting off some poor guy’s ear. Jesus’ response? “No more of this!” (Luke 22:49–51). Jesus commands Peter to put his sword away. Then Jesus famously says, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (John 18:10–11; Matthew 26:52.)
To say Jesus was promoting violent revolt is pure goofiness.
 Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Random House, 2013. (Somehow I forgot to write down the page references, and I already returned the book to the library, so if you want the page numbers you're out of luck.)
 More accurately, Jesus called himself “the door.”
 Calvin’s Commentaries (Complete) by John Calvin, Translated by John King. Qhttps://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/jesus-tell-disciples-buy-swords/