“No More of This!” (Why Jesus Armed and Disarmed Peter)

“No More of This!” (Why Jesus Armed and Disarmed Peter)
Brian Zahnd

It’s soon after midnight. We’re in an ancient olive grove with a full moon shining through the boughs. Jesus is in anguished prayer. Disciples are nearby…sleeping. We hear angry voices. A mob is approaching bearing torches. Now they’re upon us and the torchlight reveals the mob is bearing something else — weapons. A battle is about to begin. Luke tells us what happens next.

“There came a crowd, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’ And when those who were around him saw what was coming, they said, ‘Lord, should we fight? We brought the swords!’ Then one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ Then Jesus touched the man’s ear and healed him.” –Luke 22:47–51

A few weeks ago I spoke at a conference where the presenters explored the beliefs of Jesus. I spoke on what Jesus believed about violence. And what did Jesus believe about violence? Well, it’s reported that Gandhi once said, “Everyone knows that Jesus taught nonviolence…except Christians.”

But that’s not entirely true. For the first three centuries all Christians knew that Jesus taught nonviolence. Prior to Constantine the Old Testament text most frequently quoted by the Church Fathers was Isaiah 2:4 — a messianic prophecy that says in the age of Messiah swords and spears will be turned into plows and pruning hooks, and that the study of war will be abandoned. The early Christians believed that Isaiah’s prophecy spoke of Jesus, and that with his death, burial, and resurrection the peaceable kingdom Christians are to inhabit had been inaugurated.

The most quoted New Testament text by the Ante-Nicene Fathers was Matthew 5:44 — “Love your enemies.” In that same passage Jesus says this: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38–39) Thus the earliest Christians believed what Jesus believed about violence — that violence belongs to the old age that is passing away with the arrival of the kingdom of God.

We can say it this way: The biblical test case for love of God is love of neighbor; the biblical test case for love of neighbor is love of enemy. And you can’t love your neighbor-enemy by using a sword, a gun, or a hydrogen bomb against them.

But if you don’t agree with what Jesus believes about violence, you can always (ab)use the Bible to find an out. For example you could cite 1 Samuel 15:3 to refute Jesus.

“Go and attack them with the sword and destroy all they have. Do not spare them, but kill men, women, children, and babies.”

So if you prefer the idea of killing your enemies to loving your enemies you can (ab)use the Bible. There are even verses to authorize killing babies, if that’s your thing. And lest you think I’m being crude and ridiculous, let me remind you it has been done! When the English colonists in Connecticut in 1637 murdered 700 Pequot Indians (mostly women and children) in order to steal their cultivated land, the leader of their colony, Captain Mason, justified the attack with this “biblical” logic:

“I would refer you to David’s war. When a people is grown to such a height of blood and sin against God and man, sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents. We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”

That’s how you (ab)use the violent passages of the Bible to silence Jesus. Yes, the Bible is a violent book, but not because God is violent; rather the Bible is violent because we are violent, and the problem of violence is unflinchingly depicted in the Bible.

We all know there’s lots of killing in the Bible. Moses killed enemies. Joshua killed enemies. David killed enemies. Elijah killed enemies. Nothing new with that — that’s the way the world has always been. The most ancient “solution” for evil is to “kill the bad guys.” But when we get to Jesus, he tells us to stop killing our enemies and to love them. Maybe you want to be a Mosian or a Joshuian or a Davidian or a Elijian…but me, I’m trying to be a Christian. So as much as I might like the idea of killing my enemies, if I’m trying to be a Christian I can’t use Joshua to save me from Jesus. And Jesus calls me to lay down my sword and take up my cross. Christians are called to imitate the one who was willing to die for that which he was unwilling to kill.

So when at the Last Supper Jesus tells his disciples to take some swords with them, it’s a bit odd. Why does Jesus arm his disciples with two swords? Actually Jesus tells us. (And contrary to what some may think Jesus is not endorsing open carry legislation so citizens can tote AR-15s into Walmart.) Jesus gives the reason for arming Peter and one other disciple when he says,

“For the time has come for this prophecy about me to be fulfilled: ‘He was counted among the rebels.’” –Luke 22:37

Jesus did not arm his disciples so they could fight; Jesus armed his disciples so that prophecy would be fulfilled and so he could disarm them! Jesus allowed those arresting him to falsely assume he was a violent revolutionary (as the prophecy in Isaiah says); but when his disciples actually attempted to employ violence, Jesus stopped them.

Disciples: “Lord, should we fight? We brought the swords!”
(Peter, not waiting for a reply, attacked a slave of the high priest with a sword, severing his ear.)

Jesus: “No more of this! Put away your sword!”
(Jesus then healed the one whom Peter had harmed.)

What did the early church believe was the lesson to be derived from this passage of Scripture? A second century Church Father put it this way:

“In disarming Peter, Christ disarms all Christians.” –Tertullian (160–220)

The next morning when Jesus was brought before Pilate, Jesus made it clear that his kingdom came from a different world than the one where people fight and kill their enemies. Jesus said to Pilate,

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting.” –John 18:36

Because the kingdom of Christ doesn’t come from the bloody world of war, Jesus disarmed his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. A garden is no place for swords and spears anyway. Gardens are where we employ plows and pruning hooks. Followers of Jesus are called to be gardeners and healers, not combatants and killers. At least that’s what the church originally believed.

What did Jesus believe about violence? Jesus believed what he said when he was asked about it…

“No more of this!”


(The artwork is a fresco by Giotto di Bondone; The Arrest of Christ, 1305.)