Chapter 2: Jesus: “Put Away Your Sword”

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War
by Albert C. Winn

Chapter 2: Jesus: “Put Away Your Sword”

The other side of the ambiguity of Jesus is well known. The word "peace" was often on his lips. To the woman who was a sinner, and to the woman with the issue of blood, he said, "Go in peace" (Luke 7:50; 8:48; Mark 5:34). Since peace means "health and wholeness," this may have been his customary word to people he healed. Certainly his customary greeting, which served to identify him after the resurrection, was "Peace be with you" (Luke 24:36; John 20:19, 21, 26). And there are the familiar Johannine sayings: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives" (John 14:27). "I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace" (16:33). These words are much loved by Christians and do not seem incompatible with the picture of the commonsense, respectable Jesus sketched at the end of chapter 1.

When we turn, however, to the record of Jesus’ dealing with his enemies, or to the "hard sayings" of the Sermon on the Mount, or to his warning to his nation regarding the Roman occupation, the ambiguity becomes inescapable. It is this side of the ambiguity that has given the church an uneasy conscience regarding war and peace. Volumes have been devoted to the effort to soften it or explain it away.

Actions speak louder than words, so we shall start with Jesus’ own actions in face of the hostility and persecution that confronted him personally.

Jesus’ Personal Actions

One story indicates Jesus’ attitude toward revenge. When he was rejected and turned away from a Samaritan village, his disciples said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went on to another village (Luke 9:52-56).

What about fighting in self-defense? There are many strange stories. At the outset of Jesus’ ministry, the crowd at Nazareth wanted to push him off a precipice. "But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way" (Luke 4:29-30). When the Pharisees took counsel with the Herodians to destroy him, he withdrew to the sea (Mark 3:6-7). When Herod threatened to kill him, he sent word back that he would simply continue his exorcizing, healing ministry (Luke 13:31-32). The Fourth Gospel is full of such stories. His enemies took up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple (John 8:59; cf. 10:31). Several times officers were sent to arrest him, but they came back empty-handed (7:32, 44-47; 8:20; 10:39). After the raising of Lazarus, Jesus no longer went about openly (11:54).

But the confrontation could not be avoided forever. Jesus knew it was coming. The Gospels contain many of his predictions as to what would happen to him (Mark 2:20; 8:31-32; 9:30-32; 10:32-34, 45; 12:7-8; 14:8, 21,27 and par.; also John 2:19-21; 3:14-15; 7:33-34; 8:21, 28; 10:11, 14-15, 17-18; 12:7, 23-24). Jesus struggled against his fate and prayed to escape from it (Mark 14:31-42; Matt. 26:36-46; Luke 22:40-46; cf. John 12:27-28). But in the end he accepted it nonviolently.

When the arresting party captured him in the Garden of Gethsemane, some of his followers attempted aimed resistance. Peter drew a sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, a slave of the high priest. Whatever Jesus may have meant when he told his followers to buy swords (see the discussion of Luke 22:35-38 in chapter 1), when the sword was actually used, he rebuked the user, healed the wounded man,1 and said, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt. 26:51-52; Luke 22:49-51; John 18:10-11).

During his trials that followed, Jesus was mostly silent, so much so that Pilate marveled (Matt. 27:14; Mark 15:5). There is no record that he offered any resistance to the scourging or to the nailing to the cross. When he was taunted and cursed, he did not reply in kind, but prayed for the forgiveness of his tormentors (Luke 23:34) .2

There are those who argue that Jesus’ extraordinary behavior was not necessarily an example as to how his followers should behave. Obviously, Jesus case was unique. He and he alone was the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He was following a prewritten script. He had to fulfill the prophecies that had been written of him. This is attested by a number of Jesus’ sayings: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?" (Matt. 26:53-54). "For [the Human One] goes as it is written of him" (Mark 14:21). "For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’ " (Mark 14:27). "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of [the Human One] by the prophets will be accomplished" (Luke 18:31). "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:25-26). In sum, Jesus’ nonresistance was theologically motivated, to fulfill prophecy, to make atonement; it was not ethically motivated, to do the right thing. Therefore it does not necessarily apply to anyone else.

This argument could easily allay the uneasy conscience of the church -- unless Jesus explicitly taught his followers that they should follow his example in conflict situations. The records state that he did.

Jesus’ Instructions to His Followers

Jesus not only followed a course of nonviolence and nonresistance himself; he commanded his disciples to do likewise: "Do not resist an evildoer" (Matt. 5:39). "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29). "If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well" (Matt. 5:40; Luke 6:29). "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile" (Matt. 5:41).

Jesus went beyond the condemnation of murder to condemn anger and contempt (Matt. 5:21-22). He went beyond limited revenge – "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (v. 38) -- to unlimited forgiveness, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times" (Matt. 18:22; cf. Luke 17:4). Do not judge or condemn your enemies, he says (Matt. 7:1; Luke 6:37); rather, "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28; Matt. 5:43-44). To sum up: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matt. 5:9). Not those who "keep the peace," for the "peace" they keep may be simply the preservation of injustice and institutionalized violence. Rather, those who "make peace," who through their willingness to suffer pain and even death transform the situation to one in which real peace becomes possible. The commands to follow Jesus’ example are also promises to share his glory as "children of God."

How the church has struggled with these sayings! They have been called counsels of perfection, applicable to monks and nuns, but not required of Christians living out in the real world. They have been called an interim ethic, appropriate only if the world is momentarily coming to an end, but inappropriate for the long haul. Perhaps, it is said, they do apply to individual Christians in their daily interpersonal dealings, but there is no way they could be applied to affairs between nations, to matters of war and peace. Yet Jesus did have some things to say to his nation, suffering constantly from institutionalized violence and oppression.

Jesus’ Warning to His Nation

Jesus seems dearly to have seen that his people, constantly hatching armed insurrection, were on a collision course with Roman power. The first three Gospels all attribute to him long discourses about the coming fall of Jerusalem, when not one stone would be left on another (Malt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). On the way to the cross he says,

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves arid for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, "Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed." Then they will begin to say to the mountains, "Fall on us"; and to the hills, "Cover us. For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23:28-31)

Could this terrible doom have been averted? It seems so.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation." (Luke 19:41-44;cf. 13:34-35; Matt. 23:37-39)

What were "the things that make for peace"? Where is Jesus’ alternative program for his nation? Where but in the instructions he gave to his followers, and to the surrounding multitude, who also heard them (see Matt. 7:28; Luke 6:17-19)!

You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor [your fellow Jew] and hate your enemy [the Gentile oppressor]." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters [your fellow Jews], what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:43-48)

The context would indicate that the perfection spoken of here is not perfect sinlessness, but treating friends and enemies with equal kindness, just as God does. Luke, in the parallel passage, has, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). That would be a thing that makes for peace.

It would most likely be a Roman soldier who would force one of Jesus’ hearers to "go one mile," perhaps to carry his pack. It would be a thing that makes for peace to carry it two miles (Matt. 5:41).

The "evildoer," who slaps one of Jesus’ hearers on the cheek, is apt to be a member of the occupation force. Not to seek or take revenge would be a thing that makes for peace.


The ambiguity in the biblical picture of Jesus is real, but the main thrust seems clear enough. For me, at least, it is impossible to conceive of Jesus as approving war as a method of settling international disputes. It is difficult to imagine him with his hand on the nuclear button, threatening the destruction of one hundred million people, including millions of little children, maintaining that "deterrence," based on that threat, is the only way to peace. It is easier to imagine him sitting on the edge of Moscow, and on the edge of Washington, and on the edge of Beijing and Johannesburg and Tel Aviv and Baghdad, and all other seats of military power, and weeping: "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!"

Now, how did Jesus, who was nursed on the Old Testament along with his mother’s milk, come to such a position? Could it be that the Hebrew scriptures are not an unbroken record of war and bloodshed as is often supposed? Are they ambiguous, containing the seeds of Jesus’ advocacy of peace as well as the war passages that are undoubtedly there? Jesus says he came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). Jesus says the scripture cannot be annulled (John 10:35). Did he have a way of reading the Old Testament that made it possible for him to be a peacemaker, that even insisted that he be a peacemaker? That will be our inquiry in Part Two.




1. Carol Frances Jegan points out that this was the last of Jesus’ healing miracles, strangely omitted from the usual lists. More than any other it helps us comprehend something of Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence and forgiveness of enemies. See her Jesus the Peacemaker (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1986), pp. 26-27.

2. This saying is missing in some of the most important ancient manuscripts.