A couple weeks ago I wrote an article about self-defense, seeking to answer the question whether Christians could defend themselves from violent, physical attack. This was in response to a question I received from a member of New City. I was expecting a follow-up question, but I was surprised when it came from the Council of Elders! They asked me to write another article about the use of guns. Let me say at the outset this article is about a very specific and narrow point concerning a particular verse and in no way is intended to answer every question about guns.
Let me also say at the outset that like Paul and the Philippians, our citizenship is in heaven. Paul wrote this shocking statement to the Christians in Philippi—a Roman colony. They thought of themselves as Romans, though they were far from the city of Rome. The culture was Roman. The laws were Roman. Everything about the Philippians was Roman. Most of the inscriptions we’ve found there from the first and second centuries are in Latin, indicating just how Roman the city was—even its language was Roman! Philippian residents were exempt from poll and property taxes and were protected by Roman laws. When the city had been re-founded as a Roman colony by Octavian in 31BC, hundreds of army veterans moved there in retirement, resulting in the city having an extraordinarily high percentage of citizenship. Scholars estimate just 5-10% of those living in the empire were Roman citizens; as many as 40% of those living in Philippi were! It was to the church in Philippi Paul wrote:
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…Philippians 3:20 ESV
To a church in a city that took great pride in its Roman citizenship, this would have been shocking. He is reminding them their fundamental identity is not Roman, but Christian—CHRISTian. It is not who Rome thinks they are that matters ultimately but who they are in Christ. Earlier in the letter he told them this:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel…Philippians 1:27 ESV
The phrase “manner of life” translates a single Greek word. It has the same root as “citizenship”. Our English word “politics” comes from this same root. It means to live as a citizen or to conduct one’s life in a way that reflects that citizenship. Paul tells the Christians in Philippi they are to live in such a way that rightly reflects their citizenship, then he tells them their true citizenship is in heaven—not Rome. Following Jesus is what determines their values and their behavior, not the demands of Roman citizenship. It is their allegiance to Jesus Christ who is Lord of all that ought to determine their values and ethics. How they conduct themselves, their “manner of life”, ought to be worthy of the gospel of Christ, not worthy of Caesar.
This means our politics must be determined by the Lord Jesus and not our American citizenship. Christians in North Korea must have their politics determined by the Lord Jesus and not by their status as North Korean citizens. Believers in China and Saudi Arabia and the Congo must value that which reflects their true citizenship in heaven rather than what the political ethos of their nation values. What you and I value ought to be determined by the Lord Jesus and not by the American flag. What motivates us to live ought to be the Lord Jesus and his glory and not “Old Glory”. Following Jesus may cause us to be good citizens of this nation, but following Jesus may well come to the choice between being a good Christian and being a good American. If Jesus is Lord, as we commonly confess, then our decision must always be to follow Jesus and Jesus alone, even if this means being a bad American.
With this in mind, let’s get to the Elders’ follow-up question. You may have seen the bumper sticker: “If Jesus had a gun, he’d still be alive today.” On its face this is untrue. It is blatantly false. Jesus declared he could have called twelve legions of angels to protect him. Given one angel killed 185,000 Assyrian troops in one night during Hezekiah’s reign, surely 72,000 angels would be far more potent than a gun. Jesus would not have had a gun, let alone use it!
One verse that is commonly cited on the issue of gun rights and gun ownership is Luke 22:36. One of the Elders pointed out that he read some folk who claimed this verse compels Christians to arm themselves. Let’s look at it. The context is the night Jesus was betrayed. He shared his final meal with the disciples. He told Simon Peter his faith would fail him and he would deny Jesus three times. Then he said this:
And he said to them, “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. 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.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”Luke 22:35–38 ESV
Here Jesus instructs them to get a sword. If they don’t have one they must sell something in order to buy one. Before we look at their response, we need to understand Jesus’ point here. Prior to this when Jesus sent them on mission, they were forbidden from taking a moneybag and knapsack, etc, but were to rely on his provision for them (Luke 10:1–4). Here, however, he tells them to make sure they have these things and adds a sword. As one scholar noted, when Jesus speaks metaphorically they understand him literally and when Jesus speaks literally they understand him metaphorically. They misunderstand his metaphorical point here.
He knows his time is short. He will not be with them much longer. In a sense they will have to provide for themselves. Ministry was about to change quite significantly for them. We see they misunderstood in Jesus’ rebuke. When they tell Jesus they already have two swords he declares, “It is enough.” Some take this to mean the two swords are enough, but for what? Against a large contingent of armed soldiers? Notice he does not say, “They are enough”, but “It is enough”. Jesus is frustrated with their lack of understanding and tells them, essentially, to zip it. Imagine a frustrated parent reaching the end of his rope with the back-talking pre-teen and snaps at her, “That’s enough!” That’s what Jesus means. He speaks metaphorically of providing for themselves on the mission and they still think he’s preparing to fight all of Rome.
Jesus allows them to keep the swords, however, and notice why: the Scripture must be fulfilled. One of the many prophecies Jesus fulfilled was this one: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” It’s clear Jesus had no intention for them to wield a sword in defense for in verses 49–51 he rebukes Peter for his criminal activity in assaulting the servant of the high priest. Thus Jesus was counted among lawbreakers.
To cite Luke 22:36 as a justification for purchasing a weapon such as a gun is a twisting of the meaning of Scripture. Jesus is not commanding his disciples to employ violence to defend either him or themselves. This is why we see non-violent reactions to persecution throughout the book of Acts. They understood the way of Jesus eschews violence. To try to interpret Jesus’ command given to the disciples in a literal way so as to justify gun ownership when Jesus rebuked them for this same misunderstanding is to repeat their mistake and miss his very purpose. It is to think from an earthly perspective, rather than from the perspective of those whose citizenship is in heaven.
Often those who would cite Luke 22:36 as a justification for owning guns also speak of their rights as citizens of this nation. To those same Philippians Paul wrote,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Philippians 2:3–8 ESV
Paul says Jesus did not insist on his own rights but gave them up for the good of others. This is the mindset we are to have. The apostle commands them to think this way, to have the mind of Christ. Just before this, in chapter 1, he told them to let their manner of life—their behavior that reflects their true citizenship—be worthy of the gospel of Christ. He tells them in chapter 3 their true citizenship is in heaven and from heaven we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s easy to gloss over these words. In first-century Rome Caesar was hailed as a savior. Caesar was called lord. When offering a pinch of incense to Caesar as part of the imperial cult, the worshiper would utter the words “Caesar is lord”. Christians were persecuted because they could not offer a pinch of incense and certainly could not make this same confession. At the risk of death Christians would only confess, “Jesus is Lord”. They recognized their citizenship is in heaven, whether they had earthly citizenship in Rome or not. Their priority was living as citizens of God’s kingdom, not man’s.
Going back to the “if Jesus had a gun” bumper sticker, what if he did? And what if he used it? We would be lost. If Jesus had wielded the sword and fought off the Roman soldiers or if he had called twelve legions of angels, we would be lost! There would be no salvation! Why would anyone ever seek to use that same argument to justify owning guns? The consequences of Jesus owning and using a weapon would have been disastrous; on what basis are we, who must have the mind of Christ, willing to do differently than he would?
The issue comes down to this: when we speak of guns and the right to own guns, do we sound like citizens of heaven or do we sound like citizens of this nation? You might be tempted to say both but remember Jesus declared no one can serve two masters, for either he will love one and hate the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. Do we strive to live out the values of God the Father or the Founding Fathers?
The point here is not really about owning guns but about the thinking that ought to be behind the conversation itself. We cannot use Luke 22:36 to defend the use of guns, for to do so is to twist Scripture and to be as dense as the apostles themselves were dense. We ought to ask ourselves whether we truly have the mind of Christ. Do we think as citizens of his kingdom or as citizens of an earthly kingdom? As Paul instructed the Colossian church:
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.Colossians 3:2 ESV
Only by doing this can we think and act as those whose citizenship is in heaven. Only by setting our minds on Jesus and his glory can we hope to ever think rightly about guns or money or power or even earthly citizenship. Only by living as citizens of his kingdom and embracing the values of his kingdom can we ever hope to be a true prophetic witness in this world.
It all comes down to this: the true King of the only everlasting kingdom displays this characteristic: in love he laid down his life for the good of others. As citizens of his kingdom, in order to live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus, we must live lives characterized by love—not guns. We must live lives characterized by self-sacrifice and giving—not the assertion of our rights. To be good citizens we must live and act like the King.