Thanks friend for your thoughtful questions on this important topic. I wrote a minor thesis on this as a response and then realized, it probably is more than you or anyone wanted. Please allow me to give you some of my current thoughts on your questions. Your post really is a two-parter. Question One: “should we do exactly what Jesus did?” And question two: “Tell me: after three years of traveling with Jesus, why did the disciples carry swords?” I will start with the sword question. Let me put the passage you referred to here, it will help me:
35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”
“Nothing,” they answered.
36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.
38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied
49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” (Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” John 18, Matthew 26) And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
What kind of swords?
What were the nature of these swords? μάχαιρα could equally be translated knife. It generally refers to a large knife with a slight backwards curve, though it can mean any knife or sword, even a surgeon's scalpel. Though they could do damage, like cut off ears, they are not Roman soldier-type weapons.
They were most likely like a hunting knife or an all purpose tool. In a rugged first century world they would be used for everything from scissors, to carving, to preparing and eating food, and considering the large number of fishermen in the group, it is no surprise that they had several of these knives.
It is well documented throughout the conquered empire, the Romans did not want their subjects armed, so any military grade swords held would have been held illegally.
What were they for?
What is Jesus telling them to do in these verses? On this important evening he tells them to take supplies for a long trip and take a knife with them; and when they ask (“Lord, should we strike with our swords?”), Jesus forbade them from being used against humans in this verse. “Put it away! This is not how we are to live and die.” So whatever they looked like, they were not for weapons of warfare against flesh. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.(2 Corinthians 10:4)
Was Jesus telling his disciples in the future (after his death) to arm themselves or protect themselves? If so, why do we see all the accounts of the disciples out in the world under threat not reverting to this self defense? They all live a life of non-violence and self sacrifice. None of the Apostles fought or even tried to fight their way out of fiery trials or on behalf of others with “swords.” It seems the example of Jesus throughout his life and in the Garden of Gethsemane made an impression on them. They did not believe Jesus was unique in this, nor that they were exempt. No, they embraced the non-violent Way of Jesus as the model for their life.
When they present two “swords” and Jesus says that those are enough, the obvious question is: two swords are enough for what? Are they enough for a physical fight to resist arrest? Were the two swords enough for an armed rebellion against other political and religious groups in a military way? Jesus obviously did not intend the swords for this purpose in Luke 22:52 Jesus asks: "Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs?" The answer is no.
When Peter used the sword to cut off the guard’s ear, Jesus rebuked him, and then demonstrated the kind of power the Kingdom of God does use to advance its cause, by healing the guards ear. Given how Jesus responds to Peter’s use of the sword, and given everything Jesus says about loving enemies, doing good to them, turning the other cheek, and so on, it’s clear to me that, whatever Jesus was intending in telling his followers to buy “swords,” he clearly didn’t have in mind for them to hurt people.
So what does it mean, to buy a knife? In context, He said “When i sent you before... but now.” In other words “I am sending you again.” I conclude that he is sending them to the ends of the earth and he says “Pack!” What do you need? Good shoes, some cash and a backpack, a warm coat, and a way to prep camp sites and prep food.
Two kingdoms in conflict
For me the important lens needed to interpret this passage has to be in context with the other things Jesus did and said. The Kingdom that Jesus began and is the age that will never end, is defined as a kingdom of love and peace. The kingdom of this current evil age is a broad road that leads its followers down a cycle of death and destruction. The methods and aims are opposite.
Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world (“or else my followers would fight,” Jesus told Pilate). The weapons used to advance his Kingdom must not be the weapons of the world. The Kingdom that Jesus is establishing would be advanced through the weakness of the cross, not by the wielding of the sword. He calls us to follow in taking up our cross, sent out as sheep among wolves. The weapons of the world must never be taken up by Christ-ians to advance the cause of the Christ.
The Kingdom that Jesus established will one day grow to encompass the whole world (Dan. 2:31-45, 1 Cor. 15:24-25). Because the Prince of Peace has come, we are on a trajectory where the day will eventually come when we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Behold he is making all things new, the old is passing away.
The disciples didn’t seem to get it immediately. Over and over, Jesus instructs them to love their enemies and to lay down their lives for one another, take up their cross and forgive, not call fire on or cut ears off. But the disciples then, as many now, do not understand this Jesus. They hear his Sermon on the Mount, and they celebrate the Passover meal with him while asking, "Lord, shall we strike with a sword?
Followers of Jesus are people who love our enemies; who prefer to undergo violence rather than inflict it upon others. We stand as a testimony to the age to come. We are part of the Kingdom of Heaven which is growing as Mount Zion to encompass all the earth.
In this world violence begets violence. Nukes beget more nukes. Killing only begets more death. The good news of Jesus is that he has shown us a better way and called us to make disciples of the nations of this better way. Jesus triumphs over death and the violence of this present evil age through his own death. And now invites us to join him in the present and future experience of His Kingdom. He shouts to the endless cycle of killing and violence: “Stop, no more of this!”
Jesus issues this final command, “No more of this!” - and his friends turn and run away. They run not only from the armed men; they run from the unarmed, nonviolent Jesus who will not defend himself against personal harm. They know that this will lead to torture and execution; a most unwise thing to those who know the powers of this present evil age. It is craziness and foolishness.
Your first question was: “Should we do exactly what Jesus did?... It sounds pious to say "we should follow Jesus' example"...but that's not necessarily what He wants for us.”
I am sure i often sound pious, and for that I am sorry. I am trying to change. I am growing in all of this and every year understanding more and perhaps less... Here are some of my current thoughts on this.
I am of the opinion we are supposed to model our life after his life. I don't think His only value was his death and resurrection. I think every day he lived was valuable to show us how to live this life. Not only does Jesus call his disciples to follow him and do life as he did and minister as he did, but paul and John also echo this idea most strongly. Allow me to point out a few verses that speak to our mission to allow Jesus to live His life again through us.
We are told to “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children. and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21)
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5)
After his resurrection he told his followers: “As the Father sent me so I send you.” (John 20:21) Verses like, “I did not come to be served but to serve and lay down my life for many” become verses for us to live out. “He did not come to condemn the world but to save it” indicate the mission he sends us all around the world to accomplish. As he was sent so are we. So he was the first, but we are called to continue his life and mission.
Jesus did say, “Follow me,” which may seem so far out of reach for us normal humans, until we realize that Jesus who was fully God, lived his life fully human. He was normal like you and I. Philippians 2 says he laid aside all of his rights and powers as God to become like us. He then was tempted in every way like us, and he felt everything just like we did. How did he do all the snazzy cool things like healing and having inside information on the woman at the well? He had the Holy Spirit’s help even like we have available to us.
He was unique in that he was first. He was singular in that he was perfect,
but we are also called to allow his life to live through us again. We become a new generation of people who have his life and spiritual DNA and follow his example. Jesus was the first born of this Kingdom, among many brothers and sisters who would live life as he modeled. When we are baptized it is our symbol of dying and being buried with Christ. When we come out of the water to newness of life: allowing him to live his life through us. As Paul said: “For us to live is Christ.”
When we allow the Spirit of Christ to do his work in us it will result in the fruit of the Spirit (shorthand for being like Jesus). What will that look like? Among other things it will result in more love, peace, kindness, and gentleness in our life.
Jesus, who said, “Turn the other cheek,” was talking to us. The teachings of Jesus show us not only what God is like but who he wants to be through us. The Sermon on the Mount is not just the rantings of an idealist who doesn’t understand how the real world is. These are from our King showing us how to live, a code of conduct for people who are being saved from the sins of this world and out of this present evil age’s way of doing things. We are admonished to not live our life as the pagans do, chasing after the same things they do, worrying about what we will eat or wear, our stuff or security. But rather seek first the Kingdom’s priorities and ways, and they are in contrast to the ways that seem right to natural man... fight, kill and defend to preserve or expand what you have. But Jesus shows us a better way; it is foolishness to the world’s logic.
As we embrace the ways of the Kingdom, individuals are transformed, communities and the nations are discipled. We are told that all of creation longs for our appearing (Romans 8:19). As he lives his life through us we will be bringing his Kingdom to earth. We are not to just pray vaguely, to the Prince of Peace, but specifically: “Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth.”
I am discovering that the call to live like Jesus is a light burden. It means Love. It is a narrow road that few choose to walk. But to follow Jesus in His triumphal procession in weakness is what we are invited to do. 1 John2:6 tells us “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” Understanding that I don’t live in the first century or in modern day Palestine, (so there will be some differences, i.e. I don’t eat hummus every day by the light of an oil lamp (though I’d love to eat hummus every day); We are told the measure of living like him is to not hate, but to love. Loving our enemies and laying down our life for others is the highest measure of this, according to the teachings and example of Jesus.