READ : Matthew 10:16-33
When Jesus sends his followers out into the world with the gospel he warns us that it could be dangerous. But don’t worry. Everything turns out well in the end.
In Matthew 10 Jesus has been giving his followers some instructions about the mission he is sending them out to fulfill. Jesus has called his twelve disciples to himself and given them special authority as his apostles, his missionaries, or “Sent Ones.” He next explains to them what he wants them to do, where he wants them to go, and how he wants them to serve as they take his gospel in words and with deeds out into a lost and broken world.
Now Jesus repeats his commission in verse 16: “Behold, I am sending you out.” The word used there is apostello, the verb form of apostle. But Jesus continues his mission briefing now in a very different vein. He’s already told them that they need to travel very light as they go out in his name: they mustn’t seek payment or reward; they should take no money and only the bare minimum of clothes and equipment with them; they are to rely upon the hospitality of those whom they meet; they must look for people who are responsive to their message and concentrate upon them (vv. 9-14).
And as if all that didn’t make their mission tough enough, now Jesus turns even more serious. He warns his missionaries: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” That’s a warning that is expressed in a metaphor. By this word picture Jesus is telling the apostles both what kind of reception they can expect from a hostile world and how he wants them to respond.
The Bible often uses the image of sheep for the Lord’s people. Think especially of the Psalms, Psalm 23. Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd in John chapter 10, where he has an extended meditation on the meaning of this role for his people, for the sheep who know him and follow him. The Bible normally employs this sheep image to emphasize the pastoral relationship between the Lord and his people. He speaks, they listen; he commands, they obey; he cares for them, they flourish; he leads, they follow. Or sometimes they don’t, when like sheep they go astray, and then bad things happen. But here in Matthew 10 Jesus is using the familiar image to make a different point. When his followers go out in mission to the world they will be like sheep surrounded by wolves. The point is their vulnerability, their seeming helplessness. Sheep against wolves is no contest at all; it’s like paper versus shredder. Wolves will chew sheep up, every time.
Then Jesus goes on to flesh out his warning with concrete examples of what his missionary people can expect. They will be hunted and hounded and punished by both religious and civil authorities. They will face verbal abuse and physical torture. They will be betrayed by members of their own family. Some of them will be killed. “And,” Jesus says, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (v. 22; cf. vv. 17-18, 21). The prospects for those who seek to take the gospel of Christ to the world seem dark indeed.
Does Jesus mean by all of this that the Good Shepherd will abandon his sheep to the wolves? Not at all. We must be careful not to push the image he uses beyond the point he wants to make. What Jesus is stressing is the non-violent character of his mission even in the face of violent attacks. “Put away your sword,” he would tell Peter in Gethsemane. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (cf. Matthew 26:52). Jesus’ apostles are not warriors; the crusades of the Middle Ages, whose disastrous consequences are still with us, had nothing to do with the mission which Jesus entrusted to his disciples. His kingdom can only be advanced by peaceful means.
Jesus is also stressing the intentional vulnerability of his followers. The Swiss Reformer Theodore Beza once said that it is in the nature of the church to receive blows, not to give them. “But,” he added, “it is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.” But Jesus does not intend his sheep-among-the-wolves metaphor to suggest that we should just open ourselves blindly to any and all forms of abuse. He’s not suggesting we should be naive or overly trusting or completely oblivious to common-sense precautions.
Jesus immediately adds a second piece of advice here, also expressed in terms of animal imagery: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (v. 16). In other words, Christians should be harmless and innocent as they serve Christ in the world, but we shouldn’t be stupid. The missionary career of the apostle Paul is a great illustration of how to follow Jesus’ advice. Paul never hesitated to take advantage of the protection the law afforded to him because of his Roman citizenship. He insisted on his legal rights, as, for example, when he appealed his case to Caesar.
In the same way today Christians shouldn’t be foolhardy or neglect prudent measures of self-defense. But Jesus’ main point remains. Christian mission, though always peaceful, isn’t always safe, and we are not excused from our responsibility of bearing witness to the gospel until we can be absolutely sure of our physical security.
If Jesus gives a clear and honest warning about the possible dangers of obeying his command to take the gospel out into the world, he offers even greater encouragements for his missionary followers. Matthew 10 is full of the Lord’s promises to his disciples as they seek to serve him in a hostile environment. Let me point out a few of them.
First, Jesus promises help in bearing witness to him (vv. 19-20). Don’t worry if you’re called before the authorities for questioning, he says, because the Spirit will prompt you what to say. Acts 4 describes how Peter and John were arrested and brought before the religious leaders of Jerusalem because of their witnessing to Jesus. Luke writes that “when [the authorities] saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (v.13). So even getting arrested can be turned into an opportunity to spread the gospel, as it would also prove to be for the apostle Paul (see Philippians 1:12ff.).
Second, Jesus promises eternal security for those who remain steadfast and faithful to him. “The one who endures to the end will be saved,” he says (v. 22). And Jesus adds to that promise a command to his followers to avoid persecution, if possible, by moving to less hostile areas – another application of the wise-as-serpents principle. And then he gives us this great incentive to us to stay faithful to the end. He says the end will come when he himself personally returns (v. 23).
Jesus’ third encouragement to his persecuted church is not so much a promise as a reminder. They shouldn’t be surprised at such treatment, for this is exactly what happened to Jesus himself. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (vv. 24-25). Ill-treatment at the hands of Jesus’ enemies makes us even more one with Jesus himself. Paul expressed his great goal in life this way: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
Then, Christ also promises final vindication for all who serve his cause. One of the truly terrible things about ill-treatment or persecution is the injustice of it. The victims suffer while the perpetrators seem to get away scot-free. And it’s even worse when that injustice is covered up or hidden. Sometimes no one even knows the truth about what was done to innocent people, or who was really responsible. But Jesus says not to worry, because a day is coming when everything – everything – is going to be revealed and made public. “So have no fear of them,” he says, “for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (v. 26). One reason the Lord’s people can eagerly look forward to the final judgment is because it will bring vindication and justice for all who have suffered innocently.
And then Jesus makes a promise that points to our ultimate source of comfort in the face not just of persecution but of any kind of suffering: it is trust in the loving providence of God. Jesus assures us that nothing can happen to us against the will of God or apart from the plan of God for our lives. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (vv. 29-31). Because I belong to Christ, not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven (cf. Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 1) That’s Jesus’ promise.
And then finally. Here’s the last incentive for serving Christ whatever it may cost: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men,” Jesus says, “I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (vv. 32-33). So here’s what you should think about the next time you’re tempted to hide your faith or pretend that you don’t know Jesus rather than risk embarrassment, or perhaps something worse. Some day you are going to stand in judgment before the God of the universe. On that day, would you rather have Jesus speaking for you or against you?
That puts any human opposition we might face into perspective, doesn’t it?