“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
Matthew 10:16-23 (NRSV)
Jesus is commissioning his disciples to go into the Jewish towns in the area announcing that the kingdom of God has come, confirming this state of affairs by overturning Israel’s curse with healings, removal of oppressive spirits, and even resurrection from the dead. This is part of his plan to scale up the deliverance of Israel. The time is here and the people are ready, but there aren’t enough workers. So, in response, he picks disciples and sends them out to replicate his message and works.
As he sends them, he instructs them what to do in towns where they are received and towns where they are not believed or ignored. This doesn’t sound so bad. I’m a Lean Operations consultant, and organizations pay me a good chunk of money to ignore what I have to say (although this is actually something people can do for free).
But here, Jesus ratchets up the warning. The real opposition will not be from the common folk not listening; the opposition will come from the people who will drag them before the religious and political rulers of the day. “I send you out as sheep among wolves,” Jesus says, and the metaphor is apt. The disciples are going out amidst those who will want to kill them, and the disciples themselves will be powerless to stop them. This isn’t just some thug with a knife – it’s the engine of the Temple power structure and the Roman government.
In the face of this opposition, the disciples are to be as cunning as serpents, but harmless as doves. This, in fact, follows the pattern of Jesus, himself, who has proclaimed this message and done the work of the kingdom, but has also tried to keep off the radar of the powers of the age by trying to avoid both publicity and any hint of an insurrection. This is how the disciples are to be as well. They are in an environment that is about to turn destructively hostile. They are to navigate this environment with wisdom and avoid anything that might be an excuse for the powers that be to crush them.
Jesus presents this as an inevitability. It is not an “if,” but a “when.” The irony, however, is that this persecution will get the disciples in front of crowds and powerful people. They will be a testimony (martyrion) to the proclamation of the coming kingdom before not just the Jewish powers, but the Gentile ones as well. The persecution, Jesus predicts, will actually spread the good news rather than snuff it out.
Because in those moments, the Spirit of the Father will speak through them, making the proclamation God wants them to make about the work God is doing in Jesus Christ. They do not need to fear their (literal) trials because God will be present with them and God’s message will get out as a result, though it may take their own blood to do it.
Once the cat is out of the bag, Jesus foresees a rapid movement of these wolves, creating an environment of oppression such that even family members will sell each other out to save their own skins and squash the movement. They will become collaborators with the present age – people who turn against their own people in a conflict because they want to be on what they perceive as the winning side. Their own survival and prosperity is more important to them than their own flesh and blood, and certainly more important than a cause on their behalf.
Obviously, Jesus is telling them the worst because this is exactly the level of heat that causes even the most zealous to waver. Who wants to be a follower of Jesus when their own son will secretly rat them out to the government as an insurrectionist? Who wants to be a follower of Jesus when it will mean being publicly shamed, property seized, and a cross waiting for you to remind you that Augustus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and the King of the Jews is whomever Augustus appoints to that position – not this poor, vagrant Nazarene.
For all our colossal whining about “persecution,” there is nothing a Christian in America undergoes that even minutely approaches the stakes for these early Jesus followers, although some Christians in other countries know.
This is why Jesus has to remind them of the promise – endure to the end, and you will be saved.
Because, you collaborators, the Empire is not the winning side. The High Priest and the Sanhedrin, they are not the winning side. God opposes those proud and, instead, will exalt the humble. A catastrophe that will bring these powers crashing down is right at the doorstep. The kingdom will come. Jesus will be Lord.
And on that day, if you have been driven from the land, you will return. If you have been put in prison, you will be set free. If you have been injured, you will be healed. And if you have been martyred, then you will live again to reign with the true King you were loyal to with your last breath. Endure to the end, and you will be saved.
And is this day far off? No, because they will not get through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. The Son of Man, that great figure from Daniel 7, the holy ones who receive the kingdom from the Ancient of Days – that day is coming faster than the disciples can possibly work, even if they have to flee from every town in Israel.
The hope of deliverance is contingent on faith. Do you believe Jesus is the King? Do you believe his kingdom is coming? Then you will be persecuted by the present kings and kingdoms, but you will endure to the end, and the reward of your loyalty will be with him.
This was the scenario held out to those disciples so long ago.
Do we find kinship with them? Are they our brothers and sisters in faith? Do we hope for the renewed creation? Do we hope for the resurrection? Will our trust in God’s promise produce endurance?
- What situations have you been in that tried your faith? Was it tempting to give it up, even for a little while? What sort of circumstances do you think would produce such a test of your faith?
- What are the powers of this world that claim to rule it? What does claiming the lordship of Jesus look like in the face of those powers?