“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
Matthew 10:32-33 (NRSV)
A quick recap of Matthew 8-10 up to this point:
- Jesus is bringing the coming kingdom, forgiving Israel of her sins and overturning the penalties for her sins, demonstrated by healing and casting out demons.
- Jesus is moved by the plight of how lost and oppressed his people are and realizes he can only do so much, himself.
- Jesus commissions a group of disciples with his own authority to spread out among the people, making the same proclamation and accompanying it with the same deeds of forgiveness, healing, and liberation.
- Jesus warns that this increased activity will draw the attention of the powers that be, inviting opposition and persecution for all of them.
- Jesus encourages his disciples that their opposition will fall in a judgement that they, themselves, will survive – if nothing else than by resurrection and glorification – and that no matter what happens to them, God knows, cares, and will act.
There is a flip side to all this, however.
Jesus knows that, when persecution heats up, the temptation will be strong to give all of this up and go back to fishing or whatever the disciples were doing before they decided to follow Jesus. It might not even take persecution; they may be tempted to give it up the first night they have to go hungry because they can’t find someone to give them food and shelter for the night. Giving up the kingdom and going back to trying to eke out a reasonably comfortable existence is both a reasonable and attractive option to consider in the face of persecution.
When a disciple is dragged in front of the Sanhedrin, perhaps beaten, and commanded to stop proclaiming that the kingdom has come and Jesus is its king under the threat of imprisonment or death, it would be so easy just to say, “Ok,” and get back to your regular life. You think about your family. You think about your own well-being. You think about pain. You think about your fears for the future.
And at this stage in the game, you may have seen what you consider miracles, but you still don’t know how all this is going to turn out. There has been no resurrection nor ascension. In fact, persecution from this age’s powers is something you’d expect not to happen if Jesus were the actual expected Messiah. You’d expect the Sanhedrin would be in prison begging for mercy, not the other way around. Healing people is all fine and good, but now the people in power are about to regulate, and Jesus’ counsel is to… suck it up? Try and hang in there?
That doesn’t sound like a conquering king, does it?
These disciples in the first century had far more at stake and far less reasons to hang in there than many of us do in the West. We’re petrified that a co-worker might make fun of us, but these disciples would have given anything for mockery to be their worst case scenario. In other parts of the world, today, that’s still the case.
But always, always, Jesus in Matthew draws us back around to the fundamental decision: Do you want to stand and fall with the present age, or do you want to stand and fall with the new Israel?
The present age has a lot going for it. It’s already here, for instance. Its powers are in place. Its society is defined. You can find your place in it, and while you may be having a rough go of it, at least you’re alive. At least you’re not being tortured. At least you can deal with it. And being an ally of the present age asks very little of you – in fact, all you need to do is absolutely nothing.
What does the new Israel have to offer? It has no power. Its members are the dirtiest, stupidest, sinningest, rag-tag dregs of society you can imagine. No guarantees of even the basics of food and shelter. The only, single, solitary thing they have going for them is Jesus and all the promises of God he claims to represent. If you want to join up, you have to repent of your sins, embrace a new life of faithfulness, and follow Jesus even if that means your imprisonment or death.
Who on earth would make a decision to stand against the powers that be to embrace life with these other people?
The people who have faith – that’s who. The people who believe. The people who trust. And, perhaps in some cases, that trust is facilitated by having lost everything this world had to give them. Because if you believe Jesus then you believe the judgement is coming, and the world and its powers will find themselves on the business end of God’s great renovation on the road to a new, better world. You can ditch Jesus, now, and remain separate from him when God’s wrath arrives, or you can embrace Jesus, now, and be found as one of his faithful servants on that day.
But this decision only has meaning if God is going to make good on His promises to Israel and Jesus is who he says he is. At this point in the story, the disciples have no way of knowing that for sure. They have signs, yes, but so much of what they see around them and what they are about to experience will challenge these claims of Jesus.
In the midst of such fires, they have to trust.
- In what ways have you been challenged to give up the faith? In what spheres of life is it difficult to be faithful and assimilation would be much more attractive?
- A lot of our journey continues to be based on trust. Is our trust blind? What are some of the reasons you find God trustworthy?