Christian Persecution

Matthew 10: 16-42

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 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 say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

“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. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.

“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 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. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, 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.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Understanding And Applying the Text

At the start of this passage, Christ prepared His disciples for an immediate mission. That lasted only a few days. Now He expands His comments to a future period. He explains He chose the disciples for a much greater and difficult job.

Matthew may have also compressed several teachings into a single passage. Luke relates Jesus gave these same instructions to seventy disciples. (Luke 10:17)

Christ told His disciples He was sending them as sheep among wolves. By calling them sheep He was not referring to mild manners. Nor was He referring to gentleness. He used sheep as the metaphor to emphasize their inability to fight off their enemies. Christ did not furnish them with any means of self-defense.

Their only defense was wisdom and the Spirit. They were not to be so timid they could not do their job. Nor were they to be so brazen so as to inhibit their duty. Serpents know to avoid trouble but can strike with deadly venom. The disciples were to be like the serpent and avoid trouble. But they were not to strike. They were to be as innocent as doves. Dove cannot strike back.

But Jesus told them they could not count on their innocence as a defense. Men will bring them before courts on false charges. Men will flog them, even though they are innocent. They will suffer even though they did nothing wrong. Authorities would disregard their innocence. In a courtroom guilt or innocence is a non sequitur. All that matters is persuasion. If a lawyer can persuade a jury he wins. Truth is not germane.

When men bring you up on false charges, it is natural to be anxious. Yet Jesus told His disciples not to worry. Did he mean the court would drop the charges? Did He mean the court would find the disciples not guilty? No. Jesus said they would be flogged. He said they would be thrown in jail. Their job, their mission, was to proclaim the Gospel. They were to proclaim it everywhere. That included princes, judges, governors, and kings. They were not to worry about their defense. Jesus told them the court would find them guilty. Their innocence was not germane. The court’s decision was predetermined. Even so, they were to proclaim Christ. They were to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

When they spoke, their words would not be their own. The Spirit would give them words to say. Christ did not sugarcoat it. The disciples were going to suffer. But they were not to fear. Why? First, the Holy Spirit would let them know want to say. They did not need to prepare a defense. That did not mean the court would rule in their favor. They were going to jail. They were going to be beat.

Betrayal would be the order of the day. Even family members will betray each other. Parents will betray their children. And children will betray their parents. Families will turn on each other. Men hate Christ. So men hate those speaking in His name. But if we endure to the end we will be saved. Saved from what? Saved from the pit of hell.

Christ said persecution was certain. The disciples were not to fight back. But they were not supposed to stand there and take it. They were to flee. They were to go to a different town altogether.

The disciples were not to fear those with the power to impose physical death. Instead, they were to fear God. He and he alone can kill both the body and the soul. Men hate Christ. They hate God. They turn the vitriol they have against Christ to those who belong to Him. Suffering is not to surprise us. Christ told us it was coming. He spoke in plain simple language. We are to expect it. We are not to seek it but we are to expect it.

But Christ also gave us a promise. “Those who endure to the end will be saved.”

Christ told them that when they faced persecution to flee that town and go to the next.

It may not be safe to remain in any one place. But Christ told them not to worry about it. If men drove them from one place, go someplace else. This is not permission for cowardice. Rather it is a command.

Service to Christ is not a temporary assignment. Soldiers who served their time can withdraw and go home. The Christian is in the fight to the end. When we must withdraw we re-engage at another place.

But what about the withdrawal. Is it cowardice? Is it surrender? We must not condemn all who flee. But not every flight is right.

Some have carried their zeal to an extreme. They equate flight as if one disavowed Christ. If that were true we would have to say the apostles disavowed Christ. We could even say Christ told them to do so. A withdrawal is may be strategic to allow re-engagement.

But the other extreme is wrong as well. Fleeing at the first sign of trouble is not what Christ was talking about either. If so, we could not tell the difference between a good pastor and a hireling during persecution. Augustine captured the essence when he wrote to Honoratus:

“No man must quit his station through timidity, either by betraying the flock through cowardice, or by giving an example of slothfulness; and yet no man must expose himself precipitately, or at random. If a whole church is attacked, or if a part of them is pursued to death, the pastor, whose duty it is to expose his life in place of any individual among them, would do wrong in withdrawing. But sometimes it may happen, that by his absence he will quell the rage of enemies, and thus promote the advantage of the church. In such cases, the harmlessness of the dove must be his guide, that effeminate persons may not seize on his conduct as an excuse for their timidity: for the flesh is always too ingenious in avoiding what is troublesome.”

Augustine of Hippo to Honoratus

Christ then said something that has perplexed many. “I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (v23b) My belief is this perplexity is a result of an incorrect eschatology. That is an incorrect view of the second coming. But in making such a claim I understand that I stand in opposition to many great learned and godly men. But I also do not stand alone. Many learned and godly men hold and have held my position. So it is with humility I present my view as to why this statement is not a problem. In fact, should encourage us. This prophecy was fulfilled as Christ stated it. Rather than concern, it should reinforce our confidence and faith.

Christ said they would not go through all the towns of Israel be for the Son of Man comes. So there are a few options. First, all the towns of Israel still have not been reached. Second, Jesus was mistaken. Or the Son of man has come.

Going through all the towns of Israel happened in the first century. So that option contradicts historical facts.

If Jesus was wrong it challenges His ability to redeem us. That means He taught something that was incorrect. If he taught something that was incorrect he was not sinless. And if He was not sinless he cannot save even Himself let alone us.

That leaves us with only one option. That is the Son of Man has come.

Since that is the only option left to us. Many have tried to redefine the coming of the Son of Man. They claim the “coming” is Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Or it is the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. But there is no evidence to support that. The disciples did not suffer intense persecution before Jesus’ resurrection or Pentecost. Plus this conflicts with the purpose for the coming of the Son of Man stated elsewhere, i.e. to bring judgment.

The “coming” refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. This was an act of judgment. This accounts for the urgency the disciples and church felt. This view fits the historical facts. It also fits other scriptural references to the coming of the Son of Man as a fearful thing.

This is not the final return of Christ. That is the problem many make understanding eschatology. I will not take the time to develop the argument further here. I will simply assert the Son of Man came in judgment in 70 AD on the Jewish nature and thus ended the age of the Jews. i.e. “the end of the age.” For a better and fuller understanding see the study on the book of the Revelation of John.

Jesus issued a warning. Bad things were coming. But He also voices encouragement. “Fear not!” The disciples were to fear God, not men.

Christ supports His encouragement with three arguments. First, the disciples were to reveal it all. All the secret things they were to shine a light on and shout from the rooftops. Second, while people can kill the body, only God can punish the soul and body. Third, God knows all that happens. He knows when a sparrow falls. He knows the number of hairs on our heads. Both fear and reverence are appropriate responses to God.

The cause of Christ is divisive. Men pick sides. Most will line up against Christ. Preaching the gospel will cause civil unrest. Riots occur. Anger overboils. The gospel does not bring peace. Rather it brings a sword. This is not to mean the Christian is to pick up the sword in the name of Christ. No. Others will pick up the sword as a result of Christ. Those who belong to Him are to be as innocent as doves.

Christ is to consume us. We are to recognize our purpose in life is Christ. Taking up our cross is to obey and Jesus even to death. It is not the bearing of some particular burden.

It use to be a very popular saying in the sixties, “I need to find myself.” Christ said that is the best way to lose yourself. When it is all about you. You are lost. Today the speech is more around being true to yourself. Or “This is who I am” If that is our focus. We are lost. It is not about us. We are to lose ourselves. We are to lose ourselves for Christ. In doing so find our purpose. We are here and die in this world. But in Christ, we live forever.

When Christ referred to “these little ones” He was not referring to children. This is clear by the rest of the sentence ” because he is a disciple.” His reference was to His disciples. They and we are like little children. Jesus’ remark about reward underscores the importance of accepting and assisting even believers. We are to assist those who even seem insignificant.

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