16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 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. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 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. 24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 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.
In James J. O’Donnell’s fascinating book Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity (in which O’Donnell talks about the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire and how the new movement eclipsed the traditional Roman religions), he talks about one of the most notorious critics of Christianity, the 2nd century Greek philosopher, Celsus. The only way we know about Celsus’ thoughts is through the writings of the church father Origen who passed on numerous of his statements and sentiments. O’Donnell has offered a fascinating summary of Celsus’ hatred of Jesus and Christianity.
Jesus is a second-rater for Celsus, a colleague of riffraff, a perpetrator of truly second-rate miracles, skulking about in shadows to avoid punishment, unable to inspire in his followers even the loyalty of a robber band, wallowing in pain and self-pity in Gethsemane, and surely never behaving like a god (1.62, 1.68, 2.9, 2.12, 2.24). “What fine action did Jesus do like a god? Did he despise men’s opposition and laugh and mock at the disaster that befell him?” (2.33). “Why, if not before, does he not at any rate now show forth something divine, and deliver himself from this shame, and take his revenge on those who insult both him and his Father?” (2.35). The crucifixion was just the moment when you would expect some glorious manifestation of divine power, but there was none. Real gods are not to be messed with: “You pour abuse on the images of these gods and ridicule them, although if you did that to Dionysus himself or to Heracles in person, perhaps you would not escape lightly. The men who tortured and punished your God in person suffered nothing for doing it, not even afterwards as long as they lived” (8.41). Resurrection? There have been plenty of people rising from the dead, like Zalmoxis, the slave of Pythagoras among the Scythians. What about Rhampsinitus in Egypt, who went down to Hades and played dice with the queen of the underworld, returning with the gift of a golden napkin from her? Orpheus and Protesilaus and Hercules and Theseus: Why should anyone take Jesus and his pallid story seriously?
It is fascinating to read these words today. Celsus positively rages against Jesus and the early church. And, while some of the arguments may have changed (or may not have!), his spirit lives on today.
Jesus and His church have always had critics, have always had detractors. Sometimes the church is guilty of that which her critics allege against her, to her shame. Jesus, of course, never is! Even so, one of the great constants for the last two thousand years has been opposition to Christianity.
This should not surprise us. Jesus promised as much, as we will see in our text.
The church must possess both wisdom and innocence.
Jesus first calls upon His missionary people to have the twin virtues of innocence and wisdom.
16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
In point of fact, the very first thing Jesus does is draw on a metaphor that vividly communicates the danger of their situation: “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Proclaiming the gospel in a fallen world will lead some to believe, it is true, but it will lead many to be angry and reject both the message and the messenger. To be a Christian with any sense of authenticity is to invite the scorn of the world. We are sent as sheep in the midst of wolves. We must never forget that this is the image Jesus chose to describe our current situation in the world.
But sheep and wolves are not the only animals Jesus alludes to. He alludes also to serpents and doves. And perhaps surprisingly we are called upon by Jesus to be both like serpents and doves: like serpents in their wisdom and like doves in their innocence. I say this is surprising because sheep, we must say, are actually widely considered to be notoriously stupid animals! And serpents are usually seen in a negative light. So Jesus is, to put it mildly, using some eyebrow-raising metaphors. David Platt has wrestled with these images in an interesting way.
But is it possible to be as foolish as sheep and as smart as snakes? If so, how? Jesus tells them go to danger without reservation or hesitation, and when they’re there, to be smart. It’s similar to Jesus going boldly into the presence of Pilate and the Roman officials, like “a lamb led to the slaughter” (Isa 53:7), yet while He’s being beaten and taken off to be crucified, Jesus speaks with wisdom. He doesn’t needlessly incite anger or trouble. The command to be wise leads to Jesus’ third instruction with regard to how His disciples should conduct themselves as they follow His summons to go: they are to be as pure as doves. When you’re with the wolves, don’t let them have anything against you when it comes to your purity. Do not be abrasive, inconsiderate, or belligerent. Be innocent in the middle of difficult situations and thereby demonstrate what purity looks like in action.
This is well said. Jesus did indeed model innocence and wisdom in a way that we must see and embrace. We should be an innocent people, a holy people, a people of simplicity, a people without guile. But we should be wise as well. To be innocent is not to be reckless or foolish. It is certainly not to be stupid. It is rather to be pure-hearted and sober-minded.
Think of what happens when a follower of Jesus loses his or her innocence. They open themselves up to charges of hypocrisy. Yes, they become hypocrites! Their witness is damaged. The church itself suffers.
And think of what happens when followers of Jesus are not wise. They are foolish. They are easily duped. They are childish, instead of being childlike. The former is a scandal for a grown person (1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”). But the latter is a virtue and a sign of Christ-likeness (Matthew 18:3, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”).
The church must be able to endure.
To be sheep in the midst of wolves is to be courageous and to show the ability to endure.
17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 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. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 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.
This is hardly a comforting advertisement for Christianity if one is looking for a path of ease and frivolity. But such is not the way of the Kingdom, at least insofar as it passes through this fallen world. To be a follower of Jesus is to carry a cross in the midst of people who would like to nail you to one as well. To be a follower of Jesus is to open the possibility of suffering, of persecution. And I do not mean the silly things that modern, comfortable, spoiled, American Christians sometimes wrongly label “persecution.” I mean the type of actual persecution that many in hostile countries actually do face today.
We should ask ourselves: can we endure if we suffer? What Jesus promises is chilling to hear, from the perspective of the flesh:
- trials in court
- being drug before authorities
- betrayals by family members
- being put to death
- being hated
- having to flee persecution
This is what the church collectively can expect, even if, by God’s grace, not every part of the church experiences this in every moment. Even so, Jesus calls for endurance!
22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
In the comfortable West it is hard for us to conceive of the need for grit, but that is what Jesus is calling for here.
And history has oftentimes shown the church demonstrating this very virtue! O’Donnell, speaking of the stubborn adherence of the early Christians to their unpopular creed, writes about how the Romans viewed them as arrogant and bull-headed in their refusal to embrace the pagan ways of Roman.
So arrogant and assertive were they that they brought down on their own heads the wrath of governors and emperors in waves of persecution, culminating in the great persecutions of the 250s and 300s CE, when the full force of imperial law insisted that every citizen of the emperor show his or her loyalty by performing sacrifice to the traditional gods. Their heroic resistance to persecution was exemplary.
Heroic resistance to persecution! This is that to which Jesus is calling His church!
We do need to deal with verse 23, a verse that has been much discussed and debated over the years.
23 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.
The ESV Study Bible has nicely laid out the various interpretations that Christians have proposed over the years.
Several interpretations have been suggested: the coming of the Son of Man may refer to (1) Jesus’ resurrection, when he came back from the dead, (2) his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, (3) his coming in judgment on Jerusalem when it was destroyed in A.D. 70, or (4) the second coming of Christ at the end of the age.
New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has argued, however, that in this portion of Matthew 10 Jesus is speaking not of the specific missionary journey to the Jews that occupies the attention of the first part of the chapter but rather to the wider and ongoing mission of the church throughout the ages.
Verse 23b, a uniquely Matthean text, is often misinterpreted as if it appeared in the more limited context of the immediate mission of vv. 5-16. Then it is taken as a mistaken prediction of Jesus’ second coming during the lifetime of the Twelve. In this context of post-resurrection ministry, however, it is better viewed as a reference to the perpetually incomplete Jewish mission, in keeping with Matthew’s emphasis on Israel’s obduracy. Christ will return before his followers have fully evangelized the Jews. But they must keep at it throughout the entire church age.
Michael Wilkins agrees with Blomberg, arguing that “[i]n 10:5-15, Jesus gave instructions to the disciples about their short-term mission to Israel during Jesus’ earthly ministry” but “[i]n 10:16-23, Jesus gives instructions to the disciple/apostles about their long-term mission throughout the world until his return.” Meaning that Jesus will indeed return before all Jews have come to faith in Him.
The church must prepare to be misunderstood and maligned just as Jesus was.
Behind the world’s opposition to the church is a fundamental fact about the nature of the church: the church is the body of Christ and therefore, when she is faithful, the representative of Christ in the world. In other words, if the church is truly being the body of Christ it can expect to receive the same response that Christ received: the embrace of some but the violent rejection of many others.
24 A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 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.
This is most powerful! Jesus asks them how they expect to be treated if the world dared to call Him Satan!
All of this raises an interesting litmus test for the church: the litmus test of suffering. Again, granted that not all of the church suffers all the time (thankfully!), we may nonetheless say on the basis of Jesus’ words that a church that never receives opposition is a church that is not being consistent and faithful and bold in its proclamation and enactment of Jesus’ life-giving but people-dividing message!
Dallas Willard once wrote that “[o]ur aim is to be pervasively possessed by Jesus through constant companionship with him.” That is nicely put. That is the goal of the believer! But if that is so, if, that is, we are “pervasively possessed by Jesus through constant companionship with him,” does it not stand to reason that we will receive the same responses that Jesus received when He walked in flesh among us?
To be like Christ is to suffer like Christ.
And we may say this: this is not a call for us to seek suffering or desire it. It is simply a statement of what will be! It is simply another way of saying that the people of the cross will need to carry their crosses!
So I ask myself and I ask you as well: Are you ready to do that? Are we ready to do that?
What would make us ready for such suffering? Simply this: a bedrock conviction that the gospel is truth and the gospel is life and it is the difference between heaven and hell for lost and suffering humanity. If you believe that, then you will be willing to suffer and, if need be, die for it. If you believe that, you will believe that the gospel is worth proclaiming at any and all costs!
If you do not believe that and see instead the gospel as a nice platitude with which you have a general sense of vague agreement but which is otherwise largely irrelevant to your life, then you will see no sense in suffering for it at all. Indeed, if that defines your embrace of the gospel you will almost certainly have no opportunity to suffer for it anyway.
I pray that we are the former people (those who believe the gospel is life or death) and not the latter (those who do not). That is, I pray we will be a community of the cross, followers of Jesus, innocent as doves and wise as serpents, and willing to lay down our lives for the cause of Christ in the world!
 O’Donnell, James J.. Pagans (pp. 101-102). Ecco. Kindle Edition.
 Platt, David. Exalting Jesus in Matthew (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2578-2585). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 O’Donnell, James J., p. 12.
 Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 117907-117915). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.
 Blomberg, Craig L.. Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary) (p. 176). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clinton E. Arnold. Vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.69.
 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), 16.