As Sheep Among Wolves
Topic: Persecution Passage: Matthew 10:16–23
Last Sunday, we finished Revelation. The plan now is for me to join the others in preaching through Matthew; and what a challenging passage we must consider this morning. Not that it’s hard to grasp. I mean, there’s one difficulty to sort through. But for the most part, the main point is clear. The real challenge comes in seeing the cost of following Jesus.
To this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been preaching the kingdom of God and then proving how the kingdom was present in him. The Old Testament expected a day of great reversal, when God would manifest his rule in this broken world and rightly order things. On that day, the blind would receive sight, the lame would leap like the deer, the oppressed would know freedom. Then comes Jesus, and step-by-step Jesus not only proclaims the kingdom with great authority—see Sermon on the Mount—but he also demonstrates his own authority by healing the broken and delivering the oppressed. The long-awaited King has come, in other words.
Not only that—Jesus then starts spreading his kingdom. He starts with a new Twelve from Israel. He commissions twelve disciples and entrusts them with the same message of God’s kingdom. They’re supposed to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and spread the word about God’s kingdom. Jesus also gives them authority to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons. The disciples become an extension of Jesus’ own mission. To embrace their message was to embrace the King himself.
Who wouldn’t get excited about Jesus’ mission? Look at the success he’s having! Look at the crowds following! The long-awaited King is here! Who wouldn’t want to follow Jesus? Well, many aren’t very impressed. Indeed, many oppose Jesus. 9:3, “This man is blaspheming.” 9:11, “Why does he eat with tax collectors?” 9:34, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” You can feel the opposition rising against Jesus.
Now Jesus basically tells his disciples, expect the same for yourselves. You will preach. People will witness the power of my kingdom in you. But know that in the process you will suffer for my name’s sake. Sharing in Jesus’ kingdom also means sharing in Jesus’ sufferings. Hear what our Lord says in 10:16…
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.
Initially, I planned to teach through verse 25. But then I noticed a pattern to Jesus’ teaching. Four times in a row, Jesus describes some kind of opposition and then teaches how his disciples must respond. The first comes in verse 16—“sheep in the midst of wolves.” Then he teaches, “so be wise.” Then in verse 17—“men will deliver you over.” Then he teaches, “don’t be anxious.” Again in verse 21, “brother will deliver brother.” Then he teaches about endurance and fleeing to the next town. The last comes in verse 24. But that sets up a longer section of teaching on fear in verses 26-31.
So, I’m going to teach verses 24-31 next Sunday and focus today on verses 16-23; and I’d like to approach these verses by answering three questions.
Why does the opposition rise?
First, why does the opposition rise? It’s clear that the disciples will face great opposition. But why will the opposition rise? Implicitly, we find our answer in the words, “I am sending you.” Jesus commissions them. Jesus is their Master (cf. Matt 10:24). They do not take their orders from the world but from Jesus. Then, explicitly in verse 18, we hear this: “You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake.” Then again in verse 22: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
When you look at passages where Jesus speaks of living for his name or for his sake, here’s what I gather. It means you acknowledge Jesus’ authority—he is Lord. It means you publicly identify with Jesus in word—you confess him in baptism, you speak of him to others, you proclaim his gospel. It also means you represent Jesus through obedience—his word determines your moral choices.
What’s the point? The opposition rises against the disciples first and foremost because of their allegiance to Jesus. It’s not for being conservative. It’s not because their worldview overlaps with Western ideals. It’s not suffering because of pompous attitudes or lack of common sense. We’re talking about opposition because you acknowledge Jesus’ authority, you publicly identify with Jesus in word, and you represent Jesus through obedience. Jesus puts it this way in John 15:18-19, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
Let’s pause here for a second. If opposition rises because of Jesus, we’re pressed to consider why we might not experience much opposition. I want to be careful. The New Testament is clear: not all Christians will experience the same degree of opposition.[i] Also, in God’s mercy severer forms of opposition are restrained in some settings, settings like our own.[ii] I also don’t ask this question so that you pursue persecution. We pursue Jesus, persecution or not. What I’m asking is whether the lack of opposition is because we look too much like the world. Is it the case that people find no reason to divide around Jesus because we’re not bringing them Jesus?
At the same time, perhaps some of you experience all kinds of opposition. Your motto is that Jesus came to bring a sword. Yes, he did. But likely what you need to consider is whether people oppose you because of Jesus, or because you’re using Jesus to support positions you would’ve believed anyway. It’s possible for people to trick themselves into thinking that they’re being opposed for Jesus’ sake when really their commitments haven’t developed from a relationship to Jesus at all. As Jesus’ disciples, we must keep Jesus at the center of all we do. If we are opposed, let it be for Jesus’ sake.
What can the opposition lead to?
A second question: what can the opposition lead to? How bad can it get for Jesus’ disciples? Well, he starts verse 16 comparing their mission to sheep sent out “in the midst of wolves.” That’s telling. Everybody knows sheep don’t stand a chance before wolves. They’re a pillow-wrapped steak with short legs. Wolves are fierce.
Earlier Jesus compared false teachers to wolves. 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” But it soon becomes clear that Jesus has a bigger group of wolves in mind. Verse 17 includes leaders of the Jewish synagogue. In verse 18, it’s governing authorities. In verse 21, it can be family members. Wolves represent anyone hostile to Jesus and his followers.
Sometimes these wolves will surround you and leave you no way to escape. We see that in verses 17-18. Verse 23 speaks to other instances where you can and should escape. But others are like those in verse 17—they leave you trapped before authorities. Jesus says, “Beware of men. For they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues.” We know what flogging involved. It’s when you’re beaten with a whip. Paul describes it in 2 Cor 11:24, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.” Pilate had Jesus flogged.[iii] So, the disciples will follow in the footsteps that Jesus himself will soon take.
Verse 18 adds, “you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake.” What’s interesting here is that Jesus includes the opposition they will experience among Gentiles, when earlier he commissioned them to Israel specifically. Jesus is preparing them for a mission that begins with Israel but will eventually extend beyond Israel. Gentile courts will get involved. We see this happen in Jesus’ own trial and crucifixion; and then the same for his disciples in the book of Acts. The disciples can expect an unjust arrest and trial for following Jesus.
But I don’t think that’s the hardest form of opposition. The hardest comes in verse 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, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” How bad can the opposition get? Your dearest loved ones—the child you nursed, the father who once bounced you on his knee, the sibling you once did everything with—they will partner with others to have you killed.
This is the loyalty Jesus calls us to—one where you can look across the room, see your child or your parent or your sister and best friend delivering you over to authorities, and in that moment of testing say, “I still choose Jesus.” In that moment will you be able to recognize that Jesus gives you a greater family, a greater home, a greater Father—and say, “I still choose Jesus”? Does your love for Jesus run that deep?
What will the opposition look like for you this next week? Will Jesus’ lordship mean you speak truth into a conversation when all your extended family members wish you’d just keep quiet about Scripture? Perhaps it will mean you show up to work on Monday, everyone’s boasting about their wild weekend; but when it comes to you, they’re “surprised,” as 1 Peter 4:4 puts it, “when you don’t join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” They ostracize you and don’t include you anymore.
Perhaps a dear friend of many years informs you that he’s getting married, but to your dismay it’s to another man. Your allegiance to Jesus requires you to speak truth and say, “I cannot support this; this is not marriage.” And instantly you become the enemy. Perhaps you were once close to family members, but they distanced themselves after you questioned whether their political stance compromises the faith.
I’m sure we could think of more examples. But in all of them, Jesus requires our devotion at the highest cost. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it this way: “The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” To follow Christ is to take up the cross. That’s the only way to follow Jesus.
How should disciples respond when opposed?
But that’s not all Jesus tells us. He doesn’t just tell us why his disciples will suffer and what we will suffer. He also teaches us how to respond in the suffering, and some of these words hold out precious promises. That brings us to our third question, and one that’ll take the rest of our time: how should disciples respond when opposed?
For starters, we must respond with wisdom and innocence. Look at verse 16, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” At first glance, Jesus’ comparison might surprise us. Serpents aren’t usually cast in the most positive light. But then again doves weren’t always viewed positively either. Hosea 7:11 says they’re “silly and without sense.” But Jesus focuses solely on the positive traits associated with these animals.
The word behind “wise” is sometimes translated “shrewd” or “prudent.” You stay alert to the various factors at play and respond to them with insight. Factors in this case would include wolves plotting to destroy sheep. How do we see that playing out in the Gospels and Acts? Enemies try to trap Jesus in his words. They slander Jesus and his followers in public. Sometimes they’d lie to get them arrested. They beat them and threatened them to stay quiet. They’d arrange false witnesses or manipulate the justice system. In Revelation, it was working the whole economy such that Christians couldn’t buy or sell. It requires wisdom to navigate these various factors and respond in a way that keeps the gospel advancing with clarity.
All the while, there’s also the temptation to repay a wolf evil for evil. But Jesus says we must keep ourselves innocent of wrongdoing. It’s much like what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15-16, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”
We are not without help, here. Jesus walked this path before us. How often do we see his wisdom shining when the religious leaders attempt to trap him in his words. The way he navigates their questions, the way he exposes the real issue at hand, the way he keeps the gospel clear. There are also times when wolves try to pounce, but to no avail. Authorities try to arrest Jesus, but he eludes their grasp—it’s not that he’s afraid to suffer but that he’s more interested in completing the Father’s will. Or later they try to accuse Jesus of breaking the Law, but consistently he’s innocent. Even Pilate can see through the situation and say, “I find no guilt in him.”
Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of wisdom and innocence when facing opponents. And he walked this path before us not merely to give us an example, but to save us and enable us to walk this path after him. 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
Think also of Paul preaching in Ephesus in Acts 21. Demetrius hates what Christianity means for his money, his fame, and his gods. So, Demetrius stirs up a riot and they drag some of the disciples into the theatre. Everyone is going nuts. Until the town clerk stands up, points out the disciples’ innocence, and everybody goes home. Or when Paul is later arrested for no good reason, and he navigates the situation using his Roman citizenship as a right to fair trial, and this affords him the opportunity not only to prove his innocence but to proclaim Christ to hundreds more.
Another way we must respond to opposition is with confidence that our Father will help us. When opponents drag the disciples before governors and kings, verse 18 indicates that it’s no accident. God has a purpose designed into it: “to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” That doesn’t mean we pursue persecution for witness. But that following Jesus as witnesses may mean we’re presented with unique opportunity to bear witness before powerful people.
Think of Paul’s witness before the counsel, and then Felix, and then Agrippa. Or what Paul says in Philippians 1:12, “I want you to know…that what has happened to me [meaning, his imprisonment] has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” God has a special design for witness in these situations.
But look too at what the Lord promises. Verse 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. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” What an intimidating set of circumstances. Can you imagine the thoughts? “How will I defend myself? What should I say if they ask this? Do I tell them where the other Christians meet? What’s their legal process? I’m so hungry and malnourished. I haven’t slept for days. What if I say something stupid?”
But Jesus says, “Don’t worry.” God the Trinity will help you in the mission: the Father will bear witness about his Son through his Spirit giving you words. To be clear, this isn’t an excuse for teachers in the church to get lazy in preparation. Jesus is speaking here to a unique circumstance. In Luke 21:14-15 he says, “Settle it…in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.”
This is Jesus’ promise for his disciples. Take courage as you see that promise come true in the disciples’ lives. Take courage as you see that promise come true later in the mission of Paul. Take courage in the way he has come through for so many others throughout the history of the church. Should the path of obedience bring you before the authorities, the Holy Spirit will strengthen you and enable you to exalt Christ with what you say. You don’t have to fret about tomorrow. He will be with you, beloved; and you will speak boldly and in the power of the Spirit. God doesn’t fail his people.
Don’t you love how Jesus says, “the Spirit of your Father.” When you belong to Jesus, God becomes your Father. He relates to you as son/daughter. He knows what needs you have in every circumstance. In 6:25-34, it was daily needs like food and clothing. But he also knows your needs in mission; and he will care for you. He won’t forget you in your moment of distress. He will give you himself in the Spirit. Some of you may be very fearful of speaking to others, quite apart from persecution. But the consistent pattern in Scripture is that by stepping out in obedience, the Father gives you all that you need to stay faithful. Trust him to provide.
Finally, endurance is key, but that doesn’t always mean stay. Again, the closest of kin may oppose us and do their worst. But even then, we mustn’t compromise our witness. Jesus says, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Jesus’ mission requires endurance. I mentioned before that living for Jesus’ name means acknowledging Jesus’ authority, publicly identifying with Jesus in word, and representing Jesus through obedience. Endurance means you keep doing all those things, even when the opposition pressures you to quit on Jesus.
But listen to the promise again: “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” We just finished our series in Revelation, and the beauty and joy and peace of the New Heavens and New Earth will be worth every ounce of suffering: a new creation without evil; a new city full of joy in God’s presence; new comforts that heal and satisfy; new life that’s abundant and eternal. That’s why Paul says elsewhere, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
But let’s qualify this endurance further. Enduring as Jesus’ witnesses does not always look the same in every circumstance. Some instances of endurance will include getting arrested and using that opportunity to preach. At other times, endurance includes fleeing persecution to take the gospel elsewhere. Verse 23 says, “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.”
Now, that last part isn’t so easy to interpret. Is Jesus saying that he’ll just catch up with them later? I don’t think so. The disciples never endure this sort of persecution until after Jesus’ resurrection.
Others hear “before the Son of Man comes” and immediately think Second Coming. If you read it that way, then you must take “going through the towns of Israel” to represent a perpetual mission to reach Jews even after the Great Commission, and that work won’t finish before Jesus returns.[iv] But in context, “the towns of Israel” seems to be the towns to which Jesus sends these Twelve specifically: “you [i.e., you Twelve] will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
So that leads others to associate this coming of the Son of Man with one of two other events. Either Jesus’ coming in resurrection or Jesus’ coming in judgment on Israel in AD 70. In both cases, Daniel 7:13 stands in the background, where the Son of Man comes, but his coming is to the Ancient of Days for heavenly enthronement. His “coming” is a picture of the Messiah receiving all authority to bring the kingdom. According to Matthew’s Gospel, that happens at the resurrection: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”—Matthew 28:18. But there are also hints in Matthew 24 that part of Jesus enacting his authority will include a coming in judgment on Israel in AD 70. That would allow for the disciples to have begun experiencing the persecution described earlier; and it would also explain why there’s such urgency to go from city to city in Israel—it’s about to fall.[v]
In either case, though, the point about the Son of Man’s coming seems to be a point about the kingdom coming soon. He’s telling them, “You will bring the gospel of the kingdom to the towns of Israel. Some in those cities will harden themselves to your message and persecute you to the extent that it’s better to flee and look for fruitful work elsewhere. But keep on preaching the message because I will soon have all authority and my kingdom will prevail. This city will fall and I will open the gates to the nations. So, keep spreading the message from town to town.”
Time is of the essence, in other words; and sometimes that will mean you purposefully withdraw from the place of hostility to bring the gospel elsewhere. Don’t we see these patterns in the early missionary work of the church? On numerous occasions, disciples stay because the Lord has opened a door for effective work. Sometimes they’re arrested and must bear witness before authorities. But on other occasions, they scatter to other towns and preach the gospel there. Or they lower Paul down a city wall in a basket so he can escape to the next town. But whether they stay or whether they go, what’s always consistent is the urgent advance of the gospel.
Christians should be slow to find fault with others who flee persecution. Endurance is key, but that doesn’t always mean stay. Yes, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. It’s also true that we can rejoice and be glad, as Jesus said, when others revile us and persecute us. But persecution isn’t something to be pursued or provoked; and sometimes it will mean fleeing to preach elsewhere.
Either way, are we being consistent to bring the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom into the lives of others? Is there a bent to our lives that stays concerned with the onward march of the gospel? If on this side of the resurrection Jesus has taken the throne—if his kingdom is, in some sense, already here—do we have any urgency about us to bring the gospel to others? A judgment is coming, but it’s worse than what Israel experienced in AD 70; and we have the only message that will save and make people right with the Lord. It’s the same message that saved many of you. May God find us faithful to bring his message to others no matter the cost.
[i] E.g., John 21:18-23; Acts 12:2-3.
[ii] E.g., Prov 21:1; 1 Tim 2:2.
[iii] John 19:1; cf. Matt 20:19.
[iv] E.g., Blomberg; Osborne.
[v] E.g., France; Carson.