Topic: Persecution Passage: Matthew 10:24–31
Ritesh and his family are Christians in India. They’ve been following Jesus for not very long. The more they learn about Jesus, the more their love grows for him. But they’re also being watched. A Hindu nationalist organization called the RSS waits to pounce. The RSS is known for stirring up mobs to intimidate new Christians. Voice of the Martyrs reports that one day,
Ritesh arrived home from work to…find a large crowd outside his house. Suddenly, some men grabbed Ritesh, his wife, and their children and dragged them to a local temple. Once inside, they were forced to sit down in a row facing 10 Hindu leaders. “Who do you worship,” they demanded, “Jesus or the Hindu gods?…” As the family sat in silence, one of the Hindu leaders clarified their intent. “We will kill you if you don’t leave Jesus.” The men…began beating Ritesh and Vanya, while the terrified children began to cry…Finally, after several hours of harassment, the Hindu leaders let the family go home. But their ordeal wasn’t over. People outside the temple had told police that Ritesh was a criminal who converted his family to Christianity, so the authorities soon arrived at his house to arrest him. After Ritesh was taken to jail, the Hindu leaders continued to intimidate Vanya, suggesting that her husband could be killed the next day and she would have no one to take care of her and the children. They again ordered her to return to Hinduism.[i]
Put yourself in the shoes of this family. Imagine the mob, the screaming, the beating, the intimidation. Imagine the children. Imagine the fears you might face: “Is what I’m saying about Jesus true, is it this real? What if they kill us or hurt my kids? Does God see me? Does God know what’s happening?” Vanya was ordered to return to Hinduism. But she told them, “No.” Ritesh suffered in jail. But he told them, “No.” The whole family stayed faithful to Jesus—kids too.
In the face of such fears, how does anybody stay faithful? How do we stay faithful to Jesus in the face of so many fears in the mission? It’s an important question we all need to consider. It may not be that you are dragged before authorities. But you live in a culture increasingly opposed to Christianity, increasingly intimidating those who uphold the Bible’s morality. In our passage, Jesus shows us how to stay faithful. He shows us how to replace fear with bold witness. Hear the words of our Lord in verse 24…
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. 26 So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 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. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
We find here a fourth time that Jesus describes opposition the disciples will face. He then teaches them how to respond in each case. Last Sunday, we covered three. “Sheep in the midst of wolves” was the first. Then Jesus taught, “so be wise.” Then in verse 17—“men will deliver you over.” Then Jesus taught, “don’t be anxious.” In verse 21, “brother will deliver brother to death.” Then Jesus taught about endurance.
In today’s passage, he describes the opposition once again. But this time he addresses various fears. Three times, we hear the words “have no fear”—verse 26; “do not fear”—verse 28; “fear not”—verse 31. That structure sets the course for us today. We’ll start again with Jesus describing the opposition in verses 24-25. Then we’ll look at three ways Jesus helps his disciples replace fear with bold witness.
Becoming like Christ is to share in his sufferings.
So, let’s begin by considering how Jesus describes the opposition in verses 24-25. To help them understand why they will face opposition, he draws from two analogies. “A disciple,” he says, “is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” They themselves were disciples of Jesus.[ii] A disciple is one who sits beneath his teacher as a learner, as one who wishes to become like the teacher.
They would also know the place of a servant. His point here doesn’t speak to injustices some servants may have faced at the hands of dominant masters. Rather, he has a more ideal relationship in view. One more like the one we find in Luke 17:10, where the servant says to his master, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” So also here, Jesus notes how a servant isn’t above his master.
Rather, he goes on, “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” The goal isn’t to become better than Jesus—there’s no one better than Jesus. The goal is to become like Jesus. But what Jesus explains here is that the more we share in his likeness, the more we should expect to share in his sufferings.
He says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” Who’s the master of the house, here? It’s Jesus. The opposition has called Jesus, “Beelzebul”—which we know later from 12:24 refers to the prince of demons. So, here’s the Messiah of Israel. Here’s the long-awaited King bringing the kingdom, reversing the curse, healing the sick, casting out evil—and people point the finger and say, “You’re the devil.” What blasphemy this is. But if that’s how they treated the Master, his disciples should expect no less.
Consistent across the New Testament is that to share in Jesus’ likeness is also to share in Jesus’ sufferings. Think about Stephen in Acts 7. He serves like Jesus. He speaks the Scriptures like Jesus. But what happens. He’s accused of blasphemy (Acts 6:11). He’s attacked by false witnesses (Acts 6:13). He stands before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:15). He gets killed outside the city (Acts 7:58). What’s the point? Union with Christ doesn’t stop with the benefits of salvation; it also means union with Christ in suffering.
I wonder: is that in mind when you sing like you did earlier: “Oh Father, use my ransomed life in any way You choose / And let my song forever be my only boast is you.”[iii] In any way you choose, Father. If it means you choose for them to malign me, I will boast in Christ. If it means you choose for them to fire me for standing on the gospel, I will boast in Christ. If it means you choose that I suffer greatly in the path of love, I will boast in Christ. Are you there—when you sing those words? If not, let Jesus’ words get you there. You’re not above your Master. It’s enough that you become like Jesus; and that will mean sharing in his sufferings, facing the same kinds of opposition he faced.
God’s kingdom will become plain.
But that’s not all Jesus says. Jesus also teaches his disciples how to respond; and in this case he teaches them how to respond to various fears. He shows them how to replace fear with bold witness. Jesus is so patient, so kind to his disciples. I’m sure they’re afraid—they just heard that he’s sending them as sheep among wolves. But even before they face these great fears, Jesus reassures and gives them courage to stay the course. I also love how Jesus addresses various fears. We’re not always afraid for the same reasons. So, Jesus approaches fear from several different angles; and if we take his words to heart, the Spirit will help us to replace fear with bold witness.
First, we can replace fear with bold witness because the truth of God’s kingdom will become plain. Verse 26, “So have no fear of them, for…” Here’s the reason not to fear: “nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” What might Jesus be talking about? What’s currently covered/hidden that will be known? One clue comes in verse 27: “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.”
What’s hidden has to do with “What I tell you”—that is, what Jesus is teaching and revealing to his disciples privately. And what has that been? He’s been teaching them about the kingdom of God. They’re supposed to proclaim that teaching publicly—shout it from the housetops. Earlier in 10:7 that’s exactly what he tells them to do: “Proclaim as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Another clue comes later in 13:11. Jesus speaks in parables to the crowds. But in private—“in the dark,” so to speak—Jesus explains the parables to his disciples. He says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven…” So, I think Jesus has in mind here the unfolding revelation of God’s kingdom. Earlier he said the kingdom of God is near, it’s at hand, because Jesus the King is present. But a fuller manifestation of that kingdom will come after he dies and rises from the dead.
So, don’t fear that what you’re saying is less true when others start to malign you. Don’t fear that what you’re saying won’t be supported by the facts, just because you haven’t seen it all yet. The kingdom is coming. The revelation of Jesus’ kingdom in history will vindicate his people. The kingdom of God will come, and no one will be able to question the truthfulness of your witness.
Jesus was saying these things to the disciples before his cross and resurrection. We have the privilege of reading these things after the cross and resurrection, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, after the rise of the church. We’re in the middle of this gospel spreading to all nations just as Jesus said. Everything he revealed about the kingdom has come to pass so far. None of Jesus’ words have failed. All of them will eventually happen, and when he finally splits the sky to judge the earth, the world will know. Everyone will know and see that you announced the truth.
So, don’t hesitate to speak about the kingdom. One of the greatest tragedies of fear is that it keeps others from hearing the gospel. To shut up God’s word is a great tragedy. Think of how dark it became for Israel when “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Sam 3:1). Think of the awful curse of Amos 8:11, when the Lord sends a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, but a famine of “hearing the words of the Lord.” Think of how the nations in Isaiah are pictured sitting in the darkness of their depravity without hope. Why? Because they do not have the truth of God’s word.
The greater tragedy is not the suffering of the church; it’s the silence of the church—whether in suffering or not. Everyone is lost without the gospel; and the only hope for salvation is that they hear the message about God sending his Son to die for sinners, that Jesus came to fulfill the will of his Father, offer himself as an atonement for sin, and then rise from the dead according to the Scriptures. Everyone who calls upon the name of that Lord Jesus, will be saved. Faith comes by hearing that message.
So, Jesus tells these disciples, “Don’t let fear stifle this message about the kingdom of God! You may not see it’s fullness yet. There may be things about the slowness of its growth that you don’t understand. But nothing is covered that will not be revealed. It’s true—you will see it for yourself. So, spread it far and wide. Tell it to everybody. The reality of God’s kingdom in history will vindicate you. The final day will reveal all. So, don’t fear the opposition. Replace your fears with bold proclamation because the truth of God’s kingdom will become plain.
God’s wrath is greater than man’s wrath.
Next, don’t fear the opposition, because God’s wrath is greater than man’s wrath. Verse 28, “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.” Basically, don’t compromise your witness to avoid the world’s wrath; God’s wrath is far greater.
But that’s the temptation, isn’t it? The temptation is to so fear what other people can do to us that we compromise our witness. I remember sitting down with one of our missionaries in Turkey. We drove to a local mall to meet with a new believer. He had recently been baptized; and the one thing he feared most was what his family would do to him. That was the first time I realized that sometimes our missionaries were baptizing people, knowing they may never see them again. But as we sat and talked, I remember our brother directing this new believer to passages like this one, showing him how people may do awful things. But God has your soul. All they can kill is your body.
God is greater. He can destroy both soul and body in hell. Now, more recently some have argued that “destroy” here conveys the idea of annihilation—that instead of an eternal torment, the person’s body and soul eventually cease to exist. But this approach reads a narrow definition into every use of the term. Just one chapter earlier in Matthew 9:17, for example, the same word applied to wineskins being destroyed. The point wasn’t that they cease to exist but that they no longer fulfill their intended purpose. They now exist in a ruined state. Also, we mustn’t forget how Revelation 20:10 describes the final punishment of the wicked in hell—it is one of irreversible ruin and torment forever.
God’s wrath is greater. God deserves our utmost allegiance, not man. We must fear God more than people. In his book When People are Big and God is Small, Ed Welch describes the fear of the Lord as “reverent submission that leads to obedience.”[iv]
Fear of man may be one of the biggest hindrances to preaching the gospel. Fear of man is one of the biggest hindrances to obedience of all sorts. It paralyzes love. It hinders openness with one another. It leads to poor leadership and puts other people’s opinions of us in the place of God. The only solution to the fear of man is the fear of God.
Now, that’s not to say we don’t face the truth about difficult and even intimidating circumstances. Friday morning, I was reading Psalm 142, “Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!” David wasn’t denying his fears. He confessed his fears and asked for God’s help. The apostles never lived in denial of their fears either—sometimes we find them praying for God to overcome their fear. So, it’s not that we ignore the truth about how scary things might get. Rather, the fears we do face are given their proper perspective before a grand vision of God.
Awe of God is the solution to the fear of man. Awe of God will help you be like Peter in Acts 5:29. The authorities threaten him, and he says, “We must obey God rather than men.” Peter said that! Peter was the one who denied Jesus, because he feared man. Two different servant girls ask if he’s with Jesus, and he lies. Then some bystanders do the same, and he lies. Why? Because he’s afraid of what they will do to him. What changed? What gave him such boldness? His awe of the resurrected Lord Jesus. Nothing was the same after that. His awe of Christ emboldened him.
Perhaps you’ve been timid to share the gospel with others. Perhaps you’re already wondering what that next conversation is going to look like when you finally tell that friend, that family member, that co-worker, that Jesus is the exclusive Savior of the world and that they must call on his name to be saved. Perhaps you’re anticipating not just how awkward it might make things, but that you might lose your relationship or your reputation or your position at work. But to be scared into silence, to be scared into compromise, to let the fear of people’s opinions control you—means that your vision of God is way too small. Jesus’ point is that God is greater. The only way you will find boldness to keep speaking/obeying is by rekindling your awe of God.
God’s fatherly care in every circumstance.
Lastly, we can replace fear with bold witness, because God’s fatherly care is present in every circumstance. Verse 29, “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.”
In this example, we’re reminded first of God’s providence. Question 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What do you understand by the providence of God?” Answer? “The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, whereby, as it were by his hand, He still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.” God is not detached from creation; he’s involved in every detail.
Jesus is saying here that God’s providence extends not just to great, cosmic realities, but to the smallest, insignificant bird that falls from the sky: “not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father.” If suffering comes, it comes not apart from our Father but by the will of our Father. All your circumstances—no matter how hard they get—happen according to the beneficent outworking of God’s plan.
But his point is more than just providence. It’s also intimate knowledge, God’s thoughtful concern for things we’d usually deem insignificant. Not only does he mention sparrows; he says, “even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” That’s not many for some of us. Nevertheless, God has numbered all of them.
There is an expression used several times in the Old Testament—that of a single hair falling to the ground. Normally, it appears in contexts where a superior guarantees that someone will live. They might say something like, “Not a hair of your head will fall to the ground.” I think we’re supposed to connect these two statements about the sparrow falling to the ground and our hairs being numbered. Meaning, if a sparrow doesn’t fall to ground apart from God’s permission, neither will a single hair on your head. If the hairs on your head are all numbered, then not a single one will fall apart from God’s knowledge. He knows us and sees us this fully. Every detail that’s happening in your life—he already knows it and is near to you in it.
In suffering, one thing that can lead to fear is feeling like God is absent—you begin wondering if God knows what you’re suffering and if God sees you. And Jesus’ point is, “Yes, he sees you. He knows you. He has all your hairs numbered.”
Even more, though—in addition to his providence and knowledge, we hear in Jesus’ words about God’s fatherly presence and concern. I’m a father of four wonderful children. I’m also the barber for my boys. I don’t know how many hairs they have. God is a better Father. He knows all. Did you notice how Jesus keeps using the language of Father? “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” The one who governs the universe—Jesus calls him “your Father.”
How does God become your Father? Elsewhere, the Bible says we’re born children of wrath like the rest of mankind. How do we become God’s children? God makes us his children through the work of Jesus Christ. Galatians 4:5 says that “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Ephesians 2:19 says that Christ reconciled us to God through the cross, such that we “are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are members of the household of God.”
In Christ, God becomes your Father. If you are his child, then he cares for you. I mean, if he shows this kind of concern for sparrows, think of how great his concern is for those who bear his image. Even greater, think of how great his concern is for those he redeemed, for those he gave up his only Son to save. Jesus says to his disciples, “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” In our sufferings, God is present as Father to care for us. He is not far off and aloof. He is near and involved with every detail. Go to him. Ask him for strength. Rest in his hands.
You know, Jesus doesn’t say these things without walking this road before us. He doesn’t say these things without being able to sympathize with our weakness. Let’s not forget the way of our Lord. Let’s not forget that he spoke these words and then lived them. It was Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane—facing the full weight of betrayal and opposition, offering in those moments before his cross what Hebrews says were “loud cries and tears”—but all the while he knew the Father was near. “My Father,” he prayed, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will…Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt 26:39, 42).
It was Jesus who told his disciples, “The hour is coming…when you will be scattered and will leave me along. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32). It was Jesus who “when he suffered, did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:23). It was Jesus who, when his work for us was finished, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
When we consider Jesus who went before us, we see that the Father will not forsake us in suffering. The Father draws near in our sufferings. He knows the number of hairs on your head. Not one of them will perish without his providence, knowledge, and fatherly concern. With Christ, you can replace fear with bold witness. God’s kingdom will become plain. God is greater than man. God’s fatherly care is present in every circumstance. With Christ, you too can say, “not my will but yours be done.”
Ritesh, Vanya, and their children stayed faithful to Jesus. They resisted the RSS and spoke boldly for Jesus. Eventually, the police let Ritesh and his family go, though neighbors and friends may never accept them again. Voice of the Martyrs also “helped them find a new home where they feel safe.” They also “provided Ritesh with a rickshaw so he can better support his family as a rickshaw driver.” “Ritesh occasionally sees some of his former persecutors when they use his rickshaw services, but they usually stay quiet when they recognize him. He simply shows them love, because he wants them to know the love of Christ that has given him peace with God.”[v] May the Lord strengthen us the same way to make known the love of Jesus Christ boldly and without fear.
[i] “Indian Family Beaten and Harassed by RSS,” Voice of the Martyrs (May 1, 2019), accessed at https://www.persecution.com/stories/indian-family-beaten-and-harassed-by-rss/.
[ii] Matt 5:1; 8:21, 23; 9:10, 14, 19, 37; 10:1.
[iii] Jordan Kauflin, “All I Have Is Christ,” Sovereign Grace Praise (2008).
[iv] Edward T. Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1997), 97.
[v] “Indian Family Beaten,” Voice.