As we move into this passage of text, we enter a famous passage in which Jesus talks about the persecution of His followers.
Now in the narrowest sense, do not lose the context here: Jesus is specifically talking to His apostles regarding this specific trip into ministry. I happen to agree—as do most commentators—that this passage equally is applicable to us today; however, just always hold in the back of your mind that the context within which this is written is not as a general statement of the condition of Christian missionaries, but rather to a specific set of missionaries operating on a specific mission.
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. (Matt 10:16-18, ESV)
First, Jesus says to His apostles, their mission work among the Jews would be similar to being sheep surrounded by wolves—that is, they would be targets, easily devoured if they were not careful. For this reason, He recommended wisdom and that they take care to be innocent of charges.
Today we tend to take this passage out of context and use it for a variety of reasons—I have heard it quoted in all manner of ways. But keep in mind that in its original intent, Jesus is warning His apostles that they need to be careful not to get arrested, and to be on the lookout for being set up and arrested.
To us, today, the key thing which I see in this passage is the admonition to be wise and careful. Be wary of men who will persecute you just because they hate you for your faith. Always be alert and clever (as serpents) but always be careful to maintain kindness and holy innocence (like doves).
To put it in modern terms, this would be like a youth pastor sending his kids on a mission trip, and reminding them, “Be smart, be safe, keep your nose clean”.
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. (Matt 10:19-23, ESV)
Jesus then says that if you do get arrested, do not worry about what you will say—the Spirit will speak through you. Whenever I hear this verse, I think of the Columbine school shootings. You may remember the story about the one victim who was told by the shooter to deny her faith; she refused, and was killed for it. Do you not often wonder what you would do if you were in that situation? If the gun was to your head, would you deny your faith to save yourself, or your children, or your wife?
Here, Jesus tells us not to spend a minute worrying about such things. In the prior passage, He advised us to avoid such situations by being wise and innocent. But if such a situation does arise, He advises us to clear our minds, and let God do the speaking through you, and the right thing will be said.
Here also, at the end of verse 23, Jesus promises His disciples that the “Son of Man” (the Messiah) will come before they have even preached to all of the towns. This, combined with what we shall see in the ‘aside’ in the next verse, tells me that this particular teaching probably happened near the end of Jesus’ ministry. Regardless of when it occurred, the “what” is significant: Jesus here is prophesying that He will return before the Gospel has even been shared in all Israel.
So does this refer to His Second Coming? I do not believe so—nor will even the most die-hard preterist move the date back to here. No, I think more likely He is referring to His resurrection in this case.
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. (Matt 10:24-25, ESV)
Jesus then reminds the disciples that the Jewish teachers have associated Him with the Devil, so it is not surprising that they would do such things to His followers.
(Aside: Many people probably disagree with my assertion that the six teaching passages in Matthew are topical rather than chronological. They either see it as chronological, or both chronological and topical. But this verse gives good evidence that I am right, and Matthew is arranging the teachings of Christ by topic rather than chronology. In this passage, Jesus reminds His disciples that He has been compared to Beelzebul. But that has not yet happened in Matthew’s Gospel! It happens a few chapters from now, in Matthew 12:24. So clearly, the events of Matthew 12:24 must happen chronologically before Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:24-25.)
“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. (Matt 10:26-33, ESV)
I cannot help but laugh when I read this passage. Jesus just spent a few paragraphs telling them that they had to be on the watch for those who would hate them; that they would flog them and arrest them wrongly; that their work would destroy families; that they would be hunted and hated and killed.
And then He says—“But hey, don’t worry.” It isn’t exactly the most uplifting argument, either: don’t be afraid of people who can kill you…be more afraid of God, because He could kill you and damn you. Ouch.
But I think here Jesus is being so firm for a very good reason: we often let our fear of persecution (of all types, from embarrassment to awkwardness to flogging to death) to keep us immobilized and stop us from doing the work of God. Which of course, Jesus is pointing out, is absurd: for the persecution is always temporary, and God’s favor is always eternal.
He then (in much more reassuring terms!) reminds the disciples that God loves them. Even a worthless sparrow’s death is noted and observed by the Father, and He loves humans so much more; indeed, Jesus points out, God even knows exactly how many hairs are on the heads of the disciples. So do not be afraid, because He loves you.
In this last verse, Jesus says something very powerful. Here He sets up as opposites two concepts: the first is being afraid of man; the second is proclaiming the good news of Jesus. To Jesus, it seems, the only reason not to proclaim the Kingdom is because you are afraid. He then argues both logically (God is more powerful than man, so fear Him more) and emotionally (He loves you more than the sparrows whom He watches, and knows the hairs on your head), that we should not be afraid.
Next week, we will find out more of Jesus’ warnings about the pain of being His disciple--specifically, how following Him may destroy family lives.