SynopsisThis passage is a continuation of the last passage. Jesus is continuing to talk to his Apostles before sending them out on the very first missionary journy. (I think; someone can correct me if there was an earlier missionary journey, but I think this is the first.) In the last passage Jesus talked about some of the ways that the Apostles should conduct themselves as they go; not to bring supplies, but to trust the “worthy” to provide (and the Lord, I suppose), and stuff like that. In this passage, Jesus tells them what kind of a reaction they can expect to receive as they go.
The first verse in this passage sort of sums it up: Jesus is sending the Apostles out “as sheep in the midst of wolves,” so they are to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (verse 16 (ESV) ).
He tells them that they need to beware, because they (the Apostles) will be taken to court, flogged, and dragged before governors and kings. But this will all happen for a reason: “… for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (verse 18 (ESV, emphasis added) ). Even more:
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. (verses 21–22 (ESV) )
When this does happen, when they’re persecuted in one town, they are to “flee” to the next (verse 23 (ESV) ). Jesus tells them that they won’t finish going through all the towns of Israel before he comes.
So if they are to have all of this happen for Jesus’ sake, so that they can bear witness, does that mean they need to start studying, so that they’ll know what to say? It might not hurt, I suppose, but Jesus tells the Apostles not to be anxious about it. When the time comes, they will be “given” what to say (verse 19 (ESV) ), because, really, it’s not the Apostles speaking anyway; it’s the Holy Spirit (verse 20 (ESV) ).
Finally, Jesus tells us the reason we can expect to be persecuted:
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. (verses 24–25 (ESV) )
In other words, if Jesus was persecuted, how can we expect not to be?
ThoughtsChristians in the Western Church seem to get very flustered when any form of persecution—or even perceived persecution—comes their way. And yet it’s the way we should expect it to be; when Jesus sent his Apostles out for the very first time, he told them he was sending them as sheep in the midst of wolves. It sounds to me, from a verse like that, that the Apostles could expect that their trip wouldn’t be easy. The world at large is not going to accept our message, and, let’s face it, the world greatly outnumbers the believers. Put a “sheep” up against a “wolf,” and the sheep doesn’t stand much of a chance right?
So what’s Jesus’ advice for handling this? To tell the Apostles to rally for better pro-Christian laws within the Roman empire, to help them? To try and get Christian leaders elected, to run the land, instead of the non-Christians? No, he simply tells them to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Which, for some reason, I always took to be a purposeful contradiction in terms; that we’re supposed to be wise about some things, but not about other things. (Like… we should know the laws of the land, so that we don’t disobey them, but we shouldn’t know, I don’t know, the names of the currently popular porn stars, because we shouldn’t be getting involved in that stuff.) But wisdom and innocence aren’t related to each other; we should be wise—period—and we should be innocent—period. When we get dragged to the courts and before governors and kings, if we’re charged with being Christian then fine, we’re guilty. But we should never, ever be charged with actual crimes. We should be innocent of those. As it says in 1 Peter:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
We may be accused of doing evil, but when it comes right down to it, there shouldn’t be anything sinful that we’ve actually done.
And let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s all for a good cause. Having all of this hardship happen to us is for his sake, so that we can bear witness before unbelievers. For the original trip that Jesus is talking about, that the Apostles were going on, it’s primarily the Jews that they were bearing witness to, whereas we’re bearing witness to everyone, but even for this trip, Jesus tells them that they’ll be bearing witness before “them” (the Jews) and the Gentiles.
I think that’s part of the point of the 1 Peter passage quoted above; when we present the Gospel to people, they are not going to like it. We’re telling them that they’re sinful, and that there’s only one possible way they can be saved from that sin, which is anathema to a world that believes that all roads lead to God, and that it doesn’t really matter what you believe. So of course they’re going to accuse us of all sorts of things, and revile us. But if they really examine us, they should see a body of believers that really love each other. They should see a body of believers who are all living in a way that is holy. They should, in essence, have nothing really to accuse us of. (Are we living in such a way that this is true? Something to think about.)
An interesting verse is verse 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. (verse 23 (ESV) )
What does Jesus mean, when he says that they (or we?) won’t have gone through all the towns of Israel before he comes? The short answer is: I don’t know. My first thought is that he means before he was crucified and resurrected. I mean, how many towns could there possibly be in Israel, right? He couldn’t be talking about the second coming, because surely all of Israel could be preached to by that point… right? Although, any time Jesus talks about “coming,” there will of course be people who will immediately think of second coming. Well I went to the ESV Study Bible, and they actually had four different interpretations that have been suggested for what Jesus means in this verse. (The resurrection, the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70—which, I guess, some think of as Jesus “coming in judgement”—and the second coming at the end of the age. The ESV Study Bible authors didn’t pick a side on this; maybe wisely.) I still think the explanation that makes the most sense—and is the most straightforward, which is usually how I approach these things—is that Jesus is referring to his resurrection. I’d be surprised if there are towns in Israel that haven’t yet been reached. But I don’t feel strongly about it, and I doubt you should either. (Feel free to comment, if you disagree with me on this one, but I probably won’t bother responding.)
This passage ends with Jesus telling us, basically, that he was persecuted, and he’s the teacher and master. So, that being the case, we (the disciples and servants) should expect to be persecuted all the more. I’m very hard on the Western Church, because we have so much, and yet we’re so quick to abandon the Bible’s teachings, and believe whatever we want. We really want to believe that if God loves us, He will never let us suffer, and He will make all of our ministries prosper. Especially Christians in America—and, to a lesser extent, Canada—who seem to believe that they have created Christian nations, and therefore God should never let them be persecuted for being His followers. They won’t find support for that in the Bible. On the other hand, they’ll find passages like this, and they’ll find passages like Acts 5:17–42 (ESV) (especially verse 41 (ESV) ) where the disciples are persecuted and rejoice that they’ve been counted worthy to suffer for the Lord—which really confuses us, to the point that we don’t even know what to do with a verse like that. (How can they suffer and rejoice at the same time?!?)
I guess one last point I should mention is that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” verse:
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. (verses 22–23 (ESV) )
My first response, when seeing a verse like this, is always to want to say, “don’t take this to be saying that you have to earn your salvation by your own effort”—which is true, Jesus isn’t saying that we can earn our salvation. This isn’t a cause and effect thing. However, I shouldn’t be so quick to jump on what this verse doesn’t say, because it detracts from what it does say. Regardless of whether you can or can’t save yourself through your own works (you can’t), that shouldn’t distract from the fact that the Bible tells us many times that we are to persevere; to “endure” (2 Timothy 2:11–13 (ESV) ), and to “keep ourselves” (Jude 21 (ESV) ). Because of the work Jesus did on the cross, my entrance into God’s Kingdom is certain, and nothing can stop that. But as a Christian, I am to be on guard (1 Corinthians 16:13 (NIV) ), and I am to persevere (Hebrews 10:35–39 (NIV) ).