Wednesday 2 June 2010

Stand Firm! (Matthew 10:16-25)

Sheep, snakes and doves

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
(Verse 16)

Jesus is speaking to his twelve disciples as he prepares to send them out as his apostles, empowered with his authority to heal any and every sickness, to drive out unclean spirits and teach and to preach the coming Kingdom of God. He is preparing them for the task ahead as he warns them soberly - there will be resistance and rejection. Not only will they receive the same mission, the same message and the same ministry as their master, these twelve disciples would also face the same hostility, hatred and dishonour as Jesus did.

He says he is sending them as sheep among wolves. The vivid imagery is that of savage beasts feasting on the flesh of helpless animals. These disciples, though filled with power from God to restore health and well-being to others, would be placing their own lives at risk.

But it is the next pair of descriptions that sound both compelling and confusing. For Jesus instructs his disciples to be shrewd as snakes, yet innocent as doves. It is odd that believers are to be like snakes; that they are called to be cunning like serpents; to exercise shrewdness to such a degree, just up to the point of deceitfulness. For serpents are pictured as evil creatures in the bible. The devil is referred to as a serpent. Indeed, the book of Genesis describes Satan's first appearance in scripture as a crafty serpent - the word "crafty" in the Greek Septuagint version of the bible being the same word translated in verse 16 as "shrewd". In what sense are the apostles of Jesus to be shrewd like serpents?

At least, the second description seems to make more sense. There must be innocent as doves. Their innocence will be all the more important in the following verses when the disciples will have to stand as witnesses before men, not simply to defend their integrity, but to proclaim words given them by the living God.

Conflict of the Kingdom, confidence in the Spirit

"Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
(Verses 17 to 19)

Here is the true context of gospel ministry - not through popularity but rejection, not in comfort but through conflict.

The disciples will face persecution at the hands of men. They will be mistreated, abused and imprisoned simply because they bear the message and ministry of Jesus. Yet, such opposition is ultimately to be seen as opportunity. "On my account," Jesus says - it is because of their association with him and witness of him - they will be (1) handed over to the authorities, (2) flogged in religious assemblies, (3) brought before governors and kings and (4) arrested.

It is in anticipation of such situations of conflict that Jesus comforts his disciples. "Do not worry," Jesus says, "about what to say or how to say it."

Here we see the essence of the mission given to the apostles by Jesus. They are to speak the message of God. They are to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Notice the repeated emphases on their witness before men - not simply with their conduct, but with their words. Verse 19: Do not worry about what to say or how to say it. Verse 20: You will be given what to say. Verse 21: It will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Jesus does not promise to deliver them out of trouble. Quite the contrary, their mission is to speak into situations of trouble and hardship with the gospel. Just as men will reject the message of the gospel, so will they reject the messengers of the gospel. But the true followers of Jesus are called to stand firm in the truth of the gospel.

Persecution of the church, propagation of the gospel

"Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
(Verses 21 to 23)

The scenarios seem unimaginably horrific. Betraying your own flesh and blood? Killing your own offspring? Handing your father and mother over to death? Surely, Jesus is exaggerating? It's just religious fanaticism, isn't it?

Notice three things. First: the reason Jesus gives for such betrayal. Verse 22: All men will hate you because of me. Hatred of Jesus will overwhelm the deepest of affections from our loved ones. Humanity's rejection of a God will be mirrored by the world's rejection of the people of God. Jesus isn't saying that you must betray your brother, father, children. Far from it. Rather, he is saying that if you are a Christian, be prepared to be betrayed by your brother, father and even your children because of him.

Secondly, Jesus paints the picture of the end times. Brother will betray brother. Children will rebel; he who stands firm to the end
will be saved; all this will happen before the Son of Man comes - a reference to Jesus' second coming. This is not to say that violence against Christians will only begin far into the future. The bible refers to the end times - the eschaton (eschatology is the study of the last days) - as beginning from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Meaning: this side of the cross, we now live in the end times. Rather, Jesus is painting a image of escalating rejection. Things will get worse, and continue to get much, much worse - before Jesus returns to bring the Kingdom of God.

It is worth noting that the word Matthew uses for the end is "telos" - meaning "finished"; and what this adds is the description of "the end of the end". The one who is still standing - who is still faithful - having "completed" this course; having "finished" the race - will be saved. (The same word is used in verse 23 - You will not "finish" - telesete; same word - going through the cities of Israel - Here Jesus denotes the urgency of this end time; The Son of Man will not wait till the persecution gets out of hand before he returns. Everything is timed according to God's plan).

And thirdly, Jesus calls us to wisely respond to such conflict. "When you are persecuted... flee". Here is the shrewdness of the serpent - The quickness in responding to a threatening situation. Here is the innocence of the dove - The avoidance of further unnecessary conflict. Don't go looking for a fight. Don't put yourself foolishly in harm's way.

Yet, Jesus is saying something more profound that just "stay out of trouble". He is giving a pattern of gospel propagation. He is saying, "This is how the gospel will spread. This is how God's people will go to the nations." It is through persecution.

In God's providential plan, the persecution of the church by the nations will be used to drive the propagation of the gospel to the nations. "I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." The book of Acts records how the early church established in the capital of Jerusalem soon faced persecution from the authorities, causing the believers to be "scattered throughout Judea and Samaria" (Acts 8:1), yet "those ... scattered preached the word wherever they went" (Acts 8:4).

Imitation of the master, expectation of the Christ

"A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!
(Verses 24 to 25)

We have seen that Jesus is preparing his followers for the task ahead. He soberly warns them of persecution and rejection. He reminds them of the mission of God's message. He points them to certainty of God's Kingdom and Jesus' return.

Yet, the whole purpose of Jesus in speaking these words is to reveal who he is. At this point, the Twelve have yet to recognise Jesus as the Christ. He is God's chosen King sent to bring in all God's purposes of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. His disciples do not yet understand, that Jesus brings in the Kingdom through suffering - specifically, his suffering and death on the cross.

"A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master."
On one hand, Jesus is saying, don't forget who you are serving. He is the teacher, we are his students. He is our master, we are his servants (literally, slaves). The disciples are not to seek their own interests above the master's. They carry out his instructions. They serve his purposes.

Yet on another level, verse 25 elevates the position of follower. "It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master." Now, Jesus implies the disciples are to find contentment in rising up to imitate their teacher, master and Lord. It even seems that Jesus is here inviting them to follow him, not simply as servants under his service, but partners with him in his mission. They are to be like him. This is their goal in ministry (a word which means "service"), and their purpose in mission - to be like Jesus.

But the question is: what kind of teacher is he? What kind of master, ought these servants aspire to follow and imitate?

He is a rejected Lord. Jesus is the suffering Christ.

"If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!"

Jesus is labelled "Beelzebub" a derogatory term which means "Lord of the flies" or "Lord of the house" - commonly used to refer to Satan. We see this accusation frequently in Matthew's gospel on the lips of the religious leaders and Pharisees. Near the end of chapter 9, the Pharisee, unable to refute the multiple miracles done by Jesus, say "It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons" (Matthew 9:34). The religious leaders were unwilling to ascribe his power to God - not because they doubted the authenticity of the miracles - but because Jesus would not conform to their expectations of the Christ they were waiting for.

We see Jesus dealing with this more fully in Chapter 12. There, what prompts the Pharisees to make the same accusations in verse 24, "It is only by Beelzebub... that this fellow drives out demons" is verse 23, when the people say of Jesus "Could this be the Son of David" (a Messianic reference to the Christ).

Jesus now turns to his disciples essentially to say that they, too, will be rejected. Yes, their authority will be undeniable. Yes, their words will be convicting. And yes, God's spirit will be working powerfully through their ministry. But in spite of all this - perhaps, because of all this - men will reject them, persecute them, put them to death. Because that is what they did to their master and teacher. That is what they did to Jesus.

Jesus is dealing with expectations. What do we expect from following Jesus. What kind of Lord do we think him to be? What does "success" look like in the Kingdom of God?

At every point Jesus is bringing his hearers to the cross, where he will take our suffering upon himself. Through his sacrifice, Jesus takes the punishment for our rebellion against God, his wrath and anger, all upon himself. It is the basis of our salvation - that he takes our penalty, but we receive his righteousness.

But it is also the basis of all Christian service. Our suffering is a reflection of his. Not that our suffering saves, only Jesus' death achieves our salvation. But Jesus' work on the cross is demonstrated powerfully through the witness of his followers in the face of their suffering. The followers of Jesus are to boldly proclaim the message of forgiveness through the cross, to a world that is hostile to God's grace.

Jesus promises, "He who stand firm to the end will be saved."

You see, the big question at the end of the day is not our expectation of God, but Jesus' expectation of us. It is faithfulness. Will we trust him, and continue to trust in him, with our lives, to the very end of our lives?

In these words from Matthew 10, it means faithfully speaking about Jesus. Living every day hope of his return, but in the meantime, speaking the truth of his death and resurrection.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

(Ephesians 6:13-15)

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