The emphasis in these verses is on the dangers involved in witness to a mostly hostile world.
The tone is one of reflection and provides a reminder of what this world is really like. Disciples should expect to be like the Lord they follow in preaching, teaching, and healing; however, they should also expect to receive the same reception as He (vv. 24-25). Consider the consequences of your decision to follow Jesus, verses 34-39 say. You may hope for peace, but Jesus brings a “sword of decision, and the call to decision will bring division” (Garland 118).
Matthew 10:16-23, Faith on Trial
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to councils, and in their synagogues they will scourge you; yea and before governors and kings shall ye be brought for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, be not anxious how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you. And brother shall deliver up brother to death, and the father his child: and children shall rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved. But when they persecute you in this city, flee into the next: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.
We have already seen the compassion of Jesus on lost sheep without a shepherd (9:36). Now, His followers go out as sheep, too, just like the ones to whom they minister, and they will have to contend with wolves, evidently those who wish to defeat and kill them. “The disciples are given authority to cast out demons and to heal every disease but not to fend off persecution. There are no safe-conduct passes for their mission, and the situation calls for wariness as well as purity” (Garland 115). The phrase, “wise as snakes . . . innocent as doves,” probably means that they should be shrewd enough to avoid their persecutors, if at all possible, while at the same time their conduct should be pure and righteous and unassailable should they be apprehended (Gardner 176). Their only resistance to the “wolves” must be with their inspired speech, which is interesting given the long history of Christians fighting and killing people in the name of Christ!
The disciples are called to be wise and innocent. Even Jesus withdrew from opposition (4:12; 14:13). And opposition will come from all quarters, even one’s family! Garland has put it this way: “They will be caught in a no man’s land between a hostile community and a resentful family” (115). Disciples, don’t try to be heroes; flee to the next town. The promise is that they won’t run out of towns to which to flee before they are vindicated. This vindication probably does not indicate the parousia, but is a reference to Jesus’ post-resurrection visit to the eleven remaining disciples. Their first mission–to Israel–will have been fulfilled, and at the resurrection a larger mission will be articulated to the ends of the earth (28:16-20). And the promise is that Jesus will be with them always!
Matthew 10:24-25, Just Like the Master
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his teacher, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more them of his household!
There is an old hymn that was my maternal grandmother’s favorite, “More Like the Master, I Would Ever Be,” but, in the case of this passage, hardly anyone would want to compose a hymn with these verses in mind! We all say we want to be like Jesus, but we forget that being like Him also means to suffer.
Let us remember that the Apostle Peter reminds his converts of Jesus’ suffering this way: “He himself suffered and left us an example that we should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
Gardner has explained the reference to Beelzebub this way:
“Beelzebub was originally the name of a Philistine god (c.f. II Kings 1:2) and was one of many names given to Satan in the Intertestamental Period. Since the name itself means ‘head of the house’ or ‘lord of the dwelling,’ Jesus is actually making a pun in 10:25b: If persons call the head of (God’s) house the head of (Satan’s) house, how much more will they discredit the rest of the household?”(177).
Matthew 10:26-33, Fearless Witness
Three times for emphasis Jesus tells the disciples, “Do not be afraid.” The fear implicit is the natural one we harbor for those who have ultimate earthly power over us: kings, presidents, judges, the military. Jesus reminds us that their power is limited. And God does not view our lives cheaply–we are more valuable than sparrows, which are, themselves, valued by God.
With this information in mind, then, what a disciple says in human courts will determine his eternal fate. If a disciple denies Jesus in human courts, then Jesus will deny him or her in the heavenly court. Consider, then, who should be feared, God or humans? The real Judge is Jesus, so remember that, when being judged by human beings for one’s faith and witness.
The problem that arose in the early church over these verses had to do with those who had recanted their faith under pressure in human tribunals and then came back to the church for forgiveness. There are numerous places in ancient literature, not the least of which is the Didache, that dealt with what to do with such people.
Matthew 10:34-39, The High Cost of Following Jesus
Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law: and a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.
There are two sayings here (vv.34-36 and vv.37-39) that emphasize the price some will have to pay for following Jesus. There can be no equivocation about one’s commitment. The commitment to Jesus must take precedence over one’s family and even one’s own life. Douglas Hare explains it this way in his commentary: “Those who give highest priority to the task of protecting themselves will find that there is nothing left to protect . . . Conversely, the person who surrenders freedom by acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord will indeed find herself or himself” (118). This is a radical statement that is seldom emphasized in American Christianity. We have not faced the kind of persecution our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have. I am reminded of Amos 6:1, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,” and the sobering thought that people who have it easy tend to take for granted both God’s promises and God’s commands.
On the other hand, Jesus is not deliberately trying to create problems for his disciples, but “. . . concedes that ruptures will result from the choices that individuals make for or against the kingdom of heaven as priorities are reordered” (c.f. 8:21-22) (Garland 118).
Matthew 10:40-11:1, God Honors True Disciples
If disciples are like Jesus in suffering, so they are like Him in preaching. Those who are truly God’s called preachers are to be received as though they were the Lord, Himself. Douglas Hare explains this concept: “Underlying (the saying) is the shaliach conception of ancient Jewish law, according to which a man’s duly authorized messenger ‘is as the man himself.’ This idea is perhaps reflected in Galatians 4:14, where Paul reminds his readers that they had received him ‘as Christ Jesus’ (see also John 13:20)” (118).
The same idea applies to prophets (later missionaries), the righteous (elders or teachers in a congregation), and little ones (the least of Jesus’ followers) (Gardner 178). This last saying reminds us of Jesus’ call for workers to go into the harvest field (9:38). Naturally, workers should be paid for their work, as should those who assist the workers. God will not forget the kinds of rewards that are appropriate for each one.
The text ends a bit strangely. We began with Jesus’ concern for workers for the harvest field (9:38). We then moved to Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples (10:1). We have now worked through Jesus’ instructions and warnings to them. But we don’t read of any of their ministry. Instead, we read that Jesus went on to teach and preach. I guess we have to turn to the Acts of the Apostles to read about their work!
Gardner has a nice conclusion to what we have been studying. Allow me to summarize what he has said:
1. The coming of God’s Kingdom evokes strong opposition and conflict.
2. Faithfulness to God can be a costly matter.
3. Suffering links believers with Jesus, Whose own suffering can be a model.
4. God is aware of believers’ trials and is present with them in their ordeal.
5. Those who endure suffering and whose witness remains steadfast will be rewarded for their faithfulness.