Last time we examined Jesus’ specific instructions to His apostles regarding the ministry upon which He was sending them.
Matthew 10:16-22 – Jesus Sends Twelve Apostles Forth – Part 3
We now turn our attention to some stern warnings Jesus gave them regarding the troubles they would have to face on this mission. These warnings are just as applicable for evangelists today as they were when Jesus sent forth the twelve.
16“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19When 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. 20For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.Matthew 10:16-22 [ESV]
16“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.Matthew 10:16 [ESV]
As I was studying this familiar passage in preparation for this lesson, it occurred to me that I usually just gloss over the first verse in my mind.
For starters, I simply ignore the first word – Behold. The Greek word ἰδού idou and its Hebrew counterpart – הִנֵּה hinnê – are occasionally used quoting a character in one of the Bible studies pointing out something to her/his companions just as we might say, “look at that.” More often though, these words are used by the author or as here in Matthew 10:16 in quoting someone saying in effect, “Listen up! What I’m about to say is important.” In similar fashion, the Biblical prophets usually precede their prophecies with the phrase, “Thus says the LORD…” Here in Matthew 10:16, Jesus was about to give His apostles a dire warning about the challenges they would face on their mission, so He wanted to make sure they were paying close attention.
As He often did, Jesus used figurative language in making these warnings. He used agrarian references that would have been very familiar to the apostles, comparing them and the opponents they were about to face with sheep and wolves, and continuing with the character traits of serpents and doves that they would need to face the coming challenges. As I considered verse 16, some questions occurred to me.
- Do these animals actually exhibit the characteristics we usually associate with them?
- Do we all agree about exactly what those characteristics are?
- What does God’s Word have to say about these animals?
The Bible contains over 200 references to sheep. Many of these speak of literal sheep, for example listing the number of sheep that were sacrificed on some occasion. Others (especially in the prophets and the psalms) refer to people – particularly the nation of Israel – as sheep, and to their leaders as shepherds. The first among these is found in Numbers 27:17. The context of that passage was that God had led Moses up to the top of Mt. Nebo to show him the promised land into which He was about to lead His people Israel. God told Moses on that occasion that he would not be allowed to enter the land due to his rebellion against the direction of the LORD at Meribah (Numbers 20:10-13). In response, Moses asked God to appoint a leader over the people to take his place.
16“Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation 17who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.”Numbers 27:16-17 [ESV]
Throughout the Bible, God refers to His chosen people Israel and to His Church as His sheep. Furthermore, the Bible is full of references to us as sheep who have gone astray, and to our earthly leaders as our shepherds who frequently lead us astray.
All we like sheep have gone astray;Isaiah 53:6 [ESV]
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD.Jeremiah 23:1 [ESV]
By contrast with earthly leaders who don’t care properly for the people (sheep) entrusted to them, the LORD – being our rightful owner – is a Good Shepherd.
11I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.John 10:11-15 [ESV]
I have no personal experience owning or tending sheep. When we lived in Germany, there were many pastures full of sheep all around most villages. I rarely saw shepherds actively guiding them or tending them except when it was time to shear them or bring them inside on cold winter nights. Given a proper fence, I didn’t notice any particular tendency for them to stray any more often than other kinds of livestock. Yet the Bible frequently refers to sinful people as being prone to wander like lost sheep without a shepherd. Regardless of whether actual sheep are as prone to go astray as people, the question at hand is what Jesus meant when He said He was sending the apostles out as sheep?
- Harmless – When I lived in Hawaii as a young teenager, my eldest sister and I went over to Radford High School one afternoon to play. While we were there, we fed some grass to the school mascot – the Radford Ram. I had fed the ram many times before, but on this afternoon, he went after my sister and butted her in her butt. She was badly bruised and deeply frightened by the encounter. We never figured out exactly what set the ram off against her. This encounter notwithstanding, sheep are nearly always docile creatures who don’t represent a threat to anyone or anything apart from the vegetation that they continually snip off with their teeth and swallow down. The apostles’ mission to spread the Gospel of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven was of benefit for all who might believe, and wasn’t a threat to anyone except those who chose to disbelieve it themselves.
- Defenseless – Although my sister might dispute the point, sheep don’t really have any offensive capabilities in a fight. Their horns are short and curl around backward, so they are of little use against an adversary. Their teeth that are so effective at ripping up plants from the ground aren’t effective for battle. Neither are their hooves. Yes. Certainly sheep do kick, but only cursorily as they are trying to run away. The sheep’s only real defenses are running away from danger and the mutual shelter of the flock. This is why single sheep separated from the flock are in such danger. Just so, the apostles sent forth out of the throngs of Jesus’ disciples to preach the coming of the Kingdom were defenseless on their own against anyone who might oppose them – especially against our great adversary the devil. Of course the Spirit of God went before them just as He goes before us in our own Gospel witness and godly service. Being defenseless in ourselves, we are forced to rely in faith solely on God’s provision and protection.
By contrast with sheep which are mentioned over 200 times in God’s Word, wolves are mentioned only 13 times. In each instance, people who would seek to harm or destroy God’s “flock” are compared to hungry wolves. As with sheep, I have no personal experience with wolves, apart from seeing them in zoos and one wolf Sue and I saw along the road in Wisconsin on our extended road trip during the Autumn of 2020. What little I know about wolves, I have learned from documentary films. Wolves are pack hunters who don’t really try to stalk their prey like lions and other lone-hunting carnivores. The wolves’ hunting strategy is largely pitting the stamina of the hunting pack against the frightened flight of a lone (often disabled in some way) prey animal.
Apart from Matthew 10:16 and the parallel verse – Luke 10:3 – Jesus made mention of wolves one other time with regard to false prophets.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.Matthew 7:15 [ESV]
The apostle Paul also compared opponents of the Gospel to wolves in his final exhortation to the elders of the church at Ephesus as Paul was about to depart for Jerusalem where the Spirit had told him he would be arrested, jailed, and eventually martyred for the sake of the Gospel.
28Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.Acts 20:28-30 [ESV]
The hunting strategy of the wolf pack reminds me of an episode I once saw of Bill Maher’s television show Politically Incorrect. Maher is a vehement critic of the Bible and of all religions including Christianity which he characterizes as destructive. He calls the Bible “An old book of Jewish fairy tales.” I don’t recall the specific topic under “discussion” on this particular episode of the show. What I do recall is the manner in which the subject was approached. The “discussion panel” was made up of Maher, two others who either shared Maher’s own views on the subject or at least pretended to, and a poor, young, innocent advocate for the opposing (Biblical) viewpoint on the issue. It was quite evident that this young lady had been carefully selected as an ineffectual mouthpiece for the “religious” viewpoint on the issue not to offer any serious intellectual challenge to Maher and his cronies, but rather to create a “discussion” framework within which Maher could pontificate his own viewpoint in his trademark smart aleck style. The “discussion” consisted of Maher first stating his viewpoint on some aspect of the subject, getting a harumph or two from the audience and his two hand-picked yes men, and finally Maher asking the panel’s token Christian for her opinion. In every iteration of this spectacle, the panel then attacked the Christian’s viewpoint and subjected her to personal derision. In fact, the panel and audience rarely even allowed her to finish having her say before they attacked her. This nauseating circus performance was very reminiscent indeed of a pack of ravenous wolves surrounding and attacking a lone, impaired sheep.
This is why, as was mentioned in our previous study in Matthew 10:4-15, Jesus sent His apostles out two-by-two. Just like wolf packs on the hunt, figurative wolves in the midst of our flocks try to single out the weak and alone among us and gang up on them. Praise God that He has foreseen this, and has set in place the Church for our mutual fellowship, encouragement, discipline, and protection.
Serpents are never treated favorably in the Word of God except perhaps right here in Matthew 10:16. Famously, the first Biblical mention of a serpent is in the Garden of Eden.
Now the serpent was more crafty [עָרוּם ʿārûm] than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”Genesis 3:1 [ESV]
Of course, the serpent in Genesis 3 was no ordinary animal, but the fleshly embodiment of the fallen angel Lucifer who in his pride and rebellion was ejected from Heaven to become our great adversary and accuser Satan. But for purposes of our study in Matthew 10, we’ll leave discussion of that for some other time, and focus in on this craftiness attributed to the serpent. The Hebrew word עָרוּם ʿārûm means subtle, shrewd, crafty, sly, sensible, or prudent. In Genesis 3:1, of course, the word’s connotation of slyness or craftiness is most apropos with regard to Satan in the form of the serpent who spoke with Eve.
The corresponding Greek word here in Matthew 10:16 is φρόνιμος phronimos. It is translated as “wise” in the ESV and as “shrewd” in some other English language translations. It means intelligent, wise, prudent, or mindful of one’s interests. Clearly it is this manner of being as wise as serpents to which Jesus exhorted His apostles, not the craftiness of the serpent who deceived Eve.
But do real serpents possess these characteristics? In my limited experience with snakes, I would be skeptical. After all, a snake’s cranial capacity isn’t exactly cavernous. Snakes are known for stealth and sneakiness, not for wisdom and prudence. The attributes we assign to snakes arise not so much from their innate character I think, but much more from a largely irrational fear of them on our part. Were snakes considered intelligent, wise, or prudent in the Jewish society to which Jesus’ ministered. I simply don’t know and don’t really have any idea how to find out.
The dove and olive branch are symbols of peace in many cultures today. One article I looked at – https://www.givemehistory.com/symbols-of-peace – attributes these symbols of peace to ancient Greek culture and to the rise of Christianity in the western world, but of course the symbolism goes much further back than that to the time of the Great Flood.
And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.Genesis 8:11 [ESV]
Along with the rainbow that God placed in the sky as a reminder, the dove with her olive branch became a symbol of peace between God and mankind following the terrible wrath of God manifested in the flood. In the Law of Moses, a pair of turtledoves is specified as the appropriate sin offering for the poor who can’t afford to offer a lamb. Interestingly, while the Law is careful to specify that Lambs offered to God are to be without blemish, no such explicit specification is made for the turtledoves. We can safely consider that the turtledoves were assumed to be spotless and therefore appropriate as an atonement for sin. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant by His admonition for His apostles to be innocent as doves.
The Greek word translated as “innocent” in the ESV version of Matthew 10:16 is ἀκέραιος akeraios. It means without a mixture of evil, free from guile, innocent, simple. Some English translations – particularly the KJV and NKJV – render the word as “harmless.” But I think they miss the mark somewhat. Jesus direction to His apostles was that they should be free from even the hint of evil in their words and actions, but most importantly in their hearts. This is really a command from our LORD that is just as applicable to the modern Christ follower as it was to the apostles Jesus sent forth nearly 2000 years ago.
In his closing admonishment to the church in Rome, Paul wrote in very similar terms to those with which Jesus charged His apostles here in Matthew 10.
17I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.Romans 16:17-19 [ESV]
Of course the most important instance in God’s Word of the dove symbolizing peace came when Jesus was baptized.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”Luke 3:21-22 [ESV]
In fact, the only real peace (with God and with each other) we can have in our lives comes through the indwelling of the heart of the believer by God’s own Spirit. Not too long after Jesus sent these apostles forth for the first time as His delegates, the hour had come for Him to accomplish the fulfillment of His peacemaking mission through His sacrifice on the cross. As they were about to go out from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus spoke this tender benediction upon them regarding the peace that only His Spirit can bestow.
25“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.John 14:25-27 [ESV]
17Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.Matthew 10:17-18 [ESV]
It is quite intriguing that Jesus gave this warning to His apostles at this time, because recall from Matthew 10:5-6 that Jesus had directed them not to witness among the Gentiles. Mark’s account of this warning Jesus specifically mentions that they will eventually be sent to witness among the Gentiles.
9“But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.Mark 13:9-10 [ESV]
Perhaps Jesus was forewarning them of persecutions to come later on in addition to those they would face on this first ministry outreach in His Name. As we have previously noted, all of the apostles did indeed face such persecutions – some of them coming from none other than Saul of Tarsus who would later be counted as an apostle of Jesus himself.
19When 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. 20For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.Matthew 10:19-20 [ESV]
Jesus’ dire warnings to His apostles – then and now – are a little intimidating. Certainly, Gospel evangelism would be a “mission impossible” if we tried to accomplish it under our own (imaginary) power and within our own (changeable) will. Thank God then that we are not sent forth alone. Jesus promised the apostles then, and promises us now that He will go before us in the power of His Spirit. Therefore, we have nothing to fear. We might act as God’s voice, hands, and feet, but the message and the power behind it are the LORD’s. This is a great encouragement. On the day He ascended to His Father, Jesus reminded these same apostles, and all who proclaim salvation in His Name of His eternal presence with us.
…I am with you always, to the end of the age.”Matthew 28:20b [ESV]
Luke’s account of this encouragement associates it with Jesus’ answer to the apostle’s question regarding the signs of the end time.
12But before all this [the coming signs of the end] they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.Luke 21:12-14 [ESV]
Here once more we see an example of the emphasis of concept over chronology in ancient Jewish narrative tradition. What’s important here isn’t the particular chronological context within which Jesus offered this encouragement, but rather the encouragement itself. It is a powerful encouragement indeed. Jesus not only offers encouragement against fear and worry for His Gospel evangelists, but also says that our persecutions themselves will be given to us as opportunities to minister the Gospel to those around us. Furthermore Jesus directs that we should resolve beforehand not to try to offer up our own Gospel defense so that we will be useful to His Spirit as His Gospel witnesses even in the face of dire persecutions. Most of us (at least here in the USA) have never yet had to face the kind of opposition to His Gospel that Jesus warned His apostles about before sending them forth. Yet, Jesus promises that we will indeed face such persecution. The age of political security and power of the Christian Church in the west is drawing rapidly to a close. In its place, we are now seeing the beginnings of the kinds of severe persecution that the apostles in the early Church faced every day for decades.
21Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.Matthew 10:21-22 [ESV]
These are hard words to face. Those of us who came to faith later in life can attest to the turmoil and division the Gospel can cause. In my own family, my Christian faith and Gospel testimony have caused rancor and alienation if not outright strife and estrangement among us. I praise and thank the LORD my God that in His mercy and grace, He chose to call my wife to Himself within a few weeks of calling me. I’m not sure how I could have possibly faced the heartache within my marriage if He had not. I have many friends who are not so blessed, and I have seen the sorrow of marital and familial strife caused by the Gospel.
Nevertheless, our calling as Christians in these cases is clear.
12To the rest [those who are married to an unbelieving spouse] I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.1 Corinthians 7:12-13 [ESV]
I would venture to say that every Christian believer has experienced some personal estrangement from family members or from friends due to our profession of belief in Jesus’ Gospel. For many of our brothers and sisters living under atheist, Islamic, and Hindu governments and societal structures this estrangement has even led to them being delivered over to death by their own families just as Jesus warned His apostles. Eventually each and every Christian will be universally hated just as Jesus said here in Matthew 10:22. Jesus promises that our enemy’s deception will become so universal that those who deliver us up for death will believe they are doing the right thing.
1“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.John 16:1-2 [ESV]
The apostles to whom Jesus gave these warnings eventually faced exactly the persecution Jesus foretold within their lifetimes. We too see the signs all around us of a new wave of intense persecution against Christians even in the “enlightened and tolerant” democracies of the West. The new political trend of so-called “wokeness” within our society considers Paul’s warning to the church in Corinth to be hate speech.
9Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.1 Corinthians 6:9-10 [ESV]
In some jurisdictions right here in North America even quoting these verses from the pulpit is an offense under “hate speech” laws punishable by fine and imprisonment.
Why is the Gospel message so divisive? Because the true Gospel forces the Christian to make a conscious choice to turn away from sin and the things of the world and to seek instead Heavenly things and follow Jesus as LORD of our lives. Our choice to turn away from sin to seek and follow the LORD must be crystal clear. There can be no middle ground. Furthermore, Christians are required to actively voice our commitment to Jesus’ lordship to everyone we encounter including our families. Certainly we are to do so out of genuine heartfelt love for our brothers and sisters who remain lost, but Jesus’ command to be His witnesses is not optional. It is part and parcel to our Christian belief.
Our Gospel witness is offensive to people – especially to those who knew us well before we came to the LORD – because along with it comes the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgement. We who came to Christ later in life are blessed in a way, because it is easier for us to cast our minds back to the time when we ourselves were embroiled in our sins, and to remember how unpleasant the Spirit’s conviction was for us. Thus it is easier for us to have compassion upon those who remain lost in their sin and ensnared by the enemy of our souls.
This division of the Gospel between the believer and those we most deeply love is heartbreaking – intolerably so were it not for Jesus’ promise at the end of Matthew 10:22. But exactly what does Jesus mean when He says that we who endure until the end will be saved? The end of which Jesus speaks doesn’t necessarily refer to the end of all things on the Day of the LORD spoken of by the prophets, although for some Gospel evangelists it most certainly will. For these apostles and for most of us who carry on their mission, enduring to the end Jesus spoke of simply means remaining faithful to our testimony through the persecution Jesus was warning about. When Jesus says that we who endure to the end will be saved, He is most certainly not talking about the saving of our souls out of eternal condemnation in our sins. That was fully accomplished through His sacrifice on the cross in the very moment we believed in Jesus’ resurrection and made our confession of His lordship with our voices. The word Jesus used at the end of Matthew 10:22 is σῴζω sōzō. It means to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction. So if we endure remaining faithful to Jesus’ lordship He will rescue us out of persecution in the way that brings God the most glory in accordance with His perfect will. In some cases He will preserve our earthly lives so we may be able to carry on the mission. In other cases, He will usher us into His glorious presence for all eternity. Through it all, God’s Spirit will continue to perfect us into the very image of Jesus in which God created us at the beginning. Thus the apostle Paul who was executed for his Gospel testimony was able to confidently write…
16Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.2 Corinthians 4:16-18 [NKJV]
Next time, God willing, we will continue in Matthew 10 examining Jesus’ instructions to His apostles for how they (and we) should cope with the persecutions that come in response to Gospel evangelism that He had been warning about.