16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 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. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 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.
24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 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. – Matthew 10:16-25 ESV
Try to put yourself in the sandals of the disciples. It was still early in their relationship with Jesus and He has just told them that He is going to send them out on their own with the responsibility of sharing the news of His Kingdom to their fellow Jews. Not only that, He has informed them that they will be able to perform the same incredible miracles He has done. All of this must have sounded strange to them, but also a bit exciting. They were being commissioned by the Messiah and given a level of responsibility that must have seemed way above their pay grade. After all, they were simple fishermen, laborers, and tax collectors. Yet, they were being sent by Jesus and this assignment from Him must have left them with a sense of pride. But Jesus was about to tap the brakes on their enthusiasm.
He could probably tell from the looks in their eyes that they were thrilled with the prospect of being able to perform miracles. And the idea of being able to pronounce either a blessing or a curse on those to whom they spoke must have left them with a sense of power and authority that showed up on their faces. So, He threw a bit of cold water on their enthusiasm by telling them, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). Remember, He had just described the people of Israel as “lost sheep.” Now He refers to the disciples as sheep. And that reference would have been well-understood by the twelve. Sheep were innocent and highly vulnerable animals. They were virtually defenseless, lacking no real capacity to protect themselves from harm. And Jesus told them they would find themselves like sheep among wolves. Not exactly an encouraging picture. Then He followed this up with a warning to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). What does that even mean?
The Greek word translated as “wise” carries the idea of being prudent or shrewd. It is a kind of street savvy that would allow them to survive in a very difficult environment. But to prevent them from becoming jaded and ruthless in their behavior, Jesus warned them to maintain a sense of innocence. He did not want them to become like the wolves. Rather, they were to be aware of the wiles of the enemy, without emulating his ways.
Then Jesus dropped the bomb on them.
17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. – Matthew 10:17-18 ESV
What the disciples didn’t know was that Jesus was talking about the future. He was addressing the period of time that would take place after His death, resurrection and ascension. At this point in their relationship with Jesus, they had no way of knowing that His earthly ministry was going to end in His voilent death by crucifixion. He had yet to break that news to them. And they were completely oblivious to the fact that, upon His return to heaven, they would find themselves His ambassadors and earthly representatives, tasked with the responsibility of taking the good news of His sacrificial death on the cross to the world. They would be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). And they would find themselves facing stiff resistance in the form of persecution and even death.
All of this had to have left the disciples slack-jawed and dumbfounded. All this talk of courts, flogging and being handed over to death had to have left them shaking their heads in confusion. Their eager enthusiasm would have turned to abject fear and revulsion at the thought of having to endure such things. But Jesus gave them a bit of good news, informing them that the Spirit of God would be with them, so they had no reason to be anxious. The Holy Spirit would give the words they needed to defend themselves when standing before the courts. And even if their own families end up turning against them and they find themselves facing the hatred of those who once claimed to love them, they can rest in the knowledge that God will be with them. They will be saved. This doesn’t mean they will escape death, but that they will be ultimately delivered to eternal life.
None of this probably sounded like good news to the disciples. They must have been staring at one another in disbelief and confusion, trying to comprehend all that Jesus was telling them. And it is important to keep in mind that they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, but their understanding was that He had come to set up His Kingdom on earth NOW. They were looking for a new day to dawn for the people of Israel. They had joined up with Jesus because they thought He was going to restore Israel to its place of power and prominence and they hoped to get in on the ground floor of His new administration.
But now, Jesus had clouded their vision of the future. In essence, Jesus was revealing to them that God’s agenda was far different than their own. There was a divine plan in place that was going to include not only Jesus’ first coming, but a second one that would culminate God’s plan for the redemption of mankind and the recreation of the world. But in the meantime, there were some important events that would have to take place, including Jesus’ death on the cross, His return to heaven, His rapture of the church and His Second Coming at the end of the period of the tribulation.
The disciples lived with a here-and-now mentality that focused all their attention on the period of time in which they lived. They were not thinking about the distant future. They were not concerned about things that were to happen long after they were gone. But Jesus was trying to expand their understanding and open their eyes to the reality that His mission was far greater than they imagined. The redemptive plan of God went way beyond the physical restoration of the nation of Israel as a political force on earth.
The Son of Man had come, but He was going to have to come again. And it would be at His second coming that Jesus would accomplish many of the things the disciples were expecting. They would be long gone by that time. But they were the first of many who would spread the good news regarding Jesus to the world. They would start with the Jews, but after Jesus’ death, they would be told to take the Gospel to the nations. And after the disciples were gone, the offer of salvation through Christ would be carried around the world by future disciples who would face persecution, rejection, and even death. And one day Jesus will return to complete the mission He has been given by God.
In the meantime, we are called to be like our Teacher. We are to serve as He served, love as He loved, share as He shared. And, as a result, we will suffer as He has suffered. We will be falsely accused and maligned just as He was. But we have the knowledge and reassurance that one day He is coming back. We also rest in the fact that our destiny is secure and our eternal state guaranteed by His death and resurrection. We have nothing to fear and everything for which to look forward.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.