IN THE PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL EXPECT PERSECUTION THAT WILL INTENSIFY IN THE END TIMES (FROM WOLVES OF FALSE RELIGION, GOVERNMENT, FAMILY AND SOCIETY) – SO AS SHEEP BE SNAKES AND DOVES
Stanley Saunders: Jesus has earlier described the people of Israel as sheep without a shepherd (9:36; 10:6), but now it is the disciples of Jesus who are like sheep surrounded by wolves (10:16). For Jesus, “wolves” denotes primarily the leaders of Israel and the Gentiles (10:17–18), but in the time of mission even one’s family members may reveal lupine tendencies (10:21). Jesus’ advice to his disciple-sheep is paradoxical: they are to combine the cunning of serpents with the purity and innocence of doves. Subtlety, prudence, clear thinking, and practical wisdom here join with purity, vulnerability, and transparency. The goal is not merely to elude opposition, but to nurture faithful, creative, enduring witness in the face of inevitable opposition.
Grant Osborne: On their mission, which will begin with Israel but extend to the Gentile lands, the disciples should expect arrest, persecution, and even death. Yet their response must not be in kind; they are to be shrewdly “innocent” and trust the Lord to give them the proper response when hauled before the courts. Moreover, the entire mission of the church, from the Jewish mission of the disciples (v. 17) to the later Gentile mission of the church (v. 18), stems from the commissioning and sending of Jesus.
David Thompson: Disciples of Jesus Christ must exist in a hostile environment among thse who are out to persecute them and harm them, and they must constantly be on guard concerning what they do and say.
Brian Evans: So, there is this evil, satanic resistance to Jesus and His message and our Lord tells His early disciples and us that He is sending His people right into the middle of that resistance.
Our Lord explains something else that is very important to see as we begin. The resistance and persecution does not take place because of social, economical, racial or any other reason no, the persecution Jesus tells us is and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. You will be hated not because you’re a Steelers fan or live on the wrong side of the tracks, you will be hated because of Jesus. In that verse, Jesus gives us the scope of the hatred, doesn’t He? He tells us the truth when He declares all will hate us. Make no mistake when push comes to shove the lost hate Christians because of Jesus. We cannot believe otherwise. Jesus tells us the truth, the lost world hates believers. You can talk about anything under the sun but don’t mention Jesus because then there’s trouble. That’s how it works in this world. That’s how it’s always worked.
John MacArthur: There is a telescoping effect. If you look at verse 23, you will notice that it ends with the coming of the Son of Man. That is an eschatological term used by Matthew to refer to the return of Christ. And so, what He teaches her as immediate import for the Twelve as they go out, such as the statement of verse 6 in chapter 10, “Go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That is a very dispensational statement related to a very specific time in which they lived. But it begins from there to telescope, and it touches the time in which they will fully be sent, and it touches all of those who were ever sent by our Lord, even those who will be sent against the terrible opposition of the great tribulation prior to the return of Christ.
And so, what we see here is a span and a sweep of all of the history of God’s people, from Jesus the first time He came, to Jesus the second time He comes. He sees the Twelve on this first mission. But with His marvelous, omniscient, prophetic eye, He sees the Twelve again in their full mission. And then He sees all those who represent Him. And then He finally sees those who will be in the great holocaust known as the great tribulation and the terrible opposition they will face. . .
Very commonly, in the prophetic literature, predictions have an immediate fulfillment and a future fulfillment, and that is what our Lord is doing. He is predicting the role and the place of the apostles, and has in mind the ultimate sense that this will sweep clear through history to the time of the great tribulation.
Richard Gardner: Jesus’ witnesses should be shrewd enough to avoid their persecutors where possible (wise as serpents; cf. v. 23a). At the same time, they should live in such a way that their conduct testifies in their favor if they are apprehended (innocent as doves; cf. Romans 16:19; 1 Peter 3:14-16). As noted earlier, warning is coupled with encouragement in the sayings we find here. Jesus’ messengers are assured that judicial hearings provide an opportunity to bear witness (v. 18), that the Holy Spirit will guide them in their testimony (vv. 19-20), and that those who endure suffering now will enjoy salvation at the end (v. 22).
Walter Wilson: The body of the unit is comprised of two parallel sequences (10:17–20, 21–23a), in which Jesus warns the Twelve of the persecutions they will face (10:17–18, 21–22) and then instructs them about how to respond (10:19–20, 23a). As the concluding prediction implies (10:23b), these tribulations will end only with the parousia. Persecution, then, will be not only unavoidable but also unending. Introducing the segment is the sending announcement in 10:16, which both corresponds functionally to the opening verses of the first unit (10:5–6) and functions as a heading for what follows. The people are like wolves when they initiate such persecutory actions against the envoys, and the envoys are like sheep as they endure them.
Donald Hagner: The end of the preceding passage makes it clear that some will reject the message of the kingdom. There the focus was on the plight of those who reject the message. Now the discourse moves to the effect of rejection and hostility upon the messengers. Rejection of the message will entail hostility and persecution directed against those who proclaim it.
John Nolland: The focus in the mission charge now moves from a concern with the nature of the mission initiatives to be taken by the disciples to the negative response to be expected, and how to deal with that. It pictures hostility as moving to an eschatological crescendo leading to the coming of the Son of Man.
I. (:16) RESPOND WISELY TO DANGEROUS PERSECUTION
A. Missions = Danger Zone
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves;”
R. T. France: The rejection of the Twelve at this stage in Galilee is unlikely to have been sufficiently violent to justify the vivid simile of sheep among wolves. It acts rather as a pointer to the eventually more serious vulnerability of disciples confronting a hostile world. For sheep threatened by wolves see 7:15, but here there is no pretense: the threat is real and open. As in John 10:12; Acts 20:29, the sheep are helpless in the face of an attack by wolves. It is an image of the Christian presence in the world which sits uncomfortably alongside much of the subsequent history of the church, as a power structure and itself often the agent of persecution.
B. Methodology = Wisdom
“therefore be shrewd as serpents,”
- Innocence / Purity
“and innocent as doves.”
Daniel Doriani: We must show craft, cunning, and guile, as snakes do. Snakes know they are not beloved, therefore they hide themselves. Like snakes, we must use our heads and avoid unnecessary danger. We do not overestimate the kindness of wolves. Yet Jesus introduces a second image, to limit the first: a disciple must be as innocent as a dove. Doves are famous for their naïve fearlessness. They are the last bird to flee when humans approach.
Grant Osborne: As Wilkins says, “Without innocence the keenness of the snake is crafty, a devious menace; without keenness the innocence of a dove is naïve, helpless gullibility.” So the Christian is to interact with outsiders with a practical wisdom and a behavioral innocence so the kingdom truths go out with divine power without hindrance. If persecution comes, it must be unearned. Yet come it will, as we will see.
R. T. France: Disciples under threat are not to be helpless and gullible, but must maintain the initiative. Cf. the shrewd self-preservation of the steward in Luke 16:1–8, also described as phronimos. But in popular thought snakes are feared rather than admired (cf. 3:7; 7:10), and it is as a threat to God’s people that they appear more often in biblical literature. So Jesus here offsets that more obvious connotation of snakes by a balancing animal image, the harmlessness of doves; the disciples’ cunning is to be directed not to harming their opponents, but to their own survival and the commendation of the gospel. They need the cunning of snakes without the venom. Cf. Paul’s instructions not to repay evil with evil and to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:17–21; and cf. Rom 16:19 for a close parallel to this saying).
John Nolland: The wisdom called for from the disciples will involve anticipating danger and avoiding it wherever possible, but not in such a way as to undercut their mission priorities. The innocence called for will involve a consistent integrity that is prepared to suffer rather than compromise and which is careful to give no grounds for legitimate legal objection to the action of the disciples.
II. (:17-22a) REALMS OF PERSECUTION
A. (:17) False Religion
“But beware of men; for they will deliver you up to the courts,
and scourge you in their synagogues;”
Grant Osborne: Most local “sanhedrins” or councils had a court of three judges that tried cases, and the law said that for a first offense the person was to be warned and released, but at the second offense they should be beaten (see Acts 4:18–21; 5:40). That is the situation Jesus is envisaging. Paul says in 2 Cor 11:25 that he had been beaten with rods three times (cf. Acts 16:22); while μαστιγόω often means a “scourging” like Jesus suffered, the beating here likely refers to the flogging decreed in Deut 25:1–3.
R. T. France: We have no evidence of such judicial proceedings against Jesus’ disciples before his death. Jesus’ words here are looking further into the future.
Craig Blomberg: With v. 17 Jesus shifts to predictions that were not fulfilled in the immediate mission of the Twelve. The events of vv. 17-22 took place only during the postresurrection ministry of the disciples.
John MacArthur: We want to keep a balance, but realize that the enemy’s going to attack you through human agencies. Don’t be surprised, then, when you’re criticized. Don’t be surprised, then, when you’re fired for articulating your faith. Don’t be surprised when people won’t invite you to the parties or the activities. Don’t be surprised when some girl dumps you, or some guy dumps you because of your faith. Don’t be surprised, because human agents represent the kingdom of darkness. . .
Who are the wolves? And if you notice verse 17, it says, “Beware of men.” And if you notice verse 22, it says, “You’ll be hated of all men.” The wolves are our own kind. Though it is true that we wrestle against spiritual wickedness in the heavenlies, principalities, and power, rulers of the darkness, it is true that we wrestle against demonic enemies, they find their form in the world through human agencies so that men become the dupes and the pawns, and the agents of demons so that we will find our enemy attacking us through the human system. The wolves then are men. . .
Now, what he’s saying is that one thing is for sure, false religious systems have made themselves drunk on the blood of the saints. And that has been true; that is true; and that will ultimately be true as they slaughter and massacre the believers even in the time of the tribulation. We shouldn’t be surprised, in Matthew 7:15, our Lord said that there would be wolves dressed as shepherds. And they would be ravenous wolves coming in the name of religion.
B. (:18-20) Oppressive Governments
- (:18) Opportunity to Testify in Tense Situations
“and you shall even be brought before governors and kings for My sake,
as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.”
Grant Osborne: Jesus appeared before the Roman governor Pilate, and Paul appeared before Sergius Paulus (Acts 13), Felix (Acts 24), Festus (Acts 25), and the emperor Nero himself. This was a reality, not just a mere possibility. But this will be done “for my sake” (ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ), and the authority of Christ will be evident throughout, as seen in the fact that this dangerous situation will be “as a witness to them” (εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς), which means that Christ will turn the situation around as an opportunity for the gospel (cf. esp. Acts 24:124–16; 26:19–23, 28–29). This does not mean “a witness against them” (dative of disadvantage) but a positive “witness to them” (dative of advantage). In fact, not only the rulers but also all “the Gentiles” would receive the witness of such events, as exemplified in Paul’s reflections on his own Roman trial in Phil 1:12–14. This is part of the “Gentile mission” theme in Matthew (cf. 1:5–6; 2:1–12; 4:14–16, 25; 8:5–13).
John Nolland: The Roman justice system and the local Jewish justice system sat side by side. Submission to the Jewish authority was a choice (but a necessary concomitant of membership in the Jewish community); submission to the Roman authority was mandatory. More severe penalties, including the death penalty, were available through Roman justice than through the Jewish legal system. So the stakes are now raised.
R. T. France: The local opposition which the Twelve can expect in Galilee is thus a foreshadowing of the more serious and official hostility which Jesus’ followers will meet in the wider world.
- (:19-20) Promise of Empowerment by the Holy Spirit
“But when they deliver you up, do not become anxious about how or what you will speak; for it shall be given you in that hour what you are to speak. 20 For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.”
Walter Wilson: With 10:19, Jesus moves from warning to reassurance. Whereas the appeal not to “worry” in 6:25–34 addressed anxieties over material needs, here attention is fixed on the performance anxiety disciples may experience over what to say when they are handed over.
Stanley Saunders: But here Jesus mixes a hint of opportunity into his warning: being dragged before governors and kings—as Jesus himself will be—provides an occasion for testimony. Opposition and persecution are inevitable, but they also provide new opportunities for faithful witness. Just as the disciples are to be defenseless against attacks and dependent on God’s care (10:9–10), when they stand before the legal authorities they are not to worry about what to say. “The Spirit of your Father” will provide the words at the very moment they are needed (10:19–20). God’s presence is powerful, especially in times of conflict and threat.
Daniel Doriani: This is not a promise for public speakers who fail to prepare. Rather it promises aid to witnesses who cannot prepare. When preparation is impossible, then God himself will empower his witnesses for their defense of themselves and their gospel. As the book of Acts abundantly shows, the Lord was good to his word (Acts 4:7–14; 5:27–32).
John MacArthur: In the Olivet Discourse, He says it’s especially how it’s going to be during the time of the tribulation. The time of the tribulation is going to see the revealing of the same thing. We’re to be persecuted. The world reacts. Religion reacts, because it’s generated by Satan. Government reacts because it’s in the control of the prince of the power of the air, the ruler of this world. And families react because they cannot tolerate a righteous individual in the midst of their unrighteousness. The wolves are going to do all they can to slaughter the sheep.
C. (:21) Hostile Family Members
- Brother Betraying Brother
“And brother will deliver up brother to death,”
- Father Betraying Chile
“and a father his child;”
- Children Betraying Parents
“and children will rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death.”
John Nolland: This verse expands on the theme introduced in v. 17 and represents an intensification: among those who will seek to use the legal system to stop the missionary witness will be members of one’s own family; and the legal redress will go all the way to capital punishment.
D. (:22a) Society in General
“And you will be hated by all on account of My name,”
III. (:22b-23) REMEMBER THE END POINT OF PERSECUTION
A. (:23b) Persevere to the End
“but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.”
John Nolland; Where practical wisdom might suggest that to abandon one’s profession in the time of persecution is the way to secure one’s future, quite the opposite is insisted on here. The end point for the need of endurance will be the coming of the Son of Man, and this will be the subject of v. 23.
B. (:23) Proclaim the Gospel by Strategically Advancing (While Retreating) until the End
- Keep Moving On
“But whenever they persecute you in this city, flee to the next;”
Daniel Doriani: Flight is not cowardice; it is fidelity to the mission. If necessary, we will die rather than renounce the faith. But it is better to withdraw to fight—by preaching—another day.
- Anticipate the Return of Christ
“for truly I say to you, you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel,
until the Son of Man comes.”
Walter Wilson: As the following verse (10:23) makes plain, the promised reward does not entail rescuing the envoys from persecution. Indeed, endurance is required because they will continue to be persecuted until “the end,” that is, until the appearance of the Son of Man (cf. 16:27–28; 24:29–31). The envoys are not to retaliate (cf. 5:38–48) or seek martyrdom but to evade danger in one city (cf. 23:34) by fleeing to the next (cf. 10:11+14–15), not unlike Jesus himself, who in 12:15 and 14:13 evades potential threats to his life by withdrawing from the scene (cf. 2:13–14). In so doing, they also honor Jesus’s original charge that they should “go” to Israel (10:6–7). Efforts intended to eradicate the movement, then, have the effect of spreading the gospel (cf. Acts 8:2–4), though, as the second part of the logion indicates, this work will be ongoing, the mission to Israel being a determinant of the apostles’ experience until the parousia (cf. Matt 16:28 || Mark 9:1). In other words, it is neither the missionaries nor their persecutors whose agency will usher in the new age but that of Jesus himself. Presumably, “finishing” (τελέω) the cities of Israel in 10:23 includes both exhausting them as (temporary) sanctuaries from persecution and completing the task of evangelism. The reassurance conveyed at this juncture to the missionaries includes the expectation that the Son of Man will return specifically to avenge himself and the disciples for their suffering (cf. 16:27).
John Nolland: ‘Son of Man’ has been established as a mode of self-reference for Jesus at 8:20; 9:6. The link of the present statement to Dn. 7:13 is evident. What is odd, however, about the present statement is its talk about a coming of the Son of Man, set on the lips of Jesus at a point where there is nothing to signal that he contemplates a departure that would make such a coming necessary. This feature points strongly to the drawing of this material from a Mk. 13–like context, where, with the Passion imminent, just such a departure is readily implied. In fact, the Son of Man saying in Mk. 13:26 plays a quite similar role in its context to that of Mt. 10:23. Matthew does not notice the anticipation of a coming in v. 23 when there has been no departure in sight as a difficulty because, though he is reporting mission instructions to the Twelve, he very much has in mind the mission of the early church in the post-Passion context.