“Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. Beware of them, because they will hand you over to local courts and flog you in their synagogues. You will even be brought before governors and kings because of me, to bear witness to them and to the Gentiles.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of the most pernicious lies about the Christian life that has nonetheless remained popular in our culture over the last 100 years or so is that the center of God’s will is the safest place to be. Although the person invoking that kind of idea may or may not actually mean it this way, the way it is generally received by audiences is as an assurance that when we are endeavoring to be faithful to God, nothing bad can happen to us. Not a few people have had their faith wrecked because they bought into that idea only to discover by experience that it isn’t even remotely true. In this passage, Jesus reminds us of just how untrue it is while at the same time giving us a bit of a perspective shift for how to handle some of the hard times we face so that we come out with our faith intact. Let’s talk about it.
I supposed I should start with what the truth is here before getting on to anything else. The truth about the Christian life is that while Jesus has absolutely promised to have our backs when we are following Him faithfully, He doesn’t say a single word about His will being a safe place in a worldly sense of safety. As a matter of fact, He assures us of just the opposite. After giving His disciples some instructions for the mission trip He was about to send them on, before letting them go, Jesus immediately shifts gears to warning them about the dangers they would be facing both then and in the years ahead.
This warning rather dramatically flips this far-too-common misperception of the Christian life right over on its head. Very little about following Jesus is safe as we would normally define such a notion today. I mean, sure, you’re not likely to get blown up (figuratively or literally) for telling your unbelieving neighbor about Jesus, but taking a public stand that is motivated by your commitment to Christ brings with it all sorts of risks. Our willingness to buy into the safety charade is a result of our culture’s generally being so thoroughly shaped by the Christian worldview for most of our history. From the perspective of the rest of the world and most of the last two millennia of history, though, what we have is an aberration. It is a remarkable unique set of circumstances in which a genuinely orthodox commitment to Christ was a culturally popular thing to have. Not so anymore. We are increasingly finding our playing field leveled as far as our brothers and sisters across the world and across time are concerned.
When Jesus was preparing His disciples for the journey that lied before them – both in the immediate future and the more distant future as well – He didn’t say it was going to be a cakewalk. He said, “I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves.” A sheep tiptoeing through a den of wolves has to tread incredibly careful lest it get eaten. There is nothing safe about such a situation. The wolves don’t care about the sheep at all and are perhaps more likely than not to slaughter it. And this is the illustration Jesus wanted us to have in our minds and hearts for the journey He was sending us on.
He didn’t stop there, though. He warned them too that they were likely to find themselves facing institutionalized persecution both locally, but also nationally. The powers that be in the various places where we would be sent would demand to know what we were doing and why we were doing it. What’s more, they wouldn’t necessarily be the ones to initiate this inquisition. We would be handed over to them. The very people we are trying to reach with the Gospel message will be the ones to turn us in because of our efforts. And those authorities would find against us. “They will hand you over to local court and flog you in their synagogues.” Jesus wanted them to know there could very well be a physical price to pay for seeking to advance the message of His coming kingdom.
What a nice, encouraging thought for the start of your weekend!
There are two things Jesus says here, though, that help to frame out a perspective we should have on the persecution we might face. This perspective won’t necessarily make bearing the abuse any less painful, but it will help us understand some of the why behind it and the response we should have to it. To put that another way, it can help us understand the purpose of it and our mission in it. Both of these things are found in v. 18. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
The first thing is that this kind of persecution will come because of Jesus. Did you catch that? All of these things will happen, Jesus said, because of me. If you want to blame the persecution and pushback you face because of your commitment to Christ on anyone, blame it on Jesus. No less than Jesus Himself claimed credit for it. Now, sure, the people doing it to you are responsible for the choices they have made, and they will absolutely be held accountable for those choices. But the reason they are making those choices doesn’t have anything to do with you pers se. It has everything to do with Jesus. Persecution is absolutely not an indicator that anything has gone wrong in your attempts to advance the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it can be an indicator that you are doing something right.
If you are experiencing persecution or pushback in your efforts to advance the Gospel there is a good chance these are coming because you are faithfully putting yourself in a position to advance Jesus’ kingdom into an area where it did not previously exist, and the enemy is very naturally pushing back against you for it. If you are following the Spirit’s leading in attacking an enemy stronghold, you should expect the enemy to retaliate. And the enemy doesn’t play fair. As Jesus said toward the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount, “You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For this is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
If you are facing persecution for advancing the Gospel, you are being treated like Jesus did by the world. And if you are treated the way Jesus was by the world, you will be treated the way Jesus was by God too. That turned out pretty well for Him. It may not feel like a good thing in the moment, but in an absolute sense it is a very good thing indeed.
The second thing Jesus said here is that this persecution will be happening for a reason. This is right at the end of our passage from a second ago. Jesus said all these tough things will happen to us and we will be hauled before various secular authorities with the intent of our being punished “to bear witness to them and to the Gentiles.”
You see, one of the most important things for us to remember in all of this is who God is. We serve the creator God who is totally sovereign over His creation. Nothing happens in it without His express approval. If we find ourselves in a difficult or dangerous situation in our efforts to serve Him faithfully, we are in that situation because He put us there. As the apostle Peter would later write, “but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” If you find yourself in a position where you are being called to give an answer for your faithfulness to Christ, it is because God has put your there to give an answer for your faithfulness to Christ. The best way to respond is to give an answer.
Of course, even in this you won’t be alone. Jesus goes on to assure us that if we are put in such a position, the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say and will in fact be speaking through us. The point, though, is that we will not be alone. We are never alone. Even when it’s hard. And it is going to get hard. Jesus promised us that. Any notion about following Jesus’ being a safe thing to do is just empty talk from folks who haven’t ever really done it. Ignore them and go with what Jesus said. That’s always a better option.