The time had come for the Lord to prepare His disciples for when it would be their job to tell the world what God had done through the work of His Son. Jesus was going to offer His life to pay for the sins of humanity. Through His sacrifice He was going to utterly defeat sin and death. It was the best news in the history of the world, and it was His disciple’s tremendous honor to declare it. But Jesus wouldn’t be walking among them when they did it, and He needed to get them ready.
It wasn’t going to be easy. Not everyone would be happy to embrace this new work of God in the world. Many wouldn’t understand. Religious leaders and rulers would feel their power threatened. As Jesus prepared the disciples for their calling, He warned them:
“‘Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On My account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what you say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.’”
Wow. There is a lot going on here. Becoming a disciple of Jesus wasn’t going to bring them the wealth and status of the world. They would be brought before powerful rulers, but often, it would bring them the shame and suffering of beatings and imprisonment. From an earthly perspective, they would have to give up having the kind of lives most people hope for. But think about what they would gain. The Spirit of God the Father, who rules and reigns in His heavenly power with unspeakable holiness and might, would fill them with His message to the lost. They would bring the words from the Throne Room of God into the throne rooms and courts of this world. And within a few decades, the suffering and challenges of being a disciple would be over. They would leave the shackles of this corrupt world. They would enter into everlasting life where they would forever be honored in the Throne Room of God for the obedience they offered Him when they were here on earth. Taking all things into a consideration, it is brilliant trade.
Jesus went on to explain the kind of troubles that the message of the Gospel would bring:
“‘Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of Me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’”
When we read Scripture there can often be several meanings, some are short-term and some are long-term. Scholars have different ways of understanding what Jesus means here. Clearly, the disciples and those who responded to Christ’s message were going to face painful conflict…the kind that can lead to death. It would be so extreme they would have to literally flee for their lives. Their challenge would be to stand in their faith in the midst of it all.
But what did Jesus mean when He said they wouldn’t finish preaching to all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes? Was He talking about the epic, final Day of the Lord? Some scholars believe He was. According to this view, Jesus was saying that throughout the ages, His disciples would have to continue to preach the Gospel to the Jews right alongside their proclamation to the rest of the world. This makes sense because it seems like Jesus’ message to the disciples is also a message for all of His disciples of all time, including us.
Other scholars believe that Jesus is talking about when He returned through rising from the dead. Still more believe it is about Pentecost, when Christ would send His Spirit to enliven His disciples with power after He ascended into Heaven.
There are several different ways to interpret this verse (Matt. 10:23), but they all carry the same hope. Whatever we go through here on earth, the suffering is limited. Jesus is coming back. In fact, it is kind of wonderful to realize there have been many ways the Savior has returned to us and will return to us still. He is the Lover of our souls, indeed.
Jesus went on:
“‘A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant to be like his master. If the Head of the House has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of His household!’”
When the most powerful religious leaders in Jerusalem sent their messengers to Jesus in Galilee, they did not come to accept Him. They wanted to silence Him. But they had to do something about all of His powerful, amazing miracles…if His power didn’t come from God, where did it come from? Imagine how many people who had been lame or sick or demonized were walking around as evidence that Jesus was no ordinary man. The religious leaders couldn’t argue that it wasn’t happening, so they had to come up with a reason for His power that took God’s anointing out of the picture. You may remember what they decided to do. They accused Jesus of being empowered by Satan. That was the ultimate rejection. It proved the hardness of their hearts…and with that they lost their right to hear more. For well over a year of His preaching they had received many, many opportunities to recognize God’s work through His Son. Again and again they refused to accept their Messiah. Finally, God the Father accepted that rejection. From that point on, Jesus began to speak in parables so that only those with ears to hear could understand. Jesus knew that He wouldn’t be the only one accused of operating in Satan’s power. His disciples would hear that, too. Jesus went on:
“‘Do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.’”
Wow. If we take the words of Jesus seriously, this is both terribly difficult and remarkably wonderful. It forces us to consider the grip we have on this life and all the things we want to do to garner and preserve our own happiness here. It also gives breathtaking assurances for what is possible for those who take hold of it. Jesus was penetratingly clear: there is a level and grandeur of faith available to us that is so powerful that we will no longer be afraid of persecution and death. And we are meant to pursue it. The key is to look at the bigger picture. When you align with loyal devotion to Christ, you side with the One who has the most important power. In the end, that is going to be the only thing that matters. In the beginning it might feel like an epic loss. Ultimately, it becomes a wildly great freedom.
Jesus understood that it wouldn’t be easy:
“‘Are not two sparrow sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’”
Isn’t it amazing? In the midst of the epic calling of a disciple, there is also a tender mercy and nearness to God. He knows how many hairs are on our heads. He attends to every falling sparrow, and we have a far greater worth.
These are the words of a deeply loving Lord. They are worth sitting with in our hearts and minds, meditating on and praying through them until we understand them in the deepest places of our hearts. They have the power to help us overcome all the fears that would stop us from being the courageous disciples that Christ is calling us to be in this passage.
Jesus was still walking around with His disciples when He spoke these words, but He understood the challenges they would face…that millions of His followers would face over the thousands of years that would follow His death and resurrection.
As I prepare this lesson, I can hardly keep from weeping. We live in an amazing time. A girl like me in California can post stories about Jesus, and they can be read in countries all over the world within seconds of their posting. It is breathtaking. Yet we also live in a terrible time. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are being persecuted all over the globe. The last century has seen more martyrs than any other time in history.
When I look at the stats for this blog, there are readers from the very countries where persecution is most intense, and I wonder who might be reading this. Are you okay? What have you endured? What will be your call? How can we pray? It shows how important this particular story in the Bible is, and how clearly Jesus understood the opposition that the Gospel would have in every age. He gives His chosen ones the dignifying role of taking up His cross. And He is worth it. May the family of Christ across the globe be faithful to our brothers and sisters who have the honored role of standing for Jesus in the darkest places. Their reward is going to be unspeakably great. And may their faithfulness cast a vision for greater faithfulness in us.