Matthew 10 contains a collection of teachings on the disciples’ mission. There are four main sections in this chapter. Verses 1-4 introduce and commission the twelve apostles. Verses 5-15 contain instructions for them on a mission to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel." Verses 16-39 present the most diverse material but persecution is the uniting theme. Matthew 10:40-11:1 brings the mission teaching to a conclusion.
Matthew 10:16-39 - Facing Persecution
This section is composed of five sections. Verses 16-23 warn the disciples to be prepared for persecution. Verses 24-25 points out that persecution of disciples is part of the pattern that began with opposition to Jesus. Verses 26-31 urge courage in the face of fear when persecution comes. The issue of confessing and denying Jesus appears in verses 32-33. The unit on persecution concludes with the division that discipleship demands.
Some people argue that verse 16 forms the conclusion to verses 5-15. This is possible but in reality verse 16 provides a transition between the two sections. The verse begins with a call for attention. (This is normally translated "behold," though the NIV ignores it and the NRSV has "see.") This indicates how important and unusual the following statement is. Jesus is sending his disciples into such a hostile environment that he characterizes it as sheep into the midst of wolves.
The details of the danger will follow, but at this point Jesus counsels wisdom. Some scholars believe that wise as serpents, harmless as doves was a popular proverb of that culture comparable to "a stitch in time saves nine" in American culture. While that is possible is seems more likely that the two individual parts were proverbial but the combination was unique to Jesus. It is the combination that is so difficult. The comparison to the serpent causes different people to put different nuances on wise from "prudent" to "crafty." It is the balance of prudence and purity that must describe the follower of Jesus. We must be insightful enough about evil to not be taken in by it, but we must also be innocent enough about evil to not prejudge people caught in its snares.
Verses 17-18 warn of legal proceedings, floggings, and trials before kings and governors. The book of Acts provides ample evidence that all this and more happened to some of the early Christians before Matthew’s gospel was even written. The words used in the Greek text of these verses shows that Jesus anticipated persecution for his followers from both Jews and Gentiles. We are to "beware" of the potential danger, but such awareness may not always enable us to avoid such resistance to the cause of Christ. Modern Western Christians have not experienced this kind of persecution in our corporate memory, but many believers in other parts of the world have in recent days and months.
The assumption of verse 19 is persecution. It does not say, "If they . . .." Rather it says, "Whenever they hand you over . . ." The word for "hand over" can also be translated "betray." Jesus assumes that true followers will experience betrayal into a situation of persecution. That also has been the experience of thousands of Christians in recent years in parts of the world that are (or were) formally hostile to Christian faith.
However, the point Jesus wanted to make was that his followers not worry about what they would say. It is interesting that the promise that God will provide the words through the Holy Spirit does not claim that the believers’ lives will be preserved and they will be set free. The promise is that they will be enabled to defend the Christian faith, not to be able to defend themselves.
The picture of persecution becomes more bleak in verse 21. Early Christianity (whenever it first begins to be preached in a culture and an age) causes family divisions. The "pro family" emphasis of many evangelicals assumes a Christian family culture. Such was not the case in the time of either Jesus or Matthew. Jewish culture was (and is) strongly oriented toward family ties. As a result when a member of a Jewish family began to follow Christ severe consequences, some of them leading to death, followed. The same was true in the Gentile world, though the Gentile family structure was not as close knit as in Judaism.
Verse 22 promises that everybody will hate the followers of Jesus. This must not be the result of the obnoxious methods of witnessing used by Christians. Rather, it resulted from the radical claims of Christ upon people’s lives. Sinful people always resist the idea of total obedience to God, which is the heart of the message of the Kingdom of God. The more clearly one sounds the call to holy living, the more hated that person will generally be. However, hatred or popularity is not the issue. Endurance is the ultimate key to salvation.
At first glance verse 23 promises the kind of persecution mentioned in verses 17-22 happening in every town and village. However, the difficult point is that the span of time in which persecution takes place will not end "until the Son of Man comes." Surely the disciples could have been persecuted or at least preached the gospel in every town in Israel before now, and Christ has not returned yet. What did Jesus mean?
Some have suggested that the "coming of the Son of Man" referred to his coming in judgment and so the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was in view. This is not impossible, but it seems as if Jesus could have said it more clearly if that was what he meant. Others have argued that the "coming of the Son of Man" referred to some special event such as Jesus’ death or resurrection. It is true that Jesus’ death and resurrection took place before the disciples had evangelized Palestine. However, one again wonders if Jesus couldn’t have conveyed such a message in a much clearer way. Other suggestions have also been offered, for this is an extremely difficult passage to understand. It may be best to conclude that Jesus has sent us on a mission to the Jewish people until the end of time.
Verses 24-25 form a small paragraph in the larger unit of thought. Superficially these verses are a truism. The disciple is never greater than his or her teacher. A slave is never above the master. It is the context and the assumption of resistance to Jesus’ ministry that give the meaning to these statements. The point is clear. If Jesus was persecuted and people resisted his ministry, how much more will his followers be persecuted and people will resist their ministries. For followers of Christ the validation of our discipleship is not escape from persecution but being counted worthy to share in Christ’s sufferings. Since people accused Jesus of obtaining his power for ministry from Satan, his followers should not expect an easy experience of being a witness.
The next section, verses 26-31, is a call to courage. Jesus commands his disciples not to fear their persecutors. Verses 26-27 promise the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness. Many modern Western Christians with often-manipulated consciences read, "There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed and nothing secret that will not be made known," with a certain amount of fear. We are so used to evangelists probing for hidden sins that we easily assume these verses as a threat to expose some sin we had forgotten or ignored or suppressed.
That was not Jesus’ intention with these words. They were spoken as good news, as a reason not to be afraid of persecution. From the perspective of Judaism these verses promise that the evil motives and the wickedness of the persecutors will someday become a matter of public record. It may be as late the judgment when God will expose their sin, but persecutors will not be able to hide their sin forever. It would do us Western believers good to become more confident that God will not let evil and injustice go on forever. It will eventually come to light and to judgment. When that happens those who have been persecuted will be vindicated before God and before the world.
Verse 28 begins with a clear word of encouragement, but it concludes with a command that is difficult to interpret. There is no need to fear those whose only threat is over our physical lives. Jesus is not dividing human beings into a dichotomy of body and soul here (see Body and Soul). Rather, the body is the outward expression of the whole person that is denoted by the word soul. Persecutors only have access to our bodies - they have no access to our whole person, what Paul calls our "inner man" in 2 Corinthians 4:16. Issues of heart, mind, spirit, and will can be tested but not destroyed by persecutors.
The second part of the verse is more difficult. It commands us to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul. It is not immediately clear whether Jesus has God or Satan in mind as the one capable of destroying both body and soul. The following three verses suggest that it is God who should be feared. Verses 29-31 affirm the value of individual people to God. Because he has such power over our destinies, God is the only one disciples should fear.
Modern Western Christians with sensitive consciences can easily misunderstand this. The point is not for us to live in terror that God will catch us at some unforgivable sin or take us to the judgment before we discover some sin in our lives. Jesus’ point is encouragement not to fear. Persecutors have no ultimate power over us - they do not have the power of God, however much they try to usurp such power. If you’ve got to be afraid, be afraid of God not persecutors. But there is no reason to fear God because he is not willing that any should perish and he has sent Christ to provide salvation for all.
Verses 32-33 also form a brief paragraph in the larger unit on persecution. The persecution that has been in view since verse 16 comes from resistance to the witnessing mission of Christ’s disciples. Verses 32-33 remind us that witnessing is not optional; it is necessary for the follower of Christ. The point of these verses is that confessing or denying Christ before the world becomes a matter of identity for us. People who acknowledge the call and power of Christ in their lives will be identified with Christ’s acknowledgment of them before God. People who deny Christ will discover their denying identity rising up to haunt them when Christ denies knowing them to God.
The final paragraph in the section on persecution appears in verses 34-39. Here Jesus returns to the theme of division in the family that first appeared in verse 21. Despite popular Christian songs to the contrary, there is a sense in which Jesus’ coming did not bring peace. "Peace in the midst of the storm" may result from following Christ but one cannot follow Christ in order to guarantee peace.
Obedience and witness are higher Christian values than peace and family. Verse 37 makes this point in painfully clear terms. Loving father or mother or family more than loving Christ is not adequate discipleship. These words feel harsh - and they are - but they are a helpful warning against making idols out of our families. The call of God on a person’s life must have priority above every other allegiance. If it does not, the other allegiance is the true god of that person. Such commitment may well lead one to the cross; that is where it led Jesus. But no one will find the meaning, fulfillment, and value of his or her life with any less allegiance to God.
Matthew 10:40-11:1 - Conclusion: Receiving Christ’s Servants
The final section of the mission discourse in Matthew 10 speaks of the ways followers of Christ may be "received" in positive ways. Persecution is not the only response that comes to witness. Some receive it and receive it gladly. Jesus notes that such welcome reception of the witness of a disciple should not be credited to the disciple as if it were your personality or technique that brought the good results. Rather, receiving the witness of a disciple is to receive Christ himself and that is to be open to God himself.
Furthermore, whatever reward there is for discipleship, it is shared by those who give positive reception to the gospel. If you are called to witness as a prophet those who accept your message share in your prophetic reward. If your ministry is that of being a righteous person, those who accept Christ because of you share in the reward of being righteous. In the kingdom rewards are not handed out on the basis of titles nor success rates. Rewards are given to those who faithfully support and give the witness to the Kingdom of God in their lives.
Matthew 11:1 contains the characteristic phrase marking the end of the discourses of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, "and when Jesus finished . . ." Matthew then narrates that Jesus turned from teaching the disciples to "teach and preach his message in their cities." No mention is made of the disciples actually carrying out the mission for which they had been instructed. However, Jesus did carry on with his mission.
Matthew 11:2-12:50 - Rising Opposition
A major new section begins with Matthew 11:2. As has been the case thus far in Matthew the new section contains a variety of materials that probably occurred or were spoken as several different times and places in Jesus’ historical ministry. Matthew has brought them together because they support a common theme, that of unbelief or opposition to Jesus and his ministry. The first collection is built around the questions of John the Baptist. Matthew 11:2-24 contains this first unit. The second collection of material emphasis the opposition of the Pharisees and is narrated in Matthew 12:1-21. The third heightens the tense of conflict by focusing on the accusation that Jesus’ ministry was, in fact, empowered by Satan, which is dealt with in Matthew 12:22-45.
Matthew 11:2-24 - Doubts and Dissatisfaction
Verses 2-6 introduce us to the first major expression of doubt of Jesus’ ministry and the source of that doubt is quite unexpected to many readers. This expression of doubt comes from John the Baptist who had been imprisoned. He sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus was "The One who is to come" or if they had hoped in Jesus in vain. The expression used by John’s disciples, "The One who is to come," appears to have been a Messianic title in Judaism. Psalm 118:26; Daniel 7:13; 9:25-27; and Malachi 3:1 are Old Testament passages that speak of the coming one in messianic terms. Matthew made it clear before John’s disciples even voiced their question what the answer was. Most English versions use the word "Christ" in verse 2, but the Greek word also meant Messiah. Thus Matthew’s audience would have read verse 2 this way, "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing . . ."
It is easy for modern Christians to criticize John the Baptist for doubting Jesus’ messiahship. After all, we note, John had baptized Jesus and given witness to his status before anyone else. It is instructive that Jesus did not voice any criticism of John. He understood the reason for John’s doubts. John had apparently hoped for a militaristic messiah. Jesus’ ministry had been much more spiritually oriented than much of Jewish expectation. If Jesus had been the kind of militaristic messiah many (thought not all) Jews expected, the least he would have done would have been to get John out of prison. The fact that he did not and the growing threat of death for John were sufficient reasons for him to raise the question.
Jesus’ reply seems to be a summary of what he had done in Matthew 8-9 and what he had taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Without an Old Testament background this description does not seem to answer John’s question directly. However, Jesus’ words describing his miracles are almost exact quotations from phrases found in Isaiah 26:19; 29:18; 35:5-6; 42:18; 53:4; and 61:1, passages which were clearly understood to be messianic prophecies by the Jews. Without claiming to be the Messiah and being tagged with any of the various portraits that Jews painted of the Messiah, Jesus pointed to the Scriptures that explained what he was doing in messianic terms. It was as if he were saying, "No, John, I’ve not fulfilled many people’s expectations for the Messiah, maybe not even yours. But you know the Scriptures. This is what I’ve done. You draw your own conclusions about who I am."
Modern believers could learn from Jesus’ method of dealing with doubt. Instead of criticizing and instead of directly arguing, he amassed the needed evidence for John to draw his own conclusions and then allowed him to do so. There is no direct record in the Bible of whether John returned to faith in Christ or not. Perhaps that is less important than the fact that he had the opportunity to freely commit himself to Jesus. When we make available to people the opportunity to choose genuinely on the basis of the truth that is all that is required in evangelism.
After the departure of John’s disciples Jesus spoke on the meaning of John the Baptist’s ministry. His comments were designed to cause the listeners to examine their own motivation for being interested in John’s ministry. By means of three questions and their answers Jesus pushed his listeners toward a more correct understanding of John. They had not gone out to see and hear John in looking for "a reed shaken by the wind." Some scholars interpret this question to mean to just look at the scenery. However, it is more likely that Jesus meant that his listeners knew that John the Baptist was not a political person easily swayed this way or that according to other people’s opinion. Further, they had not gone out to see a man in soft clothing. Since kings and rich people were the only ones to wear soft and fine clothing in the ancient world, Jesus was pointing that his listeners knew that John the Baptist was not an "institutional" person. He was not wealthy or part of the government. The real reason they wanted to see and hear him was that he was a prophet. They recognized, instinctively though not clearly, that God was speaking through John the Baptist.
However, Jesus (and Matthew) wants his audience to understand that John was more than just any prophet. He was the messenger prophesied about in Malachi 4:5. The term used in Malachi 4:5 was Elijah but he was the messenger that God would send before the Messiah to announce his coming. Thus Jesus (and Matthew) answer John the Baptist’s question again for the audience, even though John’s disciples have already returned with their report. The very ministry of John the Baptist as forerunner affirmed the messiahship of Jesus. The fact that John the Baptist played this role means that he was a major pivot point in salvation history. No one of the prophets in the Old Testament attained the privilege of John the Baptist in announcing the Messiah. In that sense no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. However, John only announced the coming of Christ. When Jesus arrived, ushering in the Kingdom of God, a whole new era of salvation history began. In that sense the least important person in the Kingdom is greater than John. The dramatic turning point in salvation history that occurred because of John’s ministry forced people out of their established and comfortable religious ways to make a choice about their own response to the demands of the kingdom. The change in history was violent and violence is the way some responded to the kingdom. John the Baptist appears to have been the first one to have been on the receiving end of that violence.
The resistance of the Jews of Jesus’ time to making a kingdom choice is illustrated in verses 16-19. They found John’s demands too hard and Jesus’ grace too embracing of sinners. They decided it was easier to complain about the messengers than to respond in obedience to the message. It is too easy for us to follow in their footsteps..
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 10:16-11:19. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you respond to the demands of the Kingdom of God and of mission for Christ that seem too difficult for you.
Second Day: Read Matthew 11:16-30. Now focus on Matthew 11:20-27.
1. What sin and punishment of Tyre is mentioned in Amos 1:9-10? What sin of Chorazin and Bethsaida is mentioned in these focus verses? What is Jesus’ point of comparison?
2. Verse 23 seems to echo words of Isaiah 14:13-15 written about the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4). What was the sin of the king of Babylon and how was Capernaum’s sin worse?
3. What does the warning to Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum say to us today? How should we respond personally to this passage?
Third Day: Read Matthew 11:20-12:8. Focus in on Matthew 11:28-12:8.
1. What encouraging promises do you find in Matthew 11:28-30. Summarize them in your own words and apply them to your own life. Why do these words bring encouragement to you?
2. What is the main point of Matthew 12:1-8? What do verses 6 and 7 contribute to you understanding of the significance of this passage? How would you apply this story to life in the church today?
3. What would it mean in your life for Jesus to be "Lord" of your Sabbaths? What changes would be needed in your life? Ask the Lord to help you begin making those changes.
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 12:1-32. Focus your attention on Matthew 12:9-21.
1. Compare and contrast the Sabbath controversy in verses 1-8 with the Sabbath controversy in verses 9-14. What is common to both stories? What do you think is the main difference in the message of the two?
2. Matthew 12:18-21 quotes from Isaiah 42:1-4. Read Isaiah 42:1-25. What pictures do you find in Isaiah 42 that remind of Jesus and his ministry? List them with a brief description.
3. Why do you think Matthew inserted this quotation from Isaiah 42 at this point of his story? What in the quotation seems to "fit" with the story of the man in the synagogue who Jesus healed on the Sabbath?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 12:9-42. Now focus in on Matthew 12:22-32.
1. These focus verses deal with the question of Jesus’ identity and source of power. Was he genuinely the Messiah or did he do the miraculous by demonic powers? What are the questions in our society about the identity of Jesus and the source of his power and being? How would you answer those questions?
2. What is the main point of the logic that Jesus used to refute the argument that he cast out demons by means of the power of Satan? In verse 29 who is the strong man, who invades his house, and what evidence is there that he plundered the strong man’s house?
3. What theories have you heard about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and the unforgivable sin? If this blasphemy and sin were done by Pharisees what is the nature of such a sin and blasphemy?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 12:9-42. Now focus on Matthew 12:33-42.
1. How would you connect Jesus’ teaching in verses 33-37 to the preceding paragraph? What are the sources and motivations of the words you speak? How can you avoid "careless" words like those mentioned in verse 36?
2. What view does Jesus seem to have about signs in verses 38-42? What is the danger of becoming too fascinating with signs and miracles? What is the danger of dismissing them all together?
3. In what way(s) was Jesus and his ministry greater than Jonah and greater than Solomon? What does that difference imply about how you should respond to Jesus? Write a brief prayer expressing that response that you would like to make to Christ.