Matthew 10:16-22. Comfort in Persecution
As Jesus prepares the Twelve for their first mission into the cities and villages of Israel, He has given them the authority to speak and heal just as He did as their teacher. He is sending them out dressed and equipped as the poorest of the poor, depending on the hospitality of the strangers they meet for their meals and a place to sleep at night. He has already told them that they would not always be received well, and in the following verses He expands on that idea.
Jesus is sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves, and it is clear from the problems He Himself had experienced that the wolves He is referring to are the religious authorities. In reading the words of the Master, it seems very probable that Ezekiel 34 was heavily on His mind during this time. Ezekiel pronounced judgment on the shepherds of Israel who were feeding themselves on the flock, using language that is very close to the language Jesus Himself would use to describe religious authorities who did not help, did not bind up and heal, did not provide, and did not seek and save those who were lost. Although they would look like sheep – common, uneducated rabble – they would be much, much more. Jesus advised them to be as innocent and blameless and doves, but as wise as serpents when the authorities would try to entrap them. Jesus Himself was well versed in this.
He warned them in verse 17 that they would be delivered up to the synedria, or the Sanhedrin, the supreme court in Jerusalem which consisted of the Pharisees and the Sadduccees. An instance of this actually happening is recorded in Acts 4, when Peter and John were arrested for preaching the Gospel, stood trial, and just barely escaped punishment. Jesus goes on to speak of the trouble that the Twelve would find themselves in when they would be punished in the synagogues. He describes the disciplinary flogging they would receive as criminals – the forty lashes prescribed in Deuteronomy 25:3. This describes a time in which believers in Jesus were still all considered members of the Jewish faith, otherwise they wouldn’t have been involved in the synagogues at all, and the synagogues would have no authority to punish them. By A.D. 70 – 80, Christianity was seen as a separate religion from Judaism, and Jewish followers of Jesus were shut out of the synagogues. The Birkat ha-Minim, the Jewish prayer against heretics, comes from this era.
Moving outside of the world of traditional Judaism, Jesus sees the Twelve as eventually finding themselves standing before governors and kings – the representatives of the Roman Empire. The message of these poor preachers will end up getting them in a spectacular amount of trouble. When they find themselves put on trial, they are not to worry about what to say – the Spirit of the Father will be there to give them the proper words. They will not only find themselves in trouble with the authorities – they will also find that their message will divide families, to the point that children will favor the death penalty for parents who have followed Jesus. An intense amount of hatred is guaranteed to follow them, but they are encouraged to persevere. Those who do will be saved.
It would be easy to laugh such predictions off as the ravings of a group of people with a martyr complex, but it was all too true. The Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote early in the second century, describes how the emperor Nero used Christians as his scapegoats after the burning of Rome. Does Tacitus admire these people at all? No. He describes them as “a class of men, loathed for their vices,” as “haters of the human race,” and he describes their faith as “a pernicious superstition” and a “disease (Annals, XV.44)..” Tacitus also serves as a hostile witness regarding the execution of Jesus of Nazareth under Pontius Pilate. Christians were known as people with an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. They would not pay tribute to the emperor as a god – even if it was just lip service. Many, perhaps most, Christians at the time were pacifists and refused to serve in the Roman army. They were suspected of incest – “brothers” and “sisters” loving each other – and of cannibalism, through their partaking of someone’s body and blood in the Eucharist. These rumors persisted for decades. Pliny the Younger, governor of Pontus in A.D. 111, interrogated some Christians and seems to have been surprised that their Eucharist, their communion, consisted of ordinary, innocent food. So no, while Christians can make trouble for themselves as easily as anyone else, the situations Christ envisioned did indeed happen. The circumstances may vary today, but persecution and martyrdom still happens.
Tacitus, “Annals,” Jackson, John, tr, Loeb Classical Library, Vol. IV, Harvard University Press, 1937.