Matthew 10:23-25. Responding to Persecution.
As Jesus is sending His twelve apostles out to reach the lost sheep of the house of Israel, He has been warning them of persecutions to come. The word typically translated “persecute” in this passage is diokosin, and it carries with it the idea of being pursued and hounded relentlessly. What is to be the Christian’s response? The most immediate response that Jesus recommends is to flee, from the Greek word pheugete, from which we get the word fugitive in English.
It might seem, to us, to be a simple decision. Of course, you would flee – what else would you do? One alternative would have been armed resistance, and Jesus does not offer that as an option. Jesus and His disciples were not armed revolutionaries, but emissaries of the kingdom of heaven. A second option would have been to have run towards persecution as voluntary martyrs, and, unfortunately, the Early Church had many of people who did just that. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred in A.D. 156, and in the anonymous document that tells the story of his death, there is this telling line: “… we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do (Martyrdom, 4).” The second century writer Clement of Alexandria spoke of such people, and he did not consider them to have actually known the true God or to have been true martyrs. (Stromata, IV.4)
The last portion of verse 23 has been the cause of much discussion. Jesus tells the Twelve, “… you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” This is a mysterious turn of phrase that sounds somewhat prophetic. It would be easy to read into this the belief in the Early Church that the coming of Christ’s majestic rule on earth was eminent – something that could happen within the lifetime of the apostles themselves. As the apostles asked the resurrected Christ in Acts 1:6, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The answer given to them was “no.” A second, future reappearing was promised. Still … what are we to make of Jesus’ statement here? One possibility is that, in that time and place, He would meet up with them again before they had finished their first mission. Yet, that is somehow unsatisfying. Perhaps that was the case, but He meant for the statement to have a shade of prophecy to it – that their mission in Israel would not be completely realized before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 – an event linked to future tribulations and a future coming of the son of man. Read Matthew 24 to see the past and the future collide in just this way.
In verses 24 and 25, Jesus explains why the apostles would not be exempt from various kinds of suffering, and it is simple – the student is not greater than his teacher, or a servant above his Lord – his kyrios. Looking back on a particularly stinging remark by the Pharisees in Matthew 9:34, Jesus says that if they have called the master of the house Beelzebul – the Devil – how much more would they malign the master’s household? Jesus suffered, therefore His family on earth would suffer similarly. As Paul would later write in Colossians 1:24, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
Clement of Alexandria, “Stromata,” Wilson, William, tr., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Roberts, Alexander, Donaldson, James, and Coxe, A. Cleveland, eds., Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02104.htm.
“The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, tr., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Roberts, Alexander, Donaldson, James, and Coxe, A. Cleveland, eds., Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0102.htm.