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Matthew 10:16-23

Lesson Focus

Jesus calls us to embrace the unique challenges of faithful proclamation in our day and time. We are to be as crafty as snakes and innocent as doves.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

1. Understand that faithful proclamation will result in resistance and possibly persecution.

2. Trust that God will help us to remain faithful in the midst of persecution.

3. Be encouraged to be wise in our approach to proclamation.

Catching up on the Story

At the end of chapter 9, Jesus states that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. There is much work that must be done before God’s Kingdom comes in its fullest. Immediately after these words, Jesus gathers his disciples together and prepares to send them out on a mission of proclamation, liberation, and compassion.

Before the disciples, who are called apostles (literally, one who is sent) for the first time here, Jesus gives instructions and warnings. The disciples are told that they will go forth to the “lost sheep” of Israel first. In fact, they are to preach only in Israel. The Kingdom comes first to God’s people. As they go, they are not to take much with them. Instead, they are to rely on God’s provision through the hospitality of strangers. While God will provide for them, not everyone will receive them with open arms. There have been, and always will be, those who refuse to hear the good news about Jesus Christ. When they encounter a house or a town that is unwilling to receive what they bring, the disciples are not to cause a ruckus but are to leave that place, shaking the dust off their feet as they go. Those who refuse to hear will be responsible for their actions.

Sheep, Snakes, and Doves

This week’s passage begins with verse 16. Jesus has not abandoned the sheep metaphor he’s used elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel. This time, however, the sheep are not Israel in general but the disciples. According to Jesus, Israel is like sheep without a shepherd, vulnerable and exposed. Sheep aren’t the brightest animals in God’s good world and are prone to wandering off and are easy targets for any animal who wants a tasty meal. Jesus notes Israel’s status as sheep without a shepherd so that he can highlight his mission as the good shepherd.

A good shepherd protects the sheep in the midst of predators. It may be a bit remarkable that Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them out like sheep who will immediately be surrounded by wolves! Even though the instructions and warnings Jesus give his disciples are dire, they are to understand that even though danger surrounds them, Jesus the Shepherd is never far off. However, as we’ll discover later, this does not mean that the disciples will finish their mission (now or in the future) unscathed. That’s why Jesus encourages them to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” This proverbial saying is generally lost on us. Most folks do not consider snakes wise, though doves still remain a symbol of peace. Even if the saying is lost on us, its sentiment is not. The mission God sends the disciples on, along with the mission on which God sends us, requires more than simple ambition or zeal. It requires an understanding of the times and cultures in which we live. Wisdom, or perhaps craftiness, must be married to innocence. The mission is lost if manipulation, coercion, or dishonesty become its mark.

Verse 17 begins with, “Beware of them…” Jesus doesn’t specify who “them” is, but the context leads us to believe “them” refers to the Jewish leadership present in the towns where the disciples will go. Local synagogues likely would have had “Sanhedrins” or judicial assemblies to deal with religious troublemakers (Keener, 322). Jesus’ words here are likely descriptive of what will happen in the future, but not the immediate future. Matthew has taken much of the material for this section from an altogether different context in Mark. Conversely, Mark’s rendition of the sending of the twelve does not mention any warning about persecution. The same is true for Luke’s version of the story (Hare, 113). There is little evidence of violent persecution from either Roman or Jewish sources this early in the movement.

Jesus’ warning, however, comes with assurance as well. Though those who proclaim the message about Jesus will be dragged before councils, kings, and governors, their situations will be used by God. Every interview and testimony will be a chance to spread the gospel. God will use what the opposition intends to slow the spread of the gospel for good. Jesus does not mention what the ultimate outcome of those audiences will be. The message may be well received, and all is well. Or, the message may be rejected, leading to persecution. Regardless of their reception, God will use each encounter to proclaim the good news.

The disciples are to have confidence because it will be God’s Spirit who will help the disciples in their proclamation. The assurance of having the right words to speak is similar to Jesus’ commands earlier in the chapter regarding what provisions they should take on their trip. Not only will God provide for his messengers through the hospitality of others, but God will also provide the right words through the Spirit.

Family Feud

If appearing before the civil and religious courts were not enough, Jesus told his followers that the gospel would cause divisions within families. Again, this section remains a matter of prophecy on Jesus’ part. While it is certain that Jesus’ disciples suffered some family conflict because of their commitment to Jesus, it would not have resulted in serious harm befalling Jesus’ followers. As the gospel moves out, however, serious conflict will arise. The conflict will take place between family members as well as with the larger community.

The “by all” of verse 22 seems hyperbolic but fits the passage’s tone. If Jesus is sending his followers out as sheep amid predators, then it stands to reason that safety will be hard to find. One can’t help but see a bit of foreshadowing of Jesus’ treatment here. By this point, it seems clear that Jesus knows where his life is headed. Jesus also knows that his followers have a choice in how they will confront the difficulties before them. Will they remain steadfast and faithful in their mission, continuing to proclaim in word and deed the good news about Jesus? Or will they turn tail and run at the first sign of trouble? Perhaps there’s a third way here, too. When they meet with resistance and rejection, will they turn to violence and retribution? Regardless of the circumstances, Jesus issues a promise that all those who endure to the end will be saved. Jesus doesn’t explicitly say what this means, but we can assume it means faithfulness in the mission, similar to Jesus’ faithfulness.

Verse 23 can be a bit tricky. The disciples are not called to share their message at all costs. While persecution will be inevitable, the disciples are not to be gluttons for punishment. If they face persecution, they’re to leave that place and move to the next town. Faithfulness doesn’t always require martyrdom. The tricky part of verse 23 comes at the end of the sentence “For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Scholars are divided about what this saying means. To spend too much time parsing what the statement means would distract us from the larger picture Jesus is trying to make, and that is commitment to the mission of God in the world through Jesus Christ will cause trouble. It caused trouble for Jesus, it caused trouble for the disciples, and it will cause trouble for us.

Verses 24-25 are a good reminder of our place in God’s mission. What Jesus experienced as a result of his faithfulness, his disciples can expect the same treatment. It’s as if Jesus is saying to the disciples, “Who do you think you are that you might escape persecution?” In North America, we’re spoiled because, for generations, we’ve enjoyed protection and freedom from persecution. We’re spoiled to believe it is our right to have everything go our way. If we want to be like our master and teacher, Jesus, we must anticipate that faithfulness to his cause will result in difficulty. Faithful Christian living is not for the faint of heart!

Do not Fear

With that, Jesus begins to encourage his disciples. One more than one spot in verses 26-33, Jesus tells his disciples not to fear. Yes, Jesus says, you will face persecution and ill-treatment because of your commitment to me, but I’ve got your back. You are more valuable than sparrows. God is concerned enough with us to know how many hairs are on our heads. God is with us. Therefore, we are not to be afraid of those who have the power to take our bodies. What we do need to have a healthy regard for are those who might tempt us to take the path that leads away from the Kingdom of God. We need to have a healthy fear of those who would distract us or convince us that our message leads somewhere other than loving self-sacrifice in the name of Jesus.

So What?

In Matthew’s gospel and elsewhere, Jesus has never been shy about the treatment he faces. Jesus knows that there will inevitably be resistance to his message of healing and liberation. His followers will experience that resistance even before Jesus is crucified. We’ll experience resistance, too. While our situation is so much different than the disciples, Jesus’ words still have value for us today.

Our call is still the same one that Jesus gave the disciples. Like them, we’re sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves, yet the shepherd is never far off. We should accept the real possibility that we’ll face resistance when we seek to spread the good news about Jesus. Like the disciples, we, too, need to be crafty as snakes and innocent as doves.

Jesus has not called us to be culture warriors who militantly demand that the rest of the world conform to our standards of morality. We cannot legislate morality. Instead, we must seek to know and understand our place and time in order to craft ways of faithful proclamation that are loving and cause no harm.

As followers of Jesus today, we are called to embrace the challenges of faithfully proclaiming the gospel. We should seek to understand our cultural context, relying on wisdom and innocence in our approach. We need to be prepared for potential resistance and rejection while trusting in God's provision and guidance. We must be mindful of the impact our faith may have on relationships, being willing to navigate conflicts with love and grace. Enduring faithfulness requires us to overcome fear and place our trust in God's protection and purpose. In our proclamation, we should prioritize love, self-sacrifice, and the preservation of human dignity. May our lives reflect the example of Jesus as we boldly and compassionately share the good news with the world.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. What instructions and warnings did Jesus give to his disciples before sending them out on a mission?

  2. Why did Jesus compare the disciples to sheep and himself to a shepherd?

  3. What does it mean to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" in the context of Jesus' instructions?

  4. Who are the "them" that Jesus warns the disciples to beware of?

  5. How does Jesus assure his disciples that their situations will be used by God in spreading the gospel?

  6. How does Jesus' message of the gospel cause divisions within families and the larger community?

  7. What does Jesus mean when he says that those who endure to the end will be saved?

  8. Why did Jesus instruct the disciples to leave a place where they face persecution and move to the next town?

  9. How does Jesus remind his disciples of their place in God's mission and the likelihood of facing trouble?

  10. Why does Jesus tell his disciples not to fear, and what should they have a healthy regard for instead?

  11. How can we apply Jesus' message and instructions to our lives today?

  12. In what ways can the church's proclamation of the gospel be loving and cause no harm?

Works Cited

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; (Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009).