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Matthew 10:34-11:1

Lesson Focus
Faithfulness to Christ might lead to divisions within our closest relationships.

Lesson Outcomes
Through this lesson, students should:
  1. Understand the tension between the message of peace and the disruptive nature of Jesus' teachings, leading to a deeper appreciation of the complexities of following Christ in a resistant world.

  2. Reflect on the dangers of idolizing family over God and evaluate personal priorities, fostering a greater commitment to following Christ even in the face of familial opposition.

  3. Cultivate a culture of support and hospitality within the faith community, valuing and actively engaging in acts of kindness and encouragement toward those engaged in God's mission.

Catching up on the Story
Chapter 10 is largely dedicated to instructing Jesus’ disciples regarding what they will encounter as they go and proclaim the good news about Jesus. The picture is a bit bleak, as Jesus’ followers are reminded that they will not always be lovingly embraced. In fact, the cultural moment into which the disciples go is characterized by resistance. They are sheep surrounded by wolves.

Though they are surrounded by wolves, Jesus encourages them to be innocent as doves but as wise as snakes. The contrast in the image Jesus uses is stark but effective. Between the extremes of sheer, naive innocence and the craftiness of the snake, there exists a middle way. While craftiness is a blessing, when left unchecked, it can also lead to the perpetuation of harm or coercion. There is always a way for God’s people to know and understand the times in which they live and engage faithfully and fruitfully in that time, while still remaining innocent of the kinds of evil perpetuated over the centuries by those bearing Christ’s name.

Fear is what often drives the church to over-assert itself in the midst of its world. Jesus offers assurance to his disciples that the shepherd is never far off. Though danger surrounds, it will not truly win the day. God knows and cares for the sparrows, and so God will care for his followers, who are worth immensely more than small birds. While Jesus offers reassurance, he does not allow us to believe that no harm will befall us. Instead, resistance and harm will inevitably come, but it will not be final or eternally fatal. Choosing to rest in God’s calm reassurance is difficult but essential if we are to faithfully proclaim the good news of the gospel.

It’s Not What You Think
This week’s passage begins with a statement that, on first read, can sound troubling, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (v. 34). Taken out of context, this passage can be used as a call to arms and an excuse for Christians to militantly defend themselves. In light of the larger gospel picture, Jesus’ statement cannot be interpreted as suggesting his followers take up the sword (literally or figuratively) to defend the gospel. Nor should these words be interpreted as a call to go on the offensive.

What, then, do Jesus’ words mean? Given Jesus’ warning of impending resistance and persecution as they undertake their mission of proclamation, we can interpret Jesus’ words as being descriptive rather than prescriptive. Ultimately, the Messiah’s end-time reign will establish genuine and lasting peace throughout God’s creation. Before that happens, however, significant change must take place as God draws all people toward restored relationships with God and with others.

Disruption of the status quo always causes disturbance and push-back. As a species, humanity does not like change, especially when a change will remove us from positions of favor, power, comfort, and influence. The powers that be inevitably fight to maintain the present order of things. Jesus’ message always challenges the principalities and power structures that dominate our world. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew’s gospel, clearly outline a reorganized understanding of follower of God’s life orientation. The formulaic, “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” clearly upends Jewish life as it was known.

With this in mind, it is clear that Jesus’ words in the later part of this chapter are descriptive of the realities associated with faithful following, mission, and discipleship. It is often said that there are two things a person should not talk about with family when gathered together for a holiday, religion and politics. We often avoid these topics because of how divisive conversation and relationships can become when differences of opinion are displayed. While in most of the Western world, religion and politics are distinct topics (though for many in the church in North America, such a distinction is often considerably blurred), for Israel, religion and politics were one and the same. Any considerable difference in religious thought or practice was bound to create fractures in life’s most valued relationships.

On one level, we understand this tension. Yet, familial relationships in Israel were profoundly important in a way that we would find hard to comprehend. Ruptures in the life of a family were to be avoided at all costs. The cost of discipleship, however, might include deep division in relationships of the most important kind. It is likely that the disciples have already begun to feel rifts form in their family ties as a result of their commitment to Christ. More than one disciple left their family business to run around the countryside following Jesus.

Take Up Your Cross
Not only does Jesus describe what could happen as a result of committed discipleship, but he also issues a warning. Though love makes up a significant portion of Jesus’ teaching, here he warns his followers that those who love their families more than God puts themselves in danger. Again, verse 37 is tough to hear. The familial relationships Jesus mentions largely define who we are and we have significant obligations to both parents and children alike.

However, Jesus is not calling us to completely abandon our responsibilities. Jesus is talking about the sacrifices disciples might need to make when their immediate family does not share conviction in the importance of following Jesus. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters who have set about to follow Jesus will understand the stresses of the call of discipleship on a loved one’s life. That is not to say that the sacrifices believing family members make in the name of Christ are easy to endure. A shared belief in the call of God in all of its possible forms makes the sacrifice bearable. When there is disagreement between family members regarding following in the way of Christ, Christ calls us to align ourselves with him.

With this in mind, the often-used phrase “take up the cross” gains some clarity. When well-meaning followers refer to some mundane trouble they experience as “taking up their cross,” they miss Jesus’ point. The context clearly defines “take up the cross” as an act of self-denial in the greatest sense. We may not be called upon to literally give our lives for the sake of discipleship, but death comes in all sorts of forms, including the breaking of life’s most precious relationships.

Verse 39 highlights what Jesus is talking about. Taking up one’s cross and being willing to sacrifice one’s most cherished relationship, in the economy of the Kingdom of God, paradoxically leads to life abundantly. In the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom, life is gained through self-sacrifice, not self-fulfillment.

For most of my adult life, I have struggled with weight gain and the maladies that accompany a lack of restraint in eating and a sedentary lifestyle. I have found, however, that fulfillment is found not in eating what I want, when I want it. Nor is it found in giving in to the pull of streaming entire seasons of television shows. My life is the fullest when I am self-disciplined. Proper discipline in eating and discipline in exercise, while difficult and often uncomfortable, leads to a better (and I hope, longer) life. In short, in self-denial, life is found.

Welcome a Prophet
In the final section of the chapter, verses 40-42, speak to the rewards of faithfully following Christ even in the face of pushback and persecution. To this point, Jesus has focused on those who actively participate in the spreading of God’s good news throughout the land. When we read passages like this one, we generate a picture in our mind of what that looks like. In our context, it probably looks like pastors, teachers, missionaries, or anyone to spends a significant amount of time engaged in God’s mission.

There are many, however, who are unable, for whatever reason, to live as one sent in a significant way. Jesus’ focus in this last portion of the chapter is on those who offer hospitality and support to those more actively engaged, therefore rising the importance of those who might see themselves as less than those who are able to give more specifically of their time and effort.

Jesus’ use of the word “prophet” should not be understood in the same way as we might understand an Old Testament prophet. Instead, for Jesus, a prophet is anyone who is actively involved in Christian ministry at any level, or a “righteous person” (Hagner, 295-296).

The bar is not set high to receive a reward in the Kingdom of God. A cup of cold water is enough. The point is, while the mission that some followers of Christ might undertake seems more important than others, those who undertake that mission are not more important than those who are only able to offer hospitality and support for God’s messengers.

So What?
Jesus does indeed bring a sword, but it is not a sword of violence, but a sword of division. The statement he makes is not prescriptive, in that we must cause division, but descriptive of the possible results of faithful discipleship. The call to faithful discipleship is difficult and may result in division among us and our most cherished relationships. This should be expected. We cannot expect that we will not remain unscathed in our attempts to follow Jesus. This is especially true in our currently fractured context.

Dealing with the difficult decisions and conditions that arise from our faithful discipleship requires Christ-like self-denial. We may be afraid that faithfully following Jesus will ultimately lead to our demise, death in body and in soul, but in the Kingdom of God, death is never the final word. Whenever, like Jesus, we deny ourselves what we often think we need for the sake of others we find new and life in Christ.

There are times, however, when we will not be called upon to sacrifice life and relationship, but may be called upon to support those who do. Those who give themselves in service of those who serve are just as important as those who might seem to be giving more self-sacrificially. The passage concludes by highlighting the importance of hospitality and support for those engaged in God's mission, emphasizing that even small acts of kindness and support hold significance in the Kingdom of God.

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. How do you interpret Jesus' statement that he has come not to bring peace but a sword? How does it challenge our understanding of Jesus as the Prince of Peace?

  2. In what ways can the balance between innocence and wisdom be applied to our lives as followers of Christ? How can we navigate the complexities of the world without compromising our faith?

  3. The text discusses the potential for division within families due to differing religious beliefs and practices. Have you experienced or witnessed this kind of division? How can we maintain love and unity within our families while remaining committed to our faith?

  4. Jesus warns about the danger of prioritizing family over God. How do we strike a balance between our responsibilities and obligations to our families and our commitment to following Christ? What sacrifices might we need to make in the pursuit of discipleship?

  5. The concept of "taking up the cross" is explained as an act of self-denial and the willingness to sacrifice cherished relationships. What does this mean to you personally? How have you experienced the paradox of gaining life through self-sacrifice in your own journey of faith?

  6. The passage emphasizes the importance of hospitality and support for those engaged in God's mission, even if we are not directly involved in a significant way. How can we actively offer support and hospitality to those who are more engaged in ministry or missions? How can we cultivate a culture of support within our communities of faith?

  7. Reflecting on your own life, what are some areas where you have experienced resistance or pushback for living out your faith? How have you found reassurance in God's presence and care during those times?

  8. How can we avoid over-asserting ourselves as the church in the midst of the world while faithfully proclaiming the good news of the gospel? What does it mean to rest in God's reassurance and trust His provision in the face of danger and opposition?

  9. In what ways do you find it challenging to navigate the tension between holding firm to your convictions and maintaining healthy relationships with those who may disagree with or misunderstand your faith? How can we approach these situations with grace and love?

  10. Reflect on the rewards mentioned in the passage for those who offer hospitality and support for God's messengers. How does this challenge our understanding of significance and importance in the Kingdom of God? How can we cultivate a mindset of valuing every contribution, regardless of its perceived magnitude?

Works Cited
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13. Vol. 33A. (Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993).