The early church understood persecution, as did our early English Baptist forefathers. For example, 17th century British Baptist pastor Hercules Collins wrote from prison to his church: “For, as a tree is known by his fruit, so is a Christian by a patient wearing [of] Christ’s cross.”
Christians in Muslim and Communist countries today also know persecution. 21st century American Christians, however, have become soft. We don’t know what it is like to have been, or have friends and loved ones, martyred or imprisoned for their testimony of the gospel. But I fear the day is coming when this will become an all too present reality, if not in our lifetimes, then in the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren. We are not ready! If there is a message that desperately needs to be heard by the church today, it is Jesus’ words regarding persecution. In this morning’s text, Jesus prepares His disciples for the certainty of persecution on their current mission to the nation of Israel. In so doing, He also expands His teaching to include the mission to the Gentiles which encompasses the entire history of the church down to the present day. Here Jesus provides key teachings of a theology of persecution to which we will do well to take heed. We must prepare ourselves and our sons and daughters for persecution. If not here, God may send us or them to a country as a missionary where persecution is a real and present danger. How will we cope?
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. (17) But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. (18) You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. (19) But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; (20) for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. (21) “Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. (22) And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. (23) When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (24) “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. (25) It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household! Matthew 10:16-25
I. Persecution Must Be Expected, vv. 16-18, 21-22, 24-25.
That Jesus has in mind not only His disciples’ immediate mission, but also the mission of the church to the Gentile world is seen in verse 18 which speaks of testimony being made to the Gentiles.
All Christians, therefore, are sent out “as sheep in the midst of wolves.” This is a powerful image of a defenseless animal surrounded by their greatest predator. The Christian mission to the wold can be summarized by these words: “sheep among wolves”. The apostle Paul would later warn of wolves in sheep clothing in the midst of the sheep. These are two dangers which Christians must be aware of: from without and within.
In verses 17 and 18 we see that the persecution of Christians will be both religious and secular. They will be delivered up to councils and scourged in the synagogues. They will be delivered to Gentile kings and governors also. We certainly see this played out in the book of Acts as the disciples are persecuted by Jewish authorities. Later in the early church, Christians began to be persecuted by the Roman authorities. This was to be expected! (See vv. 21-22 and vv. 24-25.).
These words parallel the words of Jesus in John 15:18-21,
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. (19) If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (20) Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. (21) But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me.
The apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:12-16 to suffering Christians in the Roman empire:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; (13) but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. (14) If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. (15) But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. (16) Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.
II. Persecution May Sometimes Be Escaped, v. 23.
Here Christianity clearly differs from the terrorists. For them, martyrdom is to be sought. The purpose is to die in battle killing as many of the infidels as possible. This is foreign to biblical teaching on persecution and martyrdom. Sometimes martyrdom is required, when it cannot be escaped. It is never to be sought. But when it is unavoidable, one is to stand boldly and not deny the name of Christ.
Jesus tells His disciples to flee to the next town when persecution comes. There will always be a place where one can escape persecution (which is what I believe verse 23b means).
The ministry of the apostle Paul bears out this principle. Sometimes he was able to escape persecution. Most of the time, however, he did not escape and faithfully endured scourgings and stonings.
III. Persecution is a Means of Gospel Witness, vv. 18-20.
But where persecution cannot be escaped, it is a powerful tool of God for gospel witness. This is why the early church father Tertullian could speak of the blood of the martyrs as seed. Because wherever Christians sealed their testimony of Christ with their blood, new Christians sprang forth. There was no more powerful witness in the early church or in lands where Christians are persecuted today than when a believer is willing to die for their faith. This causes the world to pay attention and consider the claims of Christ for which so many are willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice to embrace and share with others. Where is the church growing the fastest in the world today? It is in countries where Christians are being persecuted by their government and where they are forced to meet in secret!
By the way, the Greek word for “testimony” in verse 18 is μαρτυριον from which we get the English word “martyr.” The word for “testimony” in Greek became so acquainted with the death of the one giving the testimony that it is now the word we use for one who dies for their Christian testimony (Terrorists are not martyrs, this is a word that specifically refers to a believer who dies for their Christian witness.). Stephen in Acts 7 is commonly referred to as the first Christian martyr.
In verse 18 Jesus gives the purpose for why His disciples will be brought before governors, kings and Gentiles. It will be for His sake and as a testimony to them. Notice that Jesus says their testimony will be “to”, not “against” them.
The apostle Paul gave witness before Jewish religious authorities and Gentile kings and governors. The last several chapters of the book of Acts records his testimony before these individuals. Paul testifies before the High Priest Ananias, Roman governors Felix and Festus and King Agrippa. Paul appealed to Caesar himself which got him an eventful boat ride to Rome.
Paul could write of his imprisonment of Rome, though, with these words:
But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, (13) so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; (14) and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Philippians 1:12-14
In the same spirit the aforementioned 17th century British Baptist pastor Hercules Collins wrote to his own congregation from prison:
Forasmuch as I am at present deprived by my bonds of the liberty of preaching, I bless God I have the advantage of printing, being ready to serve the interest of Christ in all conditions to my poor ability. And [I] doubt not but God and his interest are served by my confinement as by liberty, and am not without hopes that I shall preach as loudly and as effectually by imprisonment for Christ as ever I did at liberty, [and] that all those who observe God’s providential dealings, will be able to say with me hereafter, as holy Paul once said in his bonds at Rome, what hath befallen me, hath tended to “the furtherance of the gospel.”
IV. Persecution Identifies One with Christ in His Suffering, vv. 24-25.
But the most important benefit of persecution is the opportunity to be identified with Christ in His suffering. Thus, persecution for the cause of Christ points to the heart of Christianity which is the suffering of Christ for our sins. Note verse 24-25 and the word “scourge” in verse 17. In so suffering, these disciples were being identified with their master.
The apostle Peter also identified the suffering of a Christian with the suffering of Christ in 1 Peter 3:15-18,
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; (16) having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed. (17) For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (18) For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit,
The sufferings of a persecuted Christian point beyond themselves to the sufferings of Christ who alone accomplished the forgiveness of our sins through His sufferings on the cross. Thus, Christian persecution points to the same reality to which Christian preaching points which is the heart of Christianity: Christ and Him crucified!
Our suffering as Christians fills what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. Paul wrote in Colossians 1:24 that through his own sufferings he fills up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. What is lacking in the sufferings of Christ? Certainly nothing in regard to the satisfaction of God’s wrath for our sins. When Jesus said, “It is finished!”, it was finished. I believe that John Piper has explained this verse better than anyone else when he said that what is lacking is an in the flesh presentation of those sufferings to a lost world. When Christians are persecuted for their gospel witness their sufferings point to the reality of what Christ accomplished and powerfully accompany their verbal witness of that saving reality.
We need to remember these teachings of Jesus on persecution if/when we are persecuted. We need to prepare ourselves and our children for persecution by the teachings of Jesus on the subject. May God grant that we remember these principles in the hour of temptation.