The following message was preached on last Lord’s day to Sovereign Grace Bible Church, where I serve as undershepherd. Due to technical issues this recorded sermon is not available at this time. Although I am not a huge fan of reading sermons, I hope this message (after all, it is Christ’s message) finds you a blessing in many ways.
THE REALITY OF PERSECUTIONS AGAINST CHRISTIANS
The last time we were on Matthew 10, I gave you a bird’s-eye-view of this chapter by dividing it into three sections: 1) vv. 1-15 deals with instructions for the twelve apostles; 2) vv. 16-23 deals with instructions for the future disciples; and 3) vv. 24-42 deals with instructions for the present disciples.
Since tonight’s text deals with verses 16-23, you get a general idea that we are dealing with Christ’s instructions for the future disciples. At the onset of this message, let me make some preliminary clarifications. First of all, this section deals with Christ’s instruction for the future disciples, because most of the verb-tenses are in the future. For instance, “for they will hand you over and they will scourge you (meaning, beating with a whip)” (v. 17), “you will be brought” (v. 18), “brother will betray brother to death, and a father to child; and children will rise up against parents” (v. 21), “you will be hated” and “the one who has endured to the end will be saved” (v. 22).
Secondly, it is important to note to whom are “the future disciples” referring to. The answer is simply to all the followers of Christ from the time that he was addressing this instruction. Hence this includes every Christian in the Christendom since the apostles, which includes our present time and also the future, until Christ returns. That is to say, what Jesus is saying here in this text is for us today.
Finally, the overarching theme in our text is persecution against the followers of Christ. And from our text I would like to point out three aspects of persecution: the certainty of persecution, the reasons for persecution, and the types of persecution.
I. The Certainty of Persecution.
The subject of persecution is not of if, as in conditional, but it is of when. And our text gives crystal clear evidence of the certainty of persecution. Here’s a case in point – “but when they hand you over” (v. 19) and “whenever they persecute you” (v. 23). That’s the language of certainty.
Also, please keep in mind that this is not the first time Jesus mentions this subject. Back in the Sermon on the Mount, he mentioned it four times just in the opening chapter.
- NAU Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- NAU Matthew 5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.
- NAU Matthew 5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
- NAU Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Again, those are examples of certainty.
Also, another example of its certainty is found at the onset of our text, namely in verse 16 – “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Let me make a few observations from verse 16. First, in the Greek text the word “I” is an emphatic pronoun. Literally, the verse reads “Behold, I, I send you out.” In other words, the followers of Christ are guaranteed to receive persecutions, because Jesus sends them out as sheep in the midst of wolves.
Secondly, Jesus makes a categorical distinction in this verse – sheep and wolves. In fact, this example simply shatters one of the popular erroneous views of our time, that is, we should never judge because Jesus never judged. Because time does not permit me, let me just say that one of the problems we are having in our churches is that people cannot discern the difference between sheep and wolves.
I trust that many of you are familiar with biblical usage of metaphors, especially, the sheep, since such metaphor goes back to the OT. For instance, the psalmist said in Psalm 95:7, “For He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” And who can forget the famous Psalm 23, which says, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.”
Although Jesus is describing his followers as the sheep in a figure of speech, there are amazing similarities between the two. For instance, sheep are perhaps weakest, the most dependent, helpless, and stupid of all domesticated animals. They easily get sick, and get cuts and bruises. They easily get panicked by harmless things, and sometimes due to their panics, they get into stampedes and get killed.
The amazing fact is not only Jesus equates us to sheep metaphorically, but that he also sends the sheep into the midst of wolves! Did you get that? He sends us as the sheep into the pack of wolves!
He does not send us to the midst of wolves as the strong, mighty, ferocious lions, tigers, or cougars, but as the sheep! That simply sounds foolish. That may seem like a suicide mission. In fact, we may be tempted to raise one of the most popular questions to God when things go bad, namely, “Is God a loving God? If God is a loving God, how can he send me into the pack of wolves?” Or, to charge God with one of the most popular statements of all time, “God is not fair for sending me into the danger.”
So why did Jesus say he sends his followers as sheep into the midst of voracious wolves? This leads to our second aspect, namely, the reason for persecution.
II. The Reason for Persecution.
The answer is repeated twice in this section. Jesus said, “for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles” (v. 18) and “you will be hated by all because of My name” (v. 22).
The reason for such graphic illustration of sheep and wolves is for the apostles to quickly grasp the realistic expectation of what it means to be his followers, not some rosy, romanticized, and unrealistic expectations like the books Become Better You or Your Best Life Now. According to John Calvin, Jesus said what he said as a preventative measure. Calvin wrote, “Christ, therefore, desired that his disciples should foresee at a distance what would happen, that their minds might be early prepared for maintaining a conflict.” That is why Jesus is a true and loving shepherd, because it is a true and loving shepherd that would warn his sheep what is to be realistically expected, not some watered-down truths.
Moreover, the reason for persecution against Christians is simple. It is because we bear and identify with the name of Christ. In fact, that is what Christian means – a little Christ. We will receive persecutions simply because of Christ (cf. John 15:18-27). Yes, it does not make sense for sheep to walk into the pack of wolves. Yes, that may seem foolish. And yes, that may sound like a suicide mission. But keep in mind that when we are thrown into the fire of persecution we are never alone, just like Daniel and his friends who were thrown into the fire were not alone. God promised in his word “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).
It may seem foolish for sheep to evangelize or missionize the wolves, but it is a will of God, because if there is a true conversion of a wolf (i.e., from a wolf to a sheep), you know that a sheep would never take a credit for only what God can do. That is why conversion is a supernatural work of God – to transform a wolf into a sheep. A sheep would never be able to transform a wolf. But God uses sheep to do only what God can do.
And that’s what Paul later reiterates in his letters to Corinthians:
- NAU 1 Corinthians 1:27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,
- NAU 2 Corinthians 12:10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
III. The Types of Persecution.
According to Jesus, there are four types of persecutions in this section. But before I get to that, hear the command of Christ first in verse 17 – “Beware of men.” This verb means, “to pay close attention to, be on guard, and watch.” But the question is beware of what? The answer is simply not to expect the unbelieving and the gospel-antagonistic world to receive the true gospel and its messengers with open arms. With that in mind, note the four types of persecution.
1. Persecution by the religious people (10:17b).
The courts and synagogues refer to the same group of people. In fact, a synagogue refers to an assembly of people, a gathering place, and a congregation. During the time of Jesus, Jews would bring a charge, convict, and punish fellow Jews in their own religious assembly.
What Jesus is clearly saying is that the apostles, and more broadly, the followers of Christ would be brought before and punished by such religious assembly or congregation. And such religious persecutions are clearly recorded throughout the Gospels. Moreover, after the ascension of Jesus, his own apostles were persecuted by the religious people, which are clearly recorded in the book of Acts. Furthermore, not only we have many evidences in the biblical accounts, but also the history of the church gives plenty of this harsh biblical reality. A case in point, just read any portions from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
As a result of my studies and experiences in life, I have concluded that the people that were the greatest antagonist to Christ and the gospel were primarily the religious people. That was true in biblical times, well as our own time. And often the religious people are the most difficult group to reach. They may acknowledge the Bible, and even study it, but they use it as a means for they own gains. The fundamental characteristics of religious people are that they have their own standards for righteousness, sin, and holiness. Hence what keeps the religious people out of heaven is simply their pride.
In present time there still are countless recorded physical brutalities, killings, and other severities against Christians around the world. Yet, what is amazing is that under such conditions there still are recorded conversions and founding of churches in the areas where persecutions exist. As the saying goes, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
I believe what would take our churches in North America to wake up is a similar form of severities that many Christians around the world are currently facing. To have a gun pointed at our heads for our confession to Christ would really separate the talkers from doers. Perhaps that is what is needed to clean up the pollutions in our churches in North America.
2. Persecution by the government (v. 18).
This was certainly true in Jesus days with Pontus Pilate and others. Historically, there were many heads of the states that brought severe persecutions against Christians. A case in point – the queen of England during middle of the 16th century who persecuted so many Protestants that she is known in the history as “the Bloody Mary.”
Also, how about during the era of communism revolutions? How about all those Christians that were either shot and killed in front of their own family, or sent to labor camps to die, and so on? There are other countless chilling stories that are currently unfolding in the continents of Africa and Asia. And what about the heads of the states that currently support the extreme Islamic fundamentalists that want to see the destructions of the Jews and Christians?
Jesus said in John 15:18-21 that the world hates Christians because the world hates Christ. Please keep in mind that behind all those persecutors is anti-Christ ideologies and worldviews that stream directly down from the evil one. The Bible clearly teaches that “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:12-13).
Hence, the heart of issue is not a mere political, geographical, economical, social, or cultural but spiritual. According to the Bible the ones that are influencing evil and ungodliness behind the scenes have been none other than Satan and his demonic angels. According to Isaiah 14:12-21, the prophet prophesied that the fallen angel have influenced the nations to rebel against God. And such prophesy is clearly evidenced throughout the history of humanity, including, I’m afraid, our own present time. And you know and I know that God has often used pagans and the enemies to bring about judgment and chastisement against his own people. So don’t be surprised if God would do that again in our days.
3. Persecution by the family (v. 21).
In some religious cultures, a funeral service is held for a family member who becomes a Christian, because in their eyes such person who becomes a Christian is no longer the part of the family. Hence what is clearly implied here is that disruption and even destruction of family life is to be expected.
To me this is irony. Christ in one sense brings people of different backgrounds, colors, and families together in unity; while in another sense, Christ divides the people of same backgrounds, colors, and families. And that’s irony.
4. Persecution by the rest in the society (v. 22).
Let me explain what this does not mean. The word “all” here does not mean in an absolute sense, meaning, believers will be hated by every single unbeliever on earth. But it does mean that generally unbelievers will not accept the message of the gospel and its messengers with open arms.
So far I have taken you through three aspects of persecution, namely the certainty of persecution, the reason for persecution, and the types of persecution. What I want to do now is to work through our conclusion. With that in mind, let me offer some final thoughts on what Jesus is teaching here.
Some Final Thoughts
1. You must take this message to the heart.
Our text begins with a call to listen – i.e., behold in verse 16, which means, “look!” or “listen!” This clearly implies that you may be hearing this message, but not listening. How many times have you heard God’s messages, but failed to listen? In the same way, you can hear this message and not listen. Hence this is a call for you to listen. That is why he gives such exhortation at the onset of this section. But just in case you have failed to listen, I am urging you to listen once again at the conclusion of this message.
And what is the overarching message here? It is for you to accept the reality that the followers of Christ will be persecuted. It is also important to note that persecution against Christians do not only come in a physical way, but also emotionally – e.g., gossips, slander, etc. All that is to say, this is a message of prevention that when persecution against Christians does come, don’t be alarmed, surprised, or be downcast, but rejoice that you have the privilege of identifying with your Lord and all the prophets and martyrs that have gone before you.
2. Pray for wisdom since we are amongst the wolves.
Jesus said in verse 16 that he sends us as sheep into the midst of wolves, which speaks of the center or the heart of dangers. He did not say he sends into the outskirts of wolves, or at a distance from wolves, but in the midst of wolves!
As I observe where we are at presently in this time period of humanity, I cannot help but to think that we are living in the most interesting time that the church has ever been historically. I do not want to sensationalize our present time with all the latest prophecy charts, but knowing what I know about Scripture, without a doubt we are living in a dangerous time globally. You may not be aware of that since all of us live a very sheltered life in this country, but many parts of the world are so unstable politically, economically, and other great issues and tensions. And I believe we are at the crossroads.
And since that is the case, there is no better time than now for God’s people to be endowed with the wisdom of God. That is why Jesus commands in verse 16, “so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Let me offer a pastoral advice here. Sometimes it is pointless to be mad at the unregenerate people, because they are simply doing what they know how to do best, that is, to sin. Keep in mind that all of us did the same things (if not worse things) before God graced us with his sovereign grace.
The point about serpents and doves is for us to be wise in how we conduct ourselves around unbelievers, namely, what we say and how to say them. According to Colossians 4:5, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.”
3. Endurance through persecution evidences salvation, not earns salvation.
Endurance or perseverance through persecution does not produce or add any merit to your salvation. However, what it does reveal or prove is that you are saved. In other words, endurance or perseverance does not earn salvation, but it evidences your salvation. And this is what theologians call the perseverance of the saints, which is one of the five points in the doctrines of grace, also known as, the Five Points of Calvinism.
Theologically, this doctrine teaches that not all who profess Christ will be saved. That should not be a surprise to you if you know your Bible. In fact, you have heard such teaching loud and clear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Hence, what the doctrine of perseverance teaches is that the saints, not mere professors, will persevere and be saved at the end. It is true that many who profess Christ do fall away, but they do not fall from God’s saving grace, because they were never in the saving grace in the first place. That is why it is unbiblical to say, “So and so lost his/her salvation” or that “so and so lost faith” since the unregenerate cannot loose salvation or loose faith when they never had it in the first place. Perhaps, at one time they gave some appearance like a Christian, but true appearance always shows when God turns up the heat. John MacArthur writes:
Persecution quickly burns away chaff in the church. Those who have made only a superficial profession of Christ have no new nature to motivate them to suffer for Christ and no divine power to enable them to endure it if they wanted to. Nothing is more spiritually purifying and strengthening than persecution.
That is why I said earlier that it would take a severe persecution against Christians for churches in North America to wake up and purify from much of toxic spiritual pollutions that are found.
Also, it is worth noting that although I deeply appreciate John Calvin and Calvinism, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints did not originate with Calvin, but with Christ. Again, all Calvin did was to simply reiterate what Jesus said and taught.
4. Fleeing from the place of persecution is not a sin.
We are not obligated to stay at a place of opposition and danger until we are killed, or even imprisoned. Jesus said in verse 23, “Whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next.”
Spiritual nobleness does not mean you always seek for the dangerous assignment or to seek to be a martyr. You have already heard of the certainty of persecutions against Christians, and some would even die. But whether we die or live, God has already ordained when, where, and how. We just need to seek to maximize to be faithful to the Word and with the Word. That is why at the onset of this text Jesus said that his disciples must be shrewd like that of serpents and gentle like the doves.
5. The return of Christ is our hope during persecution.
The second coming of Christ is not a mere eschatology; it is our daily reality. Every day goes by, we are one day closer of seeing him face to face. He is our hope. He is whom we long for. The darker our time gets, the greater our desire should be to see him.