Matthew10:16-23: SHEEP AMONG WOLVES

Introduction. Read Matthew10:16-23.

The first fifteen verses of Matthew 10 describe how the twelve apostles were to publicise the imminence of God's Kingdom. It is a pity we don't know what they said! They should have said that the King had arrived, those that followed him were his subjects and that, King and subjects together, constituted the Kingdom of God. It seems very unlikely that this was the message of the apostles. Throughout Jesus' earthly ministry the apostles failed to grasp the nature of God's Kingdom. They thought:

(a) It would be set up soon and relatively painlessly.

(b) It would be an earthly kingdom similar in nature to the Roman Empire but with a righteous Jewish monarch - great David's greater son.

(c) That they would hold positions of power in the court of King Jesus who would rule in the will of God. James and John later got their mother to ask Jesus to install them, one on his right hand and another on his left, when he came to the throne.

So, the passage under consideration was necessary to dispel some of the apostle's misconceptions. Jesus made it abundantly clear that it was not going to be easy to serve him. His words are applicable to all ages of the church. They remain true to this day when the persecution of Christians is rife throughout the earth.

(1) Christians must expect danger.

Jesus told his disciples: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves." v16.

The very last place a sheep wants to be is among wolves. When we say that a person is thrown to the wolves we signify that that they are abandoned to their opponents.

It is in the nature of wolves to hate sheep. They enjoy spooking sheep - terrifying them, chasing them. Wolves will rip the throats of sheep - killing them for pleasure. There is vicious hatred of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, and his flock in many parts of the world. Atrocities are committed against Christians on a daily basis. In the January 2017 issue of Evangelicals Now there is news of persecution of Christians in China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Mexico. For example, On 25th November, 70 Christian homes in north-eastern Nigeria, close to Chibok, were looted and set ablaze in a Boko Haram terror attack.

In Britain, Christians are outnumbered by domesticated dogs rather than wolves. These dogs are distracted in all sorts of ways and not greatly interested in sheep. Sometimes we are reminded that something of the wolf remains in all dogs. Maybe someone near to us, who has rejected the Good Shepherd, shows their fangs and growls a little.

From time to time the dog reverts to the wolf. I remember seeing three collie dogs - sheep dogs - chasing a lone sheep until it careered into a barbed wire fence where it was trapped. I was on a Geography field trip at the time. My colleague, Mrs Mosely, twice as brave as me, drove the dogs off and rescued the sheep!

If an Alsatian dog gets loose in a field of sheep the wolf in him will cause havoc. Many sheep will be savaged to death, pregnant ewes abort and the flock left traumatised. The enemies of Christ in my own country - even after hundreds of years of Christianity - retain the potential to do the individual believer serious injury.

(2) Three dangerous institutions.

(a) Organised religion. Jesus told his disciples: "Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues." v17.

At the beginning of the church age, until the fall of Jerusalem, Jewish Christians could be arrested, tried by a local synagogue council and flogged. Before his conversion, Saul of Tarsus was a religious fanatic. He went from synagogue to synagogue arresting and imprisoning anyone with Christian sympathies.

During the Inquisition the Roman Catholic Church put reformers and dissidents to death. It was thought better that heretics burn on earth rather than burn forever in hell. This shows, among other things, the consequences of being in error over the fate of the wicked. See exposition on the Afterlife.

Today, Christians suffer at the hands of militant Hindus in North India, fanatical Muslims in Pakistan and extreme Buddhists in Myanmar (Burma).

It is important to remember who the chief opponents of Jesus were - the ones who hated him the most. They were members of the super-orthodox wing of Judaism - the Pharisees. They believed all the right things and yet put Jesus to death! C.S. Lewis wrote an account of a speech given by his infamous character, Screwtape, at the annual dinner of the Tempters' Training College for young Devils. Screwtape is a bit disappointed by the fare on offer until he gets to propose the toast. When he lifts his glass he inhales a delicious bouquet. The college cellar still has a few dozen, sound, old vintage, Pharisee. Screwtape concludes his appreciation of the dark and sinister wine by saying: "All said and done, my friends, it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by "religion" ever vanishes from the Earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighbourhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar."

(b) The State. Jesus said: "On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and the Gentiles. v18.

It did not take long for the Roman Government to persecute Christians. Christianity was seen as a threat for several reasons. It divided families. Slaves enjoyed the same status in the church as the free born. Indeed some slaves rose to high position in the church. The spread of Christianity led to the decline of certain trades and activities. Demetrius a silversmith in Ephesus stirred up his fellow tradesmen because demand for the silver shrines to Artemis had declined as more and more people responded to the gospel as preached by Paul. It led to Paul leaving the city.

Christians in the 20th and 21st century have been opposed to the methods used by dictators to acquire and keep power. It is no wonder that Stalin, Hitler and Mao tse Tung persecuted Christians. Today, Christians have a very uncomfortable time in countries which for nationalistic reasons have proclaimed a state religion. Christianity is not welcomed in a country like Nepal where Hinduism is the official religion.

(c) The family. Antagonism can occur in a family when some members are Christian and some are not. Some of the worst cases of persecution occur when a member of a devoutly Muslim family converts to Christianity. Converts may be considered as good as dead by the rest of the family. Sometimes they are even put to death!

Unpleasantness to a lesser extent may occur when two brothers of Christian parents embrace atheism and two others become believers. This may give rise to nasty exchanges. I speak from experience! Atheists can be very condescending to their 'brainwashed' brethren. There is an arrogance of unbelief.

(3) How to survive in a dangerous world.

Jesus gives us six survival techniques:

(a) Faith. Jesus said: "I am sending you out .... ."

We need to believe that our presence in the world is in the will and purpose of God. There have always been those who have sought to withdraw from the world - to be safe in a nunnery or behind monastery walls or in a cave or schooled at home away from the influence of ungodly teachers.

As Jesus neared the end of his ministry on earth he gave the Great Commission to his apostles: "Therefore go and make disciples in all nations." Mt28v19. If Jesus wants us in the world we should have faith that he will protect his sheep. The sheep are precious to Jesus. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep.

(b) Awareness. Jesus said: "Be on your guard against men."

As I said earlier most of the wolves we face in the West resemble domestic dogs. But, you can never be certain that the dog won't revert to its inner wolf. This does happen with tragic consequences. A dog that has been a perfectly well behaved domestic pet for years suddenly goes berserk and savages a toddler.

When Mr ten Boom and his family were arrested for harbouring Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands it was a Dutch neighbour who betrayed them. During the Stalinist purges in the USSR it was not unknown for children to denounce their parents to the authorities. When the pressure mounts few people are entirely trustworthy. We need to remember this.

(c) Wisdom. Jesus said: "Be as wise as a serpent ... ." The serpent was renowned for its craftiness - hence its infamous role in the Adam and Eve story.

A wise Christian will try and avoid stirring up trouble and arousing personal animosity. Jesus showed a lot of wisdom when he was tested by the scribes and Pharisees over the woman taken in adultery and on paying taxes to Caesar.

Paul displayed wisdom as an evangelist. He wrote to the Corinthians: I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 1Cor9v19to23. See exposition on 1Cor9v19to27.

If you are a missionary it is not wise to attack other religions. The evangelist needs to stay positive and simply preach Christ and him crucified. When Paul was arrested at the instigation of the silversmiths in Ephesus the city clerk quietened the crowd by saying, "You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. Acts19v37.

A Northern Ireland baker has been in the news recently for refusing to ice a cake with a gay marriage slogan. The matter is being pursued through the courts. I think the baker might have been advised to have paid the fine for discriminating against advocates of gay marriage and then adopted a policy of not putting slogans of any sort on iced cakes! This would have been a lawful way of avoiding prosecution in the future.

(d) Winsomeness. Jesus advised: "Be as wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove."

There is nothing threatening about a dove. It is a very attractive bird - the symbol of peace and goodwill. A Christian will avoid a lot of trouble by being winsome.

In his book, 'The Gulag Archipelago', Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes how Chrisitians survived in Stalin's labour camps. This is what he writes about one dove like believer:

Take Aunt Dusya Chmil, a round-faced, calm and quite illiterate old woman. The convey guards called out to her: "Chmill! What's your article?" (Article of the law under which she was convicted)

And she gently, good-naturedly replied, "Why are you asking, my boy? It's all written down there. I can't remember them all."

"Your term?"

"What term! ...... Till God forgives my sins - till then I will be serving time."

"You are a silly, you! A silly!" The convoy guards laughed. "Fifteen years you've got, and you'll serve them all, and maybe some more besides." But after only two and a half years she was released.

I love that story. It perfectly illustrates what it means to be as harmless as a dove.

I think the apostle Paul was an attractive, loveable and good-humoured man. When he took his leave of the Ephesian elders they knelt at his feet and wept because they would see his face no more. He wrote a very winsome letter - an epistle of great charm - to Philemon on behalf of his escaped slave Onesimus. Paul struck up a warm friendship with the centurion, Julius, who escorted him to Rome. When the ship on which Paul travelled was about to be wrecked on the shore of Malta the soldiers in charge of the prisoners were about to kill them all but Julius intervened. Julius ordered everyone to make their own way to land because he wished to spare Paul's life.

Billy Graham was in several respects as harmless as a dove. I can remember him being interviewed on BBC TV many years ago. He replied to the quite aggressive questioning in such a calm, humorous and yet challenging way that the interviewer was quite captivated. Billy avoided antagonising anyone who might co-operate with his organisation in reaching the lost with the gospel.

A lot of militant, intolerant, doctrinaire Christians would achieve more if only they were as harmless as doves.

(e) Reliance. Jesus said: "When they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you." v19and20.

This is very good advice. When a Christian is questioned by those in authority about his beliefs and conduct, the best thing to do is rely on the Holy Spirit for the words to say.

We can see the sense of this in Peter's response to the Sanhedrin after he and John were arrested and questioned over preaching about Christ's resurrection. See Acts4v8to12.

The Holy Spirit's enabling is seen in the defence Paul made before Felix, Festus and King Agrippa.

Yet, today, when Christians get into trouble over gay marriage, for example, sympathetic lawyers are called in to defend them. Is this the best policy? Wouldn't it be better to rely on the Holy Spirit to help you make your case?

During my 37 years as a teacher I twice had to appear before the headmaster and his deputy on a charge of misbehaviour. I was told that I could bring a friend or a union representative to the hearing. I declined. I asked the Holy Spirit to come with me to the meeting and stand by me. This was a wise decision.

(f) Prudence. Jesus advised: "When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another."

Christians should not court martyrdom. There is no merit being like the suicide bombers!

Christian missionaries in countries where the majority religion is not Christian need to be careful. It is foolish for believers to recklessly throw their lives away.

Paul kept moving on from city to city. He may have made an error of judgment going back to Jerusalem with a monetary gift for the church there. Paul was hated by the leaders of Judaism and distrusted by many in the Jerusalem church itself. His visit was a disaster. It didn't really serve any useful purpose. Paul didn't have to accompany the money donated by the largely Gentile churches. I think he craved acceptance by the Jerusalem church.

We should have sympathy for Christians who have fled persecution in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. We should never forget that Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with the child Jesus to escape Herod's massacre of the innocents.

When we are in conflict with a non-believer it is important to know when to stop. I had a disagreement before Christmas with one of my brothers over something I wrote in my annual letter. My brother thought I was expecting God to give special treatment to Christians who were ill. He didn't think much of a God who would do that: inflict Alzheimers on an unbeliever while sparing one of his own. I could see my brother was spoiling for a fight so I declared a Christmas cease fire!!

(4) An end to all danger.

Jesus asserted: "All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved." v22.

Jesus does not paint a very rosy picture of what being a Christian entails. None of us enjoy being disliked or unpopular. When I was a schoolteacher it was much more agreeable being popular than unpopular - let alone hated! However, we must accept the fact that Jesus was hated by the Jewish leaders when he was here upon earth and he is hated still by many in Britain. If he remains hated, those who love and serve him will be hated as well. Jesus is certainly persona non grata in the media. His name is scarcely ever mentioned. Sometimes there might be a passing reference to someone's faith but the object of their faith gets short shrift.

In view of the setbacks, discouragement and hostility Christians will surely face, Jesus stresses the importance of standing firm in the Faith. Those that endure to the end will be saved. After death, believers will rest secure in God until being bodily resurrected to eternal life on Christ's return.

This is a theme taken up by Paul in his epistle to the Philippians. He wrote: But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. Phil3v12to14.

Paul knew what that prize was: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Phil3v11.

I have just finished reading David McCasland's biography of Eric Liddell, Olympic Champion and missionary to the Chinese. Eric died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1945. He was only 43. The hymn that sustained Eric on many occasions during his life was, 'Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side.' I can think of no better way to finish this exposition than by quoting the first verse of Katharina A D Von Schlegel's lovely hymn:

Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul, thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.