Hard Times

Matthew 10:16-23

January 16, 2016 | Ray Pritchard

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Shortly before the Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage, Wallace Henley wrote an article called “Dear Churches in America: Prepare to Be Treated Like 1st Century Christians in Rome.” Here is how he frames the issue:

Churches that hold to a strict and conservative interpretation of the Bible’s teaching about gender and marriage may find themselves “Romanized”.

In our time this means local churches that do not embrace same-sex marriage would find their legal status shaky or non-existent, as well as parachurch groups, conservative Christian colleges, church-based humanitarian agencies, and all other religious institutions – Christian and otherwise – supporting the traditional view of marriage.

We have reached the stage of vilification

Henley goes on to talk about the five steps by which voices are silenced in a culture: Marginalization, caricaturization, vilification, criminalization, elimination. Here is his conclusion:

We have reached the stage of vilification – conservative Christians are now regarded by the consensus establishments as the villains in “transformed” America. The Supreme Court may well take us to the criminalization stage.

The biblical church therefore must learn to live as the first century Christians did in Rome.

He’s right on all counts.
Hard times are coming, and we’d better get ready.

That brings me to these words of Jesus in Matthew 10:16, “I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves.”

I’ve never met anyone who chose this as their life verse.

It’s not the most inspiring word picture in the Bible. Who wants to be a sheep among the wolves? Not me.

No one chooses this as a life verse

Note how Jesus puts it: “I’m sending you out.” He did not say, “You are going out on your own.” It has about it a sense of divine commission. “I am intentionally sending you as sheep among wolves.” It means something like this: “If you wake up one morning and find yourselves surrounded by wolves, don’t be surprised. They aren’t there by accident. I intended for you to be there, right in the midst of the wolves.”

Questions for Jesus

Speaking as one of the sheep, I have a few questions. “Lord, why would you do this? Wolves eat sheep. It’s not safe out there. If it’s all the same to you, Lord, I’d rather stay here in the pen where the wolves can’t get to me so easily. What am I supposed to do when the wolves come after me?”

Those are fair questions. It’s not a fair fight. The wolves are undefeated against the sheep. In fact, the wolves lick their chops when they think about the sheep. When you send the sheep out among the wolves, you can be sure the wolves will be dining on lamb chops tonight.

Let’s be clear about this. Jesus is saying, “You are the sheep, and I am your shepherd. All around you are ravenous wolves. I see them, I know where they are, I know they want to kill you, and I am sending you out among them anyway.” It’s hard to understand on one level. It seems like a death sentence, given to us by our shepherd. Jesus is not sending his sheep out with a general warning: “Be careful out there. This is wolf country.” That’s true, of course, but Jesus means much more than that. He is really saying, “We are here, and all around us are the wolves. I am intentionally sending you out into the middle of the wolves.”

Wolves eat sheep!

It sounds like a suicide mission.
And in a way it is. More about that in a moment.

Nothing could be more frightening to a sheep than to be told, “I am sending you among the wolves.” But that’s precisely what Jesus says here.

This is divine sovereignty at work. The Good Shepherd who will soon give his life for the sheep sends them among the wolves. This does not happen by accident. Jesus is telling us something about our dangerous calling. We are in peril all day long.

Let me go a step further. It’s not as if Jesus is saying, “I am sending you into a dangerous place, but don’t worry, at the last second I will deliver you so no harm comes to you.” He can do that, he might do that, but we have no guarantees he will do that. In fact, there is no promise of deliverance connected to this verse. This is more like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing before King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3 with the fiery furnace a few feet away. “Our God is able to deliver us, and we think he will, but even if he doesn’t deliver us, we still won’t bow down to the golden image.”

But wolves will be wolves!
They kill sheep.

Don’t be an idiot!

Knowing that, Jesus adds a crucial bit of instruction: “Be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves” (v. 16b). What does that mean? The primary point of comparison is this. Snakes know how to disguise themselves by camouflage. They know how to hide under a rock and how to find the shadows, how to stay out of the way. Applied to us, Jesus means, “I’m sending you out into a very dangerous situation. Be smart. Be cautious. Pay attention. Don’t be naïve.” Or to put it in the vernacular, don’t be an idiot. Don’t go up and start taunting the wolves. The part about doves speaks to our integrity. Be honest and truthful. If there’s trouble out there, let it be because the wolves decided to attack you, not because you did something foolish.

So that brings us back to a very crucial question. It’s really a question for our Lord himself. “Lord Jesus, we know you are the good shepherd. We know you love us, but why would you put us in this position? Why are we sent out as sheep among wolves?”

The rest of this passage gives us three answers to that question.

Answer # 1: That We Might Bear Witness to the Nations

“Because people will hand you over to sanhedrins and flog you in their synagogues, beware of them. You will even be brought before governors and kings because of Me, to bear witness to them and to the nations. But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you should speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour, because you are not speaking, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking through you (vv. 17-20).

Look how Jesus puts it:

  1. They will hand you over. That’s bad.
  2. They will beat you. That’s worse.
  3. They will hand you over to governors. That doesn’t sound good.
  4. You will bear witness for me to the nations. That’s good.
  5. You don’t have to worry about what to say. That’s better yet.
  6. You will be given what to say in that hour. That’s the best.

Jesus is in charge of everything!

Jesus sends us out into a dangerous situation, not with a promise of deliverance, but with a promise of power to speak for Christ.

The whole point is very clear. Jesus is in charge of everything that happens to us—the good, the bad, the happy, the sad, the positive, the negative—all of it. He knows all about the wolves, and he sends us out among them anyway. It’s been part of his plan from the beginning.

Do you remember these words? “I am a Christian, and I will remain a Christian.”

“I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian”

That’s what Meriam Ibrahim said to the prosecutor in Sudan who tried to get her to renounce her faith. Perhaps you are familiar with her story because it made headlines in 2014 when this young medical doctor was arrested, tried, and convicted of apostasy and adultery. Her crime? Supposedly converting from Islam when in fact she had been raised as a Christian. She wasn’t an “apostate” because you can’t leave a religion you never joined in the first place. They accused her of adultery because she had a child with her husband, a Christian from Sudan who emigrated to the United States. That is, the “adultery” was really a charge of having sex with her husband because they didn’t recognize her marriage to a Christian. Sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy and also sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery, she was given a chance on the stand to recant her Christian faith. Time and again the prosecutor badgered her to renounce Jesus. She refused each time.

That’s when she uttered that bold sentence: “I am a Christian, and I will remain a Christian.”

As a result of her faithful witness, she was not only kept in jail but put in shackles. The authorities would not even unchain her when she gave birth in prison.

Through it all, she steadfastly refused to renounce the name of Christ. When Megyn Kelly interviewed her on Fox News, Meriam Ibrahim said her heart breaks for the women of Sudan. Then she added: “There are many Meriams in Sudan and throughout the world. It’s not just me.”

American Christians are not exempt from suffering

Jesus told His disciples what would happen to those who follow Him: “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Many Christians in the West don’t take verses like that very seriously. We hear about mounting atrocities against Christians in the Middle East, and we think, “That could never happen here.”

Don’t be so sure about that.

I know of no promise in the Bible that American Christians will somehow be shielded from suffering.

Meriam Ibrahim has shown us the truth of Jesus’ words.

She suffered for the name of Christ.
She was given the words to say.
She testified to the nations.


That’s exactly what Matthew 10 said would happen.
That was always Jesus’ plan.

So there’s your first answer to the question, “Why does Jesus send us out as sheep among wolves?” He does it so we might testify for him to the nations. There is a second answer in our text.

Answer # 2: That We Might Demonstrate the Reality of Our Faith

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will even rise up against their parents and have them put to death.  You will be hated by everyone because of My name. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. When they persecute you in one town, escape to another. For I assure you: You will not have covered the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (vv. 17-23).

Jesus offers us a frightening picture of the total breakdown of society:

Brother betrays brother.
Father betrays child.
Children betray parents.
Christians are hated by everyone.
They end up fleeing from one city to another.

The wolves are still on the prowl

Perhaps the most sobering part comes in verse 23: “You will not have covered the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” This is how it will be until Jesus comes again. This is how it was in the first century; this is how it is in the 21st-century. Nothing that matters has changed. The wolves are still on the prowl; the sheep are in danger everywhere. There is trouble on every side.

Many of you remember the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by ISIS on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Libya. They were marched out in orange jumpsuits, each one standing in front of a man dressed in black. One by one their throats were slit, all of it captured on video and shared with the world by the terrorists. Many of the men died with the name of Jesus on their lips. No one recanted. A few months ago Tom Doyle, author of Killing Christians: Living the Faith Where It’s Not Safe to Believe, visited the Christian villages south of Cairo where most of the men came from. It was not easy to get there and not entirely safe to go there. He met with the families of the men who had been beheaded. That very day we interviewed him on the radio. When we asked him what the families had said, he replied they spoke of their deep pride in their men. They repeated the Scripture promises of heaven. Then they said of the martyred men, “They were like lions. Did you see how brave they were? They walked without fear.”

They were like lions!

They were like lions!
Like lions who follow the Lamb who is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

The Christian life is hard.
Sometimes it is very hard indeed.

Let us pray for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters around the world, especially Christians in the Middle East that we might have strength to endure whatever comes our way.

Why would Jesus send us out as sheep among wolves? There is a third answer in our text.

Answer # 3: That We Might Become like Christ through our Suffering

A disciple is not above his teacher, or a slave above his master. It is enough for a disciple to become like his teacher and a slave like his master. If they called the head of the house ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more the members of his household!” (vv. 24-25).

Jesus is the teacher. We are the disciples.
Jesus is the master. We are the slaves.
Jesus is the head of the house. We are part of his family.

What did they do to him? They crucified him.
How can we expect anything better?

All of us have heard of the Puritans. Let me mention a name you may not have heard. Christopher Love lived in the 1600s. He was a Welsh Protestant preacher who converted to the Presbyterian faith. Accused of treason, he was sentenced to die by beheading in 1651. While he was awaiting execution, his wife Mary wrote to encourage him to stay strong in his faith. Christopher and Mary had four children. Two had died; two were living. She was pregnant with their fifth child. Here is part of her letter:

When the messenger of death comes to you, let him not seem dreadful to you, but look on him as a messenger that brings you tidings of eternal life. When you go up the scaffold, think (as you said to me) that it is but your fiery chariot to carry you up to your Father’s house. And when you lay down your precious head to receive your Father’s stroke, remember that you said to me: Though your head was severed from the body, yet in a moment your soul should be united to your Head, the Lord Jesus, in heaven. And though it may seem something bitter, that by the hands of men we are parted a little sooner than otherwise we might have been, yet let us consider that it is the decree and will of our Father, and it will not be long ere we shall enjoy one another in heaven again.

Let us comfort one another with these sayings. Be comforted, my dear heart. It is but a little stroke and you shall be there where the weary shall be at rest and where the wicked shall cease from troubling. Remember that you may eat your dinner with bitter herbs, yet you shall have a sweet supper with Christ that night. My dear, by what I write unto you, I do not hereby undertake to teach you; for these comforts I have received from the Lord by you. I will write no more, nor trouble you any further, but commit you into the arms of God with whom ere long you and I shall be.

Farewell, my dear. I shall never see your face more till we both behold the face of the Lord Jesus at that great day.

On the day of his death, Christopher Love wrote his final letter to his wife. I here reproduce the beginning and the end:

My most gracious Beloved,

I am now going from a prison to a palace: I have finished my work, and am now going to receive my wages. I am going to heaven, where are two of my children, and leaving you on earth, where there are three of my babes. These two above need not my care; but the three below need thine. It comforts me to think, two of my children are in the bosom of Abraham, and three of them will be in the arms and care of such a tender and godly mother. I know you are a woman of sorrowful spirit, yet be comforted, though your sorrows be great for your husband going out of the world, yet your pains shall be the less in bringing your child into the world; you shall be a joyful mother, though you be a sad widow; God hath many mercies in store for you; the prayer of a dying husband for you will not be lost.

“I go from a prison to a palace”

. . .

Farewell dear love, and again I say farewell. The Lord Jesus be with your spirit, the Maker of heaven and earth be a husband to you; and the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ be a father to your children – so prays your dying, your most affectionate friend till death,

Christopher Love
The day of my glorification
From the Tower of London, August 22, 1651

His first sentence says it all: “I go now from a prison to a palace.” This is the true Christian position. This is what it means to die in the Lord. Though the sword severs the head from the body, it cannot touch faith like that. That sort of faith will never die because it rests on the eternal promises of God.

Where does all this leave us? We have the words of Jesus. We have the contemporary examples before us. What shall we say about all this?

Only a fool would do that . . . or the Son of God!

Here is one answer: Only a fool would send sheep out among the wolves. That’s how you get the sheep killed. Sheep have no chance against the wolves.

Only a fool would do that . . . or the Son of God.
He is telling us we are in danger all day long . . . and he sends us out anyway.
They have us surrounded . . . and he sends us out anyway.
They have killed a lot of sheep . . . and he sends us out anyway.

Jesus is saying, as I send you out, I am going with you. I am going before you. I am above you. I am beneath you. You will never be alone. Not even for a second.

Jesus knows what he is doing

He is not promising us we will not be hurt. We may be hurt.
He is not promising us we won’t die a gruesome death. We may die in some terrible way. Or we may live to a ripe old age. Who knows?

Here is the main point, the real application, the bottom line of this whole passage.

Jesus knows what he is doing!

Not a mistake, not a misprint

Sheep among wolves!
It’s not a mistake, not a misprint.

That’s the plan!

Jesus intends to show the world his followers are not made of sugar candy. In the Coast Guard, they have a saying, “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.” So it is for all of us.

But if we are sheep in the midst of wolves, what comfort is that? Here is God’s answer:

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
Can affliction or anguish or persecution
or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
As it is written:
Because of You
we are being put to death all day long;
we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered
No, in all these things we are more than victorious
through Him who loved us.
For I am persuaded that not even death or life,
angels or rulers,
things present or things to come, hostile powers,
height or depth, or any other created thing
will have the power to separate us
from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Romans 8:35-39)

Brothers and sisters, there are wolves out there. Out we go! And Jesus goes with us. In that confidence we go forth as sheep among wolves, knowing that nothing that happens to us can separate us from the love of God.

O Lord, we are glad this is in the Bible. Sometimes our hearts are filled with fear. We thank you that you have called us, you have sent us, and you go with us, even in the midst of the wolves. So grant us courage to go where you send us, to stay where you put us, and to speak the Good News of Jesus so that whether by life or by death Christ might be glorified in us. Burn this truth into our hearts that nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?