Last time we considered the instructions that the Lord gave his twelve disciples before sending them out to preach and heal the sick. The next section of this chapter should likely be taken not necessarily as instruction given to the Twelve on that occasion so much as a collection of statements the Lord made concerning the persecution of his servants. The same material is found in different places in Mark and Luke. Matthew places it all here since, thematically, it fits with the Lord’s instructions to the Twelve on the occasion of their first ministry. So, while the setting that Matthew gives to this material is the mission of the Twelve in Galilee, as we read it will become evident that these instructions anticipate other situations in other places and times.
v.18 The Gentile world, not just that of the Jews is now in view. And the witness that Jesus’ followers will bear to the truth about him is the great purpose to be kept in view in all this material. Most of what follows concerns the non-acceptance of the message Christian ministers and witnesses will bring and the hostility that will greet them from the world. Though it concerns the evangelistic mission of the church, this material has nothing in it about the success of that mission, about what is to be done with new converts, and so on. It is only about the opposition Christians will face.
v.21 The divide that separates the followers of Christ from his enemies will run through individual families.
v.22 “Stand firm to the end” in this case means stand firm to the end of the opposition, even if that end is death.
v.23 The time frame of this saying is specifically the time of the mission to the Jews, the cities of Israel. They are not to give up their mission because of persecution, but they are not to beat a dead horse either. Nor are they to court persecution. The instruction is not unlike what we already read in v.13. What is meant by the coming of the Son of Man has been long debated. Some think it a reference to the transfiguration, others to the resurrection; others to Pentecost; others to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; still others to more general manifestations of the kingdom of God. We hurry on without attempting to settle the question.
v.25 Beelzebub was a then-current name for Satan. Calling Jesus the Devil was as deadly an insult as his enemies could think of. If his enemies could call Jesus the Devil, Christ’s followers should not be surprised to find they don’t think much of them either.
v.26 This next section is about fear and about distinguishing the right kind of fear from the wrong kind. The point of this statement seems to be that the secret motives and plans of those who oppose Christ will be brought to light in due time. Christians can count on their eventual vindication. The truth will win out.
v.27 No matter the opposition, Christ’s disciples are to continue to proclaim their message about him. Evil men may have to conceal their intentions and their true viewpoints, but Christians are to be people of the day not the night.
v.28 When men do their worst to Christians they cannot touch their true and immortal selves. No mere men can prevent other men from enjoying eternal life. But God can. If we are to fear something, let it not be the relatively minor harm that evil people can do to us; but the far greater danger of God’s wrath.
v.31 If the first argument against fear in the face of persecution was a grim one – the alternative to man’s anger is God’s anger which is far worse – here we have a more positive and consoling one: God loves his children, knows their lives down to the last detail, and will care for them. [France, 187] No matter the dungeon, no matter the particular galley at sea, the Lord knows and cares about the circumstances of his children down to the last detail.
v.33 The Lord returns to the more solemn argument against a Christian’s failure to bear witness to Christ for fear of men. Here, in a striking saying, Jesus as much as says that he is the arbiter of the fate of human beings and of their eternal destiny. Men must choose the solidarity that matters most to him: with the men of this world, seeking their approval; or with Jesus and God the Father. [France, 188]
v.36 The point already made in v. 21 is elaborated. The peace with God that Jesus came to bring will not be accepted by all. Therefore commitment to Christ must produce conflict as two fundamentally contrary and incompatible views of God, man, and salvation vie for the loyalty of people in the world. And that controversy and opposition will be found even in individual families.
v.38 J. Gresham Machen wrote on this statement of the Lord’s: “Whatever else those stupendous words may mean, they certainly mean that the relationship to Christ takes precedence of all other relationships, even the holiest of relationships like those that exist between husband and wife and parent and child. Those other relationships exist for the sake of Christianity and not Christianity for the sake of them.” [Christianity and Liberalism, 151-152]
v.39 This statement appears often in the Lord’s teaching in slightly different forms. Clearly Jesus viewed it as a fundamental principle of discipleship. Put Jesus first – no matter the losses that may have to be suffered – and true and genuine life will come to you by the grace of God. Insist on getting your happiness first and you will miss out on the life God gives to those who trust in him.
v.42 If the true disciple of Jesus must endure the world’s opposition and suffer loss for the sake of Christ, it is also true that he receives a new status, a new dignity, a new honor as the servant and representative of Jesus.
Already during the Lord’s ministry and, all the more, as soon as the Christian mission began in earnest after Pentecost, the Lord’s words here were proved true. Wherever the gospel went it provoked strong, often violent opposition. Christians found themselves beset by enemies in the society, government, and church. We have read only a few chapters in Acts before the coercive power of church and state is brought to bear on Christians who were preaching Christ in the public places of Jerusalem. Imprisonment and even execution begin almost immediately to be the lot of faithful Christians. James, the first of the innermost circle of the Lord’s disciples to die, was executed by the government, Peter was imprisoned on several occasions. And it would get worse as the gospel made its way out into the Roman world. We read of some of the institutional opposition to the Christian church and mission in the later chapters of Acts – Paul’s being stoned, arrested, imprisoned – and we know that Peter and Paul both died violently at the hands of the Roman government. We have all read of Nero’s vicious persecution of Christians and of the intermittent but often systematic and brutal persecution of the Christian church through the following centuries. There were enough Christians who gave up their lives in loyalty to Jesus Christ, who refused to deny him even upon pain of death, that in the 4th century, the emperor Julian, Julian the Apostate, could tell his advisers that, in his view, one reason for the spread of the gospel in the Roman world and for its ascendancy over the historic paganism of Roman life, was precisely the fortitude that Christians displayed in the face of the threat of torture and death and their courage when put to death for their loyalty to Christ. There was enough of this that it left its mark on the conscience of the entire Roman world.
But the persecution, as Jesus predicted here, was not always public and institutional, nor were the punishments imposed only those of imprisonment and death. Christians found enemies even in their own homes and households. Paul remarks in one of his letters that he had suffered the loss of all things for the sake of Christ. [Phil. 3:8] One cannot be sure, but it would have been highly unusual in those days for a Jewish man Paul’s age to be unmarried. But we encounter Paul in his Christian ministry as a single man. Many have supposed that one of the costs of his following Christ was the loss of his wife who refused to become a Christian and divorced him because he had. And perhaps not only his wife left him, but, as Jesus predicted in v. 35, other members of his household. It is not too much to believe that one reason Paul was so free to conduct an itinerant ministry for the rest of his life was because he had no family left that acknowledged him. Perhaps too it is no surprise that it is Paul, in 1 Cor. 7, who speaks to the issue of husbands and wives who have become Christians and are deserted by their spouses because of their new-found faith.
And so it has been ever since. The gospel went east as well as west after Pentecost and in those early centuries there were as many Christians east of the Holy Land as west, but those churches were eventually largely annihilated. Those who would not defect from the Christian faith were destroyed and the rest were cowed into defection. And all through the ages and up to the present day there has been in this world systematic and brutal persecution of Christians as Christians, or, as we read in our text, the persecution of the followers of Christ on his account. We know of recent incidents in India, in the Sudan, in Pakistan, in Iraq, in China, in Indonesia. In many places the persecution takes place in the family. In Egypt a young man or woman becomes a Christian and the family arranges for his or her disappearance. In Japan, still more in a Muslim land, a husband or wife announces his or her intention to be baptized and the family closes ranks to prevent it.
And in less dramatic ways the opposition of the world is felt. An honest Christian worker loses his job because he won’t lie for his boss or acquiesce in some unethical practice. A Christian teacher is marginalized because she has been courageous enough to let her peers know her views on evolution or sex education. A Christian student becomes the butt of jokes because he does not speak or behave like his fellows. It is tough to bear our Master’s reproach.
And there is no doubt that the Lord’s stern warnings to his disciples were well taken. There would be many throughout Christian history and still today who would betray the Lord in order to escape the reproach of the world or the threat of violence. In early Christianity there were two great schisms that were the direct result of many Christians folding under the pressure applied by the society and the government. They would be required to swear an absolute oath of allegiance to the emperor, or to honor the emperor as a god on pain of punishment: the confiscation of property, imprisonment, and sometimes death. And so they did what they were told. Afterward, they regretted their cowardice and pled for forgiveness. There were some in the church who felt they should never be readmitted, others who felt they should and that disagreement twice led to a major rupture in the early Christian church. Such was the origin of the Novatian schism and also the still larger Donatist schism that Augustine spent his ministerial life trying to repair.
But we didn’t need to be told that, did we? We know from our own experience, from our own shameful experience, how easy it is to fear the face of men and to be silent when we ought to declare our loyalty to Christ, proclaim the good news of eternal life through faith in him, and stand up and be counted as his followers. We know that there have been too many times when we have not, as the apostles did, thought it a great thing to be counted worthy to suffer for the name.
The Lord was not speaking of what would be true in the lives of only a few of his followers. He speaks in an entirely general way. And not only here. We have already heard the Lord say, in the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon he addresses to all his disciples, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness…” Clearly he expects that to be the lot of his people in the world. And later in the same sermon, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is something that is to distinguish the Christian character in the world. And the rest of the Bible confirms the point. Paul will even say [2 Tim. 3:12], “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” This is the lot not of some Christians, not only of Christian missionaries and ministers, but of Christians in general. The more faithful they are to Christ and to his message, the more they will provoke the dislike and the opposition of the world.
And in the history of the church this is confirmed times without number. You cannot name the prominent believer known to church history who did not suffer this opposition. Athanasius was exiled time and time again; Chrysostom died in exile; Luther lived under the ban and a sentence of death most of his adult life; Calvin struggled against bitter opposition throughout his ministry; many of our Puritan heroes were ejected from their pastorates by an unspiritual church; Spurgeon was all his ministry long the butt of jokes and editorial cartoonists in the London newspapers. Much of this persecution came from so-called Christians, of course – Arians in the 4th century; Roman Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries; and liberal Protestants in the 19th – which was, after all, the case in Jesus’ own day. He was persecuted by an unbelieving church. But much would come from as well from the unbelieving world, from other religions, political movements and the like.
Humanly speaking persecution occurs for different reasons. There is something very human about persecution. It is rooted in the fallen character of humanity and of people individually. Christians aren’t the only ones who have been or are persecuted, of course. Alas, some bitter persecution of others has taken place in the name of Christ by so-called Christians and Christian churches. It makes us ashamed to admit this but it is true. In Northern Island today, for example, the struggle, bitter and violent as it has been, is ostensibly between two Christian sects. It is not, of course. Real Christians, as Jesus so clearly taught, do not curse their enemies; they bless them. But it appears to be Christian against Christian there. And so in other places and other times. The last systematic violent persecution of English speaking Christians took place in Scotland in the 17th century (though we do not forget that apartheid in South Africa): in Scotland it was Presbyterians put to death by Anglicans. And nowadays we find persecution everywhere. The Chinese persecuted by the native Indonesians in that country; Hindus and Muslims attacking one another in India; whites versus blacks in many countries, including our own, suffering at the hands of majorities, minority Slavic peoples in the Balkan states and on and on.
What this demonstrates is the very human and universal nature of this evil, of this hatred of other human beings. Sometimes people are persecuted because they are different, they provide a natural target for the venomous pride that rules the hearts of human beings. The easiest way to raise oneself is to lower others and persecution is a means of doing that. Or persecution can result because one finds the ideas of another people or person offensive. This was clearly the case in the persecution of Christians by the Roman government in the early centuries of the gospel’s advance. Christianity seemed to the Romans to be a subversive sect, undermining loyalty to the empire, overturning the conventions that ruled society in that time: whether its opposition to abortion and slavery, its exalted view of the place of women in human life, its arguing for a day of rest every week, its condemnations of much of what passed for entertainment in that culture, and so on. And the same is now happening today in the Western world. When philosopher Richard Rorty dismisses people who believe in biblical sexual morality as “the people who think that hounding gays out of the military promotes family values” and condemns them contemptuously as “the same honest, decent, blinkered, disastrous people who voted for Hitler in 1933,” it is clear that Christian conviction offends him and he finds it dangerous and harmful. It is a very small step from that conviction to taking action to prevent such people from speaking their mind or having their way. [Cited in Johnson, Reason in the Balance, 122-123] It is the sense of offense that has resulted so often in history in coercive “thought reform, firing squads, concentration camps and other mechanisms of terror.” 
Sometimes, however, persecution occurs simply because the lives of some people are a reproach to others. There has been much persecution of Christians for this reason through the ages. Their honesty, their industry, their chastity has been a public demonstration of the unworthiness of the lives of everyone else. Liars don’t want to be surrounded by truth tellers; promiscuous people resent the chaste; selfish people the selfless; irreverent people the devout. It has always been so and is today. Don’t forget that John the Baptist was beheaded because an adulteress couldn’t bear his pointing out her sin. And then, sometimes, persecution arises because of a perceived threat. The Irish were persecuted in part because they posed a threat to a Protestant commercial culture in the Northeast; blacks because they posed a threat to white hegemony in the south; Chinese in Indonesia because they were, by their industry and talent, gathering a large portion of the wealth of the country to themselves; and in China Christians are persecuted because their views are both attractive to people and fatal to communist ideology.
What we mean is that persecution is a very human thing. Christians are not its only victims by any means. But, Jesus says, in the case of the persecution of Christians, there is behind and beneath another factor, another principle, another power: the native rebellion of the kingdom of evil and of the human heart against God, against Christ, and against truth. As the Lord puts it in v.22, “they will hate you because of me.” In other words, the ordinary pride and prejudice of the human heart will be put to use in the service of man’s rebellion against God and Christians will bear the brunt of man’s hatred of God.
People don’t think of themselves as haters of God, of course. But they are. The bible often reminds us that they are. Every man or woman is left to himself or herself. It is human nature to resent God and wish him away. And the proof of it is the response that people make to God and Christ when they are confronted by them either when the gospel is proclaimed to them or when they encounter Christians who faithfully represent the Lord and his cause with their words and their lives. And it is this fact that explains the hostility that the Christian faith and life has encountered wherever it has gone in the world and that it encounters still today. There is no escaping this hostility so long as mankind continues its rebellion against God. The Bible is in many ways first of all a book of moral truth. It’s not first a book about what you ought to do. It’s first a book about how the world is. And this is how the world is: if you become a follower of Jesus Christ, like it or not, whether this was your intention or not, you become an enemy of this world and of a great many people who live in this world; including lots of people who would never admit that they were your enemy. I guarantee you that there are a good number of young people in Iraq today in American uniform who had no intention whatsoever of risking their lives in Iraq. They just wanted their college education paid for. And lo and behold, here they are wondering if they are going to get home alive. Well it’s not so different with a lot of people who come to Jesus Christ because they want their sins forgiven and they want new life. They want a better life then they know they have. And they want the ability, the capacity, the power to be able to control things within their hearts that now they cannot control and they come to Christ for all of that. And they find themselves, lo and behold, with a lot of enemies. They didn’t come to Christ to gain enemies, but they have gained them nonetheless.
So when the Lord tells us to stand firm in the face of that hostility, when he warns us not to melt in the heat of opposition, when he braces us with the consequences of cowardice and encourages us with the promise of his tender care, he is addressing us concerning a reality we must all confront and a temptation we must all face in our lives in this world. These are words every Christian must heed, take to heart, and obey.
In 17th century Scotland there was a nobleman by the name of Alexander Brodie. He was a member of the Scottish Parliament and of the Scottish Church. He allied himself with the Reformed party in that church and was a friend of many of the bright lights of that time of Reformation and spiritual renewal in the Scottish church. He was a correspondent of Samuel Rutherford. He was a deeply religious man. In his Diary that has been reprinted on several occasions, we encounter a man of spiritual insight and understanding. He was a very able man, one of the ablest in that generation of very able men.
But Alexander Brodie failed and failed utterly at the very point that is the concern of the Lord in his teaching in our text this morning. After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1662, Brodie spent his life in abject terror that he would lose his estates and his status and his name and his liberty and even his life in the persecution of loyal Presbyterians that the government had begun. Strangely, Brodie was an honest man even in admitting his own cowardice. We read in his Diary entries like these:
“Jan. 20, 1662. My perplexity continues as to whether I shall move now or not, stay or return, hold by Lauderdale [the Presbyterian], or make use of the Bishop. I desired to reflect on giving titles, speaking fair, and complying…. I went to Sir George Mushet’s funeral, where I was looked at, as I thought, like a speckled bird. I apprehend much trouble to myself, my family, and my affairs, from the ill-will of those who govern.”
“Oct. 16. Did see the Bishop, and in my discourse with him did go far in fair words and the like.
“The 31st. James Urquhart was with me. Oh that I could attain to his steadfastness and firmness! But, alas! I am soon overcome; I soon yield to the least difficulty.”
“The 26th. Duncan Cuming was here, and I desired him to tell the honest men in the south that though I did not come up their length, I hoped they would not stumble at me.”
“I find great averseness in myself to suffering. I am afraid to lose life or estate. I hold it a duty not to abandon those honest ministers that have stuck to the Reformation. And if the Lord would strengthen me, I would desire to confess the truth like them… I questioned whether I might not safely use means to decline the cross and to ward off the wrath of the Lords and the Magistrates…. Shall I forbear to hear that honest minister, James Urquhart, for a time, seeing the storm that is like to fall on me if I do so? Shall I expose myself and my family to danger at this time? [And then this honest admission.] A grain of sound faith would easily answer all these questions.”
Alexander Whyte sums up these entries and others this way.
“In other words, ‘Tell the prisoners in the Bass and in Blackness, and the martyrs of the Grassmarket and the Tolbooth, that Lord Brodie is a Presbyterian at heart, and ought to be a Covenanter and a sufferer with his fellows; but that he loves Brodie Castle and a whole skin better than he loves the Covenant and the Covenanters, or even the [Lord of the Covenant]. [Samuel Rutherford and Some of his Correspondents, 197-198]
Here we are reminded of how private and personal the reality of persecution is. Here we are reminded of how it draws a line between people in the church of Jesus Christ. Here is a man who should have known better; who did know better; but allowed his fears to silence his faith. He should have listened to Jesus. Had he, he would have had the Lord’s help. Our Savior told us that we would face persecution. He warned us not to buckle in the face of it nor to fear those who brought it. His wrath should be a far greater concern than theirs; and his knowledge and his care should make us all feel that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
We are not to go looking for persecution. It will find us soon enough if only we are faithful to the Lord. And when it finds us we are to wrap it around our selves as a robe of honor. It is the way our Master went. It is the way we share in his sufferings and honor the one who bore the wrath of men so that we would not have to bear the wrath of God.
Have you stories to tell? You should have; so should I! And the more stories of persecution faced, the more stories we shall have to tell of the Holy Spirit’s help.