Matthew 10 reveals Jesus’ confronting and intimidating plan for growing his Kingdom. As he commissions his disciples for a short-term mission in Israel, he commissions his entire church for its long-term mission to the world.
The plan is this: Jesus sends his sheep among the wolves, to be attacked, to be forced to explain why we are his followers before our local governing authorities, before our religious communities, and before other rulers of state. As we explain why we are Christians, the gospel message begins to spread.
This is a terrifying prospect, and we wonder how we will speak under such circumstances. Jesus promises all the help we need. We will be “given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (10:20).
He promises that we will be badly treated. We will be arrested. We will be flogged. Family members will turn against us.
This suffering will supercharge what we say about Jesus, and why we follow him. When people see that we gain no earthly advantages (riches, honour, applause) for our allegiance to Christ, and that it instead brings every earthly disadvantage (punishment, abuse, ostracism), then they will see the sincerity of our belief.
“If they’re willing to give up so much for what they believe, and suffer so much, then this Jesus must be very true and precious to them. I would not have their calmness in the face of suffering. I want to know more about this Jesus!”
What provokes community anger towards Jesus’ disciples? At the core, it is provoked by our association. He was arrested. He was flogged. He was mocked as Beelzebul, “Lord of the Flies.” Jesus’ logic is brutally simple: “If I was treated like this, then those who follow in my footsteps will also be treated like this.”
Yet, three times in Matthew 10 Jesus commands, “Do not be afraid.” He would not have commanded this if he did not know that we would be sorely tempted to fear. But he lovingly teaches us to overcome this natural tendency: “I will give you what you need to face your troubles; your troubles will confirm that you belong to me; and I will use them to get out the word.”
In verses 26–42 Jesus has much more to say to his naturally fearful church.
Matthew 10:27: What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.
Don’t just not be afraid, be super-bold.
Jesus spent three years living alongside his disciples. Picture them sitting in the evening around a charcoal brazier, eating barbecued fish and bread, drinking some wine, and listening to Jesus.
“What I told you in private, in the evenings, speak out. Speak out in the daylight, in public, so everyone can hear. Get onto the rooftops and shout it out!” (Palestinian homes had flat roofs, in Jesus’ view an excellent platform for public speaking.)
Jesus says, “Don’t just not be afraid, be bold!”
Actually, this just makes me feel more afraid. And my Lord knows this:
Matthew 10:28: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Think about this. What’s the worst thing you can do to a person? You can kill their body, but their soul goes on living. You can’t reach in and kill a person’s soul. In fact there is only one person who can destroy the soul, and that is God. Therefore, ultimately, there is only one person to fear: the God who can destroy my body and soul in what Jesus calls Gehenna.
Gehenna was the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom,” a ravine south of Jerusalem where, in Israel’s darkest days, people sacrificed their sons and daughters to the foul pagan god Molech (2Ki 23:10). At the time of Christ, Gehenna was associated with God’s fierce judgment for sin, and in most English versions gehenna is translated “hell.”
Jesus referred a lot to hell: Mat 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; 16:23. These references are on top of the many other occasions that Jesus described the future punishment of the godless as a place of fire, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and eternal living death, “where their worm does not die” (Mark 9:48).
Jesus’ point in Matthew 10 is, “Be bold, and never operate out of fear of human beings. Our final destiny is in God’s hands. He is the only person to fear.”
And when we trust in Christ, God adopts us. He becomes our father, we become his sons and daughters, and he is a perfect father, who will always keep us safe:
Matthew 10:29-31: Are not two spar-rows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
All of this means that faith in Christ is essentially a public faith:
Matthew 10:32-33: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”
I am an Anglo-Saxon through and through. All of my forebears are British, excepting a single Irish great-grandmother, and I suspect that even she was an Ulster-woman. I come from a people who were expected to keep their religious beliefs to themselves, and were more than happy to do so. Jesus’ oriental extrovertism is very disturbing to us Anglos.
“Acknowledge” translates homologeô, which has a range of meanings: to promise, assure, agree, admit, confess, say plainly, and even praise. When Jesus says “homologeô me before people,” he shows that he expects us to express our faith before others. (The mirror statement in verse 33 confirms this.)
Saving faith is essentially a public faith. Saving faith will be seen and heard by the world (Rom 10:9).
Many Australians are not ashamed to wear the colours of their football team, to put a political bumper sticker on their car, to dress in an Adidas branded tee-shirt, or to wear a wedding ring. We are more-or-less happy to publicly display our interests and allegiances.
Do you display your commitment to Christ? If you are not, then Jesus says that you have a problem.
Jesus’ Kingdom-growing plan is to send us out among the wolves, where we are forced to explain ourselves. When we do, we can know that we belong to Christ, and that just as we speak up for him before others, he will speak up for us before God.
But won’t all this speaking-up divide our families? Jesus knows that it will.
Matthew 10:34-37: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
(Compare this with Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” In the light of the Fifth Commandment, “hate” is of course a hyperbole, showing that the Christian’s primary allegiance must unquestioningly be to Christ.)
Jesus does not say that family division could be a regrettable unintended consequence of publicising our faith. He intends this conflict. Not conflict for conflict’s sake, but conflict that will lovingly compel people to wake up to their plight, to see Jesus, and to hear the gospel.
We are tempted to keep quiet for the sake of family harmony, and to preserve our family’s love. This is simply not an option. If we love Christ then we will not hide that. If that means losing the love of family members then we will continue to speak, because we love Christ more than our family members. If we don’t love Christ more than family, then we don’t love him, or them, with a proper love. For to properly love him is to recognise his status as Creator and Lord of the Universe, and to recognise his priority over every earthly relationship.
(Imagine a husband who loves his wife, but loves fly-fishing more than her, or his mother more than her. His love for his wife does not have the correct status. It is an improper and untrue love.)
All that Jesus has said so far in Matthew 10 is very difficult. Public allegiance to Christ will bring pain in one form or another: from flogging, to broken family relationships (which is probably worse). Jesus knows this pain, he openly describes this pain, and teaches that we must embrace this pain.
Matthew 10:38: Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
“Look at me. See me arrested, falsely accused, abused, mocked, flogged, a crown of spines pressing on my brow. See me condemned to be tortured to death in hideous agony and ignominy. See me carrying the cross, carrying the machine of my own torture and death through the streets of Jerusalem. Hear the mocking and abuse of the city. Do you want to follow me? You must walk this very same path, and in the very same way. Do you want to follow me? There is the wooden beam of your torture. Pick it up. Put it on your shoulders. Then you may follow me.”
This is Christian life. The Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows. Every step is a struggle. The world is not cheering you on, it is mocking you.
Are you considering becoming a Christian? Are you a new Christian? Have you been a Christian for decades? It doesn’t matter, the words of Jesus come to us in exactly the same way.
There’s your cross. Pick it up. Follow me. You can’t follow me without it.
Does following and speaking about Jesus mean losing your job? Losing your dignity? Losing the love of family? Losing your life? Does following Jesus mean mockery? Walking in agony? Then pick up that cross.
What did it mean for Pakistani woman Asia Bibi to remain the only Christian in her village, despite repeated pressure to convert to Islam? In 2010 she was condemned to death for allegedly insulting Mohammed. All she needed to do was repudiate Jesus. But she wouldn’t, and this is how she described the moment the judge sentenced her to hang:
I cried alone, putting my head in my hands. I can no longer bear the sight of people full of hatred, applauding the killing of a poor farm worker. I no longer see them, but I still hear them, the crowd who gave the judge a standing ovation, saying: “Kill her, kill her! Allahu Akbar!” The court house is invaded by a euphoric horde who break down the doors, chanting: “Vengeance for the holy prophet. Allah is great!”
Whoever you are, wherever you are, to follow Christ is to take up his cross.
Jesus drives this home with a threat, and a comfort:
Matthew 10:39: Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
(Note that “lose” translates apollymi, the same word translated “destroy” in verse 28. “Lose” in verse 39 is perhaps too gentle a translation.)
You see what it means to follow Christ: the cross of abuse, ostracism, and different kinds of death. So the solution is easy: I won’t pick it up. I will leave the cross on the ground, and not follow Christ. If you do this, then ultimately you will lose your life.
We all tremble before Jesus’ cross. It is hard. It is painful. We can see all that we are going to lose.
Jesus says, “Pick it up. Let go of protecting your life, and pick it up. You will not lose your life. You will find it!”