Matthew 10:17-19

Who would ever think of sending sheep among wolves?  How long can they last?

“But, that’s what I’m doing,” Jesus says.

“Go without fear, considering Me.  I Am sending you as sheep among wolves, and you shall fare accordingly.  Just like your Lord.  And this will occur because I came to divide.  But you will be received by My lost sheep.” 

That’s the outline of the rest of the chapter.

What’s the defense of sheep against wolves?  “Become therefore keen as the serpents and guileless as the doves.”  Is that a defense?  How long can they last with that as a defense?

Keen is a word that should represent to us an awareness – a fullness of awareness.  That there is a sophistication with regard to what’s going on.  I said last Lord’s Day that the word “keen” wouldn’t accomplish everything that needed to be said about what Jesus requires of His apostles; and I think that this is important for us because we are, at least to some degree, exposed to the same dangers that they were.

But let me construct an analogy.  When a businessman goes into a meeting where some critical decisions are going to be made and those decisions will affect the way business will be done for the company, he will want to know a lot of facts – yes.  But also he will want to be aware of all the dynamics going on around him.  The facts are important.  But the dynamics of motivation and politics, posturing and positioning are sometimes more important than numbers and money!  And that businessman knows that everybody at that meeting has his own agenda!  And knowing what drives these people at the bottom will put him in a good position.

Now, as I’ve said many times before, illustrations and analogies are dangerous and destructive if you try to make all the parts fit.  The only analogue that you ought to see here is that Jesus commands His apostles to become “keen” as the serpents - aware – conscious of the nature of these people, these wolves; and cognitive of the explosive political situation, and be erudite, enlightened people about the nature of sin and the motivations of sinners.

And at the same time they’re to be “keen” concerning the environment in which Jesus is sending them, they are also to be aware of their own motives – aren’t they?  So He said for them to be “guileless” as the doves.  That is, to be without admixture.  Single-minded.  No cunning.  No deception.  No secondary, hidden motives.

Now.  In order to comply with that command, the apostles must always be on guard (verse seventeen).  Present imperative – “be on guard.”  Or “beware.”  “Beware of the men….”  That is, the ones described in verse sixteen - the wolves the sheep are among.

He’s been dealing with figurative language; and now He wants to bring us back to non-figurative language; so He says, “But beware of the men.”  And it’s obvious that the men He’s talking about are those wolves, up in verse sixteen, among whom the sheep are being sent.

Now.  With regard to these men who will figuratively rip and tear and devour the sheep, what does Jesus mean by the present imperative “be on guard?”  Or “beware?”  Usually when this kind of terminology is used we think of avoidance, don’t we?  If a friend or a parent or a brother were to use that kind of language with us, normally it would be a warning to us that we ought to stay away from what ever it was that might be dangerous. 

But in the text here I don’t think that Jesus is teaching them, or commanding them, to avoid the trouble!  That would be non-sensical!  When I read these verses I picture a den of wolves, and somebody releasing a sheep in the den – right in the middle of them.  And that’s exactly what Jesus has said in these former verses, hasn’t He?  Israel is full of beasts – it’s become an animalistic society – and Jesus and His apostles, a bunch of new followers empowered with the authority of the King to do certain things, they are among all these wild beasts who have dominion over society in general.  And Jesus said He was sending the sheep among these wolves in order to find some lost sheep.

So how can the sheep avoid contact with the wolves?  It would be ridiculous for Jesus to command them to avoid contact, wouldn’t it?  So the present imperative “beware,” here in verse seventeen, isn’t a command to stay away from the wolves.  Instead, it’s a command which relates to the “keenness,” or “awareness” required of them in verse sixteen.  The “beware” is a warning to stay sharp and clear – “be keen as the serpents.”  Now that won’t cause them to escape trouble from the wolves, will it?  Even though they’re always to be on guard, they’re going to be recipients of hostility!  That’s the nature of wolves toward sheep.

But the whole picture here is to be keen and clear and aware, recognizing who they are, what they’re going to do and why; and understand the situation completely.  Don’t be surprised and shocked about what happens.

You don’t do anything which would inflame the situation needlessly, but that won’t stop them!  Sheep are tearable and devourable creatures and they have no defense against the ferocious nature of a wolf, and they certainly can’t protect themselves against the weapons which a blood-maddened wolf has!

And the wolf which has been inflamed by the smell and taste of blood – figuratively – is a man (or woman) who has a nature which is fundamentally antagonistic to whatever is faithful and true and Christ-like!  And, being at enmity with the truth, it will use whatever means available to it in order to defeat it – rip it – kill it!

Let me use another analogy real quick:  The demon-tyrant of Baghdad (Sadaam Husein) seems to have no restrictions, by conscience or otherwise, on his responses to his opponents, does he?  He’ll use whatever means available to him – terror, deception, lies, psychology, fear, intimidation, subtlety, or torture – in other words, he’s not bound by anything to certain “civilities” in his dealing with his antagonists.

And that’s how I envision the Lord Jesus and His apostles in the midst of wolves.  And I think that’s exactly what He’s telling them – and us!  There are no restrictions on what wolves will do to sheep!  And there are no restrictions on depraved humanity in its enmity toward Christ and His Kingdom!  Depraved and ferocious humanity will use whatever means available to it – it doesn’t matter what it is – in order to defeat any incursion of the truth!

When conditions are favorable for violence and killing, then it will do it.  When conditions are not favorable for that kind of action (societal norms, etc.) then it will resort to less violent means (referring to physical violence of course, because other kinds of violence can be attributed to them).  And I’m speaking of course of rumor, and innuendo, and deception, and party spirit, and inflamed emotions, and character assassination and the twisting of the truth.  And there’s fear and threats and false accusations and law suits and economic manipulation and psychological intimidation.

Jesus says that the sheep apostles, having been empowered with the authority of Christ Himself, are to understand that nature, and expect it!  And to react to it by being simple-minded, single-minded, open, non-deceptive people – the nature of doves!  “Beware,” He says, “Beware, by knowing them, by knowing about them, by expecting them, by understanding them, and by having this one, open, non-deceptive purpose.

And then, when they do begin, it won’t be shocking to you.  (There’s another reason they shouldn’t be shocked or surprised; and, of course, another and higher reason for their perseverance.  But we’ll come to that in a minute.)  But let me say first that the attack of wolves is often surprising and shocking in its ferocity; and shocking in its deception.  Depraved humanity is cruel indeed toward Christ and His people.  And when an attack begins there’s very seldom any feeling in the attacker of compassion or mercy.  The inflamed passions are very similar to the smell of blood in the nostrils of a wild beast.

But the point is, here, that the surprise and shock of an attack shuts people down.  Unexpected affliction, especially persecutions, produces terror and great anxiety.  And people are shut down by that terror.  And they become lifeless!  They’re destroyed!  They don’t understand the nature of Christ’s enemies, they don’t understand the nature of the situation, they can’t see the beastly perversions that are being perpetrated on the Kingdom, and they’re unaware of the depraved nature of men!  And they’re rendered inoperative because of the terrible shock of the attack!

And that’s what Jesus means when He says, “be keen as the serpents!”  And complete your mission with openness and single-mindedness!  Do you know what normally happens to a young believer under persecution for Christ?  Or one who doesn’t heed these words of the King?  In some, because they can’t continue to be obedient with openness and single-mindedness, resort to angry counterattack.  Whatever can be done to “fend off” the ripping and tearing will be done.  And that’s called “defending one’s self.”  That’s the nature of depraved humanity too!  To offer arguments against the attackers - to attack in return – to engage in subterfuge and secrecy – and otherwise give in to the enflamed emotions and passions.  And lose.

When we do that we lose.  Not only can we not usually defeat the attacking wolves by using some of their own tactics, but we break the commandment of the King to be non-deceptive, open, single-minded people who just continue the purpose of their mission!  We sin.

So some have this tremendous anxiety about what might come to pass because they don’t understand the nature of the whole situation; and some are rendered inoperative or destroyed by the ferocity of the attack; and some, upon recovering from the weakness and shock, respond to the attack with their own brand of human depravity!

Now, Jesus then gives His apostles some idea about what these men will do, in the rest of verse seventeen and verse eighteen: 


“Beware the men, for they will deliver you to councils, and in their synagogues they will scourge you; and, moreover, you will be lead away to governors and authorities on account of Me in testimony to them and the nations.”


The councils He speaks about here are the local Jewish courts which met in the synagogues.  And if these men wished (verse twenty-three), they could go ahead and order anyone to be scourged.  And right here I’ll give you a short description of a scourging - just so you’ll know what it is, and not to be gruesome.

It was done with a whip in the synagogues.  This was different from the Roman scourging which Jesus suffered before He was crucified.  But the whip was ox leather or calf leather divided into several thongs at the end, and plaited for strength.  The offender was either tied to a scourging pillar or made to lie down on a bench.  Jewish law limited the whipping to thirty-nine strokes just in case the judge who was counting miscounted and went over the forty which were allowed in Old Testament Law.  A certain number were administered to the back, and then the offender was turned to receive a somewhat lesser number to the front.  And the word for scourging has in its history the idea of covering.  So the whole body – or trunk of the body – was to be covered with stripes.  And many times the recipient was very near death at the end.

It is reported in the history that a lot of times this was used in place of capitol punishment, because it was thought that scourging was so severe a punishment that it could actually replace death in some cases.  It is also reported that more than forty stripes, should one live through a more severe beating, reduced a man (or woman) to an animal, or at least to the same level as an animal.

In the records of many synagogues were scourgings, the reasons given being many non-Biblical ones.  For example, eliciting a confession!  Public beatings were commanded in Scripture for various offenses, and rightly so, but never is there any mention of whipping in order to get a confession!  And I’m very sure that the disciples of Jesus, not only these twelve but those who would follow, would receive this terrible beating in order to get a confession of idolatry, sedition and traitorous activity.

Let me say something about the information Jesus gives in verse eighteen about being taken before governors and authorities, and then we’ll come back.  And by the way, the word I’ve translated “authorities” can also be rendered rulers and kings.

Since Israel had been under foreign rule since Alexander the Great, there were civil magistrates as well as ecclesiastical magistrates, and there were territorial and local rulers.  You remember Rome had given Israel in thirds to Herod’s family, and there were three kings in addition to all the more local rulers.  Actually their titles included two tetrarchs and one ethnarch, but they were called kings.

So, as Jesus says here – that His disciples would be lead away to governors and authorities (or kings), He’s speaking of those occasions when, in addition to the local Jewish courts and the scourgings, that the disciples would be lead away – that is, in chains or blocks – or under guard – to higher Jewish authorities or even Roman governors and rulers!  And being lead away to higher authorities meant, in every case, more severe punishment!

Now, back to the sheep among wolves allegory, can you imagine men preaching the Gospel of the King in the cities of Israel and coming under the most rapacious attack for it?  My imagination was running wild as I was thinking through what these men must have gone through!

Having men become so angry at the preaching of the Kingdom that they would institute judicial proceedings against you is intimidating and terrorizing!  And then to suffer the indignity of being scourged for preaching!  From the description of it, that would certainly change the minds of the weakest ones.  These are things that strike fear in the hearts of men!

But then, after suffering those things, to be taken to the governor!  Or even the Roman-installed king!  John the Baptizer was beheaded by the Herod that inherited the northern-most areas of Israel!  This was about to be SERIOUS persecution!  James in Acts twelve was persecuted as well, later on.

“Beware of the men….”  How are these twelve simple men, some of them never away from their homes around the lake of Galilee.  Fishermen they were – how were they to withstand all of this?  And how were those that followed them to withstand the terror of an attack from wolves?

Jesus knows, doesn’t He?  Right in the middle of all of this, here in verse eighteen, He says, “…on account of Me….”  He knows what’s about to happen.  And He softens nothing.  And He sends them.  And they represent Him.  They proclaim His royal rule.  And they suffer for Him, on account of Him, and in His Name.

And just like the leper’s presentation of himself to the priests in the temple was a testimony to them, so when the preachers of the Kingdom were taken to the Jews, scourged in the synagogues, lead away to Jewish and Gentile rulers and persecuted for the King, it is a testimony to the Jewish people and the nations.

When men of God know what’s coming, and they know the nature of the depravity which drives it, and, without any appearance of evil, without any hidden agenda, and with no devious behavior, and with no retaliation, and with full disclosure of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, they continue to do what the King commands, it will most assuredly infuriate the enemies of the Kingdom, and be a testimony to Christ’s Kingship.

Now, there are several additional issues which are really necessary for us to look at here.  But we’ll have to do it next time.  And they include civil disobedience; Christian obedience to Christ the King; the real reason that Godly men persist under fire.  (These things we’ve mentioned here today are only the results of the foundational reason.  Not unimportant at all, but only the results.)  And then, lastly, we’ll try to describe that distinct pleasure of the relationship with Christ Jesus that overcomes affliction and persecution – that drives men to look completely through any grievous or provoking situations to that peculiar and distinctive intimacy which one can only have with the Lamb of God – Who is also the King of the world and a very personal Savior of men.

All of that next time.

But let me just give you some things to think about with regard to our present affliction.  It has been said by many – especially by those in the various religious communities – that our nation ought to be patient and caring and tolerant with regard to the recent attacks we’ve sustained.  That our Christian heritage must motivate us to look beyond the hatred of radical Islam to the root causes of their antagonism; and seek to alleviate the “conditions” underlying it.

And more… they claim the non-retaliatory nature of Jesus as the reason.  And passages in Scripture such as ours this morning are ones they point to as their “proofs.”

I’ll leave the dispute about the nature of our Warrior-King, Jesus Christ, to another time.  And I’ll leave the interpretation of the context of this passage to another time.

But let me just say something about the difference between individual anger and retaliation (on the one hand), and the duty of the civil magistrate (on the other).

In the service of Christ, and in response to persecution for His sake and in His Name, those who are to be “like” Him, and have His character and His nature, are to receive the blows and the humiliation as “blessings”; for we are to count it “honor” to suffer in Him and for Him.

But we may not confuse that response of the individual man of God with the clear, God-given duty of the civil magistrate to punish evil with the sword!  Just as God’s Word gives specific duties and responsibilities to the Church and to the family (many of which are not shared), God has required certain duties and responsibilities of magistrates.

As much as they would like to do so, the religious “prophets” of peace and tolerance cannot make sweeping statements of non-belligerence – claiming the nature of Jesus!

God Himself has said that the most important function of the state is the punishment of evil (as defined by Himself).  And He called the civil magistrate the “deacon” of justice – the minister of justice!  And no matter what anyone else says, the Scripture is specific and conclusive about the use of the sword.

Now. The “end” of all of this is that justice – the justice of God – is to be administered without favor and without mercy.  The state isn’t to take on mercy and pity where God has no mercy and pity.  That puts the state “over” God and His revelation.  The state is to have no “option” where God doesn’t give an option!

Believers present the world with the mercy and pity of Jesus Christ and the salvation wrought on the Cross.  The civil magistrate executes justice to evil-doers.  Believers are not to “cross over” and usurp the duties of the state, taking the duties of executing justice on evil-doers; and the state isn’t to “cross over” and usurp the duties of believers and offer mercy and pity to evil-doers – like terrorists!

Justice is to be swift and sure – no matter where the terrorists are, and no matter what the political considerations are!

I was reminded the other day of the three thousand, five hundred kamikaze pilots of the Japanese air force during the Second World War.  Nobody – nobody – said “Let’s find out what the underlying causes of their hatred are, and see if we can alleviate some of the problems between us.”

The civil magistrate is to find every terrorist, and murderer – no matter where he is – who lies in wait to murder (having already demonstrated his intent), and give him his wish in advance – to die for his man-made god.

It is the “magistrate that does his duty” that God honors.  And it is the man of God who does all his duty that our King honors – and says, “Well done good and faithful servant.”