Wisdom and Innocence
Mark 13:9-13, Luke 12:11-12, 21:12-19
The type of opposition
3. Governors and Kings
What to do when put on trial
The extent of the persecution
The coming of the Son of man
I have previously noted that Matfran ends the section dealt with on the previous web page with Mtw 10:16 because it’s the last verse duplicated in the other discourses of the sending out of the twelve and the seventy. However, I’ve chosen, along with most commentators, to start a new section with the verse as there seems to be a distinct break in thought from speaking about those who will either accept or reject the message and the messengers to the persecution of those sent.
There are generally three parallel passages which are referred to and which need noting before we consider Matthew’s record of the teaching.
Firstly, Mark 13:9-13 which parallels Mtw 10:17-22 and which appears in the eschatological (end times) discourse when Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem shortly before the crucifixion.
Commentators who believe that Matthew was based upon the Gospel of Mark have a significant problem in trying to come to terms with how it was that the author decided to rip the eschatological discourse apart and to include, in unrelated teaching, what was to occur at some future time, yet to so disguise it for the reader to think that it was meant to be taken as referring to the sending out of the twelve.
Similarly, Luke 21:12-19 parallels the same verses and sits in the same place in Luke as that of Mark, but the former’s eschatological sayings here are very much different from both Mark and Matthew’s account, a fact which the English translations bring out.
Finally, Luke 12:11-12 parallels Mtw 10:17,19-20, a general word spoken to the disciples which begins with a denunciation of the Pharisees but which goes on to specifically speak of the persecution and rejection of believers and has other parallels with Matthew chapter 10.
On numerous occasions in past passages, we’ve considered the differences between parallels which cover the same incident or which cover the same teaching and incorporated them into the interpretation of Matthew where they seem to explain something which has been omitted.
However, because the setting of these verses is completely different from the other three passages above, we shall concentrate on interpreting the passage in the context in which it sits as an independent record of teaching by Jesus, spoken independently at the time of the sending out of the twelve early in Jesus’ ministry.
Matfran is quite correct to note, however, that, although the context of the passage is the sending out of the twelve
‘...the principles are the general ones relevant to Christians facing persecution in any situation’
but some, for instance Matmor, make statements such as
‘Matthew has gathered here teachings of Jesus that would be of importance to the Christian preachers of his own day. He seems to have liked to put together sayings that related to similar topics’
which presses upon us the need to determine the context of the original sayings before we would be able to adequately and accurately interpret it. These verses from Mtw 10:17 onwards, although not being paralleled in either the sending out of the twelve or seventy in the other Gospel records, are correctly seen to be particularly relevant for the early Church after the Day of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts chapter 2) - so that some see their importance only for that time - but we shouldn’t forget that Mtw 10:14-15 has already assumed a rejection of the message and the messenger in some situations and, therefore, instructions about the persecution which could befall them is entirely relevant.
We forget that Jesus didn’t know that persecution wouldn’t befall the twelve at that time and so was preparing them for whatever situation they might encounter in their travelling mission to Israel. Because we know, in hindsight, that the twelve returned from their journeying in one piece, it meant that the words became more relevant for the time after Jesus’ ascension into heaven but, for them, they couldn’t possibly have known that and the words had equal relevance to the situation in which they would find themselves later.
The danger that faces every commentator is that we tend to interpret Scripture retrospectively in the light of subsequent history rather than objectively, and often fail to relate it to the incident in which the utterance was first heard. If we seek to understand it in the light of subsequent history, we can easily and unwittingly change the fundamental meaning and intention of the originally spoken word.
As I showed in my notes on Prophecy and Matthew 24, a word spoken as a prophetic utterance doesn’t have to come about when it fails to meet with a correct response in the people to whom it’s spoken or when situations change by a response of groups of people. Neither should instruction given at a particular time be thought of as erroneous simply because the problems assumed didn’t come about.
It is, perhaps, more relevant to note Matfran’s words here when he observes that Jesus
‘...gives instruction for [the disciples’] response when opposed but not for dealing with the converts of a successful mission!’
contrasting today’s missionary activity where we have solid teaching courses for counsellors and pastors of new converts but give little or no instruction about how the ministers of the Gospel through Mission will be persecuted. But rejection by the people is accepted as the lot of the person sent out to them and so the undergirding of their faith is essential that they might realise that what could potentially befall them is to be expected. We tend to think that mission is the easiest task in the world which causes us to become acceptable to society - actually, it will mean ultimate rejection if we do it properly.
Finally, the only verse which appears problematical is Mtw 10:23 which cries out for the commentator to interpret what precedes it in the context of the sending out of the twelve and, therefore, glues them into the same context. The verse doesn’t appear in any of the parallel passages - as, indeed, it doesn’t in the rest of the NT - and is a unique addition by the author of Matthew. But the verse is by no means easy to understand correctly and Matfran notes that it’s a
‘...centre of controversy’
Nevertheless, we shall attempt to interpret it in the context of the sending out of the twelve when we come to it, seeing as it sits as a minor conclusion to the preceding verses.
Wisdom and Innocence
Jesus begins His warnings concerning the opposition they’re about to face with a picture which is probably just about as problematical to those sent out as one could imagine - He pictures them as like
‘sheep in the midst of wolves’
a phrase which indicates the disciples’ natural helplessness in the areas into which they will shortly be embarking. If they thought the multitudes’ position (Mtw 9:36) of being
‘like sheep without a shepherd’
was problematical and in need of prayer (Mtw 9:38), what would they make of their own position which sees them as open to the devouring nature of people who stand opposed to the message of the Gospel? I think that, naturally speaking, I’d rather be a sheep without a shepherd and take my own chance in the wilds of nature than to be one who sees wolves at every turn!
Matmor is careful to point out that the Greek sentence runs, as Bengel, that Jesus is sending the disciples out not into the midst of wolves but in their midst, the implication being that the disciples already find themselves in the position of being surrounded by opposition rather than of going into it through the commission.
If this is the case, the believer should remember that Mission doesn’t bring about a new situation but merely enhances it, thrusting them out into areas where the simple protection of an established church and supporting believers may be absent, areas where the multitudes act like a pack of baying jackals seeking to devour them with immediacy.
Matfran sees the ‘wolves’ as being
‘...the Pharisaic establishment’
but the mention not just of the Jewish councils and synagogues in Mtw 10:17b-18 but of governors and kings denoting the Roman authorities should show us that opposition is expected to fall upon them from all the established authorities within the land.
Such is the plight of the disciples that they must take care and go about their apostolic commission by operating with the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove (Mtw 10:16). This may represent a quoting of a common and popular proverb of its day but, unfortunately, there appear to be no other records which would indicate that the phrase was in everyday usage.
Edersheim notes that the Jewish Midrash on the Song of Solomon 2:14 has the nation of Israel
‘...described as harmless as the dove towards God and wise as serpents towards the hostile Gentile nations’
and, though this is a much later record than the writings of the NT, it may point towards our assumption that the phrase was proverbial and could be applied to many various situations. The testimony of the Jewish writing, however, seems, to me, to be too late to fix the meaning of the NT usage and a better interpretation relying on the meaning of the Greek words is to be preferred which we will now turn our attention towards.
The word for ‘wisdom’, then (Strongs Greek number 5429), is the same as that employed in the LXX’s translation of the cunning of the serpent in Gen 3:1 and shows us that, sometimes, the traits of our enemy are something which need to be emulated in our own lives when it comes to craftiness in our dealings with men and women within the boundaries of being obedient to God!
The serpent in the Garden of Eden was clever and, if believers were even half as shrewd as he was, they would find that they would help their own cause no end in the situations that confront them (Acts 22:25-29).
This Greek word is the same one from which the Greek word ‘shrewdness’ comes (Strongs Greek number 5430 - in Luke 16:8) in the parable of the wise steward who, we would naturally interpret, was more shifty and dishonest in his dealings with his master than we should give him credit for (Luke 16:1-9)! But Jesus uses him as an example of the type of ‘wisdom’ needed in certain situations, even though Jesus, I’m sure, would have the disciples stop short of becoming dishonest.
These Greek words more rightly imply the use of the mind and Jesus’ instruction here in Mtw 10:16 is an encouragement for believers to exercise their intellect instead, as Matfran writes, of being ‘gullible simpletons’, Matmor summarising the disciples’ position as pointing to the
‘...need for careful thought when confronted with these difficult situations’
The disciples are to be both perceptive in their outlook on mankind and careful in the situation in which they find themselves. For instance, when they see persecution mounting against them, they should take stock of what’s happening and flee (Mtw 10:23, Acts 9:23-25, 14:5-6) rather then necessarily standing to fight (though, on occasions, that is necessary), expecting the Lord’s protection - better and more useful to the Lord is a live missionary than a dead martyr!
However, neither are they to be so crafty that they become tainted by the ways of the world and follow after the deception which characterised the serpent in the Garden of Eden who managed to get his own will done by evil means. Rather, they’re to be ‘innocent’ (Strongs Greek number 185), a word which means something more like ‘pure’ than ‘innocent’ - whether it be motives or lifestyle that’s in mind.
The ‘dove’ which becomes a symbol of this here is also considered as a symbol of silliness and lack of sense in Hosea 7:11. By harmonising the dove’s attributes with those of the serpent, however, one understands that it’s only the positive aspects of both which are being brought out.
There may also be here an explanation of the reason why the Holy Spirit was revealed to John the Baptist as a dove (Mtw 3:16) because such a bird came to be regarded as being ‘pure’, even though I noted in my web page concerning Jesus’ baptism that the ‘dove’ was not a known symbol for the Holy Spirit at that time in history.
Matfran defines the word as laying upon the believer the necessity to demonstrate ‘an irreproachable honesty’ in their dealings, showing a genuine concern for the people they meet and a commitment to be unwavering in the fulfilment of their commission.
Just as there’s a need for purity of conduct in the situations they’ll operate in, the believer must also be careful to heed the nature of man and to act accordingly, knowing that they’re operating in the midst of men and women who will be all too willing to discredit and malign them, even handing them over into the hands of those who are seeking their life (Mtw 10:17-18).
Perhaps a better rendering of the two words which seeks to convey a little more of the meaning than does ‘wise and innocent’ is ‘thoughtful and pure’ which should conjure up in our minds the necessity to use one’s intellect but also to retain a singleness of purpose and unity of lifestyle that’s acceptable to God. Jesus, then, would not wish His sheep to be thoughtless and dishonest but careful in their calculation of situations while, all the time, maintaining a purity of conduct.
Jesus’ statement which follows closely on to
‘Beware of men [a generic term meaning mankind rather than males only as is often the case in Scripture]’
is a good summary of the previous instruction but it also naturally stands as a prefix to what follows concerning the delivering up of the believer into the hands of human authorities and it shows us the perception that Jesus had of the state of the human heart.
I’ve heard many people, who’ve received an act of kindness from someone or other, say words to the effect that such a thing has ‘restored their faith in human nature’ meaning that man is good at heart and capable of great acts of charity and faithfulness. Those same people, to excuse their own weaknesses, also confess that selfishness as it shows itself throughout society is just ‘human nature’.
Problem is, you can’t have it both ways! Either man is good at heart or evil, either his real ‘nature’ is hidden below his badness just waiting to burst through or else man is evil at the very core of his being and so normally demonstrates it.
Jesus was sure of the problem of mankind and hinted at it when the writer of John’s Gospel commented (John 2:24-25) that
‘Jesus did not trust Himself to [the people], because He knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for He Himself knew what was in man’
Just in case we missed the point of the statement, Mark 7:15 records for us Jesus’ specific statement (in a passage paralleled in Mtw 15:1-20 which we’ll look at in more detail when we reach it) that
‘...the things which come out of a man are what defile him’
and, a little later on, when questioned by the disciples, He expands His teaching (Mark 7:21-23) to inform them that
‘...from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man’
The problem of mankind, then, is not that he’s influenced by various impulses which lie external to him and which can be changed to allow the good nature of the human to shine through but that, at the very heart of mankind, lies a problem that needs resolving - and which can only be resolved in the cross (see my notes on ‘Baptism’, especially the charts).
It does mean, therefore, that society won’t regenerate itself if left to its own devices, and the efforts of christian men and women to improve it will never hit at an acceptable solution which will have its objectives of making men and women better people. Only the preaching of the Good News of the Gospel of the Kingdom and its reception will transform them to become obedient from the heart to the commands of Christ.
It’s the difference between trying to put a plaster on a wound which has a splinter sticking out from it or of getting the knife out and cutting away the alien body.
Jesus, then, is the One who knows exactly what mankind is like but who also is determined to meet its need. But, for the time being, the context of Jesus’ words is directed towards the disciples as a warning that they must be cautious as they go out into the world - an instruction which should not go unheeded amongst the present generation.
The type of opposition
In the last section, I deliberately included the phrase ‘beware of men’ (Mtw 10:17a) as a fitting conclusion and summary of the need to be both thoughtful and pure as the disciples go out to fulfil the commission given them by Jesus, but it also stands as a good introductory phrase to what follows and is itself explained by the four organisations of man which are the destinations for those disciples who are handed over by the population.
Although the first two are necessarily Jewish in make-up (the councils and synagogues), the latter two (the governors and kings) go on to speak more of the Gentile rulers who exercised authority over both the region known as Galilee and, to the east, where Philip was king, areas that we saw were the boundaries within which the disciples were commanded to go.
The ‘councils’ referred to first are, more rightly, the ‘sanhedrins’ (a transliteration of the Greek word employed here - Strongs Greek number 4982) and should be understood as specifically Jewish in origin. There was a greater Sanhedrin which sat at Jerusalem to which all the other lesser sanhedrins were subject and, when it mediated on questions disputed in the lower courts, its decision was final in all matters.
These lesser sanhedrins gave judgments in civil matters to all Israel and were comprised of twenty-three individuals, that number being chosen through a rather devious consideration of the twelve spies which were sent out into the land of Canaan. As there were two who were faithful to the vision of God, this left ten individuals who the Jews regarded as having been referred to in Num 14:27 where the Lord asks the rhetorical question
‘How long shall this wicked congregation murmur against me?’
though Sanhedrin 1:6 in the Mishnah actually cites a different verse. However, as the ‘ten’ are referred to as a ‘congregation’, this meant to the Jew that ten was the minimum number that could make up a recognised congregation.
Then, from Num 35:24-25 where the congregation is mentioned twice as both judging and delivering, the number was doubled to bring it to twenty. The following three members are added through a devious consideration of some Scriptures which don’t seem at all logical to me and which, at this present moment in time, I can’t fathom!
But there was a need for an odd number of members of the local sanhedrin so that, when the votes needed to be cast, a decision might be reached every time, the twenty-third member being added for this very purpose. Each of these sanhedrins were to be located in cities with at least 120 men, though one rabbi insisted on 230 so that each of the members of the sanhedrin could be representative for one of the twenty-three tens of congregations.
I will deal with the subject of the judicial set up including its history when I finally get to Mtw 23:1-4 and cannot, because it lies so far in the distance, provide a link to it here but it should be noted that, in 6AD, when Judea became a Roman province, the Sanhedrin was granted almost exclusive control over the internal affairs of the nation of Israel so that, unless a matter impinged upon the authority of Rome, the local sanhedrins acted independently of Roman rule, even to the highest civil authority in the land of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin.
According to Kittel’s, these local sanhedrins met twice a week and are the judicial organisations being referred to by Jesus here, even though the word can be extended to mean simply any governing body or council. The context of the utterance, sitting as it does in the context of the twelve’s imminent dispersal into Jewish Galilee to bring the Kingdom of God to the people, must cause us to take the word as meaning the local Jewish court of Law.
The great Sanhedrin - and, therefore, to a greater extent the local sanhedrins as well - had no authority given to it from Rome to enforce the death penalty, evidenced in the way that, at the trial of Jesus where, although the ones who met (probably a pruned down Sanhedrin gathering) were convinced that He was deserving of death (Mtw 26:66), they had to turn to the Roman authorities to enforce their verdict (Mtw 27:11, Mark 15:1-3, Luke 23:1-2, John 19:6-7,12), contriving a situation whereby Jesus would be seen to be an individual who was attempting to take upon Himself royal honour and authority which meant that the Roman authorities would be obliged to act.
However, on occasions the Jews did take the law into their own hands and Rome appears to have turned a blind eye if death was imposed with the approval of the Sanhedrin and if it didn’t bring about an instability in the security of the land (Acts 6:12, 7:58).
Secondly, Jesus speaks of the ‘synagogues’ (Strongs Greek number 4864), a word which, in the Greek language, means simply ‘a gathering together’ whether that be thought of in terms of humans or objects. However, in the LXX - according to Kittels - the word comes into its own to refer specifically to the community of Israel - but the Greek word used of the ‘assembly’ of the early Church (Strongs Greek number 1577) is also employed in various places and means roughly the same.
Kittels also notes that, in the OT Apocrypha, the word comes to be attributed to the local congregation and that the plural is normally employed to refer to Israel as a whole, where the idea appears to be that the nation comprises of individual ‘synagogues’ (that is, either ‘assemblies of Jews’ or, more generally, ‘collections’ in areas which weren’t defined by the building which they attended) which, collectively, form the ‘synagogues of Israel’.
The synagogues represented the place of education not only for the young Jews who would receive their first lessons in the Torah but also for the adults who gathered together to hear the reading of the Law at least weekly on the sabbath. An inscription found on Mount Ophel, a short distance away from the Jerusalem Temple, specified that the synagogue there located was for the reading of the Law and that it could also serve as a hostel.
Although there appears to be little that is quotable from ancient sources which would define the detailed function and role of the synagogue for us, the commentators insisting on making statements with no reference attached to them that can be checked out, the building must have represented the centre of Jewish life in the villages and towns of Israel seeing as, in Megillah 3:2, the synagogue of a particular place is commanded not to be sold for all time
‘...except it is on the condition that when they will they may take it back again’
In the same place, there are two exceptions to this rule, recorded as coming from two different Rabbinic authorities where
‘...the Sages say: They may sell it for all time except for [use as] four things: a bath-house, a tannery, an immersion-pool or a urinal [or wash-house]. Rabbi Judah says: They may sell it for a courtyard and the buyer may do with it what he will’
While the former gives the community the warning that the synagogue mustn’t be turned into something which would generally render unclean the area, the latter gives leave for the land to be sold so long as the seller is assured that, primarily, it would be used for something which would impart no ceremonial uncleanness, even if it was subsequently used for such a purpose.
But, it would appear that, in general, synagogues were not sold as they represented the centre of Jewish life where the Law was read to the inhabitants of the city and where they could gain instruction in the ways of YHWH.
The writer of Matthew doesn’t mention the synagogue on its own as he does the sanhedrins in the previous phrase, but associates it with ‘flogging’ or, more correctly, ‘scourging’ (Pp Mtw 23:34). This appears to have been the reason why Mathen sees that it was in the synagogue
‘...that those who by the court were convicted of certain definite crimes were scourged’
and why Matmor goes one step further to see the local sanhedrin as sitting in session in the synagogue itself so that punishment meted out could be immediately inflicted once the sentence had been passed. Again, this is difficult to be absolutely certain about, and the nearest the Mishnah comes to saying such a thing is in Makkoth 3:12 where the scourging is detailed and, though I won’t go into the gory details, it’s significant that ‘the minister of the synagogue’ was commanded to be present, an indication that it was the normal practice to allow the synagogue to be used for the outworking of justice.
The scourging mentioned here (that is, Jewish, not Roman - throughout this article I am referring solely to Jewish scourging as meted out by the local councils) is defined by Matfran as being a punishment
‘...for disobedience or breach of the peace (by preaching an unpopular message) rather than for heresy as such’
so that there may be a very real sense in which the local community, on rejecting the message of the Gospel, would rise up against the messengers in a civil disturbance which would result in the prosecution of the disciples for causing civil unrest - a typical example of where the lack of self-control of a body of people is responsible for others being punished.
The Greek word for ‘flog’ here in Mtw 10:17 (Strongs Greek number 3146) is the same as the one used in the LXX’s translation of Deut 25:2-3 and this passage rightly refers to that commandment which the Jews continued to inflict upon transgressors of the Law even under Roman rule.
The Jewish courts (the ‘sanhedrins’ or ‘councils’), then, were allowed to give a punishment in accordance with the Mosaic Law but the Mishnah notes that the actual maximum was considered to be just thirty-nine strokes and they were not permitted to inflict anymore, the Rabbis being careful to limit the number of lashes to this number. To the question (Makkoth 3:10)
‘How many stripes do they inflict upon a man?’
the answer runs
‘Forty save one, for it is written “By number forty” [Deut 25:2-3]; [that is to say] a number near to forty. Rabbi Judah says: He suffers the forty stripes in full...’
This is all the more puzzling seeing as the Mishnah repeatedly refers to the ‘forty stripes’ (Kilaim 8:3, Terumoth 11:3, Pesahim 7:11, Yebamoth 11:5,7, Nazir 4:3, Hullin 5:1,2,3, 6:3, 7:3, Temurah 1:1, Tohoroth 1:1,3) and that this number should never be exceeded rather than thirty-nine.
The explanation the Jews give in their writings seems somewhat bizarre but is worth repeating that we may understand the reasoning. In Makkoth 3:11, there’s the simple command that
‘When they estimate the number of stripes that [the convicted] can bear, it must be a number divisible by three...’
and that is further explained in Makkoth 3:13 which informs us that
‘[The person who inflicts the punishment] gives him one third of the stripes in front and two thirds behind...’
so that the need for a number of lashes that is divisible by three is easily understandable - even though it does negate the direct command of the Scripture noted above! It’s worth noting - though I have no explanation for it - that Hullin 5:3 and 7:3 both mention a transgression for which eighty lashes was due (presumably either 78 or 81 were actually given) but how that was applied is far from clear in the context.
The thirty-nine lashes may seem a harsh punishment even for a severe crime but it should be noted that amongst transgressions which warranted such treatment was the sometimes mistaken breaking of a bone of the Passover lamb (Pesahim 7:11) a crime which appears so minor as to warrant only some form of verbal warning!
That the number wasn’t exceeded was particularly important, for Makkoth 3:14 (my italics) comments that
‘If [the scourged] dies under [the scourger’s] hand, the scourger is not culpable. But if he gave him one stripe too many and he died, he must escape into exile because of him’
This punishment was pronounceable in most of the areas to which the first century missionaries came, it would appear, for Paul notes in II Cor 11:24 that
‘Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one’
something which he himself had inflicted on the believing church before his conversion to Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, Acts 22:19 also pointing us towards the possibility that the synagogue was not only the place where the local sanhedrins sat but where the punishment was inflicted for transgressors.
Finally, we should, perhaps, notice that Jesus refers to ‘their’ synagogues, a possible hint at the start of the separation between mainstream Judaism and the new movement of the Church. We are probably reading too much into this statement to insist that the rift had already been sealed, but that one had already begun to appear through the rejection of the Rabbinical authorities to the work of Christ is demonstrably certain (Mtw 9:3,11-13,34).
3. Governors and Kings
The next two descriptions turn our attention naturally away from the Jewish structures in place in first century Israel and onto the Gentile ruling authorities seeing as they make mention of ‘governors’ and ‘kings’.
Many of the commentators begin to think in terms of this passage being taken from another time in Jesus’ ministry to Israel and referring to a period primarily after the crucifixion and resurrection when the early Church would find itself increasingly opposed by the Gentile rulers and authorities over the areas in which they lived.
But, if at all possible, we should try and come to terms with Jesus’ instruction here as being a specific set of warnings that He gave to the twelve as He sent them out, seeing as the entire discourse runs together as one set speech.
Firstly, then, we need to try and understand what ‘governors’ (Strongs Greek number 2232) would have meant to the disciples in the context of the area in which they were about to be sent out into. The easiest way to interpret this word is to see it as referring to the Roman governors who had the administrative authority over areas of the Roman Empire and who were normally subject to other, higher, authorities situated in controlling areas.
Therefore, the governor of Judea (which included the region of Samaria), Pontius Pilate, was ultimately answerable to the governor over the region of Syria and ran the region in accordance with the authority invested in him. The Bible specifically refers to Pilate as ‘governor’ (Mtw 27:2, Luke 20:20) and, in Acts, Felix and Festus are also mentioned as such (Acts 23:24, 26:32), again being under Syria’s control.
Therefore, the most natural way to take Jesus’ words is to be referring to the Roman governors who sat as ultimate authorities over the lands to which the disciples were about to come.
We noted on the previous web page that the defined area of their journey according to Jesus was to be all of Galilee and, perhaps, some of the tetrarchy of Philip - but neither of these two regions had any Roman governor in authority over them, Galilee having Herod Antipas as king installed throughout Jesus’ period of ministry.
Therefore, if we are at all critical about the authenticity of these words to the sending out of the disciples, we would naturally point out that, if Jesus defined the area of their journey as being an area that could not have included Roman governors, He could not, necessarily, have been referring to them in His warnings.
However, the Greek word employed here is also used in Mtw 2:6 where the text runs that Bethlehem is
‘...by no means least among the rulers [governors] of Judah...’
What can be seen here, then, is that the Greek word could be used to refer to any ruling authority which had jurisdiction over an area, whether that be one that was Gentile or Jewish. The context of our passage favours the former interpretation, however, and the kings of both areas to which they were being sent would naturally have had their own overseers placed at strategic places throughout the land who would bring back reports concerning the state of their area.
This is the meaning of the word when it appears in II Peter 2:13-14 where the ‘governor’ is seen to be the one sent by the king to oversee an area, rather than as a Roman officer sent by the Emperor, having an intermediary between them. The RSV does translate the word for ‘king’ here as ‘emperor’ and this is, perhaps, the meaning of Peter’s writing but it is unspecific enough to be referring to all ruling authorities and their representatives. Besides, I Tim 2:2 shows us that the word employed for ‘king’ (Strongs Greek number 935) can be used to refer to anyone who has ultimate authority over a land.
We noted above that the word ‘governor’ was also applied to Pilate, but what we didn’t mention there was that he was more rightly a ‘procurator’ and, instead of taking the former term as implying the name of the office, we should rather take it as a descriptive word which simply denoted his authority. More rightly, the term ‘governor’ was a title of the provincial authorities such as sat in places such as Syria, under whom Pontius Pilate served.
It is entirely feasible, therefore, that the word being used here is not to be taken in its more technical sense of a Roman ruler over a province (who were more rightly referred to as ‘procurators’ than ‘governors’) but in a more generic way as referring to any ruler (though they would have been predominantly Gentile) over the people who was under the authority of the king - either Antipas or Philip.
Secondly, the word for ‘king’ (Strongs Greek number 935) appears straightforward and deserving of little comment. We noted above in our discussion of the word ‘governors’ that it could refer to the Emperor as being the supreme head of all authority and rule over the Roman Empire but the plural form of the word is used here and this causes us to infer that authorities under that of the Emperor is in mind.
This has immediate context for the area in which the disciples are to be journeying in to for both Antipas and Philip were ruling over the designated area where they would be declaring and demonstrating the Kingdom of God. There is no necessity, therefore, to have to take the word as referring to the succession of Roman emperors or of rulers in lands which had not yet been subjugated by the armies of Rome.
However, as we also noted above, the Greek word for ‘kings’ here could also be rightly applied to authorities over areas who held absolute power and, as such, there may be a hint at a more general interpretation. For the immediate context, it seems best to interpret the last two words as referring to both Antipas and Philip and those under them to whom they were responsible, in contrast to the Jewish authorities represented by the word ‘councils’ in Mtw 10:17.
Although the disciples may envisage this persecution as delaying them in their commission to preach and demonstrate the Kingdom of God, they should see it, rather, as another opportunity to proclaim their message. Jesus instructs the disciples that such deliverance into the hands of authorities will be for the purpose of bearing testimony both before the rulers and before the Gentiles who are associated with them.
Matfran comments that
‘...the specific mention of the Gentiles suggests that the wider mission of the post-resurrection period is already in view’
and this may be the case. But the instructions stop short of informing the disciples that they are to preach the Good News and to seek converts - it says only that they might bear witness to the Truth of God, just as Jesus was to do before Pontius Pilate a few years’ later (John 18:33-38). With the event of the Ascension behind them, however, the disciples found that being brought before the ruling authorities gave them an incredible opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to people who they would never have been able to do had they not been arrested.
Matmor is correct when he summarises the position as being that
‘The authorities would think that they were simply dealing with ordinary lawbreakers, but that would be a superficial view. The prisoners would be people who were there for the sake of their leader, the Messiah, and the trial would not really be an ordinary legal process’
Therefore the Jewish ruling authorities hear the proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 4:1-12) as does the Roman procurator, Felix (Acts 24:10-21,24-25) and king Agrippa (Acts 26:1-29). But all this is in the future - for the present, there remains the possibility that such persecution could befall the disciples and Jesus warns them lest they think that such opposition would hinder their mission - rather, it only extends the borders around which the Gospel of the Kingdom is being preached.
But, to think that, because the Gentiles are being mentioned, that (as Matmor) it
‘...makes it quite plain that Jesus is now referring to happenings outside Palestine [sic]’
is to deny the density of population which resided in the areas to which the disciples were now being sent. Although they had been commanded (Mtw 10:5) to
‘...Go nowhere among the Gentiles...’
that didn’t mean that they wouldn’t brush shoulders with them, or have them as part of the crowd who gathered to listen to them speak. The Good News of the Kingdom could overflow to even non-Jews but primarily it was for the Jew.
What to do when put on trial
Following on directly from Jesus’ previous instructions concerning the possibility of the disciples being persecuted and delivered into the hands of rulers and authorities, He gives them specific guidelines as to how they’re to answer their accusers - even if His words give them no definite thing to say!
The main problem with being brought before these authorities is anxiety. Not only will the disciple naturally be concerned as to the punishment which may be inflicted on them when the councils pass sentence, but they may fret over what sort of defence they’ll be able to give when asked to do so. Matmor expands the intention of Jesus’ words to speak of Him being
‘...concerned with the problems His frequently illiterate followers would face in unfamiliar and terrifying surroundings’
and such may be hinted at. The natural fear which could come upon them before kings and authorities who had their own protocols that needed to be observed by those in their presence must have been frightening and would have been far more threatening than the error committed by two Australian prime ministers who put their arm around Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth on her visits to their country (something which has been blown up out of all proportion, it seems to me!).
Such worries and fears may begin to trouble their mind and worry may prod them into panicking as to what to say when their time comes.
But this needn’t concern them, for Jesus says specifically that the words will come and that the Holy Spirit will empower them, a clear case of the noetic and dynamic elements of the ‘word’ being demonstrated in harmony (see The Restoration of Creation part 1 section 3 entitled ‘The Creative Word of God’ and my previous notes on Matthew under the heading ‘Say the Word’), not only to enable the disciple to utter the words that need to be heard by those over them but to ensure that the words will deliver the power and authority of Jesus into the situation and achieve all that God intends them to do.
But neither should we be pressed into thinking that Jesus is here indicating that the disciple’s mind should go almost blank and that they’ll babble on like an automaton being simply an unwitting speaker who has no control over what is being said.
Just as with the prophets of the OT and the writers of the Gospels in the NT, the character of the channel comes through and the Holy Spirit inspires rather than controls the individual to make the overflow of their life be an expression of the words and will of God (John 7:37-39).
There is a sense in which John 14:26 applies here (Joel 2:28 may also be applicable and in mind), for the disciples will primarily be prompted to speak of the things they know by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In that verse, Jesus teaches His followers that the Holy Spirit will
‘...bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’
indicating, once again, the need for the believer to have an experience of God that the Holy Spirit can draw upon. Primarily, the defendants will utter what they know but it will be the Holy Spirit that will draw upon their memory to prompt them into using the right recollections which become empowered to hit home with force to those who hear them.
One of the parallel passages (Luke 21:15) which speaks specifically of the time after Jesus’ ascension into heaven is worth reading, even though it wasn’t spoken to the disciples on this missionary journey. Luke records Jesus’ words as assuring the believers that
‘...I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict’
and the implication is that, although the ruling authorities may well continue to proceed with civil or criminal punishment, the justification for such an action will have completely been removed by the defence that God would give through them.
The application of this principle was demonstrably witnessed throughout the period of the Book of Acts and Peter’s defence before the Jewish ruling authorities is, perhaps, the best example of such a work of God through a believer, seeing as the defence that Paul gave on future occasions could be misconstrued as the product of a man of intelligence who knew the ways of the religious Jews and who would have been acquainted with accepted protocols.
Acts 4:8, then, tells us that Peter was
‘...filled with the Holy Spirit...’
as he began his defence and would probably have had no preconception of what he was about to say. Peter just wasn’t the type of person who would have reasoned
‘Think I’ll use sermon 24 here...’
‘Time to use the “trial before authorities” speech I prepared earlier...’
because, as Acts 4:13 (my italics) points out, the authorities, when they
‘...saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognised that they had been with Jesus’
Therefore, the words of Peter came as a shock to them. Instead of listening to what they thought would be the ramblings and bumblings of some half-civilised Galilean, they realised that, in him, they had a formidable adversary who could match their prosecution with reasoning that undermined their position. Eventually, they realised that their only course of action was to warn and release them (Acts 4:15-22).
We should remember, however, that Jesus’ words here apply only to those believers that are called to give an account of themselves before opposing authorities. This is not a call for ignorance in the ways of God or of the things of the Kingdom but, simply, the necessity not to pre-arrange what will be said by recourse to what one thinks needs to be heard.
Neither is it meant to be taken as referring to the person who stands up to speak in front of a congregation, for preparation is necessary to make sure that what is to be shared is accurate and trustworthy (I Tim 4:16). Nor should I, personally, labour under the misapprehension that I can just type whatever comes into my head to write these notes, when reference, comparison and the seeking out of ancient authors are necessary to determine the truth of the passages - yes, the Holy Spirit needs to direct the study, but the product is not the result of ignorance being supplemented divinely by quotes which I haven’t looked up or sought out.
We must, therefore, restrict the principle’s application to the situation of persecution and as Matmor comments, the words don’t mean
‘...that those who speak for Christ on other occasions are spared the necessity of careful preparation and the proper marshalling of their thoughts’
God will overcome anxiety by supplying the need in the time of trouble - but careful study and experiencing God is also necessary for the person who seeks to minister to the Lord’s people on His behalf.
The extent of the persecution
These verses do, naturally, cause us to think of a time after the ascension when the early Church went through a time of intense persecution but, if we read them in the context of the disciples’ mission to Israel, they still make perfect sense as a warning that they must ‘beware of men’ (Mtw 10:17).
As I noted above, just because the situation never appears to have descended upon the twelve at this time, it doesn’t mean that the warning was irrelevant and that, because Jesus warns His followers something that it must happen within the time scale in which it appears to have been given. Jesus chose to know those things which the Father instructed Him in and not, it appears, in others (Mtw 24:36). Though Jesus is correctly understood to be God in human form, it’s wrong for us to think of Him as knowing everything - that is, as operating from out of His deity. Rather, depending upon the Father for all things, He lived out a life fully human before men and women to demonstrate to them how they also might live.
After all, we wouldn’t be too impressed if God, knowing everything, could live obediently to His own commands - but, when a man does this, we see that what we thought was impossible is proven to be attainable.
Therefore the warning of intense persecution directed towards His followers is extremely relevant to their mission to Israel and will serve them well to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Mtw 10:16).
The Gospel, then, will be such a message of offence that it will be seen to divide up even members of the family. The family unit in Israel was far stronger than the ties which bind together similar people in today’s western society and obligations towards relatives were expected to be observed.
However, even here, says Jesus, the message of the Kingdom will be such as to divide brothers into opposing camps and parents and children (examples of which are lacking from the NT record but which have, on occasions, been reported through Church history and, increasingly, amongst converts from Islam where the murder of individuals is known. Perhaps there is a sense in which Jesus suffered this opposition from His own immediate family in Mark 3:21). In the places where security would have been expected, there is none. Matfran notes that there may be an allusion to Micah 7:5-6 here, but the context of that passage is that the godly have gone out of the land (Micah 7:2) so the background appears wholly dissimilar.
The Gospel, therefore, can’t be seen in terms of another belief system which people might tolerate, but a dividing message which creates clear black and white contrasts wherever it’s preached. The implications of this will become more apparent when we reach Mtw 10:34-39 but we should note that the Gospel is not spoken of as being a glue which binds together a society but a dividing message which separates clearly those who will ally themselves with God from those who will persecute them.
Although the family example is given, Jesus moves on to declare that the disciples
‘...will be hated by all for my name’s sake’
a phrase which sits in both Mark 13:13 and Luke 21:17 in the context of the time after Jesus’ ascension whereas, in Mtw 24:9, which is the directly parallel passage to these two, the writer expands the phrase to speak of (my italics) being
‘...hated by all nations...’
a clear indication that Matthew expects his readers to understand the occurrence in chapter 10 as referring to the present time of the sending out of the twelve. Everyone, then, will take offence at the preaching of the Gospel though the phrase indicates not a one hundred per cent persecution but that every type of person will have their own opponents of the message.
We should, perhaps, take special notice of the implications of Jesus’ words here seeing as ‘people groups’ targeted by some organisations are expected to yield a great harvest for Christ. What Jesus is actually saying is that whichever people group is reached out to, there will always be opposition which springs from it because the message of the Gospel is universal in its ability to divide. The Scripture actually gives the reason for such hatred as
‘for My name’s sake’
and this summarises the Person of Christ where the ‘name’ of a person in antiquity naturally meant the sum total of all that that person represented. We should here think of the opposition being directed towards Christ who is working through the disciples both in their preaching and their healing of the sick.
Finally, Jesus’ words that
‘...he who endures to the end will be saved’
will cause much consternation amongst those who believe that once a believer is ‘saved’ then salvation can’t be forfeited and equal glee amongst those who believe perseverance is called for in the way of salvation!
The problem which confronts the interpreter is that the word ‘saved’ could mean a variety of things. Believing that the word must mean ‘salvation in Christ’ wherever it occurs has warranted some strange interpretations of, for instance, the passage ending with I Tim 2:15 which instructs the recipient that
‘...woman will be saved through bearing children...’
I shan’t deal with that passage here but, quite obviously, the reference cannot be to ‘salvation in Christ’ where a work would be seen to yield acceptance before God rather than the free gift of God.
Similarly, some may take the word ‘saved’ here in Matthew as referring to the tribulation and persecution which is being described (amongst those who believe that the passage refers to the end times - which is where it appears in Mark and Luke - it would be interpreted with the resurrection of the dead or the ‘rapture’ depending on your viewpoint on that particular theology), Jesus being taken to mean that the disciple will find ultimate deliverance from such trouble if he continues throughout the conflict to be faithful to Christ.
Whether this word is to be taken as referring to salvation is difficult to be certain about, seeing as the passage in which it lies says nothing about it - it would have been more in place in the context of the Sermon on the Mount than here (Matthew chapters 5-7) where instruction is being given in the Way for the believer and of what God expects from him.
But it certainly seems difficult to accept that Jesus is assuring His disciples that they will be delivered from tribulation if they persevere when he’s just told them that there is the danger that they will be ‘put to death’ (Mtw 10:21)- not the sort of ‘salvation’ which one would expect.
Matfran comments that
‘...it is clearly not escape from persecution; rather, it depends on faithfully holding out through it’
Therefore, for want of a better interpretation, the verse needs to be taken as a reference to the disciple’s ultimate destination in the afterlife - whether of acceptance or rejection by God. This is a call, then, for the endurance of believers under trial and to stand firm in the face of strong opposition, knowing that persecution mustn’t cause them to deny their commitment to Mission (in the context of the disciples’ sending out - Mtw 10:5ff).
As Matmor observes
‘It is important to make a commitment to follow Christ, but more than that is required’
The coming of the Son of man
...this is probably the most difficult of all the verses we’ve come across so far in the entire Gospel of Matthew and the problem lies not in the fact that we are attempting to interpret this in its original context rather than as a series of statements which the author has arranged together from other places in which they were originally uttered, but in the apparent implications of the meaning of Jesus’ words whether taken in context or to the disciples to be applied to some future date after the ascension.
The first phrase
‘When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next...’
is straightforward enough and emphasises the need for the disciples not to think that they should continue in an area regardless of the acceptance of the message that they’re bringing but, rather, when they find that trouble comes as a result of the word being preached, they are to move on - once the message has been delivered - to other towns in which the message has not yet come.
There is a sense in which the follower of Christ is to endure when difficulties arise in their life but in Mission (the context in which these instructions are being given), they’re instructed not to be concerned with staying in the same area but to move on whenever they find that they may be delivered into the hands of the authorities through the uprising of the local populace.
As Matmor comments
‘...needlessly to court martyrdom is not the christian way’
and, even though such flight may be regarded as cowardice, it necessarily supposes that the message is much more important than to deliberately lose a missionary through violent opposition.
Therefore Paul flees when persecution arises on account of the word of the Gospel in order that he might ‘live to fight another day’, so to speak (Acts 9:23-25, 14:5-7, 20:1). Paul, however, stood still in the face of opposition on occasions (I Cor 16:8-9) when he must have felt that his presence with the church was of more importance than him departing to another region.
But the command of fleeing ranks amongst the characteristics of someone who’s exercising wisdom (Mtw 10:16) so that the message of the Gospel might go out to everyone that can be reached. There is an urgency upon Jesus’ words here, summarised in an enigmatic phrase which follows, where Jesus gives the explanation that they should flee because those sent out
‘...will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes’
And here we hit on the main problem of the verse - whether we interpret it in the context of the current discourse about Jesus sending out the twelve or see it as a word spoken concerning the time immediately after the ascension. There are no parallel passages to which we can refer to give us any illumination of context which would help explain it so we are forced to interpret it as it stands.
Mattask believes that the phrase
‘...is best understood with reference to the coming of the Son of man in triumph immediately after His resurrection, when He appeared to the apostles and commissioned them to make disciples of all nations...’
This also is the belief of Matfran who notes many of the commentators who see in Jesus’ words a reference to the Second Coming. But, as he points out
‘...it is far from clear that any reference to the parousia is intended’
Alternatively, then, he sees a reference to Dan 7:13-14 where the ‘son of man’ comes to present Himself before the Lord God and receives an everlasting dominion. Though most would take the prophetic OT passage as referring to the return of Jesus to earth to set up a universal Kingdom, it’s quite true that, as he points out, the verses don’t give the reader that impression and are more likely to be referring to
‘...the exaltation of the Messiah in passion-resurrection’
thereby indicating that the twelve’s mission to Israel wouldn’t be completed even by the time of Jesus’ resurrection. However, in a small study we did of the phrase ‘Son of man’ where it first occurred in Mtw 8:20, we noted that the phrase more rightly emphasised Jesus in His humanity rather than to be taken as referring to the passage in Daniel which would have necessitated its application by Jesus of Himself as the Messiah.
If we were correct there, why would Jesus then use it to proclaim Himself as the Promised Messiah (I have, however, offered an explanation for such an occurrence in my third and final explanation of this phrase)? And why would it be that the disciples would have expected some sort of Kingdom to be set up before their return to Jesus and yet have seen that expectation go unfulfilled? After all, their Mission would have encompassed as many of the towns of Israel as they could have done in the time available (did Jesus give them a specific time period in which they were to be back by? Or did he allow them free course to allocate their own time to the commission? See below for a proposed answer to these questions). Although this explanation seems to yield the easiest solution, it nevertheless still raises more questions than it answers. Though Matfran is correct when he notes that
‘The emphasis is therefore on the unlimited scope for the mission to Israel, in the light of which the christian must not be cowed into giving up his mission...’
that the disciples would have expected Jesus to have established a visible Kingdom or, at least, to have received from God unending and limitless authority and power before their return from going round the Galilean region, pulls against this being the correct interpretation.
Some commentators interpret the ‘coming of the Son of man’ as referring specifically to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD where Jesus’ ‘coming’ is seen to be one of judgment rather than of liberation.
This has recently been applied not only here but also in Matthew chapter 24 where Matfran remains one of the best exponents of the theory amongst the commentators I’ve read. Having said that, he doesn’t tie up this current verse into the overall framework as noted above.
If we were to follow this interpretation, however, Jesus would be seen to be urging the disciples to make as much progress towards reaching the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Mtw 10:6) as they could do before the nation’s rejection of both the Messiah and His message.
However, the problem with this, along with the former interpretation, is that it appears to be negated by the return of the twelve disciples to Jesus after a specific length of time. How can Jesus lay upon the twelve the urgency of reaching everyone before the sudden and imminent arrival of judgment when, firstly, they appear not to have completed their task and, secondly, the judgment was to be delayed some forty years?
Again, the interpretation seems to throw up more questions than it actually answers.
There’s also the belief, briefly noted above, that the ‘coming of the Son of man’ refers to the Second Coming of Jesus, an event which is still in the future. Most commentators shy away from accepting such an interpretation because it seems to negate the reliability of Jesus’ pronouncement - as it does in other places (notably Mtw 24:34) - that this would take place within one generation of the people present at the time of the utterance.
However, the reader should note my discussion of prophecy and its relation to Matthew chapter 24 which demonstrated that prophecy should never be regarded as pre-written history - that is, that what’s said will happen at a specific time will necessarily come about if circumstances should change such as can happen when the people to whom the message come fail for whatever reason to act upon or obey the Word of God.
Therefore, there is absolutely no problem for the believer to assert that the establishing of the Messianic Kingdom was intended to be within approximately forty years of the resurrection but that it never materialised because world evangelism, the one condition needed as a response of the disciples for it happening, was never fulfilled.
I have dealt with this in detail on the web page cited and the reader should refer to those notes for a fuller explanation but, for now, we can accept Jesus as referring to this with immediacy when, in fact, it didn’t come about.
However, the main problem with believing such a position is that there appears to be no context which would show us why it didn’t come about except that the persecution spoke of by Jesus as about to fall upon the twelve disciples never materialised, an indication that the missionaries found acceptance at that time where they went rather than the rejection which Jesus had warned them concerning.
As can be seen from the previous examples of Jesus’ ministry amongst the people, it appears as if the opposition to Jesus had, so far, only reached the level of the Jerusalem authorities in the form of the scribes and Pharisees (Mtw 9:34) and that the general population of Galilee were all too willing to accept the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus because He brought them relief from their suffering and acceptance before God at the level they were at.
Therefore, because persecution of His followers was a precursor to the establishing of the Davidic and Messianic Kingdom and because this hadn’t come about through their preaching, the promise of the established Kingdom also failed to materialise.
This may seem rather a strange interpretation and I offer it only tentatively here as a first attempt to make some sense out of a very enigmatic saying, but the phrase
‘...before the Son of man comes’
seems impossible, to me, to be able to be taken in any other way than the establishing of God’s anointed King over the nations of the earth - a similar problem exists with the verses at Mtw 16:28 and 24:30,34, though the former of these is often taken to be referring to the transfiguration which took place shortly afterwards.
Note that, in all three places, Jesus is not proclaiming Himself as the Messiah to the multitudes but to the disciples who probably were already convinced that He was the One promised in the OT.
Similarly, the words which are translated ‘you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel’ certainly imply that a pre-arranged missionary area had been decided upon and is hinted at also in Mtw 10:5-6 where a definition occurs. The ‘coming of the Son of man’ naturally must be taken as referring to an event which would have been expected by the disciples before their sending out had come to a conclusion.
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