Have no fear
Pp Luke 12:2-9
Do not fear
I’ve noted a parallel passage above but there are major differences - not just variations in the text - that would indicate that these are two totally different discourses which were spoken in different contexts and at different times.
Perhaps the most basic difference is the subject of the instructions which are given. Although both are addressed to the disciples (Mtw 10:5, Luke 12:1), Matthew’s Gospel places the utterance of the words as a general warning to the twelve as they’re about to set out on their mission to Israel (Mtw 10:5) whereas Luke prefixes the words with a general warning concerning the Pharisees (Luke 12:1), thus indicating that the words should be taken particularly refer to them.
However, although the difference is distinctive, commentators often see Matthew as having collated passages concerning persecution and tribulation to incorporate them into one specific discourse here under the banner of Mission, thus subtly altering the specific intention in Luke of referring to the Pharisees to broaden it to include anyone encountered who’s hostile to the Gospel and its messengers.
I have already stated my position on this previously and noted that I see no reason not to take Mtw 10:5-42 as it reads - that is, as one specific discourse spoken to the twelve being sent out on one occasion and at one time. Besides, to think that the author of Matthew collated a source such as that used to compile the Gospel of Luke tends to overlook certain fundamental differences which are difficult to be explained away. I shall mention the three most obvious here to bring the point home to the reader.
Firstly, Luke 12:3 records Jesus as saying
‘Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops’
but Mtw 10:27 records the words as
‘What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops’
If these are carefully considered, the first is seen to be a warning to the disciples that even the innermost workings of men and women’s hearts will be revealed at some point in time, the context being that even the secrecy of the Pharisees will not remain concealed from the knowledge of His followers, whereas Matthew speaks of Jesus telling the disciples to proclaim everything that He’s told them privately. Therefore the author of Matthew hasn’t just used the passage in Luke - which would have made perfect sense as it stood - but has changed it to ‘un’-harmonise it with Mtw 10:26 (paralleled in Luke 12:2) and bring home a totally different truth.
Why Matthew should have done this if he was simply compiling a narrative of persecution sayings is difficult to imagine. Even more difficult to imagine why there was a need for a change is the difference between Luke 12:6 where Jesus poses the rhetorical question
‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?...’
and Mtw 12:29 where the question becomes
‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?...’
One can imagine the market traders calling out to the buyers
‘Get your sparrows here! Two for a penny or five for tuppence...’
but why does Matthew change it from something which made perfect sense? There would be a logic in rewriting the passage to reflect the currency in use amongst the people for whom the Gospel was primarily being written, but it remains doubtful that ‘two for a penny’ would be changed to ‘five for tuppence’ simply because the writer of Matthew preferred the phrase and was ignoring the testimony of the text before him as to the accuracy of the saying.
The only other possibility which could account for the change is that Matthew altered the text to reflect the current value of the sparrow in the markets of his day - but this hardly seems plausible as there doesn’t appear to be any other place where such an alteration has taken place (up until now - if I find one in any subsequent passage, I shall obviously return to these notes and amend them!).
Thirdly, and finally, Luke 12:8-9 reads
‘And I tell you, every one who acknowledges Me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God’
while Mtw 10:32-33 reads
‘So every one who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven’
The question needs to be answered as to why Matthew would alter ‘the angels of God’ to ‘My Father’ which equates created beings with the eternal, self-existent I AM. Unfortunately, to assert that the angels are representatives of God is not a sufficient explanation here for Luke implies that the angels are messengers which stand as intermediaries, while Matthew’s inference is that He has direct access into the presence of God Himself.
This is probably the least important of the three major differences for it’s possible to imagine Matthew wanting to ‘beef up’ the saying by removing the reference to angels, but the first two objections to seeing Matthew as having compiled a catalogue of persecution sayings are by far the most important and which, to me, indicate that Matthew has been as faithful to the original discourse spoken to the disciples as Luke has been to record a similar utterance spoken at another time and in another place.
Other differences which exist in the two texts may be variations of the author’s treatment of the words (such as the end of 12:4 with the end of 10:28b, and 12:5 with 10:28b) but the above three are fundamental differences that refuse to make us think that either of the two authors took the other’s writings and incorporated them into a different place in their Gospel accounts (usually thought to be Matthew compiling a ‘persecution’ discourse in Mtw 10).
Therefore, far from making us think that the author of Matthew has been clever in his compilation and harmony of differing passages, the parallel passage in Luke tends to point towards the belief that we’re looking at two original speeches.
I have taken these verses in Matthew and noticed that the subject of ‘fear’ is a predominant theme, the same Greek word (Strongs Greek number 5399) being used four times in this short section, a word from which we get our English word ‘phobia’ - the first three subject headings in my notes are direct quotes from the RSV’s rendering of the text.
There are three rebuttals from Jesus against fearing (Mtw 10:26,28,31) and I’ve allowed these to define my divisions of the passage. The one positive element of fear is first mentioned in 10:28, but 10:32-33 also takes up the theme of the need to fear God above man and I shall deal with this as the conclusion, even though ‘fear God’ will be dealt with where it first occurs.
The reader should note that, even though I may not bring out the overall thrust of the passage as I look in detail at each verse, these words contrast the need for the disciples not to fear what men and women might do against them but to look to and fear the One who holds ultimate power and authority over all things on earth and absolute power and authority in the life to come.
Have no fear
Mtw 10:26-27 Pp Luke 12:2-3
There’s a dichotomy between these two verses that warrants us dealing with them separately. I noted above that the two verses of Luke 12:2-3 formed a natural progression of thought where personal attitudes and thoughts are declared to be revealed (Rom 2:16), presumably
‘...on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus’
and where Jesus, although urging upon His disciples the realisation that the Pharisees’ heart would be made known, is also concerned to make them realise that they can’t think to get away from the same judgment.
However, although the first phrase begins with the same meaning (referring not to the Pharisees but to opposition in general), the second verse goes on to speak of proclaiming even the secret things which Jesus has revealed to the disciples, a teaching which, although bearing similarities with Luke 12:3, is actually very different - and the time of what is being revealed in Matthew refers necessarily to the present rather than to the distant future when the Day of Judgment will take place.
The revealing of what has been hidden (Mtw 10:26) is also mentioned in Mark 4:22 and Luke 8:17 where the idea is of proclaiming or revealing the truth of the Gospel in individual lives. Matfran transposes this meaning of Jesus’ words from these places and applies them to the passage in question, noting that it’s
‘...the duty of witness rather than a general observation...’
but this appears to be a classic case of expecting a similar statement to always bear the same meaning no matter which context it may be found in. It’s far better to attempt an interpretation in the context in which the passage sits and, if that isn’t possible, to look elsewhere for a suitable interpretation - but, as we shall see, the statement in context makes good sense and implies something different to what Matfran asserts.
Putting aside the parallel passages, therefore, we need to try and come to terms with the full meaning of Jesus’ words here in the context of the twelve disciples’ call to mission.
Firstly, then, the phrase (Mtw 10:26)
‘So [or Therefore] have no fear...’
points us directly back to 10:24-25 (perhaps even to the entire body of instruction which has begun from Mtw 10:5), sitting as a logical inference. The problem which may have arisen in the disciples’ minds as they found themselves in unfamiliar circumstances is that they really couldn’t be certain at all times what the mood of the people was amongst whom they were ministering. If they’ve called Jesus ‘Beelzebul’ in their hearts or secretly to others (Mtw 10:25), then the disciples need to know the dangers which face them that they may be warned and exercise wisdom as to who they should reach out (Mtw 10:23).
However, the ‘therefore’ also points forward to the explanation which Jesus is about to give and which negates any fear which would be present in the disciples’ lives as they thought upon the possibility that they were, even as they moved about Israel, being blackened in secret by people who remained outwardly hospitable and friendly.
As I noted in my notes on Mtw 10:5-15 under the heading ‘The people they meet’, the disciples are to inquire diligently to try and make sure that they stay with one who’s receptive to the message of the Gospel (Mtw 10:11) but that there remained the possibility that they may either assess the situation wrongly or that circumstances could change (Mtw 10:13-14).
Here, though, the thought appears to be expanded to include all the men and women who they’ll meet in the course of their missionary activity and Jesus assures them that whatever is needful for them to know and which seems to be hidden in the heart of the people they meet, will be revealed to them - a clear indication that, even before the Holy Spirit was to come to dwell within believers from Pentecost (Acts chapter 2), there was discernment imparted to all God’s mission workers who needed to know the intentions of men and women’s hearts.
Jesus isn’t saying that they’ll know everything there is to know about a person or that everything the person is thinking will be made known to them, but that those things which are necessary for them to know shan’t remain undisclosed.
One example of such discernment can be found in Acts 5:1-11 (an incident after Pentecost) where Peter knew that the intentions of the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira were opposed to self-denial and that their declaration that they’d given all the proceeds from the sale of their field was a lie (it wasn’t that they didn’t have the right to hold some of the money back for their own use, but that they’d stated they hadn’t done so, thus receiving greater honour in the sight of the Church).
Jesus, also, knew that a situation would be contrived in which He would be delivered up to die (Mtw 20:18-19), a clear indication that Jesus had already had it revealed to Him what was going on in the secrecy of the councils and chambers of the religious hierarchy of His day. Even though they appear to be acting for the good of the people against the work of satan (Mtw 9:34) and in accordance with God’s will (John 11:51-52), nevertheless, the intentions of their hearts will soon be made known by a revelation of God to the disciples who remain unafraid to declare it to them both indirectly (Acts 2:23) and directly (Acts 3:14-15). As Matmor observes
‘Publicity is an advantage to the good, but it makes things harder for the evil whose ways must be concealed if they are to be successful’
But, as they go out, even the clear intentions of those set opposed to the Gospel of the Kingdom will be made known to them wherever necessary.
Such discernment in situations is important to heed and pay close attention to, seeing as, in the context of being sent on Mission, it may be the very thing which could save the disciples’ lives (even though the revelation which came through discernment and which imparted knowledge was the very thing which Jesus accepted as being the will of God for His own life - Mtw 26:39-42).
Being assured of discernment, then, Jesus’ command to ‘have no fear’ is logical and important to draw out. Being assured that they will know even the things which they couldn’t naturally be aware of except by careful observation and interpretation (and then they might get it all wrong!), they can rest in peace and go about their business with peace in their hearts, not fretting that circumstances may be conspiring against them of which they will not be aware.
There’s a contrast here to be noted with Jesus’ warnings in Mtw 10:17-21 where the death of the missionary remains a distinct possibility - but, even should this happen, the disciple should still be able to remain at peace, knowing that anything necessary will be given to them in the form of hidden information or even, as in Mtw 10:19-20, a defence for the Gospel - both these sometimes have united together so that the defence are also the words which open up the secrets of the prosecutors’ heart and lay them bare before God.
Mtw 10:27 changes the direction of Jesus’ instruction but it necessarily follows on. The disciples, being assured that God will give them what’s required to correctly discern situations, can know the freedom to declare all the Gospel to all the people. Therefore Jesus urges the twelve to ‘utter in the light’ and ‘proclaim upon the housetops’ what they’ve heard Him say to them even in private. The implications of His words here, though, give the impression that Jesus is simply putting no limits or boundaries on the things which they can declare rather than to command them to only repeat those things which have been received in secret.
Matmor notes a verse from the Talmud (Shabbath 35b) which gives instruction that the commencement of the sabbath was to be proclaimed by blasts on the shophar (ram’s horn), blown from the housetops. Certainly, to reach a large area, height is needed where the obstructions of walls and buildings can be overcome with the greatest of ease and, even naturally, it’s obvious that an elevated platform can broadcast over a greater distance than one at ground level. We shouldn’t necessarily think of Jesus’ command here as being literal but figurative and teaching that the disciples were to spread the Gospel of the Kingdom into as many areas as they possibly could, shying away from no areas where it had not yet come.
Contrary to the interpretation of these words as being given to the twelve disciples as they were being sent out (Mtw 10:5), Mathag sees the hearing of secret things from Jesus ‘in the dark’ and ‘whispered’ as referring to the time after the resurrection when Jesus will communicate truth to believers by the Holy Spirit when absent from them and, therefore, it cannot logically be seen to apply to the sending out of the twelve to all Israel. Therefore he comments that
‘This full revelation and “making known” in its contrast to the present time must refer to the Church’s proclamation in the period following the resurrection...the time following the resurrection will be a time of proclamation of the gospel in new strength, clarity and power. The contrast is between the darkness of the pre-Easter [sic] period and the light of the post-Easter [sic] period...’
but, unfortunately, he’s already decided that the passage should rightly be thought of as being spoken at a different time (probably Luke 12:2-9) and of a different time, so that his interpretation is based more upon his belief than on taking the Scriptures at face value. It would be wrong of us to think that ‘in the dark’ and ‘whispered’ could have meant that Jesus would speak to them when they were absent from Him in anyway similar to the way He now communicates to them by His Spirit (that is, after Pentecost), even though the discernment of 10:26 is entirely possible through the impartation of knowledge by the Holy Spirit even then.
The correct interpretation, therefore, if the context of the passage is accepted, has to be that Jesus is now telling them to have no fear to declare to all they meet everything which they’ve seen and heard Him do (though the emphasis is on speech in the passage, not upon deeds). As it says in Heb 10:39, the disciples of Christ are not to be
‘...of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls’
Do not fear
Mtw 10:28 Pp Luke 12:4-5
Note - For information regarding ‘Gehenna’ (a transliteration of the word translated ‘hell’ by the RSV), see my notes on ‘Eternal Habitations’ where I’ve also dealt with the subject of annihilationism (the belief that, although punishment may exist for a time after the final judgment, in the end the people who have lived opposed to the will of God will simply cease to exist).
This verse deals not only with a negative type of fear but a positive aspect of fear directed towards God. As such, some of the subjects we discuss here are equally relevant under the heading ‘Fear God’ which occurs as the last subject on this web page.
Following the clear instructions to the disciples that they should be bold in proclaiming the truth of the Gospel as Jesus has revealed it to them, Jesus here encourages them not to shrink back from fulfilling their mission by considering the power of those set opposed to them and what they have authority to be able to do.
Rather, they should consider what power God has over their own lives not only in this world but in the one to come where eternal punishment awaits those who have set themselves against the Father’s will.
Some commentators used to explain the ‘him’ of ‘fear him’ as referring to satan (I mention no names but some still do!) but this comes from a generally erroneous view of hell where satan is thought of as ruling over an eternal place of punishment like some prison warden, inflicting punishment. Such a view is still popularised today and is probably the most common view amongst unbelievers about the afterlife. ‘Hell’, however, is a place where satan is punished, not a place over which he rules (Mtw 25:41, Rev 20:7-10) so the ‘him’ must naturally refer to God.
Man cannot destroy the true life within the believer that exists for all eternity. Although they may end the physical life which continues for a few short years, they have no call on the outcome of the soul after death. Only God can subject the soul to eternal punishment - man can only end the life of the body.
I Peter 3:14-15 parallels these two ‘fears’ but goes on to speak of eternal reward rather than a warning concerning the outcome of the disobedient disciple. Peter writes that
‘...even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord’
showing that suffering for doing that which is right is not something to be shied away from at all costs. The first priority for the disciple must be to stand in the place God has set him and be there regardless of circumstances. In the area of Mission, we’ve already seen that it’s right for the follower to choose to flee persecution when it raises its head so that he might preach the Gospel in other areas (Mtw 10:23) but it’s equally certain that the believer shouldn’t live his life in fear simply because he’s worried what might befall him (Mtw 10:17-18,21).
The word for ‘soul’ (Strongs Greek number 5590) is one used for the summation of the person who inhabits the body (Gen 35:18) rather than bearing any intention to draw out a theological belief that a person is made of two component parts. While I Thess 5:23 points the reader towards the general thought that there are three words which can be used to apply to different component parts of a human being, this is the only place in the NT where the tripartite nature of man is specifically spoken of.
The ‘body’ here naturally refers, as Matmor, to
‘...the whole of the mortal life...’
and must indicate that which is transient when first used of the disciple’s persecutors. If there’s no future life, then bodily preservation should always be uppermost in the minds and lives of men and women who should seek to prolong their days and get the utmost enjoyment from it. Only faith in an afterlife (where ‘faith’ is active) can prompt one into preparing for it and of making sure that nothing which takes place this side of the grave hinders our reception of what is to come.
The reader must also be careful when dealing with other passages which mention either the body, soul or spirit for they aren’t always given exclusive meanings where they occur and can overlap into one of the other three. Even in this passage, note Jesus’ words which speak of God being able to
‘...destroy both soul and body in hell’
where the word for ‘body’ is one which we would not associate with receiving punishment in the afterlife. It may be possible that the resurrected bodies of the dead are here being referred to (John 5:28-29, Rev 20:12) but, more likely, Matmor is correct when he sees that
‘...the expression refers to the whole person, and the whole person is body and soul’
The contrast, then, is specifically between physical and spiritual death. As Matfran summates
‘The emphasis here is on the total and final destruction in hell as opposed to the limited nature of merely physical death...Compared with the fate which awaits the disobedient and apostate, martyrdom is a far less fearful prospect’
Two types of fear are also being contrasted and we should, like the word for ‘body’, think of them in different ways. Matfran comments that
‘...fear of men is a self-interested cowardice, but fear of God is a healthy response of awe and obedience in the face of the Almighty...’
The fear of God is a subject which recurs throughout the OT and is one which can be easily misconstrued as simply a feeling of awe in the face of God’s presence - that is, an emotional response (even amongst evangelicals who would run away from thinking of deciding to follow after God as being an emotional response, there remains a great many ‘feelings’ which are acknowledged as being necessary for obedience to Him). As Matfran notes, however, fear implies subjection and obedience to the one who is acknowledged to be more powerful, not only when it comes to God but also man for, if the disciples truly fear man they’ll find that, when opposition comes, they are more concerned to remain quiet concerning the Gospel of the Kingdom as they would bid them do than be obedient to the direct command of God through Jesus.
Eccles 12:13, in a verse in which Solomon finally came to terms with the purpose of man on the earth, commented that, after considering all that was presented before him throughout the natural order, the ‘whole duty of mankind’ was simply to
‘...Fear God, and keep his commandments...’
an instruction which beautifully outworks the meaning of the fear of God into an action which demonstrates the strength of the belief. The fear of God, then, is like faith in the sense that it should cause the possessor to do something about it, whether positively for God or negatively against Him.
Words translated ‘fear’ occur 351 times in the RSV’s translation of the Scriptures and, of these, 44 are used in the phrase ‘fear not’ and 30 in ‘do not fear’ - an indication that men and women need the reassurance that fear is not part of the original intention of mankind when it comes to natural situations and problems.
While it’s quite true that to be afraid of events which come upon an individual are quite natural and an inbuilt safety system, to live in fear only cripples the life from expressing the true character which was created within them.
Here, a life lived experiencing the fear of man will prevent a person from following after the revealed will of God and is expressed in the new convert’s life as they begin to regard the voice and actions of those around them - even family and friends - who oppose the work of God.
The fear of God which propels a person into positively obeying the commands of Christ is necessary, but the fear of man pulls away not only from the will of God but distorts the person that they were created to be.
The thought of this verse is not without its parallels in the Apocrypha and we shouldn’t think of the verse as portraying an entirely unique viewpoint. Firstly, Sirach 16:13-15 contrasts the two powers of death which reside both in man’s hand and God’s when it states that God has
‘...power of life and death: Thou leadest to the gates of hell, and bringest up again. A man indeed killeth through his malice: and the spirit, when it is gone forth, returneth not; neither the soul received up cometh again. But it is not possible to escape Thine hand’
Although man is acknowledged as having the ability to despatch the soul of the man away from the body, God, ultimately, receives the person and there’s no escaping His hand even though it was possible to, figuratively speaking, flee from the human hand through death.
In a book possibly written sometime at the beginning of the first century AD, IV Maccabees 13:14-15 presents us with a confession of seven brothers who were facing both torture and death. They encourage one another by proclaiming in unison
‘Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God. Therefore let us put on the full armour of self-control which is divine reason. For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us and all the fathers will praise us’
Here, the fear of God is paralleled with obedience to God’s commands just as we saw above that fearing God in the context of Mission causes the disciples to actively continue with their commission rather than to shrink back from the proclamation.
Finally, II Maccabees 6:30 shows the commitment of one who was about to suffer for God, the reason being solely that he fears God and will continue his way of life regardless of what awaits him as a reward in this life. The verse runs that
‘...when he was ready to die with stripes, he groaned, and said “It is manifest unto the Lord, that hath the holy knowledge, that whereas I might have been delivered from death, I now endure sore pains in body by being beaten: but in soul am well content to suffer these things, because I fear Him”’
In the face of persecution through Mission, therefore, the disciples - like the faithful who’ve gone before them - must be committed to leave behind themselves any regard they have for either personal well-being and comfort or for a life of acceptance before the people. Rather, fearing God and having regard for the mission entrusted to them, they must persevere to fulfil the call of God, realising that man can only end the physical whereas God has power over both the physical and spiritual.
Whatever happens, a believer should not fear.
Mtw 10:29-31 Pp Luke 12:6-7
Before we look at the third reason for not fearing men and women, we need to clarify what both the ‘sparrow’ and the ‘penny’ is spoken of in the opening verse.
The ‘sparrow’ (Strongs Greek number 4765) conjures up in the English (perhaps American, too?) mind a small, brownish bird that’s one of the most common around, especially in the towns and cities where a good living is to be had from the numerous bird tables that are put up where men set up home.
Kittels notes that the word was employed by the Greek poets but that they didn’t
‘...distinguish the sparrow from other small birds...’
so that the word employed in this passage could be a general reference to small wild birds which are sold in the market for food, ranging through a great many species and varieties. Even the OT word can be taken to refer to various types of birds which we’d classify and identify as different species but, as Cansdale comments, this word implies a generalisation which indicates only
‘...a small bird suitable for eating...’
The translators are probably right in translating the Greek word as ‘sparrow’ for it’s easily the most common bird amongst the English speaking world which can be paralleled with the types of bird which would have been trapped and sold for food. However, to be more precise, the alternative ‘sparrow-like birds’ could have been used which is more accurate.
Matfran notes that the point of using the selling of sparrows as an example here is that
‘...sparrows were very inexpensive, the cheapest living things used for food...’
and Matmor is more specific when he notes that
‘An inscription of the Emperor Diocletian setting out the maximum prices that might be paid for various articles of commerce shows that sparrows were the cheapest of birds used for food...’
The ‘penny’ of the same verse (Strongs Greek number 787) and translated as ‘farthing’ by the AV, is an assarius or assarium, being equal to the tenth part of a drachma (or ‘denarius’). In Ungers, the monetary value in today’s currency is estimated at
‘...three fourths of a penny English money or one and a half cent of ours [US]’
Of course, having been written in 1957, the estimations of worth are somewhat ancient and need revising to bring them in line with inflation which has seen the soar of commercial prices for the same product. Even if we were to do this, such a monetary figure often gives the reader a wrong impression of the buying power of the ancient Israelite unless comparisons are made with the relative costs of certain staple food items such as bread.
Ungers also makes it evident that a denarius - a day’s wage for a labourer - was valued somewhere around fifteen US cents, making an assarium about one tenth in value. Matfran, Matmor and Mathag all note it as being somewhere around one sixteenth the value of the denarius. Whatever, the point is that of cheapness - a sparrow costs around half an assarium (two are sold for one assarium) and are, therefore, one of the cheapest foods available to men and women. A bit like a cheap bag of crisps which we’d pick up today at a newsagents for a snack (if I’ve inspired any entrepreneur to package sparrows into snacks and they make their fortune by it, I want my share, okay?)!
This illustration, then, is meant to convey the care with which God looks after even the ‘cheapest’ or least important in His Creation for (Mtw 10:29)
‘...not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will’
Even though the word for ‘will’ is lacking in the Greek, the intention of the sentence shows us that the word is warranted on this occasion - nothing can happen ‘without the Father’ whether directly as an act of God or as something which, although against what is right, is allowed by Him. That doesn’t mean that we should accept everything as being fixed and unalterable but that, if there really is no opportunity to change the situation, we should accept it as being from God (and yet still pray for deliverance!).
If such an appeal concerning the sparrows is lost on the twelve, the fact that (Mtw 10:30)
‘...even the hairs of your head are all numbered’
should urge them to realise that even the small matters which they take for granted are overseen by the One who they’re being sent out by with the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom. As Matmor comments
‘If God is interested in the smallest of His created beings, He is also interested in the smallest details of the people He has made in His own image’
but we have to remember that the argument is offered in the direct context of there being persecution of which the disciples will become the subject. It’s quite true that God cares for the smallest details in a believer’s life (and this verse is often taken to teach just that) but where it lies in the midst of Matthew chapter 10 causes us to interpret it in that light rather than give it an independent and unique theology.
We certainly shouldn’t think of the verse as implying that, when a hair follicle comes out, we should ponder what number it was (and, for some of us, the numbering of the hairs of our head is not too difficult a task and, with a little bit of time we could do it ourselves now that we have so little left) but a simple appeal to the disciples to realise that their importance to God is such that even the smallest of their concerns is known to God and watched over by Him.
This is even a stronger appeal than that which Jesus made to all the disciples (Mtw 5:1-2) in Mtw 6:25-33 where Jesus pointed to the care with which God watched over the natural Created order to both feed and clothe them and concluded with words urging them to
‘...seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well’
The situation is slightly different here for Jesus is looking at the situation of persecution which may befall them as they go out on the Mission to Israel, but the thought is generally the same - namely, that God is concerned to watch over them.
Finally, just in case they fail to consider themselves as being of more value to God then even a sparrow (and, believe me, there are plenty of followers of Christ around who either live their lives in such a state of mind or who get occasional periods when they think that their life has become of no real purpose and use to God), Jesus commands them (Mtw 10:31 - my italics) to
‘Fear not...you are of more value than many sparrows’
Jesus doesn’t say just how many sparrows He considers to be equal to one man but this is to miss the point. Rather, if God cares for the lowest of Creation, will He not have concern for believers as His sons? As Mathag writes
‘[Sparrows] are actually worth almost nothing, yet they are not outside God’s attention and will...therefore all the more will He care for you’
But we shouldn’t think of God’s will as passive here - that He ‘allows’ sparrows to be trapped and killed for food in accordance with His pre-revealed will of Gen 9:3 to Noah and all mankind. The text reads that God takes an active part in the handing over of the sparrows into the hands of the fowler and that, without His purpose, such an event wouldn’t and couldn’t happen.
So it is with the disciples sent out into the world. Any persecution which befalls them can be seen to be the purpose and will of God for their lives even though He isn’t seen as persecuting them but allowing it to happen as an outworking of His own will and purpose - how else will governors and kings hear the message of the Gospel (Mtw 10:18)?.
What Jesus is saying throughout this entire passage is that, if the Father so looks after the sparrows that only die when He has agreed that it should be so (Mtw 10:29) and, if the Father is so concerned even in the smallest detail of the believer’s physical welfare (Mtw 10:30), then God’s watchful eye will be upon them throughout the fulfilment of their commission because they are of much more importance than the sparrow and the totality of their life is of much more concern to Him that just numbering a few hairs on one’s head - both of which He already does.
The imagery of the sparrow being killed for food is even more relevant here when Jesus has previously told them that they may ultimately pay for the preaching of the Good News of the Kingdom with their own lives (Mtw 10:21) but the main context is that they shouldn’t fear persecution because God is watching over them and caring for them. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t fear persecution because it won’t happen - Jesus has already made it clear to them that this is a necessary part of their commission - but that fear is an unnecessary part of their experience because God has their concerns at heart even in persecution.
Whatever happens to the believer in the outworking of the commission given to Him (this is the context of Jesus’ words - Mtw 10:5ff), they can be sure that God is with them and watching over them. If they have to walk through persecution, then He’s with them because He’s sent them (Dan 3:24-25, Jer 1:7-8).
Mtw 10:32-33 Pp Luke 12:8-9
We have previously seen three warnings given by Jesus to the disciples so that they don’t fear as they’re sent out on their mission to Israel. Before we move on to look at the positive aspect of fear, we need to just recap these areas.
1. Mtw 10:26-27
The disciples shouldn’t fear those things which could remain hidden from them and which could conspire against them. Rather, they should be content in knowing that God will reveal to them all that they need to know.
2. Mtw 10:28
The disciples shouldn’t fear people who can turn against them to persecute them. Though they may end the believer’s physical life, it’s preferable to fear God who alone has power over life after death.
3. Mtw 10:29-31
The disciples shouldn’t fear (there’s no subject given but the previous two aspects would indicate that the fear of man is what’s specifically in mind) because God has all things under His care and control (even the minor items) and nothing happens to His children which He Himself is not aware of.
The theme of ‘fearing God’ has already raised its head in Mtw 10:28 and we saw there that it was a necessary point of that reasoning to affirm the truth to the disciples that they shouldn’t fear the work of men and women who are set against them.
Here, in 10:32-33, although the word ‘fear’ doesn’t occur, the fear of God is foundational to the disciple acknowledging Jesus before mankind but in the context of Mission.
In that previous passage, we also noted that the equation
Fear of God = Obedience to God
naturally held good and we should think of it being proven here also. Dispelling the fear of mankind, the believer is naturally choosing to fear God and to obey Him, and such obedience must necessarily demand their obedience to His commands even as they conflict with the will of man. Even more apparent must this principle become when we realise that they’re about to be sent out with a commission to reach the children of Israel. Therefore, fearing God is outworked in their obedience to their commission.
Unity with God is here compared to an acknowledgement of Jesus before men where the thought is likely to be the confession of Christ before legal hearings when the believer is called to give an account of Himself and of the things he’s been doing amongst the people.
Certainly, the word for ‘acknowledge’ (Strongs Greek number 3670) is used in a variety of both legal and religious contexts but, in the present occurrence, Kittels notes that it primarily bears the meaning
‘...”to make a statement” or “bear witness” in a legal sense’
and this can’t be far from the thought when Jesus has recently been instructing the disciples concerning their need to stand trial before ‘councils, synagogues, governors and kings’ and to make a defence before them of the Gospel (Mtw 10:17-20). But, although this acknowledgement should be seen to be referring to the legal trial, there’s also the need to see in it a public confession of Jesus in the same sense that the prohibition of John 9:22 sought to oppose.
When the parents of the man who’d been born blind were asked to give an explanation of how he was now able to see, they stopped short of admitting that Jesus had performed the miracle, the reason being given that
‘...the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess [same Greek word] Him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue’
and they feared being condemned as outcasts of Israelite society. The ex-blind man, however, was more open in His confession of what Jesus had done and, by the time he’s brought before the council again, he’s ready to stir up trouble by his allegiance to the One who’s done the miracle by asking them (John 9:27)
‘...Do you too want to become his disciples?’
something which, it was pretty obvious, wouldn’t be taken too kindly or with any humour!
The ‘fear of man’ about which Jesus has been warning those commissioned (Mtw 10:26-31) will naturally raise its head in more than simply legal trials but in each situation where they perceive that trouble lies in store for them. The natural tendency would be for the disciples to end up concealing Jesus’ name in secrecy and even of failing to fulfil the commission given to them should they begin to ponder over the things which men and women may do against them.
When someone ‘acknowledges Jesus before men’, therefore, we should think of it implying many different situations where the believer is required to take upon Himself the name of Christ regardless of the consequences.
‘Denying Christ’ means more than abstention, however, and is an action which confesses something against Christ. Whereas the blind man’s parents stopped short of attributing the work of healing to Jesus, a denial of the work of Christ would be to assign it either to natural causes, sheer chance or some other force that had come upon him for good (just as the Pharisees had previously done - Mtw 9:34).
Abstention is a relatively grey area and keeping silent has been interpreted as denying the name of Christ by some who interpret actions as well as words as doing such a thing. Although there’s a great amount of wisdom needed for the believer to make sure that he remains faithful to Jesus in everything, fleeing for one’s life to another town (Mtw 10:23) could equally be interpreted as a denial of the name of Christ even though it’s specifically commanded them!
Therefore, although there may be a great many implications behind the believer’s silence, denial of Jesus primarily refers to the rejection of the name of Christ either in the things that are being done, that which has been said or even as the guiding force in the believer’s life.
It seems certain that many of the ‘christian’ charities who were founded by evangelical individuals who had a desire given them by God to do great works while, at the same time, preach the Gospel of the Kingdom, degenerated into societies who now go about performing works but refusing to confess - and often denying - the name of Jesus. Mission too easily degenerates into ‘goodwill towards all men’ rather than ‘repent and believe the Gospel’ because of the challenging and offensive nature of the message that is brought to those they’re sent.
But compromise through fear is denial and, rather, we are to fear God and serve Him, acknowledging and confessing His name before all men, not like Peter who, confronted by a situation of great personal danger, denied Him, even putting himself under oath to say that he had nothing to do with Him (Mtw 26:69-75, II Tim 2:12).
Finally, we should notice that what happens on earth has heavenly consequences. Both acknowledgement and denial are mirrored in Jesus doing the same with the believer’s name before the presence of God the Father.
We shouldn’t, perhaps, think of this as literal but as a picture which shows the implications of our actions. Jesus is willing to be associated with those who choose to associate themselves with Him - but those who shrink back from public confession receive no acceptance in the presence of God and this can be applied not only to Mission but to the wider context of all men and women who seek to gain acceptance with God - it’s solely on the basis of their acknowledgement of Jesus Christ.
Even though Jesus has gone to the masses with His message and chosen some very peculiar oddballs that you and I would never have chosen to head up a mission to Israel (Peter the fisherman and Matthew the tax collector, for instance - what do they know about caring for people? One catches fish and the other is ostracised by society!), acceptance has obligations which are seen here in the context of Mission to be primarily confession before men and women.
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