Persecution within the family
Pp Luke 12:51-53
Love for the family
Taking up the cross
Finding one’s life
I have only listed one parallel passage under the header to this passage even though there are numerous places where the thought of the verses comes across. Even in Luke 12:51-53, however, the context is a little different (as it has been for many of the previous passages) and we can’t be sure whether the words were spoken to the disciples (Luke 12:22) or, by implication, had been addressed to the multitudes (Luke 12:54).
What’s important to note here, however, is that Jesus’ statements follow a natural progression of thought. We have previously seen Jesus speak about persecution within the family (Mtw 10:21) and here there appears to be one further step which speaks of not just trouble but an open declaration of war!
The words sit well in the context of Jesus’ instructions to the disciples and, as previously mentioned (ad nauseam), there appears no reason to think that they were spoken of at a different time and place and compiled into this narrative by the author of the Gospel.
Persecution within the family
One of those things which has been making an impression on me as I’ve been dealing with Matthew chapter 10 is that Jesus dealt with the subject of division, persecution, hatred and tribulation on numerous occasions in the context of what it meant for the disciples to follow Him - and in contexts which vary wherever we find them occurring in the Gospels.
He also speaks about familial divisions which the message would bring about and the lack of security that followers would experience in even the most highly regarded of relationships that, until that time, could have been pointed to as a demonstration of a reflection of God in society.
We shouldn’t pass on too quickly into more palatable verses where the sick are healed or where Jesus speaks of being accepted unconditionally by the Father unless we make a full acknowledgement that to follow Christ and to seek to do His will was always allied with persecution and tribulation, not universal acceptance and understanding by the masses of people who make up whichever society or nation in which the believer finds himself.
We point today to the family unit as being the foundation upon which God chooses to build society and we attempt to encourage leaders to pass laws which promote family bonds to remain intact so that there might be an attempt to slow down the moral decline we see everywhere around us through broken homes and, perhaps more frightening, broken children who go on from their childhood to not only repeat the mistakes of their parents but to expand upon them.
Active christians in society are important and we shouldn’t forget that such a work can be important in halting moral decay but we should also not miss how Jesus taught the disciples that the preaching of the Gospel and Mission was going to, as a consequence, tear families apart!
Jesus has already spoken (Mtw 10:21) that
‘Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death’
and, just in case one should think that this is going to be a short-lived and local manifestation that will be sorted out in the near future (or just in case you’ve blinked and missed it), Jesus actually announces His mission in the current passage (Mtw 10:35-36) by saying that He’s
‘...come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household’
Not very comfortable words to the preacher who proclaims that only in Christ can families find the cohesion to remain together and to become the reflection of God to society that all other families need to witness! Jesus doesn’t teach that His message will be like some social glue which will bring societies together but that it will divide and bring animosity which will be outworked in persecution against the message and person who proclaims it, creating divisions where there were none before and enhancing ones already there!
Matmor notes that the division between father and son was to
‘...offend against one of the most deep-seated convictions in the minds of Jesus’ hearers’
and that a daughter set against the mother would also chip away at the authority structure within the family where the head of the female household would naturally be the mother. Division between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law is equally a problem for, Matmor again
‘...it would be expected that she would enter fully into her role as a member of her husband’s family and that she would look to her mother-in-law for guidance and affection. To have division here would leave the bride very much alone’
Such division cuts at the very under-pinning fabric of the family’s make-up so that the enemies become those who one would naturally have expected to have been one’s allies (Mtw 10:36).
Jesus’ opening remarks to this section couldn’t be stronger when He says (Mtw 10:34) that the disciples shouldn’t think that He’s
‘...come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’
where the ‘sword’, being a symbol of war and division, is naturally a symbol of the opposite of ‘peace’. To those who have heard the message and have come to believe that Jesus is the only true way to the Father, there is peace with God but war amongst men and women (the people ‘with whom He is pleased’ in Luke 2:14) - but for those who’ve rejected the Gospel message, they will find acceptance to a greater or lesser extent with men and women because their lifestyle will reflect the desires and motives which proliferate in society.
As we come to three specific observations and commands of Jesus in Mtw 10:37-39 which we’ll examine below, we must realise that God’s message will always bring division and persecution even amongst the closest of families because it calls for total submission to the will of God and, therefore, necessarily, the submission of devotion to the family to the cause and will of Christ.
There appears to be almost a direct quotation of Micah 7:5 here, which reads
‘...the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house’
but it’s difficult to see whether this was intended by Jesus or not. The author of Matthew doesn’t prefix Jesus’ words with ‘it is written’ or ‘as the prophets said’ but it’s almost a word for word quote in contrast to the places where he introduces such OT Scriptures which seem to be paraphrases and interpretations!
The context also appears to be different - but not necessarily so - and there appears to be a lot of context applicable especially to the situations into which the NT Church found itself in the first century after Jesus’ ascension back into heaven.
In Micah, we see, perhaps, a total breakdown of society in that there’s war between different parties where even what could once be relied upon has become both dishonest and untruthful. Micah 7:2 summarises the state of the nation when it comments that
‘The godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright among men; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts his brother with a net’
Micah’s only hope (7:7) being to
‘...look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me’
Funnily enough (and it is rather humorous - to me, at least), there’s a direct parallel in the Mishnah here with Jesus’ words in Sotah 9:15 where it’s noted that
‘With the footprints of the Messiah [that is, immediately before Messiah is to come, the following signs will be evident in Israel]...Children shall blame the elders and the elders shall rise up before the children [then follows a quote of Micah 7:6 as justification]...’
so that the thought was not absent from Judaism even though it applied to the time immediately before His coming rather than to the time in which He was to be made known to Israel. The reader is probably wondering why I find this ‘funny’ but, between the two quotations I’ve typed above, one of the other signs mentioned is that
‘The wisdom of the Scribes shall become insipid...and truth shall nowhere be found...’
the identical type of accusation which Jesus levelled at both the scribes and Pharisees. Very strangely, their own proof conspired against them to prove they were living in the times immediately preceding the revealing of the Messiah to Israel!
If the context is meant to be taken from Micah and applied to the situation in Israel at the time of the sending out of the twelve to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom (Mtw 10:5ff), persecution against the Gospel should be seen to come about from men and women who are already warring against one another, the believers being just one more section that they can spend their energies on to oppose (I have previously noted on another web page which deals with Mtw 10:23, however, that the persecution spoken of by Jesus was a relevant warning but that the evidence points towards the truth that, on this missionary journey, the disciples found acceptance in the sight of the people rather than rejection. This wasn’t the case, however, in many of the places to which the Gospel was brought in the Book of Acts after Jesus’ ascension).
In such a society, the message of the cross truly is the only way to bring the people back into trusting relationships and to regenerate society to make it more like the society that they were created to be. But, in such a situation, persecution will inevitably fall upon the missionary who preaches the Gospel of the Kingdom and who demonstrates its power.
Matmor perceptively points out that
‘...the peace [Jesus] came to bring is not simply the absence of strife; it is a peace that means the overcoming of sin and the bringing in of the salvation of God. And that means war with evil and accordingly hostility against those who support the ways of wrong’
and we can see how the message of the Gospel becomes not a point of excitement and enjoyment but of aggression and hurt amongst people who rely upon pleasure and entertainment rather than upon something which costs them very little of their own lifestyle (I recently overheard two workers speaking of their contributions to a Cancer Research charitable organisation and saying that their £2 [$3.20] per month was quite sufficient to give to what they believed in. Their holidays which run into hundreds of pounds per year [if not thousands], their partying and outings to the theatre and the like belittles their professed commitment to their charity. How much offence would be caused by the preaching of the Gospel which demands 100% of a person’s commitment?). Just as believers are to passionately be committed to the message of the Gospel and, therefore, of Christ Himself, so too there will be others who oppose it with equal passion (and there will probably be more of the latter than the former!). In such a situation, Matmor is correct to state that
‘...conflict is inevitable’
Perhaps we should think of such a time as this (outlined in Hosea) as being near and close at hand in Western society as we see the fabric of the old order of tolerance make way for indiscipline and hatred. As more and more sections bite and devour one another for no more good reason than that they want to, we seem to be fast approaching a time where the person who stands up in the midst of men and women to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom will be persecuted and where what little family love and unity which currently exists will be dissolved by the demands of the will of God upon a believer’s life.
Only then, I guess, will we see the truth of Jesus’ words and will find ourselves catapulted back into a similar situation like that of the first century where the established religious authorities persecute those who speak for the God they say they represent and where the people turn against the true messengers of the Gospel because of their testimony to the message of Christ.
Perhaps it will only be in such a situation that the desire of a great many believers’ hearts will find a fulfilment - that is, in revival.
Love for the family
This verse bears similarities to Luke 14:26 which reads
‘If any one comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple’
though Jesus says here that
‘He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me’
The word ‘hatred’ in the Bible often means less than a positive dislike of someone as we would naturally take it to be saying and more like ‘love less than’ which can be seen here (Mattask notes that Luke’s record is ‘...the same saying presented in Semitic fashion. What is in fact a comparison is stated as though it was a contrast’ and Matfran that ‘...Matthew’s version correctly interprets this Semitic idiom’). Although the intensity of the two contrasting loves can be compared to ‘love’ and ‘hate’, what is actually being taught here by Jesus is that He has pre-eminence in everything even to the point of the believer’s obligation to follow Him rather than to do what the family would desire to be done (see Mtw 8:21 also). This was something which Jesus appears to have been acutely aware of in His own life when it came to a choice of heeding the voice of His natural family or of getting on with His call by God to minister to the people of Israel (Mtw 12:46-50), perhaps even His family agreeing with the statements of those who considered Him to be mad (Mark 3:21).
We may think of this expectation of the disciple as surprising, but even the Mishnah elevates the importance of the teacher over that of the natural father in Baba Metzia 2:11 where, if a son has two equal obligations towards both his father and his (spiritual) teacher, his obligation towards the latter was to take priority. Jesus’ words, therefore, are not unusual in what they’re stating but the severity of them does appear to be dissimilar.
Jesus’ position, though, is a natural consequence of the previous teaching - rather, Mtw 10:37 is the foundational principle upon which the division which will split up the family can be seen to be the consequence.
I dealt with Luke 14:26 in my notes on Haggai under the heading ‘Forsake Relationships’ and I see no reason not to repeat here what I wrote there (with a few minor alterations) as it applies equally well to the verse under discussion. I noted there that the implications of such a statement implied that
‘...no relationship must grow to become more important than the one between God and ourselves.
‘In recent years, we have sadly justified ourselves in our commitment to the natural family by recourse to other Scriptures and so reduced commitment to God Himself in the process. We can find ample justification to spend time in strengthening familial ties in order that we might not disappoint the God who would have us make sure that our families get to know the Gospel and that we cause no offence to them.
‘But our problem has been one of time for, so committed can we become to our natural relations that we forget that commitment to God should be first and foremost, and we often consign believers who have sold themselves out for God to do His will, or who have put to one side the desire to either marry or to have children, into a pigeon hole that we label “second class christians” because their experience contradicts our own.
‘But, at the end of the day, it’s not those who justify their own appetites who are justified before God but those who forsake them and follow Him...
‘...And, of course, it sounds much better to mask our hypocrisy with a pseudo-spiritual statement than be up front and honest about it, doesn’t it?’
These words become all the more relevant when we approach the context of Jesus’ words here in Mtw 10:37 for Jesus has stated specifically that the Gospel will divide rather than unite the family and create division and conflict amongst those even of one’s own household who should be able to be relied upon for protection (Mtw 10:21,35-36).
I noted previously that Jesus is the one who ties warring families together if they all turn to Him, but the call which Jesus puts upon a believer’s life is such that it will not sit easily with people who would oppose the message. Therefore, perhaps we should expect families to become all the more divided when Jesus comes by His presence into their midst through one of their members?
Certainly, to forsake the call and message of Jesus upon one’s life because of the strong obligation that exists towards members of one’s closest family is to be found ‘unworthy’ of Jesus where the thought is not so much that they have failed to gain acceptance before God through works but that they have failed to realise the implications of God’s prior acceptance of them and the need to put Him above everything else in their life.
Taking up the cross
This verse is again paralleled in Luke and occurs immediately after the preceding one, though Jesus goes on from there to expand upon His theme of the cost of discipleship while Matthew records Him speaking a general principle of losing one’s life in order to find it.
Luke 14:24 says
‘Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me, cannot be my disciple’
whereas here we read Jesus’ words as
‘...he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me’
Both passages are similar and are saying virtually the same thing. This is the first mention of the ‘cross’ in the NT and we should note a few points concerning this word before we proceed.
The Greek word (Strongs Greek number 4716) is traditionally interpreted to mean a cross in various different forms
depending which era or group of people one hails from so that to one the idea is of one wooden stake with a beam placed on top to form a ‘T’ while another would see the beam placed about two thirds up the shaft of the stake making the traditional ‘†’.
Neither of these may actually be correct and, as the Mormons like to point out, the Greek word more rightly means, as Kittels
‘...an upright “stake” such as is used in fences or palisades...It may be a vertical pointed stake, an upright with a cross-beam above it, or a post with an intersecting beam of equal length’
Although this has caused major controversy in the Church in years’ past (and it would probably cause equal controversy if brought to the fore again!), there doesn’t appear to be very much problem with either viewpoint of the shape of the cross unless the shape assumed contradicts that which is determined by the descriptions in Scripture (amongst most historical sources, it’s normally asserted that crucifixion was done by first making the victim carry the cross-beam to the place of crucifixion, pulling away from the simple ‘stake’ theory).
Appeal to Deut 21:22-23 for justification that the instrument of death was merely a common tree (or a stake because a tree has no cross-beam) is inconclusive, however, for the Scripture reads that
‘...if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God...’
where the hanging on the tree was an act which followed the death of the transgressor and wasn’t responsible for it.
But the point surely is that Jesus took the full punishment of our sins while hanging on a wooden structure which we could variously translate as ‘stake’ or ‘cross’ and find justification for! The basis for faith, then, lies not in the shape of the execution structure but in the bodily suffering of spiritual death which came about as the result of other’s personal sin.
To insist on one shape or the other is, sadly, to miss the point of the Gospel.
In the present context, the shape, of course, isn’t important and Jesus uses the ‘cross’ (the word I’ll use without implying the shape, okay?!) to bring to remembrance the Roman form of execution which was being used in the land at that time and which, without going in to details, was one of the most barbaric forms of death ever invented with the victim often lasting for days hanging in physical agony before they breathed their last.
But we should be careful not to use the context of the crucifixion of Christ to colour our interpretation of this verse, so far as it is away from that unique event. The disciples couldn’t possibly have understood that, in literal reality, it would be for them ‘like teacher, like disciple’ but, after the crucifixion, Jesus’ words would have hit home with even more relevance.
But, for now, Jesus uses the common enough Roman form of execution to bring home an important principle to the disciples about to be sent on Mission.
Mattask sees the mention of the cross as indicating that the disciple sent on Mission must
‘...be willing to suffer a martyr’s death...’
but this seems to pull away from the clear context of the preceding verses where the persecution of the family has been taught. Therefore, it seems best to understand Mtw 10:38 in the context of the family as well and to see it being spoken in the sense of enduring shame from members of their own household as it says of Jesus in Heb 12:2 that
‘...for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God’
Being disowned by one’s own family in that society was a shameful thing (as it is amongst many religions of the world who may even perform a mock burial when a member of their household converts to Christianity to show that the familial relationship is completely annulled and broken) and it’s this, rather than physical martyrdom, which appears to be the weight of Jesus’ words.
Not only was it a shameful thing for the family to have a member of its household crucified (though, amongst the zealous, to be crucified for trying to overthrow Rome may well have been thought of as a glorious event worthy of full honour!) but victims were often stripped naked when crucified, the natural shame which could be implied in the verse from Hebrews previously quoted.
The disowning of the family naturally meant relative death (excuse the pun!), for the believer would have become separated from them as any outsider would have been - indeed, even worse than an outsider would have been, for dissociation would take the form of persecution and abandonment amongst the society.
The disciple has no easy choice to make, therefore, but Jesus doesn’t present them with any alternatives! This certainly paves the way for the following verse which speaks of death and life and is probably best understood as being explained by it.
Finding one’s life
That this verse can be used in other contexts is evident from a number of other Scriptures where something similar to Jesus’ words here are recorded (Mtw 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 17:33, John 12:25) but that shouldn’t detract us away from attempting an interpretation in context and, specifically, with the words of Jesus still ringing in our ears from the start of Mtw 10:34.
This verse (along with 10:38) sits as the natural consequence of Jesus’ prior teaching on the disciple’s relationship to his family and it’s as applied to the family that we should find its interpretation.
Therefore, just as we noted above that Mtw 10:38 needs to be best understood in the context of the estrangement from one’s own family that discipleship is likely to bring - that is, that one must expect to die to certain relationships and be disowned by people who one regards as one’s nearest relatives and from which one expects special loyalty.
Travelling a common path, then, this verse speaks of the necessity to forsake our own desires and targets for the sake of finding our lives in doing the will of God. The believer cannot expect that, in maintaining the status quo within the family by a refusal to acknowledge Christ and serve Him, he will achieve life with God, for the demands upon him conflict with the will of men and women who have set themselves opposed to the message of the Gospel. Rather, self-denial is what’s needed in our dealings with our own family so that the will of Christ is put first above everything else.
This may not be very popular to a great many believers who have pushed themselves into a total commitment to their families, but Jesus’ words are plain here - Mission must not be hindered by a refusal to leave behind one’s family to be obedient to the call of God.
The cross of Mtw 10:38 is the natural context where a believer may think of himself as having lost his life by being sentenced to death even though his own desires may find justification for attempting to avoid the possibility of familial crucifixion. But to be sentenced to estrangement and alienation by the family - to lose one’s former life, so to speak - is the very way in which life with God is found when the believer is being obedient to the voice of God and not simply pleasing himself. Notice Jesus’ clarifying clause ‘for My sake’ which defines that it isn’t any old denial which is important but that which comes about because of a relationship with and call of Jesus.
Only by taking up the cross and allowing the old life to be killed will he find life with God. Radical though Jesus’ teaching may be, there is nothing which can replace direct obedience to God’s requirements even though the consequences of such an action may put us into situations which we would naturally run from.
Knox, quoted by Mattask, comments that the first phrase of Mtw 10:39 means that the disciple
‘...secures his life by denying his faith under persecution or otherwise making terms with the world at the expense of his own conscience’
and this is all the more applicable to the family situation though we could, with some justification, apply it to the believer in the world. The context is again Mission, however, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that (as I keep repeating!) which places family division as being a result of the personal call to Mission by Jesus and as a result of the outworking of the preaching of the Gospel as men and women come to ally themselves with the message.
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