If you’ve been with us the past couple of weeks, you’ll know that we’ve been thinking about the theme of persecution.
With a slightly heavy heart, we return to that subject today. I say with a heavy heart, because it’s a risky subject to talk about. If we talk about the possibility that we will be persecuted, there is a danger it generates one of three reactions within us, none of which are welcome. Those are fear, anxiety, and coldness. We might become afraid, we might get worried, or we might lose some of our enthusiasm for the person of Jesus.
The last thing I want to do is to breed any of those reactions. So you’ll be glad to know that Jesus goes on to address exactly these things. How can we be prepared for the reality of persecution, without becoming afraid, worried, or just plain going off things a bit?
Well, let’s let Jesus tell us. I’ve got three headings to give us a handle on this passage.
Fear God, he’s the heavenly judge
First, fear God, he’s the heavenly judge. Fear God, he’s the heavenly judge.
This comes in verses 26 to 28. The main theme here is not being afraid. Verse 26: “So do not be afraid of them.” Verse 28: “Do not be afraid of those…” verse 31: “So don’t be afraid.”
Why not? Because the things Jesus has told the disciples needs to be proclaimed. You cannot keep good news to yourself. Good news is designed to be spread. So, verse 26: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known”
For the time being, it is necessary that Jesus teaches some things to his disciples in private. It’s a word in their shell, whispered into their ear, spoken in the dark. But that is not the way the good news will stay. They will quite literally proclaim it from the roofs. Palestinian houses in this period had flat roofs, which made them double up as the biggest soapboxes you’ve ever seen.
But that proclamation will only happen if they don’t give in to fear. If Christians become afraid of what others might do to them, the first casualty is proclamation. We keep things to ourselves. Withdraw.
So if the good news of Jesus is to be proclaimed and spread, it’s vital we don’t give in to fear.
But some of the realities that we were thinking of last time are just plain frightening. Jesus is warning about such things as being put to death, and betrayed by members of our own families. How can Jesus’ possibly warn us of such thing as and then tell us not to be afraid? How can we not be afraid?
The answer is to find something even bigger to be scared of and be afraid of that.
He is verse 28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
He is talking about God. You didn’t think he was talking about the devil did you? The devil is never credited with that kind of power in the Bible.
Jesus’s point is very simple. The most your persecutors can do is destroy your body. But there is more to you than just your body. You have a soul as well. No human being can touch that. But God can. There is a place called hell, says Jesus, and it is a place where God could totally destroy you – soul and body. Jesus is saying: Remember that there is a judgement. This life is not all there is.
Fear God; he is the heavenly judge.
I don’t know whether you’ve yet seen the latest Jurassic Park film, Jurassic World. It’s vintage Spielberg stuff. There’s one scene where two children are being chased on foot by the most enormous dinosaur. Never mind what dinosaur, that would spoil it. They find themselves on a riverbank, at the top of a cliff, just where the river plunges over a vast waterfall. The drop is massive. They would never normally have done it. But with teeth that size on their tail, they are suddenly not afraid of the waterfall at all. Over they go.
Jumping off a high cliff into a plunge pool below is a terrifying thought. But add a dinosaur into the mix, that is far more frightening, and suddenly they’re not afraid of it at all.
Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna in the early second century. In his eighties, the Roman authorities suddenly decided they wanted him dead. The account of his martyrdom was researched by eyewitnesses, then written as a letter to churches of his day. It is the earliest recorded martyrdom after the New Testament era.
Let’s pick the account up where Polycarp was called upon to worship Caesar as a God, and to renounce his fellow Christians. He refused.
‘But the proconsul said: "I have wild beasts. I shall throw you to them, if you do not change your mind." But he said: "Call them. For repentance from the better to the worse is not permitted us; but it is noble to change from what is evil to what is righteous." And again [he said] to him, "I shall have you consumed with fire, if you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind." But Polycarp said: "The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little; for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that is laid up for the impious. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will."’
Polycarp was more afraid of God’s judgement than he was of the worst the Romans could do to him. So he gladly and bravely went to his death.
Fear God; he is the heavenly judge.
Trust God; he’s your loving Father
Second, trust God; he’s your loving Father. Trust God; he’s your loving Father.
In verses 29 to 31, the picture moves on from God as judge to God as Father.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Jesus used a very similar argument from nature in Matthew chapter 6. Don’t worry about food. Look at the birds: God feeds them. Don’t worry about what you will wear. Look at the flowers: God clothes them. You are so much more valuable than a bird or a wild flower. Of course God will look after you.
It’s similar here. Only Jesus is not talking about food and clothing, but about those who would hurt us, kill us. So he changes the picture. Look at the sparrows. Even their death is in God’s loving care. They are two a penny. You are so precious to God that he knows every single hair on your head. So of course your life is in his hands.
For years nobody knew Inspector Morse’s first name. It was there in the stories, so real Morse fans knew. But it was a well-kept secret that his name was Endeavour. Now, they’ve made a whole new series with that name, featuring the young Morse in his earliest days in the police. Sometimes he gets into scrapes. Sometimes his life is threatened. Sometimes he thinks of resigning. But we all know that he will one day make Inspector and be played by John Thaw. So no matter what difficulties the scriptwriters inflict on him, we know it will end well. They will make things work out for him in the end.
Well, the scriptwriters of Endeavour don’t care for their characters. Not personally. They just wrote them. But our Father in heaven not only writes every detail of our lives, but he cares for us completely. Every detail of our lives, is in his loving hands. Even the occasions when others would hurt us, because we follow the Lord Jesus.
So don’t be anxious, says Jesus. Trust God; he’s your loving Father.
Love Jesus; he’s supremely worthy
And then, third: Love Jesus; he’s supremely worthy. Love Jesus; he’s supremely worthy.
So far, Jesus has been talking about God. God as judge. God as Father.
From verse 32 it becomes more personal. He talks about “me”.
And what Jesus says about himself would have shocked his first hearers, and it shocks many of us today. Verse 34: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” First century Jews expected Jesus to kick out the Romans, and bring a new era of peace to the nation of Israel. And many modern Christians expect following Jesus to bring about peace. A sense of peace, of wellbeing, of harmony on all fronts. Bring Jesus into a situation, and people will get along better.
Well, it’s true that Jesus came as the prince of peace. The angels told the shepherds that Jesus would bring peace on earth. But clearly not the kind of peace where all is calm, instantly and in the here and now. Because here, in Matthew 10, Jesus as he did not come to bring peace. He came to disrupt. He came to turn people against each other. Including, as we’ve seen, those in our families.
Jesus taught us that we are to love our parents, our children, those in our families. And so we are. But the reality is this: if we follow Jesus, that will attract opposition. And sometimes that opposition will be so strident, that it strains those relationships to breaking point. And when that happens, Jesus is quite clear: he is to be our first love.
Jesus then goes on to speak of the need to carry our cross. Verse 38: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus was not referring to the little inconveniences that we all have in life.
Being crucified was not only an extremely painful death; it was a shameful death. And the humiliation began long before you reach the place of your execution. You had to carry the cross been through the streets. The public had come out to be entertained at your expense, and they’re there to jeer, to mock, to laugh.
Jesus was crucified. To be his follower, is to join him on that parade through the streets. To be made a laughing stock for our willingness to identify with Jesus. To be willing to endure physical, or emotional, pain – even death.
And unless we are willing to endure that, Jesus says we are not worthy of him. Jesus is so wonderful, that he deserves all of our loyalty and devotion. To love anything else more than Jesus is to treat him as less than he truly deserves. Far less than he deserves.
We are used to this in our human relationships. When we love someone, we are willing to give things up for them. Picture Jack and Martha. Jack, a young men would go scuba diving every weekend. Until he met Martha, the girl of his dreams. As they got to know one another, it became clear that he would have to choose. It was either Martha, or the scuba diving. To love her, he would need to give her his time. Time he currently spent under water. And more seriously, the diving really worried her. Every Saturday, she worried that there would be some accident. A knock on the door. Someone to tell her that Jack hadn’t come back to the surface.
So Jack makes his decision. He loves Martha. He will marry Martha. And he’ll give up his diving. He loves her more than his scuba diving.
We are used to it with our human relationships. But it also what Jesus asks of us. With one another, we hit limits of what we are willing to give up. But with Jesus, let’s play the Missing Words Round. “Anyone who loves blank more than me is not worthy of me.” Complete the blank. Actually, you can put anything you like in there: it remains true.
I think this is challenging for all of us. We all have things in our lives which we love dearly, and which are good in themselves. Our job. Our family. The homes we live in. Friends.
Jesus is asking us to think: If he asked us to give one of those things up, if we had to let go of them because we belonged to him, would we love those things more than him? He calls us to love him more. He’s worthy of that.
He ends on the positive flipside of all this. In verses 40 to 42, Jesus returns to the 12, and their mission. When somebody does recognise Jesus or his followers, Jesus will personally make sure that they never lose out.
Verse 39: “Whoever finds their life will lose it.” Tried to hold on to the things that you hold dear, and if you let go of Jesus, you’ve lost everything. But then listen to this: “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
Love Jesus; he’s supremely worthy.
All this talk of being ready in case we’re called upon to suffer for knowing and speaking of Jesus, could easily make us fearful, anxious and cold towards him.
But Jesus is telling us about this in advance so that we might not react that way at all: Fearing God, so that we don’t fear what anyone else could do to us; trusting God, knowing that even our persecution is in his loving hands; loving Jesus, all the more for having thought through just how much he deserves to be our highest love.