Instructions for Apostles - III
16"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
21"Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes."
Jesus continues His instructions to the apostles for their missionary journey. Actually, it seems that most of the instructions in this section are given to equip them for their future work in sharing the Gospel to the whole world. "It was His way on solemn occasions, to speak as a prophet, who in the present saw the future, and from small beginnings looked forward to great ultimate issues" [Bruce, in Broadus, 224]. This section deals with the persecution that they will experience in doing the Lord’s work.
Jesus begins: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (vs. 16). Now, it seems strange that our Shepherd—our Good Shepherd—would send His own apostles "out like sheep among wolves." But this He does. And there really is no other choice for those who do the Lord’s work, but to be "sheep among wolves." The world, sadly, is largely hostile to those who, in love, bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To be "sheep among wolves" is the price that ministers of the Gospel pay, but the reward far outweighs any trouble we may face in this world. The reward is no less than the Kingdom of Heaven. As Jesus promised us: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matt. 5:10).
Note that Jesus was always forthright with His followers. He did not tell them that all in the world would be perfect after they chose to follow Him. He was upfront with them, always letting them know the hazards of what they were getting into. This is the honesty of Christianity and the Word of God. It is true. It tells us plainly that "in this world [we] will have trouble" (John 16:33). As a Christian, you will not win any popularity contests.
Given that the apostles will be "sheep among wolves", Jesus gives advice on how to survive: "Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (vs. 16). Jesus advises shrewdness with innocence. We as Christians are not to throw away our common sense, are not to abandon our brains. Rather, we are to act shrewdly. But our shrewdness is not to be a cunning shrewdness; it is to be a just, godly, innocent shrewdness.
Jesus speaks next more specifically to the apostles about what will happen to them as they preach the Gospel: "On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (vss. 18–19). Here we see pretty clearly that Jesus was speaking not of just the immediate missionary journey of the apostles (for we have no evidence that these things happened at that time), but He was looking ahead, speaking to apostles about what was to happen to them after His death, as these same apostles brought the good news of the Gospel to the world. And indeed, we read in the book of Acts that these exact things did occur. The apostles were arrested, jailed, brought before governors and kings, and spoke the Word of God as given to them by the Holy Spirit. Paul, though not among these twelve apostles, once enumerated what he had suffered, and we can assume that all the apostles suffered similarly. In fact, Paul cited his hardships in the context of proving that he was a true apostle: "Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked" (II Cor. 11:24–27).
Jesus next speaks, in general, of the divisional effect of the truth of God: "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved" (vss. 21–22). I can think of no more extreme a division than when "brother" betrays "brother to death", or "children" have their parents "put to death." Yet this, sadly, is the effect of the Gospel upon some families. In fact, conversion to Christianity, even today, has such an effect on some families, in some parts of the world. Why is this? It is a great mystery as to why conversion to a religion that is based on love for God and love for one another causes such divisions. Jesus does offer some consolation: "…but he who stands firm to the end will be saved" (vs. 22). Salvation and entrance into the kingdom of God is our ultimate destiny. We can take heart in this, no matter what our worldly circumstances be.
Jesus next speaks to the apostles concerning persecution they may experience during the particular missionary expedition that they were about to embark upon: "When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes" (vs. 23). Because this particular journey of theirs was to be short, Jesus tells them not to tarry in places where the Gospel message they are bringing is violently rejected. In fact, He tells them that they would not be able to finish "going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." I believe that some have made this statement out to be more enigmatic than it really is. Some commentators are misled by the phrase, "the Son of Man comes," into thinking that Jesus is referring to the Second Coming, or some other eschatological event. However, Jesus often referred to Himself as "the Son of Man", so I believe that the simplest reading of this passage is the correct interpretation: The apostles will not be able to finish going through the cities of Israel on this particular journey before Jesus summons them to end the missionary journey.