(Written by Pastor Tim Redfield)
Matthew 10:16-23 – I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 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, 20 for 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. 22 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 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.
It is very interesting to look at Martin Luther’s journey as he became a Lutheran. I know that sounds strange but I am talking about his journey from being a person who trusted in his own works to a genuine Christian who trusted in Jesus for his salvation. When he first started to understand the gospel, he saw that the sale of indulgences was against the gospel message. He posted the 95 Theses because he wanted a scholarly debate about the issue. What he received was a lot of persecution from the Catholic Church. At first Luther was terrified by the response. However, the persecution made him stronger in his faith and pushed him further into God’s Word. Luther was a loyal sheep of Christ who had to deal with some harsh wolves. Matthew 10 encourages us to follow that example of Luther. We are to Be Sheep Among Wolves.
The Reformation and the events of Martin Luther’s life are reminders of what God’s people have to endure in this world. Ever since sin entered the world, the devil has been working to suppress the truth of God’s Word. Satan’s ultimate goal is to drive us away from God and the message of full and free forgiveness found in Jesus. As we look at our text from Matthew, we are reminded that the devil will use persecution of various kinds to try to silence Christians. If Satan can stop the proclamation of the gospel then he accomplishes his goal.
Jesus gives us examples of the various ways that Satan will try to silence the gospel. In Matthew 10, Jesus was preparing the disciples for their mission work. The disciples needed to know these things so that they would be ready to stand up for God. Speaking about the wolves of this world, Jesus says, “They will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings” (Matthew 10:17-18). At times, the governments of this world oppose God’s Word. The disciples experienced this as they were put in prison and told to stop preaching the Word.
In addition to the opposition of governments, Jesus tells them that there would be persecution of a more personal nature. Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 10:21-22). The gospel message has divided families. It is truly sad when parents believe in Jesus and yet their children fall away from the faith. Christian love will urge family members to keep on reaching out with the gospel but there are many sinful human hearts that continue to reject God’s grace.
There are many examples from Scripture and from Reformation history of times when governments persecuted believers. Daniel is one of these examples. Even though Daniel was in captivity in Babylon at that time, he was still living his faith every day. He had been given a position of service to the King. Some of the government officials were jealous of Daniel’s good service to the King so they came up with the decree that if anyone worshipped any God except the King of Babylon, he would be thrown into the lions’ den. Daniel refused to commit idol worship and he stood up for the truth. Just like the decree said, Daniel was thrown to the lions.
Another scriptural example is the Apostle Paul. The Jews hated the fact that Paul was teaching about Jesus and they looked for any opportunity to get rid of him. Paul was put in jail several times. He prevented the Jews from killing him by pointing out that he was a Roman citizen and appealing to Caesar. However this meant that he was imprisoned in the city of Rome. During his first Roman imprisonment, he wasn’t treated harshly. After he was released, the Roman government became more oppressive toward Christianity and when they imprisoned Paul again, he was killed.
Martin Luther had similar experiences. When Luther began to realize the truth of God’s Word he spoke out against what the Church was doing. The Church was suppressing the truths of Scripture. At that time the Catholic Church and the government was essentially the same thing. Sure the Pope and the Emperor were separate people but the Pope did everything in his power to control the Emperor and the government. This meant that when Luther questioned the authority of the Pope, the Pope could use the Emperor to go after Luther. Luther was put on trial several times for his stance on God’s Word. To quote our sermon text, Luther was brought before “local councils, governors, and kings.”
The governments back then did everything they could to try to silence the Word of God. These governments were the wolves that were trying to terrify believers. Today things are different. At least in the United States we are not afraid of being put on trial and punished by our government for our beliefs. That is not to say that things couldn’t change but at least for now this is not the kind of persecution we face. Our persecution is from our personal relationships and culture in general. For example, we might lose relationships because we want to live a life that is morally pure; we might lose a promotion at work because we make worship a priority; we might even lose friendships because we won’t join in sinful talk or actions.
We need to be careful that we don’t hide our faith or even turn our back on our faith out of fear. The wolves of this world are trying to attack our faith. If we give in to a culture that encourages sinful behavior then we are turning our back on God. If we have to confront a family member, a friend, or even a fellow Christian about their sin, then we need to do that rather than being worried about the possibility of a fractured relationship. We are sometimes too worried about how to share our faith. We don’t think that we will say the right thing or we are worried about how people are going to treat us. We make excuses for why we can’t stand up and speak the truth of Scripture. When we think this way we are giving in to the temptations the devil has put in front of us.
We need to resist those temptations. We need to fight against the wolves. The only way we can resist is through faith in Christ. Through that faith we follow the lead of Jesus our Shepherd.
Jesus warned the disciples about the persecution they would face and he also gave them encouragement. When they were brought before governments, Jesus told them that it would be a wonderful opportunity to witness to the truths of the gospel. Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 10:19-20). The comfort that the disciples had and that we have is that God will be with us and he will help us when we are put in a position where we need to defend our faith.
Jesus gives more words of comfort when he says, “He who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). Jesus knows that persecution will be difficult and he knows that the temptation will be there to give up the faith. Some people will sinfully reject the faith when faced with pressure from this world. God however keeps his believers strong in their faith. Those who remain in the faith will inherit the eternal life that Jesus won on the cross. Now, let’s look at the strength that God gave to Daniel, Paul and Martin Luther.
Daniel still had confidence in the Lord as he was faced by those hungry lions. God did not allow those lions to harm Daniel and the King of Babylon actually praised God because of what happened. Daniel had witnessed for the Lord through his own prayer life. We also look at Paul. Paul was put in prison in Rome on two separate occasions. Each time he wrote some of the inspired Epistles that we have in the Bible. He continued to confess his faith and the words he wrote still work in the hearts of many people today.
When Martin Luther was put on trial he was blessed by God with the right words to say. One of his most famous quotes comes from the Diet at the city of Worms. Emperor Charles V had come to this Diet and the representatives from Rome wanted Luther to recant what he had written about the Catholic Church. Luther’s choices were this: either recant and take back what he had said or be excommunicated from the Catholic Church and be considered an outlaw. When questioned, Luther asked if he could think about his response.
The next day Luther said this, “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning – and my conscience is captive to the Word of God – then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”
As members of the Lutheran Church today, we follow in Luther’s footsteps. This means that we hold to the Word of God as the absolute source of truth when it comes to our faith. We look to Jesus Christ just like Luther. Our Lord Jesus shared the truth of the Gospel even though it meant that many people were going to be angry with him and it also meant that he would be put to death because of his message. Our Lord Jesus willingly went to the cross for us. He was strong for all the times that our weakness gives in to the persecution of this world. His forgiveness strengthens us as we continue to live according to his Word.
Jesus’ goal was never to be loved by everyone. His mission was the salvation of souls. We will be hated on account of him by those who do not understand the gospel. When we teach others about sin, they may get upset but we are looking out for their eternal welfare. We are to be wise, innocent, and alert as we take this gospel message to the world. Yes, we will be persecuted and we will endure hardship from those who do not understand Christ. Jesus will be with us. He keeps us strong in the faith and he brings us home to heaven.
When Luther was being persecuted, he was accused of being a heretic. The Church said that Luther was teaching false doctrine. It didn’t take long for Luther to figure out who was actually teaching false doctrine. The Church was pointing people to their own works and they were leading people away from the cross of Christ. Still today we need to watch out for anything that can lead people away from the truth of the gospel. There are still many wolves out there. The lesson we continue to learn from the Reformation is that the truth of the gospel will always be persecuted. We need to hold fast to the word of God and follow the Good Shepherd. Just like Luther, we can cling to our Bible and say, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”