Preparing for Persecution (Matthew 10:16-25)By
Yesterday I argued that we are to expect persecution because the environment we have been sent into is one of hostility (Matthew 10:16). If we are to expect persecution, then we should prepare ourselves for it. But how? In a day in which some young “radical” Christians are prepared to charge the gates of hell with water pistols or be “dropped” into Al Quaeda camps with nothing but a Bible, Jesus offers some surprising instructions.
Preparing for Persecution
Be wise and full of integrity (Matthew 10:16)! Jesus commands his followers to be “wise as serpents” and “innocent as doves.” Snakes are crafty, cunning, even wise. When a snake coils up and prepares to strike, it is because it senses a threat. A snake’s “instinct is one of self-preservation” (France, Matthew, 390). Yet, this command to be “shrewd” is tempered by the next command to be innocent like doves. Doves were considered pure animals for a variety of reasons. So then, like snakes we are to wisely avoid confrontation, not foolishly seeking death; but like doves, we are to be pure in our mission efforts and deal with our opponents with integrity.
John Nolland in his commentary on Matthew captures this well (pg. 423-24): “The wisdom called for from the disciples will involve anticipating danger and avoiding it whenever possible, but not in such a way as to undercut their mission priorities. The innocence called for will involve a consistent integrity that is prepared to suffer rather than compromise and which is careful to give no grounds for legitimate legal objection to the action of the disciples.” In other words, to be wise and full of integrity is a call to anticipate danger but avoid it whenever possible without compromising the mission.
The best example I have witnessed of such shrewdness that is full of integrity has been among our Cuban brothers. Those brothers whom I have had the privilege to know are humble men who navigate through the territory of a government that is hostile to the gospel. Sure, the government wants to put on a face of religious freedom to the world, but the reality is that local governing officials can make it difficult for local church leaders and churches. Our Cuban brothers are faithful to King Jesus, while also submitting to the governing authorities as appropriate. One example of the shrewdness that Jesus calls us to was when the government demanded that there be no new building of churches. The brothers submitted to that government demand. Yet, rather than complain about this circumstance, pastors continued the mission by spreading the gospel through house churches. Thus, a wide-spread house church movement has taken place on the island nation because our Cuban brothers were as shrewed as snakes and as innocent as doves.
I have learned much from our Cuban brothers. Whenever we travel there, they help us obtain religious visas from their government so that our visit is recorded and legal. Additionally, we also make sure that our government knows of our visits. We want to be above reproach, submitting to both governments as appropriate, so as to provide a faithful and consistent witness to the governing authorities there and here. Unfortunately, I’ve run into Christian groups from the United States seeking to minister on the island while violating the laws of both the Cuban government and ours. I don’t think that is either wise or innocent. It provides a terrible witness and compromises the mission.
Be on the lookout for hostile people (10:17-18, 21-22)
Even when we submit to governing authorities, however, it doesn’t meant that it will always work out as we had hoped. Jesus reminds his followers that we are continually to be on the lookout for those who would want to do us harm. It is possible that some of us will be handed over to “religious” authorities, should such exist (10:17). In Cuba, for example, the Communist government has a religious affairs office through which all religious visas must be approved. Technically, they are governing authorities with oversight of religious activity.
It is possible that some of us will be brought before governing authorities (10:18). Once, while on one of my early visits to Cuba, I was given a citation to appear before officials at the department of immigration. Much to my surprise, it was a department run by the military. I first appeared before an enlisted official before finally ending up in a Lieutenant Colonel’s office with our entire team. Never once did I have to face fear of imprisonment or life. The conversations were cordial and calm without any threats; it was merely a meeting to intimidate our team by informing us as to what we were permitted to do and not do. However, I have to confess that I failed in that instance to take advantage of the opportunity to give testimony to our Lord.
Sadly, there may be instances when even those closest to us may turn against us and turn us over to officials for punishment (10:21). The reality is that because we declare allegiance to King Jesus, all will hate us (10:22; cf. John 15:18-26). Nevertheless, we have the assurance that those who endure to the end will be saved (10:22).
When we understand our mission and the hostility of the environment into which we are sent, we will not only expect persecution, we will prepare for it. As we prepare to face hostility in this world because of our allegiance to King Jesus, may we continually walk in wisdom and integrity so that we may know how to respond when the time comes.