Sheep Among Wolves

Jesus gives his disciples some warnings and encouragement.

Written by David Steltz on .

Notes

Introduction

We are continuing in Matthew chapter 10 today.

Over the last two weeks, Mike took us through the first 15 verses of this chapter. This passage is known as the first commissioning, or the first sending out of the twelve disciples, who we now refer to not just as disciples, those who follow, but apostles, those who have been sent out.

In the beginning of Matthew 10 Jesus sends them out with some specific instructions.

  • They are to go only to Jewish towns.
  • They are to do what Jesus has been doing: preaching about the kingdom of heaven and healing people both physically and spiritually.
  • They are to do all of this without taking any monetary compensation for their services.
  • They are to travel very minimally, stay with those who receive them, and move on from those who reject them.

Mike unpacked some of the patterns and nuances of each of those requirements, the things they were told TO do, and told NOT to do, and how ultimately, they were being called to GO and make a difference throughout the towns of Israel.

And it’s clear that the people who encounter the apostles will have different responses, boiling down into two basic categories: they will either accept the apostles, or they will reject the apostles.

And, by extension, that means they will be accepting Jesus or rejecting Jesus, the latter being a grave mistake.

Passage Reading

As we come to today’s passage, Jesus is continuing on this train of thought, and he’s going to expound on some of the responses his disciples can expect, particularly the negative responses.

He’s going to give them some warnings, to prepare them mentally and spiritually for what lies before them. He’s going to say some things that, if I were in their position, would really freak me out! But he’s also going to give them some promises and comforting statements to encourage them.

Let’s read together, Matthew 10 beginning in verse sixteen:

Matthew 10:16–31 CSB
16 “Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, because they will hand you over to local courts and flog you in their synagogues. 18 You will even be brought before governors and kings because of me, to bear witness to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you are to speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour, 20 because it isn’t you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking through you. 21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to another. For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. 24 A disciple is not above his teacher, or a slave above his master. 25 It is enough for a disciple to become like his teacher and a slave like his master. If they called the head of the house ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more the members of his household! 26 “Therefore, don’t be afraid of them, since there is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered and nothing hidden that won’t be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light. What you hear in a whisper, proclaim on the housetops. 28 Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. 30 But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Overall, this passage reads as a warning to Jesus’s disciples, balanced by some encouragement, with some theology sprinkled in. 

We’re going to take it verse by verse and examine each piece of it together.

Animal Metaphors

This warning starts off with two different animal metaphors, in verse sixteen. 

I think these metaphors are still pretty intuitive to us in our culture; they make sense as far as why he would choose each of those animals to get his point across.

But there are a couple things I wanted to point out.

Sheep & Wolves

The first metaphor is that he’s sending them like sheep among wolves!

Remember, in the last chapter, towards the end, we were told this in chapter 9 verse 36 that when Jesus saw the crowds he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.

Now, he’s referring to his disciples as sheep, but they DO have a shepherd, Jesus!

And what good shepherd would send his sheep out among wolves, who would readily stalk and destroy sheep?

Wolves are a fairly common image in the Old Testament for people in authority who prey on the vulnerable rather than act as good shepherds.

Here’s one example, from Ezekiel, in a prophesy against Jerusalem:​

Ezekiel 22:26–27 CSB
26 Her priests do violence to my instruction and profane my holy things. They make no distinction between the holy and the common, and they do not explain the difference between the clean and the unclean. They close their eyes to my Sabbaths, and I am profaned among them. 27 “Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey, shedding blood, and destroying lives in order to make profit dishonestly.

Jesus is making the same insinuation, that his disciples will encounter corrupt and violent authorities within the communities they are being sent to.

And Jesus IS the good shepherd, so he IS concerned for their safety and well-being, while also knowing the importance of his ministry being continued through them.

So, he’s preparing them, not to met corruption and violence with more violence and conspiracies, but to be wise and aware of what they may be walking into.

That’s where the next animals come in:

Serpents & Doves

Serpents and doves.

Now, when we refer to someone as a “snake” it’s generally a very negative connotation, isn’t it?

It means they’re conniving, slimy, a backstabber, a sneak.

Serpents, or snakes, are associated with “shrewdness” or “cunning,” ever since the story of Eden in Genesis:

Genesis 3:1 CSB
1 Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’?”

So, in some ways, the image of a serpent would have negative connotations in Jewish culture, too, however it wasn’t all negative.

In fact, some of the most highly esteemed members of God’s family of spiritual beings are referred to as “Seraphim,” which roughly translated means “Fiery serpents.”

I won’t get too deep into the imagery of serpents, other than to say we certainly don’t condone snake handling as a kind of spiritual practice. However, the image of a serpent is not always inherently evil, either. 

In fact, Moses uses an image of a serpent in the wilderness as an image of the messiah to come!

This does not mean that Jesus is being likened to the serpent in the garden of Eden, rather that serpents can be used to represent a variety of different concepts.

The devil is referred to as a roaring Lion, and Jesus is referred to as the Lion of Judah…again, that doesn’t mean Jesus and the Devil are the same, rather that lions have different traits that can be used in different contexts.

In the context of this passage, the character trait Jesus is focusing on is “shrewdness” or “prudence,” in a clearly positive, innocent context.

Snakes are known for running away quickly when they sense danger. Jesus accused the pharisees of being like vipers fleeing the coming wrath, rather than facing their sin and offering repentance.

Here, Jesus is advising his disciples to know when they should flee from wolves, or when to stay and preach.

And to make the point clear, the image of the serpent is balanced out by his command to be like “doves.” 

Doves are a symbol of purity, holiness, and humility.

Jesus is not arming his sheep to go to war with the wolves, but telling them to be alert, and avoid danger if possible. 

Paul spoke to this balance in Romans:

Romans 16:19 CSB
19 The report of your obedience has reached everyone. Therefore I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise about what is good, and yet innocent about what is evil.

Jesus wants his followers, including us, to be astute, but not deceitful. Clever, but not conniving. Bold, but not foolish.

Who are “They?”

Alright, on to the next verse. Verse seventeen begins by continuing the warning: “Beware of them.” We know he’s referring to the wolves, but who exactly are they?

He says:

Matthew 10:17–18 CSB
17 Beware of them, because they will hand you over to local courts and flog you in their synagogues. 18 You will even be brought before governors and kings because of me, to bear witness to them and to the Gentiles.

SO, who are “they?”

Essentially, authorities at every level. In our context, it would be similar to saying you’re going to have people out to get you at the county level, the state level, and even the federal level.

Sanhedrin (Local/Jewish Courts)

He mentions the “local courts and synagogues.” That would be the Sanhedrin, a council of the Jewish elite. The ones with local, Jewish authority.

Governors and Kings (Foreign Courts)

But he also mentions governors and kings. This means the involvement of foreign authorities and jurisdictions…higher courts of even greater power.

Future Apostle Paul!

If you think about it, “they” would include even the future apostle Paul!

And, if you’ll allow me to look ahead in the story for a bit, we can see how this prediction Jesus made was spot-on. This is a bit of a sidetrack, but I think it’s really cool to see how Jesus’s statements play out exactly as he said, and then one of the oppressors comes full circle to become a Jesus follower himself!

In Acts, we can see how the apostles were indeed in and out of prison several times and brought to court for various reasons. In Acts chapter five, we get a really entertaining narrative in which the high priest and the Sadducees arrest the apostles and put them in jail, but an angel comes and somehow sneaks them out at night so they can continue teaching in the temple the next day.

Meanwhile, the high priest convenes the Sanhedrin, the full council of the Israelites, and sends orders to have the apostles brought to them from the jail. Of course, they don’t find them:

Acts 5:23 CSB
23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing in front of the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.”

They’re obviously baffled, and some really interesting discourse ensues, but eventually they find them teaching in the Temple and drag them back in before the Sanhedrin. Thanks to one outstanding and shrewd member of this council, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, they decide not to kill the apostles, just to flog them:

Acts 5:40–42 CSB
40 After they called in the apostles and had them flogged, they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them. 41 Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be treated shamefully on behalf of the Name. 42 Every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

This is exactly what Jesus said would happen in Matthew 10, and they are STOKED because this means they’re on the right track! They figure they must be doing something right in order to be treated the same way Jesus was for proclaiming the same message Jesus did.

This story is even more interesting when you think about the fact that the future apostle Paul could have been at that very council, calling for their death! He certainly would have been actively and violently opposing them at that time. Later on in Acts, he admits to this, in chapter 26 after he has repented.

Paul is now himself a prisoner and brought before the governor Festus, and eventually King Herod Agrippa, because the chief priests and leaders of the Jews were plotting to kill Paul, beginning with some charges being brought against him. Sound familiar? It’s the same as what they did to Jesus, and he’s literally brought before a governor AND a king, just like Jesus predicted in Matthew 10.

Here’s what Paul says to Herod in Acts 26:

Acts 26:9–11 CSB
9 In fact, I myself was convinced that it was necessary to do many things in opposition to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 I actually did this in Jerusalem, and I locked up many of the saints in prison, since I had received authority for that from the chief priests. When they were put to death, I was in agreement against them. 11 In all the synagogues I often punished them and tried to make them blaspheme. Since I was terribly enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.

And of course this background makes Paul’s conversion story all the more incredible and significant, and demonstrates the truly transformative power of the Messiah.

That’s the power with which Jesus is sending his disciples.

Peaceful Resistance

Ultimately, throughout Acts we see the Apostles’ faithfulness to fulfill the mission given later, as Mike brought up last week, at the end of Matthew, to:

​Matthew 28:19 CSB
19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

The mission is certainly NOT to simply oppose the authorities for opposition’s sake. Jesus did NOT come to overthrow human governments. However, it is not only permissible but necessary to disobey authorities IF, and only if, it is so the message of the gospel is not silenced. And even still, it is a humble, peaceful non-compliance, not violent or boisterous.

Words of the Spirit

Back to our passage, after all of this foreboding warning from Jesus, he offers some encouragement in verses 19-20:

Matthew 10:19–20 CSB
19 But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you are to speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour, 20 because it isn’t you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking through you.

This is familiar concept in the Old Testament, but in relatively rare and isolated situations, where a few select prophets would be filled with the spirit to speak God’s word. Here, Jesus is sending out twelve at once, and eventually the spirit will be given to them permanently and spread to thousands and millions all over the world.

This promise Jesus makes early on here is certainly a comforting one, following the initial warning!

Disruptive Christ

The next statement Jesus makes is not so comforting. He’s back to another warning, and this one just sounds awful, doesn’t it!

Matthew 10:21–22 (CSB)
21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of my name...

Yikes! Family members turning on each other because of Jesus? And everyone hating Jesus’s followers? What’s up with that?

Well, again, as with the resistance from authority, this is NOT a primary goal of spreading the gospel, simply an inevitable result of the disruptive nature of the messiah. By disrupting the forces of sin and death, by overcoming evil with good, his presence is stirring the pot and agitating the forces who would be against him.

This is going to come up again in a few more verses, where he expounds on this idea a bit and explains it, even connecting it to Old Testament prophesies. So, because this idea is fleshed out more later I’ll let you kind of chew on it for a week or two before we continue to unpack it together.

Urgency

Verse 23 is all about urgency:

Matthew 10:23 CSB
23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to another. For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Remember, at this point in his ministry, Jesus is ONLY sending his disciples to the Jews…the towns of Israel. Eventually, this mission will be augmented by the “great commission” to all the nations, but in the meantime, he’s assuring them they won’t run out of Jewish towns to cover, or to escape to when needed.

Students & Teachers

Next, we get this statement about students and teachers:

Matthew 10:24–25 CSB
24 A disciple is not above his teacher, or a slave above his master. 25 It is enough for a disciple to become like his teacher and a slave like his master. If they called the head of the house ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more the members of his household!

Jesus is calling his disciples to imitate him, to be like him, though they will never be equal to him.

Jesus is God. We must never strive to BE God. That is a critical pitfall of mankind. However, we should strive to be LIKE God, in the manner that Jesus revealed to us as the human manifestation of God.

But this also means that, just as Jesus faced opposition and persecution, so must his followers, which is the point he makes in verse 25.

Jesus was accused by the pharisees of acting on behalf of Beelzebul, or being possessed  by Beelzebul, to try to explain why Jesus had authority to cast out demons. Jesus is saying that if he was accused of such a thing, then surely his followers will be too.

Divine Confidence

However, he again follows that up with encouragement!

The idea that Jesus is and always will be greater than any of his followers also means that he is the one who will bear the full weight of sin, and because of him the darkness will ultimately be overcome by light.

Revelation

Matthew 10:26–27 CSB
26 “Therefore, don’t be afraid of them, since there is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered and nothing hidden that won’t be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light. What you hear in a whisper, proclaim on the housetops.

He’s alluding to the full message of the gospel, and the truth that will continue to be revealed about him even after his death and resurrection, all of which has yet to be understood by most. He’s giving them hope, that while much of their message me seem confusing, even to themselves, that truth would ultimately be brought to light.

True Death

Verse 28 continues in a tone of encouragement, though it may also seem rather ominous at the at the same time:

Matthew 10:28 CSB
28 Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

He says “Don’t fear those who kill the body…but DO fear him who can destroy body AND soul...”

Ok…so we should still be afraid, just not of the wolves, but afraid of God?

Remember, Jesus is saying they will be dragged through the courts. But those are only human courts. He wants them to remember that there is only ONE judge in the highest of courts who has the final say. As James puts it:

James 4:12 (CSB)
12 There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy...

As such, there is only ONE judge whose judgement should concern us.

Isaiah speaks to this, in a passage that I think is applicable even taken out of context:

Isaiah 8:12–13 CSB
12 Do not call everything a conspiracy 
that these people say is a conspiracy. 
Do not fear what they fear; 
do not be terrified. 
13 You are to regard only the Lord of Armies as holy. 
Only he should be feared; 
only he should be held in awe.

The writer of Hebrews speaks to the reverence we ought to give to the one who holds this authority, and the terror which should seize the one who faces divine vengeance:

Hebrews 10:29–31 CSB
29 How much worse punishment do you think one will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God, who has regarded as profane the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know the one who has said, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, and again, The Lord will judge his people. 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Whom Shall I Fear?

While all this may at first sound almost menacing, what Jesus says next reveals that this fact, that only God alone truly has authority over life and death, is actually meant to be very comforting.

Matthew 10:29–31 CSB
29 Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. 30 But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Yes, we ALL deserve judgement, the holy vengeance of the pure and living God against whom we have rebelled. And yet, he has continued to repeatedly draw humanity back to him. First with the Jews, who when they kept their covenant with them did enjoy prosperity and protection. But when they failed to bring God’s reconciliation and love to the rest of the world, let alone to each other, what was his next move?

John 3:16 CSB
16 For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

God is merciful and compassionate and treasures his children! Because of this, we have nothing to fear! This has always been God’s nature and his desire, to provide comfort and protection to humans, as we read in the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 51:12–13 CSB
12 I—I am the one who comforts you. Who are you that you should fear humans who die, 
or a son of man who is given up like grass? 
13 But you have forgotten the Lord, your Maker, 
who stretched out the heavens 
and laid the foundations of the earth. 
You are in constant dread all day long 
because of the fury of the oppressor, 
who has set himself to destroy. 
But where is the fury of the oppressor?

David understood this when he had every reason to fear for his life! He writes:

Psalm 27:1–4 CSB
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom should I fear? 
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
whom should I dread? 
2 When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh,
my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell. 
3 Though an army deploys against me, 
my heart will not be afraid; 
though a war breaks out against me, 
I will still be confident. 
4 I have asked one thing from the Lord; 
it is what I desire: 
to dwell in the house of the Lord 
all the days of my life, 
gazing on the beauty of the Lord 
and seeking him in his temple.

If David took this much comfort and confidence in God, how much more comfort and confidence must WE have, now that the messiah has been revealed to us?

Here’s one more passage in Romans that expounds on this concept really well:

​Romans 8:28–39 CSB
28 We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified. 31 What, then, are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He did not even spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything? 33 Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. 34 Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the one who died, but even more, has been raised; he also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. 35 Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: Because of you we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Conclusion

We are made conquerors, not by slaughtering our enemies but by the slaughter of the innocent lamb of God.

I want to read one more passage, from part of the revelation Jesus was alluding to in Matthew 10. The vision of the apostle John, who saw the risen Jesus and the ultimate hope for the future of humanity.

Revelation 5 CSB
1 Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides, sealed with seven seals. 2 I also saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or even to look in it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or even to look in it. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Look, the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” 6 Then I saw one like a slaughtered lamb standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll out of the right hand of the one seated on the throne. 8 When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and golden bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sang a new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slaughtered, and you purchased people for God by your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation. 10 You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign on the earth. 11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels around the throne, and also of the living creatures and of the elders. Their number was countless thousands, plus thousands of thousands. 12 They said with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing! 13 I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea, and everything in them say, Blessing and honor and glory and power be to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever! 14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Jesus became the conquering Lion, the triumphant king, by offering himself as the sacrificial lamb for slaughter. 

And just as he was risen from the grave to eternal life as the king of kings and lord of lords, so we can look to eternity with hope and excitement, because no matter what happens to our bodies in this life, we will rule under him, serving and worshiping him, and not as groveling slaves but as part of his family. As those he calls friends, his brothers and sisters, his beloved bride, his children…in other words, those for whom he has the utmost affection and desire to thrive. 

He came to bring us life, and life abundantly. And just because our ultimate hope is in life eternal, that doesn’t mean we ought to squander this short life we have on earth. No, we should preserve our lives by living wisely, not at the expense of others, but rather so that we may continue to serve others as long as God will allow us to.

Let us reflect on these things as we move into a time of communion, of celebrating the life Jesus has given to us.

The life he that gave to us through his own death and resurrection.

Today, let us ponder with gratitude the sacrifice he made for us, and also ask ourselves whether or not we are willing to follow Jesus, to be fully committed to the mission of spreading the gospel, even if it means a journey of discomfort and persecution. Of truly representing Jesus to the world by being filled with his spirit of love and humility and joy and peace and boldness and gentleness.


Sheep Among Wolves

Join Our Mailing List

North Country Fellowship Church
NCF was started in 1987 to minister to the growing population of Fort Drum and Jefferson County. Located in Carthage, just minutes away from Ft Drum, Lowville and Watertown, it is a blended congregation of local and military folks, single soldiers, young families and grandparents.