Jesus has just completed his mission-instructions to the twelve apostles and now he warns them of future sufferings. We are not told whether their mission was successful or not, although we do know that the mission of the seventy certainly had some positive results, Lk.10:17. Nonetheless, it is likely that there was opposition to the gospel from the religious authorities. Jesus' warning of future persecution is, of course, not just for the mission of the twelve, but serves as a warning that also applies to the mission of the church today.
v16. The good shepherd sends his sheep into the wolf pack. To survive the disciples will need to be "shrewd" (prudent) and "innocent". Of themselves, prudence becomes cunning, and innocence becomes naivete; Jesus calls for balance. v17. Jesus' warning is to Jewish believers who face persecution in their local synagogue. As members of the synagogue they will find themselves handed over for flogging because of their witness to Christ. The reference to "their" synagogue does not mean that Matthew (nor Jesus) sees himself outside of the Jewish community; Jesus speaks as a prophet addressing the apostate.
v18. Persecution will also come from Gentile authorities as the gospel moves from Israel to the Gentile community. Because the disciples are followers of Christ they can expect persecution, but legal action against them will give them the opportunity to witness "to governors and kings, and to other Gentiles."
v19-20. When "they" (opponents in general, but certainly including Jewish leaders) "hand you over" (better than "arrest") the Holy Spirit will aid the disciple's testimony. Roman officials were extremely overbearing and defendants would often employ orator-lawyers to speak for them. Believers can look to the Spirit to support their testimony, although obviously not speak instead of them.
v21. The witness of Christ will bring division and thus persecution, not only within society at large, but also within families.
v22. "All people", in the sense of all without distinction (race, religion...), will react with hostility to those who bear witness. The cause of this hostility is "because of me", while in 5:10 it is "because of righteousness." A Christ-like life may prompt aggression (a guilt-ridden person will often act with aggression in the face of an exemplary life), as may a belief in Christ for salvation (truth often generates anger in the one who lives a lie). Inward peace, ours by grace through faith, will also prompt a bitter response, especially from those weighed down by guilt. In the face of persecution the believer must patiently endure "to the end" (probably to the end of their life rather than to the end of the age). They endure in their faith and so stand the "test/trial." The martyrs claimed that salvation belonged only to those who refused to pour out a libation to Caesar. Yet, although their no-compromise stance is to be applauded, it is faith that saves, not works.
v23. Jesus encourages his disciples to press on in the face of persecution with the knowledge that the day of judgment is at hand. Sinful humanity has faced many significant moments of divine judgment, a "coming", a moment of divine presence. Such events, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, serve as a prelude to the final judgment at the end of the age. The "coming" that Jesus refers to here is probably the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Therefore, the disciples need to get a wiggle on; the time is short.
v24-25. These two sayings were commonly used in the first century and Jesus uses them here to make the point that his disciples should not be surprised if they suffer persecution. Jesus had a rough time of it and so will they. They will be called Beelzebub ("The Lord of the Flies" - a sarcastic version of Prince Baal [Beelzeboul]). They will be called children of Satan, just as Jesus was sometimes viewed as one of Satan's minions.
Given the history of Christian persecution, we are lucky if we find ourselves in a country which at least tolerates religious freedom. The persecution most of us experience in the West is of a minor sort, certainly nothing to be compared with the horrors of the past. Yet, Christianity is increasingly facing opposition in the West, both from the growing influence of secular humanism and Islamic immigration. Christians now find that once held Biblical truths are not just opposed, but are aggressively denounced. The church's stance on homosexual sex, gay marriage and the like, faces a bumpy future. Then there is the growing influence of Islam in the West, even the demand for Sharia law by fundamentalist Muslims.
Jesus' reminds his disciples that they can expect a bit of flak for being his followers. He didn't get off easily, and so they can expect the same treatment. In the face of these difficulties they should continue to witness, to give testimony to Christ - proclaim the gospel. Although our circumstances are different, the general principle applies. In the face of all our difficulties let us use every opportunity to make the gospel known.
There is a range of factors that can prompt reaction to our person and our faith. Bad habits, a holier than thou attitude, a sensorial self-righteous attitude.... all can produce a reaction to the gospel, which is in reality a reaction to personal selfishness. A genuine reaction to the gospel is more likely to come from the glare of truth and love. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn't like it. Truth can expose the stupidity of a person's cherished ideas and leave them bitter and reactive. Love can expose their cold heart, or twisted guilt. A person is then tempted to destroy the source of their pain - a word of bitterness will often do the trick. In fact, it is often the case that a truly godly person quickly becomes the focus of human vindictiveness.
The worst most of us will have to face is a smidgen of sarcasm, the slur that we follow the lord of the flies, the lord of the dung heap. Still, if Jesus was rejected and slandered then we can expect similar treatment. What we need to remember is that the time is short, the end is near, and so let us put aside our fear and work to make the gospel known throughout God's broken world.
Discuss how a person, who possesses a gracious loving heart, may find themselves the butt of vicious slander. Why?