(This is from a message that was originally preached on Advent Sunday, some years ago.)
In this text, our Lord having given the apostles their mission (to herald the nearness of the kingdom in word and works), now follows this up with two sets of promises. One set of promises has to do with the rigors of following Christ. The other set of promises has to do with the rewards of following Christ. These two sets of promises are intimately related, as can be seen in the text itself. For in the text, they are intertwined. Our Lord begins with the rigors of following him in verses 16-25, followed by the promise of reward in verses 26-33, followed again with a reminder of the cost of discipleship (its rigors) in verses 34- 39, followed by a final encouragement in a promise of blessing upon those who follow Christ (its rewards) in verses 40-42.
You cannot have one without the other, according to our Lord. For the promises of blessing and reward go to those who endure the persecution that is sure to come to those who bring the gospel into the world. “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (22). On the other hand, those who are persecuted for Christ are sure to inherit the reward (cf. Mt. 5:10-12).
Now some may argue that this text was only meant for the apostles, and that there is an easier road for us today. However, though there are instructions in the text that were meant only for the apostles, we have already seen that this is not true of everything here. There are principles that still apply beyond that specific situation. Moreover our Lord’s words indicate that there is much that belongs not just to the Twelve but to everyone who takes the name of a disciple of Christ. The key text here is found in verses 24-25: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” In other words, if you are a disciple of Christ – which every Christian claims to be – or if you are a member of his household – which, again, every Christian claims to be – then these words apply to you.
You see it also in the language of verses 37-39: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” It’s obvious that this applies to everyone. The clear teaching of these words is that you cannot claim to belong to Jesus Christ if you are not also willing to put him above everyone and everything else. A Christian is someone who can say with the apostle Paul, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
When our Lord says that only those who abandon the flesh and take up the cross are worthy of him, we should be careful that we don’t read this in a way that contradicts his own words and the words of his apostles. He is not saying that we make ourselves worthy in the sense of merit by our works. This is not his point. Rather, his point is that when we profess to his disciples, we are saying that we are following him, which would be a lie if we did not live like him; we would be unworthy to make such a profession if that were the case. The disciple is supposed to be like his teacher. If he is not, he is not worthy to be called a disciple.
What then does it mean to live like Christ? It means that we, like our Lord, are willing to go into the world to shine the light of the gospel and that we are willing to endure persecution as we shine that light. Today is Advent Sunday. On this day, the Christian church has traditionally begun to look forward to the celebration of the coming of our Lord into the world. Our text has something to say to that. It tells us that the real way to celebrate the advent of our Lord is to follow him into the world, no matter the cost. That is what our Lord did. He came unto his own and his own received him not. He was despised and rejected of men. It was not because he went out of his way to cause offense or to be offensive. It was simply because he bore witness to the truth. (In the same way, we are not to go looking for persecution – see verses 18 and 23. The wisdom of a serpent surely involves being able to differentiate between boldness and rashness. And the disciples were told to flee persecution whenever possible.) The disciple is not above his master.
However, you and I are not going to follow Christ if we are not very clear on two things. First, if we are unclear as to the demands of Christian discipleship, then we are not going to follow Christ into a hateful world. If we think that to be a Christian means to live a happy and worry-free life, then we are not going to be like the Master. If we have bought into the version of Christianity that is almost indistinguishable from what has often been called the “American Dream,” then we are not going to follow our Lord into the world. I am glad that we do not serve a Master who hides all the unsavory details in the fine print. Rather, he comes right out and tells his followers frankly that they will be persecuted. They will be hated of all men, and they will be despised even by the closest members of their families. That’s the reality. And it didn’t stop with the Twelve. Later, the apostle Paul told the first century believers that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Acts 14:22). It’s true today.
But even if we are clear on that matter, we are not going to follow Christ into the world if we are not also clear as to the promises that belong to those who persevere to the end. It takes hope to endure tribulation, but hope doesn’t appear in a vacuum. It is founded on one’s confidence in the promises of God. If you don’t believe it is “worth it” you are not going to endure, and that is where the promises of God come in. They are given to help us see that “it will be worth it all when we see Jesus.”
However, God’s promises of reward come in two forms. One form is the reward of blessing. Endure to the end and you will be saved (22). The other form is the reward of judgment. Fear him who is able to cast body and soul in hell (28). Though there are some who think the latter form is too harsh for believers, we need to note that our Lord here is not talking to the indiscriminant masses but to the inner circle of disciples. If you go to the book of Hebrews, addressed to professing Christians, you will find there both forms of promise, the promise of blessing and the promise of judgment. This tells me that we need to hear both. We need to remember not only the blessing that comes with faithfulness but also the curse that comes with unfaithfulness.
That does not mean that a true believer can fall from grace. But the warnings are true and function as one of God’s means to help the believer to persevere. We need both fear and faith to persevere, and our Lord points the way to both in his words to the Twelve, and through them, to us.
However, there is a good fear and there is a bad fear. Fear is good when it is directed toward God. But it is bad when it is directed toward men. So I think the lynchpin of the whole text is verse 26: “So have no fear of them” (contrast with verse 28!). Note the word “so” (or, “therefore” in the KJV – oun in the Gk). I think the connection here is that the things that our Lord mentions in verses 16-25 are precisely the sort of things that would cause a person to fear and not hope and not persevere. In other words, I think the main reason our Lord says the things he does to his disciples in the following verses is to keep them from sinful fear. He doesn’t want us to fear losing our earthly comforts and security and reputation or even our lives. And so he reminds us that if this does happen to us, (1) it is not a bad thing, because that’s part of what it means to follow Christ, and (2) it’s okay to lose these things now because what’s in store for the believer is so much better than anything this world can give you anyway.
So what I want to do in the remaining part of this message is to look at the promises of rigor and reward, of hardship and hope. We begin, as our Lord did, with the promise of persecution.
The Promise of Persecution (16-25)
Our Lord begins by telling his disciples that he is sending his disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves (16). Wolves are not the friend of sheep. They eat them. Jesus is not sending out his disciples into an understanding world. Rather, he is sending them out into a very hostile environment. The world is not going to be okay with the gospel if you just present it in just the right way. On the contrary, the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18). They hate it because it is utterly incompatible with a life lived under the dominion of sin and Satan. Our Lord’s commentary on this is given in John 3:19-20: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
For this reason, they are to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The Christian is like a soldier in the middle of a mine field. You don’t navigate a mine field by blundering across; you carefully plan each step. Our Lord is telling us that we need to be aware that we are in hostile territory. We are to “beware of men,” as he puts it in the next verse. (This is just as true in the West as it is elsewhere, though I think we are just beginning to realize that.)
A lot of Christians over the years have probably brought persecution upon themselves needlessly because they didn’t heed this verse. Now this verse is not an excuse to not witness, but it does point to the fact that we have to take into consideration the context in which we are speaking the gospel. Though the gospel doesn’t change, the context in which it is spoken does, and we have to be sensitive to that. Take a missionary in a Muslim country. If he goes out into the streets proclaiming that Allah is a false god and the Muslim faith is a false faith, he is probably not going to last that long. He may be praised for his “courage” but such courage often does little to advance the cause of the gospel. He has to be wise as a serpent.
But of course being wise as a serpent needs to be balanced with being innocent (harmless) as a dove. If you are the former without also being the latter, you will just end up being crafty and manipulative. We need to remember that all that we do is for the salvation of souls. It is not for ourselves but for others that we live this way. I think this attitude is illustrated well in the apostle Paul, who said that to Jews he became as a Jew, and to the Greeks he became a Greek, that he might win all men (1 Cor. 9:20-23). He was being wise as a serpent. But Paul didn’t do this to make things easier on himself; rather, in doing this he had made himself a servant to all (I Cor. 9:19). He was being innocent as a dove.
Next, our Lord tells the disciples how this persecution is going to manifest itself, where the wolves are going to be. Short answer: they are everywhere. First, they can expect persecution from the religious authorities: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in the synagogues” (17). Then they can expect persecution from the civil authorities: “And you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (18). What’s interesting about this verse is that our Lord is basically saying that though we are persecuted for our witness, this will just make a way for more witness. Paul would never have been able to present the gospel to the Roman emperor if he had not been arrested and imprisoned for being a follower of Jesus. The gospel was spread from Jerusalem precisely because of the persecution that started there (cf. Acts 8:1,4). We need to remember that what may look to us like a setback for the gospel is not always a setback because God is still in control.
So even as our Lord is warning them about persecution he is already beginning to speak words of comfort (note the words “do not be anxious” in verse 19). God will be with them, and no clearer is this than the fact that their testimony to their persecutors will be inspired by the Spirit of God (19-20), a fact which has been demonstrated over and over again in the history of the church, especially by its martyrs.
But that is not all: in some sense, worse is to come. It is bad enough to be rejected by your country, but to be rejected by your family has to be worse. But that is what our Lord says will happen (21). It is all summed up in the words of verse 22: “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Of course this does not mean “all without exception” (for obviously other disciples are excluded) but “all without distinction.” You will be hated by people of every category, at every level of society, says our Lord. They will be harried all over the land (23). But this should not surprise them: it was exactly what had happed to him.
Which is why he says in verses 24-25 that we should expect this to happen if we are his disciples. Note that in verse 22, the persecution does not (should not) happen because of our personality or our bad deeds, but rather “for my name’s sake.” If you bear his name you will also bear his scars (Gal. 6:17). If you want him to give you a crown you must first carry a cross.
The Promise of Providence (26-33)
But how do you do this? At this point, if we are just looking at this from a human perspective, we are going to fear. Fear does not lead to witness. It leads to paralysis. It leads to despair. It leads to apostasy. When everyone hates you, it’s hard to go on. So our Lord now gives three reasons not to fear men but to persevere in faithfulness to Christ to the very end.
The first reason is given in verses 26-28: we will not fear men when we realize that such fear is misplaced by a faulty view of judgment. We counter the fear of men by the fear of God. For God will hold all men accountable for all their deeds (26). It seems so often that evil men sin with impunity. But it will not be forever. We are to be bold in our witness (27) because there is nothing that men can do to us that is worth abandoning the cause of God and truth (28).
The key verse is verse 28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” We must not only fly to heaven but we must flee from hell. “Flee from the wrath to come” (Mt. 3:7). This is no mantra of a fundamentalist preacher: these were the words of the Son of God. If people no longer believe in hell, it is not because it does not exist. If we believe that Jesus is the Son of God and if Jesus says that there is a hell, and that this hell is a place in which body and soul is destroyed, then we ought to believe it. More than that, we ought to fear it.
People can do some pretty terrible things to the body. The suffering of many believers throughout the ages have been horrific. It is enough to give one pause and to count the cost. In the face of such suffering, is it really worth it to follow Christ? Jesus says that it is, and the reason he says that it is lies in the fact that as bad as the sufferings are that men can inflict upon you, it is not worthy to be compared to the sufferings which shall be revealed in the soul and bodies of those who reject Christ. Jesus put it this way when he described Judas: it would have been better if he had never been born. In other words, no sin is worth it, especially the sin of abandoning the Son of God in the face of persecution.
The reality of heaven means that Romans 8:28 is true for those who believe: all things work together for good to those who love God. There is no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. But the reality of hell means that the opposite is true for those who do not believe: there is no pleasure that hell cannot erase.
Many will say that this is unjust. How can God punish people in this way? How can he everlastingly destroy both body and soul in hell? Surely, they will reason, no sin is worth this kind of punishment. But this kind of reasoning is based on a small view of God and sin. However, it would be better if our reasoning began with God. If our understanding of justice does not match up with his, the odds are rather in favor of the possibility that our understanding of justice is the one that is deficient.
It is a very sobering thought to realize that people just like you and I will experience the unspeakable and terrible finality of the judgment of God in hell. And will we all die and face the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of the life that we have lived. Do you fear men more than God? “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
The second reason is given in verses 29-31: we will not fear men when we find that such fear is replaced by the love of the sovereign God. Since not even a sparrow can fall to the ground apart from the will of our Father, we can be sure that nothing happens to us that does not first come through his loving hands (29). There is not a maverick molecule in the universe. And it’s not as if we have slipped through the cracks. “But even the hairs of your head are numbered” (30). If God is aware of such incidental details of our bodies, surely he is aware of the sufferings that we go through. “Fear not therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows” (31). God loves us, he values us, which is astonishing the more one thinks of it. The God of the universe is on guard over his children. We have nothing to fear: we have the promise of God’s providence.
The third reason is given in verses 32-33: we should not fear men and let that lead us to abandon Christ because Christ is our only hope for eternal life. Whether or not you or I will have access into heaven is solely based on whether or not Christ will acknowledge us before his Father. To hear the words on the Day of Judgment, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” will be the sweetest words we will have ever heard. But on the other hand, to hear, “Depart from me, workers of iniquity,” will be the most dreadful we will have ever heard. But to deny Christ and go on denying him without repentance is to be denied by him. Surely there is nothing that this world can offer us that is worth exchanging for the advocacy of Christ.
By the way, it is impossible to think of anyone less than the Son of God referring to himself in this way. It is another way of saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Emphasizing the Cost and the Rewards of Discipleship (34-42)
In the last two paragraphs, our Lord reemphasizes the points he has already made. We need to hear these truths more than once. In verses 34-39, he returns to the reality of the rigors of following him. He tells us that we need to have a proper view of his mission (34-36) and our mission (37-39). He is the Prince of Peace, but the peace that Jesus has purchased for us in his death is not peace in our time. It is peace with God (Rom. 5:2), a peace that belongs to the age to come. Rather, a cross belongs to this time. Like our Master, we find our life by losing it.
However, we need to constantly be looking to the reward. There is nothing mercenary about looking at the reward if God is the one who has promised it. And he has promised blessings that are staggering in their nature and scope. It is on this note that our Lord ends. God is not stingy in the lavishing of his bounty. He is liberal in the dispensing of his grace. Even a cup of cold water given in the name of Christ for one of his own is noted in God’s eternal book. Just as there is no bad deed that will go unpunished (26-28), even so there is no good deed done from a gracious heart and with gracious motives that will go unrewarded: “Truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (42). The reward is sure, the reward is great. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Post a Comment