The Disciples Will Face Persecution – Matthew 10:16-23

Mike Wilkins suggested Matthew 10:5-15 are instructions for the short-term mission to the villages of Galilee while 10:16-42 prepares the twelve disciples for their long-term mission in the future (Matthew, 389). This certainly helps with the problem of applying the specifics in 10:5-15 to contemporary ministry. There is a shift from the present to future tense and the ministry envisioned in 10:16-42 does include Gentiles (v. 18). In addition, there is no hint of the kind of persecution described in 10:16-42 in the mission of the Twelve in Galilee.

Flogging Jesus Medieval

On the one hand, this section does describe the dangers faced by the Christian mission both in the earliest chapters of Acts and the mission of Paul in the second half of the book. It is possible to draw analogies to Christian mission at any time in history since those who are doing the ministry of the Gospel often face resistance and persecution from the culture they are trying to reach. This is not only so-called “foreign missions” but also reaching one’s own culture with the Gospel. Matthew is clear: if you are a disciple of Jesus, you will suffer at the hands of even your own family!

The disciples are being sent out into a dangerous world (Matthew 10:16-18). Jesus reverses the metaphor; the sheep were the people living in Galilee who had no shepherds. Now the disciples are the sheep. “Like sheep among wolves”

The contrast between “wise as serpents” and “innocent as doves” suggests the balance the disciples will need between craftiness and moral purity. For early Christians, this may refer to the problems they will face trying to navigate Roman culture and remain ethically upright. Modern missionaries make similar decisions. For example, if every bribes officials to get things done, is it morally permissible for a Christian to bribe government officials?

The ESV translates συνέδριον as “courts,” the NIV 2011 has “local courts” and the NRSV has councils.” This word is often translated as Sanhedrin, but the noun is plural. “The Sanhedrin” refers to the (singular) council in Jerusalem. Since these warnings are more universal, modern translations use the more general term. But this obscures the fact these are Jewish local councils likely meeting in the synagogue rather than the Gentile city council of Ephesus.

That the disciples will be “flogged in their synagogue” indicates they are targeting Jewish audiences. The disciples will be considered worthy of physical punishment for their testimony about Jesus. Synagogue as cultural center, more than a “Jewish church.” A synagogue could function as a legal court for the Jewish community. The “courts” in verse 17 does not necessarily refer to a Roman court (Paul in Acts 18, brought before Gallio’s court in Corinth).

The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3). Since the Law says more than 40 lashes is degrading to the one giving the punishment, the tradition developed by the first century to stop short of forty. m.Makkot 3:10 recommends a number near forty but less than forty; 3:11 gives some instruction for beating people who are physically unable to take a full flogging.

Paul’s practice of starting in the synagogue until he is forced to leave, usually by a riot. In 2 Corinthians 11:24 Paul says he was given “forty lashes less one” on five occasions. Matthew 10:17 and 23:34 uses the verb μαστιγόω, a word associated with Roman flogging (of Jesus, in Matt 20:19; Mark 10:34; Luke 18:33).

The disciples will eventually de dragged to governors and kings, to bear witness before the Gentiles (v. 18). The ESV’s “dragged” is perhaps overly dramatic, the verb (aorist passive of ἄγω) is often translated as “arrested.” To be arrested by the Gentile authorities (the Romans) is more dangerous than being brought before a Jewish council. The synagogue council might flog the disciples, but the Romans could torture and execute them!

This escalation of persecution tracks well with the book of Acts. Peter and John bear witness before the High Priest (Acts 4:1-22) and the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-42) and are flogged several times; Stephen bears witness in a synagogue and is lynched (7:54-8:1); James is beheaded by Herod (Acts 12:1) and Peter is arrested and held for execution (Acts 12:2-5). Paul is frequently abused both by the synagogues and Roman officials (2 Cor 11:16-29) and eventually bears witness to the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1-11), Roman governors Felix (Acts 24) and Festus (Acts 25:1-12), King Agrippa II (Acts 25:13-32) and eventually before Caesar himself (23:11; 27:24).

Jesus therefore warns his disciples they will face persecution on account of their testimony about him. Two observations follow from this. First, following Jesus is dangerous. There is no promise of an easy life, nor can a follower of Jesus expect nothing but peace and prosperity in their lives. Much of what passes for “evangelical” Christianity in the west seems to have missed this point.

Second, the persecution described here is on account of the name of Jesus. It is not the general suffering which is the fate of all people. Again, popular preachers will sometimes associate personal suffering (illness, financial troubles, etc.) with satanic attacks. It is more likely people suffer because of their own bad choices or poor decisions of others.

2 thoughts on “The Disciples Will Face Persecution – Matthew 10:16-23

  1. Amen, brother. It’s not all a bed of roses following the Lord.

    Woodrow Nichols

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