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Matthew 10:16-23 “Situational Warnings & Encouragement”

“Behold! I, even I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be prudent as serpents and pure as doves. So, beware of men; because they will hand you over to the courts and in the synagogues, they will scourge you. And also to governors and kings you will be brought on account of Me, as a witness to them and to the nations. So, whenever they might hand you over, do not be anxious about how or what you might say; because it will be given to you in that hour what you might say. For you are not the ones speaking, but the Spirit from your Father who speaks in you. So, brother will hand over brother to death, and a father [his] child, and children will rise up against parents and put them to death. And you will be hated by all on account of My name, so the one who endures to the end, this one will be saved. So, whenever they may pursue you in this city, flee to the next! For truly I say to you, you will certainly not finish the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

 

Within the larger framework of Jesus’ marching orders to the twelve, a new section as begun. Not only do we see Matthew’s favorite “behold” (ἰδοὺ), but we also see a repetition of ἀποστέλλω/to send out (the same root used to designate the twelve apostles ἀπόστολος – v. 2) from v. 5. In addition to this, we might add that Jesus returns to the imagery of sheep (9:36; 10:6) once again. Taken together with v. 15’s “truly” statement, it seems obvious that we are now beginning a new section in this discourse.


Having established who is being sent out as commissioned representatives (vv. 1-4), providing them with a mission statement (vv. 5-8), and explaining to them the manner in which their mission is to be executed (vv. 9-15), Jesus now reveals to the twelve apostles the situation into which they are about to enter. This will be no picnic or Sunday stroll in the park. Jesus’ apostles will be resisted and rejected every step of the way. This text unfolds by first describing the situation in general terms (v. 16) before moving on to two sets of warnings.[1] Each set or cycle of warning is accompanied by an appropriate encouragement to bolster and inform their courage.

 

General Situation (v. 16)


The initial ἰδοὺ (behold! look!) is expected, though this is no excuse to ignore it. Besides, these are Jesus’ words as recorded by Matthew, not Matthew’s version of various things Jesus supposedly said.[2] Jesus is drawing the apostle’s attention to what He is about to reveal. The situation into which He is sending them is serious, dire, and in no small way dangerous.

 

Situation Affirmed (v. 16a)

Behold! I, even I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.


Jesus’ “I” is emphatic (ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω), stressing that He is the one who sends His apostles.[3] This stress works along two lines. First, there is another reminder of the role in which Jesus has enlisted them. They are His apostles (ἀπόστολος) whom He sends (ἀποστέλλω) to do His will as His representatives. Therefore, it is not up to them to question the situation in which they are sent. Second, there is at the very least an implication of protection.[4] Again, this discourse is the official commissioning address for Jesus’ apostles. Their apostolic mission will grow after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but it begins here. If Jesus is the one who sends them, then He takes responsibility for them. This is an important point to make, because Jesus makes no attempt to conceal the fact that they are sheep in the midst of wolves.


Several things are worth noting about this statement. First, Jesus has once again returned to the image of sheep (9:36; 10:6) and this is not the first time the image of sheep and wolves has been used (7:15). It would be a mistake to think that each one of these illustrations are used to communicate the same message, yet there are still threads that flow from one to the other. For instance, Jesus’ desire to send out (ἀποστέλλω) His apostles (ἀπόστολος) is predicated upon the fact that the crowds were like devastated and destroyed sheep without a shepherd (9:36). Jesus then sends (ἀποστέλλω) His apostles (ἀπόστολος) to the perishing sheep of the house of Israel (10:6). One might wonder why the sheep are perishing and devastated but Jesus here explains their state: wolves. The same wolves that have ravished the sheep of Israel will soon harass the apostles on their mission.[5]


A second observation needs to take seriously the language employed. Jesus is not sending the apostles into the midst of wolves as if they were to walk into the wolves’ den, but that He sends them in the wolves’ midst (ἐν μέσῳ λύκων). The idea is that as soon as the apostles depart from this briefing, they will find themselves already surrounded by wolves.[6] Because of this clear and present danger, Jesus demands appropriate measures to be taken.

 

Situation Appraised (v. 16b)

Therefore, be prudent as serpents and pure as doves.


“Therefore” (οὖν) draws an inference from the threat of wolves. Because sheep have zero defense against predators, the twelve apostles are commanded to become[7] shrewd or cunning like serpents. The allusion to Gen. 3:1 is undeniable[8] and yet the sense may not be so obvious. In and of itself, there is nothing sinful or evil in being cunning, prudent, or even wise (φρόνιμος). This is the same term used by Jesus when describing the wise man who built his house upon the rock (7:24). Yet, by connecting this prudence or cunning to the serpent from the garden, Jesus has no need to address the danger of being cunning without checks and balances. Thus, He adds that they must also become pure as doves. The dove (περιστερά) is a simple minded and honest creature that was acceptable and even prescribed in various offerings (Lev. 1:14; 5:7, 11; 12:6, 8; 14:22, 30: 15:14, 29). If the serpent is associated with cunning and prudence, the dove is associated with purity in the sense of integrity. The adjective ἀκέραιος literally means “unmixed” and describes something that is whole and pure without additives or impurities. The sense is that a dove is utterly without guile or pretention. What you see in a dove is exactly what you get.


Tying this all together, the idea is simple: just because the twelve are sheep among wolves does not mean that they have to be stupid.[9] Yet in their cunning, there is no room for compromising the integrity of their mission. Cunning without integrity leads to craftiness and deceit (Gen. 3:1). Purity without prudence leads to silliness and naivete (Hos. 7:11).[10] With the situation firmly in place, Jesus moves on to the first cycle of warnings.

 

First Cycle of Warnings (vv. 17-20)


There are two cycles of warnings and encouragements in vv. 17-23. These warnings reveal how the wolves will attack as well as to identify where the wolves will come from. Each warning (vv. 17-18 & 21-22) is followed by encouragement (vv. 19-20 & 23). This first warning cycle focuses on those wolves who attack from the social and civil spheres.

 

Warning: Social and Civil Sources (vv. 17-18)

So, beware of men; because they will hand you over to the courts and in the synagogues, they will scourge you. And also to governors and kings you will be brought on account of Me, as a witness to them and to the nations.

 

This warning comes directly on the heels of the command to be prudent and pure.[11] If they are to keep their heads on a swivel while maintaining mission integrity, then it is good to be wary of other people. The warning is generic (προσέχετε δὲ ἀπὸ ἀνθρώπων) and carries a combination of at least a few nuances like: (1) Don’t naively trust men. (2) Don’t needlessly anger men. (3) Don’t fall into traps of men’s catch-questions. (4) Don’t allow them the opportunity to bring a valid charge against you.[12] In general, there is a need to be prudent when dealing with men they do not know. The rest of v. 17 explains why.[13]

The same men that the twelve will interact with will be the ones handing them over to the courts to be beaten in their synagogues. The court (literally Sanhedrin - συνέδριον) describes the local Jewish body that handles minor cases against the Law (Torah) and society. Each city containing at least 120 men would have their own version of the national Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. This local court would have 23 respected elders presiding and retained the authority under Roman occupation to administer corporal punishment as directed by Moses (Deut. 25:1-3).[14] Because Moses forbid any corporal punishment to exceed 40 strokes, it was common practice for the maximum beating to stop at 39 (2 Cor. 11:24) lest someone should lose count and transgress the Law of Moses.


Clearly, the wolves are identified as the social and religious leaders of Israel. Their synagogues will be the place where the twelve are scourged. Their mini-sanhedrins will be the bodies that condemn them. Surrounded by wolves indeed! It is interesting that the term translated “hand over” (παραδίδωμι) is the same term used by Matthew to describe the future action of Judas Iscariot (v. 4). If there is a sense of betrayal in v. 4, then there remains the same sense here.


In v. 18, Jesus transitions from social threats to civil threats. As he does so, the stakes are severely raised. In some sense, submission to the local Jewish authorities was optional. If one did not mind losing his place in society and being an outcast, there was no binding legal reason why one would submit to the local synagogue. The same cannot be said of Roman governors and kings. Not only is this now in the realm of legality, but this authority has the ability to go beyond corporal chastisement to administer capital punishment.

In all this, it is the reason and the purpose of being dragged in before civil authorities that captures Jesus’ attention. They will be hauled up before governors and kings on account of Me (ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ). Their connection with Jesus will breed more enemies than the local band of scribes and Pharisees but will land them in hot water with Rome’s representative government officials. This is not simply foretold in the sense that Jesus knows the future. This arrangement was meticulously planned from before the foundations of the earth. The purpose[15] of such an audience is to testify as witnesses to them and to the nations. By “them” (αὐτοῖς) Jesus points back to the courts and those in the synagogue. Thus, “the nations” (τοῖς ἔθνεσιν) indicates the Gentile governors and kings. With a ‘captive’ audience, Jesus’ apostles will have the opportunity to preach the coming kingdom at the very highest levels.[16]

 

Encouragement: Divine Defense (vv. 19-20)

So, whenever they might hand you over, do not be anxious about how or what you might say; because it will be given to you in that hour what you might say. For you are not the ones speaking, but the Spirit from your Father who speaks in you.

 

Jesus’ encouragement, like His warning, doesn’t pull any punches. The temporal conjunction ὅταν (when/whenever) assumes that the twelve will be handed over to the courts in the synagogues, to governors, and to kings. In other words, this word of encouragement assumes that they will be handed over. The question is not “if” but “when”.[17] Persecution for the sake of Jesus is an assumption for these twelve, not merely a possibility. The command not to worry/be anxious (μὴ μεριμνήσητε[18]) echoes Jesus’ instructions in the SM (6:24-34). If Jesus forbids worrying over food, clothing, or anything concerning “tomorrow”, that certainly includes worrying about persecution. Yet, it is interesting that Jesus says nothing here concerning the persecution itself. This encouragement does not promise physical protection in the midst of their trial, but that they will be given a proper and fitting defense.


This brings several things to the forefront. First, Jesus’ encouragement assumes what the apostles may be anxious about; that is, their defense. The assumption is that they are not anxious about their life or limb but only that they might testify properly and accurately when they are called upon to speak. There is not even a hint here of getting out of their predicament, escape, or even survival. The focus is exclusively on “how” (πῶς – the manner, attitude, tone and “what” (τὶ –content) they might say. Second, this assumption is based upon another assumption: that the apostles are seeking after His kingdom and His righteousness (6:33). Jesus had already given them everything they need. The key to being free of anxiety is a proper alignment of priorities. This encouragement assumes the apostles’ objective is obey and please Him rather than to save their own skin.


Jesus follows this up by giving the reason[19] they are not to worry. When they are handed/given over (παραδίδωμι), what they are to say will be given (δίδωμι) to them in the hour that they need it. Their defense, the how and what to say, will be a gift to them. This interesting statement requires a bit of explanation[20] which comes in v. 20. It is not they who will speak. Rather (ἀλλὰ) the Father will provide His Holy Spirit who will speak in them. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit will overcome them in the same manner the demons possessed and controlled persons like a fleshy puppet. But that what they know will be brought to mind and the courage to speak will come forth. Several wonderful examples of this promise are recorded in Acts when the apostles stepped forth and proclaimed the mighty deeds of God, bearing witness of Jesus’ person, work, and return. Yet, this statement promises far more than a quick mind and a witty tongue. Jesus clearly states that the credit goes exclusively to the Holy Spirit and not to the apostles themselves. They will speak forth from their own knowledge, faith, and experience as witnesses of Jesus. Yet it will be God the Holy Spirit who speaks in them (ἐν ὑμῖν). There is nothing by which we can compare this promise in our day except for the inspired writings the apostles left behind; the completed New Testament.

 

Second Cycle of Warnings (vv. 21-23)


A second cycle of warnings begins in v. 21. This cycle also includes an encouragement (v. 23), though the warning certainly increases in intensity. Not only will some wolves be found much closer to home, but the heat of persecution greatly escalates.

 

Warning: Hostile Homes (vv. 21-22)

So, brother will hand over brother to death, and a father [his] child, and children will rise up against parents and put them to death. And you will be hated by all on account of My name, so the one who endures to the end, this one will be saved.

 

For the third time in these verses Jesus mentions being handed/given over (παραδίδωμι). Yet, this time it is not an obscure “they” who will hand the apostles over but brothers who will hand over brothers. There is perhaps an allusion to one of the twelve (Judas) who will hand over a “brother” (v. 4) to death. The escalation is evident now in that the stakes have been raised from punitive humiliation to death. Yet the intensity increases in that the very fabric of families will be ripped apart. Fraternal relationships will not be the only ones to suffer, but a father will hand over his own child. The escalation finds its crescendo in the final clause of v. 21 where the plurals generalize the actions to a wider society. This will not be the actions of a few here and there, but common place in the culture. Children will rise up and rebel against their parents putting them to death. Most English translations softens θανατώσουσιν to something like “causing/have them to be put to death” but the active voice places the action squarely in the hands of the children. Whether they are the ones who personally bring the death blow or not, they are the ones responsible for bringing it about. Here Jesus foretells of a complete reversal of the fifth commandment: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which Yhwh your God gives you (Ex. 20:12).


It literally does not get worse than this. When Jesus said, “beware of men” He wasn’t kidding. The members of one’s own family will turn against him. Never underestimate the passion for which unregenerate men hate Jesus and those who bear His name. This is made plain in v. 22 when Jesus states that all will hate His apostles on account of His name. Association with the name of Jesus attracts all the hate wicked men have for the Lord. Luke brings this connection out every time he records the account of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:4-5; 22:7-8; 26:14-15).[21] To imprison, persecute, and kill Christians because they are Christians is to persecute Christ.


Jesus draws a line in the sand between those who will kill them and those who will be with them. That line is not drawn along national, social, cultural, or familial lines. Their fellow countrymen, neighbors, and even their own kin will be some of the first to raise their hands against them. There will be fellowship only among those who likewise bear the name of Jesus. Who can stand against such lonely hostility? Those who trust in the promise. For it will be the one who endures to the end who will be saved.


Salvation (σῴζω) is understood in the widest sense here. Jesus is not marking endurance as a means of gaining salvation but as a mark of salvation. Those who cling to Jesus’ name no matter the cost to their persons, family, career, or cultural standing without letting go will be assured of salvation and eternal life. By “to the end” (εἰς τέλος) Jesus means precisely that. To the end of the persecution? To the end of the trial? To the end of one’s life? Yes. Salvation from sin, eternal death, and wrath is bound up in Jesus Christ alone. Therefore, the one who endures, stubbornly clinging to Jesus, this one[22] will be saved. This statement works as a hinge that now swings from the warning to the encouragement.

 

Encouragement: Escape & Endurance until the Eschaton (v. 23)

So, whenever they may pursue you in this city, flee to the next! For truly I say to you, you will certainly not finish the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

 

With such a stark warning as found in vv. 21-22, some encouragement is needed. Yet again, Jesus’ encouragement assumes that the apostles will continue their mission. There is no indication of letting up or quitting. The assurance offered Jesus is a way to keep going, to endure and persevere. After all, these are marching orders for the apostles to preach the nearness of the kingdom, not a manual on how to avoid conflict and live a peaceful life.

The same temporal conjunction (ὅταν) from v. 19 is used again here with the same nuance. It is not “if” they pursue/persecute (διώκω) but “when”. The encouragement comes in the form of a command. Jesus has no intention of making His apostles stake themselves to the ground in order to count coup. Martyrdom is never the objective. It may very well be the outcome, but proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom by calling men to repentance and faith in King Jesus is the objective. Therefore, if the apostles find themselves the target of persecution in a city and the people are coming with blood in their eye, flee to the next city! Is this not a revisit of the command given in v. 14? They want nothing to do with them or their message. It’s time to shake the dust from their feet and move on.


The “truly” statement which concludes this section functions as the reason[23] of the command: you certainly will not finish the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. Jesus uses a strong negation[24] to emphasize that the twelve will most certainly not finish the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. Two questions immediately come to mind: (1) What does this mean? And (2) in what way is this an encouragement?


There is wide debate as to the meaning of this final clause, much of it confusing and needless discussion. We will attempt to steer clear of the befuddling discussion by keeping several things in mind. First, this is part of the apostolic commission. Jesus is addressing His chosen apostles who will go to the perishing sheep of the house of Israel with the message that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (vv. 6-7). While there are certainly implications that go beyond this scene to include the church and the church’s mission, the apostles are and will remain in the forefront.


Second, the statement that the apostles will complete/finish (τελέω) the cities of Israel requires a complement. When Jesus says that they will certainly not complete the cities, He does not say in what way they are completed/finished. The verb τελέω normally is accompanied by a verbal noun, infinitive, or some such complement to inform the reader what is accomplished.[25] No such term is found here, and so we are left to examine the context. Two possibilities are present. (a) It is possible that Jesus says the apostles will not finish their mission of preaching the kingdom before the Son of Man comes. This would emphasize the urgency of their mission, that they must get to it before the Son of Man comes because they won’t even finish. Yet, if Jesus guarantees that they won’t be able to complete the mission, then why send them out in the first place? It is difficult to see how this would be an encouragement to the apostles. (b) The nearest context suggests that they will not finish fleeing. In other words, this is a promise that while persecution will be relentless, they will not exhaust having another city to flee to before the Son of Man comes. There will always be another city to flee to and begin again. This understanding not only fits the near context, but also is easier to understand how this is an encouragement to the apostles. At the same time, this understanding includes the ongoing mission.[26] If there is always a city to flee to, then there was a city to flee from. The mission to the perishing sheep of the house of Israel will continue.


Third, the “cities of Israel” is a reference beyond the limitations of their current boundaries. The boundaries that Jesus placed upon this specific mission hemmed the apostles in to the region of the Galilee (v. 5), yet the “cities of Israel” (τὰς πόλεις τοῦ Ἰσραήλ) is a much broader designation. If taken in the sense of geography (cities within the land of Israel), this would include the region of Judea, but also the cities of Samaria and even the region on the east side of the Jordan river as all these regions fall under the land grant given by Yhwh to Abraham (Gen. 15:18-21) and mark the high point of the Israelite kingdom under Solomon (1 Kings 4:21). Yet, if the genitive describes the content of those cities rather than their location (cities containing Israelites vs. cities found in the land of Israel) then this would indicate even those Israelites dispersed among the nations.[27] Here, we have a hint at the post-ascension apostolic mission that will continue to go to the Jew first, and then to the Greek beginning in Jerusalem and Judea, Samaria, and to the utter most part of the world. There will always be a place to run to because the mission to Israel will continue until the Son of Man comes.


Finally, there is no question what Jesus has in mind by the coming of the Son of Man. That Jesus alludes to Dan. 7:13 and the coming of one like a Son of Man is without question. This prophecy records the future event of Messiah coming and being given His kingdom by the Ancient of Days, God the Father, Yhwh Himself. This promise carries a punch with numerous implications. (a) Because Jesus has already identified Himself as the Son of Man (9:6) and has already alluded to His being taken away (9:15), Jesus is not speaking of His first advent. If Jesus (i) is the Son of Man, (ii) has come, (iii) will be taken away, (iv) but will return or come before the apostles finish preaching and fleeing through the cities of Israel, then the kingdom which is given to the Son of Man is not going to come in this first advent. He must leave before He can come again with His kingdom. (b) The kingdom message continues to have strong implications for the nation of Israel. The apostles’ primary (not exclusive) audience will continue to be the perishing sheep of the house of Israel even after Jesus’ ascension. Wherever they are in the diaspora, the apostles will come and preach the gospel of the kingdom to them. When they persecute them, there will always be another city to flee to. This will continue to go on until Jesus returns again to establish His kingdom on earth. This is an encouragement because His kingdom will come and the Father’s will is going to be done on earth as it is even now in heaven. Even though the situation is dangerous and dire for those who call themselves by the name of Jesus, there will be victory.



[1] Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 386.


[2] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 397.


[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 252.


[4] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 461.


[5] Osborne, p. 387.


[6] Lenski, p. 398.


[7] The present imperative from γίνομαι (to be, to become, to be born, to produce) indicates an ongoing action. The twelve are to continue to become both cunning and pure. Their consistent state of being surrounded by wolves demands consistent vigilance.


[8] Gen. 3:1 in English – “Now, the serpent was more cunning than any animal of the field”. Gen. 3:1 LXX - ὁ δἐ ὄφις ἧν φρονιμώτατος πάντων τῶν θηρίων τῶν ἐπί τῆς γῆς. Matt. 10:16b NA27 – γίνεσθε οὖν φρόνιμοι ὡς οἱ ὄφεις.


[9] Morris, p. 253.


[10] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 225.


[11] Δὲ adds to the thought already started, but one of a different kind.


[12] Hendriksen, p. 462.


[13] Causal γὰρ.


[14] Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud & Midrash, trans. Andrew Bowden and Joseph Longarino, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022), p. 648.


[15] Εἰς with the accusative μαρτύριον denotes purpose.


[16] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 424.


[17] If there is any uncertainty communicated with the subjunctive παραδῶσιν, it regards the timing of being handed over, not the fact of being handed over.


[18] The negated subjunctive is quite strong, forbidding the possibility of worry. The idea is “perish the thought of worrying” or “do not even begin to worry."


[19] Causal γὰρ.


[20] Epexegetical γὰρ.


[21] Hendriksen, p. 463.


[22] Emphatic demonstrative pronoun (οὗτος) points to the one who endures to the end.


[23] Causal γὰρ.


[24] Negating the subjunctive with οὐ μὴ is the strongest negation in Koine Greek. This will certainly not come to pass.


[25] Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 104-5.


[26] Nolland, p. 427.


[27] Osborne, p. 391.

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