Six reasons for hope in the face of persecution. Matthew 10.24-39
This is a passage about courage, hope and not being afraid in the face of opposition.
Jesus has sent out his 12 disciples to preach the Kingdom of God, and to do Kingdom of God stuff.
But he warns them that it will not be easy.
They will suffer rejection and opposition because they are associated with him. People will think that they are betraying their communities, their families, their religion. They will hate them, say all kinds of untrue things about them and even want them dead.
And Jesus in these verses gives them and us six reasons not to give in to fear, for hope in the face of persecution
1. We are not on our own.
‘If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!’ (v25)
When we experience hostility, we are only experiencing what Jesus experienced. They accused him of doing the work of the devil (that is what it means when they call him Beelzebul), and since we are part of his household, they will of course malign, speak evil, of us.
2. The truth will be revealed.
‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered’ (v26).
The truth will be revealed about the gospel, about secrets and plots, about our hearts and motives.
People have said dreadful things about followers of Jesus over the last 2000 years.
They have been accused of, among other things, cannibalism (because of communion), of atheism (because they rejected the pantheon of the Roman gods), of being enemies of the people – that was the Soviet accusation against many believers, that they are driven by homophobia, that they are intolerant and socially divisive.
And that is at the general level.
At an individual level people have been set up, their words have been twisted –
just as happened when Jesus stood before the council and they accused him of wanting
to physically destroy the temple. And people have been publicly shamed, accused
of the worst crimes, of fraud, of spying: and often it was just not true.
Listen, says Jesus to those of his followers who have been unfairly accused, hold on – because, one day, when the Kingdom comes in its fullness, the truth will be revealed.
3. There is more to life than the body
‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’ (v28)
Death is not the worst thing that can happen to you, even an unpleasant death. Physical death does not destroy your existence, your being.
Our bodies matter, and will matter eternally – but what is quite clear from these verses is that this side of death our souls matter more.
That is why people have been prepared to suffer, to be martyred for their faith. From the days of Stephen, the first martyr, the persecutions of Nero, when Christians were set on fire as human torches for the entertainment of guests, and Diocletian, through to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of believers in the last century in this country, and the present day suffering of Christians, or of others associated with Jesus the Nazarene, by ISIS or Boku Haram – women and men have been able to stand firm because they know that in the end we are more than just body.
So, for instance, in his book To Catch a King, Earl Charles Spencer tells of John Gerard (1564-1637), a Jesuit Priest who lived in the Elizabethan era, at a time when Roman Catholics were accused of treason. He was arrested, taken to the Tower of London, brutally tortured - to make him reveal the names of other priests, but managed to escape. When he arrived on the continent, he wrote about his experience of torture, "Seeing my agony and the struggle going on in my mind, He [God] gave me this most merciful thought: the utmost and worst they can do is to kill you, and you have often wanted to give your life for your Lord God. The Lord God sees all you are enduring – He can do all things. You are in God’s keeping."
4. God is in control
‘Not [a sparrow] will fall to the ground apart from your Father’ (v29)
God knows. He sees what is happening. And it is not happening apart from him.
And you matter to him. He knows how many hairs are on your head (in some cases that is easier for him than in others). You are precious to him.
So, although for a believer who is going through a time of persecution, it may seem that God does not exist or that he has abandoned us, it is not true. We hold onto the hope that God is in control, and that he loves us – and one day we will see it.
Job, in the Old Testament, was someone who – because he was a righteous person - went through terrible suffering. And in the darkness and despair, he suddenly cries out, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19.25-27)
5. Jesus will acknowledge us before his Father.
‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven’ (v32)
Look, Jesus says to his followers, ‘You may be shamed in front of your families, ridiculed in the presence of political leaders, humiliated in death before thousands, but in comparison to what I am going to do – it is nothing. Because I will acknowledge you in the presence of Father God. I will say, ‘Father, this one is mine – and because he or she is mine, he or she is yours’.
Isn’t that a bit scary?
[One of the very real issues for churches in times of persecution is what to do with those people who have – sometimes under tremendous pressure - denied Christ, denied that he is their Lord, but have then, later, repented and come back to the Church.
And what about us?]
I doubt that there is not one person here who has not, at some point, denied Christ before others – in either words or actions.
Well, look to Simon Peter, the first leader of the church. He denied Christ in front of others – but Jesus continued to love him, and he came back. He said sorry, he was given a new task, and – even though there were other times when he gave in to the fear of what others would say (look at Galatians 2.12) - in the end he was crucified for Jesus.
If you have denied Jesus, if you are denying Jesus in front of someone, not admitting to be a Christian out of fear for what they might say, come to him today, ask his forgiveness and ask for his strength to declare what is true – even if it brings you grief and physical pain - that you are a follower of the Lord Jesus, and that he is Lord.
6. Jesus is central to the past, present and future.
Our relationship with Jesus is the most important relationship that we have.
It comes before our relationship with family and could potentially tear a family apart – if other members of the family cannot accept our Christian commitment and mock us or reject us for our decision to follow Jesus.
Of course, we pray that that will not happen, and one of the things that Jesus and the first Christians insist on is that Christians support their families – and that as a result of putting Jesus first, you will be a far better husband, wife, parent, child, son or daughter.
When we read the desert fathers, we read of some who decided to become monks, walk out on their families, and cut off their parents. That is not an example of what it means to be faithful to Christ.
But our relationship with Jesus is more important than our relationship with our family, than our physical well-being, or even than our life. We can have everything that this world offers – wealth and fame and popularity and beauty and power - but if we do not know Christ, then we are dead.
Jesus said, ‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’ (v39). And this was not some abstract theory. Of the 12 people Jesus is speaking to, one betrayed Jesus, ten of them were martyred for Jesus, and one of them died in exile.
I thank God that we live at a time and in a place where we can freely confess Jesus.
It is amazing how God turns things round.
In this country, in this city, from 1917 to the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people suffered persecution - whether shaming, economic deprivation, imprisonment, torture or execution (they were hung, strangled, drowned, buried alive or shot) - because they put their faith in Christ.
And it was their courage in the face of persecution and their faithful witness to Christ, which has been one of the key inspirations in my own Christian life
And today it has changed. St Andrew's is open, and there is, certainly for us, freedom to preach Christ. People still do God here, and there appears to be an assumption that faith in Christ can bring unity – even between people of different faiths - and build up the social good.
But wherever we live, there will still be times when we face mockery or false accusations or rejection because we preach Christ – and those are the times when we need to hold on to courage and hope, and those are the times when we are not to be afraid.