Straight Talk About the Cost of Discipleship
discipleship, sacrifice, persecution
This morning we are going back to what Jesus told His disciples as He commissioned them for ministry. Rick showed you last week that they were to go out trusting in God to equip them, provide for them, and protect them. We learned Jesus told them there would be difficult times. In those difficult times, they were to trust God to care for them.
Because these words are so important, let me return to verse 16 and get a running start on our text for this morning.
16 “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. 17 But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. 18 You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. 19 When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. 20 For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Jesus calls us to balanced living. It is possible to be so “harmless” that we stand for nothing, compromise the truth and find ourselves molded by the world. On the other hand, we can be so serpent-like that we constantly strike and wound other people. R.C. Sproul writes,
That is the attribute Jesus wanted to see in His Apostles— shrewdness, but without the malice of the serpent. He basically said: “I don’t want you to be stupid like sheep. I want you to be sensible. I want you to be alert to what is going on around you. I want you to be as sharp as serpents.” But at the same time, they were to be “harmless as doves.” They were not to have any poison under their tongues. They were not to have any destructive hatred in their hearts. They were to be as gentle, kind, and harmless as doves, which are symbols of peace. This is a striking contrast— as sharp as a snake but as gentle as a dove.
David Platt interprets this passage this way,
When you’re with the wolves, don’t let them have anything against you when it comes to your purity. Do not be abrasive, inconsiderate, or belligerent. Be innocent in the middle of difficult situations and thereby demonstrate what purity looks like in action
Now we come to our main text this morning.
21 “A brother will betray his brother to death, a father will betray his own child, and children will rebel against their parents and cause them to be killed. 22 And all nations will hate you because you are my followers. But everyone who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one town, flee to the next. I tell you the truth, the Son of Man will return before you have reached all the towns of Israel.
The first thing Jesus says is difficult to hear: A brother will betray his brother; a father will betray his child and children will rebel against their parents. The principle is important:
The Gospel, Rightly Understood, Calls for a Decision That Brings Division
Jesus does not simply call us to go to church, He calls us to follow Him, to live by His values and pursue His priorities. He gives us His Word as the absolute truth, not as truth that can be negotiated as society changes.
The more we become like Christ, the more the world will treat us as they treated Christ. As long as we live like everyone else we will be safe. We can go to church and simply keep our faith to ourselves and few people will care. However, if we choose that route we will also know little of Christ and may be mistaken about our relationship with Him.
We live in a world that is opposed to the gospel.
In college campuses around the country, students are taught that the Bible is a book written hundreds of years after the events they record. The implication is that it is fiction. They completely ignore the archaeological evidence that dates the New Testament documents all within the first century and most before 70 AD. What does that mean? It means the New Testament was written by eyewitnesses. And they were written at a time when error could have easily been exposed by others who witnessed the events.
Students are taught that Jesus never claimed to be God. Yet, as we have already seen in our study of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus made many claims to be God while not saying those words specifically.
We are told the Bible is filled with contradictions (even though the person speaking would hard-pressed to produce a so-called contradiction because this is not a conclusion they reached from reading the Bible, they are merely repeating what they have heard. What I hope you have already seen is that differences and contradictions are not the same thing. The differences in the gospel accounts add to the credibility and understanding of the accounts rather than detract from it.
And then there are several nonsense things that are taught as truth in many schools . . .
- There is no absolute truth (and if you do not agree with that statement you will be ostracized because people believe that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth!) As C.S. Lewis points out, people say there is no absolute truth until someone steals their wallet. Do you find it interesting that the society that says there is no absolute truth is also the most litigious generation ever?
- All religions are equally valid (true) even though religions completely contradict each other. One example: most religions teach Jesus was just a good man but not God. Christianity teaches that Jesus was God who became man. How can both of those things be true? Islam says the Koran is the only way to God’ Christianity says God reveals Himself in the Bible (they contradict each other)
- There is no God. Science students are taught his world as we know it was simply a cosmic accident. Yet even the most callous person sees the brilliant design in nature. I believe if you really look at the evidence with an open mind a person needs to have much more faith to be an atheist than you need to believe in God. There is too much evidence for God.
- This life is all there is – or stated another way, you live, you die, and that’s it.This belief leads to despair, hopelessness, and the kind of reckless violence that we see today. It discounts the well-attested resurrection of Jesus. It also discounts the instinct inside of us that says, “there must be more than this.”
But we also learn that:
This Opposition Extends Even to the Closest of Relationships
Jesus looks at three sources of opposition. The first is the state. With popular culture opposing Christian teaching it is only natural that the state will more and more paint Christians as ignorant wackos. The more people who come out of college programmed to believe Christianity is a con job, the more the state will seek to silence Christians. It is ironic that at the time when there is a plea for tolerance for all religions, Christians are repeatedly told their beliefs are intolerant, dangers and unacceptable. The message seems to be that every religion except Christianity should be accepted.
Second, the church in general may persecute us. People in the church have their traditions. Churches can become little closed communities in and of themselves. They don’t want anyone to rock the boat.
I’ve told you about my experiences at two ordination services. I asked one man who wanted us to agree that God had called him to Christian ministry if He believed Jesus did rise from the dead. The man, sadly said, he thought the resurrection story was metaphorical for the way Jesus lives inside of all of us! That, of course, is a denial of the true faith. The interesting thing was that some other Pastors were upset at ME because I asked the question.
At another ordination, I asked the candidate why they said nothing about sin. Their response was, “people know they are sinners, I don’t have to remind them.” Humans may know deep down that they have missed God’s standard but they will deny it to their death unless they are confronted with the truth. Again, there were PASTORS who were troubled that I made such a big deal about this candidate’s theology. It seems to me if you get sin wrong, you will also be wrong about grace. Which means the gospel you are preaching is a false gospel.
There will always be people who do not want you to “rock the boat” in the church. The Reformation happened because the church did not like the charges Martin Luther brought against the church (that it had become secular and corrupt, preaching a false gospel). A death warrant was put out on Luther and the church split. And there have been many splits since. If you dare to question the status quo . . . you will likely face persecution.
The third source of persecution is your family. There is a reason people say you should never talk about religion or politics. These are polarizing discussions. Let me give you some examples of areas of conflict.
- A belief that Christ is Lord and everything else we do should be secondary to Him. There will be family members who don’t want to be that committed.
- A conviction that you should give 10% of the household income to the Lord. Others will balk at this idea to spend more on themselves.
- If you have a conversion experience and tell others that you have become a follower of Christ, they will often be offended and think that this means you think the way they brought you up was wrong.
- You will make some decisions that are consistent with Scripture but not with the rest of the world and it will anger your family.
- In parts of the world a believer who chooses to be baptized is cast out of their family.
Jesus warns that things will be so bad at times that families will turn on each other. This is hard for us to comprehend but it is happening all around the world today.
Jesus warns us that even though a Christian should be someone easy to like (because they care, they love, they help, they support, and they should forgive), there is also the reality that people will only get so close because if you live in the light, your life will expose the darkness in the lives of others (even if you don’t say anything). This will push some people away and will make others angry.
True Faith is Revealed by Our Endurance (Commitment)
But everyone who endures to the end will be saved. (22b)
This is a troubling verse to some people because it sounds like the only way to be saved is to endure all the trials of life. That’s troubling because it sounds like salvation is a reward for the way we live (salvation by works), instead of a gift of grace.
I believe what Jesus is actually saying is: the one who endures through everything will be the one who shows that they have new life in Christ. In other words, endurance is the evidence that a person is truly committed to Christ. Persistence is a by-product of a truly devoted life.
This does not mean we seek persecution. What it means is the true believer will not deny their faith in order to escape persecution. If you are truly committed to Christ, you are committed because you believe Him to be the Son of God who has saved you by His sacrifice; you are not a believer merely because it is convenient or popular.
This Division Will Not Let Up Until Christ Returns
When you are persecuted in one town, flee to the next. I tell you the truth, the Son of Man will return before you have reached all the towns of Israel.
Scholars say this is one of the most difficult verses in the Bible. The reason for this is understanding the term “the Son of Man will return”. There are a number of interpretations. Rather than confuse you with the list of interpretations let me share the two that make the most sense to me.
- Jesus is speaking of the Son of Man returning in Judgment on Jerusalem which took place in 70 AD. History tells us that there was great persecution leading up to and during that time. At 70 AD Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Some believe this was the Lord’s judgment for rejecting the Messiah.
- “all the towns of Israel” is a figure of speech meaning “all the nations of the world”
Dr. Boice writes,
I think it is better to see verse 23 as stating a general principle: We will always have work to do and we will never get to all the places we ought to go before Christ’s second coming. Reference to “Israel” here would be an application of the principle to this particular setting. The disciples would not get to all the cities of Israel, just as we will not get to all the world’s cities in our day, but we should get on with the Great Commission anyway. We need to keep moving.
So the point is that these principles will all hold true until the Lord returns. As we continue to share the truth, we will continue to face division. It is a fact we must face.
The takeaway from these words is important: Following Christ involves taking a side. You can’t straddle the fence and be a true believer. Yet, this is what many are trying to do today. We want to fit in while still claiming faith in Christ.
Some people change the message of the gospel to fit the culture. The Bible says we are to speak the truth . . in love. Both sides are necessary. However, if your “love” leads you to water down or change the truth of God . . . you are heading in the wrong direction. It is popular for people to say loving people means their beliefs as equally valid as your own. That is not only false, it is nonsense. It is like saying 2 + 2 = 4 and 2+2 = 8. They can’t both be true!
Jesus came to point us to the truth and to give His life as a payment for our sin. Jesus was pretty clear: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) In 1 Timothy 1:5 Paul said, “There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” In the book of Acts, Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” The message of the gospel is clear: the only way to be right with God is through faith in Christ. Every other way of salvation fails. This is not narrow-mindedness! It is good news. God has provided a way that God for us to be saved.
The question for you then is this: Do you really trust the Christ of history? Are you willing to bet your life on the truth He gave us? Are you willing to follow Him even though the rest of the world may stand against you? There is no middle ground! We must hold to the truth in as loving a way as we can. You are either with Him or you are against Him. You either follow where He leads and do what He commands or you are guilty of trying to create your own religion. Just because you call yourself a Christian does not mean you are following Christ.
Remember the words of Matthew 7 when Jesus said, Many will come before Him on the last day and claim to belong to Him but the Lord will say, “depart from me for I have never known you.” Make sure that you are not one of those people.
Examine the evidence. Think it through. Make your decision not based on what is popular but on what is true! Don’t merely accept what people say as true . . . check out the evidence. Ask questions. Do your homework. The Christian faith does not ask you to stop thinking! In fact, thinking is encouraged.
This is the most important decision of your life. This decision will determine the direction of your life. If you choose to embrace and follow Jesus you will discover a life that is above anything this world offers us.
It is my hope that this Thanksgiving Day, you, and those you love, will stop to give thanks to God for coming in the person Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.
May God fill us with a bold willingness to follow Him fully, even if the rest of the world stands against us.
 Sproul, R. C. (2013-02-28). Matthew (St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary) (Kindle Locations 4656-4660). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
 Platt, David (2013-11-04). Exalting Jesus in Matthew (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2579-2585). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 179–180.