Jesus—His Life and Message: Persecution

September 11, 2018

by Peter Amsterdam

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spoke to His disciples about the opposition and persecution they would receive as they went out to preach the gospel. In chapter 10, Jesus sent out His disciples with instructions to avoid Gentiles and to not enter any town of the Samaritans but to focus on preaching to fellow Jews, whom He referred to as the lost sheep of the house of Israel.1 The preaching to Gentiles would come after His death and resurrection.2 He instructed the disciples to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. They were to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.3 They were to take no provisions and to stay in the house of people who were worthy.4 He also gave a command that went beyond their immediate mission to Israel, which was to be applied later when they would make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.5

He said, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.6 Jesus told the disciples they would sometimes be in danger, like sheep, or even the more helpless lambs as expressed in the Gospel of Luke.7 Sheep are not equipped to defend themselves and are generally powerless against predators such as wolves. They are also timid, nervous, easily frightened, and rather low in intelligence—all of which make them defenseless. Jesus’ point was that preaching the gospel would put the disciples in situations where they would be vulnerable.

Because the serpent was seen as crafty in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, snakes were thought to be cunning or shrewd. The Greek word translated here as wise is sometimes rendered as shrewd, sensible, wary, or cunning. Doves were used as a symbol of virtue, because of an ancient belief that they had no bile. In addition, doves, one of the most common birds in Palestine at that time, are vegetarians and thus always prey rather than predator.8 Jesus instructed His disciples to comport themselves with a balance of the shrewdness of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove.

Jesus then moved from the metaphor of sheep and wolves into plain talk, telling the disciples what they would face in the time to come.

Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.9

The disciples were to be cautious of some people, the inference being those who may have authority and would be capable of bringing the disciples before officials who could punish them.

In Jesus’ day, Jewish towns had local religious “councils” made up of 23 members who were responsible to maintain public order. Among other things, they were empowered to pass judgment on wrongdoing and punish the guilty by flogging. The apostle Paul wrote:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.10

Whippings were a standard punishment in Israel. The rules for flogging are found in Deuteronomy:

If the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.11

Later, the maximum amount of stripes was set at thirty-nine, in order to make sure no one mistakenly exceeded the forty allowed by the law. The whips used in flogging were made of calfskin. One-third of the lashes were administered on the breast and two-thirds on the back.

Such floggings were meted out in the local synagogue, which besides being a place of worship was also a place of instruction, and was where the local Jewish court was presided over by the 23 council members. The trial would be held in the synagogue and the punishment would be inflicted there. Besides the person administering the whipping, three judges were required to be present—the first to read passages of Scripture, the second to count the strokes, and the third to give the command before each stroke. When Jesus spoke of the disciples being delivered to court and flogged, He was referring to Jewish courts and punishment rather than to the Roman justice system, whose punishments could include execution.

He then moved on to foretell what would happen later when Christianity moved beyond Palestine and into Gentile lands.

You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.12 

Jesus spoke of future persecution by Gentile governing authorities, which would give Christians opportunity to witness to important rulers, and Gentiles in general.

In the book of Acts, we see Peter and John (representing all the disciples) referred to as uneducated, common men,13 as they were simple fishermen. Hearing Jesus say that the disciples would come before governors and kings was likely rather disconcerting for them. Jesus, however, told them not to worry.

When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.14

Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus had told the disciples not to worry or be anxious about their material needs—food, water, or clothing—saying that God would take care of them.15 Now He says that God will likewise be there for them through future persecutions.

When they find themselves persecuted, arrested, and dragged before authorities, they are to be at peace—knowing that they won’t need to rely on their own limited rhetorical abilities, as the Holy Spirit will give them the words to speak and will be speaking through them. Jesus also spoke elsewhere in the Gospels about the Spirit coming upon the disciples and guiding and inspiring them.

The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.16

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.17

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.18

We see the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the apostles in verses like these:

While Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.”19

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.20

Jesus continued to describe the persecution which would come.

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.21

This echoes what is written in the book of Micah:

The son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.22

In Micah, the text refers to the breakdown of the family and the contempt family members can have for one another, but there is no mention of anyone being killed. Jesus included the point that people would have their own relatives put to death. The wording have them put to death indicates that governing authorities would execute Christians after they were turned in to the authorities by their own relatives.

There was certainly persecution in the times of the early church. In 64 AD, the Roman government, under the direction of the emperor Nero, officially persecuted Christians. Between then and 250 AD, there continued to be persecution, but it wasn’t throughout the entire Roman Empire. In 250 AD, under Emperor Decius, persecution became very severe for a ten-year period known as the “Great Persecution.” After that, it continued off and on until 313 AD. At that time, the two Roman emperors, Constantine and Licinius, issued a document known as the Edict of Milan, which formally ended the persecution of Christians and allowed individuals to follow their own conscience in regard to religion. Of course, Christians have continued to be persecuted throughout the centuries, but for the most part not to the degree that they experienced in Roman times.

Jesus calls those facing persecution to endure, to stand firm in faith, and stay faithful through the persecution. While they may even face martyrdom, remaining loyal to Jesus throughout their time of trial will result in their being “saved.” Even though they may lose their lives, the faithful will find themselves in the presence of the Lord forever.

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.23

Jesus told the disciples that when they were persecuted in one place, they weren’t under obligation to remain where they were; they should leave and go to towns that were more receptive. In the book of Acts, we find that the apostle Paul did this numerous times.24 It wasn’t expected that the disciples remain in a hostile environment where they were in danger of maltreatment and death.

The second phrase of this sentence—truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes—is somewhat difficult to understand, and Bible commentators have a variety of views on it. Some suggest that it refers to Jesus’ return at the rapture. Others comment that it’s connected to the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD, while others see it as Jesus’ heavenly enthronement after His ascension, as per His statement to the high priest before His crucifixion.

I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.25

One author wrote:

The variety of views shows that a decision on the meaning of the words is not easy. Perhaps there is most to be said for the view that they refer in an unusual way to the climax of Jesus’ mission, his coming back from the dead after his rejection by the people. There is triumph in that coming and there is a further commission to the disciples to take the message over all the earth. On this understanding, Jesus would be saying that the disciples are to carry on with the task to which he sent them, and further that they certainly would not have completed it before his work on earth reached its climax.26

Jesus clearly stated that those who preach the gospel would suffer persecution, just as He did.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.”27

He also said that those who suffer persecution are blessed.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.28

Receiving persecution for our faith isn’t something we relish, but when it comes our way, may we have the same beautiful attitude expressed by the apostle Paul:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.29


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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1 Matthew 10:6.

2 Acts 1:8.

3 Matthew 10:8.

4 Luke 10:5–7.

5 Matthew 28:19–20.

6 Matthew 10:16.

7 Luke 10:3.

8 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 191, footnote 14.

9 Matthew 10:17–18.

10 2 Corinthians 11:24.

11 Deuteronomy 25:2–3.

12 Matthew 10:18.

13 Acts 4:13.

14 Matthew 10:19–20.

15 Matthew 6:25–34.

16 John 14:26.

17 John 15:26.

18 John 16:13.

19 Acts 10:19.

20 Acts 16:6–7.

21 Matthew 10:21–22.

22 Micah 7:6.

23 Matthew 10:23.

24 Acts 13:45–51; 14:5–7, 19–20; 17:5–10,13–15.

25 Matthew 26:64.

26 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 258.

27 John 15:18–20.

28 Matthew 5:10–12.

29 Romans 8:35–39.