Matthew 10:16-23 (CEB): “Look, I’m sending you as sheep among wolves. Therefore be wise as snakes and innocent as doves. Watch out for people—because they will hand you over to councils and they will beat you in their synagogues. They will haul you in front of governors and even kings because of me so that you may give your testimony to them and to the Gentiles. Whenever they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you will say, because what you can say will be given to you at that moment. You aren’t doing the talking, but the Spirit of my Father is doing the talking through you. Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Human One comes.
This is one of those passages that some people blow way out of context. Let’s see if we can keep our thoughts in line. First of all, Jesus was not speaking to us today. He was speaking to the disciples, the Twelve (verse 5). From that one point, this passage should fall into place. Jesus uses the personal pronoun ‘you’ fifteen times in this short passage - again, showing that his warnings and instructions were directed to the Twelve and, again, not to us.
What gets us in trouble is that we start seeing the ‘end of the world’ in Jesus’ statement there at the last. You know the one about the ‘Second Coming’? Well, that’s just the problem. He wasn’t referring to any (supposed) Second Coming. Notice again the ‘you’ there twice in that sentence. The ‘coming’ that Jesus referred to was the coming ‘judgement’ against Israel in 70CE. This fits neatly within the immediate context and it fits within the historical context. According to Josephus, the ‘War of the Jews’ took place roughly forty years (some see this as a biblical generation) after the time of Jesus. And this war would have been during the time of the Twelve.*
However, I’m not saying that we can’t get anything from this passage. A couple of thoughts that can be carried over for any generation. First is the issue of being in a hostile world. We see this by the phrase ‘sheep among wolves’. There is no need to fill this with examples of violence and hatred and intolerance and greed and other deadly sins. We are all quite aware of those issues. But Jesus is here speaking of us being part of that world - not separated from it. To me, this is a key issue. Far too many theories about ‘the end’ have followers of Christ escaping from this world and God obliterating it. Therefore, a lot of people aren’t really concerned about fixing issues like ecology or economy or curable diseases in other parts of the world. ‘Why polish the brass bell on the a sinking ship’ is often quoted as the reason we don’t get more involved. But we can see from Jesus’ statements that we are to be involved in the world around us. And the way we live should reflect that we don’t agree with some of the worlds ways. And that disagreement should be such that the ‘everyone will hate [us] on account’ of Christ. But this type of resistance calls for two things - wisdom and non-violence. We aren’t supposed to just be at odds with ‘the world’ willy-nilly. We are to be at odds where Christ was at odds - ‘preach the good news to the poor’, ‘proclaim release to the prisoners’, ‘recovery of sight to the blind’, and ‘liberate the oppressed’ (see Luke 4.18 CEB).
Next, and as we can see it’s related to the first part, is the way of non-violence. I shouldn’t even have to bring this up (and I won’t be too long on this since I’ve written about it before) but it seems that some people just don’t get it. Followers of Jesus are called to live a life of non-violence (after all, Jesus is the ‘Prince of Peace’). Over and over again, he warned the religious opposition that their insistence on the use of violence would only end in devastation (see Luke 19.41-44 CEB). And, again, we see this fulfilled with the war with Rome. Plus, he told his followers that violence was not the answer (Matthew 5.38-48 CEB), even when he was arrested (See Matthew 26.51-52 CEB; Luke 22.49-51 CEB). So it’s no surprise that we read here that followers of Christ are to be ‘innocent as doves’.
* - For those who are interested, you can read about the War of the Jews here.