While training his disciples, Jesus cautioned them as to what to expect in the future. Although he promised a high reward in heaven, he also alerted them to the persecution they might encounter while continuing his mission. He predicted that their adversaries, even their own family members, would confront them like wolves attacking the sheep. However, Jesus assured the support of the Holy Spirit, who would inspire the disciples as to what to say during their trials. Jesus assured them that he would acknowledge those who would acknowledge him before others. He also warned that he would deny before the Father those who would renounce him. Let us opt for God and seek heavenly rewards rather than earthly achievements.
BIBLE TEXT ( MATTHEW 10:16-33)
(Mt 10:16) “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. (17) But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, (18) and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans. (19) When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. (20) For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (21) Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. (22) You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved. (23) When they persecute you in one town, flee to another. Amen, I say to you, you will not finish the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (24) No disciple is above his teacher, no slave above his master. (25) It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, for the slave that he become like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household!
Courage Under Persecution
(26) “Therefore do not be afraid of them. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. (27) What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. (28) And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (29) Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. (30) Even all the hairs of your head are counted. (31) So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (32) Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. (33) But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.
After documenting a series of miracles by Jesus, Matthew wrote, “Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness. At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:35-36). Jesus then sent out his twelve disciples to the Jewish regions, sharing his “authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness” (Mt 10:1). He warned them what to expect during such a mission in the future.
(Mt 10:16) “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”
Behold, I am sending you
The expression denotes that the disciples represent Jesus in their mission. As his delegates, they will convey his message and do acts of mercy on his behalf.
like sheep in the midst of wolves
The Palestinians were familiar with the contrast between sheep and wolves. Being innocent and defenceless animals, the sheep were acceptable for Temple sacrifice. God considered Israel as His sheep and God Himself their shepherd. Jesus presented himself as a good shepherd who takes care of his sheep, risking his life (Jn 10:1-18). “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me” (Jn 10:14). Jesus used the term sheep for his disciples and wolves for the persecutors of the Church.
Wolves are essentially carnivorous animals that prey on the sheep. Ezekiel compared the officials of Israel to “wolves tearing prey, shedding blood and destroying lives to extort profit” (Ezek 22:27). Jesus used the same comparison for the persecutors of the Church as the wolves that attack the defenceless faithful, the sheep. Like the sheep, the disciples of Jesus are not supposed to fight back or use force for their pursuit.
Jesus predicted the persecution so his missionaries might be mentally empowered to face the challenges in their task. During the sermon on the mount, Jesus told the disciples: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12). After this teaching, Jesus himself underwent such torture and death on the cross.
so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves
The Bible presents the snake as the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made (Gen 3:1). The invisible Satan took the form of a serpent and spoke to Eve to misguide her against God’s precepts. However, Jesus presents here the serpent’s wisdom, not as cunning, but as a prudent conduct that derived from the popular concept of the time. After presenting the parable of a dishonest steward, Jesus concluded, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Lk 16:1-8). In contrast to the people of the world who are shrewd in their worldly security, his followers must be prudent in securing the afterlife. During their missionary venture, the disciples should follow the wisdom that the Holy Spirit would provide.
The Bible presents the dove as a clean and innocent bird. Like the sheep, it also is defenceless and acceptable for Temple sacrifice (Lev 5:7-11). The Holy Spirit took the shape of a dove while descending on Jesus at the time of his baptism. God considered Israel as a dove. “Out of Egypt they shall come trembling, like birds, like doves, from the land of Assyria; And I will resettle them in their homes, oracle of the LORD” (Hos 11:11). Since the dove is a tame bird, it is a symbol of peace, purity, love, and innocence.
With a combination of the attributes of the serpent and dove, Jesus incorporates all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord” (CCC-1831). Jesus exercised these as a role model for us during his public ministry, especially in dealing with the opponents he encountered. Though innocent, Jesus did not subject himself to every assassination attempt on him by his adversaries. He used prudence in disputing with them and subjected himself to death only when his hour had come. His disciples also should not yield to untimely martyrdom or physically counterattack enemies. Instead, they should defend the gospel and evade the dangers. “When they persecute you in one town, flee to another” (Mt 10:23). They will find other avenues that would welcome their service.
Jesus clarified how the disciples could be simple and wise. “Remember, you are not to prepare your defence beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute” (Lk 21:14-15). Paul presents wisdom as the first among the gifts of the Holy Spirit. “To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit” (1 Cor 12:8). In the parable of the ten virgins (Mt 25:1-13), Jesus presented the need for wisdom in Christian living.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul wisely defended their Christian beliefs before their adversaries. “Observing the boldness of Peter and John and perceiving them to be uneducated, ordinary men, they were amazed, and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus” (Acts 4:13). The Jewish opponents who interrogated Stephen “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke” (Acts 6:10). While Paul was in Ephesus, “He entered the synagogue, and for three months debated boldly with persuasive arguments about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8).
(17) But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues,
Jesus, who foresaw his passion, death, and resurrection, let his disciples know what they might also face during evangelization.
beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts
Who are the people who will hand over the disciples to the courts or synagogues? Jesus clarified that in Mark 13:12-13 – “Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.” Hence, even the members of one’s own family who oppose the mission of Jesus can be betrayers. Judas, who was like a family member to Jesus and the other apostles, handed over Jesus to the Jewish authorities. Jesus’ own family and neighbours rejected him and attempted to kill him. After preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth, “they took offence at him” (Mt 13:57; Mk 6:3). “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away” (Lk 4:28-30).
they will hand you over to courts
The courts were the Jewish supreme Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and the local Sanhedrin in each village next to the synagogue. The literal meaning of Sanhedrin is “sitting together” or assembly. The Jews established Sanhedrin after the Babylonian exile with religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction over the Israelites. Each city in the ancient land of Israel had a Sanhedrin comprising twenty-three rabbis. So, this prediction implied the persecution from the Jewish community to which the early Christians belonged.
scourge you in their synagogues
The Jews sentenced and flogged the early Christians within the walls of the synagogues. Paul confessed to the Risen Lord how he assaulted the Christians prior to his conversion: “From synagogue to synagogue I used to imprison and beat those who believed in you” (Acts 22:19). “Many times, in synagogue after synagogue, I punished them in an attempt to force them to blaspheme; I was so enraged against them that I pursued them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:11). After his conversion, Paul received forty lashes minus one five times at the hands of the Jews” (1 Cor 11:24).
The Sanhedrin sentenced the apostles to be flogged and asked them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus. The post-punishment reaction of the apostles was strange: “They left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name. And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Messiah, Jesus” (Acts 5:41-42).
The usual number of whippings was forty on the back of the body, with the criminal lying down on the floor in the judge’s presence (Deut 25:1-3). Later, the executors tied the criminal to a low post and whipped him on the back. A rod was the initial instrument used for punishment. Later, the Jews attached three thongs or lashes to the rod and whipped thirteen times, thus numbering 39 lashes. In order to inflict more pain, they even fastened sharp pieces of iron or lead in the thongs known as scorpions (1 Kgs 12:11).
(18) and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans.
you will be led before governors and kings
The disciples had to spread the gospel beyond Palestine. Hence, they would face challenges from the gentiles. They would lead them to trial before governors and local kings. After the trial of Jesus by the high priests and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders presented him to Governor Pilate and Pilate to King Herod Antipas. Jesus cautioned the disciples that they also would face similar trials by the Jewish and gentile rulers.
King Herod Agrippa harmed Christians and beheaded James, the brother of John the apostle. He had the same plan to continue pleasing the Jews and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1-4). Acts chapter 26 gives Paul’s trial before Herod Agrippa.
for my sake
The disciples had to face arrest, trial, imprisonment, and torture, not because of their fault, but because they were working on behalf of Jesus. He forewarned the disciples, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me” (Jn 15:18-21).
as a witness before them and the pagans
The trials before the pagan rulers became occasions for giving witness to the gospel through the disciples’ words of wisdom and miraculous works. During the trial, Stephen, Peter, Paul, and others boldly professed their faith in Jesus and made use of that opportunity to introduce Jesus and his kingdom, even to their adversaries.
While Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in prison, an earthquake occurred at midnight. After that event, the jailer and his family accepted Christianity through the intervention of Paul (Acts 16:25-34).
(19) When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say.
Since the disciples represent Jesus in their mission, they could expect the back-up support of the Holy Spirit. When God sent Moses to Pharoah, God said, “Now go, I will assist you in speaking and teach you what you are to say” (Ex 4:12). So, the disciples could go worry free trusting in God’s providence. As a result, Peter, John, and Stephen, who were less knowledgeable than the members of the Sanhedrin, spoke eloquently and courageously, giving witness to Jesus. “Observing the boldness of Peter and John and perceiving them to be uneducated, ordinary men, they were amazed, and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
After addressing the Sanhedrin, Stephen concluded, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (Acts 7:51-52). The missionaries of Jesus who work for the Lord and his Church work with courage, trusting in divine providence.
(20) For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
On Pentecost, after the ascension of Jesus, when the disciples were together, “There appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:3-4). When the Sanhedrin questioned Peter and John, “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit” answered them (Acts 4:8). Towards the end of Stephen’s trial, the members of the Sanhedrin “were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:54-55).
While the Christians in Antioch “were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts13:2). “So they, sent forth by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus” (Acts 13:4). When Barnabas and Saul were in Cyprus, Elymas the magician, opposed their ministry. “But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all that is right, full of every sort of deceit and fraud. Will you not stop twisting the straight paths of the Lord?’” (Acts 4:13:9-10) As Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church from its very inception on the day of Pentecost.
(21) Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.
Jesus predicted family conflict over faith in him and preserving membership in the Church. The non-believers would hand over the believers in the family to the authorities for the death penalty because of the Christian faith during the time of persecution. The Apostle Judas Iscariot, who had been like a family member to Jesus, betrayed him to the Jewish leaders. They handed over Jesus, their fellow Jew and the Messiah, to the Roman governor Pilate for the death penalty.
Micah had prophesied an adverse time of family dispute: “For the son belittles his father, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and your enemies are members of your household” (Mic 7:6).
Referring to this, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of one’s household’” (Mt 10:34-36). This was fulfilled during the developing stage of the Church, when there was also severe persecution from the Jews and the Romans.
(22) You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.
You will be hated by all because of my name
Those who rejected Jesus hated his followers as well, resulting in Christian persecution. While discussing with Nicodemus, Jesus said, “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come towards the light, so that his works might not be exposed” (Jn 3:19-20). Those who follow Jesus share his divine light. Since the evildoers hate the light, the disciples of Jesus also face the same hatred when they actively work for the Church. That happens because they work on behalf of Jesus. Peter wrote, “Whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name” (1 Pet 4:16).
Whoever endures to the end will be saved
The end can mean either the time of Christ’s second coming when the sufferings of this world will end or the death of each Christian. Jesus promised reward for those who endure for the Kingdom of God. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:10-12; Lk 6:22-23). Although the hatred by the people of darkness continues, the disciple should persist in remaining faithful to Jesus and his Church until the end of life.
While nearing death, Paul wrote, “I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance” (2 Tim 4:6-8).
(23) When they persecute you in one town, flee to another. Amen, I say to you, you will not finish the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
When they persecute you in one town, flee to another
Fleeing from one town to another is not out of fear or for one’s own safety. It is the application of wisdom in the missionary effort.
There should be sufficient reason to face martyrdom. Subjecting oneself to persecution with no relevance or outcome is worthless. Otherwise, it would waste the resource personnel of the Church. So, such fleeing is for further spreading of the gospel where “the harvest is plenty”.
Jesus shifted his locations of public ministry depending upon the rejection or receptivity of the people in the locality. The people in Nazareth rejected Jesus’ ministry. So, “he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith” (Mt 13:58). After healing of the Gerasene Demoniac by sending the demons to a herd of swine, “The entire population of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them because they were seized with great fear. So he got into a boat and returned” (Lk 8:37). When a Samaritan village did not welcome Jesus in their area because he was heading to Jerusalem, Jesus journeyed to another village (Lk 9:51-56). Jesus asked his disciples to follow the same approach in their ministry. Preaching to closed minds is fruitless. The disciples could find other regions of welcome. Hence, Jesus asked the disciples to be wise like serpents.
Amen, I say to you
This is the usual expression of affirmation of what Jesus was about to say.
you will not finish the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes
This part is confusing because the return of the Son of Man has not yet taken place. Some interpret it as 70 AD when the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem took place. Because the Israelites are spread all over the world from the time of the Assyrian exile, “the towns of Israel” can also mean all over the world where the Israelites have migrated. Hence, it can be the second coming of Christ before which the gospel will not reach all the towns in the world. The second coming of the Son of Man will be in glory to judge the living and the dead. Daniel had the vision of the son of Man “coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13).
(24) No disciple is above his teacher, no slave above his master.
This was a popular proverb that Jesus used to compare himself with his disciples. He was a model of implementing the mission his Father had entrusted to him. Jesus exemplified the hardships and sufferings that the disciples might endure for the missionary task, the prudent approach they should use to evade untimely martyrdom, and the victory awaiting them after death. If Jesus went through these, his disciples also would face the same. Hence, he told his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25). So, the disciples should not be surprised if they face persecution and even martyrdom before their ultimate victory in heaven.
(25) It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, for the slave that he become like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household!
It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, for the slave that he become like his master
Jesus compared his relationship with the disciples to a Rabbi and his follower, and to a slave and his master. The disciple cannot learn more from the teacher than what he knows. A slave cannot go higher in rank than his owner. Similarly, the disciples of Jesus will not have to suffer more than himself. He set himself as an example to his followers. After washing the apostles’ feet at the Last Supper, Jesus said, “If I, therefore, your master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him” (Jn 13:14-16).
If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul
Beelzebul is the name of the prince of demons (Mt 12:24). The Pharisees accused Jesus of being a collaborator of Beelzebul (Mt 9:34; 12:24). They said, “This man drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons” when in reality he did that with his authority as the Son of God. When Jesus was in his hometown, his relatives “set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ The Scribes who had come from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘By the prince of demons he drives out demons’” (Mk 3:21-22). If such was the experience of Jesus, when the disciples cast out demons and do similar humanitarian services, their opponents might accuse them also as being demon possessed.
how much more those of his household
After Jesus, at 30, left Mary in Nazareth and proceeded to start his public ministry, he selected apostles as his full-time companions – “He appointed twelve [whom he also named apostles] that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mk 3:14-15). Hence, they were like family. After his post-resurrection appearance to Mary of Magdala, Jesus addressed his disciples as brothers and referred to his Father as their Father, even as he instructed Mary, “Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (Jn 20:17).
On another occasion, Jesus said, “whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt 12:50). Thus, all the followers of Jesus belong to the household of Jesus through their membership in the Church. Jesus is the head of the Church. We also have to dedicate our lives to the ministry of Jesus in our homes, workplace, and community. We may face challenges, shameful experiences, or sufferings like those Jesus endured during our Christian witnessing. However, like Jesus, we have a crown of victory awaiting us in heaven.
Courage under Persecution
(26) “Therefore do not be afraid of them. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.”
“Therefore do not be afraid of them”
The Christian missionaries are like soldiers on the battlefield who defend bravely their country. Jesus knew the welcome he would get from the ordinary people and the rejection and opposition he would face from the Jewish authorities. Though he was well aware of his impending passion and crucifixion, he went to Jerusalem boldly to accomplish the mission his Father had entrusted to him. His disciples also should face head-on the challenges and even martyrdom to continue his mission. However, the motivation for them to defend the kingdom of God is their reward in heaven, just as Jesus had his resurrection, ascension, and enthronement in heaven.
Doing the mission work without fear is because of two reasons:
1. The opponents can destroy only the body, and not the soul.
2. The reward in heaven is great for those who work for the kingdom of God.
“Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known”
The secret of the missionaries is their awareness of the salvation that came through Jesus the Messiah. The kingdom of God is a hidden treasure that Jesus revealed, and the humans gain with personal commitment and renouncement of worldly ambitions. Jesus told his disciples, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls.
When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it” (Mt 13:44-46). The disciples must reveal that secret without fear, so those who believe can benefit from that treasure.
(27) What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.
What I say to you in the darkness
What did Jesus mean by his teaching in darkness?
1. Jesus taught the apostles in private at night when they were free from the crowd (Mk 4:34).
2. Jesus revealed the meaning of the parables only to the disciples. The others who heard only the parables lacked that understanding. After Jesus taught the parable of the Sower, “Then his disciples asked him what the meaning of this parable might be. He answered, ‘Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God has been granted to you; but to the rest, they are made known through parables so that ‘they may look but not see, and hear but not understand’” (Lk 8:9-10).
3. Jesus kept his identity as Son of God private, until his resurrection and asked the disciples and those who confessed it to keep that secret. When Peter confessed Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), “he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah” (Mt 16:20). After the transfiguration on a mountain, as Jesus was coming down with Peter, James, and John, “Jesus charged them, ‘Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’” (Mt 17:9; Mk 9:9).
speak in the light
Once Jesus accomplished the mission of his passion, death, and resurrection, the period of spiritual darkness is over. The Holy Spirit enlightened the disciples with understanding. Jesus promised the disciples, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my nam–he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn 14:26). Then they have to spread the light of Jesus and his message to all in spiritual darkness.
what you hear whispered
The Jewish scholars had the custom of whispering their doctrines in the ears of their disciples, who would announce that aloud to the public. The scholars also whispered into the ears of their interpreters to announce aloud the translation of their message to the listeners who understood only foreign languages. Though the Bible did not document Jesus using such a method for his teaching, he alludes to that here. What Jesus meant here is his teachings to the disciples in private and what the Holy Spirit revealed to them at Pentecost.
proclaim on the housetops
The Jews used to have an upper room for their houses that they used as guest room or prayer room. The roof tops were flat. Hence, while Jesus was preaching at a crowded home in Capernaum, four people could lower a paralytic for healing.
The announcers and preachers used the flat rooftops also for public announcements and preaching. After Pentecost, Peter addressed a large crowd from the rooftop of Mark’s house where the disciples received the Holy Spirit in the upper room. The preachers of the ancient Church must have used the rooftops for preaching, especially when the Jews expelled them from the synagogues.
(28) And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul
The disciples’ goal in life is the salvation of their souls and those of others. So, the preservation of the soul has precedence over the happiness and longevity of life in this world. Jesus and the apostles left the comforts of their dwelling place and wandered through different towns and villages preaching the gospel and helping the less fortunate, especially the sick and the demon possessed. All of them, except John, became martyrs for the Kingdom of God.
The persecutors of the Church cannot destroy the soul of Christians, though they can hurt the body, defame, or kill the persons. However, Jesus will raise them at his second coming and reward them with the crown of glory.
be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body
Sickness and death came into the world because of Satan and sin. The disciples should beware of sin that will lead to the destruction of the soul. The sin can be self-generated or tempted by others. Satan tempted Eve, and she tempted Adam. One’s own family member, friend, and opponent can cause one to sin. Nurturing evil thoughts can also generate sinful behaviour. So, every Christian has to consciously avoid sin and should not lead others to sin.
Jesus expressed this in a hyperbolic manner in Mark 9:43-48. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”
The literal meaning of Gehenna is “the valley of the sons of Hinnom.” Though unknown today, Hinnom must be the name of someone who lived in ancient Israel.
Gehenna is a deep and narrow valley in the south of Jerusalem. It was famous for idolatrous worship of Molech where people sacrificed children to appease the deity (2 Chr 28:3). The Jewish Law prohibited pagan worship and child sacrifice. However, unfaithful Jews, including King Ahab (2 Chr 28:1-3), sacrificed their children as burnt offerings to some false god (Jer 19:4). So, God cursed this valley. King Josiah later stopped the sacrifices here (2 Kgs 23:10).
Later, Gehenna became a place of waste disposal. People burned garbage, including the dead bodies of animals and criminals here. Because of the dumped refuse of the city, it was also a place of worms, maggots, and rotting stench. Since the fire kept burning there all the time, this place became a symbol of an everlasting destruction of sinners in the afterlife.
(29) Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Sparrows are tiny birds found in vast numbers in the Holy Land. They had little market value because their meat was distasteful. So, they were food for the poor people. During Biblical times, one could buy two of them for a small copper coin. According to Luke’s gospel, five sparrows were worth only two such coins (Lk 12:6). Jesus quoted their cheap value to clarify that people rate them as worthless birds.
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge
Though people underestimate sparrows, even they are valuable to God, who protects, nurtures and monitors their lives. No sparrow falls on the ground without God’s knowledge. His providential care extends even to the minutest creature in the universe. If they are precious to God, then how much care would God give to us humans made in His image and likeness?
Jesus expressed a similar sentiment during his Sermon on the Mount. “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’” (Mt 6:30-31) Besides providing their necessities, God will protect his faithful from their enemies. Without His permission, as with Job, no one can, without God’s permission hurt His people.
(30) Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
We never know how many hairs we have on our head. We may lose hair and still we do not count the number of hairs lost. Is God tracking how many hairs we have? This is another hyperbolic and proverbial expression of God’s perfect knowledge and exquisite care in our well-being. We are under God’s constant safeguard. Like the parents’ care and support for their children, God protects and nurtures us. So, when we are doing God’s work, we have nothing to worry.
We might underestimate a sparrow, the cheap bird in the market, or do not count the number of hairs on our head. Though these are of least concern for us, God is aware of all these. “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6:31-33). Christ’s disciples should not worry about the persecution because of evangelization. God will protect them, especially their souls.
(31) So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Humans are more valuable than all creations in this world because God created everything in this world for humanity, whom he created in His image and likeness. When Jesus went to a synagogue on a Sabbath, the Jews questioned him, showing him a man with a withered hand. They asked, “‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Which one of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable a person is than a sheep’” (Mt 12:10-12). During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?” (Mt 6:26) David praised God singing, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet: all sheep and oxen, even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas” (Ps 8:5-9). God, who protects the animals and birds that he created for us humans, would take more care of them, especially those who offer their lives for Him.
(32) Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.
Jesus came down from heaven on behalf of his Father to rescue humanity and present the obedient followers to his Father. “When he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power,” “then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father” (1 Cor 15:24). When John had the revelation at the island of Patmos, Jesus revealed, “The victor will thus be dressed in white, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name in the presence of my Father and of his angels” (Rev 3:5).
During the persecution by the Jews and Romans, the disciples who acknowledged Jesus as their Saviour were expelled from synagogues (Jn 9:22), tortured, or even put to death. Thus, Stephen became the first Christian martyr by the Sanhedrin (Acts 6 & 7) and James the first martyr among the apostles (martyred by Herod Agrippa – Acts 12:1-2). When the Jews were about to stone Stephen, “he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). At the Last Judgement, “The king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Mt 25:34).
Peter said to Jesus, ‘‘We have given up everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:28-30).
(33) But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.
Jesus foresaw his disciples, who might be tempted to deny him for their earthly survival during the time of Christian persecution. During the Old Testament times, people had deviated from their covenantal relationship with God and worshipped natural forces or other gods. In such cases, God warned them through the prophets. He withdrew his protection from the enemy nations when the Israelites ignored the warning through the prophets. Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and alerted his disciples as to the punishment for the unfaithful people at his second coming.
When people prosper, they will have the temptation to ignore God and Jesus’ teachings. That happened during Biblical times and later. Jesus asked: “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s life? What could one give in exchange for one’s life? Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mk 8:36-38; Lk 9:24-26). Paul wrote to Timothy: “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11-12).
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught of the true discipleship. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). So, we should establish discipleship through witnessing of the Lord in the world. “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers’” (Mt 7:22-23). The acknowledgement Jesus shows his disciples before his Father will be based on our genuine practice of the precepts of Jesus.
1. Jesus was open in presenting to his disciples what to expect in this world and in the afterlife. He became a role model of self-sacrifice, obeying his Father and dedicating his life for the salvation of humanity. Following him, let us also accept our crosses with the hope of reward from Jesus after death.
2. Though the early Christians faced persecution from the Jews and Romans, they kept up their faith. Many of them became martyrs. The challenge for us in the modern world is the comforts of life that tempt us to ignore God. Do we keep up our faith and nourish the faith of the future generation under our care?
3. Jesus promised the help of the Holy Spirit for those who work for the kingdom of God. We also received the same Spirit during our baptism and confirmation. Are we conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us and make use of the divine help?
4. Jesus advised his disciples to “be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.” Are we also wise to avoid evil and behave with innocence on our spiritual journey?
5. Jesus warned that even the members of one’s family or close relatives and friends might persuade us to deviate from the path of Jesus. Let us love God and follow Church directives, avoiding any wrong teachings and values.
6. When we work for Jesus and his Church, some people might disagree with us or even hate us. Let us remember the promise of Jesus: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Mt 5:11-12).
7. Jesus warned us to be cautious of “the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” Let us be vigilant of Satan and his human agents.
8. Let us accept Jesus as our Saviour and give witness to him in our lives, so he might acknowledge us before his heavenly Father.