MOVED BY COMPASSION when the crowds remind him of sheep without a shepherd, Jesus instructs his disciples, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt. 9:38) — and then he organizes a trainee mission for the twelve who constitute his inner circle (Matt. 10). There are many wonderful things to learn from this chapter, which, judging by the language (e.g., 10:18), Jesus takes to be a kind of forerunner of a lifelong mission. Here I must focus on just one element.
That element is the degree of conflict that Jesus anticipates in this evangelistic enterprise. Some entire communities will reject Jesus’ followers (10:11-14). In later years, although their witness will reach to the highest levels of government, those very governments will sometimes impose harsh sanctions (10:17-19). The priorities of the Gospel will split families so severely that some family members will betray other family members (10:21, 35). At its worst, persecution will hound Christian witnesses from one center to another (10:22-23). In some instances this persecution will end in martyrdom (10:28).
Anyone with the slightest familiarity with history knows how frequently and chillingly these prophecies have been fulfilled. The fact that many in the West have for so long been largely exempt from the worst features of such persecution has let us lower our guard — even Christians may think that a hassle-free life is something that society owes us. But as the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West weakens, we may one day be caught up in realities that missions specialists know but that the rest of us sometimes ignore: the last century and a half have seen more converts, and more martyrs, than the first eighteen centuries combined.
What will stabilize us in such times? This chapter mentions several precious supports: the recognition that Jesus our Master was hated before us (10:24-25); assurance that in the end justice will be done and will be seen to be done (10:26-27); recognition that a proper fear of God reduces fear of human beings (10:28); quiet confidence in the sovereignty of God, even in these circumstances (10:29 -31); encouraging recognition that those who do receive us receive Christ, and therefore receive God (10:40); Christ’s own promise that the rewards of eternity cannot fail (10:41-42).
In any case, a fundamental principle is at stake: This is the way Christians view things; indeed, it is bound up with being a Christian. “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (10:38-39).