“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…they will hand you over to councils and flog you…do not worry about how you are to speak…for what you are to say will be give to you at that time…brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child…but the one who endures to the end will be saved…For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:16 ff. passim)
Passages like this have challenged and troubled and confused Christians almost since the day they were written! Ordinary Christians and biblical scholars alike have wrestled with what Jesus could possibly have meant by these dire warnings, and particularly the notion that these trials and tribulations were going to happen very soon. (“You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes!”).
Albert Schweitzer thought Jesus was simply wrong in his prediction! According to Schweitzer, Jesus thought the end of the world was near and so made these predictions, but he was wrong! Later scholars suggested that perhaps Jesus didn’t say these things at all, but they were put on his lips by the writers of the Gospels or by the early Church as they faced persecution and needed Jesus’ help to get through it!
More recently, Bishop N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar in the Church of England and the darling of conservatives these days, has made another attempt at understanding such passages — one which is pretty radical for a conservative biblical scholar! He believes that Jesus did indeed speak such words, but that he was not talking about the end of the world or the end of time at all. Rather, he was talking about the fall of Jerusalem!
Like the prophets before him, in this scenario, Jesus is warning his disciples that the powers-that-be (at this time, the Romans) were going to sack Jerusalem unless people changed their ways and stopped threatening violent uprisings against them. God was going to judge his people and, once again, use a foreign power to carry out the punishment.
By this time in his ministry, Jesus was convinced that the people were not going to change their ways into the ways of peace, so he was warning his followers that things were going to get rough for them, and so to prepare for persecution. Moreover, all this was going to come down soon…shortly after his death…and that they were probably not even going to have time to preach the Gospel throughout Israel before all this would begin to happen.
Well, of course, we know that the Romans did indeed sack Jerusalem in 70 AD, after St. Paul and the other apostles had started a number of churches, he had written his major Epistles, and just as the four Gospels were beginning to be written! So, Tom Wright’s theory is an interesting one…and rather appealing to me at least.
We may never understand all the nuances of passages like this. But regardless of which theory you embrace, know that Jesus’ challenge to send his disciples out like “sheep in the midst of wolves,” his warning that they would be “handed over to councils” and flogged, and his assurance that they would be given what to say at that time for “it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father will be speaking through you…”
Words like these have given strength and inspired courage to those early Christians (who did indeed face persecution — from Jews and Gentiles alike!), to missionaries and evangelists through the centuries who have faced similar trials, to African Americans in this country as they struggled for their civil rights, to South Africans in their fight against apartheid, and — dare I say it? — to Palestinian Christians today who are experiencing their own kind of apartheid.
All of these Christians — and ourselves — are assured by these words that whatever we face, we are to do it with wisdom and innocence, with confidence and courage, and know that we will never be deserted by the One who has called us, the One who has sent us, and the One who will, one day, welcome us home!