Last time we looked at some dire warnings Jesus gave His twelve apostles concerning the persecution they would face for the sake of the Gospel they were to proclaim.
Matthew 10:23-31 – Jesus Sends Twelve Apostles Forth – Part 4
Now we see Jesus giving the apostles encouragement and instruction on how they were to face up to the persecutions He had just warned them about.
23When 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.Matthew 10:23-31 [ESV]
24“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.
26“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
23When 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.Matthew 10:23 [ESV]
First, note that Jesus doesn’t say if they persecute you in one town, but when. Recall that He had just warned the apostles about the certainty of persecutions to come, and reassured them plainly that if they endured through the persecution remaining faithful to their Gospel testimony that they would just as certainly be saved out of persecution. Remember also that earlier in the chapter, Jesus had instructed them to shake the dust of any town which rejected their Gospel message off their feet. But now, Jesus warns them to run away from any town in which they are persecuted in addition to having their testimony disbelieved.
Jesus wasn’t encouraging martyrdom for the sake of His kingdom then, and He still doesn’t encourage martyrdom today. Of course, He was fully aware that almost all of these apostles would indeed become martyrs for His Name’s sake, as indeed He surely knows beforehand those who will be required to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Gospel even today. In fact, Jesus had just finished warning them that some of His witnesses would be “delivered over to death.” The key to understanding Jesus’ direction here to flee rather than face up to persecution is remembering His promise to save those who endure to the end. For some, this does indeed mean martyrdom. For others, only suffering through the persecution until the opportunity arises to flee out of it. For both, enduring the persecution requires us to remain faithful to our Gospel testimony no matter what happens. We must remember this crucial element of Jesus’ warning and encouragement, because the persecution will become more frequent and more intense as our ancient enemy sees his time of dominion over the Earth coming to an end.
It is very easy to misunderstand and misinterpret Jesus’ prediction at the end of Matthew 10:23 if we fail to remember the context of the verse. As Christians, we tend to look at the red letters of the Gospel and consider them as teachings for us in our own time and place. Indeed many, if not most of Jesus’ teachings are just as applicable to our own Christian lives are they were for those to whom Jesus originally taught them. But in order to properly understand what Jesus says at the end of Matthew 10:23, we need to keep in mind that Jesus was speaking to His twelve selected apostles concerning the very first Gospel mission on which He was about to send them forth. Recall that He had been careful on this occasion to instruct them to witness only to the people of Israel on this first mission, although He certainly intended to send them forth to witness to the Gentile world after His ascension. If we remember that, His prediction at the end of Matthew 10:23 becomes easily understood. He would be reunited with them before they would have time to carry their assigned message to all the towns of Israel.
24“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master…Matthew 10:24-25a [ESV]
With all due respect (i.e. none) to the Mormon theology that the “Latter Day Saints” will one day be coequal with God, Jesus makes it very clear that He – our Teacher and Master – will remain so for all eternity. Certainly God’s Spirit is continually sanctifying Christ followers. Therefore, when He calls us to Himself in death, or returns to gather His bride – the Church, we will finally be perfected into the very image of Jesus. But we will remain just that – an image of His perfection, not His coequals. He does call us brothers and friends, but He still remains LORD over us for all eternity, and we will remain His most beloved creation.
For our part, we strive to be as “Christlike” as we can – to be like our Teacher and Master. This is perhaps at least partially what Jesus meant when He said we must come to Him as children.
15Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”Luke 18:15-17 [ESV]
Infants and young children learn and grow by observing and imitating. We need to be imitators of Christ our perfect Teacher, striving by the power of His Spirit within us to overcome the weakness and sinfulness of our flesh and be as much like Him as possible.
25…If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.Matthew 10:25b [ESV]
It should be clear, but just in case it isn’t, when Jesus speaks of “the master of the house” here, He is speaking of Himself. When He talks about “those of his household,” He is speaking in particular about the apostles whom He is about to send forth, but also about all of those Christ followers who would come after them.
The name Βεελζεβούλ beelzeboul is a Greek transliteration combining two Hebrew words – בַּעַל baʿal meaning ruler or lord and זְבוּל zᵊḇûl meaning dung or filth. It was commonly used in Jesus’ time as a name for Satan – the prince of demons. There are several instances in the gospel accounts where Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the power of Βεελζεβούλ beelzeboul. For example, Matthew 9:32-34 records Jesus casting a demon out of a man who was mute. Some of the Pharisees then accused Him of doing so by the power of the prince of demons. We will revisit this subject, God willing, when we study Matthew 12.
26“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.Matthew 10:26 [ESV]
Even though this is meant by Jesus as a reassurance, what a fearsome thing it is to ponder. I for one keep some things I’ve thought, said, and done to myself. I fully understand that absolutely everything about my life will one Day be revealed before God and everyone.
11Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.Revelation 20:11-15 [ESV]
For the Christian whose name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, even this awesome coming judgement is nothing to fear, as Jesus said to these apostles. Nevertheless, the revelation of all our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds will no doubt be deeply uncomfortable and humbling when the Day finally comes for all to be revealed. In the meantime, as God’s Spirit continues to perfect us into the image of Christ, Paul’s words to the Philippians are a great encouragement.
12Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16Only let us hold true to what we have attained.Philippians 3:12-16 [ESV]
27What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.Matthew 10:27 [ESV]
Recall that in the early days of His ministry, Jesus instructed those whom He healed to remain silent about how they had been healed. With the sending forth of these twelve apostles, all of that was about to change. The time had come at last for the Gospel of God’s redemption for all mankind to be openly proclaimed to Israel initially and eventually throughout the entire world. The apostles’ mission (and ours) is to proclaim to everyone we can the Good News of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone in accordance with the scriptures. Jesus’ instruction to His chosen apostles here in verse 27 is straightforward. It parallels His teaching to all His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.
14“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.Matthew 5:14-16 [ESV]
28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.Matthew 10:28 [ESV]
Matthew 10:28 makes it clear that people are made up of at least two components. We have a mortal body that temporarily houses our soul which has the potential to live forever. Therefore, since our souls have the potential to remain alive apart from our physical bodies, we need not fear bodily death, but only spiritual death. In studying this verse, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Greek word for soul here is ψυχή psychē. This intriguing word can mean breath (as in the breath of life), life, something that is alive, or (as it is translated here in Matthew 10:28) soul. ψυχή psychē is variously translated in our English language Bibles as soul, life, mind, and heart. Here in Matthew 10:28, ψυχή psychē is universally translated as “soul” in every English language translation I had available to me in preparing this lesson.
As a young Christian, when I first encountered this verse, I mistakenly believed that the one Jesus spoke of who can destroy both body and soul in hell is our enemy Satan. In our secular culture, a red caricature of the devil is commonly accepted. Our cartoon devil has a human-like body with a pointed tail and horns. He is usually carrying a pitchfork with which to poke his minions and victims, and he always wears a “devilish” smile. This fantasy devil owns hell as his domain. But this conception of our enemy gives him too much credit, while minimizing his cunning and the nature of his true agenda – to distract us from the Truth of the Gospel and deceive us into following after the illusion of contentment in the fallen world. In fact, I believe Satan himself has carefully crafted this cereal box image of himself to disguise his true fearfulness.
Make no mistake. Satan is a demon – an angel originally called Lucifer before his fall from heaven when he led a rebellion of angels against God (see Isaiah 14:12-21, Luke 10:18, Revelation 12). Since Satan is a fallen angel, there is no doubt that he is very powerful indeed. Recall that in a single night, God used just a single angel to destroy 185,000 soldiers of the Assyrian army who had besieged Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13-19:37). Certainly, Satan is able through his many human and demonic servants to kill our bodies. His agents were even able to kill the earthly body of Jesus of Nazareth – although Satan never recognized that this was purely by God’s will, and that Jesus laid down His life willingly (see John 10:17-18).
Yet even with all the power of a mighty angel, Satan is powerless to destroy our souls. Only God Almighty has the power to bestow life to our souls, and only God may take life from our souls. Hell is not the domain of our enemy, and never will be. He has certainly been granted temporary dominion over the Earth in its current fallen, sinful state. But on the day of God’s judgement at the great white throne, Satan’s dominion over anything at all will be brought to a final end. The very sinfulness of mankind that he brought to the world when he tempted Eve in the Garden will be abolished. Hell is not Satan’s dominion. It is his prison where he will be tortured forever apart from God. The hell mentioned here in Matthew 10:28 is the eternal fire Jesus spoke of in His parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46).
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.Matthew 25:41 [ESV]
NOTE – The eternal hell spoken of in Matthew 10:28 is different from the temporary holding cell spoken of by Jesus in His parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). That place or state of spiritual being is called ᾅδης hadēs in the New Testament, and שְׁאוֹל šᵊ’ôl in the Old Testament. This place or state of spiritual being is more appropriately translated as “the grave” than as “hell.” It is the state in which the body has died, but the soul remains, awaiting the final judgement of God. Like the true and eternal hell Jesus speaks of here in Matthew 10:28, there is no escape from ᾅδης hadēs (שְׁאוֹל šᵊ’ôl). The souls of those who die bodily having rejected the Gospel, whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will remain in that state until the Day of final judgement. On that day, their immortal souls will be cast into the lake of fire to face eternal condemnation and torture along with the devil and his angels. This is what Jesus called the second death.
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.Revelation 20:14 [ESV]
What did Jesus mean when He said to His apostles that we should fear God because of His power to destroy both body and soul? Since it was God who first breathed life into our souls, surely God has the power to destroy our souls as well. The question is, will He? In order to tackle this question, let’s first look at what Jesus might have meant when He said “fear him who…” The Greek word here is φοβέω phobeō from which we derive our English word – phobia. While this word can mean to be afraid or terrified, it can also mean to be in awe, to revere, to be struck with amazement, to venerate, to treat with deference, to reverentially obey. When the Day of God’s final judgement comes, which of these connotations of φοβέω phobeō is most appropriate will depend entirely upon whether one’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. For the born-again Christ follower, God’s judgement holds no terror. The verdict and sentence of God’s judgement is already set. Jesus on the cross bore the wrath of God for our sins upon Himself so that we need not suffer it. Indeed, Jesus is able to bear God’s wrath while we are not. For those who have not believed in the depths of their hearts the Truth of the resurrection of Jesus, and have not in response confessed aloud their commitment to follow Jesus as their personal Savior, LORD, and Master with their entire hearts, minds, souls, and strength, the coming wrath of God against sin is terrifying indeed. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth are terrifying to unbelievers, but a great reassurance to those who have been cleansed of our sins by Jesus’ redeeming blood.
9Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And such were some [all!] of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 6:9-11 [ESV]
But still the question remains, will God destroy souls in hell as He surely could if He so wills? The word ἀπόλλυμι apollymi Jesus uses here can indeed mean to destroy, to end, to ruin, to kill, to sentence to death, or to lose. In the world today, it is commonly believed that our consciousness is the result of the chemical processes in our bodies (specifically our brains), not the result of God’s having breathed the breath of life into our souls as part of His creative work. Consequently, most people today believe that when those chemical processes cease with the death of our bodies, our consciousness also evaporates into nothingness. This belief can be oddly comforting for those who die without ever having believed in Jesus’ resurrection or confessing Jesus as LORD. After all, even if there is a coming judgement by God, if our souls simply disappear after the death of the body, at least we won’t suffer in torment in hell for all eternity. Unfortunately for those who believe this insidious lie of Satan’s, their belief flies in the face of what Jesus Himself taught.
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34Then 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.Matthew 25:31-34 [ESV]
41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.Matthew 25:41 [ESV]
46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Matthew 25:46 [ESV]
29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.Matthew 10:29-31 [ESV]
What a relief this brief encouragement must have been to the twelve apostles (as indeed it is for us) after all Jesus’ talk about persecution, hell, and the destruction of our souls. In closing, let’s look at David’s sweet reminder of God’s great care for us.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.Psalm 139:14-18 [ESV]
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
17How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.
Next time, God willing, we will finish up our study in Matthew 10.