In this second part of our series, Hard Sayings, we looked a bit more closely at the hard saying from last week that following Jesus is hard. Here we have reaffirmed for us the difficulty of remaining faithful over the long haul, but we also get a bit of a reprieve: The rewards are pretty good as well. Keep reading to see how this unfolds.
A Difficult Journey
When was the last time you did something that was hard, but which left you feeling like you’d done something worthwhile? That’s a really good feeling, isn’t it? You work hard, make some sacrifices even, and come out on top. Like you, I’ve done this kind of thing a few times, but probably the thing that stands out the most to me was learning to play the drums. I started when I was in seventh grade. I had played the trumpet in sixth grade, but then I got braces. Braces and the trumpet do not play well together. Drums didn’t hurt. I started taking lessons almost immediately from a teacher in my neighborhood. That teacher moved. I found another one. I didn’t like him at all. Found a third teacher who was great and stuck with him all the way through high school and into college. And I practiced. Much to my parents’…and probably the neighbors’ too…chagrin, I practice a lot. Then I got to college. I took more lessons and played with the percussion ensemble. In fact, I played a lot, not only with the various university ensembles, but I also started playing with different bands including getting to tour and cut a cd with a rock band of some friends when their previous drummer quit.
I’ll tell you: It was a lot of fun. And when I finally graduated and the amount of time I spent playing dwindled down to zero as life changed, I could look back and be really proud of what I had the opportunity to do. I had played in four states with at least eight different groups. I had gotten to learn from some of the best teachers in the world and play alongside some truly great percussionists. I had made wonderful friends and even made some connections to my family’s past that I would not have otherwise made. I’ll tell you this, too, though; It was a lot of work. I spent hours in the practice room in college. I often played until my fingers literally bled, and then kept playing until I had developed sufficient callous so they didn’t bleed anymore. There were weeks when I performed seven days straight. I spent more than one weekend on the road, working on homework around the travel and set up and tear down. But I wouldn’t trade the time and experience for anything. And just in case you don’t believe I was in a rock band: Here you go.
Well, this morning we are in the second week of our new series, Hard Sayings. In this series of conversations, we are taking a look at some of the things Jesus said that are a little more difficult to wrap our minds around than things like, “For God so loved the world…” These are things that often leave us wondering what exactly Jesus was thinking or maybe if the Gospel writers recorded something wrong or even if perhaps He had originally said something not so hard, but whatever it was got lost to a mistranslation at some point when one of the countless copies of the original was being made. These are the kinds of things that we’d rather avoid. They are culturally unpopular. They are just offensive. And yet…Jesus said them. And because He’s…well, Jesus…we’ve got to pay attention to them. Indeed, because He’s Jesus, if we’ll spend some time with all of the things He said—including this hard stuff—we’ll find that these words lead to life just as surely as His easier teachings do. In fact, some of these sayings draw us into the deeper truths of the faith where we will begin to find the real depths and riches of the abundant life. These sayings offer us a graduate course on life and how to live it to the fullest.
Last week, we started with Jesus’ announcing to the huge crowds who were following Him that unless they were willing to put Him ahead of everything else in their lives, they weren’t going to be able to be His disciples. As we unpacked this surely crowd-displeasing announcement what we came to discover was that following Jesus takes everything. The life He calls us to live is abundant and good, but it is a commitment that takes more than a half-hearted effort. He put everything on the line in order to make it available to us, it only makes sense that we must be ready to do the same in order to receive it. But, lest you hear me saying that salvation is somehow difficult for us to obtain, hear me well: It’s not. It is a free gift. But, once we give our lives over to Jesus, we can’t hold anything back if we want to experience the wonder of becoming fully who He designed us to be. Following Jesus takes everything.
This morning, we’re going to take a look at a passage from Matthew’s Gospel where the apostle recorded the same teaching block that we looked at from Luke last week. Now, some folks look at this and wonder if there isn’t some kind of a contradiction of context here. Luke says Jesus said it one place, Matthew has Jesus saying it somewhere else. The mistake here is in thinking Jesus only ever said anything once. He very likely said many of the same things over and over again in a variety of different contexts. He did this because different audiences needed to hear the same messages, but also because the same audience needed to hear the same message several times in order for it to sink in sufficiently. The context in which Matthew records Jesus’ exhortation of the difficulty of following Him is different from Luke’s. This time, instead of addressing His message to the crowds generally, Jesus is addressing it specifically to the disciples. And, the particular context is His preparing them to go out in pairs and proclaim the message of the arrival of God’s kingdom all over the region of Israel.
In this similar, but different block of teaching, Jesus offers us yet another hard saying. This one gives us a bit closer of a look at what we talked about last week. It helps us understand in more detail not only what following Him demands, but what it rewards as well. Open your Bibles to Matthew 10 and let’s take a look at this together.
Start reading with me at v. 34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”
Now, let’s start with the obvious here. One of the much beloved titles of Jesus is Prince of Peace. Well, where does the Prince of Peace get off announcing that He came to bring, not peace, but a sword to the earth? Isn’t that kind of the opposite of peace? The short answer: Yes and no. We need to be sure we are understanding this as Jesus’ audience would have heard it and not through the lens of modern culture. Jesus was not here declaring that He came to bring violence to earth. The imagery of a sword then represented conflict. Now, yes, in one sense, conflict is the opposite of peace. But, the kind of peace Jesus came to bring, is one that goes beyond the mere absence of conflict. He came heralding an entirely new kingdom—the kingdom of God. One of the main characteristics of the kingdom of God is a peace that is much richer and deeper than the mere absence of conflict. It has a sense of things being right, of things being the way they were always intended to be. Under the reign of God’s peace, we have a sense of wholeness and contentment that cannot be shaken by any threat whether external or internal. Conflicts aren’t merely gone, they are resolved. Well, in order to resolve conflicts, you have to actually face them. That means facing conflicts.
Stay with me here: When this new kingdom arrives, it naturally begins to vie for space that was previously occupied by the former kingdom, the kingdom of this world—the set of beliefs, behaviors, and expectations which are opposed to God and His kingdom at every point. Anytime two kingdoms come into contact with one trying actively to occupy territory held by the other there is going to be conflict. In this case, the kingdom of God is advancing to reclaim territory that it previously owned. It is the kingdom of this world that has been the aggressor. The kingdom of God does not come seeking out fights, but to bring peace. As it steadily advances to bring that peace, though, the kingdom of this world fights back to hold on to what it is losing. Conflict ensues.
Indeed, this conflict is something Jesus was rather explicitly clear that His followers would face as they sought to be faithful to His mission of advancing the kingdom of God in this world. As a matter of fact, in this very passage Jesus was honest with the disciples about what they would be facing in the days ahead of them as they set out on their first missionary journeys. After giving them some instructions on how they were to be going (namely, with faith that God would provide for them as they went), Jesus was pretty brutally honest with them about what kinds of resistance they would be facing.
Listen to this: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” He goes on later to add this: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When 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.”
Think about what He’s saying here. Jesus is promising the disciples—both the ones standing in front of Him and those of all the generations since including us—that they can look forward to persecution if they commit to pursuing the path of the kingdom. Who does that? Who prepares his followers for a mission by telling them how hard it’s going to be? Who lets them know ahead of time how much trouble they’re going to find themselves facing as they get into it? I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t really seem like a great way to attract and retain followers. Yes, this is an odd approach, but it is an honest one. Jesus was nothing if not honest about what life with Him was going to be like. And the honest truth is: At least as often as not, it’s going to be hard.
And consider the kinds of hard Jesus lays out here. It’ll be legally hard. We’ll be delivered to courts. Where it is possible, our enemies are going to make pursuing public expressions of our faith in Christ illegal. Around the world, there are many countries today in which being a public follower of Jesus is a one-way ticket to at least prison. That’s the best you could hope for. Now, in our country, the First Amendment holds much of this at bay, but the culture is changing. And laws can’t hold where the culture has given out. The Supreme Court just ruled on the case of a Colorado business owner who was persecuted just nearly out of business by his home state for politely declining to bake a custom wedding cake for a gay couple. The Court ruled in his favor, yes, but it was on narrow grounds that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was clearly out to get him because of his religious beliefs and explicitly refused to act similarly when the situation was reversed. Most notably, the Court did not address the religious liberty issue he raised at all; whether or not what he did was legal. That will have to be decided by a future court with a future case.
Following Jesus will also be religiously hard. In every culture over the last 2,000 years in which the dominant religion was something other than historic Christian orthodoxy, faithful followers of Jesus have been persecuted by the representatives of the dominant religious worldview. In Muslim contexts this plays out rather familiarly, but even the Catholic Church in the early days of the Reformation aggressively rounded up dissenters and burned them at the stake. Today, throughout the world, Christians are being persecuted by the forces of the dominant cultural and religious worldview of their nations, at times almost to the point of nonexistence. Since 2,000 about 100,000 Christians have been killed because of their faith every year. In our own culture, the dominant religious force—or at least the most political and culturally powerful one—is no longer Christian theism, but rather a secular progressivism that views public expressions of Christian faith as an existential threat to the things it holds most true. And if you cross these religious authorities wherever they happen to be, you will be made to pay the price.
It’ll be politically hard as well, Jesus said. We’ll be made to testify before governors and kings. Now, this doesn’t mean that we’ll literally be hauled before our political rulers, but we will be given a chance to bear witness before people who are in a position to make a difference in the world around them. Peter and John spoke before the Sanhedrin. Paul bore witness before the Roman King Festus and, tradition holds, Emperor Nero himself. As our culture continues to turn from anything recognizably Christian, if you are faithful to the ways of Jesus, you are eventually going to be called to account for it by someone who has the power to do something about your refusal to bend the knee to the right masters.
Then, there’s the hardest hard of all: Family hard. If you become a follower of Jesus in a family that is not supportive of that, you can count on facing pressure. The Soviet Union used to actively court children to tell on their parents if they ever did anything unpatriotic. When it comes to the kingdom of the world versus the kingdom of God, they won’t even have to be courted. I know of a woman who was kicked out of her house by her former husband along with her two young boys when she started going to church and he didn’t like it. To this day, neither boy has any kind of a relationship with their dad.
This last point is significant enough that Jesus came back to it specifically in our passage for this morning. Listen again to Jesus’ words here knowing what we know now: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” The Message translation puts it in even starker terms: “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies.”
Think about all of this in light of what we talked about last week. Following Jesus takes everything. If you take up the journey of following Jesus faithfully there is a good chance it will cost you. It will cost you culturally, religiously, politically, socially. There may even a familial cost. And this doesn’t even get into the fact that our worst enemy in all of this is often ourselves. That’s a conversation for another time. Bottom line: Following Jesus is hard. Being faithful is hard. This isn’t exactly welcome news, but it is something about which Jesus was rather explicitly clear.
Now, last week we said that it would have been nice for Jesus to have softened the blow of His words just a bit. He left us sorely disappointed. This week things are just a bit different. Jesus doesn’t just tell us faithfulness is going to be hard, He also tells us here what we can expect if we commit to walking this particular path. In fact, I see three promises in this text which we can claim when we find ourselves walking this particular path. The first is in what we have already read. When Jesus said we can expect to be hauled before governors and kings, He gave a reason for it: “to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” In other words, when we find ourselves in one of these hard situations, the reason for this is that our God has placed us there strategically so that we can bear witness for Him. Think about that: God thinks your testimony is sufficiently important in the life of the person or people before whom you will have a chance to share it that He’s willing for you to face a challenge (which He will help you bear) in order to give you the opportunity. What an honor! Now, understanding that isn’t necessarily going to make a painful situation any less painful, but it can give us hope. God has not abandoned us. Instead, He’s giving us the opportunity to serve Him on the front lines of the conflict that will bring about the peace of the kingdom of God. Would that He counted all of our faith and testimonies sufficient to warrant such a kingdom honor.
The idea that God has not abandoned us actually forms the heart of the second promise in situations of persecution and abuse for our faithfulness. Check this out starting in v. 29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Do you see it? Think about it like this: When it comes strictly to material possessions, I suspect many of you are like me in valuing your phone above just nearly everything else. And the reason is simple: You keep most of your life on that relatively tiny device. Let me ask you this: How often is your phone out of reach, much less not attached to your body somehow? I’ll bet it’s not often. Well, considering how much God values you—it’s at a sufficiently high level that He has numbered the very hairs on your head—want to guess how often He lets you out of His sight? Yeah, it’s not often. In fact, it’s never. No matter where your path of faithfulness happens to lead you, no matter what challenges or obstacles you may face along the way, your God will never leave you alone for even a moment.
There’s one more promise here and this is perhaps the most important of all. Listen to this starting at v. 40: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” Let that one sit on you for a minute. When you are out representing the kingdom of God, seeking to faithfully advance His kingdom, whether someone does or does not receive you and your message, they aren’t really receiving or rejecting you and your message. You may be the focus of their words and actions as they perhaps don’t understand the deeper reality they are facing, but the reception or rejection you face will actually be of Christ Himself. It is Jesus who is received or Jesus who is rejected. Consider how freeing that is. How often have you heard someone say—or perhaps you have said yourself—that the reason they don’t share the Gospel more actively than they do is primarily wrapped up in a fear of rejection. When it comes to our efforts to advance the Gospel, though, this kind of thinking is wrong almost to the point of being sinful in its orientation. We are ambassadors for Christ. We represent Him. If we get rejected, we don’t get rejected—He gets rejected. What happens to us, by proxy, happens to Him.
What knowing this does is to free us for boldness. We can boldly stand for Christ before an increasingly hostile world because it is not our lives we are putting on the line. We are part of the body of Christ, and even if our part is a little bruised, the whole is going to be okay. In fact, because of our faithful testimony in the midst of the hard, the kingdom of God is going to advance in this world. So, perhaps the path of faithfulness is a challenge, but the rewards make it worthwhile. Being faithful is hard, but the rewards are rich.
If you step out and share the Gospel with the wrong person at work, you could find yourself in hot water with at least the HR department. But, if that person later responds to God’s invitation delivered through you, you have gained a brother or sister in Christ and the kingdom of God has claimed another soul. If in school you talk about your faith with the wrong person or defend an historic, orthodox theological concept (the exclusivity of Christ, for example), you could get made fun of or even disciplined. But if that discipline results in a new follower of Jesus, it’s worth it, isn’t it? Now, we are perhaps less likely to face much in the way of pushback on the home front, but I’ll bet you have at least extended family members who don’t know the Lord. Perhaps you have tried to share the Gospel with them. If you have, then you know just how fraught with tension that experience can be. And yet in each of these and many more similar situations, while being faithful is far from challenge-free, the rewards of sticking to that path are beyond what we can even get our minds around. Being faithful is hard, but the rewards are rich.
There’s just no way around it: Being faithful to the path of Christ is hard. This is not an easy truth. It’s something Jesus said, but it’s hard. Thankfully, the Scriptures never promise us anything less than this, and history is full of examples of this fact, so no one need sign up for the journey without being fully aware of it. But when we commit to sticking with it, life itself is waiting as our prize. Being faithful is hard, but the rewards are rich. If you start or keep following Jesus, know well that life is going to be hard at times. It’ll be hard because of your faith commitment. Some of you already know this. But the rewards for staying the path are rich beyond belief. Some of you already know this as well. Being faithful is hard, but the rewards are rich.