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Matthew 10:24-39 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 10:24-39. THE LOST ART OF CROSS-BEARING
This is the third part of Matthew’s Missionary Discourse (10:5-42). In these verses, Matthew collects a number of related sayings of Jesus having to do with committed discipleship in the face of conflict.
These verses are rooted in the history of Israel—famous for persecuting prophets (Jeremiah 26:20-23; 2 Chronicles 24:20-22; Luke 11:47-51; Acts 7:52; Hebrews 11:32-38). The point is that, if prophets suffered persecution and Jesus suffered crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples can expect similar rough treatment.
For First World Christians, this text seems alien—extreme. We have not been maligned for our faith. Nobody has threatened our lives. Being a Christian has not required cross-bearing. For most of us, church membership led to friendships—even jobs or sales. It is very different elsewhere. See www.persecution.com for examples of persecution of Christians around the world.
But even in the First World, the climate is changing. Public schoolteachers feel free to comment positively about non-Christian religions, but fear disciplinary action or lawsuits if they say anything positive about Christianity. The entertainment industry delights in portraying Christianity in a negative light. Journalists ignore the church’s good work, but delight in reporting its misdeeds. Fundamentalist Muslims target “infidels”—Christians and others who do not share their beliefs. They kidnap or murder Christian missionaries. In the years ahead, it would not be surprising if churches were to become targets of suicide bombers.
We might be nearing a day when First World Christians will find faith dangerous. In the next decade, the dangers and hard choices of which Jesus speaks in this Gospel might become very real to us. Christians might learn again what it means to suffer with Christ—to bear a cross—to be persecuted—to find families divided over issues of faith—to suffer beatings or martyrdom. We might discover what it is like to live in a world that equates evangelism with proselytizing—where the legal system prosecutes as hate mongers those who proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. That is the world in which millions of Christians live today. We should not imagine that it could not happen here.
MATTHEW 10:24-25. A DISCIPLE IS NOT ABOVE HIS TEACHER
24“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant (Greek: doulos) above his lord. 25It is enough for the disciple that he be like his teacher, and the servant like his lord. If they have called the master (Greek: kurios—master or Lord) of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household!”
Just as Jesus faced opposition and, ultimately, the cross, so Jesus’ disciples will face persecution and possible martyrdom.
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant (doulos) above his lord” (v. 24). Jesus states this self-evident principle to establish a foundation for a greater principle—that his disciples can expect to face opposition and persecution just as he did.
The word doulos can be translated servant or slave, but suggests involuntary servitude. A doulos is subservient to his/her master and is expected to obey the master’s command. Slavery was common in Jesus’ day, is mentioned frequently in the Bible—often metaphorically, as it is here. The apostles often referred to themselves as douloi of Christ (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1).
“It is enough for the disciple that he be like his teacher, and the servant like his lord” (v. 25a). The disciple is inferior to the teacher, but Jesus’ disciples are privileged to be like their master in the opposition that they face.
However, Jesus does not call us to provoke persecution or to seek martyrdom (see 10:14). Persecution follows naturally when we expose evil—challenge power—demand change—undermine the status quo. If we are faithful, there is a good chance that we will face opposition. When that happens, we share Christ’s cross—and are like our master.
“If they have called the master (kurios—master or Lord) of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household” (v. 25b). Beelzubul was a Philistine god whose name meant “lord of the house,” so Jesus is making play on words in this verse—Jesus is the Godly master of the house, but is accused of being the Satanic master of the house. Just as people accused Jesus of working by the power of Beelzebul (9:34; 12:22-27), so also they will accuse Jesus’ disciples of demonic power.
MATTHEW 10:26-27. PROCLAIM ON THE HOUSETOPS
26“Therefore don’t be afraid of them, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed; and hidden that will not be known. 27What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops.”
“Therefore don’t be afraid of them” (v. 26a). Fear in the face of persecution is natural, but Jesus gives three reasons not to fear (vv. 26, 28, 29-31):
The first reason not to fear is that, “for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed; and hidden that will not be known” (v. 26b). Evil people love darkness, because it hides their evil deeds (John 3:19). They conspire in secret to thwart the good. But the Lord “will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness” (1 Corinthians 4:5), and will vindicate the faithful. God will not permit evil to win.
“What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops” (v. 27). Jesus calls the disciples to proclaim boldly and publicly that which he has taught them in private. Flat housetops make platforms for public announcements—a person standing on a housetop can be seen and heard by all. Jesus calls us to shout his teachings—all of them—from this kind of public perch. We are not to tiptoe around the truth in the fear of inviting persecution.
Preachers are tempted to avoid hard texts. Fear prompts us to choose texts that are easy to understand and comfortable to preach–but which avoid the hard to digest parts that are essential for good spiritual health.
But Jesus says, “So don’t be afraid of them.” Preach the truth boldly—and in love!
MATTHEW 10:28. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THOSE WHO KILL THE BODY
28“Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Greek: geenne—Gehenna).
“Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (v. 28a). The second reason not to fear is the limited power of our opponents. They can kill the body, which will die soon anyway, but they have no power over the soul. Only God has power over eternity.
The scriptures never suggest that we should fear Satan. Satan has power to bruise our heel (a painful injury), but Christ has bruised Satan’s head (a fatal injury—see Genesis 3:15). Satan may be lashing about dangerously in his death throes, but the danger that he poses is limited and temporary.
“Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (geenne—Gehenna)(v. 28b). Scripture often speaks about fear of the Lord (Psalm 2:11; 15:4; 19:9; 22:23; 25:12, etc., etc., etc.). We prefer to think of God’s love rather than God’s judgment, and have lost our sense of awe in God’s presence. It is appropriate, however, to fear the Lord, because God has authority over body and soul throughout eternity. God will have eternity to right the wrongs that people inflict. Fear of God helps us to overcome fear of people, and sets us free to be faithful witnesses (Boring, 264).
In the Old Testament, Gehenna was the place where the wicked were punished. The name Gehenna comes from the Hebrew, ge Hinnom, which means the Valley of Hinnom. This was a valley near Jerusalem where human sacrifice was sometimes practiced (2 Kings 23:10) and where rubbish from Jerusalem was burned in fires that never cooled. This valley, therefore, stands as a metaphor for a place of eternal, fiery damnation.
MATTHEW 10:29-31. YOU ARE OF MORE VALUE THAN MANY SPARROWS
29“Aren’t two sparrows sold for an assarion coin? (Greek: assariou) Not one of them falls on the ground apart from your Father’s will, 30but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.”
“Aren’t two sparrows sold for an assarion coin?” (Greek: assariou)(v. 29a). The third reason not to fear is God’s compassionate love. God cares even about tiny sparrows, birds that become in this verse a symbol of inconsequential value.
Some translations use the word “penny” for this coin. As a consequence, for many years, I understood this verse to mean that a sparrow in Jesus’ time was almost worthless, because a U.S. penny is almost worthless. A teenager working at a minimum-wage job in the U.S. earns several hundred pennies an hour—one every few seconds. Barclay reinforces the notion of the sparrow’s worthlessness by noting that, in Luke 12:6, Jesus speaks of five sparrows sold for two pennies while Matthew speaks of two sparrows sold for one penny. Barclay concludes that the fifth sparrow, thrown into the deal at no extra cost, suggests how worthless a sparrow really was (Barclay, 401).
An assariou, however, is a copper coin worth 1/16th of a denarius. A denarius is a day’s wages for a laborer (Matthew 20:2), so an assariou represents 1/16th the amount required to sustain a family at subsistence level (food, clothing, and shelter) for one day. That isn’t a great deal of money, but it is not trivial either. An assariou is the equivalent of several dollars (in the U.S.). To determine the value of an assariou in your currency, divide the annual income of an ordinary adult worker by 250 to get a daily wage (5 days per week x 50 weeks). Then divide that number by 16 to get the value of an assariou). Or do it in one step by dividing an ordinary worker’s annual income by 4000.
“Not one of them falls on the ground apart from your Father’s will” (v. 29b). The phrase, “apart from your Father’s will,” is open-ended, and could mean without the Father’s knowledge or without your Father’s consent. In this verse, it tells us that our Heavenly Father knows and cares about each of the millions of sparrows that populate the planet and will eventually die and fall to the ground.
“but the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (v. 30). In the Psalms, “the hairs of my head” is used as a metaphor for something too numerous to be counted (Psalm 40:12; 69:4). The disciples to whom Jesus is speaking would be familiar with those Psalms and would understand the significance of the Heavenly Father knowing the number of hairs on each of their heads. The God who cares for a small bird also cares about that the small things of our lives—even the hairs on our head. We are reminded of the new mother whose baby is so precious that everything about it seems wonderful—each finger and toe seems like a separate miracle. God loves us in that kind of detail.
“Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows” (v. 31). Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If the Father cares about a sparrow, which has little value (v. 29), will he not much more care for humans—and in particular for Jesus’ disciples! However, this is not a promise that the Father will not allow the disciples to suffer. Jesus’ requirement to “take his cross” (v. 38) proves that.
We must be careful to avoid two errors:
First, it would be possible to use this verse to say that sparrows are unimportant (with the implication that it matters not how we treat sparrows), but verse 29 makes it clear that sparrows are important to God—so much so that God knows each one individually and is aware when one falls to the ground. This has implications for our treatment of animals.
Second, some extremists among human rights activists deny that there is any meaningful difference between animals and humans. They insist that the life of each animal is as precious as the life of each human. That is Biblically unsound, as this and other verses demonstrate. In Genesis 1:26-28, God gives humans dominion over animals. Throughout the Bible God makes it clear that animals are acceptable as food for humans, but not the other way around. The Bible also offers eternal life to humans, but not to animals.
MATTHEW 10:32-33. WHOEVER CONFESSES ME, I WILL CONFESS
32“Everyone therefore who confesses (Greek: homologesei) me before men (Greek: anthropon—men, humans), him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven. 33But whoever denies me before men (anthropon), him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
These verses contain both promise and warning. Jesus promises loyalty to those who are loyal to him. If we acknowledge Jesus before other people, Jesus will acknowledge us before the Father in heaven. However, if we deny Jesus before other people, he will deny us before the Father. The image is that of a courtroom with Jesus serving (or refusing to serve) as our advocate. If Jesus is our advocate, we cannot lose. If Jesus refuses to take our case, we cannot win. Thus our actions in this life have eternal consequences, because Jesus will consider them when deciding whether to defend us.
“Everyone therefore who confesses (homologesei) me before men” (anthropon—men, humans) (v. 32a). Homologesei involves a public witness of trust or allegiance, even in the face of opposition or even persecution.
The acknowledgement that Jesus requires is acknowledgement before anthropon—other people.
We acknowledge Jesus by deeds as well as by words. The person who participates in regular public worship is acknowledging Jesus publicly. However, if that person acts selfishly or dishonestly on Monday, he/she compromises his/her Sunday witness. The words of our mouths and the works of our hands need to be consistent if our witness is to be effective.
“him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven” (v. 32b). The implication is that Christ’s acknowledgement in heaven is tantamount to granting us salvation. The person whom Christ acknowledges in heaven can expect to be admitted—to be saved.
“But whoever denies me before men (anthropon), him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (v. 33). The implication is that Christ’s denial is tantamount to damnation. The person whom Christ denies in heaven can expect to be excluded—to be damned.
Many Christians today favor a view of God that acknowledges God’s love but ignores God’s judgment. However, this verse and many others like it (see Matthew 25:31-46) make it clear that God will reward the faithful and punish the unfaithful.
MATTHEW 10:34-36. NOT PEACE, BUT A SWORD
34“Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword. 35For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36A man’s foes will be those of his own household.“
“Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword” (v. 34). “The ‘mission statement’ here is meant to shock” (France, 408). Sword is a metaphor for conflict.
Conflict was not Jesus’ purpose, but it arises naturally from evildoers who respond violently to Jesus and his teachings.
By the time of the writing of this Gospel, Christians were frequently estranged from their families because of their decision for Christ.
“For I came to set a man at odds against his father” (v. 35a). In verses 35-36, Jesus alludes to Micah 7:6, which speaks of conflict in the family. God created the family and gave it as a gift for our benefit. Typically, the family is our last refuge. No matter who is against us, our family is for us. Separation from one’s family is, next to separation from God, the most terrible isolation that we can imagine.
Now Jesus tells us that we can expect conflict even from our family when we live by faith in Christ. The grown child who chooses Jesus may no longer want to participate in religious practices held dear by his/her parents. The husband or wife who chooses Jesus will want to attend worship on Sunday mornings when his/her family might prefer his/her presence elsewhere. The wage earner who chooses Jesus may find it necessary to choose work that involves less compromise but also offers less pay. Faith in Christ impacts every aspect of life, from the way that we conceive our children to the way that we bury our dead. It is no wonder that, when other members of the family do not share our faith, they resent our faith-choices and the impact that those choices have on them.
MATTHEW 10:37-39. HE WHO LOSES HIS LIFE FOR MY SAKE WILL FIND IT
37“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me. 38He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me. 39He who seeks his life (Greek: psychen) will lose it; and he who loses his life (psychen) for my sake will find it.”
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me” (v. 37). The commandments (Exodus 20:3) call us to serve God to the exclusion of all other gods. Jesus will validate that priority when a lawyer asks, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus has carried the matter further by requiring loyalty to himself even above loyalty to bury a father (Matthew 8:22). Now he requires loyalty to himself above loyalty to family.
The commandments (Exodus 20:12) also call us to honor father and mother. Jesus’ words in verse 37 could be seen as anti-parent, but they are not. Jesus does not advocate disloyalty to family but instead calls us to place loyalty to God even above loyalty to family.
“He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me” (v. 38). By the time that this Gospel was written, Christians were familiar not only with the cross of Jesus but also with crosses borne by Christians on their way to martyrdom.
Jesus’ promise is that “He who seeks his life (psychen) will lose it; and he who loses his life (psychen) for my sake will find it” (v. 39). Psyche can mean physical or spiritual life, and is often translated “soul.” However, the Jewish people thought of the person as a holistic being–not divided into body and soul as the Greeks thought. In this verse, psychen has to do with the person’s life force. Perhaps it is better to think of it here as the person’s personal well-being.
We live in a “What’s in it for me!” kind of world where we are tempted to focus on what we can get rather than what we can give. Businesses use accounting gimmickry to persuade people to pay more for their stock than it is worth. Executives bail out on Golden Parachutes, leaving behind broken businesses, ruined investors, and abandoned employees. Politicians make decisions based on re-election considerations rather than the good of the nation. Young people go to college, not to become productive citizens, but to make more money and to have more fun.
Jesus tells us that such behavior is ruinous in the long run—such people will lose their lives. We see it even in the short run. Truly happy people are those who are who live for something larger than themselves. The narcissist strives for happiness but achieves only broken relationships and unfulfilled dreams. Jesus promises that it will be quite different for those who “loses his life (psychen) for my sake” (v. 39).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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