Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 10:16b “. . .as sheep in the midst of wolves:. . .”
Jesus saw the future in the present, and told us some of what He envisioned. Jesus saw at the end of the corridor of time Sodom and Gomorrha receiving gentler treatment on Judgment Day than those who reject the message of Him (v. 15).
Jesus viewed not only the end of time, but also the full gamut of human history. Looking down the road, through miles yet to be, He saw the broad sweep of Christian history beginning to unfold. The Twelve’s first short-term mission trip to Galilee foreshadowed a much longer missions movement to the whole world.
This futuristic panorama revealed much pain would befall Jesus’ followers. Knowing His cause would be hated and resisted throughout time, Christ devoted this next section of Matthew 10 to telling His followers how to meet persecution.
“Sheep in the midst of wolves” is a stern image depicting what will happen when light invades darkness, when Christians try to win prechristians to Christ. “If it seems outdated, that may be an indictment of our Christianity” (Buttrick).
Samuel Zwemer, missionary to Muslims, rightly perceived, “Our willingness to sacrifice for an enterprise is always in proportion to our faith in that enterprise.” Many USA Christians, to avoid embarrassment at all cost, never share the faith with an unbeliever. Zwemer forces us to face the uncomfortable possibility our problem may be a crisis of belief at the core of our being. Despite what we say or think, maybe we don’t believe the Bible, that God would send anyone to Hell, Jesus is the only way to Heaven, Jesus is the best thing that can happen to people.
“Sheep in the midst of wolves” is a sober image we need to revisit and ponder. Do we see our own individual Christian life in this picture? If not, something is wrong with the picture. Jesus expected us, in extending His kingdom, to serve, sacrifice, and suffer, yet many of us live in convenience, comfort, and calm.
I have a nightmare of Paul, at Lystra (AC 14:19) rejected, cast out of the city, stoned, clothes torn, bleeding, and left for dead, being reincarnated on the platform next to me. I hear his incredulity, “You follow Jesus, but are accepted by society, totally free to preach in a building like this, and wealthy enough to dress like this? Surely you are shaking the world for Christ.” Imagine his disappointment when he learns the freest and wealthiest churches in Christian history proved to be the weakest. Persecution truly is painful, but being marginalized is worse. It is much better to be a harassed, disliked roaring tiger than an ignored paper tiger.
“Sheep in the midst of wolves”–Jesus foresaw in the advancement of His kingdom a long hard fight. In the Great Commission, Jesus gave His sheep a mission of dignity, duty, and danger to wolves, offering no delusions of easy success.
Illusion causes people to become disillusioned easily, to give up the fight quickly. The best leaders tell their people to face facts, to count the cost up front.
Churchill vowed to his people he would never surrender to Hitler, and yet warned them to expect “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Churchill said they would fight in the air, on land and sea, and if necessary, street by street with bare hands.
Britain counted the cost, chose to pay freedom’s price, and for 18 months stood alone against the twentieth century’s worst incarnation of evil. Had Britain not endured the crucible, the free world may have been hard pressed to survive.
Noble causes carry costly price tags. Someone has to endure pains and repercussions of resistance. This has certainly been true in the spread of Christianity. Missionaries, evangelists, soulwinners, and others who lead the way in penetrating the kingdom of darkness, bear a disproportionately large portion of abuse.
David Garrison, researching for our Southern Baptist IMB the world’s greatest revivals, discovered that missionaries in these movements look like a catalog of calamity. Many suffer illness, derision, and shame. Garrison thinks this may be due to a higher spiritual price required for rolling back the darkness. He advises anyone intent on trying this to be on their guard, to watch, fight, and pray.
This carnage of spiritual warfare should not surprise us. Jesus never sugarcoated the cost or peered through rose-colored glasses. He was always profoundly and bluntly honest about the perils aplenty involved in advancing His cause.
We desperately want to believe if we are kind, good, and honest, we will be universally admired and appreciated. But reality somewhere has to be accepted.
Our Master was perfect, never sinned, always loved others, yet walked to Gethsemane, where He sweat as it were drops of blood, and to Calvary, where He shed His blood for the very ones crucifying Him. Should we expect easier paths?
Wolves are not only a possibility, but reality. In fact, Jesus goes out of His way to make sure we travel rough roads. He Himself drives us into the wolf pack.
Sending sheep to the wolves certainly seems to be the exact opposite of what a tender, loving shepherd’s role should be, yet Jesus says without apology, “I who love you and value you, I who walked the same rough roads and who know how excruciating they are, I choose to set you in the midst of wolves.” Ouch.
“I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves” seems completely backward. Wolves enter sheep herds, not vice versa. A lamb sought and surrounded by growling wolves is terrifying, but natural. A lamb seeking out wolves to stand among them is bizarre. Why would One who loves us, who walked rugged steeps, and who knows how painful they are, intentionally put us through this agony?
First, anything is easier to face if we know Jesus put us here. Falling among wolves by accident would be precarious, for we’d be victims of circumstances, slaves ruled by whims of fate. But if Jesus sets lambs in the midst of wolves, He is responsible for our difficult strait, and thus accountable for what happens to us. Does He allow danger, ridicule, and death? Yes, but never needlessly. “Sheep in the midst of wolves” is not the same as sheep wandering aimlessly without a shepherd. His sending of us into the path of peril implies His watch-care over us there.
Second, Jesus loves the wolves. He wants to dispatch to them ambassadors of peace, and sheep are all He has to send. A fable might help. A shepherd once owned a perfect field, Sheepville, inhabited by a herd of perfect sheep. All was tranquil until the sheep rebelled against the shepherd. They all turned into wolves and Sheepville became Wolfdom. The shepherd’s love volunteered the only remedy that could reverse the disaster. He died and rose for the wolves, to show how much he loved them. Each wolf that embraced the shepherd’s sacrifice was transformed into a sheep again. Sheepville soon regained a little corner of the field, and began advancing on Wolfdom. The shepherd kept on loving the wolves, and never stopped wanting to turn them into sheep. He needed someone to go tell the wolves how to become sheep, and the only messengers he had at his disposal were sheep. Thus, he sent them, some to live, some to be maimed, some to be shamed, some to die, but all to be a shepherd’s ambassadors of peace to change the wolves.
“Sheep in the midst of wolves”–the image reminds us we testify not only by what we say, but also by how well we endure when reviled and resisted. Wolves are hard to change, and sheep seem strange missionaries to send, yet for centuries Christianity’s most powerful converting quality has been the willingness of its sheep to die–to self, to the world, for the lost, for Christ, to die rather than bring reproach on Him. Often only our suffering can soften a persecuting wolf’s heart.
Ken Sorrell, Southern Baptist leader for the Middle America Region South, rightly says, “Missions is messy work.” Any attempt to extend our efforts into the kingdom of darkness invites wolf trouble. Our calling is to gather sheep from the very ones acting like wolves. We ever face the danger of seeming defenselessness before the howling beasts. Resentment and hatred may dog us, but fear is never a justifiable excuse for not seeking out those wolves willing to enter the kingdom.
The world is a dangerous place for lambs who take the Great Commission seriously. As ambassadors to wolves, we are the natural prey of hungry predators.
Sheep, in the midst of wolves, have only two response options. First, they can run. Unfortunately, sheep don’t run well. Believers don’t either. We are always tempted to run and hide, to cower. Too many USA Christians choose this option. It puts us in God’s displeasure and thus should not be considered at all.
Second, they can stand their ground, and bleat loud enough to be heard by the shepherd. Never quit the field. Never sound the retreat. When wolves howl, dear sheep, bleat. Without prayer we are helpless, but with it we are invincible.