THE DIVISIVENESS OF JESUS (MATTHEW 10.16-32)
JOHN 17, UNITY OF FOLLOWERS, PRAYER FOR DISCIPLES
In our divided world we are searching for unity. Places of division in our world - national, linguistic, special interest groups, political, tribes, time/periods of birth; The French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, Northern Ireland, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua.
Divisions are much more than mere disagreements over a policy or a political party. Many or most people are passive and ultimate issues are personalized. Every society knows of disagreements (polarized and absolute) where each side assumes absolute revelatory stance, i.e., Muslims, Japanese kamikaze pilots. All other views are heresy.
Is there nothing in our culture worth fighting for? Is there nothing in our Christian faith to which we attach transcendental importance? (Syncretism, pluralism, divergence) In our culture worship is the great “god” of Pluralism (enjoyed praise without ceasing).
Three forces in our 21st century culture: (1) Hedonism - principle of pleasure; (2) Materialism - attainment of “things”, self idolatry, who we are; (3) Pluralism - beyond mere diversity but no position has the right to declare another position wrong; seen as not merely tolerant but wiser, more mature and civilized.
(1) Pluralism is surprisingly intolerant - all positions except its own are negotiable; (2) the problem with Liberalism is that it can afford to be liberal only to liberals (others are dismissed as fanatics, bigots, narrow minded and hate mongers); (3) Pluralism is as intolerant as the intolerant concoctions it condemns; (4) Pluralism turns out to be the unwitting stooge of the Postmodern Social Agenda. It is rootless except for the value of its pluralism. (5) The Postmodern culture denies “True Truth.” (6) As long as postmodernism goes unchallenged all who are out of step with relativistic pluralism will never get a hearing!
What does this present condition imply for The Christian claim of absolute truth? Should we recover the Crusades or The Inquisition? Should we take the sword and make war on all those who reject the Finality of Jesus as Lord? God forbid! Commitment to non-negotiability of truth is commendable. We must avoid the serious errors of the past (aligning with the State) that utilize the sword of The State to enforce Christian Truth and “convert” by force. Only the “Theology of Promise” can order the Old and New Testaments as guides into the 21st Century. In the Old Testament the locus of people was a nation; under the New Testament the people of God are not identified by any nation or language or ethnic power unit but as “pilgrims”, a community of people who are a minority fellowship, frequently suffering, whose supreme sanction is excommunication. In modern and postmodern Europe and America the Church is largely free from the power of the State (e.g. the Church and State Issue--The Constitution of the United States, The Bill of Rights, the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution). The Church in China and Eastern Europe is the largest in the world and it is a Suffering Community! The great challenge for The Church in the 21st century is to grapple with the non-negotiable “Character of Truth,” the thoughtful setting out the implications in the context of prevailing pluralism.
Jesus said that He came “to seek and to save the lost.” The great Christian English author, C.S. Lewis, is surely biblically correct when he stated that “Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic or the Lord.” (See Acts 4.1-11, esp. 12) We have noted Jesus’ claims to authority in Matthew 7.12-21-23; 10.34, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The reason why our culture is unprepared for this theme is because of the pervasive influence of pluralism. The influence on us is so enormous that we can expect an audience with postmodern auditors with understanding the cultural norm of pluralism. This dilemma has caused many to form a “new Jesus” to fit their receiving agenda (see my paper, “The Search For The Wrong Jesus”).
The authentic Jesus present in all scriptures is at the heart of the diverse Exclusivism and can be removed only by radical surgery on the Gospel documents. The historical Jesus is an uncomfortable message and is the source of much rejection in favour of a tamer Jesus, a domesticated Jesus who will not challenge us or tell us that none are lost without faith in Him. Jesus forces us to rethink our most fundamental assumptions and question our most cherished priorities.
This scripture presents at least four features of The Divisiveness of Jesus:
I. THE DIVISIVENESS OF JESUS LEADS TO OPPOSITION FROM THE WORLD AND SOMETIMES TO PERSECUTION:
The entire earthly life of Jesus reminds us of those claims. Jesus was attacked as being in league with Beelzebub (Matt. 10.24,25 (The lord of the flies, filthy). Why should such a name be applied to Jesus? Here our incarnate Lord was attacked as being empowered by Prince Baal. Why should His disciples attach themselves to such a one? Perhaps they understood and rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5.41). Here we see a reflection of the cosmic conflict between God and the order He has created but which now stands in rebellion against Him.
Jesus is preparing His disciples for their future lives (10.11-17). Once Christians had entirely withdrawn from the synagogue, their new divisiveness was extended. Paul himself suffered flogging five times within the first two decades of his ministry (II Cor. 11.24) for carrying out The Gospel “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1.16).
Christian witness has extended beyond Judea and Galilee, “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles” (Matt. 10.18). The words governors and kings indicate his Jewish environment. Like all the heroes of he faith listed at the end of Hebrews 11, “the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11.38). We ravel into many local versions of the Gulag Archipelago. But this part of the Christian’s calling, “The master Himself has said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (10.16a). The shepherd sends his sheep among the wolves. This is the normal stress in the New Testament (e.g. John 15.18-16.4). How then should Jesus disciples act? The metaphoral language turns to pick up two other creatures. We are to be “as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10.16b).
In the ancient Near Eastern cultures, snakes were proverbial for prudence and shrewdness. Doves as retiring but not astute; they can easily be snared by the prowler. Doubtless the balance is difficult. The principle of this passage is that followers of Jesus should expect opposition. This is as true in the 21st century as in the first.
II. THE DIVISIVENESS OF JESUS EXTENDS TO THE DISRUPTION OF FAMILIES (10.21, 34-39)
In the first century these words would have been more shocking than today. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death” (10.21; see also Micah 7.6). Where the family unit is stronger than it is in most Western democracies, there is a corresponding horror at the thought of disruption. Conversion to Christ often generates family breaches (e.g. when a Jewish friend became a Christian, she was removed from her family relationship). Often conversions from less committed families do not produce such serious dislocation. Families just don’t care. An African chief became a Christian and his entire family and tribe disowned him. He had multiple wives and as a Christian he was responsible to take care of them the rest of their lives, but to only live with one of them. Jesus’ primary purpose for coming was not family dislocation, but the results are often disruptive. Such a world may pride itself with high-sounding religious or ethical formulations; but in practice it is little prepared for the righteousness, forgiveness and transformation of character His kingdom introduces.
Jesus’ coming will bring about these conditions. “He has come to turn a man against his family, a daughter against her mother. He does not mean that being disciples will turn against their family members, but that their family will turn against them. But why must he Gospel have such negative effects? Jesus spells out the reason, when he said, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10.37). Of course, anyone who dares say such a thing is a lunatic or The Messiah. This strange result stems from two perspectives frequently found in scriptures: (1) The entire world order is given over to rebellion against God. Even the best of our social institutions are controlled by self-interest. The social dynamic domesticates God! We cannot serve two masters; it is either God or Caesar--which one? The reason for our purest institutions is hardly more than mere utilitarianism; (2) the only way out of this bondage of self-interest is conversion to Jesus Christ. Who/What ever demands ultimate loyalty is our god. The Christian must struggle to be an ideal citizen. We must focus our hope not on the state or home, etc., but on God. We have our cross to bear!
That is why the divisiveness of Jesus is inevitable where genuine conversions take place; that is why the divisiveness of Jesus extends even to the disruption of families.
III. THE DIVISIVENESS OF JESUS, AND ALL THE MALAISE RELEASED BECAUSE OF IT, ARE NOT TO BE FEARED.
The passage before us offers five reasons to encourage us to overcome our fears. (1) Persecution is not unexpected (esp. vs. 26a); (2) At crucial points we shall be granted special help (10.19,20). Gnawing fear can be more destructive than persecution itself; and in a totalitarian regime, high officials are likely to evoke far more terror than a corresponding official in a democracy where there is at least some possibility of redress. This text is not an inspiration for lazy preachers or Church members. This is a promise of direct help in the specific context of overt persecution. In this promise our fears should be laid to rest. (3) Opposition and persecution often occur in hidden ways not open to public scrutiny (the quiet snubs, the backroom decisions). (4) But be of good cheer for “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4.13). (5) Every facet of opposition to the Gospel will one day be exposed. “Be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10.28).
IV. THE WRATH OF GOD IS MORE TO BE FEARED THAN THE WRATH OF MAN (10.28)
If we fear God, we need fear no one else. Our fears are calmed by the loving grace of God. God’s sovereignty is our ultimate foundation to keep us out of persecution and difficulty (I Cor. 10.13). When we contemplate Jesus’ divisiveness, we must keep these basics or we will become paranoid, gloomy, pessimistic and even possibly masochistic. The foundational truths that we keep in mind are: (1) The need will always exceed the persecution. “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (10.22). Persecution may shut down one avenue of witness, but there are always others. Persecution does not spell defeat. (2) Our faithfulness in His mission is bound up with Heaven and Hell (10.32,33; Romans 1.16; 10.9). It is impossible to forge an absolute disjunction between being a Christian and Christian witness. One cannot be the former without engaging in the latter. (3) Christian truth is grounded in the transcendent importance of witness. If hospitality and help and general receptivity are extended to the prophets and righteous men, not merely out of common courtesy but because of who these people are, there is a profound self-identity with what they stand for, a sharing in their commitments and rewards (Matthew 13.17; 23.29; II John vs.11; III John vs. 5,6,8). If we keep this in mind, our witness will be both bold and compassionate and far less interested in our own welfare but in the welfare of those to whom we bear witness.
James Strauss, Lincoln, IL 62656