Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves
In Matthew 7 Jesus calls false prophets “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Now in Matthew 10, He sends out some true prophets – the 12 disciples – and they will be “sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Matthew 10:16)
When worldly prophets infiltrate the church it’s deadly. And when the church’s prophets infiltrate the world it’s deadly. Yet in both cases it’s the Christians who are in danger. The sheep are in danger at home and in danger abroad. There are wolves in the fold and wolves in the world. Nonetheless Jesus sends forth the sheep.
But He’s going to warn them in advance. No soldier should enter battle unaware of the perils. No-one ever heard of a soldier shrieking, “They’re shooting at me! I can’t believe they’re shooting at me!” Yet many Christians go forth as messengers of Jesus and are mortified that opposition comes their way.
Jesus does not want us to be unprepared. And so His image is even more graphic than warfare. He asks the disciples to imagine some sheep trotting through the midst of a pack of wolves. That is mission according to Jesus.
And if the image is too esoteric for us, He spells it out in the following verses:
“Beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles… And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake… If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?” (Matthew 10:17,18,21,22,25)
Sheep in the midst of wolves means hatred, slander, betrayal, scourging, arrests and death. Those “sent forth” in mission risk their reputations, their freedom, their families, their health and their very lives.
What are these sheep doing to provoke such hostility? Simply, they are preaching, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [They] Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: (Matthew 10:7-8)
In other words they are bringing good news, healing and restoration to all that they meet. For this they are met with defamation, disgust, detention and death.
How do we make sense of that? Verse 40:
“He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)
Jesus – the Sender – has Himself been sent forth. The Master of mission knows what mission is. He is the original Sheep among wolves. He was the innocent Lamb of God sent forth amongst a whole world that tore Him apart. And what did He do to deserve it? He simply preached and procured salvation for the world. And the world killed Him for it. Jesus endured the ultimate hatred, slander, betrayal, scourging, arrest and death. He did not merely risk His reputation, freedom, family, health and life - He gave them all up. He was a helpless Sheep devoured by ravenous wolves.
So when Jesus “sends forth” He does not do it from a distance. He is the Suffering Sent One. Therefore when He calls “unto Himself” (v1) He cannot help “sending forth” (v16). And when He sends forth, it’s actually a call to “follow after me” (v35). To be with Jesus is to go out in His name. To come to Christ is to share in His missionary sufferings.
We will never face the wolves the way that He did. And we will never face our own wolves alone. But we will know His fellowship in suffering now and, in just a little while:
“Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.” (v32)