Sheep Among Wolves – Matthew 10:16-23

(If you would like to receive Pastor Harris’ weekly sermons via e-mail, Click here)

Pastor Scott L. Harris

June 6, 1993

Sheep Among Wolves

Matthew 10:16-23

THE PRINCIPLEMatthew 10:16

Americans enjoy being prosperous. They enjoy the things that their money can buy. They enjoy being able to have a life of ease. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself for even Solomon commented in Ecclesiastes 5:18, "Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward." It is wonderful to be prosperous, and I certainly do not want to condemn prosperity. However, there are some dangers associated with prosperity. First, prosperity is generally the result of hard work, but if you come to believe that a life of ease is an inherent right, then you start to demand that someone else provide it for you. That is a current political problem. Many people now believe they deserve economic well-being at the expense of those who are working. A second danger is that if you think that prosperity is the goal of life, then greed takes over along with its many ramifications. A third danger is that a person who has grown up in prosperity can become complacent in it and become unwilling to make the personal sacrifices needed to continue in it for others. You do not want to "rock the boat," so compromises are made so that things can continue for a while longer.

These dangers have spiritual corollaries. We have grown up in a nation that was prosperous; not only economically, but spiritually prosperous as well. As a nation we have a rich and wonderful heritage of striving to understand the Lord, His Word, and carry out His will. We were the source of the greatest world missionary endeavor of anytime in history. But we have become complacent. It is much easier to read about the Bible than study the Bible for yourself, so while Christian publications and media ministries abound, we have also experienced a phenomenal amount of theological nonsense accepted as truth from the mouths of a proliferation of false teachers.

Business ethics are declining rapidly because of the desire to make another dollar. At the same time, churches are compromising their convictions in order to attract a few more people from the world. The end results are a lack of Biblically sound convictions, and in fact, the development of convictions that are in direct opposition to the Scriptures. You may have wondered how for certain our governmental leaders can call themselves "Christians" and also promote such things as abortion and special privileges for homosexuals. The reason is simply because they are part of liberal churches that long ago compromised Biblical integrity for man- centered philosophy. They are not disciples of Jesus Christ, but are "Christians" only in a cultural sense.

The striving in the church to become prosperous – successful in terms of attendance and finance – has led to much of what we see in what is called the "Church Growth Movement." Now there are some good things in that movement, but too much of it is based on marketing technique rather than the Holy Spirit with a goal of being large instead of righteous before God.

The point of all of this? Simply this. The text we are going to examine today and the next couple of weeks describe Christianity in a way that has been, for the most part, lost in America. Yes, there are many that still understand it, but few in comparison to a few decades ago. If being a Christian means to be a "little Christ," which is its literal meaning, then it also means to do what Jesus says. The section of Scripture we have been examining contains Jesus’ instructions to the apostles when He first sent them out to proclaim the message that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matthew 10:7). As we saw last week, many of these instructions are specific to the apostles at a specific time, but they also contain principles of ministry that carry on through the ages.  (See: Instructions for Ministry).

Last week we saw several principles of ministry in Matthew 10:5-15 including the need for: a focused ministry, to give a clear message, to live a life of ministry with a heart that trusts the Lord, to concentrate on those who respond, and to depart from those who are firm in their rejection. This week we will examine the warnings that Jesus gave the Apostles as they went out because there was danger ahead.

The general principle is found in verse 16: "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves. In Matthew 9:36, Jesus described the multitudes as sheep who needed shepherds, so we would expect Jesus to tell the disciples that the people would be ready for them and receive them, and they would be shepherds among sheep. But we have something quite the opposite. The Apostles would be the sheep and the people they would be going to would be the wolves. This at first would seem a ridiculous statement and unloving and unkind if true. Would Jesus, the chief shepherd, instead of protecting the sheep from the wolves actually send them into the midst of the wolves? What could this statement possibly mean?

Simply put, it is a very graphic description of the rejection that they would receive at the hands of the world while at the same time describing the nature of the relationship they were to have with Christ. Sheep are probably the most dependent and helpless of all domesticated animals. A shepherd has quite a job to do just keeping them alive and healthy, in addition to providing protection from predators. Philip Keller, who was a shepherd for many years in Canada, describes sheep well in his book, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm. Their indiscriminate eating habit means they have to be protected from eating poisonous plants. They are very vulnerable to extreme weather, infections, and disease, and so must be sheltered and checked regularly for cuts and disease symptoms. They can be frightened by things that are harmless, as well as things that are dangerous. They have been known to kill themselves by hitting their heads against rocks due to the irritation caused by flies buzzing around their heads. Their only defense is running away, which they do not do well, and in a panic, a pregnant ewe cannot only lose the lamb, but die herself from exhaustion.

The Apostles and we (in other passages) are described as sheep. That may not be flattering, but it is accurate. Our lives depend upon the shepherd. We do not know enough to do what is right and we cannot protect ourselves. We rely on the shepherd to lead us and protect us. If the apostles were to survive among the wolves of the world, then they must rely upon Jesus.

Those that would seek to destroy the Christian are often described in the Scriptures as "wolves." In Matthew 7:15, Jesus described the false prophets as "ravenous wolves." (See: Beware of False Prophets). In Acts 20:29, Paul warned the Ephesians elders against "savage wolves" that would arise from among them and not spare the flock, but speak perverse things to draw away disciples after themselves. (See: Warnings to the Church)

Why does Jesus, the Good Shepherd, send defenseless sheep out into this ungodly world among the wolves? Because that is where He can use them best in their service for Him. They will have to trust Him as they go. The Shepherd knows what He is doing and the purpose He has for each sheep. John 10 tells us that Jesus will not lose any of His sheep.

Now that does not mean the sheep will not be persecuted, tormented, and many killed, but it does mean that Jesus will gather each one to Himself in heaven and give to them eternal life. The sheep will be persecuted, tormented, and martyred because the Shepherd, who is also the "lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world", was persecuted, tormented, and martyred by the world. The Scripture is clear that those who live godly lives will be persecuted. Jesus said it in Matthew 5. Paul said it in 2 Timothy 3:12. Peter said it in 2 Peter 4. The world will hate us because the world hates Christ (John 15:18-21).

In this passage Jesus warns the Apostles of this fact. They will face serious opposition. They will be sheep among wolves. And while the call here is specific to the disciples, the principle is repeated in many other places, so it applies to us as well. Yet how often is this aspect of the gospel given when someone is sharing the "gospel"? How often is it even mentioned from the pulpits across our nation? Americans are enamored with the good life. They want health, wealth, and prosperity, and there are many out there willing to tickle your ears with that message if it is what you want to hear. But that is not Jesus’ message. The current popular appeal to get people in their church is a message of ease, comfort, riches, advancement, etc. Yes, there is joy unspeakable in Christ, but the appeal Jesus makes to those that will be in His church is to hardship, suffering, and even death.

After the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, Sir Winston Churchill told his fellow Englishmen that "All I can offer you is blood, sweat, and tears." If such a call can be made for the love of our country, how can the call be any less for the love of Christ in the Spiritual Warfare we are in?

And what should be our attitude in the midst of these wolves? We are to be "as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves."

Serpents were a symbol of wisdom. They were considered very crafty, smart, cunning, and cautious animals. The idea of being "innocent as doves" speaks of being pure and true to God’s word and His will. The two combined together give us the idea of being wise with a sanctified common sense in saying the right thing at the right time and place and discovering the best means to achieve the highest goal. This is a characteristic that is to be developed by every Christian. Colossians 4:5 tells us to, "Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity."

We are to be uncompromising in proclaiming God’s truth, but that does not mean being abrasive, inconsiderate, belligerent, hostile, or rude. Wise and innocent, cunning and gentle, perceptive and pure. These describe the qualities of discretion.

Paul was as uncompromising as anyone when it came to the Scriptures, yet he knew how to talk with people about the gospel without unnecessary offense. He could speak to Jews, Greeks, weak, strong, slave, or free. He "became all things to all men, that [he] might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9:19-22). We see the same characteristic in David in his relationship with King Saul and in Mordecai as he responded to arrogant Haman, and also in Abigail, whom scripture describes as "a woman of good understanding and discretion," as she put up with her foolish husband.

It is not brave or wise or spiritual or loving to needlessly incite anger or trouble. The Proverbs tells us that "a soft answer turns away wrath," and Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 that we are to follow the Lord’s example, "when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate." It matters not what people think of us. It does matter what they think of Christ whom we represent. Humility goes a long way in doing that.

How often do we get in needless trouble because of our lack of discretion? We say things that are antagonistic and condemning and wonder why people respond defensively or aggressively. Even in trying to be helpful to someone who may need it, we barge in without being asked and then often major on the minors. We call the alcoholic a "drunken bum who is going to hell." That may be true, but we can say it so many other ways that demonstrate love and concern. How about, "Sir, alcohol has taken over your life and leading you to sin, and even more important, it is keeping you from Jesus, and He has a much better life for you, a life that has purpose and hope, not one that will end in Hell. Would you let me help?" We are to be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves in our responses to others even if they persecute us.

In the rest of this section, Jesus warns His apostles about four areas in which they would find wolves. Persecution would come at the hands of religion, government, family, and society.


Look at verse 17. "But beware of men; for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues;" The ultimate force behind the persecution of the righteous is Satan (Ephesians 5; Revelation 12, etc.), but the persecution itself comes through the hands of men. So it is that we must beware of men. We are not to naively entrust ourselves to them or make them angry without good cause. We are to be careful of traps they may lay for us, and we are to make sure that there are no valid grounds for a charge against us.

The first type of men to beware of is the religious. The courts spoken of here are the Jewish courts (remember, the apostles at this time were to go only to the Jews). Even under Rome, the Jews were allowed to settle most disputes among themselves including civil issues. The synagogue was not only the gathering place for worship, it was often also the court room. A Jew accused of breaking the Mosaic Law or a rabbinic tradition would be brought before judges who would decide the case, determine the sentence, and deliver the punishment. The common practice was that one judge would call out the sentence, another would announce the punishment, another would do the scourging, and others would call out the blows. There is also evidence that parts of the Torah were read or Psalms were sung during the scourging. The scourging itself was done with a stick that had leather thongs attached to the end. Some would also have bits of metal or rocks tied to the end of the leather thongs. Mosaic Law allowed a maximum of 40 blows, so often the punishment was 39 blows in order to make sure the Mosaic Law was not broken in case someone miscounted.

Saul of Tarsus was such a religious man that was persecuting Christians. Later, when he became the Apostle Paul, he was at the receiving end of the scourge. In 2 Corinthians 11:24, he recounts being scourged by the Jews on five different occasions. This was done in the same fashion he had used to imprison and beat Christians before his conversion.

Throughout history religion has persecuted true Christianity. Judaism was the major persecutor up until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Then the pagan religions took over and continue to persecute in any area of the world where it is strong (Africa). Other religions such as Hinduism (Nepal) and Islam (Mid-east; Africa, Asia) continue to persecute. Even religions that are supposedly "Christian" have persecuted believers. The majority of the cases cited in Foxes Book Of Martyrs are those killed by the Roman Catholic church during the counter reformation (1500’s). We are to beware of the wolves in religions.


There are also wolves in government. "And you shall even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not become anxious about how or what you will speak; for it shall be given you in that hour what you are to speak. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you."

Herod Agrippa I and many of the other government leaders mentioned in the New Testament were certainly such wolves. In Acts 12, we are told that Herod Agrippa I "laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them." And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also." In modern times, atheistic communism has murdered millions of Christians.

Religious persecution arises because of the competition. They have no tolerance for a competing faith that claims to be the only way to God. Persecution by the State comes because the world hates Christ. Dictatorial States find Christians to have an allegiance to someone other than themselves, and so they hate Christ. Other governments are out to please their people, and sinful people are usually offended by the righteous lives of believers. The result is that they join in the persecution. We also need to recognize that there are demonic influences in government. They are mentioned specifically or alluded to in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Ephesians. What else could explain the evil we find in Esther where wicked Haman convinced the king to allow the annihilation of all the Jews, God’s chosen people, or in more modern times the rise of an evil man like Hitler who not only mass murdered the Jews, who are still God’s chosen people, but also the countless Christians who continued to hold to and proclaim God’s word and behave righteously? Only those that went along with Hitler were treated well by him.

I found a sobering quote by John MacArthur made ten years ago, "When its citizens turn away from the Lord and His standard, even the freest and most democratic governments, including our own United States, will eventually inhibit the free expression and practice of the Christian faith in hostility to Christ and His Word." I believe we are beginning to see how fast that can become a reality.

Yet in the midst of that, we do not need to worry about what to say when that sort of persecution breaks out. Again, the specific promise here is to the apostles, but we find that the Holy Spirit in His graciousness continues to supply believers with what to say when called upon to give testimony in the midst of persecution. Many of the most memorable and powerful testimonies of the great martyrs were given just before they were put to death. Polycarp was told he would be set free if he reviled Christ and gave allegiance to Caesar, he replied, "I have served Him 86 years and in no way has he dealt unjustly with me; so how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?" (If time, read from Foxes Book Of Martyrs page 143).


It is one thing to suffer at the hands of an unjust government or a false religion, it is quite another to have the persecution arise from within your own family, yet there is that danger of wolves even from among those who are related by blood.

"And brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death. " This statement rises from the Old Testament for Micah 7:6 says, "A man’s enemies will be the members of his household." It is a general statement demonstrating the strength of the hatred people have for God. Someone has said that there are only two things stronger than natural love; one is born of hell and the other is born of heaven. This has been true throughout the ages and it will continue to be true. Jesus gave this same warning again in Mark 13 a year later as he taught them about the tribulation to come.


We need to beware of wolves in religion, in government, in our families, and in society in general. "And you will be hated by all on account of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved." This does not mean that every person will hate you, but that all people in general will hate you. There are people from every race, every class, every nationality that hate God and anyone that reflect Him. That can add up to a lot of pressure, but the true mark of Christianity is conformity to Christ and not the world.

This idea of enduring to the end is seen throughout the New Testament – Matthew 24:13; Romans 3:14; Colossians 1:21-23; Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:14; 2 Peter 1:10. We call it the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. It is not that salvation comes by persevering, but that those that are saved will persevere thus demonstrating their salvation. But since it is the Good Shepherd that is with us in the midst of the wolves, then the outcome is sure. Those that are His sheep will not be lost.


Verse 23 gives the defense against persecution and the hope. "But whenever they persecute you in this city, flee to the next;"

The defense is simple – leave. Just as we are not to purposely provoke animosity and ridicule, we are not to stay in the midst of persecution if it is possible to leave. There are no extra jewels in our crowns for being stubborn. The Apostle Paul gives a good example of the balance. Never do we find him trying to stir things up. Instead, things are stirred up as he preached the whole gospel. That would bring persecution which he would endure until it hindered his work and then he would go to the next town. In the process he was beaten, scourged, and even stoned and left for dead. He did not seek persecution out, he did not fearfully shrink from it, but neither did he stay after such persecution had arisen. Neither should we.

The disciples were given a hope, "for truly I say to you, you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes." They would be sheep among wolves, but they would be sustained for the job. Persecution would come, but they would be able to endure it. They would still be busy going through Israel when the Son of Man would come. The specific reference here is to the transfiguration. In Matthew 16:28, Jesus uses the same phrase, "the Son of Man coming" to refer to his transfiguration in Matthew 17. The apostles would not have finished carrying out their initial assignment of proclaiming to all of Israel that the "kingdom of heaven was at hand" before Jesus would be revealed in his glory.

There is a similar promise to us. Jesus said he would be with us always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). He will not forsake us or leave us. We will be persecuted, but He will be there to enable us to endure it. Jesus said that "in this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

Persecution will arise against those who follow Christ. It will not be constant, it was not so even for the Apostles, but it will come.

In a few moments we will be observing the Lord’s Table. Jesus suffered persecution, torture, and death to free you from your sins. What are you willing to suffer for Him?

For comments, please e-mail  Church office