Sheep Among Wolves
by Jack Wald | April 2nd, 2017

Matthew 10:16

Did Jesus love his disciples? Of course he did. Jesus loved people. The gospels are full of examples of his actions that resulted from loving and having compassion on people.

In Mark 10:21 we read about how Jesus felt about the rich, young ruler who came to him.
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

In John 11:5 we read
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

Jesus spent three years with the twelve men he chose to be his closest disciples. There were many more who followed Jesus but these twelve were those closest to him. And among the twelve there were three who were the closest of the twelve: Peter, James, and John.

John, who wrote the gospel, referred to himself this way: (John 13:23)
One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.

In John 13:1 before John talks about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, he sets the stage by writing:
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Jesus spent an enormous amount of time with these men. He shared many dramatic experiences with them. It is clear that he loved them.

So why did he tell them (Matthew 10:16), “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.”

What do wolves do with sheep? Wolves attack sheep. Wolves kill sheep. Wolves eat sheep.

A shepherd protects his flock from wolves. What kind of shepherd sends his sheep out to wolves?

Jesus critiqued the hired hand who does not care for the sheep. (John 10:12–13)
The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

In contrast, Jesus called himself the good shepherd. (John 10:14-15)
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

If Jesus is the good shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep, why does he send his sheep out among wolves?

After demonstrating to his disciples how his compassion for people resulted in miraculous healings and deliverances, he sent them out to do what they had seen him do.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.

And then he moved beyond what they would experience in the next weeks into the far future.
16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.

Jesus sent out the twelve on a short-term mission trip, and then projected to them being sent out after his resurrection on a life-time mission trip. How did they fare? James was the first to die. Acts 12:2 records that King Herod had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.

For the fate of the other disciples, we rely on church tradition that tells us Peter (and Paul) were both martyred in Rome about 66 AD during the persecution under Emperor Nero. Peter was crucified and Paul was beheaded.

Andrew went to what is now the Soviet Union. He also preached in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, and in Greece where he is said to have been crucified.

Thomas preached in Syria and as far east as India. He was killed when he was pierced through with the spears of four soldiers.

Philip preached in Carthage in modern-day Tunisia and in Asia Minor. He was arrested and cruelly put to death

Matthew ministered in Persia (Iran) and Ethiopia where he was stabbed to death.

Bartholomew was a missionary to India, Armenia, Ethiopia, and Southern Arabia. He was also martyred.

James the son of Alpheus ministered in Syria where he was stoned and then clubbed to death.

Simon the Zealot ministered in Persia (Iran) and was killed after refusing to sacrifice to the sun god.

Matthias, the apostle chosen to replace Judas, went to Syria with Andrew and was burned alive.

John is the only one of the twelve disciples to die a natural death in his old age.

These sheep were not the only ones who suffered at the hands of wolves. The list of martyrs in the church is a long list and new names are recorded in the list every year.

Nik Ripken and his wife spent seven years as missionaries in Malawi and South Africa and then worked among Somalis from 1991-1997, the time of the Somali Civil War. My youngest sister married a man from Somalia and during those years I gathered funds from my other sisters to help support my brother-in-law’s family still living in Somalia. Those were horrible years.

Later in our service we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In his book, The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken talks about celebrating the Lord’s Supper with two other western relief workers and four Somali believers.

Seven of us, three Westerners and those four local believers, met at a pre-arranged time in the privacy of an abandoned, shelled-out building in the heart of Mogdishu – each of us coming alone from different directions. Once we had gathered and affectionately greeted one another, my friend led in a time of prayer and fellowship. We shared a light meal together. Then, as Jesus’ followers have done for almost two thousand years, we shared the Lord’s Supper in remembrance and celebration of Christ’s willing and sacrificial death on the cross in our place, in atonement for our sins.

We ate the bread in memory of his body, broken for us. I wondered how often, down through the ages, believers had broken bread together here in the capital city of this now-broken country. I had no way of knowing, but I suspected that this hadn’t happened there for years.

We drank the grape juice in remembrance of Christ’s blood, shed for us. I wondered how many unnamed and unknown Somali believers had faced persecution, suffering, and death in this country for their faith. I felt honored to worship at the Lord’s Table with these four brothers who were willing to risk their own blood, their own bodies, and their very lives to follow Jesus among an unbelieving people group in this unbelieving country.

Never before had I felt the true cost and significance of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. This was a high and holy moment. It was also a moment that raised serious concerns for our four believing brothers. The furtive and wary looks on the faces of my Somali friends served as a powerful reminder for me – a reminder not just of our Lord’s death and sacrifice two thousand years ago, but also a reminder of his continuing and constant love, his faithfulness, and his presence in the lives of brave and faithful followers today.

A few weeks later, in a coordinated assassination plot, all four of these believers were killed in separate attacks made within minutes of each other.

At the end of his time in Somalia Ripken observed: When we started our work, there were barely enough believers in Somaliland to fill a small Kentucky church. Now there were not enough to fill one pew.

The list of those martyred for their faith in Jesus gets longer and longer.

Ripken and his wife returned to the US to recover from the trauma of these years and from the death of one of their sons who died from an asthma attack on an Easter morning. As they recovered, they felt the call of God to go out in the world and interview people in the persecuted church.

Over the past fifteen years they have interviewed over 600 followers of Jesus in more than 72 countries around the world. They began in Russia, Ukraine and other Soviet countries. They went to China, the Middle East and North Africa. I had lunch with Nik and his wife at the conference I went to at the beginning of March and he told me he interviewed followers of Jesus in Morocco in 1999.

Nik Ripken and his wife have a call to share what they have learned from persecuted followers of Jesus with the rest of the body of Christ. I want to share some of these lessons and stories that will take us back to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 10.

The first lesson is that persecution is normal. Persecution for the followers of Jesus in the world is not exceptional, it is normal.

Ripken defines persecution as “a negative reaction to the incarnate presence of Jesus among his people. This negative reaction can take many forms and it can come from many different sources. Persecution can come from society as a whole, from the government, from an ideological entity, or from families and individuals. Persecution may be overt (open) or covert (hidden). It can be physical or psychological. Persecution can be actual or merely threatened. Regardless of its form, however, the ultimate goal of persecution is to silence witness. At its worst, persecution denies people access to Jesus.”

There are many people who will write on a census form that they are Christians. There are many people who are members of a church but do not regularly go to church. The number of Christians who are followers of Jesus, who have a personal relationship with God through Jesus, who are active in their faith, is a much smaller number. Ripken writes that when you take into account this smaller number of followers of Jesus in the world, 80% of those followers of Jesus are being persecuted.

In the Western world we are free to go to church. We do not pay a price for going to church. Our lives are not endangered by going to church. We do not lose our jobs by going to church. No one shoots at us because we go to church. This is also true for many churches in Africa as well, but it is not true for all churches in Africa. It is not true for Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Tanzania, Mali, and Mauritania.

Most followers of Jesus in the world are being persecuted. Those of us who live in countries where followers of Jesus are not being persecuted read Matthew 10:16, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves,” and we wonder what it means. Those who live in countries where followers of Jesus are being persecuted know what it means.

In The Insanity of God, Ripken writes about followers of Jesus in Russia talking about God’s miraculous provision through long seasons of unspeakable suffering. He was surprised by how casual they were about these stories. It is not that they took what God was doing for granted, but they were not surprised when he acted in extraordinary ways.

After hearing stories like these for several weeks Ripken said to a group of pastors:
“There is one thing I don’t understand. You have told me so many remarkable stories about what God has done. You have told me about unspeakable suffering. You have told me about grievous persecution. And you have told me about God’s power to work. Why haven’t you written these stories down? Why haven’t you published these stories? Why haven’t your stories been recorded in some way?”

The pastors seemed confused by the question and finally an older pastor led Nik to a window that faced the east. He said that Nik had mentioned having sons and then asked,
“Tell me, Dr. Ripken, how many times have you awakened your sons before dawn and taken them to the east-facing part of your home? How many times have you said to them, ‘Boys, get ready! Look out this window, because the sun is about to come up in the east! Boys, I woke you up early today because I wanted you to see it! It’s about to happen!’ Dr. Ripken, how many times have you awakened your boys and said that to them?”

“Well sir,” I answered. “I have never done that. In fact, my sons would think I was crazy if I did that.”

Sensing my confusion he went on to explain. “You would never do that with your sons because the sun coming up in the east is normal and ordinary. It is an everyday event. It is expected. Well, that’s the way persecution is for us. That’s the way God’s activity is for us. We don’t write much about these things – we don’t even talk much about these things – because these things are as normal as the sun coming up in the east.”

Some time later Rikpen was with a Ukranian pastor and once again he asked why the stories about God’s provision in the midst of severe persecution were not written down.

The Ukranian pastor too me aside. He was much more gruff than the Russian pastor had been. In response to my questions, he simply said, “Son, when did you stop reading the Bible?”

“What do you mean,” I protested.

He emphatically repeated his question: “When did you stop reading your Bible.? Everything we have told you about has already happened in God’s Word. God’s people have been experiencing these things for a long time, and God has been taking care of his people for a long time. Why would we write down stories that have been known and experienced by God’s people for centuries? These kinds of things have been happening from the beginning. The Bible is full of stories just like our stories! When did you stop reading your Bible?

Persecution is normal. What most followers of Jesus in the world are experiencing is what Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 10.

A second lesson is that persecution is normal, but only a sick person wants to be persecuted. No one wants to be persecuted. The persecuted church does not want to be persecuted. What we want is comfort, an easy life, peace, security. We long for the world God has placed in our hearts where there will be (Revelation 21:4)
no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

But we live in a world full of wolves and Jesus sends us out with his gospel where we will be persecuted. We don’t choose it. We don’t seek it. We don’t want it. But it will come. It may not come to all of us, but it will come to most of us in the body of Christ.

We do not seek persecution but when it comes we need to be prepared, as best as we are able, to stand with Jesus and not fall away.

A third lesson is that safety in this world is found when we are with Jesus.

When we hear Jesus tell us, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves,” we don’t like that and try to find some way to minimize the meaning of what he said. We want to be safe. We do not want to be in danger.

But safety is found by being where Jesus leads us. When we follow Jesus and go where he leads us to go, that is where we will be most safe. Jesus taught us in Matthew 10:28-31
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Augustine, the Berber church father who was bishop of the church in what is today Algeria, wrote that a Christian need never fear persecution.
 ‘Let [the persecutor] take your worldly goods, your flocks, your lands! Yes even this life itself, to those whose thoughts are of another life, this present life, I say, may be reckoned among the things superfluous … This powerful enemy, what has he taken away? What great thing has he taken away? That which a thief or a housebreaker can take! In his utmost rage he can but take what a robber would take. Even if he should have license given to him of the slaying of the body, what does he take away but what the robber can take? I did him too much honor when I said “a robber”. For whoever or whatever the robber may be, he is at least a man. He takes from you what a fever, or an adder, or a poisonous mushroom can take. Here lies the whole power of the rage of men, to do what a mushroom can!’

We spend so much time fearing what men can do to us but Augustine took the words of Jesus seriously and understood that no man can take what has eternal significance. All men and women will die, one day or another, but God promises to take us safely into his kingdom after we die our earthly death.

We are focused on our earthly existence but God sees into our eternal future. Because he loves us, he sends us out as sheep among wolves. Here is another story Nik Ripken collected.

A house church elder in Russia explained that the Holy Spirit woke him up in the middle of the night and told him to gather together the fruits, vegetables, and meat that the house church had stored up to care for people in need. The Holy Spirit told the man to take this load of food, by horse and sled, to a pastor’s family who had been left to die in a one-room hut in the frozen tundra.
    The man reminded the Holy Spirit that it was thirty degrees below zero outside (-34.4 C) and that there was no way that he would survive the trip. The man reminded the Holy Spirit that the wolves would probably eat his horse and then eat him.
    Then the words of the Holy Spirit rang in his ears: “You do not have to come back; you simply have to go.”

How do we handle a story like this?

As it turns out, he did come back. Even so, the instruction is so clear. You just have to go. You just have to go. Even if there s no clarity about your return, you just have to go.

If you find yourself someday kneeling on a beach of the Mediterranean Sea with someone standing behind you about to cut off your head with a sword and you are there because you have affirmed your faith and allegiance to Jesus, you are in the safest place on earth. The one in greatest danger is not the one getting his head cut off, the greatest danger lies with the one who is cutting off the head.

I said a couple weeks ago that Peter, out walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee because Jesus called him to come, was the safest person in the story because he was going where Jesus called him to go.

We fear people. We fear what people can do to us. But when Jesus calls us to go somewhere, to do something, we can go with confidence because with Jesus we will be safe.

A fourth lesson is that we are to count our relationship with Jesus as more important than our job, our family, our life.
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

What does this mean?

A follower of Jesus in the Ukraine told this story.
I remember the day like it was yesterday, Nik. My father put his arms around me and my sister and my brother and guided us into the kitchen to sit around the table where he could talk with us. My Mama was crying, so I knew that something was wrong. Papa didn’t look at her because he was talking directly to us. He said, “Children, you know that I am the pastor of our church. That’s what God called me to do – to tell others about him. I have learned that the communist authorities will come tomorrow to arrest me. They will put me in prison because they want me to stop preaching about Jesus. But I cannot stop doing that because I must obey God. I will miss you very much, but I will trust God to watch over you while I’m gone.”

    He hugged each one of us. Then he said, “All around this part of the country, the authorities are rounding up followers of Jesus and demanding that they deny their faith. Sometimes, when they refuse, the authorities will line up whole families and hang them by the neck until they are dead. I don’t want that to happen to our family, so I am praying that once they put me in prison, they will leave you and your mother alone.”

    “However,” and here he paused and made eye contact with us, “If I am in prison and I hear that my wife and my children have been hung to death rather than deny Jesus, I will be the most proud man in that prison!”

This is a story that shocks me. Each time I read it I have to stop and take time to process it. Is it any wonder that when persecution breaks out a majority of the church walks away from Jesus? In the history of the church, only a small percentage of the church remains faithful to Jesus in the midst of persecution. When a mother or father has to choose between Jesus and their children, who can blame them if they choose children over Jesus?

It seems there is something wrong with this Ukranian pastor, but read again the words of Jesus.
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

You daughter or son may die at the age of four months, four years, forty years, or eighty years – but she or he will die. That is a certainty. And then what? What happens after four months, four years, forty years, eighty years? You may be able to life comfortably and safely for one hundred years, but then what?

Jesus offers us what the world cannot offer. Jesus offers those we love what the world cannot offer. Jesus offers us eternal life in his kingdom. For this reason, our relationship with him is more important than our relationship with our parents, friends, spouse, children, or grandchildren. When we are forced to choose, I pray we will find the courage and faith to choose Jesus.

What do I want you to take away from this sermon? I do not want to make you feel inferior, inadequate, unworthy. I read these stories from the persecuted church and I wonder why it is I have had such an easy life. Why do so many followers of Jesus suffer so greatly and I so little? I am grateful that I have not had to suffer, but I wonder how I would respond if I had to make the choices so many followers of Jesus have had to make. Would I remain faithful to Jesus? I can feel inferior, inadequate, and unworthy in comparison to the men and women in the world who have stood up among such severe persecution. That is not where Jesus wants us to be.

Here is what I want you to take away with you. Love comes before duty, before task, before sacrifice, before obedience. Love comes before duty, before task, before sacrifice, before obedience.

Peter was so bold in telling Jesus (Luke 22:33) “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” But when it came time to stand up with Jesus, Peter denied knowing him three times. And then, when Jesus met Peter after his resurrection and restored Peter to leadership, what did he say? Three times he asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and then three times he told Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

Love comes before the task. Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Jesus began with love. Because we love Jesus we do the things we do. Because we are loved by Jesus we do the things we do.

1 Corinthians 13 is a famous passage, often read at weddings. Paul begins:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

If you go out to be a dutiful follower of Jesus but do not have love, what do you have? If you go out to work for Jesus but do not have love, what do you have? If you go out to sacrifice and be obedient but do not have love, what do you have? If you suffer because of your faith in Jesus but do not have love, what do you have?

What you have is nothing. What you have is a form of legalism. You will be doing the things a follower of Jesus should do but without the heart motivation to do it. It will be empty and superficial.

Everything we do in our life with Christ needs to come out of a love relationship with Jesus. Remember that Jesus sends us out because he loves us. This is where it begins and ends.

Our brothers and sisters in Christ in the persecuted world have had this cruel suffering inflicted on them. The creative cruelty of those opposing them creates unbearable suffering – except, amazingly, they are able to bear it. They bear it not because they are such wonderful followers of Jesus. They bear it because they know the love of Christ and are unwilling to give up their relationship with Jesus for anything the world can offer.

Some of us in this church have experienced persecution first hand. Some of us in this church have already suffered for Jesus. I pray we will be spared the pain and suffering of persecution. I pray as well that if we are forced to make a choice between Jesus and anything else in this world, we will find the love of Jesus in our lives strong enough to cling to Jesus and not let go.

How do we prepare for persecution? Not resolve. Not determination. Love. We deepen in the intimacy of our love relationship with Jesus and then hold on regardless of what happens next.

It all begins with love and love will carry us through whatever comes.