Assistant Professor (Biblical Studies)
Without even looking at the source, it is not difficult to tell immediately that the above verse was a saying of Jesus from the Gospel Books. Then again, you might also think of another similar verse: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14, ESV) The timing indicated in the first verse (“the Son of Man comes”) is essentially the same as that in the second verse (“the end will come”). Both point at the end of time, especially the return of Christ. The phrase “proclaimed throughout the whole world” in the latter verse also reminds one of “gone through all the towns of Israel” in the former. Therefore, we naturally think that these two verses are telling the same story: the latter is obviously related to the mission of believers to preach the gospel and to proclaim it universally. Similarly, the phrase “gone through all the towns of Israel” in the first verse makes one think of proclaiming the gospel among Israel.
However, if you really look up the source of the verse in the Bible and pay attention to its context, you will find that it is actually referring to a different matter. This verse is taken from the second half of Matthew 10:23. Chapter 10 of Matthew is the second of the five collected speeches by Jesus in this gospel. Verses 1 to 4 tell us that the intended audience of this discourse is the twelve disciples, and the entire chapter records Jesus’ command to send them out. Therefore, the entire chapter is indeed related to the mission of the disciples. However, the main focus of going through all the towns of Israel, as mentioned in verse 23, is not about “travelling evangelism”, but for the reason mentioned in the first half of the verse: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.”
Yes, there is such a piece of “runaway guide” in Jesus’ instructions to the commissioned disciples here. In the eyes of Jesus, to escape from persecution seemed to be a viable option. Although the Lord himself faced up to the arrest by the soldiers, he did not rule out the option that the disciples could “flee from this city to that city” in the face of persecution. This way they could temporarily avoid the limelight and retain their strength for later days.
Nonetheless, the purpose of this advice to escape was not to teach the disciples about self-preservation in times of crisis, but to give them an assurance that they would never “be at the end of their ropes”. If the disciples found themselves unable to bear the persecution in a given place, they would always be able to find safety in another. This is because Christ will return before the disciples ultimately run out of ways to go. This reassurance is like saying to the disciples who are about to face persecution, or even those already suffering from it, that everything is under control. Although things seem out of hand on the surface, such as being in the midst of an uncontrollable chaos where one does not know where to go, everything is actually still in the good hands of God. When the time is right, He will surely intervene.
This reassurance of “having a way out” also calls on the disciples to persist steadfastly in fulfilling their mission. After all, if they were really at the end of their ropes, then they would have every reason to quit trying and simply wait for destiny. But since there is still a way to go, it means that the disciples must keep going and continue to pursue their mission.
Let us look at the text a little further above, where in the face of a precarious situation, Jesus instructed his disciples “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”(Matthew 10:16, ESV) The word “innocent” (ἀκέραιος) basically means “clean and unmixed”. It tells the disciples to keep their lives pure. For example, in the face of the evil world, they should not repay evil with evil, or even rationalize their own evil act with others’ evil behaviour. On the other hand, the basic meaning of “wise” (φρόνιμος) is “smart and savvy”. When this Greek word appears elsewhere in the Bible, it is usually translated as “wise”. The combination with the image of the serpents here also brings out the implication of “flexibility”. As the Chinese saying goes, “A serpent crawls up the stick with which it is hit”. When a serpent is attacked, it will adapt and adjust. The disciples must be wise like serpents. This means they should know what to do when they find themselves in unfavourable conditions. They need to adapt to the situation, not be stuck in a rut or act blindly, or in today’s terms, they need to “be water”.
There is apparently a sense of tension between these two elements of the command. On one hand, we need to be persistent and not be easily affected by the surroundings. On the other hand, we must be flexible enough and respond aptly to challenges. Jesus did not tell us clearly as to when to change and when not to. This is exactly the characteristic of the traditional Jewish teachings on wisdom. While embracing the tension of various life situations, they do not rush to seek immediate relief. Instead, they make sound judgment according to the specific situations under the guidance of wisdom.
This attitude to embrace tension is even more apparent in the subsequent command of Jesus. He instructed his disciples what to do when arrested and brought to trial by the authorities: “do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” (Matthew 10:19, ESV) This was not to tell the disciples that they did not need to prepare for the upcoming persecutions. After all, “wise” basically means “smart”. One aspect of this wisdom is know how to get ready, just as described in the parable of the ten virgins, five of whom were “wise” (φρόνιμος) enough to prepare the needed oil.
Jesus’ words here referred to the unique context where the disciples were being arrested and tried. He commanded them “not to worry”. This means they should accept the fact that things were not within their control. Since the disciples could not predict how the interrogators would treat them, it would be impossible for them to be fully prepared in advance.
However, Jesus assured his disciples that they could rest in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that they would be completely safe without being harmed. As a matter of fact, many disciples of the early church were indeed martyred during persecution. But regardless of what they went through, the disciples were still able to hold fast to their trust in God and continued to fulfill their mission of testifying for God.
Amid the chaotic situation of Hong Kong today, people are inevitably haunted by a sense of helplessness. While everyone with different positions all hopes that the chaos would end soon, the situation still does not look optimistic. Worst yet, we seem farther and farther away from finding a solution of the issues. As we live in this day and age, Jesus’ command reminds us that the most important thing is not about finding a solution for the problems that are troubling us. Nor is it about when things can be calmed down so we could return to our peaceful days. It is about standing fast and moving on courageously in the blessings of the Holy Spirit, even when it seems that our issues are not able to be resolved.
Different people may react differently when facing the fog of an uneasy, uncertain future. Some may choose to stay to the end, fighting at all cost for their goal. Others may choose to look for different opportunities to better use their gifts. There may be no absolute right or wrong between these choices. Just as in the past when the church in Jerusalem was persecuted, there were apostles who remained behind, and disciples who were scattered in various places (Acts 8: 1). They each continued to work hard in their own way to proclaim the gospel. In fact, in this chaotic age, we are not necessarily asked to change the overall situation. All we need to remember is to strive forward on the path that our Lord has prepared for us!
1 The two verses have another thing in common, which is that the preceding verse of both mentions “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”