Jesus told his disciples when he sent them out to preach and teach that they were going into a dangerous situation. The imagery of sheep in the midst of wolves conveys a picture of warning and danger. He made no promises here that when you teach the word of God all would be sweetness and light. Rather he showed that teaching the word of God would be a tough assignment. People would stand opposed to them, they would be widely condemned, flogged and persecuted, treated shamefully and even some would be put to death for preaching the word of God. Jesus made no illusions about how difficult it would be for these disciples he was sending out to preach.
But who were the persecutors that were going to treat the disciples so badly? Jesus said for them to “Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles.” (vs. 17-18) The men who were going to cause them this grief and do all these evil things were those who were in power, especially the religious powers of the day. It is they who had access to the power of the councils and who ran the synagogues and who had access to the kings court that would be the most vehemently opposed to the teachings of Christ that his disciples would be preaching.
Why would they be so opposed to this new teaching? Because it is the religious leaders of the day who were being threatened by these new teachings and who stood to lose their power base, so they would be the most opposed to these New Covenant teachings. As people moved away from the old teachings, these religious leaders began to lose their hold over the people. And with it they lost their positions of power, prestige and esteem amongst the people. In the teachings of the New Covenant all the forms of worship were changed and there was no place for the old teachings that these religious leaders taught. No longer could they lord it over the people as intermediaries between man and God, for now all men had direct access to God through Jesus Christ. And the leaders did not want this to happen for they did not want things to change.
And so the imagery of sheep in the midst of wolves is quite apt. The sheep for the most part are peaceful, passive creatures that have need of a shepherd to protect them. But wolves are vicious, cunning and destructive. They hunt in packs and when they capture prey they rip and tear it apart doing great damage. Christians are the sheep and we have in Jesus a shepherd who can and will protect us from these religious, fanatical wolves. They may take some and force them to give account, but the true Shepherd of the Sheep, Jesus Christ, has promised that if and when that occurs, he will provide the words. He says in verses 19-20, “When they deliver you up, 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; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
The promise here is that the people of God would receive the words to say when opposed and called to account. The Holy Spirit would speak through them and so they need not be anxious when they were led before councils, synagogues and governors for the sake of the word of God. We saw the power of this statement fulfilled in the martyrdom of Stephen who spoke strongly and boldly, convincing many of the truth of the gospel even though it cost him his life. But the reward for standing firm in Christ is eternal life with Christ and Stephen was well aware of this fact.
We as Christians are in the same position today. Jesus said we would be hated by all for his name’s sake, and who among Christians has not been the subject of ridicule, derision and contempt of those who are not followers of Christ? When you make a stand for Christ you immediately stand opposed to the things of this world. In Christ you expose the falseness, lies and deceit of this world. In Christ you are saying that you do not accept the madness, folly, hate and evil of this world but rather are seeking peace and the divine love that comes only from God. And the world does not like that and will oppose you. But Christ’s reward is for freedom and peace now, and there is true freedom and peace in him now, and later there is eternal life free from sin, evil, sickness, death, despair and all of the things that are wrong with this world today. It is a far better opportunity and reward than the fleeting pleasures offered by the wolves of this world.