Warnings and Encouragements
1 Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: "Be [a] on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2 There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 3 What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
4 "I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
8 "I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. 9 But whoever publicly disowns me will be disowned before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
11 "When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say."
I recently have taken to watching a rather obscure television show called “Stargate: Universe.” It is a spin-off of the show “SG1,” which itself is a spin-off from the original move “Stargate.” In this show, a group of earthlings have found themselves on an ancient starship which is billions of light years away from planet earth. They want to get back to earth but don’t understand the technology of the ship enough to make that happen. The ship is full of civilians and military personnel and increasingly a rift has grown between those two groups. At first, the rift could simply be categorized as uneasiness and dislike but still tolerating one another. In the most recent episode, however, as they continue their journey through space and try to reach their desired destination, things have taken a dramatic and serious turn. To this point they were going along on their journey without much intentional opposition. Now suddenly they are facing a dangerous threat from an alien ship. This has changed everything. The rift between factions has grown wider and become much more serious because the stakes are now much higher. As the episode this week came to an end, they showed the scenes form next week’s show. In those scenes, they made it clear that the rift was going to come down to an outright battle for control of their ship between the military and the civilians. Some will find themselves in the middle and have to choose which side they are going to be on. When things get serious, there is no time for the partially committed. You have to know precisely whose side you are own and what that will demand of you.
This seems to me to be something of the tone that Jesus is striking and that Luke has captured in this section. At first, the differences between Jesus and the Pharisees was clear but not as completely mutually exclusive as they are now being shown to be. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he will have a final showdown with Satan and all the forces of evil that he can muster, including his greatest weapon, death itself. As he comes closer to that violent confrontation, the stakes are getting much more serious and things are urgent. With that coming fight as a reality, choices have to be clearly made. People need to know whose side they have chosen and what it will demand of them. The stakes could not be higher.
One important clue of how to understand this passage is often overlook but is given by Luke quite clearly in verse 1. Many thousands were pressing in around him but Jesus specifically addressed his disciples. Thus, Luke has given us a clue that Jesus’ words are to be understood as part of the specific instructions to his group of dedicated followers rather than as a universal call to all. The principles of the truths that he espouses are certainly applicable to all but we shouldn’t forget the detail that Jesus was on a specific urgent mission and was addressing his disciples with that in mind.
At the heart of the reality of this mission and their coming lives as his disciples was the fact that they would be persecuted. He was going to Jerusalem to be put to death in a violent manner which would open up for all of Jesus’ disciples the opportunity to enter into his life and grab hold of the life of the age to come (cf. 1 Tim. 6:12), but that would not remove from the reality that following Jesus would mean going the way of persecution and laying down your life for others. In fact, Jesus does not really warn them here that persecution is coming their way. That is basically a given. What he warns them about is their reaction to the inevitable persecution.
They should, as a matter of first importance, be on their guard for the yeast-like hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Hypocrisy has been well documented to have come from the Greek word that referred to play-acting, but usually the use of the word had a much sharper bite to it, carrying the idea of one who was godless but considered themselves as religious. Their conduct and behavior, then, were not determined by God at all but by their own will and desires. They were wrong at a very fundamental level about how to be God’s people and follow God’s purposes and could, then, never do any more than present a pretense of walking with God. To call them hypocrites, then, didn’t so much mean that they were pretending to be something they knew they were not, but rather that they were completely ignorant of God’s true purposes and completely unable to follow those purposes or help anyone else to follow them. This reality was particularly dangerous, though, because, like yeast, it could remain virtually unseen and quietly work it’s way through the entire loaf.
They needed to be careful that the yeast of the Pharisees, the unwillingness and inability to embrace God’s true purposes, did not find root in their own community. Why? Because things that might be hidden and concealed now would eventually come out and be obvious to the whole world. Jesus was proclaiming a new reality that was breaking into the present age, one which was so deeply radical that it was almost to the point of being nonsensical unless one had embraced the desire to understand the world from the perspective of this new reality. This reality was not yet visible just as the full yeast of the Pharisees was not visible to all, but soon it would all be quite clear to the whole world and they needed to be very sure that they had embraced the quiet reality of the new family of the kingdom of God and had rejected the old perspective of the Pharisees.
When it came down to the brass tax of following Jesus and holding up under the persecution that would come their way, and even just the general difficulty of the Christian life, they needed to not hold fear of those who could kill them in the body only. They needed to be people who would have resurrection faith. This is something that they would not fully understand when Jesus was telling them this, but it would become clear soon enough. Those who truly believe in resurrection cannot be controlled because they have no fear of the primary enemy of all tyrants and persecutors, that of death. Having resurrection faith is to have a proper respect, or fear, of God. It is to realize that the reality of God and his resurrection and the age to come is far more real and worthy of dictating one’s actions than anything that humans can do to disciples, including death. Nothing that could happen to them, after all, is outside of the realm of God’s control. The sparrow is sold and probably eaten but God knows about it and has allowed it to happen. Yet they are far more important to God than a sparrow. They will be persecuted and possibly even put to death, but God knows it. This would not be a sign that they were outside of God’s purposes.
This mission, and indeed the Christian life as a whole, would come down to recognizing God over man, fearing God over man. The one who would acknowledge God, regardless of the pressure or threat of persecution or hardship at the hand of man, will be acknowledged by the Son of Man before God. Thus, it could be said that a necessary component of being embraced by the Son of Man, the Son of God, is to embrace him before man, especially when the chips are down. The one who disowned Jesus would be disowned by him because doing so, even in the face of persecution or death, would be a loud statement that one feared man and death more than God. The stark reality following the resurrection of Jesus is that the one who disowns Jesus in the face of death is one who calls the Spirit a liar because it is the Spirit that would raise Jesus from the dead and serve as the deposit guaranteeing the inheritance of resurrection as part of God’s family. To deny Jesus and the promise held out by his Spirit in the face of persecution would be to blaspheme the Spirit. This is something that simply will not forgiven.
But Jesus didn’t want them to become fearful of what might happen to them should they find themselves in the fear-inducing position of being persecuted. He didn’t want them to fear men nor did he want them to be in fear that they might fail and be found wanting when they did find themselves in such a position. When they were brought before the Jewish authorities or any other authorities and called to renounce their Messiah, they need not worry. They need not spend countless hours pouring over what they would say or dwelling on how they would respond. The Holy Spirit would take care of that if they continued to have faith and stay loyal. When the time came the Spirit would give them the strength that they needed to stay faithful and acknowledge Jesus boldly and eloquently (see Stephen’s example in Acts 7 for an example). We should note that verses 10-11 should absolutely not, as some recent American movements have done, take these verses out of context and create a doctrine that argues that preachers should not prepare sermons but should instead trust in the spontaneous guiding of the Holy Spirit. These verse, indeed the whole passage, has everything to do with holding up under persecution. The mission had begun. They had better be ready and firmly know what it meant to be on the side of Jesus. Things were serious and there was no room for not being sure. Our mission today is not the same as they were on when Jesus first spoke those words but it was born of their mission and it is similar in many ways. Our mission, then, is no less dangerous or urgent than theirs. This was not a quest for happiness, it was a very real spiritual battle. Whose side are you on?
It is one thing to think about how trusting in the Spirit and how valiant we would be in the face of severe persecution but sometimes it seems like it’s more difficult to acknowledge God and be bold in little ways. What characterizes your life more a fear of God or a fear of man when it comes to the little day-in and day-out moments? How does this passage help challenge you to stand up and live according to the Spirit’s guiding rather than the subtle influence of the fear of man?