THE PRUDENCE OF THE KING’S MESSENGER
“When they persecute you in one city, flee into another. This is the truth I tell you–you will not complete your tour of the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man shall come.”
This passage counsels a wise and a Christian prudence. In the days of persecution a certain danger always threatened the Christian witness. There always were those who actually courted martyrdom; they were wrought up to such a pitch of hysterical and fanatical enthusiasm that they went out of their way to become martyrs for the faith. Jesus was wise. He told his men that there must be no wanton waste of Christian lives; that they must not pointlessly and needlessly throw their lives away. As some one has put it, the life of every Christian witness is precious. and must not be recklessly thrown away. “Bravado is not martyrdom.” Often the Christians had to die for their faith, but they must not throw away their lives in a way that did not really help the faith. As it was later said, a man must contend lawfully, for the faith.
When Jesus spoke like this, he was speaking in a way which Jews would recognize and understand. No people were ever more persecuted than the Jews have always been; and no people were ever clearer as to where the duties of the martyr lay. The teaching of the great Rabbis was quite clear. When it was a question of public sanctification or open profanation of God’s name, duty was plain–a man must be prepared to lay down his life. But when that public declaration was not in question, a man might save his life by breaking the law; but for no reason must he commit idolatry, unchastity. or murder.
The case the Rabbis cited was this: suppose a Jew is seized by a Roman soldier, and the soldier says mockingly, and with no other intention than to humiliate and to make a fool of the Jew: “Eat this pork.” Then the Jew may eat, for “God’s laws are given for life and not for death.” But suppose the Roman says: “Eat this pork as a sign that you renounce Judaism; eat this pork as a sign that you are ready to worship Jupiter and the Emperor,” the Jew must die rather than eat. In any time of official persecution the Jew must die rather than abandon his faith. As the Rabbis said, “The words of the Law are only firm in that man who would die for their sake.”
The Jew was forbidden to thrown away his life in a needless act of pointless martyrdom; but when it came to a question of true witness, he must be prepared to die.
We do well to remember that, while we are bound to accept martyrdom for our faith, we are forbidden to court martyrdom. If suffering for the faith comes to us in the course of duty, it must be accepted; but it must not be needlessly invited; to invite it does more harm than good to the faith we bear. The self-constituted martyr is much too common in all human affairs.
It has been said that there is sometimes more heroism in daring to fly from danger than in stopping to meet it. There is real wisdom in recognizing when to escape. Andre Maurois in Why France Fell tells of a conversation he had with Winston Churchill. There was a time at the beginning of the Second World War when Great Britain seemed strangely inactive and unwilling to act. Churchill said to Maurois: “Have you observed the habits of lobsters?” “No,” answered Maurois to this somewhat surprising question. Churchill went on: “Well, if you have the opportunity, study them. At certain periods in his life the lobster loses his protective shell. At this moment of moulting even the bravest crustacean retires into a crevice in the rock, and waits patiently until a new carapace has time to grow. As soon as this new armour has grown strong, he sallies out of the crevice, and becomes once more a fighter, lord of the seas. England, through the faults of imprudent ministers, has lost its carapace; we must wait in our crevice until the new one has time to grow strong.” This was a time when inaction was wiser than action; and when to escape was wiser than to attack.
If a man is weak in the faith, he will do well to avoid disputations about doubtful things, and not to plunge into them. If a man knows that he is susceptible to a certain temptation, he will do well to avoid the places where that temptation will speak to him, and not to frequent them. If a man knows that there are people who anger and irritate him, and who bring the worst out of him, he will be wise to avoid their society, and not to seek it. Courage is not recklessness; there is no virtue in running needless risks; God’s grace is not meant to protect the foolhardy, but the prudent.
THE COMING OF THE KING
Matt. 10:23 (continued)
This passage contains one strange saying which we cannot honestly neglect. Matthew depicts Jesus as sending out his men, and, as he does so, saying to them, “You win not complete your tour of the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man shall come.” On the face of it that seems to mean that before his men had completed their preaching tour, his day of glory and his return to power would have taken place. The difficulty is just this-that did not in fact happen, and, if at that moment. Jesus had that expectation, he was mistaken. If he said this in this way, he foretold something which actually did not happen. But there is a perfectly good and sufficient explanation of this apparent difficulty.
The people of the early Church believed intensely in the second coming of Jesus, and they believed it would happen soon, certainly within their own lifetime. There could be nothing more natural than that, because they were living in days of savage persecution, and they were longing for the day of their release and their glory. The result was that they fastened on every possible saying of Jesus which could be interpreted as foretelling his triumphant and glorious return, and sometimes they quite naturally used things which Jesus said, and read into them something more definite than was originally there.
We can see this process happening within the pages of the New Testament itself. There are three versions of the one saying of Jesus. Let us set them down one after another:
Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom (Matt. 16:28). Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power (Mk.9:1). But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God (Lk.9:27).
Now it is clear that these are three versions of the same saying. Mark is the earliest gospel, and therefore Mark’s version is most likely to be strictly accurate. Mark says that there were some listening to Jesus who would not die until they saw the Kingdom of God coming with power. That was gloriously true, for within thirty years of the Cross the message of Crucified and Risen Christ had swept across the world and had reached Rome, the capital of the world. Indeed men were being swept into the Kingdom; indeed the Kingdom was coming with power. Luke transmits the saying in the same way as Mark.
Now look at Matthew. His version is slightly different; he says that there are some who will not die until they see the Son of Man coming in power. That, in fact, did not happen. The explanation is that Matthew was writing between A.D. 80 and 90, in days when terrible persecution was raging. Men were clutching at everything which promised release from agony; and he took a saying which foretold the spread of the Kingdom and turned it into a saying which foretold the return of Christ within a lifetime–and who shall blame him?
That is what Matthew has done here. Take this saying in our passage and write it as Mark or Luke would have written it: “You will not complete your tour of the cities of Israel, into the Kingdom of God shall come.” That was blessedly true, for as the tour went on, men’s hearts opened to Jesus Christ, and they took him as Master and Lord.
In a passage like this we must not think of Jesus as mistaken; we must rather think that Matthew read into a promise of the coming of the Kingdom a promise of the second coming of Jesus Christ. And he did so because, in days of terror, men clutched at the hope of Christ; and Christ did come to them in the Spirit, for no man ever suffered alone for Christ.
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