The frankness of Jesus is startling.
We’re all familiar with Jesus’ final “commissioning” of his disciples before he ascended into heaven. “Go,” he commanded, “and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19) Over the centuries since he so clearly stated the mission of those who would follow him, countless numbers of Christians have enthusiastically taken up this purpose as their own. He sent, and they went. Indeed, this is at the very core of the World Mission Prayer League.
If we were to send someone out to do something on our behalf, we’d probably want to load them up with positive encouragement, explaining that it’s “going to be just great,” and hoping that they’ll be excited for the opportunity. That certainly seems to be the approach businesses adopt when they’re trying to recruit workers. A recent McDonald’s ad seeking new employees reads: “You don’t want to work just anyplace. You want to be challenged. And have fun. Give us a try!”
Clearly, this was not the way of Jesus. Jesus didn’t mince words. He was strikingly blunt about the prospects of those who would make it their purpose to represent him. As he sent his followers to find the “lost sheep of Israel,” he told them, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” (Matthew 10:6, 16) You don’t really need to know much about sheep or wolves to see how this scenario plays out. The sheep don’t come out on top. They may not come out at all.
Again: The frankness of Jesus is startling. Even upsetting. Indeed, considering the bleak prospects of “sheep among wolves,” it would appear a miracle that anyone would dare respond and go. Remarkably, if it is a miracle, it’s a surprisingly common one.
The very first disciples that Jesus sent out – we call them the “Apostles,” the “sent ones” – experienced everything that Jesus had predicted. They went as sheep. They encountered wolves. “Beware of men,” Jesus had told them, “for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake.” (Matthew 10:17-18) Opposition and persecution seemed to meet them at every turn, and yet, empowered by the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 10:19-20), they continued to share the life-saving message with which they had been entrusted, and the number of those who were being saved grew.
God’s Kingdom of grace expanded in spite of persecution, and very possibly even because of it. We may prefer to think of this as something of the past, but in truth it continues to be the way that Jesus sends laborers into the harvest fields even today. The fields are filled with wolves. And there are sheep who are going.
While the force of gospel workers from the West is diminishing, those sent from the Global South, where most of the world’s Christians are now located, are increasing in number. Most of them did not receive a faith handed down to them through generations, but embraced faith in Jesus alone as something new, in social contexts that often subjected them to discrimination and persecution. They are not strangers to these things. Nonetheless, they are compelled to share the hope they have regardless of the risks. Jesus is sending, and they are going. And they know there will be wolves there.
In truth, this is something all followers of Jesus must face, whether we are crossing the street or crossing the ocean. “We have the high privilege of answering Jesus’ call to go,” Nik Ripken writes in The Insanity of Obedience, “but let us be clear about this: we go on His terms, not ours. If we go at all, we go as sheep among wolves.”
Jesus is sending because billions of those he died for still do not know him. Many of them live in very tough places. Who will go? Will we? As Jesus taught his disciples, it will require that we “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
It will require that we be wise to the risks, but also, and especially, wise with regard to the Shepherd who goes with us. To those he sent out, Jesus promised his presence. He gave his very self for the sheep, suffering the cross beyond anything that they might be asked to bear. He also gives to all those who dare to walk with him among the wolves the armaments they will require. They are covered with his righteousness and filled with his love. They are supplied with his message of salvation, his authority over evil, and even his victory over death. This is what his sheep have, and what the lost sheep of all nations so desperately need. Jesus is sending us. Who will go?