The Gospel writers recorded many of the teachings of Jesus during his brief ministry on this earth, and among them are several that are very challenging and maybe even confusing at times. One of those is found in Matthew 10:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword….He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. (Matt. 10:34,37-38)
This statement may appear to be radical and unprecedented, and some may even try to explain it away by suggesting that Jesus didn’t actually mean what he seems to say here. However, Jesus’ words are not new, neither do they contradict what we find elsewhere in the Scriptures.
In our scheduled Scripture reading last week, we read Deuteronomy 13, which deals with the threat of spiritual apostasy in ancient Israel. First, God warns his people to refuse to listen to a self-proclaimed prophet or dreamer who tries to entice them to leave Yahweh and serve other gods. And the prophet who claimed to speak for Yahweh but abandoned his truth was to be put to death in order that the evil he represented might be put away from the children of Israel. Now the death penalty may seem to be extreme for a case of spiritual unfaithfulness, but it reveals just how serious God is his own holiness and that of his people. It also shows how dangerous such false teaching is in that, if left unchecked, it will eventually spread and corrupt the entire congregation.
Following this warning about false prophets, we find a more personal warning in v.6-11. Here the threat is not from some prophet or dreamer but from within your own house:
If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods…” (Deut. 13:6)
What would you do if someone you knew, a close friend or immediate family member committed some atrocity, some crime that was punishable by death? Would you turn him in? Would you give him shelter? This is a very different circumstance from the previous one, where it was simply a man or woman from among the people in general. Yet Yahweh demanded a very direct response:
…you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. (Deut. 13:8-9)
Not only were the Israelites to turn in their brother, son or daughter, wife, or best friend for departing from the faith, they were supposed to be the first person to take up a stone and strike their loved one to put them to death! The zeal for God demanded by the Old Covenant law is stunning in its response to sin, at least to our genteel modern ears, and it may even seem to be more demanding than Jesus’ words in Matthew 10. But really, the principle behind these two passages is one and the same.
Throughout all ages of human history, Yahweh has demanded that his people show absolute loyalty to him above all others, and that includes immediate family and close friends. That demand has not diminished in its force, in spite of the fact that we no longer apply it according to the governmental rule of God in Israel. Neither has it weakened despite our almost allergic reaction to such commitments in 21st century Christianity. The world and our own hearts will demand that we give our family and friends precedence over our obedience to God’s word, but our heavenly Father will not tolerate such an attitude. He may not command our fellow church members to stone us with stones, but he nevertheless declares that believers with such misplaced priorities will fail to receive some of the honor and reward that could have been theirs if they had been faithful. After all, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).