Formations 07.13.2014: Sudanese Christian May Face New Trial

Matthew 10:16-25

For the past several months, people have followed the story of Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman arrested and sentenced to death for the “crimes” of converting to Christianity and marrying a Christian man. After an international outcry, Ibrahim’s death sentence was overturned on June 30th. Now, however, she could face a new trial.

Shortly after her acquittal, Ibrahim was arrested at the Khartoum airport while attempting to escape to the United States. She was charged with falsifying travel documents and providing false information.

The most stunning detail in this latest development is that her own half-brother instigated this new set of charges. Al Samani Al Hadi, a strict Muslim, has publicly vowed to execute Ibrahim if given the chance.

Lawyers for Ibrahim say her half-brother is merely acting out of spite and that he doesn’t have any authority over her. Even so, the charges mean she could face an entirely new hearing that could delay her departure by weeks or months.

Ibrahim is married to Daniel Wani, a naturalized US citizen who lives in Manchester, New Hampshire.

In Matthew 10:16-25, Jesus warns the apostles of the dangerous terrain in which they are to serve. This threatening environment calls for both wisdom and innocence and will often result in rejection and persecution. Faithfulness to Jesus’ message may provoke hatred and betrayal, but disciples can take heart that, in facing the resistance of others, they are following in the steps of their Master.

Nick Fagge and Daniel Bates, “Sudanese Mother Put on Death Row for Marrying a Christian Could now Face New Trial after Her Own Brother Blocked Her Escape to the US,” Mail Online, 1 July 2014


• Have you been following Meriam Ibrahim’s story? What have been your thoughts?
• What in her story gives evidence of either “wisdom” or “innocence”?
• What sorts of resistance does the Christian mission face in your world?
• How should Christians respond when their faith is mocked or attacked?

Reference Shelf

Persecution in the New Testament

The narratives of the NT portray early conflict between Christians and the Jewish authorities. Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities led to his crucifixion. The gospels certainly place the blame for that crucifixion at the feet of the Jews, even though they are also quite clear that the Roman government actually executed Jesus. In Acts, the Jewish persecution of Christianity intensified. Paul is introduced during Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:58). Stephen’s death inaugurated a systematic oppression of Palestinian Christians, and Paul led the fight to stamp out “the Way” (Acts 8:1).

Acts also narrates the official persecution of Christian leaders in Jerusalem by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:1-5). Peter was imprisoned; James was executed. Herod may well have been acting on his own, though he imprisoned Peter because he wanted to please the Jews, which implies some Jewish influence in the ongoing official persecution of Christians (Acts 12:3). The fourth Gospel also indicates that Christians had been forced out of the synagogues, a less drastic, but every bit as official, form of religious persecution (John 9).

Acts is less clear about official Roman persecution of Christians elsewhere in the empire. That Christians were affected by Claudius’s edict which expelled Jews from Rome in 49 C.E. is very possible (Acts 18:2). This persecution should not be construed as official persecution of Christians. Claudius’s edict concerned the Jewish inhabitants of Rome; persons such as Aquila and Priscilla were forced to leave Rome because they were Jewish, not because they were Christian. Acts seems to have gone to great lengths to argue for a harmonious relationship between the government and the church. This apologetic purpose seems to have been aimed as much at convincing the church that the government was helpful to the Christian mission as it was aimed at convincing the government that the church could be trusted to uphold the laws of society.

Steven Sheeley, “Persecution in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 668.

Persecution and Rejection

Note that the First Evangelist includes material here from Mark 13:9-13, and in particular material about persecution. This is perhaps not only because he knew there was rejection of the witness of disciples during the lifetime of Jesus, but also because persecution and even prosecution was an ongoing problem for the minority sect of Jewish Christians in the Holy Land. Persecution and prosecution are both opportunities for witness. The disciples go out apparently defenseless, as sheep amongst wolves, but they are equipped with the Spirit of God who will speak through them when they must bear witness. In Mark 13 it is clearer that Jesus is referring to situations after his lifetime, but the First Evangelist has grouped this material together here due to its relevance to the present situation of his audience. They were already having run-ins with synagogue rulers and were being dragged before town councils and Gentile magistrates, and it was good to remind them that Jesus sent the disciples out even though he knew in advance there would be opposition and resistance all along. There is nothing here about finding a friendly homogenous target audience or taking the path of least resistance!

Verses 21-23 indicate that families will become divided “over me.” Brother will betray brother, children will rebel against parents, and parents will betray children. There will even be considerable hatred directed at the disciples. They are not to worry because if they persevere firmly to the end they will be saved. The saying in v. 23 must not be taken out of context. The context is the cities of Israel, which may mean the cities in Galilee. The underlying idea has to do with fleeing to cities of refugee from those who are persecuting or pursuing you. Jesus’ advice is when a disciple is persecuted in one city he should flee to another. The idea is that there are plenty of places to which to run if need be. The reference to the Son of Man coming could refer to Jesus himself showing up where they were witnessing during his ministry (notice, e.g., 11:1, which refers to him going out and teaching and preaching in the cities of Galilee after he has sent the disciples out two by two). There could however be a reference to the second coming of the Son of Man, and again the point is there will be plenty of places to run to in Israel until the Son of Man comes. This need not imply a clearly imminent return of the Son of Man, but rather speak to the numerous places to which his disciples could flee….

Matthew 10:24-25 is important in a pedagogically-oriented Gospel like this one. The saying probably suggests that if the master teacher was persecuted and rejected and demonized, his disciples shouldn’t expect better treatment. Notice how servant and master are interchangeable terms with disciple and teacher here. The version of this saying in John 15:20 makes the persecution context clearer. We will say more about the use of the name Beelzebul for Satan later, but here it is sufficient to note that the name means “Lord of the house” and so there is a certain ironic appropriateness of calling a man who says he is the “head of the house” Beelzebul, though of course the term is being used pejoratively of Jesus. It is interesting that Jesus calls his disciples members of his household. This is the sort of terminology that rabbis might use of their followers who came to their house to study with them, and what this use here suggests is that Jesus sees himself in the mold of at least some other Jewish teachers and sages of his day. As Hagner points out, the First Evangelist likes using the term oikodespotes of Jesus or God (cf. here with 20:1, 11; 21:33). Jesus uses the language of family (brother, sister) to describe his disciples at various points, so it is in no way surprising he would use the language of head of the house and household to further describe his relationship with his disciples.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 222–24.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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