v.16 Jesus warns his disciples of persecutions that they must endure as missionaries to the world. They should be like (helpless) sheep amidst wolves (Pharisees/established religion). He instructs them to be shrewd (or astute) as serpents and innocent (or harmless) as doves (Phil 2:15). This calls for a careful balance between cunning and vulnerability when we spread the good news. “…Be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Rom 16:19). This section (16-25) applies to missionaries throughout the church age.
v.17-18 Jesus instructs them to beware, they will be handed over to courts and flogged in synagogues. This reflects persecution at the hands of government and at the hands of organized religion. Disciples will be dragged before the authorities, and this will be an opportunity to be a witness to them.
v.19-20 Don’t worry about what to say in that hour of trouble (parallel Lk 12:11-12) for the Spirit will give you the words to say when the time comes (e.g., Acts 4:8-13). This doesn’t mean to not prepare (Col 4:6), but rather to not worry. Be ready at all times to give a defense of your faith, 2 Tim 4:2. How many of us are ready today?
v.21-22 Here the evangelist alludes to Mi 7:6, brother will be against brother, children will rebel against parents. All (hyperbole) men will hate you (on account of Jesus) but stand firm to the end and you will be saved. That is, enduring persecution is evidence of a commitment to Jesus, it is not the means of salvation.
v.23 When persecuted in one town, flee to the next. The comes the difficult to interpret statement that they will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. The best interpretation seems to be that this refers to the second coming of Christ. A good alternative is his coming in Judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
v.24-25 The disciple is not above his teacher. If they called Jesus Beelzebul, how much more will they malign his disciples. Beelzebul is the prince of demons and referred to Satan.