We Are the Little Ones: Persecution, Promise, and the Tender Affection of God

And whoever gives just a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple — I assure you: He will never lose his reward! (Matthew 10:42)

Here at the very end of Matthew 10, we step back and survey how far we have come.

This has been a chapter of calling and commission. Jesus has given his disciples authority to preach, to heal, and to deliver. He has given them authority to challenge the power systems of the world — even while charging them to give up earthly power of their own and live in total dependency on God and others.

And he has promised them opposition. Over the course of the last 42 verses, Jesus has promised his disciples that they will face rejection, betrayal, and persecution — from their rulers, their neighbors, and even their own families.

When they do, compromise isn’t an option. They haven’t been given an out — a strategy of negotiation or lying low.

Instead they’ve been told that if it comes to it, they are to take up their cross and follow Jesus to the death.

Sitting back and reading Matthew 10 as a whole is an exhilarating experience. It’s also a sobering one.

This chapter is a line in the sand, and in some ways, it’s heavy. It’s heavy because it still speaks to us today, and because it crosses every instinct we have for self-preservation and demands a kind of surrender that is visceral and total in its scope.

Vulnerability and the Promises of God

More than anything, reading Matthew 10 makes me aware that as followers of Jesus in a hostile world, we are vulnerable. We are weak and fragile human beings, and we don’t have the luxury of building iron fortresses around ourselves if we intend to step out on Jesus’ cross-shaped road.

It’s not a question of whether we will suffer; it’s a question of when and how.

This reality, of suffering and persecution and vulnerability and fear, is why Jesus threads the entire chapter with promises.

He promises that God will be with us always, and that his Spirit will speak in and through us.

He promises that while some people will reject and oppose us, others will welcome us and share their lives, their homes, and their hearts with us. We will not be left without friends.

He promises that no matter what happens, God will be aware of it — even hyper-aware of it. We are known intimately, and even the hairs on our heads are inventoried.

He promises us eternal life on the other side of suffering and death.

Jesus has promised to acknowledge us, identify with us, be with us, strengthen us, speak through us, care for us, and reward both us and those who choose to care for us.

He meets our vulnerability with his power and presence. And though he does not promise to ward off all danger and keep us safe and happy in a protective cocoon, he does promise that we will never be forgotten or abandoned, and that in the final reckoning, nothing we could ever encounter on earth will outweigh the reward of being with him eternally.

We may feel vulnerable. We may feel exposed and fragile. We may fear what’s coming next. But whatever comes, we have the promise of God’s presence to strengthen us.

Not only that, but we have the promise of his love.

The Tenderness of God

At the very end of the chapter, Jesus promises to reward those who care for his people. At first, he seems to be speaking in descending order of importance:

Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. And anyone who welcomes a righteous man because he is righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward.

Prophets and “righteous men” (or “just men” in old KJV parlance) are familiar figures on the Old Testament landscape. They were cultural heroes. The prophets spoke directly for God, after all. Righteous men were known for their personal integrity, their care for the poor, and their attention to justice in the public sphere.

Prophets called people to faithfulness, to God and to the law; righteous men actually walked in that faithfulness. They were deserving of honor and help. To receive them was to align yourself publicly with God and what he was doing in the world, and God promised to note that alignment and reward it.

But Jesus ends with an unexpected twist:

And whoever gives just a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple—I assure you: He will never lose his reward!

Jesus’ language changes here in several important ways.

First, he switches from the language of holistic “welcome” to something much simpler — a cup of cold water. Again, we see a hyper-awareness on God’s part. His sensitivity toward the needs of this last group is so high that even the simplest act of kindness toward them will be rewarded.

The language of reward is stronger too; rather than simply stating that those who do this will be rewarded, Jesus underscores the certain and eternal nature of the reward: “I assure you¬—He will never lose his reward!”

But it’s the name he uses that most reveals Jesus’ heart in this moment. Rather than identify his apostles as prophets or righteous men, he calls them “little ones.”

“Little ones” is a term of endearment. Jesus is speaking here with deep affection and protectiveness — with a tone that is tender and almost maternal.

Don’t miss this: When Jesus finished telling his disciples the sobering, heavy, and frightening truth of what they might soon face, he immediately followed that by expressing how deeply he cared for them.

When they were emotionally vulnerable, he extended himself emotionally toward them. He let them see his heart. And his heart viewed them as little children. He was vulnerable too.

The theologian B.B. Warfield wrote in “Christ’s Little Ones”:

The “disciples” our Lord has in mind are his own disciples; his own disciples he loves with a devoted love; and this love is pledged to their protection … The lesson conveyed is that Christ’s disciples are under the watchful charge of his jealous love, a love that is as strong as death, the flashes whereof are flashes of fire, a very flame of the Lord.

In the end, Jesus didn’t see his disciples as “prophets and righteous men” — as cultural superheroes deserving of his backing. He saw them, and loved them, as small, needy, and helpless children. He saw them as humble and fragile and needing to be covered by love.

And in the end, this is where the deepest comfort is found. Because even the strongest of us is, in the wide scope of things, still weak. Even the most mature of us is still a child somewhere deep inside — still fragile, needy, and needing the help and the attention of others and of our God.

We are all made of dust. We are all just clinging to Jesus like a child clings to his mother. We’re not impressive. We’re little ones. And that’s all Jesus expects us — or wants us — to be.

In our neediest moments, his heart is moved toward us with love. When we are suffering, his tone is that of a parent comforting a child. Loving a child. Assuring a child that ultimately, yes — it’s going to be okay.

Speak up like a prophet. Live like a righteous man. Face persecution with courage. Take up your cross and follow.

And know you are loved. It’s going to be okay. That is the promise of eternity.


This is Part 158 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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