Mark 6:6-14

We have in our text this morning the bottom piece of bread in another of Mark’s “sandwiches.” This technique is also referred to as interpolation, by which is meant the insertion of one narrative inside another. The sending of the twelve on a ministry tour in vv. 6-13 and their return in verse 30 are separated from one another by the account of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. Once again, the middle piece helps us interpret the outer pieces. We might say that the great theme of this sandwich, therefore, is the cost of discipleship. The Lord sends his disciples to do what John did and we are reminded of the price that John paid for his faithfulness to God’s calling. And that reminds us of the later martyrdom of at least some of these same twelve disciples. They too would pay with their lives for doing the work Jesus had called them and prepared them to do.

Text Comment

Once again we are reminded that the Lord’s principal ministry was teaching, not miracle working. He was first and foremost a preacher of the good news. It is responding to the truth about Jesus that saves a person, not being impressed by a miracle.
The word the NIV translates “sent” is the verb form of the word “Apostle.” An apostle is someone who has been sent with the authority of another. It appears that this sending of his disciples was a unique feature of Jesus’ ministry. There is no evidence that Jewish rabbis sent their disciples on teaching missions.

This is the only place in Mark where we see the disciples exercising a ministry apart from Jesus, but Mark may mean for us to think of this as something that was now to be a regular feature of their work. What Mark literally says is that the Lord began to send them out and was giving them authority over demons. The form of the verbs may suggest a repeated action. [France, 246]

This is also somewhat surprising as the disciples to this point have not shown themselves fully to understand the Lord’s mission or to appreciate who and what he is. Such is the Lord’s condescension that he is willing to use such helpers and such is his power that he can make even such as them fruitful in his work.

The sending them out in pairs, a sensible provision to provide mutual encouragement and accountability, was a practice followed in the apostolic church. Think of Paul and Barnabas, or Paul and Silas.

The general idea is that they were on a mission too important for them to be weighed down with luggage. There is some urgency in their mission; they need to keep on the move. What is more, not taking much with them, they were cast upon the Lord to provide their necessities and learned to depend upon him. Their commission from the Lord is more important than their material security.
They were to be grateful guests and not spend time looking for more suitable accommodations or creating ill-will by moving from one home to another.
Jews traveling outside Palestine were required to shake themselves free of dust before they returned so as not to pollute the holy land. By using this form of words the Lord means that a Jewish town in Galilee that refused to receive the good news about him is equivalent to a heathen village. [Str.-B, i, 571] He says similar things elsewhere, when, for example he compares some Galilean towns unfavorably to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Anointing with oil is found only here and in the famous remark of James in his letter (5:14). The Lord Jesus is never said to have employed oil in any of his healings. The oil apparently was an emblem of healing as well as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, “the oil of gladness” as in Psalm 45:7. In any case, another eyewitness touch.

When Jesus called his disciples, as we read earlier in the Gospel, he told them that he would make them fishers of men. So far, however, they have been spectators of the Lord’s ministry, sometimes indeed a privileged private audience of the Lord’s teaching and miracle-working, but not yet partners in his mission. [France, 245] That now changes and for the first time they are sent with the Lord’s authority to speak and act on his behalf.

In his wonderful and very important book, The Training of the Twelve, [103] A.B. Bruce points out that there were two religious movements going on the ministry of the Lord Jesus. One consisted in rousing the masses out of the stupor of indifference; the other consisted in the careful, exact training of men already in earnest in the principles and truths of the divine kingdom. The latter movement, the training and preparation of Christ’s inner circle of disciples, though less noticeable and certainly less exciting than Christ’s public preaching to enormous crowds and his working of miracles, was destined to bring forth the far greater fruit. It was to be these disciples, prepared and equipped for their life’s work during their three years with Jesus, who would in the days after Christ’s ascension, turn the world upside down.

There is a lesson here, of course, for every family, every church, and every Christian ministry. The wise will judge success or failure and will expend their energy not according to a principle that places a premium on immediate and flamboyant results but according to a principle that places a premium instead on what endures to the end. The great crowds eventually deserted Jesus and joined in demanding his execution. But these few disciples took the message of his death and resurrection to the four corners of the world and laid the foundation of that church against which the gates of hell themselves cannot prevail.

In any case, here begins the disciples’ direct and public participation in the ministry of Jesus. Partly no doubt to extend his ministry and partly as the next step in their training for the work of their lifetime, Jesus sent them two by two throughout the Galilean countryside to preach and to work wonders. Here begins the long and glorious history of the Christian ministry: the men who through the ages proclaimed the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. What the twelve here do for the first time, countless multitudes of faithful men would do in the centuries to follow: Ignatius, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Patrick, Gregory, Bernard, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Bunyan, Wesley, Whitefield, Simeon, Carey, Livingstone, Paton, Spurgeon, and on into our own day. Men of whom the world was not worthy. And besides the famous, countless faithful preachers and missionaries whose names have been lost to history but are known to God. Just as the history of apostolic Christianity as we have it in the Book of Acts is primarily the history of the life and work of these apostles and chiefly two of them: Peter and Paul, so, as anyone who reads church history knows, the history of the church is very largely the history of that succession of men who have followed the disciples as preachers of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. What were all of those men but the descendants of these twelve disciples going from Galilean town to town telling men and women to repent and believe in Jesus?

Now what is noteworthy about the Lord’s instructions is the way in which they indicate that the disciples were being sent out to represent him, to act on his behalf, to extend his ministry, and that the response of people to them would, in fact, be their response to him. These instructions are reported in greater detail in the parallel passage in Matthew and this point is made even more explicitly. There we read that he told them that they would be persecuted on my account [10:18], that men would hate them because of me [10:22], that their task was simply to teach what he had taught them, [10:27] and that those who received them were, in effect, receiving him and those who rejected them were, in fact, rejecting him [10:40].

But even here, in Mark’s shorter account, we have that point clearly made. Not only are they told to do precisely the very things that Jesus was doing, not only was their message the same as his, not only did he give them his own authority to discharge the ministry of preaching and healing to which he had commissioned them, not only did he require of his disciples a simplicity and other-worldliness of them that was the mark of his own ministry – “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” – but, the effect of their ministry fell not so much on them as upon him. Did you notice that as we read the last verse of our text this morning? In the last verse of our text we read:

“King Herod heard about this [– that is about the ministry of the disciples –], for Jesus’ name had become well known…” and he and others couldn’t help but wonder about Jesus’ miraculous powers.

In other words, the miracles worked by the twelve disciples were really performed by Jesus and everyone knew this. It was Jesus’ authority that the disciples were wielding. The works done by the disciples did not in fact cause the people of Galilee and King Herod Antipas to wonder who they were, but only to wonder who and what Jesus was. Apparently no one, Herod included, was confused on that point. In other words, there is a remarkable identification between Jesus and his disciples: he with them and they with him.

Now we have said already in our consideration of the calling of the disciples that some aspects of their ministry were unique to them and some other aspects unique to the Christian ministry, of which they were the archetype and the original standard bearers. But in many other respects they – as the Christian ministry following them – serve in the Gospels as representative Christians, the church in miniature. And so it is entirely correct for us to look at the disciples’ first tour of ministry as an education in Christian service and in living for Christ’s sake, something all Christians are called to do. Even when Jesus speaks to them as a miniature ministry, what he says has implications for us all. What is true of the ministry, in Holy Scripture, with only a few exceptions relating to the specific function of ministers and elders, is, necessary changes being made, true of all Christians. In a certain respect, as we know, all Christians are ministers and, of course, all ministers should first and foremost be Christians. We may not all be pastors or evangelists or missionaries in a formal or official sense, but we are all called to further the kingdom of God by word and deed, to represent Christ to others, and to be the instruments of his work in the world. Mark, as we have already seen, is interested in teaching the nature of Christian discipleship in his Gospel. Remember, he is writing for Christians a generation later than the events he records and one of the things he wants to teach them is what it means to follow Jesus.

And here he gives us a key piece of that teaching a part of the foundation; what we might call the pattern or the form of Christian discipleship. It is this: the Christian life is a life lived in imitation of Jesus. There are many ways, of course, in which we cannot do that. The “What Would Jesus Do” bracelet and program of a few years ago was rightly criticized for the far too facile suggestion that believers could or even should imitate Jesus in all respects or that they would even know what Jesus would do in any particular situation. Frankly, the Lord surprises us with his behavior on many occasions in the Gospels, says things that we wouldn’t have expected him to say and that we rightly doubt we ought to say. The King of Kings can and does do things that his subjects should not and cannot.

Nevertheless, it was one of these same disciples who would later write that Jesus “left us an example that we should follow in his steps,” and surely there are a great many ways in which we are self-consciously to be imitators of him. We may not do what he did nearly so well – these disciples certainly did not – but what he did we are to do. I’m sure these disciples were forced to think this way, whether they reflected on the fact or not. They had never done any preaching. How was it to be done? What were they to say? And how were they to say it? What could they do but try hard to remember just how Jesus had expressed himself, how he put things, with what inflection he emphasized a point, how he had begun his discourses and how he had ended them. No doubt they preached as much like he did as they were able.

There was a minister in Scotland during our days there in the 1970s who was a disciple of our pastor in Aberdeen and he was famous for how slavishly he had copied the style, the mannerisms, even the tone of voice of Mr. Still. People were sometimes actually embarrassed for him because his ministry seemed so derivative, so much a copy of someone else’s. But when the someone else is the Son of God, imitation, even slavish imitation, makes perfect sense. And that, no doubt, is the lesson here for us.

We are to be like Jesus in every way we can be. We are to aspire to be as he was and do what he did. That is one reason why we have four Gospels and their repetitive and elaborative accounts of the Lord’s life and ministry. That is the story of our redemption, to be sure, but it is also the transcript of our living as Christians. Jesus is the first Christian, the exemplar of the life of his followers. Frequently in the Gospels Jesus makes this same point. When, for example, he washed his disciples’ feet he told them that he wanted them to do as he had done.

That is why Paul would later describe salvation in several different places in his letters in terms of our being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ or of our being transformed into his likeness, and summon us to have the same mind he did and to do the same things he did in the same spirit in which he did them. So, for example, we are to forgive others as Christ forgave us; we are to live a life of love as Christ loved us; or we are not to be selfish but give ourselves for others as Christ did who made himself nothing for our salvation. Paul would later sum up his teaching by saying, “Follow me, as I follow Christ.” It was his way of saying that the fundamental principle of godliness is Christ-likeness. We are to obey as he obeyed; serve as he served; love as he loved; pray as he prayed; trust the promises of God as he trusted them; give ourselves for others as he did. When Thomas á Kempis entitled his book on the Christian life The Imitation of Christ he was doing nothing but pulling these various threads of New Testament teaching together.

As an aside, let me point out that it is a wonderful thing that Jesus gave these men his own ministry. It is a revelation of the heart of God. Is it not amazing that God, whose own grace and love and power and sacrifice is the cause of everything good in a human life and certainly the cause in every respect of the salvation of those who are being saved, should share the gratitude, and the honor, and the responsibility for the salvation of men with mere men who couldn’t have done the first good thing without the Lord enabling them? He didn’t even hold the power of working miracles to himself, but shared it with these twelve fellows who, if the truth be told, both now and later, left a lot to be desired.

So much was he willing to identify himself with his disciples that later, after he had left the world, people began to look to the disciples themselves for healing and for salvation. It happened to such an extent that we find them in Acts often having to correct a false impression. They actually have to tell crowds of people that they are not gods, but only representatives of the living God. What an honor to be given such a ministry that would require you to correct that misunderstanding. What generosity on the Lord’s part; what delight he must take in his children to share the credit with them the way he does. Over and again, both in the book of Acts and in church history since, the Lord’s ministers have preached sermons in his name that had far greater effect, brought many more to eternal life, than any sermon he ever preached. This is a most remarkable thing and should he pondered by us all. So liberally and ungrudgingly does he share with others a work which is really entirely his and for which he alone is responsible that his must be a supremely large and generous heart. I’m not sure if I know of a greater generosity than this.

But here is the fundamental fact about the Christian life: it is a life in which we aspire to be and do as Jesus did for the sake of drawing attention to him and giving him glory. It matters not that we are not called as these men were to conduct a preaching tour. In our kitchen, in our bedrooms, in our places of work, among our children or our friends and neighbors, we are to be like Jesus and we are to act like Jesus in order to serve others by drawing their attention to him. And, what is more, we can. Christ can be seen in us when we live in imitation of him. This is the extraordinary point being made. Jesus bestowed this privilege upon a group of men who were undistinguished, slow to learn, and unsteady – just like us – and see what happened! They caused a great stir and Jesus was on everyone’s lips. His name became better known.

So our text faces us with this very simple but searching question: are we imitating Jesus; are we aspiring to; are we intending to? Are there ways in which we are doing without bread, bag, money, or extra tunic? Are we doing the things he did – in compassion caring for others and always speaking of the kingdom of God? Are we suffering rejection precisely because we are identifying with Jesus in our words and deeds? “A servant is not above his master,” Jesus once told them. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”

I have told some of you before about the ministry of Charles Simeon, the Anglican clergyman of Cambridge in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. He was a warm evangelical serving in a largely cold and unbelieving national church, but by his powerful preaching and the force of his character he wielded a tremendous influence for the gospel. Many of the young Cambridge men who sat under his preaching during their university days became some of the most fruitful and influential Christian ministers and missionaries of their day.

As a young man and a relatively new Christian, Simeon was installed as the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge to the great irritation of its largely unbelieving congregation. They wanted a suave, urbane man who would preach comfortable platitudes and Simeon was the furthest thing from that. He was, in other words, sent to a place very like the Galilean villages where the disciples first preached. When Simeon began preaching his biblical sermons the church wardens and council persuaded most of the pew-holders – in those days the wealthy purchased their pews – to lock their pews and stay away. The result was that when Simeon looked out over the sanctuary from his pulpit, he faced a sea of empty seats. Those who cared to hear him had either to stand in the aisles or sit on benches in the corners. He was spoken against and written against, ridiculed by town and gown alike – a terrible ordeal for a shy and somewhat awkward young man – his own congregation refused to receive him into their homes or speak to him in the street and rowdy undergraduates would talk aloud or shuffle their feet during his services. He was rejected more comprehensively I’m sure even than the Lord’s disciples were in their preaching. Their miracles no doubt cushioned some of the opposition they would otherwise have faced. And so it continued for several years, though the Lord’s blessing and authority in Simeon’s ministry began to tell at the same time. How did he bear up under this? Well, the great man tells us.

“When I was an object of much contempt and derision…I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted with my little Testament in my hand. I prayed earnestly to my God that he would comfort me with some cordial from his Word, and that on opening the book I might find some text which would sustain me… The first text which caught my eye was this: ‘They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to bear his Cross.’ You know Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was here – what a blessed hint for my encouragement! To have the Cross laid upon me, that I might bear it after Jesus – what a privilege! It was enough. Now I could leap and sing for joy as one whom Jesus was honouring with a participation in his sufferings…I henceforth bound persecution as a wreath of glory round my brow!” [In H.E. Hopkins, Charles Simeon, 81]

In other words, you see, he realized in a moment of stunning clarity that he was in his ministry simply imitating Jesus and therefore he was suffering the same consequences the Lord had suffered. And that changed everything. Suffering of that kind, for Jesus’ sake, because we are identified with him, will always be the highest honor ever paid to a believer in this world. It is, in our small way, carrying the Lord’s cross for him, the very cross in which our eternal life was purchased. It was this sense that he was identified with Christ and Christ with him that lifted Charles Simeon up.

We are all to ask ourselves whether we can see our lives – our lives today – in the twelve disciples: traveling light, depending upon the Lord’s provision, and doing the Lord’s work even if it means suffering for it. Every one of us should examine our lives this way and alter them accordingly: is my manner of life, are my words and deeds, is my reputation a cause for others to think about Jesus Christ? Is my life so entirely identified with his that all the Herods of my life, who see my life or hear me speak wonder about and find themselves looking at Him? Our lives will have come good, will have risen to their true potential, when that is so and not before!

Now for someone who loves Jesus Christ that is enough and more than enough. To think that by my imitation of him, by my doing what he did in his name his name should be made greater in the world, I say, that is enough, more than enough. As Christians we carry Christ’s reputation with us wherever we go and, feeble as we often are as Christians, even we, by imitating him, can exalt his name. We may hold this treasure in earthen vessels, but hold it and carry it we do.