The First Missionaries


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Matthew 10:1-16

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At the end of the previous chapter the Lord had said that the harvest was plentiful but the workers were few.  He addresses that problem himself now by supplying some workers to bring in the harvest.

v.1       For the first time in the Gospel the Twelve appear as an already defined group.  Matthew has, to this point, given an account of only five of the 12. Of the rest, nothing is known of how they came to be part of the twelve.  We have been treated over the past five chapters of the Gospel to the demonstration of the “authority” of Jesus, both as a teacher and as a worker of miracles.  Now this same authority is bestowed on a group of his followers.

v.2       In the Gospels the twelve are usually referred to as disciples; only this once in the Gospel of Matthew are they referred to as apostles, as they would later be commonly known.  “Apostle” means “one who is sent,” and particularly someone who is sent on a mission and, who, on that mission, represents the one who sent him.  Among the twelve, Matthew says, Simon was “first.”  As the Gospels indicate in some other ways, Peter was in some sense the leader of the group.

v.4       It is not known whether the resistance party later known as the Zealots existed this early in the first century, so the nickname could refer to Simon’s zealous nationalism or more generally to Simon’s reputation for zeal for the law of God.

v.5       They would, of course, later be given a wider mission – the Gentile world is already anticipated as v. 18 of this same chapter will suggest – but, for now, they were to confine their work to Israel.  They were not to go even to the Samaritans, though Jesus had a ministry among them and would later in his ministry have more of one.  There was an order for the advancement of the kingdom of God.  Later even Paul followed it:  to the Jew first and then to the Greek.

v.7       Their message, in other words, is the same as that of John the Baptist and Jesus.

v.8       In Jesus’ own ministry his authoritative preaching accompanied with works of power heralded the arrival of the kingdom of God.  So now with his disciples.  Clearly, Christ was giving them authority to do precisely the same things that he had done.  Those are the very sort of miracles that have been reported to us in the previous two chapters of the Gospel.  As to the disciples themselves, their status as prophets and healers is something Christ has given to them as a free gift.  They are to conduct their ministry accordingly, with no mercenary spirit, no thought of reward.  Having the power to heal the sick would have been a temptation, to be sure.  Imagine the money that could have been made.  But there is to be no thought of that!  As Jesus has given to them, they are to give to others, without thought of return.  How different a spirit among those who could really perform miracles from the many wealthy so called ministers who only pretend to perform them!

v.10     The point is that they are to make no preparations for their journey.  The mission is urgent and there is no time for elaborate preparations.  The work cries out for haste; God will provide for them.  They are the Lord’s workers and he will supply their needs.

v.11     The assumption that hospitality will be extended to complete strangers is a commonplace of middle Eastern culture, however it might strike us as overbold.  The point of staying in one house the entire time they are in a town appears to be that while they could lengthen their stay if they moved from house to house, the urgency of the mission requires them to visit as many towns as possible.  They are not to waste time on arrangements for their housing!

v.13     Still, they may not always choose wisely a place to stay.  The blessing of God’s salvation must be received by faith.  If it is not, the promise of it returns to the messenger like an uncashed check.  [France, 181]

v.15     To whom much is given, much is required.  Those who have heard the gospel and, all the more, those who have had it recommended with miracles performed in Jesus’ name have a great deal more to answer for than those who lived in rebellion against God – even lived as notoriously as they did in Sodom and Gomorrah – but did not sin against so much light.  So today, people in the West and in the United States in particular bear a greater accountability for the gospel of Christ which they have heard and known than folk who have never heard the message.

v.16     This last verse probably belongs more to what follows, but it can be taken as a transition between the two sections, the next having to do with the persecution of the Lord’s followers.  A mixture of wisdom and scrupulous honesty is what will be required of them.

One of the most useful books ever written on the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus was A.B. Bruce’s The Training of the Twelve, first published in 1871 and reprinted many times in the years since.  It is one of those books that bristles with insight, every page the fruit of powerful thinking expressed in beautiful English in the service of Christian devotion.  I remember the late Bill McColley, Dawn Darby’s father and a minister of this presbytery, telling me how A.B. Bruce’s chapter on the Lord’s doctrine and practice of the Sabbath day had changed his mind and made him a defender of the perpetual obligation of believers to keep the Lord’s Day holy.  I remember Bill telling me that quite distinctly because he went on to say that he then had to preach a sermon to his congregation retracting previous sermons he had preached to them about the Sabbath day.  Such is the persuasiveness of Bruce’s excellent book, The Training of the Twelve.

In his book Bruce points out that there

“…were two religious movements going on in the days [and in the ministry] of the Lord Jesus.  One consisted in rousing the mass[es] 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.”  [103]

Bruce’s book is the most complete study ever attempted of this second religious movement, the Lord’s training of his disciples for the ministry he would entrust to them when he ascended to heaven.  It was this latter movement, the training and preparation of Christ’s inner circle of disciples – though certainly less dramatic, less controversial, less noticeable than the Lord’s public preaching and miracle working – that was destined to bear the far greater fruit.  For it would be these disciples, so carefully prepared by the Lord through the three years of his ministry, who would, in the days of their apostleship, turn the world upside down. It was these men who would provide the world once and for all a full and authoritative revelation of the true religion, who would organize the Christian church for its life in the new epoch, furnish it with officers and laws, and start it on its career of conquest through the world.

There is a simple and important lesson for us all in that.  The wise church, the wise parent, and the wise believer will judge success or failure and will expend energy and resources best who places a premium not on immediate and flamboyant results, but rather upon results produced over the long term, lasting results that produce the greatest measure of fruit.  The great and enthusiastic crowds eventually deserted Jesus and joined in calling for his execution.  But those few disciples, so carefully prepared for their work, sent the message of the kingdom of God moving outward to the four corners of the earth, suffered every manner of sacrifice to do so, and laid the foundation of that church against whose foundation the gates of hell will never prevail.

And there is this lesson also.  One learns best to serve by serving and to be a minister by doing the ministry.  Jesus not only taught his disciples and showed them how he conducted his ministry, he gave them opportunity to try their wings, to gain experience.  When the ministry was all theirs, after his ascension to heaven, they were already experienced in the work.

But the twelve have another role to play than simply that of the men who will serve as Christ’s apostles when he has ascended to heaven.  They are, already in the Gospels, a microcosm of the church, a miniature church.  That is the significance of the number twelve, of course.  As there were twelve tribes of Israel, the people of God, so the new Israel in its first, representative form consisted of twelve men who followed Jesus.  Matthew makes this identification between Israel and the twelve disciples explicit later in the Gospel when he records Jesus as saying to his disciples that at the last day the twelve disciples will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  [19:28]  This same point, that the Christian church is the continuation of believing Israel and is the true Israel, is made here also by the Lord’s elaborate instructions to these men to go to Israel and not to the Gentiles.  Christ’s preaching and the establishment of the new form of the church highlights the fact that the promises that were made to Israel were fulfilled in his ministry and that Christianity is not a different religion, but the same religion now in a more complete and expanded form.  The twelve tribes continue their life in the followers of Jesus Christ.  And that is what creates the church: a true following of Christ.  The representative church is twelve disciples, that is twelve followers of Jesus Christ, twelve men who have recognized him to be the Messiah and the Savior and have devoted their lives to him.  All the Jews should have done that; only some of them did.  So these followers of Jesus, his disciples are the true church of God.

It makes a fruitful study to consider all the ways in which the twelve are the church in a representative form.  We can notice, for example, that there was a hypocrite among them, undetected for some time, Judas Iscariot.  So far as we can tell, his sermons and his healings on this mission in Galilee were no less powerful or effective than those of the other eleven. No one could tell, no doubt Judas himself did not realize at this point that his allegiance to Jesus was superficial and would prove to be short-lived.  The church of Christ’s disciples will have such people in her number until the end of the age.  What is more, in these twelve disciples who constitute the representative church, we are reminded that Christians are not only called, they are sent.  They are sent to do Christ’s work in the world, to share his cause and contribute to it.  They are called upon to live his own life and to take up his message upon their lips.  And it is this likeness of the disciples to all Christians that is emphasized in our text by the juxtaposition of disciple and apostle.  The follower of Christ is sent by Christ.  A Christian may not be an apostle – a sent one – in the same sense as Peter and Paul – an Apostle with a capital “A” – but he is most assuredly a sent one – an apostle with a lower case “a”.  Remember, as we have said already many times in our study of the Gospel of Matthew, this book is for Christians and is designed to foster their discipleship.  Usually, certainly this was the case in the Sermon on the Mount, when the Lord teaches his disciples, it is perfectly clear that he is teaching every Christian in every place and time.  Surely that is so here.

To be sure there are ways in which the ministry of the Lord’s twelve disciples and later the apostles is different from that of Christians in general and, even, from that of Christian ministers.  In some ways they are representative Christians as missionaries of Jesus Christ, in some ways their ministry was unique as the twelve apostles, and in some ways their ministry was rather unique for the circumstances in which it was performed.   There are ways, for example, in which the twelve disciples are representative of the Christian ministry only some of the time.

For example, we might take the particular instructions the Lord gave them as a result of the harvest being plentiful and there being a need to reap as quickly as possible. The kingdom of God had drawn near.  But it is not always so near.  There have been other such times in the history of the church when the harvest was great and when Christian ministers literally forgot everything else rushing to reap the harvest, so great it was.  During the days of the Great Awakening preachers would preach many times a week because there were always large congregations anxious to hear the gospel proclaimed.  But it is not always so and the Lord knew that.  Indeed, at the end of his ministry, we read that he gave his disciples quite different instructions.  “Take a purse, take a bag, take an extra pair of sandals.”  The needs of the long haul of ministry will not be the same as those of the time of great harvest.  And so, while his disciples at this time, in Galilee, made no financial provision for themselves, the same was not true for the apostles later on or for the Apostle Paul.  Paul remember, sometimes divided his time between gospel ministry and earning a living.  In the same way, missionaries today must raise financial support before they can begin their gospel ministries.

Obviously the apostles are not in all ways representative of all Christians, not even all Christian ministers.  How many missionaries are there and have their been who would have loved to come among a people to preach the gospel and to have been able to add immediate and irrefutable demonstration of the truth of their message by healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and raising the dead.  Imagine what effect Robert Morrison would have had in China, or William Carey in India, or David Livingstone in Africa if these men could have performed miracles as they preached the good news of eternal life through Jesus Christ.  But they had no such power and the progress was correspondingly slow.  The gospel has since the time of the apostles gone forward without such miraculous demonstrations.  The Holy Spirit does not require them to convince a sinful heart or mind that it must believe in Jesus Christ and it is God’s will that the church live and minister by faith and not by sight.  But in this way the apostles were unique.  However, in other ways they are entirely representative, of every Christian and of every Christian minister.

For example, as representatives of all Christians, they minister the gospel of Christ according to the principle:  “freely have you received; freely give.”  There is no mercenary spirit to be found in the true Christian missionary.  He makes sacrifices for others; he requires none of others in exchange for the gift he brings them.  One of the noblest features of the history of Christian missions is the complete renunciation of money and worldly possessions that was characteristic of countless Christian missionaries.  Early Christianity profited greatly from falling heir to the wealth of men and women who became followers of Christ and in devotion to him either surrendered their fortunes to the church, or used them to foster its work.  Cyprian and Ambrose, for example, were wealthy men who gave up their fortunes entirely to enter the Christian ministry and live on a humble stipend furnished by the church.  In every age since, gifted men and women who could have lived comfortable lives instead forsook the world and the pleasures of the world to live lives of great sacrifice and punishing difficulty for the gospel’s sake.

Do you remember John Dorsey, the missionary to India who visited our congregation several times over the years.  He died just recently.  A simple, kindly man of such ambition for the gospel and of such modest wants for himself.  He left the world the owner of virtually nothing.  He lived on very little and accumulated nothing during the 55 years he lived and worked in India.  He did not live as well as a typical member of the Indian middle class.  He had a ministry to upper class Hindus and to their children as well as to the poorest of the poor, but he himself never bought a car.  He would visit the Delhi slums on his bicycle.  On his deathbed he asked to be buried in the cemetery where the poor Christians are buried in New Delhi.

I remember the last time he came to Tacoma, on one of those trips missionaries make to visit churches to enlist support, in this case for his Christian school in New Delhi.  I took him, a large man then in his seventies, I think, to the bus station to send him on his way across the country.   The bus station, in this day and age!  It was his way of life.  Getting by on little for the gospel’s sake had become a deeply engrained habit.  There have been, I am proud to say, great multitudes of Christian men and women, like him, who have given themselves to the salvation of the world in the name of Jesus Christ and haven’t cared a fig about money or the things money can buy.  There have been some, to be sure, who were in it for the money – early Christian writings already include warnings about such preachers; so Jesus’ warning here is not without reason – but there has been a great host who, because they have received freely, considered it their privilege and their glory to give freely.  I remember well a remark of Adlai Stevenson, twice the Democratic party’s nominee for president in the 1950s.  Stevenson was not an evangelical Christian, so far as I know, but he had made a visit to West Africa and he remarked on how many graves of western missionaries he had seen.  He had no idea, he said, that so many had given up their lives to bring the gospel to Africa.  And many did.  Even when the dangers of disease were fully understood, shipload after shipload of missionaries made their way to Africa to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to die early deaths.

The church that is preoccupied with material concerns still today finds it difficult to convince the world that it should take God or salvation seriously  [France, 180]  But those who clearly have forsaken the world for the sake of the salvation of others are themselves, as Jesus was, a powerful recommendation of their message about the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

So here we stop to consider, to muse, to apply this fascinating text to ourselves.  Ours is a missionary faith because it rests on “good news” that must be shared with others.  In this way our faith as Christians is really unique in the world.  Other faiths are missionary faiths but most, if not all of them are Christian heresies: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the like.  Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, even Islam are not really missionary faiths.  There is no good news to share in these views of the world, of God, and of his will for mankind.  You are not likely to sit next to a Muslim on an airplane and have him urge you to become a Muslim yourself for your soul’s sake.  But surveys indicate that almost all Americans have been “witnessed to” by an evangelical Christian.  Ours is a faith of love.  Our Master has taught us to love others as he has loved us and how better to love others than to share with them the news that Christ has opened the way to everlasting life.

Ours is a missionary faith.  And it is a faith shared and proclaimed and adorned by a great crowd of nobodies.  I love this in this text.  We all know of Peter and John; we know a little something of Matthew, at least that he was a tax-collector and the author of this Gospel.  But of the rest we know almost nothing.  Of all the twelve who represent the entire Christian church in this early day, only a few are really known to us at all.  And even they, in themselves, were not extraordinary men as the world records such things; far from it.  There was nothing about them that was important to record for posterity; nothing apart from their names.  They were ordinary men.  They were people just like you and me; of no great skill or ability, of no reputation.  They came from families of no special note.  Their origins were obscure and so their lives until they became followers of Jesus and witnesses of his ministry, his preaching, his miracles, his death, his resurrection, his ascension to the right hand.  Then these ordinary men of whom we have no cause to know much at all turned the world upside down.  A missionary faith, most of whose missionaries are nobodies!  An IRS agent, a fellow who couldn’t stop talking politics, some fishermen, and a group of others so inconsequential we aren’t told a single thing about them.  But in the name of Jesus Christ they brought life to the dead.

Why do we struggle to share our faith openly?  Because we don’t think we can do it well enough.  We are afraid to fail.  We think that others will think little of us and our message because we don’t represent it well enough.  But those men were just like you.  Christ gave them his ministry and gave them its power.  It wasn’t their ministry and it wasn’t their power.  And when God uses the weak things of this world to confound the strong, he shows his grace and power to be all the greater.  One looks right through the messenger to Christ behind him or her; just as they did in those days.  No one became a follower of Peter or Thomas or Matthew.  They knew that it was Christ in these men and speaking through these men whom they had to follow.  And if some will not receive our message, well many did not in those days; even in the face of miracles.  But some did receive it.  And some always will.  God’s word will not return to him empty.

And in this, in this supremely, in this more than in anything else, these twelve followers of Jesus Christ are absolutely representative Christians:  in their obscurity and in the power of the message in their hearts and upon their lips.  Here is a calling for you, as you believe yourself to be Christ’s disciple.  As he has called you, so he sends you.  And no matter your obscurity, your lack of great gifts, name, or reputation you have God’s peace to give to others unless they will not receive it and it comes back to you.  You are a disciple; now be an apostle!