The Preaching of the Twelve
I suspect that everyone here today has had, at one time or another, to work for someone whom we thought expected too much of us. When we were small children, we thought our parents expected too much. Then it was our teachers, our college professors and our employers. Perhaps even our family, our church and other institutions put excessive demands on our time and energy. We feel now and then like they’re trying to squeeze blood from a turnip.
That was probably the case in our text, too. Jesus summoned the twelve unto himself and commissioned them to go out in groups of two to preach the gospel. By this time they had been traveling with the Savior only a few months, but long enough to know that he had a hard life. Unlike the foxes and birds of the air, the Son of man had no place to lay his head. But then Jesus turned to them and them that he expected them to do even more. They were to go out preaching, but they were not allowed to take any provisions —no money, no food, no weapons, only a single staff to aid their ambulation. He forbad them to take extra clothing to keep warm at night. They were only permitted to stay in one house in each village. And if they a particular village inhospitable, they were to shake the dust off their feet before leaving as a testimony against it.
This is certainly not the stuff of modern missions. My wife and I have received letters from foreign missionaries in which they asked their supporters to provide things like KitchenAid mixers and chocolate chips, and begged for “regular” food because they didn’t want to consume the local diet.
Well, this passage doesn’t really address modern missions, as we will see in a minute, but it is an interesting contrast nonetheless. In any case, the disciples did not question the Lord’s instructions. They may have wondered what it meant, but they accepted the assignment and soon learned some valuable lessons of ministry.
The Nature of the Mission
In some ways Jesus sent them on a very unique mission. Matthew, in his account of the same incident, gives provided more details than Mark (cf. Matt. 10:1–15). From him we learn that Jesus instructed the apostles to confine their preaching ministry to the Jews of Judea and Galilee. He said, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (vv. 5–6).
Mark sort of makes this point but is far more subtle about it. Jesus had gone into his own country, i.e., into Nazareth (Luke 4:16), where he had grown up. But when he started teaching, the people were offended by his doctrine. On the one hand, they thought that he was just like everyone else there and therefore did not have any special authority to teach on heavenly topics. But on the other hand, he also possessed a strange power that could be seen both in the quality of his teaching and in his miracles. Although their opinions were somewhat conflicted, in the end they took offense at him. The Nazarenes in this case were a specific instance of Jesus’ rejection by the nation. Just as his own kinsmen were turning against him, so also would the rest of the Jews. As Jesus said, a prophet has no honor among his own people. So what did Jesus do when the Nazarenes rejected him? Verse 6 says that he went round about the villages, teaching. In other words, he pursued them all the more because he saw them as the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He had compassion on them and continued to preach to them. It was in this context that Jesus called the twelve unto himself and extended his own mission (cf. Mark 1:14–15) through them. They were also to preach to the lost sheep of Israel who either already had or soon would reject the Messiah.
What amazing compassion and tenderness adorns the Lord’s ministry! Even though the Jews were predominately lost sheep, he still made sure that they heard the gospel because God had given his promise and covenant to Abraham their father. Furthermore, Jesus himself was from the same stock. With but few exceptions, he preached exclusively to the Jews. And all of the apostles were also Jews, who longed to see their kinsmen after the flesh inherit the kingdom of God. The early missionary activity of the church was directed toward the Jews. Even Paul, who was appointed to be an apostle to the Gentiles, customarily preached to the Jew first and then to the Greek (Rom. 1:16) when he came into a new city. In fact, Paul expressed a deep affection for his biological relations when he wrote, I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh (Rom. 9:1–3).
Later in this chapter, Jesus expressed his compassion for the lost sheep of the house of Israel one more time. In verse 30, after the apostles had returned from preaching, Jesus, knowing that they were exhausted from their recent preaching tour, offered to take them out to a deserted place so that they could rest. But the crowd was not particularly accommodating. Mark says that there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat (v. 31). When Jesus saw their persistence, he did not become angry or upset. Rather, he was moved with compassion toward them. Why? Because, he saw again they were as sheep not having a shepherd. So, instead of pressing on with his disciples, he seized the opportunity to teach the people. This was his ministry.
But not everyone would receive the Word of Christ. This sad fact weighed heavily upon the Lord. Isaiah predicted that he be a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). We can almost hear the pain in his voice when he upbraided the cities where he had done his mighty works: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee (Matt. 11:21–24).
Jesus prepared the twelve for their rejection in verse 11. When a village refuses their teaching, they were to leave, shaking the dust off their feet, and announcing that those who reject the gospel will not fare as well in the day of God’s judgment as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Now, it might seem that the Lord is being overly severe here. After all, they’re his own people. Why not show them some leniency? Perhaps he should give them more of a chance. But the fact is that God had shown them far more kindness than he had shown any other people on the face of the earth. They were his covenant people, the sign of which they bore in their flesh. God had given them his law, the promises, the prophets and the blessings. He had guided them by the hand for over two thousand years, giving them every conceivable opportunity to repent. But one by one they killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to them. The Lord’s patience in letting them go so long like this was nothing short of incredible. Of course, it was all according to his plan to bring about the crucifixion of the Messiah, but that does not excuse their behavior. They turned away from Jesus, and for that God will hold them accountable if they do not turn to him in repentance.
Now, beloved, we need to pay attention here, lest we show ourselves to be stiff-necked as well. The warnings are clear. Paul wrote, Well; because of unbelief [the Jews] were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee (Rom. 11:20–21). And in Hebrews we read these solemn words: Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.… Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief (Heb. 4:1, 11). These passages encourage us to grow in our faithfulness so that there is not even the slightest appearance that we might be lost. Dr. Thomas put it well yesterday when he said that we must kill sin in ourselves before it kills us. Those who do fall away demonstrate that they were never numbered among the elect to begin with.
The fact that Jesus instructed the twelve not to take a wallet or money, bread or even extra clothes speaks to the urgency and importance of the mission. In their work the apostles would be standing against nothing less than the kingdom of Satan. Verse 7 says that Jesus sent them forth two by two and gave them power over unclean spirits. And verses 12 and 13 in reviewing what they had accomplished also note that they healed the sick — sickness, of course, being a consequence of Satan’s kingdom intruding into human affairs. The twelve conquered even that, just as Jesus had done. In this great conflict, they were to trust God alone. They could not rely on their own provisions to give them victory in the face of evil.
Trusting in the Lord
There was also an object lesson in Jesus’ sending of the apostles out on this rather strange mission. Toward the end of his earthly sojourn, the Lord gave them a very different set of instructions. First, he reminded them of the incident in our text. He said, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? Of course, the answer was no. God had given them everything they needed. Then Jesus told them their permanent work would be quite different. If they own a purse and a wallet, they should take such things with them. And if they didn’t have something that they might need (a sword, for example), then they were to sell their outer coat to buy one (cf. Luke 22:35–36). For their permanent work, they were to take supplies.
Why the difference? It has to do with trust and conviction. The Lord sent them out first with nothing so that they might learn to trust God for everything. Once they learned that God provides for all of their needs, they would be ready to trust him with their ordinary needs.
The Jews were supposed to learn the same lesson during the exodus, but unfortunately they didn’t fare too well. When they wanted bread, God sent them manna — a miraculous bread from heaven. When the griped about not having meat, God provided quail. There were quail all over the place — a day’s journey in any direction. And when they lacked water, the Lord brought water out of a rock. At the end of the forty years, Moses recounted how graciously the Lord had taken care of their every need, even when they least deserved it. For forty years neither their clothes nor their shoes wore out. This was not just extraordinary care. It was a prolonged miraculous care. In fact, the wilderness sojourn is the longest running miracle in the Bible.
But why did God do all of this for the Jews? Well, listen to Moses’ explanation: And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live (Deut. 8:3; cf. vv. 1–10). Whether the Lord miraculously provides bread for his people is not the real issue here. The point, rather, is that we have to learn to trust his Word regardless of our circumstances. When we’re hungry, we have to believe that God does not forsake the righteous or allow their seed to beg bread. Do we believe it? Proverbs 24:10 says the same thing but comes at it the other way. It says, If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.
Surviving without any provisions except a walking stick must have been quite a challenge for the apostles — not an impossible one, but a difficult one. Leaving their wallet and purse and extra clothes behind would have been more inconvenient and uncomfortable than most of us would care for. Staying in one house in each city was simply a matter of courtesy to the host. But the hardest part of the entire mission appears in verse 11. Some of their Jewish brethren would not receive their ministry, and they would have to pass judgment on them by shaking the dust out of their sandals before they left. As they watched God provide their every need, would they trust him enough to declare his judgment to their own loved ones?
What a job description! How would you like to have been on this mission? Would you complain that the Lord was expecting too much of you? Were his demands overly severe?
Not So Extraordinary
The fact is that the Lord tests each one of us in a similar way. Now, let me explain. None of us are apostles. God does not expect us to go out empty-handed in groups of two. No, Jesus had only twelve apostles during his earthly ministry — no more and no less. And this assignment was just for them, and just for that one time. Yet, the apostles also represent the New Testament church, which it was their job to build under the kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul reminded the Ephesians that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophet with Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). So, we can expect that the Lord will prepare us for service by first teaching us to trust him, whether he calls us to be elders, Sunday school teachers, husbands, wives, parents or servants in some other area.
And who can doubt that the work he calls us to, though perhaps not as prominent as the work of the apostles, is just as necessary for the continuing mission of the church? Without pastors and elders, the church lacks leadership. Unless parents instruct their children in the doctrines of the faith, the praises of God will not be declared from generation to generation. Sunday School teachers, deacons, ushers, greeting card mailers, flower arrangers and janitors all contribute their part as well, as does every other member of the church. Just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him (I Cor. 12:18). The gospel goes forth as we all minister to the needs of one another, and the kingdom of God advances in our midst.
But who among us exercises his gifts without trials and tests? Who has not learned obedience by suffering? Is there any here today who has never thought at one time or another that God requires too much? And yet, we know that he has never failed us.
When you think that God’s demands upon your life are too great, consider what he required from your Savior. The Lord Jesus Christ humbled himself and became as a servant for you. Although he continued as the true and eternal God, for a time he veiled his glory so that he might die on the cross for your sins. He endured beatings, scourgings, being spat upon, mocked and scorned for you. The nails that pieced his hands and feet were nails that you deserve. Every ounce of blood that poured out of his naked body he gave so that you would not have to suffer an eternal death in the fires of hell.
Does God require too much of you? Compared to the standard that Christ set for himself, it looks to me like he requires very little of you. And yet we sometimes groan and complain that our trials are too great.
When I was growing up, my father would give us the day’s chores before leaving for work in the morning. At the time I thought he had to be the meanest man alive: he expected us to give up our playtime to cut the grass, trim the hedges, rake the leaves, sweep the porch and shovel snow (and not just for ourselves but all our elderly neighbors as well). But now that I’ve grown up I thank the Lord every day for giving me a father who cared enough to teach me responsibility. His demands, lofty as they seemed at the time, have taught me to submit to the heavenly Father, whose expectations are considerably greater.
The apostles had a perfect teacher, who used perfect methods. He taught his disciples to trust him for everything. Today he teaches us that the only thing we can count on in this life is his Word. He calls us to humble ourselves before him and joyfully embrace the opportunity to advance his kingdom. Whosoever will come after me, he said, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Mark 8:34). Next to the heavy load of sin that we once bore, the cross he asks us to carry is very light. Amen.