The First Commission
In May 2011, a team of Navy SEALS in two helicopters dropped in to a compound in Northern Pakistan on a mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. In an interview after the fact, one of the SEALs revealed that each member of the team had written a good-bye letter to his family before leaving. None of them expected to make it back.
They didn’t need somebody to reassure them that it was all going to be fine, and everything was going to work out okay, before they embarked on the mission. They knew that there was a good chance it wouldn’t be okay. They wouldn’t be fine. It wasn’t going to work out okay.
But they went anyways. Because they believed that they were involved in something more important than their safety. More important than coming home alive. More important than their kids growing up with a dad. And so they went.
In today’s passage, Jesus sends his twelve apostles out on their first mission. And He does not tell them that everything is going to be fine. They are sent to go do what He had been doing and say what He had been saying, and that means that they are going to be treated the way that Jesus has begun to be treated. What they are doing is dangerous and it’s not all going to be just fine.
But Jesus sends them anyways, and they go anyways, because what they are doing is more important than their comfort, their safety, and their ease.
There’s some lessons in here for us, in case you haven’t guessed. But let’s not jump ahead. Let’s begin by looking at the first 11 verses of our passage where we hear about the mission Jesus is sending the twelve on.
1. The Mission (vv. 5-15)
a. Where (vv. 5-6)
And first, we hear where their mission is to focus on. “These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5–6).
The house of Israel—the Jewish people—came first. God is being faithful to HIs ancient promises by making sure the gospel gets to Israel first (cf. Acts 1:8, Romans 1:16). It’s not as if Jesus does not want to reach the Samaritans and the Gentiles. In fact, He had to tell His disciples not to go to them, which means it wasn’t obvious. And we know that the time is coming when they will go to the samaritans and then to the ends of the earth.
But at this stage in the mission, Israel gets the priority. And so that’s where, or perhaps who, Jesus’ disciples go to.
b. What (vv. 7-8a)
Next we see what they were to do. And this is something we touched on last week: Jesus gave them the authority to do what He himself had been doing. Verse 7: “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:7–8).
None of this is new. This is precisely what Jesus has been doing. And now this ministry is being multiplied by a factor of twelve.
c. How (vv. 8b-15)
Next, let’s consider how they were to do this ministry. And there’s a few notes we want to make in this regard.
First, they were to trust God to provide for them. Note how the rest of verse 8 picks up on this: “You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food” (Matthew 10:8–10).
Jesus freely invited them to Himself, and so they were to just as freely pass on what they had received. In other words, the gospel was not a way for them to get rich. And at this stage in their ministry, they were to practice this in a very dramatic way. They weren’t to acquire money, not even to go get a backpack or extra clothes or an extra pair of sandals for their journey.
That’s probably the best way of understanding the language here: Jesus isn’t telling them not to wear the sandals or take the staff that they already have; he’s telling them to not go “acquire” or get more of these things, which might have been a normal step when going out on a trip like this. They were to go with what they had and, just like Israel in the wilderness, trust God to provide for them.
And God was going to provide for them. As verse 10 finishes up, “for the labourer deserves his food.” And God was going to take care of them through others.
That’s the big idea in verse 11: “And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart” (Matthew 10:11). They weren’t to shop around for the swankiest spot to stay; they were to find people who believed in their mission and stay there. And those people would provide them with lodging and food.
The disciples, in return, were to greet that house with a blessing, which we see in verse 13. The word “house” can mean not just brick and mortar, but the household who lives there. And that’s probably the sense here. As agents of God’s peace mission, they were to bless that house with a greeting of peace.
The Turning Point
So far, so good, right? But it’s right here that our passage begins to make a turn. Because starting half-way through verse 13, Jesus begins to tip His hand and let His disciples know that not everybody is going to be thrilled with their message and their ministry.
“And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you” (Matthew 10:13). In other words, take back your greeting and move on. Verser 14 gets even more clear: “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town” (Matthew 10:14).
So this is what Jesus means by a person being “worthy.” It’s about whether someone will receive or reject the apostles and their words. And Jesus tells them that some houses will reject them. Whole towns will reject them.
And when they leave those houses or towns, they are to shake the dust from their feet. This was a practice that some Jews of that day would perform after passing through Gentile territory. By shaking that Gentile dust from their sandals, they were basically saying, “I’m leaving you behind completely. I don’t even want your dust coming with me when I get back to my home.”
And Jesus is telling His disciples that this kind of behaviour is not for Gentiles. They are to do this with their fellow Israelites who reject their message. Because, as verse 15 says, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matthew 10:15).
Shaking the dust is a symbol of the judgement that will fall on those who reject the twelve’s message. And once again we’re seeing that relationship with God is not about ethnicity but about receiving the message of Jesus. Whole towns of people, through they are descended from Abraham, will face eternal destruction because they rejected Jesus’ ambassadors.
2. The Opposition (vv. 16-25)
And this launches us in to the second major half of our passage, where Jesus goes into much more detail preparing His disciples for the hard times they are going to face. We can already guess that they aren’t going to be greeted by cheering crowds everywhere they go. And Jesus goes into much more detail on the opposition they’ll face from verses 16 on down.
Jesus begins in verse 16: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”
I’m not sure how much I would have liked that if I was one of the disciples. I would have preferred to be sent out as a stallion in the midst of donkeys, or a peacock in the midst of pigeons—the kind of thing where everybody looks at you and says “Wow, we should pay attention to that guy.”
But no, they go out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Do you know what wolves do to sheep? They eat them. One wolf in the midst of a flock of sheep was a big problem. How much scarier to be a few sheep in the midst of a pack of wolves? And yet that’s what the disciples are.
So, what are they do to? From verse 16 on down to verse 25, Jesus gives them instruction on how to handle this danger, and we’re going to break it down under five headings.
a. Wisdom and Innocence (vv. 16-18)
The first has to do with wisdom and innocence. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) The disciples are sheep—vulnerable, with no natural defences. And they are to be innocent as doves. Doves don’t have sharp talons or hooked beaks. They don’t hunt other birds. They are gentle and innocent.
And yet, they aren’t supposed to be stupid about this. Their innocence is to be met with wisdom, as Jesus tells them to be “wise as serpents.” “Shrewd as snakes” in the well-known words of the King James Version. They are not to be clueless and just march themselves straight into the open mouths of the wolves. They have a mission to fulfill and so they need to be wise about this.
And so, as verse 17 says, “Beware of men.” They need to be careful of who the trust.
b. Anxiety and Provision (vv. 19-20)
And yet, even with being wary, they won’t be able to avoid suffering. Verse 17 says that “…they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:17–18).
These two verses are very important because they help us understand that Jesus’ instructions here are looking beyond just this initial ministry trip in Galilee. This instruction applies even later on when the Gentile mission kicks in. And sure enough, don’t we see this pattern lived out in the Apostle Paul’s life, who was prosecuted and beaten and hauled before all kinds of rulers for Jesus’ sake.
But in spite of this, they aren’t to be anxious. Verse 19: “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19–20).
They will be delivered over. Just count on it. But when it happens, they aren’t to be anxious.
Now this point, about anxiety and provision, is really interesting. Because I think that most people in this situation are going to be anxious for themselves. Anxious for their safety or their bodies. But Jesus assumes that His disciples are going to be anxious for “how you are to speak or what you are to say.” They’re going to find it easy to be anxious about how to best bear witness to Jesus in from of these powerful and eloquent rulers and authorities.
But they must not be anxious, because God will provide for them, through His spirit. Don’t we see this all over the place in the book of Acts? Think of Peter defending himself to the Sanhedrin, and how “when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
God kept this promise to His apostles time and time again. They didn’t need to be anxious because He would provide.
c. Perseverance and Salvation (vv. 21-22)
Still, things would get hard. And that brings us to the third heading here, concerning perseverance and salvation. “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” say verses 21-22.
Family bonds are the closest in the world. And yet being an ambassador for Jesus is going to provoke such strong hatred that even those family bonds will be destroyed.
We see this happening, literally, all over the world today. Fathers literally killing their children because they’ve chosen to follow and proclaim Jesus. Children literally having their parents being put to death for the sake of Jesus. “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” says Jesus in verse 22.
And this kind of strong persecution is going to call for perseverance. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved,” as verse 22 finishes up. (Cf. Revelation 14:12, c.f 13:10). Following Jesus requires endurance, all the way to the end. If you drop out of a race 10 metres before the finish line, you don’t finish, no matter how well you ran up until that point. And those who endure this persecution all the way to the end are those who will be rescued and brought safely into eternal life.
This “salvation” that Jesus is talking about here is not the forgiveness and justification we receive by faith alone. It’s the final rescue that comes to those who persevered to the end. And Jesus is teaching that perseverance is a mark of genuine discipleship. Those who have genuine faith in Jesus will endure in faithful discipleship to the end and will be delivered and rescued from all of their hardship.
d. Fleeing and Coming (v. 23)
And finally, we come to the fifth and final instruction in this passage in verse 23. And this one is the most interesting: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23).
Now, let’s not rush to the tough part right away. Let’s first notice Jesus’ instruction to flee from one town to the next when they are persecuted. This is what it looks like to be wise as serpents. You don’t just sit there when the wolf comes to bite your neck. And this pattern of fleeing from one town to the next shows up all over the place in the book of Acts. This is actually one of the big reasons that the gospel spread to far so fast.
And that’s important. This was not about avoiding persecution by toning down their message or trying not to offend people. It was about preaching the gospel, and moving on when people tried to hurt them, because of the urgency of their mission. “For truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23).
And here’s one of those really tough passages that make people say “What in the world?”
And we need to take a moment to unpack this before we can get back on track with our passage. And here’s where we need to start: when we hear about the son of man coming, we immediately assume it’s talking about Jesus coming where? To earth.
But if we actually look at what the Bible has said about the coming of the Son of Man until this point, we get a different picture. Remember Daniel 7, the first place where this “Son of Man” language is first introduced? What does it tell us about the coming of the Son of Man? “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13–14).
The Son of Man comes. But He’s not coming to earth. He’s coming to the Ancient of Days, to receive from Him an eternal kingdom, with authority over all the nations.
And if we were a Jewish reader of Scripture reading Matthew for the first time, when we read Jesus talking about the Son of Man coming, that’s probably what we’re going to think of. We’re not going to think about Jesus coming to earth, because He hasn’t even told us that He’s going away yet. And in fact, when He does begin to talk about His return to earth, He uses a totally different word. And we’ll get to that in Matthew 24, which begins to use this word around verse 36.
And so I think the best way to understand this first coming is in light of Daniel 7. And this explains why Jesus often taught about His “coming” happening soon. “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). At His trial before the High Priest, He said “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven’” (Matthew 26:64).
“From now on.” In other words, this was going to happen soon.
And it’s very interesting, with all of this in mind, to read Matthew 28:18. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Those are Daniel 7 words. Literally, the words themselves echo the exact words used in Daniel 7. Jesus is saying that, having died and been resurrected, He had come to the Father and received this kingdom and authority over all peoples.
And now, just like Daniel spoke about all peoples serving Him, now Jesus sends His followers out to make disciples of all nations—which, in Greek, is the exact same phrase from Daniel 7. And just like Daniel 7 said His kingdom was everlasting and wouldn’t be removed, so Jesus says “I’m with you always to the end of the age.”
So, coming back to Matthew 10, can you see the drama? “You need to go throughout all the towns of Israel before I die and rise again and receive my eternal kingdom, and at that point, the mission is going to open up to all nations. This phase of the mission won’t last for long. The time is short. There’s urgency here. So keep moving.”
e. Summary (vv. 24-25)
For now, your head may be spinning. The disciples heads may have been spinning, too. But probably for different reasons. They probably weren’t struggling to figure out the difference between these two comings of Christ, because they didn’t know about the second one yet. It they were struggling, it’s probably because Jesus is sending them out on a mission, and most of what He’s said has had to do with being persecuted and hated and harassed.
Isn’t Jesus the Messiah? Isn’t He going to receive the kingdoms of the earth? Aren’t they His ambassadors? So why all the hate?
I don’t know if these are the exact questions they were asking or not. But if they were wondering these things, Jesus’ final comments in this passage certainly put those questions to rest. ““A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:24–25).
“Beelzebul” is an old word that, in Jesus’ day, basically referred to Satan. Remember how, back in 9:34, the Pharisees said that “He casts out demons by the prince of demons”? Apparently some had gone even further to say that Jesus was Satan himself.
So if they said that about the teacher, how much more will they say that about His disciples? If they treat the master that way, how much more will they mistreat the servants?
And Jesus’ disciples need to be content with this. They need to be content to be mistreated for Jesus, because they know where all of this is headed. They know there’s a judgement day coming where all will be brought to light. They know Jesus is going to receive all authority in heaven and on earth, and one day this will be visible for all to see. They can put up with the world’s hatred because they know that what this world thinks about them is ultimately not all that important.
3. The Application
And so, there we have the mission, and the opposition. Finally, we come to the application. What is this passage saying to us?
That’s an important question, because some parts of this passage were just for the 12 at this specific point in their mission. Just going to the Jews, for example. Or not bringing a bag or extra sandals. In Luke 22:36, Jesus directly told them to take those things with them when they went out again. So this wasn’t about a permanent vow of poverty, like some people have imagined. Even this idea of finding a “person of peace” in each town is not a permanent pattern, as the Book of Acts shows us. And certainly, Jesus hasn’t given all of His disciples everywhere the authority to heal and cast out demons like He gave to the twelve.
But what is the same, what is the connection point between them and us, is that being a disciples of Jesus is going to be hard. We will be persecuted, and we will be hated, and those who endure to the end will be saved. We know this is for us because the rest of the New Testament tells us this clearly. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:29–30).
Don’t we need to hear that message here in Canada, where it’s getting tougher and tougher to be faithful to Jesus? Isn’t it interesting how, as soon as the government puts any pressure on us Christians in Canada, people assume it’s the end times and Jesus is coming back tomorrow? I mean, He could, but Christians throughout the world have been persecuted a lot worse than us for the past 2,000 years. Where did we get this idea that it’s supposed to be easy? Not from the Bible. Jesus told us to expect hatred.
Do you wonder how much damage this idea that being a Christian should be easy has done? Is this why so many church-goers act like spoiled kids who think their church is there to serve them, and throw temper tantrums whenever they don’t get their way? Is this why so many Christians don’t talk about Jesus to anybody else, because they’re afraid of offending people and they think that being liked by the world is really important for some reason?
Is this why so few Christians consider serving the Lord in another country, because that might be hard, and that’s out of the question, right? Is this why, when some missionaries do finally make it to other countries, they tinker with the gospel in order to try and make it easier for local people to follow Jesus?
The question for us this morning is: are we willing for hardship and opposition and persecution as we follow Jesus?
And here’s the hard truth: if your answer is “no,” then you’re not actually able to follow Jesus. You’re not able to be a Christian. Because Jesus said, in word we’ll consider in two weeks, that “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38–39). The call to follow Jesus is a call to die.
This doesn’t mean it’s not scary. Maybe that’s where you’re at this morning: “Yes, I’m willing, but I’m scared.” And that’s what next week is all about. It’s all about dealing with the fear that comes very naturally when you’re a sheep surrounded by wolves.
But the big question today is: are we willing for the hatred of the world? Do we really believe that to live is Christ, and to die is gain? Are we willing to take up our crosses and lose our lives because we believe that there is no true life outside of knowing Christ?
That’s a question to sit on, and chew on, and pray on. And I want to encourage you with a specific way to do that. Last week we talked about how praying for something can help shape our hearts in that direction. Last week was also international day of prayer for persecuted christians.
And I want to encourage you to pray for persecuted Christians around the world. That’s their #1 prayer request, did you know? Not for money or a plane ticket but for prayer.
Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” And I would suggest that praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world would help us be prepared ourselves to face hardship for the name of Jesus.
I have a link in the notes here (https://store.vomcanada.org/subscribe) to a weekly email you can get from Voice of the Martyrs Canada. What a great tool and a great way to put these truths into real practice.
May the Lord make us willing messengers and willing sufferers for the sake of His name among all nations.