Monday, February 20, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (II), Week 8: Jesus on Discipleship - The Mission of the Apostles (Mt 9:35-10:15)

When Matthew completed his account of Jesus' teachings on the Mosaic Law in Matthew 7, he moved on to begin recording Jesus' ministry. Recall that his gospel is a series of primarily chronological accounts of Jesus' ministry, with topical sermons interlaced within it. So in chapters 8-9, we return to the ministry of Jesus; having completed His baptism, we see Him beginning to travel the countryside, perform miracles, and attract followers.

Then, as we move into the latter half of Chapter 9, Matthew shares with us another set of Jesus' teachings--regarding the cost of discipleship. Now likely, as we stated before, these are things He taught throughout His ministry; but as Matthew is just now telling us about Jesus gaining disciples, it is logical that he would have shared Jesus' thoughts on discipleship in the same section.

"And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.' ” (Mt 9:35-38, ESV)

Here we see again Matthew's traditional opening to one of Jesus' sermons: Jesus is teaching through the synagogues, and sees crowds, and begins to teach them. In this instance, Matthew records Jesus' frustration about the lack of help. Jesus sees that the 'harvest is plentiful'--that is, there are so many Jews and Gentiles who yearn to hear His teachings and learn about how to be right with God; yet there are so few teachers. Using an agricultural analogy would have been clear to the listeners; they all knew the frustration and waste of having a good year of crops which wither and die on the vine due to lack of laborers to harvest the crops. It is a beautiful lead-in to Jesus' coming statements about discipleship.

"And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. 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.' "
(Mt 10:1-6, ESV)

Here, Jesus chooses from among His followers twelve apostles and gives them a specific mission--to go specifically among the Jews, ignoring the Samaritans and Gentiles.

Now we must of course be careful of over-reaching our analyses here. We Christians have a tendency to read every single action as some broad statement of theology. In this particular case, we are not discussing a theology of ministry but rather stating a fact. Jesus chose Twelve--that does not mean only twelve. He called them--this does not mean everyone in ministry is so clearly and obviously called as they were. He told them to avoid the Gentiles--this does not mean that you should necessarily avoid unbelievers. This section is not one of teaching but of factual recording. So be careful not to read more into it than you should.

As historical fact, it is interesting. Matthew clearly lists all twelve apostles (he himself is "Matthew the Tax Collector"; other gospels refer to him sometimes as Levi, as his name was Matthew Levi). Jesus specifically chose the twelve, including Judas.

What is of interest to me is that Jesus--who for much of His ministry would focus on the Gentiles, Samaritans, and the like--was so very specific in sending the apostles to Jews only. (Indeed, just two chapters ago, in Mt 8:5-13, He ministers to a Roman soldier.) Again, I don't want to read too much into it, but theologically I see this as arising from two concepts: (1) salvation was offered first to the Jews exclusively, which was their right as God's chosen people, before being offered to others; and (2) Jesus provides His ministers focus rather than giving them too much on their plates.

How often do we fail on this second point? Pastors must lead and develop their direct reports, run the finances, preach on Sunday, lead a small group, be in the Word daily, counsel those in need, visit the sick...oh yeah, and raise a family. You can see why the Catholics demand celibacy, or the megachurches hire 15 pastors--a little focus is needed. I think the biggest key to gain here is this: focus on one specific role and responsibility at a time. If you have a youth pastor on staff, let him just be a youth pastor--do not also make him a band member and counselor and homeless ministry coordinator and regular preacher and small group leader and finance team member. Simplify and focus.

This may seem impossible. Who would do all of those things, if such-and-such doesn't? Well, two possibilities exist. One, it is possible that a volunteer will step up. Or two, you could simply not do them. I know that this is scandalous in modern evangelical churches, but the fact is you do not have to offer every service offered at every other church. Simplify the focus down to the critical few items--teaching the Bible and being together in fellowship. It is better to be great at a few things than "okay" at many things.

"And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. 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. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 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. 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." (Mt 10:7-15, ESV)

What are they teaching during their evangelism? Very simply: the kingdom of God is here. Or, to put it more bluntly: Jesus. They are teaching that Jesus came, the Messiah has arrived. This is the focus of their teaching. Jesus did not tell them to worry about a hundred other topics--just to make sure that Jesus was preached.

He then tells them that their purpose is not to be profitable--indeed, they are not even to accept money. Again we must be careful not to read too much into this: this is an historical fact, not necessarily a statement of theology. I think it is overreaching the text here to say that preachers should never be paid. But, combined with some of the things Paul says, certainly a preacher who is becoming rich is almost certainly in the wrong. The purpose of sharing the Gospel is, well, to share the Gospel--and taking people's money gives the wrong impression.

Next, Jesus tells His followers that if people do not receive them, they are to leave and "shake the dust" off their feet so as not to be polluted by the inhospitable people. This seems harsh to some people today, but two things must be understood:

1. Hospitality was a common courtesy. At this time, hospitality was an assumed social convention. For someone to refuse to receive a traveling preacher just because they had a different philosophical stance was shameful on the community, and demonstrated a selfishness not seen often in that time.

2. This is really an extension of one of Jesus' past teachings--that you are to use your discernment in order to avoid sharing the Gospel with those who are closed-minded and merely want to mock or hurt you ("pearls before swine", as He said in a previous passage).

So what Jesus commands His apostles after calling them is:
* Go immediately into the mission field;
* Focus your ministry on sharing the good news of Jesus' coming;
* Don't get distracted by trying to do everything, but focus only on the mission field to which you were called;
* Be careful to avoid getting wealthy while doing mission work;
* Do not waste time sharing the Gospel with the close-minded and inhospitable--spend your time on those who are open-minded and willing to hear from God.