The prophet Isaiah had predicted that the northern territories, once the possession of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, would have a special place in God’s messianic plan. This land of Galilee, so surrounded by Gentiles and Samaritans that it was called “Galilee of the nations” would be the first to see the Messiah.1 In their land of darkness, the light of Christ and his gospel would dawn first.
This light dawned in three phases. First, our Lord, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a city in the region of Galilee. Second, when Jesus began his mission of preaching his coming kingdom, he chose Capernaum, another city in Galilee, as his headquarters.2 Then, in a final attempt to get the message out to this region, Jesus appointed his twelve disciples as missionaries to them, and sent them out to permeate the region with the message about him.
Matthew 9:37 – 10:4
37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but those working at it are few; 38 therefore pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers into his harvest.” 10:1 Then he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them the right to cast out unclean spirits, and to the right to heal every illness and every injury. 2 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; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew (who had been a tax collector); James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who later would betray him.
Jesus had a larger group of disciples who followed him, and a smaller group of disciples whom he had been training. He first commanded the larger group to pray for the Lord of the harvest (the owner of the field) to send workers who could complete the harvest in Galilee.
Next, as Lord of the harvest, he chose his workers – the twelve whom he had been training. He coached them in how to tell all the Galileans that the kingdom from the sky had approached, and that its king was here. Their evidence: deliverance from demons and healing.
- Jesus and John the Baptist had planted the seed.
- Jesus had trained the twelve harvesters.
- Jesus authorized them to deliver and heal.
All Jesus asked the larger group of disciples to do was pray.
These prayer warriors would back up the teams who went out to preach. We do not know if these evangelists went out in pairs, like the seventy-two he later sent out with a similar mission in Judea.3 If they did go in pairs, that would make six teams, and Jesus himself would be a seventh.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Do not go to the Gentile regions and do not enter any town of the Samaritans, 6 but go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom from the sky has approached.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. 9 Do not purchase gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 nor a bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, because the worker deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, search for someone worthy in it and stay there until you leave.
These apostles had been prayed for, trained, empowered for service, and sent out with a specific target in mind. They were to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Now, they had to trust that the LORD who sent them on a mission would provide for them while serving him. During harvest, the Lord of the harvest feeds his workers.
So, Jesus tells the twelve not to weigh themselves down with extra provisions. They were to just go, find people to feed them where they went, and keep preaching Jesus until the job was done. These were not the instructions Jesus always gave to those he sent out, but they applied in this case. The Israelites had claimed that they were looking for their Messiah, now it was time for these Galilean villages to prove where their hope was.
12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your blessing of peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your blessing of peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 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. 16 “See, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves.
The twelve could expect rejection and opposition, even violence. That is why they had to be wise about who they approached. They had to be cautious like a serpent to whom everyone is deadly. Those who would not listen were to be left, and the LORD would judge them. But the workers needed to be innocent, honest, people of integrity. They were sheep sent out to witness to wolves. Without integrity, they would never win their lost neighbours to Christ. Those Galileans had plenty of experience with dishonest religious leaders. They needed to see the real thing.
17 Be attentive of men, for they will send you to court and punish you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, for the purpose of testifying before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they take you to court, do not worry about 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. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will betray their parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.
There is a difference between fearing someone, and being aware of what they might do. Jesus wants his workers to know what they have gotten themselves into. He wants them to know that although some will accept their testimony about him, others will oppose it, even violently so. It is possible that anyone going out to proclaim Christ might be going to his death.
What a pep talk! But Jesus was not going to sugar-coat this. He wanted them to know that there is always a possibility of betrayal, rejection and violent death when his missionaries go out to proclaim the word of life. Too much is at stake for the Adversary to allow our mission to succeed without retaliation.
And these are mostly Galileans – all except Judas! These men would be in danger from their own countrymen. Imagine then, what we should expect if we dare to tell foreigners of God’s word.
23 When they pursue you in this city, escape to the next, for honestly, I tell you, you will not have finished with all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. 24 “A disciple is not over his teacher, nor is a servant over his master. 25 It is sufficient 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 mistreat those of his household. 26 “So do not fear them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear from the killers of the body (who are unable to kill the soul). Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.
Even though Jesus knew that the Galilean mission would be somewhat successful, he wanted the apostles he sent out to know that there is always a possibility of betrayal, rejection and violent death when they go out to proclaim the word of life. Too much is at stake for the Adversary to allow our mission to succeed without retaliation. Yet, there is a fact that should cause us to check our fear of these body-killers. That fact is hell.
Oh, I am not referring to the hell that was dreamed up in the minds of pagans, where disembodied souls are tormented constantly for eternity. I’m talking about the hell Jesus talked about here — Gehenna. Gehenna is not a temporary place of torment that disembodied souls go at death. It is the final state of the lost — it is the lake of fire that follows the great white throne judgment.4 The purpose of Gehenna is not to inflict pain as punishment. It is to destroy – to utterly kill – to annihilate. This is something that only God can do.
The pagans thought that even God could not kill the soul, but they were wrong. They thought that souls continue to live after death, making death a lie. Jesus taught that death is real. He warned his apostles that when they dared to proclaim him, the world would treat them like they did him. We all know what they did to Jesus. But then something wonderful happened. He rose from the dead. They had killed his body, but his soul (his whole being) came to life again at his resurrection. He had no reason to fear the killers of his body, because God would raise his soul from that death.
The right fear is the fear of God. Jesus instructed his workers in the Galilean mission to choose this fear, and let it override their fear of persecution. Yes, they could be put to death. Over the centuries since this message was given, many a body has been killed for sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. But the same God who raised Christ from the dead will also raise their souls to life again. Their death is real, but only temporary. The death we should all fear is the death without Christ, without faith, and without God. That death is destruction of both soul and body in Gehenna. It is what the Bible calls the second death.5 It is to be feared because it is permanent. When God destroys, he utterly destroys. The prophet Malachi said that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”6
Fearing Gehenna hell, and fearing the God who can destroy people there, does not need to make us love him any less. Jesus is talking about putting our earthly fears in perspective. The dangers that await us for obedience to him need to be contrasted with the dangers that await those who reject and disobey him. We serve out of love. We proclaim his grace because we have been won over by that grace. Reality is that we might die for proclaiming that grace.
But Jesus teaches his disciples here that the gospel message and what is says about the future are all going to be revealed in the end. Nothing that is hidden is going to stay hidden. The enemies of the gospel are not going to destroy it. What the disciples hear Jesus saying in the dark, they can feel free to say in the light. What they hear whispered, they can proclaim on the housetops. Those truths are not going to go away, regardless of how fierce the opposition to them. Our confidence in the power of God can help us to overcome fear of man.
29 Are not two sparrows sold for an assarion?7 And not one of them will fall to the land without your Father’s permission. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all accounted for. 31 Do not fear, then; you are more valuable than many sparrows. 32 So everyone who admits knowing me in the presence of men, I also will admit knowing in the presence of my Father who is in the sky, 33 but whoever denies knowing me in the presence of men, I also will deny knowing in the presence of my Father who is in the sky.
Jesus was sending his apostles out to preach the gospel of his kingdom to their neighbour towns in Galilee. Many of the people knew something about Jesus, but these apostles who already knew Jesus personally had the responsibility to represent him, providing truth instead of rumours. That is why it would be essential for the apostles to be honest about their relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus had already warned them that they would face persecution, and to be prepared for violent, even fatal opposition. He had first told them to be true because not even death is as bad as forsaking God. Death at the hands of men is temporary, but the second death in Gehenna is permanent.
Now he gives them another reason why that reaction to their message should not deter them from proclaiming it. The Father in the sky values the lives of all his creatures, giving his permission before even a common sparrow dies. But a believer has a special relationship with God through Christ. For these special people, even the hairs on our heads must be accounted for.
The gospel message we now preach is the whole story of what Jesus Christ accomplished when he walked this planet, including the work he accomplished as our Saviour by dying on the cross as an atoning sacrifice, and being raised from the dead as the firstfruits, guaranteeing our future resurrection and his future kingdom. The message of a future king and kingdom coming down from the sky was crucial to the apostles’ ministry in Galilee, so it had to be proclaimed only by those who had really enlisted in the kingdom. The apostles had to own up to their new relationship with God through Christ, or else Jesus would not own up to them in the presence of his Father.
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the land. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a man’s enemies will be those within his own household. 37 The one loving father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and the one loving son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
Christianity is a family-friendly faith. Jesus does not call on believers to renounce membership in their families, or to declare their family members enemies because they do not accept his kingdom. That is not what he declares here. The gospel message of grace heals families, and reconciles the broken relationships within them caused by sin, shame, and selfishness.
Yet, Jesus did warn his apostles that as they set about proclaiming the gospel of his coming sky kingdom in Galilee, they will find that much of the opposition to their message will come from their own families. The message of peace that they bring will feel very much like a sword. It will divide the very families it is designed to make whole.
Their neighbours might have the distance that will allow them to avoid these religious fanatics, but the people in their households will not. They will feel the pressure both ways. The believers in the family will keep at it until the unbelievers make a decision, the unbelievers will urge them not to get carried away with this Jesus thing. Pressure produces friction, and the closer one is to the source of pressure, the more friction will be felt. That is why preaching the gospel can be a source of family upheaval and strife.
Curiously, Jesus does not give us a quick, five step program for resolving this conflict. But, to be fair, that is not the issue he is teaching about here. These words are instructions to missionaries who are sent to their own hometowns to share the gospel. Since that is true, he instructs them to make their love and loyalty to him a priority – even over their love for family.
There is a general application here for Christians who have unbelievers in their families. It is that Jesus wants our love for him to be our first love priority. If Jesus and his coming kingdom from the sky is not our first priority, then we are still on the outside of that kingdom, looking in. He taught us to “seek first the kingdom from God and desire his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you”8 A strong, healthy family is something we all want, but we have to get the priority right, or even that might become a curse rather than a blessing. On the judgment day, we all will appear before Jesus Christ as individuals. Of concern that day will not be how strong or unified our families were. What will matter will be our personal relationships with Christ.
38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow behind me, he is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his soul will destroy it, and whoever destroys his soul for my sake will find it. 40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes him who sent me. 41 The one who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will get a prophet’s wages, and the one who welcomes a righteous person because he is a righteous person will get a righteous person’s wages. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his wages.”
This final part of Jesus’ commissioning sermon for his apostles as they go out to their Galilean ministry focuses on their purpose as representatives of the Lord and his coming kingdom. It has two sections. In the first, verses 38-39, Jesus challenges his disciples to follow him fully. He is going to his cross; they should be following behind him with their crosses. If the apostles are not willing to risk their lives to preach Christ, they are not worthy of him.
It is in this context that Jesus tells them to destroy their souls. I know, it is usually not translated that way, but the translation is accurate,9 and fits the context. Of course, if one’s theology will not accept the idea of a destroyed soul, he will have problems accepting this translation. But practically all translations render the word psuché here as life, which is what Jesus means. A soul is a life. There is nothing immortal about this life. That is the point. To serve the Lord faithfully, workers must be willing to go to their crosses and destroy their souls, trusting that he can raise them to life again.
But along with the tremendous responsibility of representing Christ, there is also the tremendous blessing of representing him. In the second section, verses 40-42, Jesus tells his apostles that those who welcome them and accept their message will be greatly blessed. When they welcome the apostles, they are not just welcoming the apostles, they are welcoming the Lord they represent. When they welcome Christ, they are welcoming God whom he represents. As such, they participate in the LORD’s ministry, in the same way that someone who welcomes a prophet participates in that prophet’s ministry. Even a cup of water given to these faithful little ones who share their faith will be repaid by their master.
So, on the judgment day, those who dared welcome these itinerant evangelists into their homes, providing for their needs, and accepting their teachings – will find that they have earned the wages that these apostles earned. What are those wages? The wages of sin is death, bit the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.10
After their evangelistic campaign in Galilee, the apostles returned and told Jesus what they had experienced,11 but neither of the Gospel authors tell us what that experience was. All we know is that after this point, Jesus withdrew from those cities and concentrated his ministry elsewhere. We also know that a concentrated rejection of Jesus and his ministry happened in those Galilean cities immediately afterward.
20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his miraculous works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Tragedy is coming to you, Chorazin! Tragedy is coming to you, Bethsaida! Because if the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I am telling you, things will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to the sky? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have stayed alive until this day. 24 But I am telling you that things will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Was the harvest botched? Did the apostles fail their first major assignment? No, they did not fail. They successfully completed their assignment, sharing both Christ’s love and his power among their neighbours in Galilee. But the cities that heard that message still eventually chose to reject it. Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum had seen more proof of the power of Jesus than any other place. They had seen the Holy Spirit at work. Yet they were rejecting Jesus and his message. Jesus pronounced judgment upon them – a terrible destructive tragedy that they will experience on the judgment day. Even the three cities famous for being destroyed by God in the Old Testament (Tyre, Sidon & Sodom) will fare better on judgment day than them. It is a terrible thing to reject what the Holy Spirit is doing.
But the apostles did not lose their reward. They had remained faithful when their families and communities rejected their message, and persecuted them. They kept true to the promise of the coming kingdom from the sky. They were willing to go to their own crosses and destroy their own souls for the sake of that promise. They feared the permanent destruction of their souls by God in Gehenna more than the temporary killing of their bodies by men. When judged by the faithfulness of the apostles to the coaching they had received from Jesus, the mission in Jewish Galilee had been a success.
Some of us have been privileged to serve the LORD as missionaries on foreign fields, but all of us have had the call to share him among our friends, neighbours, and family. We have all been given a mission like that of the apostles to Jewish Galilee. When all is taken into account, it will not be the numbers that we have reached which will determine how successful we were. Like these apostles, our success will be measured by how well we followed Christ’s instructions. Our reward will be given based on the extent to which we were faithful in representing him.
- Isaiah 9:1-2. [↩]
- Matthew 4:13; 11:23. [↩]
- Luke 10:1-17. [↩]
- Revelation 20:11-15. [↩]
- Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8. [↩]
- Malachi 4:1. [↩]
- about an hour’s wage (1/16th of a denarius, a day’s wage for unskilled labor). [↩]
- Matthew 6:33. [↩]
- The word apóllumi is rendered destroy in Matthew 2:13; 9:17; 10:28; 12:14; 22:7; 27:20. It is a better translation than the typical word “lose” in verse 39 because the cross (verse 38) is a method of destruction. [↩]
- Romans 6:23. [↩]
- Mark 6:30; Luke 9:10. [↩]