Today we come to a new section of Matthew’s gospel which runs from verse 35 of chapter 9 to the end of chapter 10. And in this section, Matthew records for us what the Lord said to his disciples about mission. So, in the first part of this section, the Lord tells us that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. And then the Lord chooses the Twelve Disciples and he sends them to the Jews. He also gives his Twelve Disciples some instructions before they leave on what they’re to do and how to conduct their mission. He also warns them to expect persecution and he tells them how to respond to it. And near the end of this section, he says to his disciples that he has not come to bring peace on the earth, but division, because there will be some who believe and there will be others who do not believe. And so, even families will be divided. We don’t have time to cover the whole section this evening, so we’ll stop at verse 23 of chapter 10.
In verse 35 of chapter 9 Matthew tells us that the Lord Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. Back in verse 23 of chapter 4, we were told that the Lord went throughout Galilee, teaching and preaching and healing the sick. If he’s still in Galilee, then Matthew must mean in verse 35 that the Lord went through all the towns and villages in Galilee. And his ministry at that time involved teaching in the synagogues. We sometimes assume that the Lord always preached in the open air, but this verse reminds us that much of his teaching took place in the local synagogues where the Jews gathered for worship and for instruction. And when he taught, he preached the good news of the kingdom. The message of the kingdom is good news because Christ the King has come to deliver his people from their sin and misery.
And not only did he teach and preach, but he also healed the sick. As I’ve said before, every time he healed the sick or drove out demons it was a sign of what he will do for all his people when he comes again in glory and power to destroy the Devil and to glorify his people in God’s presence.
According to verse 36, when the Lord Jesus saw the crowds — who had come to hear him and to be healed by him — he has compassion on them. The word ‘compassion’ is only ever used in the New Testament of the Lord Jesus and it refers to his compassion and pity for people who are suffering in one way or another. This time he is moved to compassion because the people are harassed and helpless. The word translated ‘harassed’ can also be translated ‘weary’ or ‘faint’. The word translated ‘helpless’ can also be translated ‘cast down’. Since we live in a fallen world, we’re often harassed and weary and cast down and helpless. And it seemed to the Lord that the people around him were like sheep without a shepherd. When sheep don’t have a shepherd to care for them, then they’re in danger of being attacked; or they’re in danger of going hungry. And so, it’s just as well that they have come to the Lord Jesus, because he’s the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep and who was prepared to lay down his life for them.
But the Lord then likens the people to a field which is ready to be harvested. So, just as the ripe corn needs to be brought into the barn, so the people need to be brought into God’s kingdom. How does that happen? Well, when it comes to gathering a natural crop, the farmer will hire labourers and send them into the fields to pick the ripe corn. But when it comes to gathering a crop of new believers to belong to God’s kingdom, the Lord needs workers to go into the world to preach the gospel. But the problem is that the workers are few. So, what should we do?
We might assume that the solution is for everyone who hears these words to get up and to go. However, that’s not what the Lord says. He doesn’t say that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; therefore go! He says that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; therefore pray! Ask God, who is the Lord of the harvest, to send out workers in the harvest field. Not everyone is called by God to be a preacher, but every believer should pray to the Lord to raise up preachers and to send them out into our churches and into the world to proclaim the good news of the gospel so that sinners will hear and believe and be brought into God’s kingdom of grace.
And that, of course, is one of the reasons we gather on Wednesday evenings. We gather here to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out more and more workers to preach his word in the power of his Spirit so that many will hear and believe.
And what do we find in the next verses? We find the Lord Jesus sending out twelve workers to labour for him in the harvest field. So, he called his twelve disciples to him. Up to now, they’ve been following him. Now though, he’s sending them out. But before he sends them, he gives them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
Now, I should say that these Twelve Disciples were apostles. That means they were unique. They were specially chosen to be his official eye-witnesses. And so, to them, and to them alone, he gave this special authority to drive out demons and to heal the sick. He doesn’t give this power to preachers today, because theirs was an extra-ordinary office in the church; and to them he gave extra-ordinary powers.
Matthew then names the Twelve, including Judas Iscariot who would later betray the Lord before taking his own life. And Judas was later replaced by Matthias. And then Paul was appointed an apostle as well when the Risen Lord Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. So, they, and they alone, are the apostles.
And in verses 5 to 15, the Lord gave them special instructions. Firstly, he told them not to go to the Gentiles or to the Samaritans. The Samaritans were half-Jews, because they were descended from Israelites who married Gentiles who had been sent to live in Israel at the time of the exile. So, don’t go to the Gentiles or Samaritans. Instead go to the lost sheep of Israel. That is, the disciples were to confine their ministry to the Jews. After the resurrection, the Lord instructed his apostles to go into all the world and to make disciples of all nations. But for now, they were to confine their ministry to the Jews.
Then, he instructed them on what to preach. They were to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near. That was the same message John the Baptist preached. It was the message the Lord Jesus himself preached. So, they were to preach the same message. And the kingdom of heaven is near, because Christ the King had come to deliver his people from their sin and misery; and whoever repents and believes is added to his kingdom, which is an everlasting kingdom.
As well as preaching, they were to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with leprosy, and drive out demons. In other words, they were to do what the Lord did to signify that the Lord had sent them; and to signify what the Lord will do for all who trust in him when he comes again.
And they’re not to charge anyone for their ministry. They’re not to charge people for preaching the good news or for healing the sick. They’re not to make money out of what the Lord has sent them to do. Salvation is God’s free gift to sinners.
And according to verse 9, they’re not to take gold or silver or copper with them. That is, they’re not to bring money with them. And they’re not to bring a bag with them to hold their gear, because they don’t need to bring any gear with them. Don’t bring a spare tunic or spare sandals or a staff with them. How then will they survive when they’re out on the road? What will they eat? What will they do if their clothes wear out? They’re to trust the Lord to provide for them, because the worker is worthy of his keep. God will keep them and provide for them.
So, they don’t need to bring anything with them. And then, when they enter a town or village, they should look for some worthy person. Since an unworthy person is someone who will not welcome them or listen to them, then a worthy person must be someone who will welcome them and listen to them. Stay at that person’s house. When he refers to giving or returning peace, the Lord presumably means that God’s blessing will rest on those who help them, but not on those who will not help. And they’re to shake the dust off their feet when leaving the home or town of someone who will not help as a sign that the Lord’s disciples want nothing more to do with such people. The extent of their wickedness in rejecting the Lord’s disciples is seen in the fact that it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah, renown for their wickedness, will be be punished more lightly than those who reject the Lord’s disciples.
So, those were the Lord’s instructions to his disciples as he sent them out on this special mission to the Jews.
Then he warns them in verses 15 to 23 to expect persecution. So, he’s sending them out like sheep among wolves. And we all know what wolves will do to sheep, don’t we? So they need to be as shrewd or wise as snakes, but as innocent as doves. The word translated ‘innocent’ implies that they’re not to do evil, but only what is right. However, they also need to be smart. And that means they need to be on guard against men who may hand them over to the local councils to be judged and flogged. And they can expect to be brought before, not only the local council, but before governors like Pontius Pilate and kings. So, you have to be smart. Don’t go looking for trouble. In the early church, there were some believers who wanted to be persecuted and they went looking for it. But the Lord instructed his disciples to be shrewd, to be wise, to be smart. However, no matter how smart they are, trouble will find them and they will be persecuted for Jesus’s sake.
However, when they’re arrested and brought to trial, they don’t need to worry about what to say, because the Holy Spirit will help them. And look how the Lord Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit in verse 20: he’s ‘the Spirit of your Father’. So, because of Christ, they’ve been adopted into God’s family and their loving heavenly Father will not abandon them, but will help them when they’re arrested for their faith.
And they can expect an unbelieving man to betray his believing brother; and an unbelieving father to betray his believing child; and unbelieving children to betray their believing parents. In fact, this is what they can expect: all men will hate them because of Christ and their commitment to Christ. And when you’re persecuted in one place — and note that he says ‘when’ and not ‘if’ — flee to another. Flee to another, because they are plenty of other towns and villages where the people need to hear the good news of the kingdom of God. And the Lord adds in verse 23 that they will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
The Lord Jesus is the Son of Man. So, what is this coming he’s referring to? Some commentators think he’s referring to his coming into heaven after his death and resurrection and ascension. So, they won’t have finished going through Israel before the Lord ascends to heaven.
However, other commentators think he’s referring to the time when he will come to earth again in glory and with power. And in that case, he means that the task of the church to preach the good news will never be over. It will never be over, because after the gospel has been preached in one town, there will be another town that needs to hear.
While much of what the Lord says in this passage applies only to his apostles for their special mission to the Jews, nevertheless we can learn from this passage that there are three things which will never cease.
Firstly, persecution will never cease, because there will always be those who do not believe and who will oppose the Lord and his church.
Secondly, the task of the church to preach the gospel will never cease, because there will always be those who have not heard.
And thirdly, the duty of believers to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers will never cease, because the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.