You may have noticed on these blogs about the life of Jesus that the stories from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John get a little mixed up. For example, when in the book of Matthew we read from chapter eight before we read chapters 5 through 7, which are the Sermon on the Mount. That is because we are reading all four of the Gospel books together at once. The writer of each Gospel had His own way of telling the story of Christ’s life. Each of them had an audience they were trying to reach with the Gospel, and so each told Jesus’ story in a way that would help that group of people understand Him and why He came. Some of them wrote the order of the stories in a way that highlighted certain ideas. If we want to see the clearest explanation for how the story unfolded across the three years of Jesus’ ministry, the best book to read is John.
Some people are bothered when they learn that each book doesn’t go exactly in the order and timing that it actually happened in Jesus’ life. But if you think about it we tell stories in different ways all the time. If you became very sick, you might tell the story of your illness differently to your doctor than you would to a child that you didn’t want to scare with the details. For the doctor, you might select all of the different ways you have been sick in the last year. For the child you would might tell a funny story or emphasize how you have gotten better in the past. Each time you told your story, you would be telling the truth, but you would be choosing the details that were most important for the person you were describing the story to. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John choose different details of the same stories about Jesus in order to help their audience understand His amazing message.
We believe that Matthew wrote these stories down in a way that could be used to teach the disciples how to live for Jesus. It was a little bit like a textbook.
Matthew organized what He wrote in a special way to make it easy to teach others. Part of that organizing was to take the five main themes that Jesus taught about and write them down in five sections. The first section was the Sermon on the Mount, which teaches about how members of God’s Kingdom are supposed to live. The next section is the one we are about to read. Jesus taught how His disciples are to live as they preached the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
As Jesus continued to go out and preach through the cities and villages around the Sea of Galilee, He felt tremendous compassion for the crowds that came to Him. They were in distress, with all the pressures and suffering of life under the misery of the Curse. They were like sheep without a shepherd, fragile animals that were hunted and wounded and torn by vicious enemies. As Jesus looked around at the multitudes, He said to His disciples, “‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.’”
What a sorrowful statement. On a farm there comes a time when the fruit or grain is ready to be picked. It can be a time of great labor and celebration as the riches of plenty are brought in. Everyone has to get to work because it is important to get everything in from the fields on time. If the harvest is taken too soon, it won’t be ripe. If it is taken too late, it will go bad. When Jesus looked out on the crowds that followed Him, He saw that there were many whose hearts were ready to be harvested for the Kingdom, just as wheat becomes ready to be harvested. Yet the harvesters were few. The leadership of Israel had risen to join the Savior. Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “‘Ask the Lord of the harvest…to send out workers into His harvest field.’”
Isn’t it interesting that when Jesus saw the tremendous need, the first thing He did was call on His disciples to pray? This was no idle request. Jesus knew that it was the truly effective, important action they could take to meet the great needs of the people. Prayers to the Living God are not simply sounds aiming at Heaven. They are heard by the Mighty Lord who created the entire universe by speaking it into existence. He has somehow linked His salvation work in the world to the prayers of His people. Our prayers are acts of power, and He wants to answer them. When we have a truly eternal vision for what it means to pray, we realize it is insane not to. Jesus made it clear that the first job of the disciples was to pray for workers who would partner with God in His great harvesting work of bringing salvation to the lost.
In the very next story we see how God answered those prayers. Jesus was going to send His disciples out into the harvest. And He had a strategy for how He was going to do it.
First, the Lord Jesus brought His twelve disciples together and put them into pairs. Simon Peter was put with His brother Andrew. James and John were next, then Philip and Bartholomew. The Lord put Thomas and Matthew together, and then James son of Alphaeus and Thaddaues. Finally, Simon the Zealot was put with Judas Iscariot. Judas was the man that would one day betray the Lord. These pairs were to go out and spread the Good News of the Kingdom, just as their Master had. Jesus gave them authority over evil spirits. He empowered them to be able to heal every kind of illness and disease as well.
Can you imagine what that was like for the disciples? After travelling all that time with Jesus and watching Him do His wondrous deeds, they had been invited to share the same message and the same power! Their new authority was so far reaching that even the demonic beings…the fallen angels… were subject to them! This was a new commissioning. They had moved from being mere disciples to apostles. They were being sent out on a radical mission. It was an important part of God’s preparation for their lifetime ahead.
Let’s take a second to consider how brave these men were. Consider the faith that had been growing in them. Jesus was the most controversial man in Israel. He was either sent from God or He was God’s enemy. The disciples were not men of great education, power, or status. Most of them were either common workers or had been rejected as sinners or zealots. They were not well traveled. If this didn’t work out, there was nowhere to go. Everyone in the nation was associating them with Christ. Yet the disciples had watched the most powerful men in the cities and villages of Galilee condemn Jesus. By following Jesus, they had taken on the condemnation. And now they were going to go traveling around the countryside exposing themselves even more. Except now they would be doing it without the presence of their fearless Leader.
Instead of growing weaker in faith as Jesus met with opposition, their faith had grown stronger. Imagine what must have been developing in their hearts.
Before they left, Jesus gave them a set of instructions about what to do and what not to do. He said:
“‘Do no go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, preach this message: “The Kingdom of heaven is near.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.’”
Wow. These commands of Jesus required radical trust. Put yourself in the disciples shoes. Imagine what the week ahead was going to look like. The power of God was going to flow through you to bring major healing from illness, death, and demonic oppression. The glorious power of God moving to break the destruction of the Curse through His Son was now going to work through you.
Would you be excited? Scared? Would you feel nervous about not taking extra money to feed yourself? God was going to show His disciples just how well He could use them and take care of them, but it was going to take courageous, surrendered faith to step out into His plan!
It is interesting that Jesus was sending His disciples to cities and villages of Israel. He was giving those people yet another chance to respond to the message of their Messiah. Jesus went on:
“‘Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you to listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.’”
Jesus understood the situation in Israel. There were many who wanted Jesus dead. But He also seemed to understand that there were many in the nation that would welcome His men. There were special, powerful blessings in store for them as they received Christ’s messengers. Consider the gift someone gave to his neighbors if he welcomed in the disciples. Jesus’ men would bring healing, freedom from death…and some kind of special anointing of peace. They brought the Good News of the Kingdom that the nation had been waiting on for thousands of years! It seems crazy that anyone would reject it. But that is the nature of sin and the rejection of the things of God. It doesn’t make sense. It is irrational. And those who chose it would pay a great price. From the perspective of the world, the disciples were simple men making their way along the road with a dubious message. From a heavenly perspective, they were the honored bearers of the Greatest Treasure, the golden truth that was going to change the world.