35 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. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:35-38 NIV)
The ESV and NRSV say Jesus went through all the cities and villages in Galilee. Although there is no evidence that Jesus ever visited Tiberias, which was the capital and headquarters of Herod Antipas on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, there were smaller cities and many villages in Galilee. All but the smallest of these would have had synagogues for Jesus to teach in.
According to [the Jewish historian] Josephus (Life 235; War III, 41-43 [iii.2]), writing one generation [after Jesus], Galilee had 204 cities and villages, each with no fewer than fifteen thousand persons. [Josephus estimated the total population of Galilee in his day at three million.] At the rate of two villages or towns per day, three months would be required to visit all of them, with no time off for the Sabbath. Jesus "went around doing good" (Acts 10:38; cf. Mark 1:39; 6:6). The sheer physical drain must have been enormous. (Donald Carson, Matthew, on 4:23)
The compassion of Jesus is often mentioned by Matthew (Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34). Sometimes we may feel sorry for others in need or suffering but merely congratulate ourselves that we can feel this compassion. With Jesus the compassion involved doing something to relieve the situation. He never stopped with a feeling. Furthermore, he could see outward appearance to the reality within. As he looked about, he may have seen some people with illnesses, and others without jobs or food or shelter. But he saw them the way God sees them: as "sheep without a shepherd." Shepherds not only guided and fed the sheep: they protected them from harm. Sheep without a shepherd would be at the mercy of wild predators, i.e, wolves. The "shepherds" of Israel were her spiritual leaders: priests, prophets, teachers. By and large, in Jesus' day he judged most of them to be unworthy of their position. The people were left defenseless against sin and error. The East Mediterranean world in Jesus' day was full of religious ideas and exotic cults, and pagan philosophies. Do we see those around us today as sheep without Jesus as their shepherd? What predators can you think of who are eager to exploit people without Jesus to protect them?
The imagery changes from sheep to fields ready for harvesting but too few laborers available to reap it. A crop left unharvested would be ruined by weather and rampaging wild animals (e.g., rodents and other vegetarian animals). Where will the harvesters come from? Jesus speaks these words to "disciples" in a broader sense than the inner circle, the Twelve. But he doesn't ask for volunteers. Instead, he asks them all to pray that the "lord of the harvest," that is, the one currently doing the harvesting, namely Jesus himself, to send out additional harvesters into the fields. He will not send out all of those whom he is asking to pray. Instead, for now he will select Twelve. Later—according to Luke—he will select a larger number.
For this and other reasons we should not rashly equate how Jesus equips the Twelve for their mission and how he tells them to proceed with how he would want missionaries today to operate. This is not necessarily how God equips the saints today to evangelize, nor how he expects us to operate. But we may see some general principles, if we consider the passage judiciously.
1 He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Matthew 10:1-4 NIV)
If we have only Matthew's text before us, we know how he has trained the Twelve to this point. What he now adds to their equipment is the "authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness", i.e., the same kind of authority that he himself displayed in chapters 8 and 9. Now the Twelve will be extensions of Jesus himself, multiplying his coverage of the huge harvest field of Galilee. Notice how Jesus trusted them. Even fully equipped, it was possible that they would prove to have little faith, to be greedy or angry at the responses. But Jesus had faith in them, and this says something about how he saw their hearts. Bear in mind, however, that among the Twelve at this time was Judas Iscariot, who would eventually betray Jesus. Jesus also trusts you and me, even though he knows our propensity to fail him. He wants us to learn faithfulness along with compassion for others and willingness to look foolish by offering them our friendship, prayer and the gospel.
The distribution of the conjunction "and" in Matthew's list of the Twelve suggests that Jesus sent them out two-by-two (we are told this explicitly in Mark 6:7), and that the order given here shows what each pair was. Other lists of the Twelve that have a different order (especially Mark 3:16-19 and Acts 1:13 do not reflect the pairings for this specific two-by-two mission. In those other gospels therefore at least the first three or four names probably reflect the order of seniority or even of rank. In the other lists Andrew is not in second place, the first three positions going to Peter, James and John. But for this mission Jesus paired the brothers: Peter and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, etc. Some of the other pairs may have been brothers, but most probably were chosen by Jesus because the two would work well together, or complement each other. When sled dogs are harnessed in pairs, it is common to pair an experienced dog with a younger, less experienced one.
Dog sled teams are put together with great care. Putting a dog sled team together involves picking leader dogs, point dogs, swing dogs and wheel dogs. The lead dog is very treasured, and seldom will mushers ever let these dogs out of their sight. Indeed, trained lead dogs become part of the family household. Important too is to have powerful wheel dogs to pull the sled out from the snow. Point dogs (optional) are located behind the leader dogs, swing dogs between the point and wheel dogs, and team dogs are all other dogs in between the wheel and swing dogs and are selected for their endurance, strength and speed as part of the team. (Wikipedia, "Sled dog.")
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Instead, go to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. 9 “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— 10 no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. 12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Matthew 10:5-15)
The geographic and ethnic limits of this mission are set here: "the lost sheep of Israel." The field is not the world, not even all of Palestine. It was necessary for Jesus to make this clear, because some of the Twelve had been with him previously in Samaria, where he had successfully witnessed (John 4:1-42). But that was not to be the focus now. After the resurrection he would send them to Samaria and to the ends of the Earth (Acts 1:7-8; cf. 8:4-25). But not now. “Let the children [i.e., Israel] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he once said to a Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:27 NRSV). Once the "children" have rejected it, it will be offered to others, many of whom will gladly take it! These "others", scattered throughout the earth (Matt 28), would also include Jews, but also many other ethnic groups.
Their activity, like that of Jesus, will be a mix of preaching (i.e., proclaiming, not giving sermons), teaching, healing, and driving out demons. Their proclamation—like his—will be that the kingdom of God has come near in the person of Jesus, whom God has sent. The Jews of Galilee will not see Jesus personally, only his agents. But they will learn that it is he who will save Israel from her sins. They will be prepared for the joyful day when Jesus would enter Jerusalem to shouts of "Hosanna" (21:1-11), and for the sadder day when Pilate would ask the representatives of the Jewish people, "What shall I do with Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ [i.e., messiah]?" (27:21-23).
Proclaiming such a message about the promised Davidic kingdom, and Jesus as the promised king would be very dangerous, because of the presence of Roman soldiers in Galilee. According to Rome, there was only one great king, the Roman emperor. Only petty kings like Herod whom the Roman emperor had approved were allowed to exist. Jesus had no such official permission. To proclaim him as the Davidic king would be seen as an act of treason against Rome.
They were not to accept payment for their acts of healing or exorcism, although this was regularly done by healers and exorcists in that period. The ability to heal had been given to them without charge from Jesus; so they must not make a profit for themselves from it.
They should depend in most respects upon God to provide local hospitality for them, and therefore not take along with them elaborate supplies to enable them to camp outside the towns by themselves or in an inn. Their mission would depend to a great extent on becoming temporary members of the families of the communities they visited. It would be counter-productive for them to stay in the local Marriott Express!
They were to rely on the practice of hospitality, which was obligatory among the Jews of that era. Homes that took them in would be given their blessing. If members of such homes eventually rejected the message, the blessing would simply return to them without benefiting these unbelievers. If the family believed, the blessing would remain and be effective.
If, on the other hand, no member of the community would take them in or listen to their message, or believe in Jesus, they were to leave that town and shake the dust of its streets from their shoes and clothes, as a sign of God's coming judgment upon it. Its fate will be worse in the day of judgment than that of Sodom and Gomorrah, who had proven so inhospitable to the angels who had visited Lot to warn him to flee from the judgment to come upon those cities (Gen 19:1-29). You remember how God rained fire and burning sulphur from heaven on those two cities, a picture of hell itself. Later, Matthew will record how Jesus himself called down God's judgment on the towns of Chorazin and Capernaum, because they had heard his message and seen his miracles, and yet refused to repent and believe. There too he made the comparison to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (11:20-24).
We too need to do more than share a few Bible verses with those around us without Christ. We need to enter their very homes and become members of their families—figuratively, if not literally. How otherwise are they to know that we really care about them? Isn't this what Jesus did for us? He came from heaven into our "home" on earth. He became human and thus a member of our family. This is God's way of being a Good Shepherd to the lost sheep. It also be ours.
16 I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. 24 “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household! (Matthew 10:16-25 NIV)
There is a transition here from the historical situation of this first mission of the Twelve in Galilee to the post-resurrection ministry of the apostles and other early Christian missionaries. Then they would be arrested, flogged and imprisoned, at first by unbelieving Jewish authorities, and eventually by gentile authorities as well. Of course, the Book of Acts is full of examples of this (see Acts 5:17-42; 7:54-60; 8:1-3; 12:1-19; 14:1-7; 16:16-40).
God through Matthew is not just concerned with the Twelve, or even with the First Century church, but with the Church through all the age leading up to the second Coming of Jesus. We too should be aware that we go not only among lost sheep for whom we have Christ's compassion, but also among dangerous wolves. We should be prepared for this opposition—be "on guard" as the verse says. We will not be popular with everyone, when we share God's message of hope in Jesus. But we need not be afraid:
26 “So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. 32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:26-33 NIV)
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— 36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ 37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39 NIV)
40 “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42 NIV)
18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me" (John 15:18-21 NRSV).
On the positive side, those who welcome Christ's disciples and their message, do honor to him and receive rewards as if they had done these things to Christ himself. What effect do you think Jesus wanted these words to make on the Twelve? How about on us? How does this reassure us? How does it challenge us? Think of the various ways in which Jesus refers to his own in these verses: "you" (v 40), "a prophet" (v 41), "a righteous man" (v 41), "little ones" who are "disciples" (v 42). Why do you suppose this is so? Is it not because, when we live like Christ and speak like him, the world's reaction to us will be exactly what it would be, if indeed we were Christ?