God’s Judgment More Tolerable For Some Than Others?

Jesus has given His twelve disciples authority over evil spirits and sickness. He is sending them out to share the good news, everything prophesied about in the Jewish Scriptures, with the Jewish people in Galilee. The Christ had come! The Messiah is here! The kingdom of heaven is at hand! In tonight’s passage, Jesus instructs His twelve missionaries concerning this short-term mission trip in Galilee.

Matthew 10:9-16

Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support. And whatever city or village you enter, inquire who is worthy in it, and stay at his house until you leave that city. As you enter the house, give it your greeting. If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if it is not worthy, take back your blessing of peace. Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.

A note about context

Anytime we exposit Scripture and hope to make proper application, context matters. To many times, well-meaning people will jump to make quick application and the application does not fit because our context is different from that described in the text. We see the perfect example in this part of the story. Jesus is instructing His Jewish disciples to go preach to Jewish people and this particular point in time. So, the instructions in this passage can’t be rightly applied directly to Gentile believers living in Gentile societies and living after Christ has given His Great Commission in Matthew 28. Since we can’t rightly apply these specific instructions to our lifestyles or even to the particular workings of missionary work today (because we live after Christ’s Great Commission has been given), we must use our inductive reasoning to reflect on the principles of these instructions and apply those. So, as we consider Christ’s specific instruction particularly to His twelve disciples at this particular time, we ask what principles are at work in this passage so that we can make right application after understanding the text.

A worthy worker (v. 9-10)

Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support.

Jesus has given His twelve disciples authority over unclean spirits and sickness. As they go out, Jesus tells them not to take anything that they own on this particular journey. I have heard others teach that this verse explicitly prohibited the twelve, and those to whom this text is made to apply, from making money or acquiring stuff. It is explicitly the case, though, that the disciples are not to take their money or extra stuff with them on this particular journey in Matthew 10. Jesus explains the reason when He states that the worker is worthy of his support.

Who is the worker? In the immediate context, we see that “worker” is a term Jesus uses to refer to His missionaries—envoys carrying Christ’s message. In chapter 9, verse 38, Jesus instructed His disciples to beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest. Here, Christ refers to the men He is sending out as workers. This means that when the disciples prayed to God, God’s answer was to send them out.

What does it mean that a worker, one God sends to work His harvest, is worthy of his wages? Many people will use this verse to argue that churches need to pay their pastors well. While I think that this particular verse might have some relevance to that conversation, that is not Matthew’s point as he quotes Jesus. The idea, here, is that Christ’s twelve missionaries will be provided for while they are on their journey. God will provide for them, and He will use His people in each Jewish city to do so.

The deserving house (v. 11-14)

And whatever city or village you enter, inquire who is worthy in it, and stay at his house until you leave that city. As you enter the house, give it your greeting. If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if it is not worthy, take back your blessing of peace. Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.

What does it mean for a house to be worthy? The Greek, “αξιος,” indicates that someone is deserving of something. In this case, a house may or may not be deserving of a blessing from one of Christ’s twelve missionaries during this short-term mission trip. Jesus provides his twelve missionaries with a standard by which to measure if a house is deserving or not. If they receive the missionary, they are deserving. If they neither receive the missionary nor heed his words, they are not deserving of a blessing. When a house or city is underserving, these missionaries are to go out and shake the dust off their feet. This would be a testimony against that house or city because the people were unclean and unwilling to trust in the Jewish Messiah—the only one who could make them clean according to their own Law.

God’s judgment (v. 15-16)

Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.

What? You remember the story in Genesis 19, right? These two cities were given over to sin. Not one righteous person was found within their walls. There was no hope for restoration or redemption. God burned those cities to the ground using fire from the heavens. Jesus declares, in this part of the story, that the Jews who do not welcome any one of His twelve missionaries and who do not heed their message will be worse off that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgement. What is Jesus getting at, here? Why would religious Jews, people in God’s chosen physical nation who have strived to keep God’s Law, be worse off than Canaanite heathens who lived in intentional rebellion against the God of Abraham?

Both the Sodomite and the Jew who rejected Jesus would die in sin. From Genesis 2 through Revelation, we see that the wages of sin are death. This means that all those who die in their sin stand condemned before God as they are judged by Him. Yet the Sodomite and the Jews who would not welcome or heed the twelve missionaries would not be equally condemned. The Jew who rejected the message of the twelve missionaries had a worse fate. Commentators tend to agree that it is because the Jews would receive the explicit Gospel while the Sodomites did not. So, though all people are without excuse (cf. Romans 1:20), those who receive the explicit Gospel and reject it will be judged more severely than those who die in their sins without hearing the explicit Gospel of Jesus Christ presented—especially, I think, the Jew, because God abided with the Jewish people for so long.

This gives us some insight into the fate of those who, by God’s providence, never hear the Gospel. If God has chosen His people from before the foundation of the world (cf. Ephesians 2:8), then He ensures that all His elect will receive salvation. He will not fail in saving a single one. He is the Lord of His harvest (9:38). For the rest, not all condemnation is equal. Those who reject the explicit Gospel are worse off. Since the sin of the Sodomites is presented as the worst of sins, it is feasible that everlasting condemnation will accord with the severity of each person’s crimes against God. After all, God is just. Those who choose to earn their place before God will earn a proper wage in this way. The wages of sin are death (cf. Romans 3:23) and they are fairly paid wages. 

Those who sincerely and truly respond to the Gospel of grace, however, will receive everlasting life because they are measured by Christ’s righteousness, not their own. The gift of God is eternal life (cf. Romans 3:24). It was designed this way so that no person can boast and God receives all glory for His own work (cf. Ephesians 2:9). Since God elects from before the foundation of the world, He can be trusted even with the salvation of the unborn, infants, and children if they die before they are able to understand and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.

Jesus is sending His twelve missionaries out as sheep in the midst of wolves. It means that He is sending them out to be vulnerable people in a world full of predators. Christ’s twelve missionaries are not to be predatory in any way. They are not to take advantage of people. They are not to be self-interested. They are not to be self-promoting. They are not to be concerned with pleasing or satisfying themselves. They live to honor the Shepherd, Jesus Christ. The wolves of the world will prey on them, take advantage of them, persecute them, and eventually kill them all except for John (who would be exiled to the island of Patmos).

For this reason, Jesus instructs His twelve missionaries to be shrewd as (or like) serpents and innocent as (or like) doves. Shrewdness (φρονιμος) refers to wisdom, sensibility, or prudence. Innocence (ακεραιος) refers to harmlessness or purity. Because the twelve missionaries are being sent out like sheep in the midst of wolves, Jesus instructs them to maintain their purity and not seek to harm others (even wolves) or lash out against them. But, they are to do so sensibly and prudently. 

Take a moment and think about the following questions. Do you see the ways in which this text could rightly apply in your life? What principles do you see at play in this part of the text? How do they apply and to whom? The plainest application will be for missionaries, since that is what Christ is sending His disciples out to do at this moment (cf. v. 2). How does this apply to the missionary? How does it apply to career missionaries or short term missions? How might this rightly apply to the pastor or elder? How might it rightly apply to the Christian established in a local area? How might it rightly apply to you? Remember the context. Not every way in which Jesus explicitly instructs His twelve missionaries in Matthew 10 transfers directly to us because our context is different and our mission is broader (cf. Matthew 28:18-20).

Questions:

  1. Why do you think it matters to consider the context of a passage not only as we learn the passage but, also, as we see to apply it rightly?
  2. What does it mean that it will be more tolerable for some who condemned than for others? What does this text seem to indicate the standard is for the degree of wrath any person may experience in the day of judgment?
  3. What does it mean that Christ’s disciples are sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves?
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