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While Jesus’ twelve disciples are following Him around and marveling at His power and teaching, they have no idea that Jesus is grooming them to be key players in launching the new Church. They don’t know that Jesus is only planning to stay with them for a brief three years. Jesus appears to be a young man with a long life ahead in Him. No doubt His disciples are expecting Him to live to a ripe old age on earth and lead Israel back into a state of glorious independence. After all, a guy who can raise people from the dead and cure diseases would seem quite invincible. Who could possibly take Jesus out? The disciples probably figured they were really scoring by getting accepted early on by a Man who was going to change history and rise to some position of ultimate power. After all, Yahweh’s Messiah was supposed to be a glorious King—a triumphant Ruler. Once Jesus reestablished the Davidic line of kings, who would He be promoting to important positions of authority? Those who had been with Him from the beginning, of course. Siding with Jesus was a strategic gamble that was looking better all the time. By now the disciples have even seen Jesus calming a storm with one word. Surely He was unstoppable.
THE FIRST MISSIONARY TRIP
When you’re with the guy who has all the power, you’re feeling like pretty hot stuff. And when Jesus calls His twelve together one day and announces that He is giving them the authority to cast out demons and heal disease, things are really getting exciting. A download of Divine power? Bring it on. The disciples are more than a little eager to charge out on their first solo mission. Jesus has them pair off into two-man teams with the goal of having them spread out among various cities and preach that men should repent and return to Yahweh. Preaching righteous words while they wow everyone with their God-powers? This Jesus thing is getting better and better. But before sending His boys out, Jesus has some things He wants to say, so the disciples listen up as He launches into a very long speech.
“Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel—Yahweh’s lost sheep. Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!” (Matt. 10:5-8)
This first part is quite appealing. Jewish men in these times were raised to be dedicated bigots who openly despised those of non-Jewish blood. Here Jesus tells them that they shouldn’t go near icky foreigners—good! It’s far more attractive to the twelve to just speak to their own countrymen.
Jesus then orders them to do frequent miracles—sweet! Let’s remember that Matthew was a hated tax collector and several of the other disciples were lowly fishermen. These men weren’t viewed as society’s elite. But now that Jesus has given them access to miraculous power, surely they’re going to be raking in the respect and admiration of others.
“Don’t take any money in your money belts—no gold, silver, or even copper coins. Don’t carry a traveler’s bag with a change of clothes and sandals or even a walking stick. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve to be fed.” (Matt. 10:9-10)
Heading out with no supplies sounds a bit awkward, but Jesus seems confident that these men will be warmly received by others. The idea of being offered a bunch of goodies for free sounds good—so far this whole trip is sounding very appealing to the human ego.
“Whenever you enter a city or village, search for a worthy person and stay in his home until you leave town. When you enter the home, give it your blessing. If it turns out to be a worthy home, let your blessing stand; if it is not, take back the blessing. If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave. I tell you the truth, the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off than such a town on the judgment day.” (Matt. 10:11-15)
Remember that the Jews were a very superstitious people who put a lot of stock in “the power of the spoken word.” They fancied themselves as potent little sorcerers who could harm others through their verbal curses or aid them through verbal blessings. Their beliefs were total rubbish, of course, but here Jesus is working within the framework of their foolishness by telling them to cast or take back verbal blessings depending on how they are treated by others. Then He says that people who refuse to listen to them will be punished in eternity. Sweet.
Now knowing how jealous God is for glory and how big He is on exalting Himself, we ought to be finding it rather suspicious that Jesus is setting His disciples up so nicely. Where’s the catch in all of this? Where’s the counterbalance to all this power and Divine support? Since when does God set us up to rake in the glory on earth without any cost? Since when does He send us out like little kings to go be adored and fawned over by others? He doesn’t. So far Jesus has been painting a pretty pleasant picture of what the disciples should expect in their evangelistic efforts. Now He suddenly switches themes and starts talking about the dark side.
“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are My followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about Me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matt. 10:16-20)
Now Jesus is no longer talking about this particular trip, but He’s looking years into the future and cautioning His disciples that they’ve been chosen out to have a very rough time of it on earth. In spite of all the miracles they’ll be doing, they’re going to be hated, attacked, and viciously persecuted. So much for being received like royalty wherever they go and not having to worry about where their next meal will come from. Jesus doesn’t say “if you are arrested” but “when”. Persecution is guaranteed.
“A brother will betray his brother to death, a father will betray his own child, and children will rebel against their parents and cause them to be killed. And all nations will hate you because you are My followers. But everyone who endures to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one town, flee to the next. I tell you the truth, the Son of Man will return before you have reached all the towns of Israel.” (Matt. 10:21-23)
Here the picture grows much darker. Jesus describes His followers being betrayed by their own family members. He says all nations will hate them. When Jesus first started this speech, it sounded like He was assuring them that they’d be generally well received with an occasional rebel. Now He’s saying that they’ll be generally hated and hunted. Hm. So what was that part about not taking any supplies with them? If things are going to be this bad, it sounds like they ought to go into it as prepared as possible. Why head out with nothing at all? Yet this is what Jesus is ordering them to do. Suddenly obeying Jesus is losing its appeal. Why is He setting them up to fail?
Notice that last part about Jesus coming back to rescue His followers before they’ve reached all the towns of Israel. Now there’s a laugh. Two thousand years later, we have yet to see Jesus return, yet we will find Him boldface lying about the time frame of His second coming several times in the Gospel books. It’s all about raising false hopes so that His boys will be inspired to grit up for what’s coming. As God, Jesus sees the future. He knows how every one of these men are going to die. He knows all about how Jewish Christians will be hunted down and slaughtered by their fellow countrymen. To an Old Covenant Jew, this “Jesus is another God” business is outrageous blasphemy. When Jesus is no longer hanging around earth in some visible, tangible form, the faith of His followers is going to be massively tested. It’s much different today for us, because we didn’t start off being able to touch and feel Jesus only to then lose access to Him in a three-dimensional form. But this is what will happen to the twelve. When they see Jesus ascend into Heaven, they’ll feel like He is absent from the earth. It will be enormously difficult for them to feel like He is still with them, so Jesus is going to make them a bunch of empty promises about coming back soon to them in a visible form because that’s the kind of comfort He knows they want.
“Students are not greater than their teacher, and slaves are not greater than their master. Students are to be like their teacher, and slaves are to be like their master. And since I, the Master of the household, have been called the prince of demons, the members of My household will be called by even worse names!
But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. For the time is coming when everything that is covered will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear!
Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only Yahweh, who can destroy both soul and body in Hell. What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to Yahweh than a whole flock of sparrows.” (Matt. 10:24-31)
Even though Jesus is drawing huge crowds, most people are inwardly rejecting His claims to be a second God. Meanwhile, the leaders of Israel, who are accusing Him of working by the power of demons, are plotting to kill Him. If this is how Jesus is being treated, His followers shouldn’t expect anything better. They are going to be as harassed and hated as Jesus, but He tells them that they don’t need to be afraid of this. Instead, they need to keep their focus on eternal priorities. The physical body is just a temporary vehicle for getting about in a physical dimension. Your body is not your soul. Your soul is the real you and human beings don’t have any access to your soul. It is only God who can destroy the soul, therefore pleasing God needs to be the top priority.
Now in real life, is it realistic for you to have some “whatever” attitude about people torturing and killing you? Of course not. Unless the Holy Spirit pours down a bunch of Divine empowerment in the critical moment, you’re going to be a panicking, blubbering coward who won’t hesitate to curse your Creators, shoot your mother, and do anything else that your captors demand of you. This is reality: we’re all selfish to the bone and we all crack under pressure. Because we don’t want to face this ugly truth about ourselves, we intentionally ignore accounts of Christians falling apart. When we betray our loved ones to save our own necks, it’s not something we go around bragging about. But when we are empowered to fearlessly stare our captors down, well, then we go on and on about how unshakable our devotion to God is. This is a very problematic pattern in the Church, because our biased reporting of persecution stories has led many to conclude that any truly devoted Christian would never succumb to denying Christ. This is utterly absurd. All of these stories we hear about men and women boldly choosing some horrific death over betraying God are freak departures from how things normally work. Can you leap to the top of a mountain in a single bound or swim across an ocean in one day? Of course not. If you ever did such a thing, it would be obvious that God had performed a shocking miracle which you wouldn’t deserve any credit for. In the same way, when we see Christians acting superhuman in stressful situations, it is a miracle which they can’t take one ounce of credit for.
God has many ways of helping us embrace our total dependency on Him. Demanding the impossible of us is a very effective way of helping us to overcome our pride and say, “I really want to please You, Lord, but this thing You’re asking for is just not in me.” It’s when we are willing to face the limits of our own abilities that we move forward in our relationship with God. As long as we can read impossible commands like “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body,” and say, “Sure, no problem,” we’re clinging to prideful delusions about what we are capable of.
“Everyone who acknowledges Me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before My Father in Heaven. But everyone who denies Me here on earth, I will also deny before My Father in Heaven.” (Matt. 10:33)
Here’s a famous line that has caused undue anxiety in many sincere Christians. To understand what Jesus is talking about here, read Understanding Jesus: “Whoever denies Me before men…”.
“Don’t think that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.
‘I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household!’ [Micah 7:6] (Matt. 10:34-36)
Here Jesus quotes a well-known passage from Micah 7 in which the prophet Micah is describing how spiritually dark and wicked the nation of Israel has become. Micah feels like he is alone in his desire for righteousness while everyone else around him is delighting in doing evil. He says:
How sad for me! For I am like one who— when the summer fruit has been gathered after the gleaning of the grape harvest— finds no grape cluster to eat, no early fig, which I crave. Godly people have vanished from the land; there is no one upright among the people. All of them wait in ambush to shed blood; they hunt each other with a net. Both hands are good at accomplishing evil: the official and the judge demand a bribe; when the powerful man communicates his evil desire, they plot it together. The best of them is like a brier; the most upright is worse than a hedge of thorns. (Mic. 7:1-4)
Adding to the image of isolation, Micah says how no one can be trusted, because a man’s own wife and family members come against him. Micah’s complaint reminds us that it’s never been easy to stay loyal to God in the midst of a culture that is wallowing in willful defiance. Today many of us are living in the same predicament: we are living in cultures where God is openly mocked and sin is celebrated. But the very testimony of Micah reminds us that God has always had a remnant of faithful men and women who chose to stay faithful to Him, and He empowered them to do so even when their own friends and family turned against them. In the context of the Gospels, Jesus knows that His disciples are secretly expecting Him to bring peace and prosperity to Israel and He is intentionally steering them away from that wrong assumption.
“Don’t think that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34)
Jesus didn’t show up on earth to solve the political and economic problems of one nation. He came to increase the division among humans and give us a whole new reason to hate each other: Yahweh’s New Covenant. What we call the “Good News” is going to be used an excuse to butcher and harass people worldwide for centuries to come. Jesus knows He is kicking off a whole new era of persecution and carnage, and He warns His disciples that it isn’t going to be pretty. But He also urges them not to let the fear of hard times drive them away from aligning with Yahweh’s New Covenant requirements. Jesus is God, and now there won’t be any salvation without acknowledging this fact.
“The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it.” (Matt. 10:37-39)
This is an issue of priorities. Jesus has just said that families will be dividing over Him. Those who decide that being accepted by people is more important than being accepted by God will never submit to Jesus, therefore they will end up in Hell. It’s important to remember who Jesus is speaking to: Jews who have grown up under the Old Covenant. He’s requiring that they make a major change in their theological beliefs: going from one God to multiple Gods. He isn’t talking about Christians who have weak moments and give in to peer pressure. He’s talking about souls who refuse to ever submit to Him: souls who won’t cross that salvation line. Remember that many Jews figured they already had the salvation issue taken care of: they were abiding by Yahweh’s Old Covenant requirements (or so they thought), so there was nothing to worry about. Jesus isn’t just telling people how to get saved, He’s also taking away the salvation that the Jews already thought they had and saying that the old methods won’t work anymore. This is a very unique situation and as Old Covenant Jews become more threatened by Jesus, those who are considering switching over to polytheistic Christianity are going to be increasingly harassed. There will be enormous pressure on Old Covenant Jews not to make the switch. In this speech, Jesus is emphasizing how dire the consequences will be if souls refuse to submit to Him as God. He acknowledges that the cost of following Him is so high, it feels like an act of suicide. In these times, crucifixion was a very common form of execution, and prisoners were often made to carry their crosses to their execution sites. For an Old Covenant Jew to openly confess a belief in Jesus as a second God was like picking up his cross and heading off to his execution site.
Today this carrying the cross business often gets misunderstood. Crosses were only carried briefly—as a means of getting from one geographical point to another. Jesus isn’t saying “Go through life lugging some piece of wood around.” He’s also not saying, “Draw attention to yourself by literally carrying a cross around in public.” He’s talking about the kind of commitment He wants from His followers. If our submission to God isn’t sincere and complete enough, God will reject us. If we think we can get into Heaven by rattling off some simple sinner’s prayer, we’re delusional. Getting saved isn’t a matter of following some religious formula. It is when our souls acknowledge who our Creators are and sincerely bow down to Them.
Now it’s important to realize that Jesus is not talking to atheists here. He’s talking to souls who already consider themselves followers of Yahweh. So these folks are informed, and they should be past theological basics. A committed Old Covenant Jew deciding to switch over to the New Covenant is an entirely different thing than a soul who has no prior history with God deciding to put their faith in Jesus. Jews who were already followers of Yahweh were in a position to make a much more informed decision about what the cost of following Jesus would be. Today, souls come to God from a variety of situations, and for many, the cost of following Jesus simply isn’t on their minds at the time of salvation. Is Jesus saying that if we don’t spend time thinking about worst case scenarios, our salvation isn’t valid? Not at all. But He is saying that our submission to Him must be sincere, and He’s saying we should expect flak from the world once we do commit to Him. But no one is going to be cast out because they couldn’t accurately imagine ahead of time how rough the journey might be and decide that they could handle it. We can’t handle anything if God doesn’t help us. Our ability to stay loyal under pressure is utterly lacking. We need the Holy Spirit’s empowerment 24/7, or we’d all turn away the minute God does something we don’t like.
“The one who welcomes you welcomes Me, and the one who welcomes Me welcomes Him who sent Me. Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. And anyone who welcomes a righteous person because he’s righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives just a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple—I assure you, he will never lose his reward!” (Matt. 10:40-42)
This is an encouraging passage which reminds us of how generous God is with His rewards and how He makes succeeding with Him available to us all. Maybe you haven’t been called by God to be a prophet, but God says that if you side with His legitimate prophets (not the pompous windbags) because they are His prophets, you will receive as great a reward as they do for your loyalty to God. In the same way, when you welcome a believer because you are really welcoming the influence of God in your life, your reward will be great. It’s not about sucking up to humans with holy titles, it’s about motivation. Are you receptive to God in your life? Do you welcome His Presence and do you eagerly listen to His Voice no matter what form these things come in? If so, your reward will be great, for it is really God you are blessing.
It’s very important that we don’t confuse God with the human instruments He chooses to work through. Many could run amuck with this passage and think they’re supposed to revere any human braggart who calls himself a prophet or a preacher or an evangelist. But no, we must always be discerning. We don’t just blindly accept someone as speaking for God just because that’s what they claim to be doing. We always check with the Holy Spirit. It’s only after we feel that God Himself has confirmed to us that someone is speaking His message or working for Him that we then welcome that person into our lives. But we need to start off suspicious and guarded, and we also need to remember that even though a prophet is obeying God today, they might start rebelling tomorrow, so every message must be prayed about (see How to Tell When God is Speaking to You Through Someone Else and Anointed: What it Does & Doesn’t Mean).
THE DEATH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
After this epic speech by Jesus, the twelve head out in pairs to the local villages, preaching about Jesus and performing many miracles. All of this extra teaching is like giving Jesus increased advertising: suddenly His fame is spreading into new areas of Israel. This is all happening in the region of Galilee, which is under the authority of Herod Antipas, who we learned about in Lesson 45. Herod is the fellow who stole his brother’s wife and then got called out on his immoral behavior by John the Baptist. So Herod had John arrested and he hates John. Herod’s wife Herodius hates John as well, and she is looking for some opportunity to have him killed. That opportunity comes when a party is thrown to celebrate Herod’s birthday. After Herodias’ daughter puts on a great dance performance, Herod is so pleased that he offers to give the girl anything she wants. The girl doesn’t know what to ask for, but her mother does. The head of John the Baptist served up on a platter would be very nice indeed. Exit John.
When Jesus’ disciples return to Him with the news of John’s beheading (not realizing that as God, He is already well-informed), Jesus suggests that they should all go off together to some secluded place where they can rest and recharge. But once men start doing miracles, their movements become closely watched, and as Jesus and His boys head off for a personal retreat, a huge mob is waiting to meet them at their intended destination.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 53: Stubborn Disciples
Click here to see all the lessons in this series.