Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

89. The Mission of the Twelve (Matt. 9:35-10:15; Mark 6:6-13; Luke 9:1-6 and 10:1-12)*

Jesus now began his last appeal to the northern areas of Galilee and Decapolis. This was to occupy the last few months up to the Passover before he died.

He “went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Mt). The words are almost identical with those describing his earlier campaign in Galilee (4:23).

It is noteworthy that he did not despise the villages, as being too small to provide him with a substantial audience. His policy in this respect is in marked contrast to that of Paul who concentrated, almost without exception, on the big cities of the empire. But of course Paul was not evangelizing a relatively small country; he was set on scattering the seed as far and as fast as possible, knowing that his team of young and enthusiastic helpers were well capable of nurturing the growth.

Jesus likewise had need for vigorous reinforcement of his efforts, and, recognizing this, he set about the training of the twelve.

Both the physical and spiritual condition of the crowds besetting him everywhere moved him to compassion, “because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd”.

The gospels’ word for the Lord’s compassion comes very rarely indeed in the OT, the outstanding place being Pr. 12:10: “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast”. Did Matthew write with his eye on a figurative use of this passage? His sheep metaphor suggests this. So also does the word “fainted’ — literally, ‘flogged, the very word that would be used colloquially today for a worn-out horse. And “scattered abroad” is, more precisely, thrown out’. It has been suggested that this was a sabbath year, bringing shortage of food and lack of employment—hence the specially large crowds and their marked distress.

The sheep-and-shepherd figure was also an allusion to the way in which Joshua-Jesus was appointed to take over the shepherding of Israel from Moses (Num. 27:17; cp. also Mt. 10:6; Ez. 34:5, 23; Zech. 10:2).

Jesus pitied the people the more, seeing their evident physical symptoms as significant of their inner spiritual distress. Earlier in his ministry he had pressed the need upon his disciples: “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are’ white already to harvest” (Jn, 4:35). Nearly a year later the need was still the same — the harvest plenteous, the labourers few (Lk.10:2). The words seem to imply that Jesus was always on the look-out for likely recruits.

So now he bade the twelve take it as their own personal responsibility, first of all by praying about it: “Pray ye the Lord of the harvest” (Mt.9:38). It was another indirect appeal to them to prepare their minds for this work, rather like God’s indirect appeal to Isaiah: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (6:8). And Isaiah was quicker in response than the twelve were.

But, Jesus reminded, the harvest belongs to “the Lord of the harvest”. No attempt must be made to bring it in except on the initiative of the Heavenly Farmer. It must be He who sends forth (the Greek word is a strong one) workers into His field.

Disciples become apostles

It may be taken as fairly certain that the disciples did as Jesus bade them. They prayed about it (no doubt wondering whence God would raise up the right kind of men for onerous urgent work of this sort), only to find a day or two later that, much to their astonishment, they were the “labourers” appointed for God’s harvest in Jewry. Their Master called them aside and proceeded to commission them for their first efforts in this new and exhilarating and rather frightening work. Hitherto they had been disciples. Now, as he “began to send them forth by two and two” (Mk), they were to be apostles. It is possible that “began to send” is meant to imply that the twelve were not all sent and returned at the same time but that this was a continuous process spread over a period, with apostles constantly coming and going.

A not unimportant aspect of this undertaking was its value as training and experience for the twelve as well as the added impetus to the Lord’s ministry.

Now, just as Israel had six cities of refuge (Num. 35:6) and a central altar also for refuge {Ex. 21:13, 14), there was a message of mercy not only from Jesus but also from six pairs of preachers.

First, the Lord endowed his men with divine powers of healing like his own. Perhaps, in token of this, he laid his hands on them or maybe breathed on them, as on a later occasion (Jn. 20:22). This temporary gift of the Holy Spirit power was imparted, doubtless, because he could not be with them in person during this work. The more lasting endowment in later days was for the same reason (cp. Jn. 16:7). Matthew uses (not by accident, one may be sure) the very words with which already, twice over, he had described the miraculous powers of Jesus: “healing all manner of sickness and all manner of diseases among the people” (4:23; 9:35; 10:1). And evidently (Mk.6:13) he instructed them to associate their healings with an outward sign — the anointing with oil — which was in no way necessary in his miracles.

Detailed instructions

Then, systematically, came their instructions: who to preach to, what message they were to proclaim, the vindication of the message, their own personal equipment, how their needs would be met, how to face up to seeming failure. The details are both interesting ana full of instruction for modern preachers of the gospel.

They were to go in twos (Mk. 6:7), the number which has been called the Lord’s ideal committee! (Ecc. 4:9, 10; Ex. 4:16; Josh. 2:1). This, in any case, seems to have been the natural grouping of the twelve. In the various lists, the names appear to fall readily enough into pairs.

They were to keep strictly to Jewish localities and to seek only Jewish audiences. At present their message was not for Gentiles, nor for Samaritans, even though they had known their Master relax his own rule in these respects. This restriction was a concession to Jewish prejudice. If, at this stage, equal or greater effort was made to win those whom the Jews deemed to be outsiders, there would soon be insurmountable walls of resentment and prejudice between the chosen race and the gospel which they needed as much as anybody in all the wide world, for, as Jesus was careful to emphasize, they were lost sheep (Mt.10:5, 6) every bit as much as the rest.

In this ministry of the gospel the prior rights of Israel were not to be gainsaid. Abraham was God’s Friend. “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I do?”, God had said (Gen. 18:17). And in Jesus’ day He would still have it so. There was little likelihood that the apostles, with Jewish pride almost as strong in them as in any of their fellows, would forget this principle. “Unto you first”, declared Peter emphatically to the crowd in Jerusalem, “God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you” (Acts. 3:26). To you first!

So also Paul and Barnabas: “It was necessary that the word of God should first be spoken to you (Jews): but seeing ye put it from you... lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts. 13:46). The Lord’s word to the twelve remained an imperative to preachers of the gospel after his ascension. Paul never forgot to go first to the synagogue.

The Kingdom “at hand”

The theme of the preaching was almost taken for granted by Jesus. It was to be, of course, the kingdom of God. No definition here, for the apostles had known this message from boyhood; and the Jews also, to whom they were to preach, knew it, for was it not the theme of many an inspiring prophecy in their ancient Scriptures? But most in Israel assumed that their share in the wonders of the Messianic kingdom would come automatically just because they had the blood of Abraham in their veins. They had little idea that it was conditional on their own personal response to the good news of the kingdom. That opportunity was now. Faith in the message and a clear-cut personal decision of loyalty to the King now in their midst were of paramount importance. The later part of the Lord’s instructions would make this truth almost brutally clear.

But in what sense was the kingdom “at hand”, for in its fulness the kingdom has not come yet? At least four alternative explanations offer themselves:

If Israel repented, the Messianic kingdom would very shortly be established (Elpis Israel p.301; Nazareth Revisited p.16).
The King of the kingdom is soon coming in person, following up our mission (Lk. 10:1).
The powers of the kingdom are being displayed before you (Lk. 10:9, 11).
Become part of Christ’s New Israel, and you are thus citizens of God’s kingdom (Ex. 19:6; Rom. 14:17).


In the exercise of the gifts of healing committed to them the twelve (including Judas!) were to be as lavish and open-hearted as they had seen their Master to be. And the reason: “Freely ye have received, freely give”. Since the context here is specifically the use of healing
powers of the Spirit, this would seem to imply that at least some of the apostles had personally experienced the blessing of instantaneous cure by Jesus. Yet the nearest that is known to anything of this kind is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law when she was struck down by a fever. But it is possible that Ps. 35:13, 14 is a prophecy of how special healing came to Judas!

Evidently the twelve were instructed to exercise their healing power through the symbolism of anointing with oil (though, rather remarkably, there is no instance of this practice being used by the Lord). Here is the simple solution of a difficulty in Jas.5:14: “Let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord”. The “church” referred to here was the church in Jerusalem; its elders were the apostles. Note the context — the forgiveness of sins.

No doubt Jesus meant his words about free and generous use of healing power in more than one sense, for it is very evident in many a place in the gospels that he saw his own miracles as acted parables of the spiritual regeneration which he sought to impart also.

No elaborate provision

There is also something symbolic about the instructions regarding the equipment of the preachers: “Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves.” The scrip was either a preacher’s collecting bag, or a kind of rucksack. Josephus mentions (Ant. 17.5.7) that the wearing of two coats was not uncommon. The Lord’s evident intention was that the preacher should not go in dependence on his own strength or resources, much less in an acquisitive spirit, but with faith in God’s providence and confidence in the power of Christ. And in this life of faith they were never let down (Lk. 22:35).

Mark’s version reads: “a staff only”, as though these disciples were to regard themselves as leaders of a new Exodus (Ex. 12:11). But a further detail in Luke unfolds a different idea: “and salute no man by the way” (10:4). When the Shunamite woman came to Elisha pleading for the restoration of her dead child, the prophet sent his servant: “Gird up thy loins, and take my staff in thine hand, and go thy way: if thou meet any man, salute him not; and if any salute thee, answer him not again: and lay my staff upon the face of the child” (2 Kgs. 4:29). So the Lord’s men were to regard themselves as sent to raise the ‘dead’ — not by their own power, however, but with his

Some writers have made quibbling comparisons here between the gospels, relating to “contradiction” between Matthew’s and Luke’s detail: “no staff”, and Mark’s “a staff only”. The suggestion just made, that they were to see their mission as a conscious extension of that of Gehazi, may help. The staff each disciple took with him was not his own but his Master’s, the symbol of an authority greater than his own. And in the light of Mk. 6:9, “neither shoes” (Mt) probably meant “no spare shoes”. Some expositors suggest a distinction between “take... a staff only” (ie. the one you already have) (Mk) and “provide (ie. acquire)... nor yet staves”. (Mt).

Dependence on God, and not on their own resources, was made the more explicit by the emphatic mode of speech: “neither gold, nor silver, nor brass, in your purses”. Thus the Lord warned against the covetous spirit of Gehazi (2 Kgs. 5:20-23).

It is no easy problem to decide what, if any, should be the influence of such an instruction on the outlook and methods of a twentieth-century preacher of the gospel. There is little danger of over-literal application of this precept, any more than one might be disposed to insist on the use of a staff or the wearing of sandals. But it has to be confessed that the Lord’s preachers in this era have not been outstanding for their exemplification of even the spirit of the words. It is an aspect of the work where there is room for more faith and less of the hard scheming and planning more characteristic of modern business than of the early church.


Jesus added reassurance. God does not hold back the wages of his workers. 1 He does not allow his faithful servants to starve: “the labourer is worthy of his hire”. These words, as they come in Lk. 10:7, are quoted by Paul in 1 Tim. 5:18, being introduced by the words: “For the scripture saith... “ Thus, even before Paul died, he could quote as a familiar Scripture a passage from Luke’s gospel. This implies very clearly not only that Luke’s gospel was in circulation before A.D. 66 but also that it was recognized as inspired Scripture alongside Deuteronomy which Paul quoted with it. The point is valuable as evidence of the early authority of the New Testament.

In another place (1 Cor. 9:3-15a) Paul expounds at length the principle that there is nothing amiss when preachers of the gospel receive salary or subsistence for their labours.

Filling out this promise of all needful subsistence for his preachers, Jesus went on to explain how God would provide. The apostles would soon find by enquiry who were the outstandingly godly people in any town or village they came to, and they were not to scruple about asking for food and lodging there. They could do this with untrammelled conscience, knowing that they brought with them a far greater blessing than the blessing they themselves sought.

The instructions to the Seventy added also this: “And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give” (Lk. 10:7; cp. Acts. 16:15; 17:5-7; 18:7). In later days, when the gospel went further afield, this counsel would help solve a very tricky problem for the Lord’s evangelists. Not infrequently they would find themselves in Gentile cities and with only Gentile hospitality open to them — this increasingly, as Jewish hostility to the gospel slammed doors in their faces. In such circumstances, Jewish preachers were to forget their Jewishness and live with Gentiles as Gentiles (cp. 1 Cor. 10:27).

But they were not to go “from house to house”. Jesus knew human nature well enough to foresee that no little social mischief might follow from activities of such a nature. Instead, then, “there abide till ye go thence”. By the end of the 1st century abuses made nonsense of this commandment: “If he stay three days, he is a false prophet” (The Teaching of the Twelve, an uncanonical writing).

There should be a formal invocation of God’s blessing on the home offering hospitality: “When ye come into an house, salute it” (Mt) saying, “Peace be to this house” (Lk). It needs to be recognized that in the vast majority of places where this word “Peace” is used in Scripture, it does not mean absence of strife but “peace with God” (ch. 50). Thus the greeting “Shalom” is a most meaningful benediction, and no trite formality: “And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it (Num. 6:23, 26, 27b): if not, it shall turn to you again” (Lk). This can only mean that, just as the bringing of the ark of the covenant imparted perceptible blessing to the house of Obed-Edom (2 Sam. 6:11), so also warm hospitality to those carrying the gospel message was bound to bring the grace of God upon the home that offered it.

This is a principle which must be just as valid today, though it is probably no exaggeration to say that it is rarely thought of in this age. But, then, what servant of the Lord today thinks to invoke a specific blessing from God on the home that offers shelter in Christ’s name? There is teaching here which has, in more ways than one, suffered grievous neglect.

Sullen reception

Jesus continued his commission in a different strain: “If the house be not worthy, let your peace return to you” (Mt)—but, let it be emphasized, without personal bitterness or resentment. Again, behind these words lies a reality of experience. This is no empty platitude. The form of the verb here seems to point to an attitude of mind in one who finds that he is no longer welcome. Then without resentment or bitterness, but with his “peace” returning to him (Ps. 35:13), the preacher is to go elsewhere.

Where, however, there was open refusal to hear the gospel, then: “Go your ways out into the streets, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you” (Lk cp. Lam. 2:7). Some open act of reprobation was not only permissible but a solemn duty, as Jesus was to show in his apostrophe against Chorazin and Bethsaida (Lk. 10:13-15). Apparently, at Antioch in Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas did this in a very literal sense: “They shook off the dust of their feet against them, and came unto Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts. 13:51) — that is, their peace returned to them again.

This act of reprehension had a mordant symbolic meaning behind it. The Law of Moses required that when a house was leprous, the very dust of it must be scraped off and shaken off without the city in an unclean place (Lev. 14:40, 41). Thus the preacher whose message was rejected was to declare openly the unclean and incurable condition of those who despised the word concerning Christ. “Notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you”.

In intensely ominous words Jesus underlined the dire tragedy of such rejection of the Good News: “Verily I say unto you (the disciples), it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city”. Here again, as in so many places, Jesus was condensing the teaching of the prophets. Isaiah had warned that it was only the existence of a faithful remnant which had saved the “men of Sodom” and the “people of Gomorrah” dwelling in Jerusalem. In the time of the decay of the kingdom, Ezekiel and Jeremiah had sought in vain for a man of rightousness to stand in the breach, that God should not destroy the Land, and had found none (Ez. 22:30; Jer. 5:1). So, “the punishment of the iniquity of the daughter of my people is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom, that was overthrown as in a moment” (Lam. 4:6). The just judgment of God will operate in like fashion in the last day, warned Jesus, against men who scorn the message of those bringing the gospel of peace. And if rejection of the gospel after a brief encounter with a learner-preacher brings a judgement comparable to Sodom’s, what of those who obstinately resist the Truth of Christ for half a life-time?

The sombre note injected here into the apostolic commission was doubtless an element in the Lord’s effort to convince the twelve of the greatness of the work now entrusted to them. They were not going as proselytizers, they were not just preachers, they were bearers of a message of Life. A gracious God was using them, untutored Galileans that they were, as His ministers of redemption. Perhaps also these solemn warnings expressed the Lord’s forebodings that the present wave of popularity would recede. It was not possible that a nation which had flouted the message of the prophets would be capable of any radically different attitude to the claims of the Son of God.

Notes: Mt. 9:35 - 10:15

Sickness; s.w. Dt. 7:15. Such deliverance a promised blessing for faithfulness.
Gave them authority etc. and this applied equally to Judas!
Not to the Gentiles — with the implication: Not yet, but later. Cp.the implication in 5:17 that in time the Law would pass away.
Lost sheep. Gk. text implies: they have chosen to get lost. Yet still Jesus is compassionatel
Enquire — who is worthy. Jesus himself did not do this when he came to Jericho. But the fact of Zaccheus in a fig tree told him all that he needed to know.
When ye come into an house. Exp. Gk. Test, suggests not just for hospitality but for preaching; in other words, a home mission; cp. Lk. 10:4.
Not worthy. The Gk. is rather sardonic here.
Not receive you, nor hear. Two inseparable attitudes. Even a fine harvest (9:38) may have thistles in it.

Shake off the dust. Alternatively, is the figure that of a traveller removing irritating grit from between foot and sandal?
The day of judgment; Lk. 10:12: “in that day”. Cp. Mt. 7:22; 1 Cor. 3:13; 1 Th. 5:4; 2 Tim. 1:12, 18; 4:8.


Power over unclean spirits is paralleled in Lk.10:9 by “heal the sick”.
Sandals; ie. not shoes, such as the more prosperous might wear.

Lk. 10:1-12

Salute no man. Or, was the Lord alluding to 1 Kgs. 13:9, 16 and its outcome?

Previous Index Next