In an earlier post I presented the literary structure of Matthew chapter ten as follows:
A) Instructions to the twelve apostles (10:5-15)
B) Persecution and family division (10:16-23)
C) Enemies of the Master’s household (10:24-25)
D1) Consolation of the twelve: "Do not fear them..." (10:26-27)
D2) "Do not fear those who... but Fear Him who can..." (10:28-30)
D3) Consolation of the twelve: "Do not fear, therefore..." (10:31-33)
C’) Enemies of the Master’s household (10:34-36)
B’) Persecution and family division (10:37-39)
A’) Reception of the twelve apostles (10:40-42)
In a post before that, I pointed out that Matthew chapter ten is also chock-full of references that Christians often abuse without knowing it. Part of what contributes to the abuse of the text's meaning is that 21st century Christians presume that Matthew recorded these words (and Jesus spoke these words) to them today. They mistakenly project themselves into the story of Matthew chapter ten as though they were standing in the same room as Jesus and his twelve apostles, receiving the same instructions first hand.
Instead, what 21st century Christians should be doing first is interpreting this entire chapter in its own historical context, a context which limits these instructions to the twelve apostles of Jesus (Matt. 10:1-4). The second thing Christians today should do is pay close attention to the literary structure which Matthew provides. There are good reasons why Jesus ends this discourse with statements about receiving a prophet's reward and losing that reward (A', verses 40-42). Those were not doctrinal clues to help Christians unlock the secret Biblical-code of God's eternal will and ultimately lose their own assurance of salvation. Nor was Jesus giving miscellaneous collections of "eternal truths" to help Calvinists and Arminians sort out their soteriological differences. Those were simply closing thoughts that completed the opening instructions of this discourse (A, verses 5-15). And so, let's now turn to the historical context of sections A and A' to see what this does and does not mean and how section A' completes the message of A.
Jesus begins with instructions to his Twelve, telling them to go "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:6), proclaiming that "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" and finding out "who is worthy" of the Kingdom as they go from town to town, from one Israelite household to another. This opening section (A) even includes a statement which has become a popular Christian slogan: "If anyone will not listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet." Unfortunately this statement is taken completely out of its original historical context. What Jesus actually said was, "if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town." It is embarrassing to find zealous Christians today who abuse this statement as though those were instructions to us -- as though Jesus were saying, "If unbelievers don't like you preaching to them the truth, and they become hostile towards you, shake the dust off your feet and move on to another town to preach the truth." But that is not the way in which this passage is to be understood in its historical context. In fact, if Christians today are going to be consistent in their approach to the instructions given in this chapter, i.e. presuming that Jesus was giving Christians today these specific instructions, they should also limit these instructions to Israelites only (10:6); they should also heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons (v. 8), carry no gold, silver, copper, staff, bag, sandals, or two tunics along with them (vv. 9-10). If we believe that Matthew recorded these instructions as though Jesus was instructing us today, the consistent, principled approach would be to heed all of Jesus' instructions within the chapter, instead of arbitrarily selecting which ever ones are convenient for the time being.
But this brings up a couple obvious questions: Did Matthew record these instructions as though Jesus was instructing us today? And why don't Christians today prefer to interpret all of these verses in a manner analogous to our generation?
Well, I suppose some do. Franciscans and other ascetic traditions do, unfortunately, apply these verses in contemporary settings. But that's because they too have misunderstood these instructions of chapter ten as though they were eternal truths spoken to us. For example, certain ascetic traditions follow after Saint Francis of Assisi, who took Jesus' instructions literally as pertaining to him and the Christians ministry which followed him. St. Francis taught that Christ and the twelve apostles renounced all property and material possessions of their own, singly and jointly. He also lived by the same example which he imagined was true of Jesus and his apostles, avoiding all opportunities to ask for money or to live at the expense of others. As a result, he scrounged around for crusts of bread and discarded vegetables from trash-bins, and he worked as a day laborer, insisting on being paid in bread, vegetables, and water, rather than in money, because -- as Jesus said -- "the laborer deserves his food" (v. 10). Sadly, St. Francis overlooked the fact that the Apostle Paul quotes this statement of Jesus; but instead of interpreting it as though Jesus endorsed complete, self-abasing poverty, Paul interpreted it as though Christian pastors should receive financial support for their labor in the Word and the Church (cf. Luke 10:7 & I Tim. 5:18).1 Christians venerate St. Francis because of his faithfulness to God's Word, when in fact, he misunderstood the historical context of Matthew chapter ten completely.
Jesus was not instructing us in Matthew chapter ten any more than he was instructing St. Francis. Jesus was instructing his twelve apostles, and only his twelve apostles. The only meaningful extension of these instructions would have been for other Israelites who received this message of Jesus' apostles in faith, and followed them as they traveled throughout Israel in the first century. Matthew even gives us an overt clue as to why these instructions were for Jesus' apostles, and why Jesus' apostles were to heed these instructions as they went preaching door to door. After Jesus tells them to shake the dust from their feet, he pronounces a judgment upon those towns and their people who would reject the gospel of his Kingdom having already come. Jesus says, "Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the Day of Judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town." Now all we need to ask is, "what town?" What town did Jesus mean when he said "that town"?
Was Jesus talking about any town of any generation? Was he talking about the town of Waukesha, Wisconsin in the year 2013? Did he have a specific town in mind, singled out for judgment? No, he didn't. He was talking generally about whatever town rejected his apostles -- whatever towns in which the lost sheep of the house of Israel dwelled in that generation. This message of an entire town having to face God on the Day of Judgment would have given first century Jews the impression that soon-coming judgment was approaching them, causing them to face their Maker and give an account before Him much sooner than later. Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed because of it's great lawlessness and idolatry (Gen. 13:13; 18:20; 19; Deut. 29:23). This is why any mention of Sodom and Gomorrah among Jews became a proverbial expression of warning of God's wrath upon any idolatrous nation (Isa. 1:9; 13:19; Jer. 22:14; 50:40; Amos 4:11). Sodom and Gomorrah faced a swift judgment from God in the days of Abraham, and after their destruction, they too await the final Day of Judgment for their idolatry just like the town of Israel in Jesus' day. And so, one logical inference from this promise of judgment that awaits both Sodom, Gomorrah, and those towns of Israel in the first century is that God would be coming quickly to physically demolish those towns in judgment just as He did with Sodom and Gomorrah. In other words, this promise of facing a worse judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah would have been viewed by first century Jews as a warning of sudden and swifter judgment upon those towns than it was for Sodom and Gomorrah.
This is why Jesus can confidently tell his twelve apostles that "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me" (v. 40). When an Israelite heard that the Kingdom of Heaven was in their midst as promised, which also meant that the last days of the Old Covenant were coming to a close as promised, the people had one of two choices to make: they would either side with Jesus as their promised Messiah and King and heed the message of his apostles, or reject Jesus and his apostles and hope in some other savior at some later time. But here we learn that those who would receive this message of the apostles, would also receive Jesus. And those who received Jesus, received the Father who sent (apostled) him. And by receiving the Father, they receive the covenant blessings promised by the Father. By receiving the words of the Father's prophets in faith, they receive exactly what the prophet pronounces to them, namely life and miraculous provisions to sustain them through the coming judgment pronounced upon the land and it's idolaters. By receiving a just man into their home, they receive the rewards of a just man. Consequently, by rejecting a just man or a prophet who comes in the name of the Lord, they will receive justice for rejecting Jesus, and the Father who sent him. They will receive the reward of swifter and more severe judgment due to them for their idolatry.
The responsibility given to these twelve apostles in this commission was no light matter. They had to be prepared for God's wrath which was promised to pour out upon the land of Israel for her spiritual harlotry and idolatry. Remember, Jesus is the one who describes the state of Israel in the first century as being worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, and worthy of a worse punishment and a worse sentence on the Day of Judgment. But whoever would receive one of Jesus' disciples, supporting them and giving them a cup of cold water after hearing that message (v. 42), by no means lost their reward because they believed God's Word to them in faith; and by sacrificing their livelihood for the sake of Jesus and the Word of God, they would receive the blessing of their heavenly Father and Judge, instead of his wrath and condemnation.
1. The ESV translation of Matt. 10:8 is actually misleading because the words "without paying" and "without pay" are not actually in the text itself. Only the verb δωρεάν is used, and it simply means to hand out something as a gift (i.e. "give freely"). The ESV translates it this way: "You received without paying; give without pay," which implies that ministers of the gospel should not receive money as the means of supporting their ministry. The NASB, NIV, NLT, and The Voice translate this verse more accurately: "Freely you received, freely give" (NASB); "Freely you have received; freely give" (NIV); "Give as freely as you have received" (NLT); "You received these gifts freely, so you should give them to others freely" (The Voice). The Apostle Paul's interpretation of this statement by Jesus is appropriate because Jesus was not teaching his disciples to reject all forms of compensation for their services. Jesus was teaching his disciples not to solicit their services as though they would only help if paid for their services. Instead, Jesus tells his disciples to serve their fellow brethren freely, doing so out of love for those who show that they too love Jesus. Paul's point in quoting Jesus ("the laborer deserves his hire"; from Luke 10:7, which is Luke's version of Jesus' statement in Matthew 10:8) is that Christians have a moral responsibility to support ministers of the gospel financially if that is how they make their living. This is how you show them "double honor" (Paul says): by caring for their needs as they care for yours. In Matt. 10:8, Jesus is teaching this very principle, not to solicit their services (rejecting those who won't pay them and accepting only those who do), but rather to expect godly people to value their services and provide food and other provisions for them, as necessary, as they serve and minister the gospel.