[May 27, 2012] Today is the Feast of Pentecost in the Christian churches which follow the Western calendar. On that day the ascended Jesus equipped the church with the anointing of the Holy Spirit to empower them to be His witnesses unto the uttermost part of the earth. The portion of Matthew’s gospel that I will be discussing here is related to that. Jesus calls and sends out the Twelve, but the discourse that follows—the “Mission Discourse”—is mostly meant for all the future generations of the church until His coming again. Hopefully I will have time to explain this point.
Context (Matthew 9:35)
Matthew 9:35 is a transition: “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and every sickness.” Together with 11:1 (“He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities”] it brackets the Sending Speech of 10:5b-42. It also echoes 4:23, “And Jesus went about in all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and every sickness among the people.” They are almost identical. These words in 4:23 immediately follow the calling of the first members of the Twelve (Peter, Andrew, James and John); 9:35 precedes the sending of the Twelve. Between these two bookends we have the Sermon on the Mount and the three cycles of stories about how Jesus went about preaching and healing. The Sermon on the Mount is a description of being in the sphere of the Kingdom, of being within the personal sphere of Jesus, who is the Promised Land foretold by the ancestors (as its archetype). The sending of the Twelve seems to carry an allusion to the sending of the twelve spies into the Promised Land in Numbers 13, who were supposed to precede the going of the people into the Land to bear witness to it (as it were), and with respect to the people of Israel, the Twelve have this role, as yet unfulfilled. Between these two are the stories of Jesus’ teaching and healing.
As I pointed out, however, these stories are organized into three cycles in which they typify the going out of salvation in Jesus, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles in the age of the church, then in the gathering and restoration of Israel at the coming again of our Lord Jesus, and finally with the blessing of the Gentile nations through Israel and the church. Before the coming again of our Lord Jesus in glory, when the revelation of Him is universally manifested and history as we know it—the “world”—comes to its inevitable and doomed conclusion, the Gospel of the Kingdom—the revelation of the Person and work of Jesus—goes out to the ends of the earth, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. The “going forth” (28:19) of the Gospel (eu-angellos) is the result of the “sending” (apostellō) of messengers (angelloi). Being “sent” carries with it the authority of the one who send. The messengers of the Gospel go out with the authority of Jesus who sends them. While apostles (transliterated from Greek; missionaries is the same word but transliterated from Latin) are individuals specially called and sent, in another sense, the whole church is sent. We are to carry the Gospel wherever we are and wherever we go. The commission in 28:18-20 is given to the church, and not just the eleven disciples who first heard it, for it was to be ongoing long after their demise.
This gets into the matter of the implied auditors of Matthew’s gospel. On the one hand we hear Jesus telling the Twelve, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter into any city of the Samaritans” (10:5). They were to do as Jesus had been doing; they were to mimic His own work, which was limited pretty much to the Jewish towns of Galilee (where there were also Gentile towns) and to Judea. This is not surprising, if we consider their sending to be an extension and imitation of Jesus’ own ministry. This follows the narrative as it is literally related. However, in verse 18 Jesus has in view the mission to the Gentiles. This can only be because He is looking beyond His crucifixion, to the time of His resurrection, to the time when He would tell His disciples, “Go and disciple all the nations.” This has already been foreshadowed in 8:5-13, 23-34, and perhaps 9:9-17. Augustine Stock suggests (page 168 of The Method and Message of Matthew; Liturgical Press, 1994) that the reason Matthew never mentions the disciples’ departure or return is “because the disciples are obligated to continue missionary work aimed at Israel until Jesus’ Parousia at the end of the age (10:23).” Neither the mission nor the return is narrated because it becomes ongoing; it does not end “until the Son of Man comes.” While the work of the Twelve is aimed at the cities of Israel, the work of the church extends to the Gentile nations. Apart from what was specific for the Twelve, the Sending Speech is in effect addressed to the churches that come after them by the risen Christ Himself. (This is actually the case, not historically, but spiritually, because into the time-transcending resurrected Christ is incorporated all of His own human history that preceded His resurrection; it is incorporated into His eternal present moment.)
The Shepherd and the Harvest (9:36-38)
In Numbers 27:17 Moses pleaded with YHWH to appoint someone who will lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land after he is gone, “so that the assembly of YHWH will not be like sheep which have no shepherd.” YHWH appointed Joshua (Jesus in Greek).In 1 Kings 22:17 Micaiah foresees the death of Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, and says, “I saw all Israel scattered upon the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd.” The prophet Zechariah rails against the shepherds and false prophets of Israel and says, “Therefore the people have wandered like sheep; they are afflicted because there is no shepherd” (10:2). After the Pharisees—who purport to lead the people—say that Jesus casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons, Jesus sees the crowds and is moved with compassion for them, “because they were harassed and cast away like sheep not having a shepherd.” The teaching establishment in Jerusalem and in the countryside had failed to shepherd the people. Jesus, however, like Moses and Joshua, can lead the people to freedom and into the Promised Land. He thus fulfills the typology of kingship in Israel (Matthew 2:6).
Looking on the crowds in this way He says, “The harvest is great.” The people are ready to be harvested. “Also, O Judah, there is a harvest appointed for you, when I will turn the captivity of My people” (Hosea 6:11; the harvest in Joel 3:13 is a harvest of grapes and refers to the wrath of God). Jesus uses the image of the harvest in chapter 13 to describe the consummation of the age (13:39): the eschatological harvest. But this harvest is the wheat and corn harvest of the Feast of Pentecost, not the fruit and wine and oil harvest of the Feast of Tabernacles. The harvest here refers to the gathering of believers into the church, the corn and wheat harvest.
When Jesus says, “the workers are few,” He means that workers are needed to gather in the harvest. The harvest is ripe, but there are not enough workers to gather it all in. Without enough workers to bring the people to the Shepherd, the people will continue to wander and be cast away like sheep not having a shepherd.
“Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest that He would thrust out workers into His harvest.” This is a call to prayer for the church’s work of gathering in the harvest. The God of Israel is indeed the Lord of the harvest, and through work of the Scriptures (the prophets, sages and scribes of Israel) as a seed planted in the hearts of the people over many centuries, the harvest is ready and is now great. The opportunity to gather in the harvest was then. But the Lord of the harvest must thrust out enough workers to gather the harvest. Many in Israel were gathered. In John 4 Jesus also looked on the “fields” of Samaria and said likewise, “They are already white for harvest.” Many in Samaria were also gathered into the church, ripened by the reading of the Torah. It seems that even the Gentiles were ready for harvesting. They are still—in Africa, Asia and South and Central America. Even here in these burnt-over fields of North America and Europe, there are grains rising from the soot that are ripe for the harvest.
But the Lord needs to send out workers. In the church, the apostles and those who labored with them are called workers and coworkers. This includes the several women mentioned in Romans 16 (and not least Junia who is a “notable” apostle). They labor through the word, sharing the Gospel with those who are ready to receive it. These are the “clergy” and “pastors” in today’s churches (historically the bishops of the second century—not the New Testament “bishops” who are elders—are probably the successors of the apostles—not the Twelve but later apostles like Paul—of the first century). Nevertheless, all believers are called to this task, and can fulfill it simply by opening their homes. Once a church is planted, it ought to grow spontaneously—not by intensive strategies like in today’s Protestantism but—simply by the practice of confessing Christ in the social, economic and public spheres and by the practice of household hospitality. Even if there are only one or two believers, if they gather, the church can grow where they are, if they have the proper attitude in their daily comportment.
Still, the church needs workers who can gather in the harvest, those whom we call “evangelists.” For this we must pray. The wheat and corn can be gathered in. However, it is also necessary for the fruit to ripen for the eschatological harvest of the Kingdom. This takes place within the proper church life in which the believers learn to minister to one another. For this we also need workers (Ephesians 4:11-12), otherwise even within the church we are “like sheep not having a shepherd.”
The Calling and Sending of the Twelve (10:1-5a)
The Twelve have a special eschatological purpose with regard to Israel, but with respect to the church they are chosen eyewitnesses of the incarnation and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. They are commissioned to proclaim, “The Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near” (same as John the Baptist and Jesus; see 3:2 and 4:17), and to cast out demons and heal the sick (and even raise the dead), but they are not yet equipped to teach, which is the main activity of Jesus (see 4:23; 9:35; 11:1).
Matthew calls the Twelve “apostles” (sent ones) though Jesus does not use the title. For Matthew and Mark (“apostles” is used in 6:30) it is descriptive, not institutional. Later there will be apostles such as Paul and Barnabas (including Peter) who will be sent out by the churches and given the title of “apostles.” Luke, whose gospel is oriented toward the church’s mission, calls the Twelve apostles (6:13; 9:10; 17:5; 22:14; 24:10 and in Acts) because they function as such.
Peter is named as the “first.” He is the first called and the first to confess His true identity. But Peter is also presented as the leader among the Twelve, which stands in sharp contrast to how Matthew’s gospel’s disparages any hierarchy within the church. Peter is the leader yet nowhere does he have authority over others. He learns a different kind of authority, spiritual authority, which comes from his debasement and humiliation. There is hierarchy within the church, but it is spiritual and not institutional. Yet calling Peter “first” (in terms of rank within the list) and expressing pointing out his new name given by Jesus (“First, Simon, who is called Peter …”), gives Peter a special place among the Twelve, and by extension, among the disciples. Protestants cannot close their eyes to this in reaction to Rome (they also disrespect Mary for the same reason). The main reason that Bible scholars give priority to Mark’s gospel is to avoid the implication of the earliest gospel (Matthew) having Jesus make such a bold statement with regard to Peter as 16:18. The German scholars of the nineteenth century were paid to come up with an alternative to Matthean priority for this reason and came up with the hypothetical Gospel of “Q” in the Two Source Hypothesis to get around it (the two sources of the Gospel being Q and Mark). For those who are not familiar with the theory, Q does not actually exist on its own. It is simply compiled by taking everything that is parallel in Matthew and Luke and removing whatever also occurs in Mark, leaving basically a “gospel” of teachings and sayings without the story (which is very convenient for liberals). In fact Matthew wrote first, Luke used Matthew’s gospel and rearranged it with his own source material, and Mark (actually Peter) conflated Matthew and Luke while approving of both.
If Peter was first, the leap to the papacy of Rome is a long one, and the historical “succession” of Leo from Peter cannot be established. However, Peter as a shepherd symbolized the unity of the church militant, and some theologians have interpreted the papacy in this light (see Hans Küng in The Church).