A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 20, 2019.
And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And 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. 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 (Matthew 10:1–15).
Explaining the ministry of the Church, the apostle “born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8) explains to the Ephesians, God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). As the body of Christ is built, we are blessed with gifted teachers, faithful shepherds (or pastors), and diligent evangelists, but that which is built must have a secure foundation. Therefore, the “household of God” is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:19-21).
While within our day we enjoy the ministry of diligent evangelists, faithful shepherds, and gifted teachers, we are thankful that our Lord Jesus, establishing the cornerstone of His Church, set the foundation upon His apostles and prophets. Even in this moment, with the written Word of God before us, we are recipients of the prophetic Word in a complete canon of Scripture. So also the apostolic ministry ordained by Christ Himself confirms the stable and unchanging foundation of His Church.
But, what is an apostle and what do we know of this apostolic ministry? The Greek word translated “apostle” means “sent out one,” and in a general sense describes a delegate, someone sent on behalf of another. However, it may also be used in a restricted sense, as it is in Jesus’ calling of the twelve, a specific office of one sent out. In this sense an apostle is one who was called by and walked with Jesus testifying to His sinless life, sacrificial death, victorious resurrection, and glorious ascension. Only the Apostle Paul was “born out of due time” to the temporary office of apostle. When the last of the apostles died, so ended the office. There are no modern-day apostles.
If these men, with the prophets, serve as the foundation of Christ’s Church, what do we know of them? Called as disciples under Christ, as they were first commissioned, who were these men? What was their mission? What was their message?
Just as Jacob had twelve sons, twelve tribes of chosen Israel, so Moses appointed twelve tribal leaders, and our Lord chose twelve ordinary men, the foundation of a true Israel. Simon, whom Jesus gave the name Peter (or “rock”), and his brother Andrew were fishermen, so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee. We know little of the other apostles except as they are uniquely titled. We know less of Philip and Bartholomew but remember Thomas for his doubting. Matthew is remembered for his ill-favored trade of tax collector and the other James not for his brother but his father Alpheus. Thaddeus is unknown to us, except that he was sometimes called by another name, and Simon (not Peter) is remembered for his religious zeal. The list concludes with the most notorious of the original twelve Judas who was neither a brother nor a friend but the son of the devil, who betrayed our Lord with a kiss.
There was nothing innately special about any of them, yet Jesus will tell them, “you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). We remember them specifically because they were chosen by Jesus, an identifying characteristic that supersedes all others. In a world that encourages us to be known for something and to leave a legacy, it is refreshing to be reminded that Christ’s disciples are to be remembered for who chose them and that they walked with Him, a God glorifying eulogy to say the least.
Chosen by Jesus, they were given His authority to cast out unclean spirits and to heal disease and affliction without distinction. Just as Jesus went “throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (Matt. 9:35), so he sends out His apostles, these twelve men, on a special mission.
Jesus’ commission to the twelve begins with where not to go and what not to do: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans.” Why would He, who came preaching the good news of the kingdom of heaven, exclude the Gentiles, and specifically the Samaritans, from this initial apostolic ministry?
While on this side of the cross of Christ, these words sound absurdly exclusive, how easily we forget how perplexed the apostles and joyful the Gentiles were when it was realized that the “door of faith” had opened to the Gentiles (Act 14:27). As Paul and Barnabas preached to the Jews at Antioch, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts. 13:46-47). Luke adds, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
This however was not the apostolic charge originally, before the cross. As God promised through the Prophet Ezekiel, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” (Ezek. 34:16). Our Lord came and so charged His apostles to go to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” to the Jew first (Rom. 1:16).
Jesus’ missional instruction also defined the geographical region of this initial apostolic ministry. Surrounded by Gentile territory with Samaria as the southern boundary, Galilee was the region designated for this mission. As they departed in pairs (Mark 6:7), they were not only carrying out the Lord’s mission but also in word and deed carrying His message.
The message to be proclaimed was the repeated gospel of the kingdom (Matt. 9:35): “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The saving reign of heaven had come to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, requiring a gospel proclamation to the children of Israel. The long-awaited Son of David had come, establishing His kingdom forever, not as the Jew perceived but as God ordained it, beginning with the Covenant sign of circumcision of the heart.
Accompanying this gospel message were validating miracles: healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out demons, extraordinary signs and wonders carried out by twelve ordinary men, kingdom miracles of the kingdom message. Just as our Lord’s message was accompanied with validating miracles so also in His authority the apostolic ministry would be carried out. They were twelve preachers of one kingdom message.
Accompanying this message were specific ministry instructions. The message they delivered was a free gift from God; no payment required. They would not acquire currency, or bags, or extra shoes or clothing; the Lord would provide as they labored in His field. Lodging would not be determined by accommodation but by a worthy willingness, a worthiness worthy of the peace of God.
Interestingly, our Lord’s harshest words are reserved for those who rejected these messengers. Just as Jesus directed prayer for “the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38), so is God’s judgment reserved for those who reject His messengers and their message. Faced with rejection of messenger and message, the apostles were to shake off the dust from their feet leaving the house or town, a reaction practiced later by Paul and Barnabas because of Jewish persecution in Antioch (Acts 13:50-51). Such a symbol of disassociation carried serious consequences. God “rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire,” destroying the cities and their inhabitants (Gen. 19:23-25), but a greater wrath awaited those who rejected the message of our Lord’s apostles.
Today, speculation abounds regarding God’s judgment through natural disasters, but what about the eternal judgment that awaits everyone who does not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? It will be worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, indeed! Such a sobering warning should not be ignored by modern ears. Although none of us are chosen for the office of apostle, God chose us “before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4-6).
As His beloved, we are “no longer strangers and aliens” but are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,” and so we “are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22). As the Lord’s temple, the Church, we are recipients of the gospel of the kingdom which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).
As Christ’s Church, we have been commissioned to go not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel but to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [our Lord Jesus commands]” (Matt. 28:19-20). Those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved (Acts. 16:31) enjoying the indwelling peace of Christ. But, for those who reject the gospel message, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for those who do not believe.
So, let us rejoice in the apostolic ministry commissioned by our Lord, first to Galilee and then to the ends of the earth. Let us thank our Lord for so sure a foundation, so glorious a mission, so faithful a message, the gospel of Jesus Christ.