A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on February 17, 2019.
Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward (Matt. 10:40–42).
Jesus called twelve disciples, ordained them as apostles, and sent them into the plentiful harvest of Galilee. As His apostles, they were sent as His emissaries to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons (Matt. 10:7-8). They went as Jesus, preaching His message, working His miracles, obeying His command.
To the recipients of these extraordinary means of grace, their identity was equivocally in Christ: “Whoever receives you receives me.” Such is the union the apostles shared with Christ. Such is the union that all Christ’s disciples share with Him. Neither you nor I, nor anyone else today, holds the office of apostle. The office ceased with the first apostles. Neither you nor I, nor anyone else today, will work the miracles the apostles worked. The apostolic miracles ceased with the apostles. But you and I, and anyone else in Christ, are identified in union with Christ today and forever.
As Christ’s Church, we are each living stones (1 Pet. 2:5) built on the foundation of those apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20), and are joined together in union with Him. So integrally is our identity defined by our union with Christ, Jesus could say: To receive an apostle is to receive Christ; to receive a prophet is to receive Christ; to receive a righteous man is to receive Christ; to receive a little one is to receive Christ. Because, the Christian’s identity is in Christ.
Identified in Christ
Of course, it is easy for us to think of the apostles as being identified in Christ. They were the apostles, after all! They were chosen by Jesus. They worked with Him, talked with Him, and served with Him. They even worked His miracles. Likewise, we easily consider the prophets as being identified in Christ. After all, they “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). The full and closed canon that we enjoy as Christians is the result of God’s use of these few men. With the apostles they serve as the foundation of Christ’s Church.
Then there are righteous men, not apostles or prophets but godly men and women that we could all agree are identified with Christ. Perhaps you and I might be identified as righteous. Of course, all Christians are justified as righteous through faith in Christ. Yet, we also still struggle with the sins of our remaining flesh. And, perhaps sometimes and even often we exemplify the righteousness of Christ in our lives. But Jesus doesn’t stop with the apostles, or the prophets, or the righteous man, does He? Even the little one, like you or like me, is identified in Christ. The Christian’s identity is not based on who we are in and of ourselves but on what God has done for us in Christ, what God does to us in Christ, and what God does with us in Christ.
What God has done for us in Christ is that apostolic message of the kingdom of heaven, the gospel. The King of heaven came to earth to save sinners, like you and me. Fallen far short of His glory (Rom. 3:23) and deserving death (Rom. 6:23), by God’s grace through faith we receive forgiveness, eternal life, and a new identity in Christ. Let us never grow tired of hearing that “God shows his love for us [present tense] in that while we were still sinners [past tense], Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). So, we are identified in Christ because of what God has done for us, but also for what He does to us.
What God does to us in Christ is in fact a metamorphosis. We who were dead, God made alive (Col 2:13), but not just alive, He made us new: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Therefore, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away… [and] the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). And, what God does to us in Christ results in being conformed not to our old self but to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). So certain is this conformity that to receive even a little one in Christ is to receive Christ. So, we are identified in Christ for what God does for us and what God does to us.
Because, what God has done for us and does to us is evidenced in what God does with us in Christ. The Christian life is not static or stagnant but is a life of serving Christ for the good of others to the glory of God: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). God has uniquely gifted all of His children to serve the Church and show His love to the world, going and doing not as apostles or prophets but as the righteous and little ones in Christ.
So essential is this truth to the Christian life that forgetting it (or denying it) can lead to discouragement. Perhaps you have believed the lie that your identity is in your work, or your family, or your hobbies. Who you are equals not what God has done for, to, or with you but what you do. Or, perhaps you have defined yourself by what others have said about you or about what you have said about yourself. Who you are equals not what God has done for, to, or with you but what others think or what you perceive. Discouragement can be overwhelming if you are constantly believing that your identity is found in this world. But, if you are in Christ, it is not.
Christian, crucify those worldly lies about your identity with this truth: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). As crucified with Christ, our identity is in Christ. And, because our identity is in Christ, the world should see us and receive us as Christ.
Received As Christ
Jesus warned His apostles that some would not receive them or listen to them. They were to shake off the dust from their feet, leaving house or town (Matt. 10:14). But, those who rejected the apostles and their message were not simply rejecting Jesus’ disciples they were rejecting Jesus Himself. Jesus said, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). But, not everyone rejected them. Those who received the apostles were receiving Jesus and in doing so receiving our heavenly Father. The words and the works of the apostles brought life and blessing to those who would receive and believe. Likewise, to receive the prophet and the Word of God is to receive Christ. To disconnect Christ from the prophetic Word is to not receive Christ. So also the righteous man and the little ones are ambassadors for Christ carrying the blessing of the reward of Christ.
While the reality of our identity in Christ is certain, it may not be obvious to the world. While the outward signs of the apostles qualified their identity, how does the world know our identity in Christ? In other words, if we are to be received as Christ, how is it known that we are in Christ? One way is by the fruit of righteousness. Just as the righteous man is received and the receiver rewarded, so the Christian will be recognized by the fruit of Christ. In Christ, we are to put off the old self, identified by sin, and being renewed in the spirit of our minds put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:22-24). The fruit of the Spirit of Christ in us reflects His bountiful gospel to the world.
Another way is by dependence. Just as children reveal their parents by their dependence on them, so we as little ones reveal our heavenly Father by our dependence upon Him. In a world obsessed with being unshackled from God, we glorify God when we demonstrate our dependence upon Him and His provision. It is important to note that in Jesus’ instruction to His apostles, the greatest to the least is received as Christ, even the little ones.
But what is the benefit to the recipient? What is the reward for receiving the apostle, or prophet, or righteous man, or little one? As the apostles carried the message and miracles of Christ, as the prophet carried the Word of Christ, as the righteous man bears the fruit of Christ, and as little ones reveal the provision of Christ, those who receive them are rewarded with Christ.
Reward of Christ
What the apostles carried into Galilee, we carry into our workplace, to the grocery store, to the health club, to our dinner table: the gospel of Jesus Christ. As little ones in Christ we carry the testimony of our dependence and the glory of Christ’s provision. We display the righteousness of Christ and our ultimate need of it. We are taught to honor Christ in our hearts and to always be prepared to make a defense of the reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15), and our hope is a reward for all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Because our hope is in Christ, we are integrally attached to His gospel. Consider the reality of this: The gospel is not something left on the pages or your bible or confined to the preacher’s pulpit. It is the reward of Christ carried with every single man, woman, and child who is in Christ! The hope that we share is that the reward of receiving the gospel of Christ is Christ Himself.
Just as the world cannot understand our identity in Christ except by grace, so also the reward of Christ is foolishness to them except for grace. The Apostle Paul understood the infinite value of the reward when He confessed, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:7). Jesus described it as a “treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt. 13:44). The value of the reward of Christ is infinitely great and yet received by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Therefore, may we rejoice together in the reward that is ours in Christ, knowing that it is a gift received not by our works but by God’s grace, and remembering that our identity is not in and of ourselves or others but is in Christ, forever.