Was Jesus a Friend of Sinners? Matthew 11:16-19

Jesus uses the phrase “this generation” to describe the Jewish people who are hearing his preaching and witnessing his miracles, yet they refuse to believe John was Elijah and Jesus is the Messiah. This generation is a brood of vipers or a wicked and adulterous generation (12:39; 16:4) who will be judged by Nineveh (12:41).

Jesus compares this generation is like children playing in the marketplace saying, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” The Pharisees and others who opposed John and are now opposing Jesus are “like disagreeable children who complain that others will not act according to their desires and expectations” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:262). They would disapprove of whatever Jesus said or did!

The point of this enigmatic saying is to contrast the ministry of John and Jesus: John came fasting, Jesus came feasting. Yet they were both were rejected. John lived an ascetic lifestyle like Elijah in the wilderness, he was neither eating nor drinking, but “this generation” declared he had a demon.

“This generation” described Jesus as a “glutton and a drunkard” because he was constantly sharing meals with his followers. But many of Jesus’s followers were “tax collectors and sinners.” To be a “friend of sinners” is an insult on a par with saying John has a demon.

Perhaps this saying intentionally contrasts John’s call to repentance as mourning at a funeral to Jesus’s call to participate in his ongoing messianic banquet, dancing at a wedding. In Matthew 9:15 Jesus referred to himself as a bridegroom, saying it was inappropriate to fast while the bridegroom was present. In that context, Jesus called the tax collector Matthew to follow him, and then Matthew hosted a banquet in his home to celebrate. The Pharisees complain that Jesus is eating with “tax collectors and sinners” and the disciples of John the Baptist ask why Jesus does not fast (like John did).

If Jesus is the like a bridegroom, then his ministry is like a wedding celebration. If this is the case, then it is inappropriate to fast. Commenting on the Markan parallel, Anderson argues Jesus is merely making a contrast between his disciples (who are feasting) and the disciples of John (who are fasting) (Mark, 107).  Cranfield suggests the disciples of John the Baptist are fasting because of the recent death of John. This would explain the contrast between wedding and funeral imagery in the saying without assigning the saying to the later church (Mark, 111).

Jesus concludes with another enigmatic saying: “Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” As with the modern saying, “the proof is in the pudding” (or better, “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting”). Matthew 11 began with John’s question, “are you the coming one?” Jesus’s answer is, “I am doing the messianic deeds which prove my claim to be the messiah.”

It is difficult to imagine that Jesus was “soft on sin.” But what made these people “sinners” in the eyes of the Pharisees is that they dd not conform to the traditions the Pharisees considered important. Jesus reached out to sinners rather than push them away. Imagine how different the church would be if this was practiced consistently!

Who was John the Baptist? Matthew 11:7-15

What Jesus said about John the Baptist to his disciples?When disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask him if he was “the one who was coming,” Jesus responds that his messianic signs speak for themselves. He asks his audience, “Who did you go out into the wilderness to see?” (Matthew 11:7-8)

John the Baptist and Jesus

Large crowds went out from Jerusalem to hear John preach in the wilderness (Matt 3:5), including some Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 3:7). Some Pharisees and most Sadducees were aristocrats, wealthy priests who controlled the Temple. What did these people go into the wilderness to see?

A reed shaken in the wind? This might mean something like, “you did not go out into the wilderness to look at the scenery!” But the image of a weak reed blown by the wind is the opposite of John’s character. He was a fiery apocalyptic preacher who did not bend himself to conform to anyone. Davies and Allison suggest reeds shaken by the wind would evoke the Exodus, so the point is something like “Did you go out into the wilderness to see a man repeat the wonders of the exodus?” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:247).

A man dressed in soft clothing? John was not dressed in the trendy fashions of the elite citizens of Jerusalem. He was dressed like an Old Testament prophet in a camel hair cloak and a leather belt. John lived an ascetic life in the wilderness like Elijah. Perhaps they were looking for someone dressed like a king, like a Davidic messiah. John was not a professional, elite teacher. He was an apocalyptic prophet in the style of Elijah.

Was John a prophet? Yes, but Jesus says John was more than a prophet. He was the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 (11:9-10). He was God’s messenger sent to Israel before the coming day of the Lord. This line could be drawn from LXX Exodus 23:20, the wording is the same. Probably Malachi drew on Exodus, God will once again send his messenger, but this time he will prepare the way of the Lord when he comes to purify Israel. “The combination of Exod 23:20 with Mal 3:1 was not a Christian innovation” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:250).

Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1, the Lord will send “my messenger to prepare the way before me.” If John is the messenger, then Jesus is not just the messiah, he is the Lord coming to his Temple to purify it in the last days. The context of the line is important. In Malachi 2:17-3:5, the prophet begins by declaring the people have wearied the Lord by asking him why he does not act to punish injustice Maybe God is pleased with the evil doers? The Lord responds with the line about sending his messenger to prepare his way.

But Jesus does not quote the rest of Malachi 3:1: “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” The Lord is the “coming one” the messenger prepares the way for. The next verse in Malachi is a description of the apocalyptic day of the Lord. The Lord will purify the sons of Levi like a refiner’s fire or fuller’s soap, and then the offerings made in Jerusalem will please the Lord “as in the days of old.”

You can see John’s problem with Jesus. If John was the messenger of Malachi 3:1a, where is the refiner’s fire of Malachi 3:1b?

Jesus therefore claims John was the climax of the prophets (11:11-15). There are three difficult sayings in this paragraph. John is the greatest prophet of the old age, but the “least in the kingdom of heaven” is greater than John (v. 11). Who is the least in the kingdom? Although a few scholars identify the least one as Jesus, most think the least are those who are “in the kingdom,” either in the future when it finally comes, or at the present time in Jesus’s ministry.

What does it mean the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and violent people are trying to take it by force (v. 12)? Davies and Allison say this verse is “without a doubt, one of the NT’s great conundrums” (Matthew, 2:254). The verb translated as “suffered violence” (ESV; βιάζω) and the cognate noun (βιαστής) refers to violent people. When the word appears outside the New Testament is always has a pejorative sense (BDAG). These violent people are seizing (ἁρπάζω) the kingdom, another word with violent connotations. It is not the case they are trying to violently seize the kingdom, but that they are doing so (the indicative is used).

Some suggest the violent ones are the Pharisees and others trying to keep people out of the kingdom by preventing them from hearing Jesus.

Some suggest the violent ones are Jewish groups advocating violence against the Temple aristocracy or the Romans. They are trying to force God to send the kingdom by revolutionary action. This is possible since there was Judas the Galilean led a tax revolt against Rome as early as AD 6 and Josephus does mention “social bandits” closer to the time of Jesus.

Nicolas Perrin argued the line refers to the arrest and execution of John the Baptist. Since the time of John’s preaching, the eschatological conflict as begun and “the suffering of John and of the saints after him is interpreted in terms of the messianic woes or the eschatological tribulation of the latter days” (cited by Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:55). As Jesus made clear in Matthew 10, Jesus’s disciples will suffer violence from their own families and synagogues.

Jesus states John is Elijah, “if you are willing to accept it” (vv. 13-14), in Matthew 17:9-13 Jesus is even more clear: “Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him.” The paragraph ends with the phrase “he who has ears, let him hear” (v. 15), inviting the reader to consider the subtle allusions to the story of the Hebrew Bible now being fulfilled in the preaching of John the Baptist and the messianic ministry of Jesus.

Who was John the Baptist?  According to Jesus, he was the last and greatest of the prophets in the of the old age, and the herald of the coming Kingdom of God which is even now breaking into history in the ministry of Jesus.

Did John the Baptist Doubt Jesus? Matthew 11:2-6

People of a certain age will remember sea monkeys. Ads for sea monkeys appeared on the back of comic books and promised you could send a dollar to the address below you could have a kingdom of sea monkeys in your fishbowl. The original ads claimed you could “own a bowl full of happiness—instant pets!” The illustration showed these monkey-like creatures, the king was wearing a crown and had a robe and scepter, etc. If you sent in your money, you got a small box of dry brine shrimp which, when rehydrated, were “alive.” But they looked nothing at all like the drawing in the ads.

Although the analogy is not ideal, John the Baptist built up considerable anticipation for Jesus as the Messiah. He and his followers were convinced Jesus was the Messiah and he would begin the eschatological judgment and set up a new Davidic Kingdom expected by the Prophets. Jesus was the “coming one,” as in Psalm 118:26, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But after his baptism, Jesus did not take up the winnowing fork and judge the aristocrats in control of the Temple nor did he seem at all interested in reviving David’s kingdom. John and his disciples may have been “underwhelmed.”

Jesus and John the Baptist

John sent a few of his disciples to ask Jesus if he in fact the messiah. In Matthew 4:12 Jesus heard John had been put into prison. John was arrested by Herod for preaching against his divorce and marriage to his sister-in-law. Matthew 14:1-12 narrates John’s death at the hand of Herod Antipas (cf., Antiq. 18:116-19).

John heard about the “deeds of the messiah,” but Jesus’s teaching and miracles were not quite what John and his disciples had expected. The “deeds of the messiah” refers to Jesus’s miracles, but also his proclamation to Galilee that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, or fully present in Jesus’s mission.

There may have been growing doubt among the disciples of John about Jesus. In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John question Jesus about his non-practice of fasting. It may be these disciples were not satisfied with Jesus’s response (that Jesus is the bridegroom, so it is time to celebrate, unlike John’s ascetic lifestyle). Perhaps these disciples related their own doubts to John in prison and are sent back to Jesus to question him more directly. It is about 100 miles from Machaerus to Capernaum in Galilee, so a round-trip is a significant journey.

In Matthew 3:14 John the Baptist recognized Jesus as “the one who is coming,” But now in 11:3 he wonders if Jesus is really the “coming one.” John’s own preaching in Matthew 3 condemned the Pharisees as a brood of vipers who are not producing fruit in keeping with repentance. He told them the “ax is already at the root” to cut off the trees that do not produce fruit. The bad trees will be “thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:7-10).

The one who is coming will render that judgment: he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (3:11). John agrees with Peter in Acts 2, the new age will begin with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s people (Acts 2:14-21; citing Joel 2: 28-32).  

The one who is coming has a winnowing fork in his hand and he is ready clear the threshing floor (3:12). The harvest is a metaphor for apocalyptic judgment. When the kingdom of heaven finally arrives, the wheat will be gathered into the barn, the weeds will be destroyed on the fire.

Because Jesus has not (yet) rendered apocalyptic judgment on the Pharisees and the Sadducees, John asks if Jesus is “the one to come” (ὁ ἐρχόμενος). This phrase was not a messianic title in first century Judaism, but Matthew uses it to refer to the Messiah.  In Matthew 3:11, John talks about the “one coming after him.”

At the baptism, John assumed the coming one was Jesus, yet after hearing about the messianic signs. John has heard something about Jesus’s ministry, his deeds and his teaching. But that ministry is not exactly what he was expecting. He is bewildered: could it be that he was mistaken? Jesus is not the messiah he was expecting.

In response to John, Jesus points to his miracles. Matthew illustrated all of these messianic deeds in chapters 8-9.

  • The blind receive sight, Matthew 9:27-34; Isaiah 35:5-6.
  • Lame walk, Matthew 9:1-8; Isaiah 35:5-6.
  • Lepers cleansed, Matthew 8:1-4; Isaiah 35:5-6.
  • Deaf hear, Matthew 9:27-34; Isaiah 35:5-6.
  • Dead are raised up, Matthew 9:18-26; Isaiah 26:19.
  • Poor have heard the good news preached to them, Matthew 5:3; Isaiah 61:1-2.

Jesus therefore claims to be the “coming one” who fulfils messianic expectations.

He adds a beatitude: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (v. 6). This implies John may have not understood these signs as proof Jesus is this messiah. Where is the winnowing fork? Why are the Pharisees not being cast out into the fire? The verb σκανδαλίζω can have the sense of shocked or angered. In Matthew 15:12 the Pharisees are offended by Jesus calling them hypocrites.

Answering John’s disciples as he does, Jesus confirms he is the “coming one,” the messiah. If Jesus is the messiah, then who was John the Baptist?

Do Not Be Afraid of Those Who Persecute – Matthew 10:26-31

In Matthew 10:16-25, Jesus tells his disciples they are sent out like sheep among the wolves and they will suffer on account of their testimony for Jesus. Everyone will hate the disciples because of their witness about Jesus and they will suffer in the same ways Jesus will suffer. Jesus tells the disciples they do not need to be afraid with this persecution comes.

Martyrs Eugene Thirion


First, the reason the disciples do not need to fear of those who persecute Jesus and his disciples is that the persecutors will be judged publicly (Matt 10:26-27). This is less clear than the parallel in Luke 12:2-9, and 8:17, but Jesus tells the disciples they have no need to fear their persecution because what might seem to be secret or hidden will be made known at the final judgment.

Part of the evidence for this is the possible parallels between this part of the discipleship discourse and Matthew 25:31-46; the hidden deeds of the sheep and goats will be revealed, and they will be judged appropriately.

Rather than let their fear silence them, Jesus’s disciples will speak boldly. Jesus has taught the disciples privately, but they are to proclaim Jesus’s message in public (in the light, from the housetops). Jesus as a private teacher might be looking ahead to Matthew 13, the secrets of the Kingdom of God are given to the disciples. It is not that the disciples are being taught in secret, but that they are being taught secrets which will eventually be proclaimed publicly.

A second reason the disciples do not need to be afraid is they are are precious to God and he will protect them (Matt 10:28-31). If the disciples are boldly speaking the message Jesus has taught them in public, they will be persecuted. But the disciples should fear God only, not those who persecute them because God is the ultimate judge.

The persecutor can only harm the body, but not the soul. This is a clear allusion to the physical punishment faced by the disciples in Acts, and their eventual martyrdom (according to tradition for most of them).

In contrast to human persecutors who can kill the body, God can destroy the body and soul in hell. The shift from kill (ἀποκτείνω) to destroy (ἀπόλλυμι) is important, and there is a temptation to hear God can annihilate the soul.” The parallel with Matthew 25:31-45 is again instructive since the goats go away to eternal punishment in the hell create for the devil and his angels. Jesus is not thinking of a kind of conditional immortality where the unrighteous dead are not resurrected, but rather the same kind of perpetual punishment other Second Temple Jews expected (Dan 12:2, the wicked go to everlasting contempt; Jude 7; 1QS 2:8).

In addition, the soul is destroyed in Gehenna (γέεννα), not hell or the lake of fire. In later Judaism, Gehenna is “Jewish popular belief, God’s final judgment was to take place” (BDAG).

To illustrate how valuable the disciples are to God, Jesus compares them to sparrows. God cares for sparrows, birds with almost without economic value. A sparrow (στρουθίον) is an analogy for something that has little value to anyone. Two sparrow costs a penny, an assarion (ἀσσάριον) is a Roman coin worth about one sixteenth of a denarius, perhaps “less than an hour’s work.” Luke 12:6, five sparrows are sold for two assarion. An assarion was the cost of a piece of bread, minimal daily substance.

As the disciples endure persecution for their testimony, it is possible they would think God does not care about them. That is what most people do when they start to suffer, question whether God really cares about them. But if God is aware of the lives (and deaths) of the smallest of birds and has intimate knowledge of his disciples, he will certainly care for them when they bear witness before the synagogue rules and Gentile kings. But what about disciples who do not acknowledge Jesus when they are persecuted? In the next section focuses on the importance of acknowledging Jesus when persecution comes.

Before the Son of Man Comes – Matthew 10:23

The first part of verse 23 refers to the mission the twelve which is about to begin, the disciples are going to go through the towns of Israel. But what does it mean they will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (v. 23b)? “This is one of the most problematic verses in the Bible” (Wilkins, Matthew, 394). There are several options for understanding this difficult verse.

First, the “towns of Israel” is an unusual way to describe the short-term mission. They are going to the towns of Galilee, but Israel as a geographical area no longer exists. Some therefore expand this to all of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. As Nolland suggests, this is unlikely. For Nolland, Jesus’s point is the twelve will not have fled all the villages in Palestine until the Son of Man comes (Matthew, 427).

Second, when the Son of Man comes is eschatological, alluding to Daniel 7:13-14. The Son of Man is the judge of the nations and the one who initiates God’s Kingdom. Jesus calls himself the Son of Man frequently in the Gospel of Matthew (9:6, for example). Does this refer to the second coming of Jesus? At this point in Matthew, Jesus has not mentioned his death and departure, so the idea of “return” would be strange. However, he may be referring to Daniel and the Jewish expectation of the Son of Man judging the nations without yet implying anything about a departure and return. Certainly, later readers would have understood this as the “return of Jesus.”

Third, this section is remarkably similar to Matthew 24:9-14. Describing the time after the birth pains that are NOT signs of the end (24:4-8), Jesus warns his disciples of persecution and promises everyone who stands firm to the end will be save. In 24:14 he says the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world, and then the end will come. (the abomination of desolation is the next paragraph). Rather than the “towns of Israel” he says the whole world will hear the gospel of the kingdom.

Jesus and his disciples thought the kingdom of God will be fully realized in their lifetimes. This may refer to Pentecost, or a failed belief Jesus would establish the kingdom soon after Pentecost. This refers to the mission in Acts and culminates in the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70. Jesus shifts from the immediate future to the distant future, as he will do in Matthew 24:4-8 (present age) and 24:9-14 (the future tribulation just before the end).

Despite rejection and persecution, there will be a continuous mission to both Israel and the Nations until the Second Coming of Jesus to establish his kingdom in the future. The twelve are not called to live a comfortable life as executive leaders, they will suffer because the maintain their testimony until the very end, even if that end results in martyrdom. The reason the disciples will suffer is their relationship with Jesus (10:24-25). Jesus has already been accused of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul (9:34) and this will be the cause of the decisive break from the Pharisees (12:22-37).

The problem for interpreters here is “when is this?” Matthew 24:19-13 also warns about very similar persecution on account of the name of Jesus in an eschatological context; the next paragraph predicts the abomination which causes desolation (24:15-21). When the persecution happen? In the apostolic period? During church history? Only in a future “tribulation period” prior to the second coming?

The immediate application is to the Twelve and the persecution they will face as they present the Gospel to the Jews first, and eventually to the rest of the world.

There is an application for contemporary Christianity. Jesus is clear if you are representing Jesus, the world will treat you the same way they treated Jesus. There is no promise in the Gospel that the disciple of Jesus will be free from suffering, either from the typical things that happen in this world or from targeted persecution for your faith.

How does the admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” work in the context to contemporary persecution? Maybe, “don’t hide your faith, but don’t go out of your way to get persecuted.” This seems to have been Paul’s policy.

Do Not Worry About What You Will Say – Matthew 10:19-23

Jesus tells his disciples they will governors and kings, to bear witness. The twelve disciples would be rightly concerned how they would behave when they are brought before these authorities, so Jesus tells then the Holy Spirit will guide their speech.

Peter and John Preachingbefore kings

“Do not be anxious” also appears in Matthew 6:25, do not be anxious about your life, food drink or clothing. Just as the disciples are not to worry about their physical needs (God will provide), they do not need to worry about the words they will speak to the people who have the power to kill them because the Holy Spirit will be speaking through them.

In Acts 4 Peter and John are brought before the high priest and a few of the Temple aristocracy. When he is asked by what authority he speaks, Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8) and he bears witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus (4:8-12). Those who heard the speech were astonished that an unschooled man would have that kind of courage to speak as he did (4:13-17). When he is told to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, Peter boldly says he will continue preaching in Jesus’s name (4:18-20).

I have occasionally heard this verse misused by people who downplay preparing academically for preaching and teaching the Bible. I have talked to pastors who claim that they do very little preparation, they just let the Holy Spirit lead. That is not what this verse is talking about! These disciples will be dragged before authorities and they will give bold testimony through the power of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit is calling to mind things they have learned from Jesus in the first place! When a pastor tells me they like to let the Spirit lead, I usually tell them they should give the Holy Spirit something to work with (and seriously prepare themselves to preach).

Not only with the disciples be threatened by local Jewish councils and Gentile courts, but they will also be ostracized from their families. Jesus then tells his disciples that “everyone who endures will be saved” (10:21-23).

Is there an allusion to Deuteronomy 13:6-11 here? In that passage Moses warns against family members and friends enticing a person to worship an idol. Do not listen to that person, they are to be killed! If the local Jewish councils and synagogues think the preaching of the disciples is in some way idolatrous, would they think they are following the principle of Deuteronomy 13:6-11 when they try to correct the disciples with physical punishment and even death?

Most commentaries detect an allusion to Micah 7:6, sons and daughters rise up against their family, even neighbors cannot be trusted. “But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (Mic 7:7). The parallel is closer in the LXX.

Everyone will hate the disciples “for my name’s sake.” As he will say in v. 24, it is the preaching of Jesus that causes the persecution. If you suffer on account of your testimony for Jesus and the gospel, then that is a good thing; if you suffer because you did something stupid, then that is not the kind of suffering Jesus is talking about. If you are caught speeding, you cannot claim you are suffering persecution from the pagan government and somehow this passage applies.

Here is a very 2021 analogy, if you do not like it, move on to the next paragraph. If you joined a riot and broke into a federal building, destroyed federal property and looted things from government offices, then you are going to suffer. Your family might even turn you in to the FBI when they see your social media posts! This is not a fulfillment of Matthew 10:21-23: you did something that deserves punishment, jail time, etc.

Jesus is describing suffering on account of his name, unjust punishments and even execution as a result of preaching the Gospel. Some Christians claim this verse when people hate them, but Jesus is not talking about being hating because you are a jerk. This hatred is based toward the disciples of Jesus for being a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus promises the disciples that they will be saved, but from what? This cannot refer to being saved from persecution or death since some will die (Stephen, Acts 7:59-60; James, Acts 12:1).  When a town begins to persecute them, the disciples are to flee and go to another town. On the one hand, Jesus has already prohibited retaliation in 5:39 (so no fighting back against one’s oppressor).

This section began with an admonition to be wise as a serpent. If a town is aggressively persecuting the disciples on account of the name of Jesus, perhaps the wise course of action is to leave (Nolland, Matthew, 427). It is a misuse of this verse to claim that a disciples of Jesus ought to put themselves in dangerous positions of intentionally break laws to preach the gospel. The disciple who is wise learns how to navigate a culture so that they can maximize their chances for reaching the lost with the Gospel of Jesus.

The Disciples Will Face Persecution – Matthew 10:16-23

Mike Wilkins suggested Matthew 10:5-15 are instructions for the short-term mission to the villages of Galilee while 10:16-42 prepares the twelve disciples for their long-term mission in the future (Matthew, 389). This certainly helps with the problem of applying the specifics in 10:5-15 to contemporary ministry. There is a shift from the present to future tense and the ministry envisioned in 10:16-42 does include Gentiles (v. 18). In addition, there is no hint of the kind of persecution described in 10:16-42 in the mission of the Twelve in Galilee.

Flogging Jesus Medieval

On the one hand, this section does describe the dangers faced by the Christian mission both in the earliest chapters of Acts and the mission of Paul in the second half of the book. It is possible to draw analogies to Christian mission at any time in history since those who are doing the ministry of the Gospel often face resistance and persecution from the culture they are trying to reach. This is not only so-called “foreign missions” but also reaching one’s own culture with the Gospel. Matthew is clear: if you are a disciple of Jesus, you will suffer at the hands of even your own family!

The disciples are being sent out into a dangerous world (Matthew 10:16-18). Jesus reverses the metaphor; the sheep were the people living in Galilee who had no shepherds. Now the disciples are the sheep. “Like sheep among wolves”

The contrast between “wise as serpents” and “innocent as doves” suggests the balance the disciples will need between craftiness and moral purity. For early Christians, this may refer to the problems they will face trying to navigate Roman culture and remain ethically upright. Modern missionaries make similar decisions. For example, if every bribes officials to get things done, is it morally permissible for a Christian to bribe government officials?

The ESV translates συνέδριον as “courts,” the NIV 2011 has “local courts” and the NRSV has councils.” This word is often translated as Sanhedrin, but the noun is plural. “The Sanhedrin” refers to the (singular) council in Jerusalem. Since these warnings are more universal, modern translations use the more general term. But this obscures the fact these are Jewish local councils likely meeting in the synagogue rather than the Gentile city council of Ephesus.

That the disciples will be “flogged in their synagogue” indicates they are targeting Jewish audiences. The disciples will be considered worthy of physical punishment for their testimony about Jesus. Synagogue as cultural center, more than a “Jewish church.” A synagogue could function as a legal court for the Jewish community. The “courts” in verse 17 does not necessarily refer to a Roman court (Paul in Acts 18, brought before Gallio’s court in Corinth).

The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3). Since the Law says more than 40 lashes is degrading to the one giving the punishment, the tradition developed by the first century to stop short of forty. m.Makkot 3:10 recommends a number near forty but less than forty; 3:11 gives some instruction for beating people who are physically unable to take a full flogging.

Paul’s practice of starting in the synagogue until he is forced to leave, usually by a riot. In 2 Corinthians 11:24 Paul says he was given “forty lashes less one” on five occasions. Matthew 10:17 and 23:34 uses the verb μαστιγόω, a word associated with Roman flogging (of Jesus, in Matt 20:19; Mark 10:34; Luke 18:33).

The disciples will eventually de dragged to governors and kings, to bear witness before the Gentiles (v. 18). The ESV’s “dragged” is perhaps overly dramatic, the verb (aorist passive of ἄγω) is often translated as “arrested.” To be arrested by the Gentile authorities (the Romans) is more dangerous than being brought before a Jewish council. The synagogue council might flog the disciples, but the Romans could torture and execute them!

This escalation of persecution tracks well with the book of Acts. Peter and John bear witness before the High Priest (Acts 4:1-22) and the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-42) and are flogged several times; Stephen bears witness in a synagogue and is lynched (7:54-8:1); James is beheaded by Herod (Acts 12:1) and Peter is arrested and held for execution (Acts 12:2-5). Paul is frequently abused both by the synagogues and Roman officials (2 Cor 11:16-29) and eventually bears witness to the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:1-11), Roman governors Felix (Acts 24) and Festus (Acts 25:1-12), King Agrippa II (Acts 25:13-32) and eventually before Caesar himself (23:11; 27:24).

Jesus therefore warns his disciples they will face persecution on account of their testimony about him. Two observations follow from this. First, following Jesus is dangerous. There is no promise of an easy life, nor can a follower of Jesus expect nothing but peace and prosperity in their lives. Much of what passes for “evangelical” Christianity in the west seems to have missed this point.

Second, the persecution described here is on account of the name of Jesus. It is not the general suffering which is the fate of all people. Again, popular preachers will sometimes associate personal suffering (illness, financial troubles, etc.) with satanic attacks. It is more likely people suffer because of their own bad choices or poor decisions of others.

Rely on God and Travel Light – Matthew 10:8-11

What did Jesus mean when he told his disciples to not take money or extra cloaks and sandals on their mission to the villages of Galilee? Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 6:25, to not be anxious about their life, food drink or clothing because God will see to their needs. Matthew 6:25-33 is important background for understanding these commands for the short-term mission to the villages of Galilee.

Take no Cloak or sandals

“You received without paying; give without pay” is only found in Matthew and may mean something like, “you are not in this for the money.” Jesus freely gave his authority to the disciples and they are to exercise that authority without expecting payment.

First, Jesus tells his disciples to not take money or extra clothing on their mission to Galilee. These are the things one normally takes on a journey, but they will not need them because God will take care of them. Nolland suggests the three types of coins are significant. They may not bring any gold (rich provision), nor silver (middling provision) nor even copper (modest provision) (Matthew, 418). Mark’s Gospel only mentions copper coins, Luke has silver. Where to you eat when you travel a long distance? A decent restaurant? McDonalds?  A gas station?

Second, carrying a second tunic allows for a change of clothing, but also for warmth if the disciples need to sleep outside. (Clothing not wearing out in the wilderness, so no need for a second cloak?)

Third, “No sandals” is unique to Matthew, Mark allows sandals rather than boots or footwear for long walks (“sensible shoes”). Does Matthew mean the disciples are to travel barefoot, or to not take a spare pair of sandals? If they were to go barefoot, then the journey would be slow, perhaps they rely on God to protect them physically as they travel. (Sandals not wearing out in the wilderness, so you do not need a second pair?)

Fourth, a walking staff is not a luxury since a sturdy walking stick can also be used as a weapon if the disciples are attacked by animals or bandits on the road. The noun ῥάβδος can refer to a stick used for punishment, a rod.

It may be the case that these commands simply mean the mission is short-term and there is no need to collect the supplies one might need for a long journey (Wilkins, Matthew, 390). On the other hand, since Jesus called the people of Israel “sheep without shepherds” and then appointed twelve shepherds to go and tend to their needs, he is likely evoking God’s protection of Israel in the Wilderness and/or God’s protection of Elijah in 1 Kings.

The disciples are to rely on God for their food: the laborer deserves his food.  The disciples are workers in a harvest field, so the principle seems to be based on feeding one’s workers.

Is this an allusion to Elijah and Elisha? God provided for both miraculously, but also through the hospitality of others. A better background is the twelve tribes of Israel in the wilderness, god provided their food, water and clothing during the forty years in the wilderness.

This passage has been interpreted in various ways in church history. But Did Jesus intend these instructions for his disciples to describe how ministry ought to be done in all circumstances? In other words, did Matthew include this teaching of Jesus to give a model for how the Christian Church should continue Jesus is mission for his original readers?

Although I am certain that Jesus did not call us to build huge cathedrals made of crystal, nor are pastors called to be to live in mansions and drive to church in one of their mini luxury vehicles, I’m not convinced that this is a model for ministry. I’m not aware of any modern mission organizations that sends missionaries out to the field with no spare clothing, extra sandals, and no money whatsoever.

What is the application of this passage? Like the prohibition on teaching and preaching in Galilean and Samaritan villages, these commands about traveling light and relying on God refer only to Galilean mission Jesus is about to send his disciples on.

Although there may be some principles to be drawn from these commands in Matthew 10:5-15, this is not a model for doing missions today.

Why did Jesus tell his Disciples to not go to the Gentiles? – Matthew 10:5

After selecting twelve disciples, Jesus instructs them for their mission to the villages of Galilee. The first of these commands may surprise some readers, since Jesus restricts their mission to the Jews. They are not to go to Gentiles or Samaritans at all!

Lost Sheep of the House of Israel

The first of these instructions is to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-8a). Does this command imply Jesus only came to the Jewish people? Jesus tells them to not even go to Gentile or Samaritan villages, although the Jewish disciples of Jesus would certainly not have considered entering either a Gentile or Samaritan town.

  • When asked by a Gentile woman to heal her daughter, Jesus states it is not right to give food for the children to dogs. In Matthew 15:24 Jesus repeats the words from 10:6, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (cf., Mark 7:24-30 which does not have the lost sheep line).
  • James and John want to call fire down from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village for refusing to receive Jesus (Luke 9:54). Even though Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman, his disciples are surprised he is talking to the woman (4:27).
  • Even as late as Acts 10 Peter is reluctant to preach the Gospel of the God-fearer Cornelius and he is criticized when he returns to Jerusalem (11:1-3). James is still suspicious of Paul’s gentile mission in Acts 21:17-26.

It is therefore not surprising Jesus tells his disciples to only go to the Jews. The announcement that the Kingdom of God is near, and Jesus is the Messiah would have little meaning for a Samaritan and less for a Gentile. Mike Wilkins asks why Jesus would bother with the command if the disciples were not likely to go to the Gentiles anyway. For Wilkins, the prohibition dispels any doubts about whether Jesus was really the messiah. This is “Israel’s opportunity” and later they will be responsible for their rejection of the Messiah (Matthew, 390).

Is this restriction retracted in the Great Commission? Perhaps. But in the Book of Acts the initial mission was to still to the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2-7) first. There is suspicion of Philip’s mission in Samaria (Acts 8) and of Peter’s mission to Cornelius (Acts 10). Even in Acts 21 it does not seem like James is operating under the Great Commission; he is not reaching out to Samaritans or Gentiles (and probably not Hellenistic Jews). John Nolland argues Matthew did not consider the Great Commission as a “replacement of the mission to Israel with a mission to the Gentiles,” Jesus’s disciples are to continue their mission to Israel after the resurrection (Matthew, 429).

Who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel? The “lost sheep of the house of Israel” alludes to Jeremiah 50:6 and evokes the long exile of Israel.  Just prior to the final destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of God’s people among the nations, God describes the people as “lost sheep,” ignored by their shepherds and harassed by the nations. Remember Matthew has just described the Jewish crowds as “sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). As the messiah, Jesus is the good shepherd sending his working into the world to care for the lost sheep.

The twelve are to proclaim the same message as Jesus, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Although repentance is not specifically mentioned in 10:6-7, Jesus condemns the villages of Galilee because they did not repent after seeing his miracles (11:20-24). The disciples are to do the same messianic signs as Jesus in Matthew 8-9 (heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons).

Who are the Workers Sent into the Harvest? – Matthew 9:37-38

After looking at the crowds and having compassion on them, Jesus tells his disciples “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” He then encourages his disciples to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest. In what follows this saying Jesus prepares his own disciples to be the laborers in the harvest.

Wheat Feild

But Jesus describes the harvest as plentiful, not “ripe” or ready for harvest. There are so many people living in Galilee that Jesus cannot personally visit all of the villages to teach with authority and heal. This is the initial motivation for appointing twelve of his followers as disciples. They are going to go to the villages of Galilee and announce the coming of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 10).

A harvest as a metaphor in the Second Temple Period for eschatological judgment (threshing wheat and gathering grapes for the winepress). The “Lord of the Harvest” refers to God, but likely also Jesus as the Son of Man who will render justice at the final judgment. Even in the Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43) the harvest refers to a future time when the wheat and the weeds will be separated, the wheat will be taken into the barn and the weeds burned on a fire (where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth). In the book of Revelation, the “harvest of the earth” refers to the devastation of God’s enemies at the final judgment at the end of the tribulation (Rev 14:14-20).

Does Jesus mean, the field is ready for harvest because the judgment is about to happen? Or does he mean there are many people in Galilee who are ready to hear the message of the messiah? The harvest is not yet ripe, as if the end of the age has already come and the wheat and weeds are about to be separated. But in some respects the harvest has begun when Jesus sends his workers out into the fields, his disciples to the villages of Galilee.

If the people are harassed and helpless, then they are exactly the people who would be looking for the Messiah to come and render judgment on their own leaders and any gentiles who are harassing them.

Who are these workers for the harvest? In the immediate context, the twelve disciples are sent out to the villages of Galilee in the very next paragraph.

There is nothing wrong with the application of this passage to evangelism or world missions. Christians ought to pray to God for him to send workers into the fields ripe for harvest. But in Matthew, that “mission field” is specifically the villages in the region of Galilee. This becomes more clear in Matthew 13, in the parable of the sower. The sower who sows his seed is Jesus announcing the nearness of the Kingdom of God; the various soils will represent reactions to Jesus’s preaching and healing in Galilee up to that point in Matthew.