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The Mission of the Apostles - a study of Matthew 9:35-10:8

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 9:35-10:8

Jesus mentored His followers by modeling a ministry of teaching, evangelism, and service, then gave them opportunities to exercise their own ministries. Today, we are to pray that more people are emboldened to go into Jesus’ “harvest field” and we are to look for our own opportunities to serve, however God has placed us.

Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few." Matthew 9:37

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Your Most Effective Job Experience. Here’s a boring history lesson that I don’t expect you to share with your group: In the Middle Ages, the “guild” model dominated all labor. After the Industrial Revolution, the “employer/employee” model did. What’s the difference? In a guild, a local group of “masters” establish the rules for their trade, and they each take on an “apprentice” who will one day take over and keep their business going. They teach them every part of the business and have very high expectations for performance. In an employee setting, an owner hires people to do a job. They teach them what they need to know, and there really isn’t an expectation of the employee becoming the owner of the company.

Both approaches are still out there. Which is the most effective? I can honestly say that I’ve never been in an apprentice environment. In all of my jobs, a boss would come to me and say, “This is what we expect you to get done. Now get to it.” And I would have to figure it out as I went along. Even in school, most of my feedback was “right” or “wrong” without a whole lot of “here’s why and here’s what to do about it”. And there’s a place for that. My OJT was sink-or-swim; only the strong survive, as they say. But is that really the best way? It’s the easiest way to get quick production out of a young staff, but is it really the best way?

Have your group share some of their favorite work experiences, and their favorite bosses/mentors/supervisors. Is figuring it out on your own the best way? Is having an expert show you the ropes the best way? What are the pros and cons of each?

For Jesus, there is only one way. He is the expert, and the subject is truth and eternity. "Figuring it out on our own" isn't even a valid option. When people try to figure those things out on their own, we end up with New Agers, Scientology, and Unitarians. Not a great track record. So Jesus is going to take His disciples into a close master/apprentice relationship and show them all the ropes, preparing them to “take over the business” so to speak. And that’s the approach we’re supposed to take in church with children and adults.

Our Context in Matthew

Remember that last week basically summarized Matthew chapters 8 and 9: Jesus proves His authority by demonstrating His power over sickness, demons, nature, weather, sin, even death. As His disciples follow Him around and watch Him do these things, they begin to see how enormous the task is. There are people in need everywhere. And there’s no way Jesus can physically travel everywhere He is needed. Bingo. Jesus can’t be everywhere. But He never intended to be everywhere. The disciples have begun to see the mission, and now it’s time for them to show their mettle.

This Week's Big Idea: The Twelve Apostles

Early in my ministry, a church member volunteered to lead John MacArthur’s study Twelve Ordinary Men. That was the beginning of my admiration for the guys Jesus chose to spend their lives in His service. There are lots of webpages and books out there devoted to this topic (I’ll list a few for more information), plus lots of mythology. Here’s what we think we know.

Simon, who is called Peter. The most prominent disciple and a fisherman in Capernaum, before Pentecost Peter’s mouth created a great deal of embarrassment; after Pentecost, it was the tool God used to unite the early church. He was aggressive and unrefined, with the capacity for great faith and great fear, but Jesus still brought him into His inner circle and channeled that passion into service. Tradition says he was crucified upside down in Rome sometime after Paul. (Matt 16:18, John 21:15, Acts 2:14, Acts 10:34, 1 Pet 4:16)

Andrew. Andrew was the first disciple, sent to Jesus from John the Baptist, a man who truly desired truth. When he realized Jesus was the Messiah, Andrew brought his (older) brother Simon/Peter, with whom he fished in Capernaum. Andrew brought Jesus the boy with a few loaves and fish, and he also brought Jesus the Greeks who were looking for Him in the Temple. (John 1:41, John 6:8)

James, son of Zebedee. Another fisherman in Capernaum, Jesus brought James into His inner circle. But instead of being humbled by it, James seemed to have pride issues for a time (his mom even encouraged it at one point). Clearly Jesus saw something great in James. James was the first apostle to be martyred. (Matt 20:20, Luke 9:52, Acts 12:1)

John. James’ younger brother (always listed second) and fishing partner in Capernaum, he wrote of himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” A part of Jesus’ inner circle, John was the only disciple present at the crucifixion, and Jesus entrusted John with caring for Mary. He outlived all of the Apostles, eventually writing both the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John. Tradition says he died of old age. (Matt 4:21, Mark 9:2, Luke 5:10, John 21:24, Acts 4:20, Acts 8:14, Rev 1:1)

Philip. Philip was the first man specifically mentioned to be sought out by Jesus to be His disciple. He apparently grew up with Andrew and Peter (and still lived in their hometown of Bethsaida), but his profession is not mentioned. He quickly found his friend Nathanael. (John 1:45, John 6:5, John 14:8)

Bartholomew (in John, he is called Nathanael). The first man to call Jesus the Son of God, he was from Cana. We know nothing else. (John 1:49)

Thomas. Poster child for “remembered for our worst moment,” he is called Doubting Thomas for refusing to believe the stories of the resurrection. I also think he was being sarcastic when saying they should all go to Jerusalem to die with Jesus. Perhaps he was a rational balance to Peter. (John 11:16, John 20:27)

Matthew the Tax Collector (also called Levi). A hated tax collector in Capernaum, he was likely the most radically changed of the apostles. He threw a party so his friends could meet Jesus. His careful records helped him write one of the Gospels. (Matt 9:9, Luke 5:29)

James son of Alphaeus. Sometimes called “James the Less” (Matthew’s father was also Alphaeus, but that was probably a coincidence) to distinguish him from the other more famous James’s, we know nothing else about him. (Acts 1:13)

Thaddaeus (also called Judas). He has one line in the Gospels, and that’s all we know about him. (John 14:22)

Simon the Zealot. We know nothing about him, not even if he simply had “zeal” or was a member of that religious/political party.

Judas Iscariot. Infamous as a thief and a traitor even though he spent three years with Jesus, Judas took his own life in remorse. (Matt 26:13, Luke 22:47)

I personally believe that the reason why we know so little about some of these men is so that we can associate ourselves with them more. They were ordinary, unremarkable people whom Jesus called to be His follower and through whom Jesus did extraordinary and remarkable things. If you have time to talk about these men, please feel free to do so. Try not to get caught up in the mythology.


Part 1: Motivated by Compassion (Matthew 9:35-36)

Then Jesus went to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd.

“Then” implies that Jesus is going on another ministry circuit, which is absolutely possible, but it could also simply mean a continuation of the same one He was on in chapter 8-9. It’s not a terribly large region, maybe 40 miles by 20 miles, with numerous small towns (few hundred people in each) within an afternoon’s walk. I have a sidebar a little later about synagogues and their importance to town society (think of the importance of Baptist and Methodist churches to the towns around us; maybe not so much today, but 20 years ago).

You could spend most of your time just talking about this first verse because it basically summarizes Jesus’ approach to ministry:

  1. Teach the Bible

  2. Share the Gospel

  3. Care for People

It’s that simple. Now, we don’t have the same access to Jesus’ approach to healing, so what do we do with that third point? I think the way I word it gets it done; ask your class, “Maybe we can’t heal people’s diseases like Jesus did, but what can we do?” There’s a very long list, and those are the sorts of projects I would love to sponsor out of our Go and Tell Mission Fund. Those three main mission actions, those we should all do today!

The point your leader guide wants you to is Jesus’ attitude of compassion. The word refers to bowels and kidneys, an intense physical response. He was moved. Why? Because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus knew that the Jewish leaders were not doing their job, so the people were left to figure out life on their own (and doing a poor job). Rather than gripe and complain about their bad behavior, selfish attitudes, and overall unhelpfulness (which is how I tend to look on problem people), Jesus wanted to help them. Do we have that kind of attitude toward the people who need us the most? Kids without strong role models who act out the only way they’ve been taught, non-Christians who behave like we should expect non-Christians to behave, church members who have been hurt emotionally and start to withdraw . . . the lost and dying world around us? What’s our attitude toward them?


Aside: What Is a Disciple / Apostle?

The word “disciple” means “learner” and was used of a student of a Greek philosopher. Jews picked up on the term to apply to a rabbi’s school. Jesus chose 12 men that were called His “disciples” (clearly related to the 12 tribes of Israel), but He had a number of followers called disciples, including men and women from all walks of life. In addition to sending out “the Twelve”, He also sent out “the 70”, and He had an inner circle of 3.

The word “discipline” obviously comes from the same root. The idea is that a follower would carefully learn his teachers’ methods, laws, and teachings, and apply appropriate behavior and morals to his life.

With respect to “the Twelve”, the words Disciple and Apostle are practically synonymous, but Apostle came to be used of the Twelve after Pentecost, and Disciple used more generically. The word “apostle” has a naval background, used of a ship sent on a mission. When Jesus permanently sent out the Twelve (remember that Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot), they became more specifically known as “the Apostles” - the men who had been with Jesus from the beginning and saw His ascension. But even then, it was not a specific term. Paul called himself an Apostle, and he spoke of other apostles (some in a negative sense).

So, while many of us might think of “His Disciples” as referring to the 12 men listed in these verses, it is perfectly acceptable to use that term in a broad sense. Indeed, we should assume that “disciple” means someone in addition to the 12. “Apostle”, on the other hand, can be assumed to be one of the 12 (sans Judas Iscariot) unless the speaker specifically claims otherwise.


Part 2: Challenged to Pray (Matthew 9:37-38)

Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

Jesus shifts imagery from shepherding to farming. I give you more about agricultural methods at the bottom. Most of His hearers would have been involved in farming in some way, so they would have understood everything that this image meant (the hard work of preparation, the tender care of cultivation, the helplessness and prayerful attitude against disease and infestation, and the hard work and joy of harvest). But there’s something else this image conveyed: judgment is coming. In the Old Testament (Isa 17:11, Joel 3:13), harvest of people meant end-times judgment. Time is running out; matters are urgent. I think most likely Jesus is speaking to all of His followers (of which “the Twelve” are a part) to pray for workers; in the next verse, He commissions the Twelve to that task. “The Lord of the harvest” is obviously intended to refer to God the Father, but this is a unique phrase. It could mean “the Lord who is harvesting” and only otherwise appears in Luke 10:2. And considering that in the next verse Jesus Himself send out workers, it is also a not-subtle way that Jesus equates Himself with deity.

This might be the most straightforward point we have. Pray that God would send out workers into His harvest. That will mean people going to the ends of the earth, finding those who have heard the word of God, and helping them make professions of faith, then guiding them in discipleship. Being “sent out” definitely includes the idea of leaving behind the familiar. We want to pray (1) that people are called to serve God around the world, (2) that they are supported, protected, and encouraged in their mission, and (3) that people would come to know Jesus under their ministry. We can do that. And I certainly encourage you to do so in your group! At the very least, create a weekly prayer calendar. At our church, we follow this pattern. Monday: our partnership with Smoky Mountain Resort. Tuesday: all missionaries. Wednesday: a specific North American and International missionary family. Thursday: church members in seminary. Friday: special mission needs. Saturday: the lost people around us. Sunday: our church. And please continue to pray for our church leaders as we try to organize and equip our own church members to carry out this task right here in McDuffie County.


Part 3: Commissioned to Go (Matthew 10:1-8)

Summoning His 12 disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to drive them out and to heal every disease and sickness. These are the names of the 12 apostles: 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 also betrayed Him. Jesus sent out these 12 after giving them instructions: “Don’t take the road leading to other nations, and don’t enter any Samaritan town. Instead, go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, announce this: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, drive out demons. You have received free of charge; give free of charge.

The rest of chapter 10 is a list of instructions, some of which seem kind of strange, and all of which seem kind of depressing. But we have to remember what Jesus was doing. This is the disciples’ first “mission”; He’s going to keep them close to home, send them where they know the language and the customs, and keep them in an environment similar to where they’ve already observed Him. (Yes, the Old Testament is clear that the Jews have to reject Jesus before the mission can spread, but I think Jesus hit this so hard also out of the disciples’ best interest. They clearly weren’t ready for the Samaritans or the Gentiles.) Their mission is basically going to be what Jesus has been doing, which is what we should still be doing today.

We can very easily get distracted by the details of this particular commission, some of which don’t really apply in today’s world where “hospitality” isn’t what it used to be (it’s hard to trust people like we did in the past). There are a few principles behind the rules: (1) Be unencumbered; rely on hospitality and God’s provision because when you have to rely on people, they get power over you. (2) Don’t get caught up in salary or payment; that’s not why you’re doing this. (3) Be brave, but don’t be reckless; bad things happen out there, but you can’t let fear drive your decisions. (4) Don’t look for “success” by worldly standards. Your message will divide people and make them angry, just like what will happen to Jesus. But don’t worry about that because God knows what is happening “down here.”

One resource suggests that you use an Uncle Sam poster as your object lesson. It turns out that “Uncle Sam” was a meat packer who supplied the army during the War of 1812; he was known for fairness, honesty, and reliability, and he took a great risk supporting an army that was losing at the time. But his service was a part of their eventual victory, and now Uncle Sam encourages all of us to support America. He was just a regular guy, not even a soldier, but he helped how he could and he made a difference. That’s not too far off from where we are today. How are you serving God’s mission?


Aside: Diseases in the New Testament

Last week in this column, I described a number of common diseases in Bible times. The term for “leprosy” was used to describe a wide range of eruptions which almost certainly included basis rashes, allergic reactions, and fungal infections. “Boils” could be a staph infection. Of course, “fever” could have been caused by countless infectious diseases. In one case, the fever was associated with “dysentery” which could bacterial or parasitic, and sometimes was made worse by hemorrhoids. A “withered hand” could be caused by muscular dystrophies to polio. A “seizure” is most likely epilepsy, although its causes and even treatment are still pretty obscure today. “Paralysis” (or “palsy”) could describe any number of conditions.

Treatment proscribed for these conditions in the Old Testament was unsurprisingly effective. God knew what He was doing, and He also knew that the people wouldn’t understand “contagion.” Non-Jewish physicians following the Egyptians were wise enough to use herbs and minerals in treatment (and wine), but often in conjunction with spells and prayers. Surgery included setting broken bones, lancing boils, amputation, drilling holes in a skull to relieve pressure, and even filling cavities. Diseases of the mind (or behavior) were assumed to be caused by evil spirits and required an exorcism.

Jesus could heal all of it, and that’s what set Him apart from other physicians. People came to Him understanding that He could truly make a difference, not just a psychosomatic / placebo effect.

Bonus Aside: Early Jewish Synagogues

Last week, I pointed out that the only public building in Capernaum was a synagogue. Indeed, the synagogue was as important to Jewish culture as the First Baptist or First Methodist church was to a small town in the south. We assume that synagogues first started appearing soon after the first Temple was destroyed (after 587 BC), but we don’t know for certain. It would make sense that, exiled far from home with no access to any of their traditional religious structure, Jews would create some new institutions to fill the void. By the time the second Temple was built70 years later, there were enough synagogues that they were commonly accepted. Rather than see them as competition to the Temple, people began to think of the synagogue as a place for reading and studying Scripture, as well as to be the primary social hub for a local Jewish community.

Synagogues came in three main styles. One was shaped like a cathedral pointing toward Jerusalem with a large open space. A shrine for the scrolls was carried toward the back wall and people sat on the ground all around it. A smaller style was wide rather than long, with a wide wall containing niches for the scrolls facing Jerusalem. A third style was like a cathedral except with a large platform build into the back wall with a shrine, container for the scroll, and a kind of “pulpit.” Synagogues held services on Sabbath, holy days, Monday, and Thursday. Services would begin with the people reciting the shema, repeating a series of prayers, reading Scripture (Law and Prophets), and then a kind of sermon. Anyone could give a sermon, but it was usually reserved for someone considered a rabbi.

Rabbis were not “in charge” of a synagogue. Rather, a lay member of the congregation was the “head” and responsible for lining up the speakers. He was assisted by an “attendant” who was paid to keep up the facility and announce the start of services. Boys would often go to school there during the week, and meetings, meals, lodgings, and even collection centers would be held there (so the attendant was usually busy). This is obviously why Jesus went to the synagogues first.


Closing Thoughts: The Lord of the Harvest

When Jesus used the imagery of the harvest, He did so knowing that most of His hearers would resonate strongly with it. The Jews were primarily farmers; agriculture was the main industry for just about every civilization until very recently. Working for a harvest was a very big deal. In Judea, fields had to be cleared of stones (rocky ledges would give way regularly, spilling a mess onto the fields nearby). Rain was hard to come by in southern Judea, many places receiving practically zero rain from May to October. Farmers would plant their crops around the predicted rain cycle, then pray it came to pass. Disease and infestation was unpredictable, making it very frightening. A plague of locusts could reduce a field to nothing in a day. Consequently, harvest was closely tied to religion—fasts at the beginning (prayer to God) and feasts at the end (thanksgiving to God).

There were three main crops: grains, grapes, and olives. For grains, the ground would have to be plowed (for the wealthy, by two oxen yoked together). Men would walk behind scattering seed. Then someone would drive the seed into the ground (either by plowing or rolling a log). At harvest time, a reaper would grab a handful of stalks and cut them as close to the ground as possible. Someone would collect those stalks into sheaves and take them to a threshing floor where the kernels (“good wheat”) would be separated from all the other material via threshing and winnowing. In the case of grapes, the farmer would have to build walls (to keep out the foxes and boars) and climbing sticks. Harvested grapes could be dried (raisins), boiled into a syrup, or pressed. Families would often move into the storehouses for added protection against theft. Olives followed a similar pattern.

What is important is that when Jesus spoke of the Lord of the harvest, the people understood the hard work, preparation, prayer, and reliance He was talking about. To apply that to “people” as the harvest would have been unforgettable.


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