Plague Number Six

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw them in the air in the sight of Pharaoh. It shall become fine dust over all the land of Egypt, and become boils breaking out in sores on man and beast throughout all the land of Egypt.” 10 So they took soot from the kiln and stood before Pharaoh. And Moses threw it in the air, and it became boils breaking out in sores on man and beast. 11 And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils came upon the magicians and upon all the Egyptians. 12 But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses. – Exodus 9:8-12 ESV

Following Pharaoh’s latest demonstration of hard-heartedness, Moses and Aaron are given further instructions from God. This time, the judgment that God brings upon the Egyptians will be unannounced and bring with it an increased level of physical pain and suffering. With each successive plague, God was upping the ante and revealing yet another aspect of His power and authority over kings, nations, creation, and all the mythical, man-made gods of humanity.

These assignments would have served as tests for Moses and Aaron, determining the depth of their faith and the level of their faithfulness. It must not have been easy to stand before one of the most powerful men in the world and issue demands from an unseen God. And many of the things God commanded Moses and Aaron to do were outside the pale of human reason and required a great deal of trust. Each new directive from Jehovah took them into unexplored territory and required them to exhibit an increased level of faith in His ability to do the impossible.

In this case, God commanded His two servants to take ash from a kiln and disperse it into the air. And for some reason, it was Moses who was to take the lead in carrying out this latest supernatural sign. When Moses tossed the ash into the air, it would turn into a fine dust that would spread throughout the land of Egypt, “causing festering boils to break out on people and animals throughout the land” (Exodus 9:9 NLT).

It’s likely that this “kiln” or furnace was used in the manufacture of bricks. This would have tied the ashes to the suffering of the Israelites.

…the Egyptians worked the people of Israel without mercy. They made their lives bitter, forcing them to mix mortar and make bricks and do all the work in the fields. They were ruthless in all their demands. – Exodus 1:13-14 NLT

Pharaoh sent this order to the Egyptian slave drivers and the Israelite foremen: “Do not supply any more straw for making bricks. Make the people get it themselves! But still require them to make the same number of bricks as before. Don’t reduce the quota.” – Exodus 5:6-8 NLT

These massive kilns would have been located all over the land of Egypt, wherever there was a state-sanctioned construction site. These furnaces would have contained the ashes of the straw that the Israelites had been forced to scavenge and knead into the clay that they formed into the bricks used to build edifices to Pharaoh’s glory. It is almost as if God was taking the unjust pain and suffering of His people and spreading it among their Egyptian overlords. And no one was spared. The rich and the poor alike would suffer the debilitating effects of this plague as the dust settled on their skin and produced boils (šiḥîn) or inflamed spots on the skin that erupted and became festering sores (‘ăḇaʿbuʿōṯ). There is no way to determine the identity of this skin disease, but it must have been extremely painful and left its suffering unable to perform even the most simple tasks. The text indicates that Pharaoh’s magicians were completely incapacitated and “unable to stand before Moses, because the boils had broken out on them and all the Egyptians” (Exodus 9:11 NLT).

These men had been able to replicate some of the previous signs that Moses and Aaron performed, but not in this case. And it seems highly unlikely that they would have wanted to reproduce this particular sign, even if they could.

As Pharaoh looked on, Moses carried out the command of God, and the king and his royal officials watched the ash turn to dust, miraculously spread over the land, and then settle back down on their own skin. But it appears that Pharaoh was exempted from the effects of this plague. Moses indicates that “the boils came upon the magicians and upon all the Egyptians” (Exodus 9:11 ESV), but he doesn’t mention Pharaoh. It seems that God was sparing Pharaoh and preparing him for the final plague that was designed to bring judgment right to his doorstep. God had reserved something far more painful and personal for Pharaoh. He even foreshadowed this final plague when He spoke to Moses in Midian.

“When you arrive back in Egypt, go to Pharaoh and perform all the miracles I have empowered you to do. But I will harden his heart so he will refuse to let the people go. Then you will tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son. I commanded you, “Let my son go, so he can worship me.” But since you have refused, I will now kill your firstborn son!’” – Exodus 4:21-23 NLT

But for now, Pharaoh was forced to stand back and watch the God of Israel demonstrate His sovereign power through a nationwide pandemic that brought intense pain but not death. And like all the other plagues, this one was a direct attack on the gods of the Egyptians. It only makes sense that those suffering from this disease would have called out to their gods for deliverance and healing. They would have sought relief from one of their many deities.

In the Egyptian pantheon of gods, Serapis was a lord of healing and of fertility. Interestingly enough, this god’s cult was celebrated in association with that of the sacred Egyptian bull Apis, which we looked at with the last plague. The priests and priestesses associated with Serapis would have been expected to call upon their god for healing. But, like the magicians, they would have found themselves unable to perform their priestly duties because of the very malady they were hoping to eliminate.

They called out, but no one answered. They begged for relief, but none came. The sores erupted on their skin but no miracle was forthcoming. It was as if their gods had grown silent or apathetic about their plight. But It is simply a demonstration of the truth that the psalmist would later articulate.

Our God is in the heavens,
    and he does as he wishes.
Their idols are merely things of silver and gold,
    shaped by human hands.
They have mouths but cannot speak,
    and eyes but cannot see.
They have ears but cannot hear,
    and noses but cannot smell.
They have hands but cannot feel,
    and feet but cannot walk,
    and throats but cannot make a sound.
And those who make idols are just like them,
    as are all who trust in them. – Psalm 115:3-8 NLT

When Separis proved impotent, they must have turned to Imhotep, the god of medicine and the guardian of healing sciences. This particular god had actually been a man who had served as the second king of Egypt’s third dynasty. After his death, he was deified and worshiped by the Egyptians as the god of medicine.

But he too proved helpless before the God of Israel because he was a fraud and a fake. None of their gods were real and, therefore, they had no hope of delivering the people of Egypt from their pain and suffering. These so-called gods were the figments of men’s imaginations, just as Jeremiah the prophet later wrote.

“Their gods are like
    helpless scarecrows in a cucumber field!
They cannot speak,
    and they need to be carried because they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of such gods,
    for they can neither harm you nor do you any good.” – Jeremiah 10:5 NLT

So the ash went up, the dust rained down, the boils broke open, and the people cried out. But no relief was in sight. And Pharaoh remained unmoved by what he saw. At this point, he stood aloof and distant from the pain of his people. He was not having to share in their suffering, so he was unmoved by their plight. Moses indicates that “he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses” (Exodus 9:12 ESV). But this time, it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Anywhere along the way, God could have miraculously moved in Pharaoh’s life and softened the hardened condition of his heart. But He continued to allow the king to display the natural evidence of his sinful disposition. Rather than intervene, God allowed Pharaoh’s inherent wickedness to take its normal course. This demonstrates the way that God has always worked with fallen mankind. Paul describes it well in his letter to the Romans.

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! – Romans 1:22-25 ESV

Pharaoh stood his ground. But he was up against far greater and more powerful than he could ever imagine. All the plagues should have served as a wake-up call but God exactly what it was going to take to open Pharaoh’s eyes and break the hardened callouses of his heart. But the time for that plague had not yet come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

God’s Octogenarian Tag Team

1 And the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them. Now Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh.

Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. 12 For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. – Exodus 7:1-13 ESV

When God first commissioned Moses for his new role as the deliverer of the people of Israel, Moses tried to use his lack of speaking skills as an excuse for turning down the position. But God responded by adding Aaron, Moses’ older brother, to the team. The two of them would become the perfect pair, with Moses serving as the silent, but highly powerful partner and Aaron performing the role of spokesman. God described their partnership this way:

“You shall speak to him [Aaron] and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.” – Exodus 4:15-17 ESV

Moses would be responsible for passing on to Aaron any messages he received from the Lord, then Aaron would vocalize God’s words to the appropriate party. But all signs and wonders would be Moses’ purview. With his staff in hand, he would enact any and all miracles ordered by God to validate the message and the messengers. Even before Moses left Midian, God told him, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21 ESV).

Upon their arrival in Egypt, Moses and his brother had run into an apparent roadblock in their efforts to deliver the people of Israel. Things had started out well when the Hebrews had received the two men and their message with open arms. But Pharaoh had proved to be a hard nut to crack, rejecting their request to allow the Israelites to go into the wilderness to worship their God. And Pharaoh subsidized his rejection by increasing the workload of the Hebrews, whom he viewed as little more than captive immigrant workers. With their hopes dashed and their daily lives marked by suffering and pain, the Israelites lashed out at Moses and Aaron, blaming them for their circumstances. This led Moses to take out his frustration on God.

“O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.” – Exodus 5:22-23 ESV

But none of this should have come as a shock to Moses. God had warned him that Pharaoh would not be cooperative. What is interesting to note is that words were never going to be the means by which God accomplished His will in Egypt. Pharaoh was never going to be coerced or convinced by words alone. And while Moses had been worrying about his lack of rhetorical skills, he should have listened to what God had said.

“When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” – Exodus 4:21-23 ESV

The miracles would be the means by which God orchestrated the release of His people. And God told Moses that one particular miracle would prove to be the deciding factor in persuading Pharaoh to let God’s people go.

As chapter seven opens, the roles of Aaron and Moses remain the same. Aaron will continue to act as the mouthpiece for the pair, while Moses performs all the signs. But God informs them that even all the signs and wonders Moses displays before Pharaoh will do nothing to change his mind.

“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you.” – Exodus 7:3-4 ESV

In a sense, God is letting Moses know that the initial signs he performs will appear as little more than cheap parlor tricks to Pharaoh. He will be impressed but not enough to change his mind. And as this chapter reveals, the magicians of Egypt will replicate many of the signs that Moses performs, further negating their influence. But God told Moses that another set of signs and wonders was coming.

“Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.” – Exodus 7:4-5 ESV

These “great acts of judgment” were going to take things to a whole new level. And God wanted His two messengers to know that the simple, yet impressive signs He had instructed Moses to perform were just the beginning. There was far more to come.

But God instructed them to go before Pharaoh and do just as He had commanded them to do. Pharaoh was going to demand that they provide some kind of sign to prove that they were truly representatives of the Hebrews’ deity.

“When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” – Exodus 7:9 ESV

In this instance, it would be Aaron who did double duty, speaking to Pharaoh but also performing the sign from God. When they appeared before Pharaoh, he demanded a sign just as God had predicted, and Aaron did as God commanded. He threw his staff to the ground and it became a snake. But Aaron and Moses must have been shocked when the Egyptian magicians quickly replicated the sign by turning their own staffs into snakes. The text provides no explanation for how the magicians managed to do what they did. But there are only a few options available. Either these men did what they did by the power of Satan or God did it. The second choice makes the most sense. Since the staff of Aaron possessed no power in and of itself, it had to be God who made this miraculous transformation possible. The sign was His idea. So, when the magicians threw down their staffs, God displayed His power yet again, and the magicians were probably amazed by what they saw. It is likely that they never expected their efforts to be successful. But the real demonstration of God’s power was in what happened next.

But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. – Exodus 7:12 ESV

This powerful demonstration of God’s power would have validated Aaron as His spokesman. God was the one who turned all the staffs into snakes and He was the one who gave Aaron’s staff primacy over all the others. God was declaring Aaron and Moses to be His official representatives. But Pharaoh remained unimpressed and unwavering in his commitment to deny the Israelites their freedom.

Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. – Exodus 7:13 ESV

Now the stage was set. Pharaoh knew he was dealing with two men who had true power. Yet, he remained just as fervent in his desire to keep the Israelites in their role as free slave labor. He was not about to give up this valuable asset, even when faced with Aaron’s display of magical power. It was going to take a lot more than that to change his heart and God knew it. Not only that, God had ordained it.

But as this scene in the royal palace comes to a close, it is essential that we not gloss over the small detail that Moses discloses in the narrative.

Now Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh. – Exodus 7:7 ESV

As the old adage states, these two men were not spring chickens. They would be considered old in just about any cultural context, but in that day and age, they would have been ancient. Moses spent 40 years of his life in Pharaoh’s court before fleeing to Midian. There, he lived another 40 years in relative obscurity and anonymity. And at the ripe old age of 80, God called Moses to serve as the deliverer of His people. This octogenarian was destined to be the God-ordained savior of the Israelite people. He had been for this role and God had planned for his starting date to begin at age 80.

“D. L. Moody wittily said that Moses spent forty years in Pharaoh’s court thinking he was somebody; forty years in the desert learning he was nobody; and forty years showing what God can do with somebody who found out he was nobody.” – Bernard Ramm, His Way Out

I can’t help but think of the movie, “Grumpy Old Men,” starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. It is difficult not to see Moses and Aaron as two crusty old senior citizens with bad backs, diminished hearing, and poor eyesight. When they should have been playing canasta in the old folks’ home, they were serving as God’s emissaries in the court of Pharaoh. They would not have been impressive to look at. Their presence would not have struck fear into Pharaoh. But these two unlikely candidates had been chosen by God to carry out His sovereign plan for delivering His people. And, with His help, they would prove more than adequate for the task.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Jesus Christ is Lord

41 But he said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? 42 For David himself says in the Book of Psalms,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
43     until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

44 David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?”

45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Luke 20:41-47 ESV

Jesus’ last exchange with the Sadducees left them at a loss for words, but more determined than ever to rid themselves of this irritating thorn in their sides. Jesus had deftly handled their cleverly crafted question about the resurrection, easily exposing their poor understanding of the Scriptures. Their tendency to read God’s Word through the lens of their own earth-bound perspective had resulted in a gross misinterpretation of its content and a misapplication of its truths.

And the entire debate between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel revolved around the issue of authority. They believed themselves to be the God-ordained authority figures over the nation of Israel. Yet, Jesus had appeared on the scene, making radical claims to be the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel. His self-proclaimed identification as the divine King of Israel easily trumped their claims of spiritual superiority and divinely mandated authority. And it didn’t help the cause of the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees that this Rabbi from Nazareth backed up His words with inexplicable miracles and powerful teaching.

As we read through the events surrounding the last week of Jesus’ life, we should begin to recognize that this is really about two kingdoms in conflict – the one the Pharisees and religious leaders had come to know, love and control; and the one that Jesus had come to establish. As John the Baptist began his ministry, paving the way for the coming of the Messiah, he had told the people of Israel, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NLT).

His call to repentance was not just an encouragement to change their behavior, but it was a demand that they change their minds. John was calling them to completely alter their preconceived notions concerning God, sin, the kingdom, the Messiah, and the means by which man can be restored to a right relationship with God. Repentance would require them to do an about-face concerning what they currently believed about all of those things. And that change of mind and heart would result in a change in behavior.

In the world into which Jesus came, the Jewish people had strong opinions about these matters, the byproduct of centuries of man-made decrees, religious doctrines, and dogma. They thought they had God figured out and were convinced that they knew what they had to do to deal with sin. But they had grown callous to God and carefree about their own sin, justifying their actions and downplaying their own guilt. They put a lot of stock in their status as descendants of Abraham and in their unique identity as God’s chosen people. But John the Baptist had come preaching a call to repentance. He had told them that the Kingdom of Heaven was close at hand. And Jesus came preaching that very same message, telling them, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17 NLT).

The Kingdom of Heaven was near – in the form of the King of Heaven – Jesus Himself. This was a statement of authority and divine representation. Jesus was Emmanuel – God with us. He was the one true King. But the Jewish people failed to recognize Him as such.

This brings us to today’s passage, where Jesus continues to spar with the religious leaders of Israel. He had weathered a relentless gauntlet of questions from these men, as they attempted to expose and entrap Him. But this time Jesus turned the tables on them by requiring them to answer a question from Him. In doing so, He reveals some Messianic misconceptions on their part. He exposes their faulty views of who the Messiah would be and what He would do when He came.

Matthew records that Jesus began this conversation with a very simple, yet revealing question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42a NLT).

Jesus already knew what their response would be, and that answer would reveal much about their understanding of not only the Messiah but of His coming Kingdom.

“They replied, ‘He is the son of David.’” – Matthew 22:42b NLT

So, what does this answer tell us about their view of the Messiah? They believed this long-anticipated deliverer of Israel would be a descendant of David. But it also reveals that they viewed the Messiah’s kingdom would be of this earth and not heavenly in nature. In other words, they were anticipating a king just like David had been. They were expecting a ruler, a royal heir to David, who would wear his crown and sit on his throne, re-establishing Israel’s power in the region. They weren’t looking for a Savior from sin, but a deliverer from subjugation to Rome.

But this is where Jesus exposed their incomplete understanding of the Messiah’s identity and role. In Luke’s version of the story, he reports that Jesus posed the question: “Why is it that the Messiah is said to be the son of David?” (Luke 20:41 NLT). Then Jesus presented the well-educated religious leaders with a conundrum. 

For David himself wrote in the book of Psalms:

‘The Lord said to my Lord,
    Sit in the place of honor at my right hand
until I humble your enemies,
    making them a footstool under your feet.’” – Luke 20:42 NLT

Matthew records Jesus’ statement in the form of a question: “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?” (Matthew 22:44 ESV).

At first glance, it sounds like Jesus is posing some kind of riddle or trick question. But He actually quoted a well-known Messianic passage found in Psalm 110:1. The Sadducees would have agreed that this passage referred to the coming Messiah or Davidic descendant. In fact, over the centuries, this psalm had been applied to each successive king in the Davidic dynasty and was used to refer to the ideal Davidic king. As a result, they would have been very familiar with the passage and its application to the coming Messiah. So, Jesus pointed out that in the psalm, David calls the Messiah his Lord.

If the coming Messiah was to be a “son” or descendant of David, the greatest king Israel had ever had, why would David call this man his “Lord?” To understand this question, you have to recognize that there are two different words used for “Lord” in Psalm 110. The first is Jehovah, a noun used to refer to God. It is the proper name of the God of Israel. The second word is adon, a noun that means “lord” or “master”. But when used in conjunction with Lord (Jehovah), it typically refers to God’s sovereignty or authority. So, you could read the line in Psalm 110 this way: The LORD (God) said to my (David’s) Lord (Messiah)

The point Jesus was making was that David knew something about the Messiah that the Pharisees did not. That’s why Jesus asked them a further question: “Since David called the Messiah ‘Lord,’ how can the Messiah be his son?” (Luke 20:44 NLT).

The Pharisees had a limited view of the Messiah. They believed He would be an earthly and fully human descendant of David – nothing more, nothing less. But Jesus’ point was that David seemed to know that the Messiah would be MORE than just his descendant. He would be divine and have God-given authority to rule and reign over God’s Kingdom. He would be David’s LORD and Master. He would be a divinely appointed ruler with power and authority far beyond anything David had known.

But the Pharisees couldn’t bring themselves to see or acknowledge this. Jesus was not what they had been expecting and, most certainly, not what they wanted. He didn’t look or act like a king. And the Israelites still wanted a king just like all the other nations. They wanted a royal ruler on their terms and according to their definition. It was the very same problem their ancestors had when they had demanded that the prophet Samuel appoint them a king like all the other nations.

They had rejected God as their King and, in response, God had given them Saul. Now, centuries later, they were demanding the same thing. But God was not going to give them another Saul. He was going to give them another David, an actual descendant of David, but a man greater than David had ever been. He would be the God-man, the Son of God, and the ultimate Savior of the world.

At this point in the conversation, Jesus turns His attention to His disciples but He spoke so all could hear what He had to say. The religious leaders, who had grown strangely silent, still had the capacity to hear Jesus speak, and what He had to say was aimed directly at them.

“Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. – Luke 20:46-47 NLT

Jesus was pulling no punches. He was calling out these men for their self-righteous and hypocritical displays of false piety. And in doing so, Jesus echoed the words from His own sermon on the mount, delivered some three years earlier.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1 ESV

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. – Matthew 6:5 ESV

This was a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching. Throughout His ministry, He regularly exposed the hypocritical nature of these self-righteous demagogues. Earlier in his gospel account, Luke records Jesus leveling the same condemning indictment against the Pharisees.

“What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you love to sit in the seats of honor in the synagogues and receive respectful greetings as you walk in the marketplaces.” – Luke 11:43 NLT

These so-called shepherds of Israel were fleecing the flock while they feigned a lifestyle of super-spirituality. They had no care or concern for the people of God. Instead, they used their power and position to benefit and promote themselves. This led Jesus to warn, “Because of this, they will be severely punished” (Luke 20:47 NLT). These men, who believed themselves to be the highest authority in the land, would one day stand before the One who wields ultimate authority over all the universe. They will have to answer to God. And, at that time, they will also have to explain their refusal to acknowledge and accept Jesus as the Son of God. While they stand opposed to Jesus now, there will come a day when they will bow before Him and confess, “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Kingdom of God

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. – Luke 10:1-12 ESV

For the second time, Jesus commissions a group of His followers and sends them on a mission to heal the sick and to declare the news that “the kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:10 ESV). Luke is the only one of the four gospel authors to record this incident and there is some confusion as to how many followers were actually enlisted for this assignment. Some translations record 70, while others put the number at 72. The difference is a result of a numerical variation found in the ancient manuscripts from which our modern translations were made. This difference is likely the result of a copiest’s error and nothing more. The exact number of people who were sent, while significant, is far less important than the nature of their assignment.

Luke states that these individuals were hand-picked by Jesus and placed in teams of two, with instructions to go to “all the towns and places he planned to visit” (Luke 10:1 NLT). In a sense, they were given the same role that John the Baptist had performed: To prepare the way for the Lord’s anointed. John had been performed the role of a herald, declaring the coming of the kingdom and calling the people to repent.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’” – Matthew 3:1-3 ESV

As Jesus began to make His way toward Jerusalem, He sent these pairs of followers ahead of Him to prepare the way for His arrival. And they received the same basic instructions He had given to the 12 disciples on their recent missionary excursion (Luke 9:1-6; Matthew 10:5-15). One of the key differences seems to be that the 12 disciples had been given specific instructions to focus all their efforts on the Jewish people. They were to avoid any interaction with Gentiles or Samaritans.

“Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel—God’s lost sheep. – Matthew 10:5-6 NLT

But on this occasion, the 72 received no such prohibition. And it must be noted that Jesus and His followers were having to pass through Samaritan territory in order to reach Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-56). It seems likely that these teams were sent on ahead, following the route Jesus would take from Samaria all the way to Jerusalem.

Jesus had begun this trip in Galilee, from the town of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. When He and His disciples had arrived at the border of Samaria, He had sent two of them ahead with instructions to find accommodations for the night. But the Samaritan villagers had refused to allow Jesus and His followers to stay in their town. When the messengers returned with the bad news, the two brothers, James and John, asked Jesus for permission to “call down fire from heaven to burn them up” (Luke 9:54 NLT). But Jesus had rebuked these two men for their obvious hatred for Samaritans and their misguided desire to destroy an entire village over what was essentially a petty slight.

Due to the sheer size of the Samaritan territory, there would have been plenty of villages that Jesus and His disciples would have to pass through before they reached the region of Judea. So, it seems likely that the 72 were sent to 36 different villages that contained Jews, Gentiles, and even Samaritans. Their mission was not restricted  “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6 ESV). This difference is significant because Jesus was headed to Jerusalem so that He might offer His life as a ransom for many. He was going to sacrifice His life for the sins of mankind, including Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans. All throughout Luke’s record of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he has recorded incident after incident where Jesus interfaced with non-Jews, including the Samaritan woman and the Roman centurion. And as Jesus prepared to make His final excursion to Jerusalem, where He would offer His life as an atonement for the sins of man, it only makes sense that He would send His followers with the good news regarding His all-inclusive message of the kingdom. It was the apostle Paul who later wrote:

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. – Galatians 3:28-29 NLT

On this occasion, Jesus had dramatically increased the number of His messengers. Earlier, He had sent out the 12. Now, He was sending out 72. But He indicates that there would need to be more.

“The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields. – Luke 10:2 NLT

Jesus had increased the number of messengers six-fold, but He knew that, in the days ahead, that number would need to increase dramatically. Once He had died, been resurrected, and had ascended back to His Father’s side, there would be a need for more messengers to declare the Good News. By sending the 72, Jesus was letting His 12 disciples know that the work ahead would beyond their capacity to do alone. They were going to need to increase their number. That’s why, after His resurrection, Jesus would tell His 11 remaining disciples, “Go therefore and 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 I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV).

The size of the harvest was going to demand additional workers. And Jesus knew that His death, burial, and resurrection were going to result in a tremendous harvest of new lives for the kingdom. He would later allude to the fruit-bearing nature of His pending death.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:23-24 ESV

Jesus reiterates the warning He had given to the 12 when He had sent them out.

“Now go, and remember that I am sending you out as lambs among wolves.” – Luke 10:3 NLT

This is a rather abbreviated version of the instructions He had given the 12 disciples. For some reason, Jesus leaves out a few significant parts.

“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me.” – Matthew 10:16-18 NLT

But even though He leaves out some details, He makes it clear that their journey will be far from easy. And Jesus seems to be projecting into the future, revealing that the message of His coming death, burial, and resurrection will meet with opposition, and those who deliver it will find themselves ridiculed, rejected, and persecuted for their efforts.

The assignment being given to the 72 was meant to be a precursor of things to come. At this point, they were simply instructed to heal the sick and declare “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9 ESV). But even those efforts would meet with mixed results. Some would accept their message while others would vehemently reject it. But it seems that Jesus wanted these messengers to know that there would be receptive ears in every village. His instructions appear to affirm that there would be at least one home in every village where the messengers would find “a son of peace” who would provide them with food and shelter. There would be no need to go door to door in the hopes of finding someone with a receptive ear and a generous heart. God would lead them to just the right home. That’s why Jesus told them to “Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road” (Luke 10:4 ESV). God would provide for all their needs, including by directing them to those Jews and Gentiles who were ready to hear and accept what they had to say.

The primary message these people were to share was concerning the kingdom of God. Regardless of the ethnic or religious makeup of a particular town, the message was to be the same.

“The kingdom of God has come near to you.” – Luke 10:9 ESV

In a sense, these 72 followers of Jesus were to declare the coming of the King. The Messiah of Israel had arrived and that meant the Kingdom of God was not far behind. In a sense, these messengers were offering the inhabitants of these villages the opportunity to become citizens in Jesus’ coming kingdom. The miracles would be a sign of God’s power and provide evidence that something significant was taking place. Remember, the 72 were being sent ahead, preparing the way for the arrival of Jesus. So, when they pronounced the news that the king of God has come near, it would be closely followed by the arrival of Jesus.

And it should be noted that there would be a few villages where the messengers were unwelcome and their message regarding the kingdom was rejected. In those cases, Jesus instructed the pairs of followers to make a public declaration of judgment against that town.

We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate. And know this—the Kingdom of God is near!” – Luke 10:11 NLT

The refusal of the villagers to accept the message regarding the kingdom did nothing to alter the reality of its coming. Whether they believed it or not, the Messiah had come and His kingdom was not far behind. Jesus would still pass through those towns on His way to Jerusalem but the stubborn and unbelieving populace would receive no benefit from His visit. He would come and go, leaving them in the same sinful state and facing the same dismal fate.

And just to emphasize the serious ramifications of their failure to believe, Jesus compares these people to the immoral citizens of Sodom. That ancient city had been destroyed by God for its rampant immorality. But they had not enjoyed a personal visitation from the Son of God. They had not been given news regarding the coming of the kingdom of God. But all those who heard the news of the kingdom and had the opportunity to see the King Himself were going to have to stand before God someday and face His judgment. God had shown them grace and they had returned the favor with rejection. A decision that they would regret for an eternity.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Lesson in Leastness

But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”

49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” – Luke 9:44-50 ESV

Jesus has made His destiny quite clear to His disciples.

“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – Luke 9:22 ESV

But these men found Jesus’ admission to be unfathomable. Peter found them to be unacceptable and even admonished Jesus for saying such things (Mark 8:33). Peter had just confessed Jesus to be “the Christ of God” (Luke 9:20), the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, and Jesus had affirmed his answer. Yet, Peter had been shocked to hear Jesus talking about His coming suffering, rejection, and death. None of that made sense to Peter and his companions. There was no place in their concept of the coming King of Israel for martyrdom. They were looking for a Messiah who would rule and reign, not suffer and die. Peter found the prospect of Jesus’ death to be unacceptable and even called on God to forbid it. And he presumptuously and boldly proclaimed His intention to prevent it. But this exchange earned Peter a stern rebuke from Jesus and a not-to-flattering comparison with Satan. According to Jesus, Peter was guilty of “seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s” (Mark 8:33 NLT). And while Peter had been the only one of the 12 bold enough to  speak his mind, the rest shared his perspective. None of these men could understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. For Peter, James, and John, the transfiguration of Jesus only added to their confusion. This remarkable event had further confirmed for them Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. They had personally witnessed His glorification, His conversation with Moses and Elijah, and had heard the voice of God declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35 ESV).

And all of the disciples had just watched Jesus display the power of God by casting out an unclean spirit from of a young boy. This was not the first time the disciples had seen a demon-possessed person set free. In fact, they had just recently returned from their first ministry assignment where they had each experienced the very same power.

And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. – Mark 6:13 ESV

But the nine disciples who had remained behind while Jesus, Peter, James, and John were on the mount of transfiguration, had repeatedly tried to cast the demon out of the boy but had failed. We can only conjecture what had happened because the gospel authors do not provide us with the details. But suffice it to say that these men must have displayed a confident assurance when the boy’s father approached them, begging them to free his son. After all, they had already proven they could cast out demons. So, they must have been shocked when their efforts failed. And it’s likely that they each took a turn trying to cast out the unclean spirit, only to meet the same fate as the man before them.

But when Jesus successfully exorcised the demon, the people marveled at the power of God. They recognized that what Jesus had just done had been a display of divine enablement. He was operating according to the power and authority of God Almighty. And as the people stood back in awe and amazement, Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44 ESV). 

The timing of Jesus’ statement is significant. He had just displayed His God-ordained power over the demonic realm by delivering a young boy from possession. And yet, now He was telling the disciples that He would be delivered into the hands of men. To the disciples, all of Jesus’ talk of suffering, rejection, and death was a sign of weakness, not power. The Messiah they had longed for would be a conqueror and a king, meting out justice and judgment on all those who stood as enemies of God and His chosen people. But Jesus had just displayed His power over demons and then confessed that He would be delivered over to men.

What these men failed to understand was that this was all part of God’s divine plan. None of this was about a lack of power. Jesus had just proven that He had more than enough power to conquer the enemies of God. This was all about obedience and faith. Jesus was demonstrating His unwavering commitment to accomplish the will of His Heavenly Father. Jesus was not a victim. He was not at the mercy of wicked men. He was the all-powerful Son of God who could command demons, calm storms, heal the sick, and even raise the dead. But because His Father’s plan included His own suffering, rejection, and death, Jesus was ready, willing, and able to obey.

But Luke reveals that the disciples were unable to comprehend what Jesus was saying.

it was concealed from them. – Luke 9:45 ESV

Jesus was speaking plainly, but their hearts were incapable of comprehending what He was saying. This was partly due to their lack of faith, but it was also the result of God’s divine determination to conceal the truth from them. They were not quite ready to know what God had in store. All of this was a shock to their preconceived ideas concerning the Messiah. And even though Jesus was speaking openly and honestly, God was not allowing them to discern the full import of His words. It was not time yet.

And Luke indicates that “they were afraid to ask him about this saying” (Luke 9:45 ESV). This was uncharacteristic of the disciples because they were always asking Jesus questions. They did so all the time. But they were afraid of knowing the truth, so they kept their mouths shut. As the old saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Little did they know that they were on their way to Jerusalem, where everything was going to take place, just as Jesus had predicted. They could ignore the topic, but it was not going away.

What’s fascinating is that this disclosure by Jesus concerning His future fate was followed by a heated debate between the disciples “as to which of them was the greatest” (Luke 9:46 ESV). Here was Jesus letting them know that He was going to suffer, be rejected, and die, and yet they were arguing over which of them was the greatest. Little did they know that Jesus was fully aware of their topic of conversation. He knew their hearts, and He used this opportunity to teach them another valuable lesson on the reality of His mission and their misguided understanding of His kingdom. 

Now, before we paint the disciples as egotistical and self-centered powermongers, let’s look at the facts. They had been handpicked by Jesus. They were His chosen followers and had been given authority by Jesus to cast out demons. When Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus had said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). And Peter, James, and John had been chosen by Jesus to witness His transfiguration. So, these men were somewhat justified in thinking that they would play important roles in Jesus’ coming kingdom.

The problem was that they were arguing over which one of them was the greatest. They had taken their eyes off of Jesus and had begun to focus on their own self-worth. And there is little doubt that Peter, James, and John were justifying their superiority with tales of their experience at the transfiguration. Rather than discussing the death of Jesus and what His reference to rising again might mean, they were busy debating their own value to the kingdom. And this jockeying for position and prominence would continue. Mark reveals that James and John later come to Jesus and make a bold request: “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37 NLT).

These men were operating from a purely secular and temporal perspective. They saw Jesus as the coming King of Israel and they were hoping to garner key posts in His administration. While Jesus was talking about self-sacrifice, they were busy arguing over their own self-worth and qualifications for leadership roles in the new kingdom.

But Jesus gathered the 12 together and gave them a much-needed lesson on spiritual leadership. And to do so, He used a young child as a visual illustration.

Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great. – Luke 9:48 ESV

This comment must have caught the disciples by surprise. First of all, it revealed that Jesus knew the topic of their conversation, and that must have been embarrassing for them. But secondly, His words were incongruent. They didn’t add up. In their culture, servants and children were considered the least of the least. And last place was no place for a leader. The thought of willingly subjugating yourself in order to serve someone else would have made no sense to these men.

In their culture, children were considered as little more than personal property. They had no rights or privileges. They were powerless and helpless. And yet, Jesus stood before the disciples, with one of these seemingly insignificant and unimportant standing by His side, in a place of prominence. And four different times, Jesus used the word dechomai, which can be translated as “receives” but carries a much fuller meaning: “to embrace, make one’s own, approve, not to reject.” In their society, children tended to be ignored. But Jesus was placing the least in a position of highest honor.

Jesus’ words should have had an air of familiarity to them. The disciples had heard Him say something similar. Just prior to Him sending out the 12 on their first missionary journey, He had told them:

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. – Matthew 10:40 ESV

He used the very same formula:

To receive the least ——- is to receive Jesus ——–is to receive God

The disciples were to be the least. They were to be the servants of all. In other words, their role was going to be that of the lowest, not the highest. Their status was to be measured by humility, not glory. The child Jesus held in His arms had no inherent worth or value – from a worldly perspective. He had yet to accomplish anything with his life. He could not boast about his education or business accomplishments. But Jesus had chosen to use this insignificant child to convey a deep spiritual truth. And Jesus was going to use the insignificant disciples to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Not because they were great, but because they were the least. And all those who received the disciples and their message would receive Christ. And to receive Christ would be to receive a restored relationship with God.

But sadly, the disciples failed to grasp the lesson Jesus was trying to convey. Luke reports that John simply changed the subject altogether.

“Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn’t in our group.” – Luke 9:49 NLT

Don’t miss the irony in all of this. The disciples had been unable to cast the demon out of the boy. Yet they had been arguing over which of them was the greatest. And now, after Jesus had just talked about leastness and greatness, John was admitting their corporate pride and arrogance. They had called out someone for casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Why? Because he was not a member of their inner circle. He was an insignificant nobody. According to John, this man was an imposter and had no right to use Jesus’ name or appropriate their position as His disciples. But Jesus issued John a loving and patient reprimand.

Don’t stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you.” – Luke 9:50 NLT 

The disciples had much to learn. And fortunately for them, Jesus was far from finished with His lessons.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Proclaim the Kingdom

1 And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. – Luke 9:1-6 ESV

Jesus’ disciples had witnessed Him perform a variety of amazing miracles, but His raising of the dead girl to life was by far the most shocking. And everything they had seen Him do had been intended to bolster their belief in Him. Jesus wanted them to fully understand who He was and what He had come to do. But He was having to battle their preconceived notions of the Messiah and their expectations that He had come to restore the political fortunes of the Hebrew people. While they were obviously impressed with His power to heal diseases and His authority to cast out demons, they were still waiting for Him to reveal Himself as the conquering king who would defeat their Roman overlords. To the disciples, the miracles and messages of Jesus were impressive, but they were also a bit of a distraction. They couldn’t understand why Jesus was spending all His time up in the region of Galilee when Jerusalem was where they expected the Messiah to rule and reign. Yet according to Mark’s Gospel, “Jesus went from village to village, teaching the people” (Mark 6:6 NLT). Much to the disciples’ surprise and dismay, Jesus continued to concentrate His efforts on the northern region of Galilee, taking His message of the kingdom to other towns and villages where He always found those eager to see His miracles for themselves.

But every step along the way, Jesus was preparing His disciples for the role they would play when the time came for Him to return to His Father’s side in heaven. These men had been hand-picked by God (John 17:6) and assigned to serve by Jesus’ side, but their greatest contribution to the kingdom would come after the Son’s eventual departure.

For some time now, they have been witnesses to the miracles of Jesus. They have seen Him cast out demons, heal the sick, minister to the needy, display His power over the elements of nature, and confound the people with His preaching and parables. But now, they were going to become participants rather than spectators. These men were going to be given an opportunity to practice what Jesus has preached. Instead of standing in the background safely observing the ministry of Jesus, they would find themselves on the frontlines of the effort to declare the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. And to validate their message, they would be given unprecedented power to perform miracles, just like their Lord and Master.

Jesus chooses to send them out in pairs, most likely in keeping with the Old Testament teaching concerning witnesses. Since these men would be declaring the news regarding the kingdom’s arrival and the reality of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, a second witness would serve to validate that message. And Jesus knew that these men would need the strength and encouragement that comes with companionship.

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NLT

This entire enterprise was intended for the benefit of the disciples. While the nature of their message and ministry was vital, Jesus was giving them this assignment to prepare them. As He had been doing all along, Jesus was attempting to strengthen their faith. Despite their constant exposure to His teaching and their front-row seats to His amazing displays of power, they still struggled to comprehend His true identity. Even after witnessing Him calm the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee, they had expressed their shock and displayed their uncertainty.

Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him? – Luke 8:251 ESV

Jesus knew that His disciples were still wrestling with doubt and confusion. They wanted to believe He was the Messiah of Israel, but so much of what He said and did seemed to contradict their expectations and aspirations. They couldn’t deny His power, and it was clear from the crowds that followed Him wherever He went that Jesus was growing in popularity. But His ongoing disputes with the religious leaders confused the disciples. How did He expect to unite the people and lead them in victory over the Romans if He continued to alienate the most powerful men in the nation?

But the disciples had much to learn about the Messiah and His coming kingdom. They were going to have to repent of their preconceived ideas concerning God’s plans for His people. They had their own visions of the future and when Jesus failed to do things the way they expected, they found themselves wrestling with doubt.

So, this brief mission on which they were being sent was meant to put them on the frontlines of the battle and bolster their belief in the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. As He prepared to send them, He gave them “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases” (Luke 9:1 ESV). They would find themselves possessing the very same power He had displayed and that had allowed Him to cast out the demons from the Gadarene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39). But, while they would have access to great power, they were to place themselves on the mercy and provision of God. Jesus instructed them to travel light and to trust God for all their needs.

“Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” – Luke 9:3 ESV

Mark provides further details regarding Jesus’ instructions.

He told them to take nothing for their journey except a walking stick—no food, no traveler’s bag, no money. He allowed them to wear sandals but not to take a change of clothes. – Mark 6:9 NLT

Matthew reveals that Jesus gave the disciples further instructions regarding their mission. They were to focus their efforts on the Jews and were prohibited from ministering among the Gentiles and Samaritans.

“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.” – Matthew 9:5-8 ESV

Their message was clear. They were to declare the same news that John the Baptist had preached in the wilderness of Judea. It was the same message of the kingdom that Jesus had been spreading throughout Galilee. And to validate their message, they were given the power to perform the same kind of miracles that Jesus had done. These signs and wonders would provide proof that their message was from God and that its content should be heard and heeded.

And, Jesus warned that if anyone should refuse to listen to their message, the disciples were to walk away. They were not to waste their time on those who reject the message of the kingdom and the call to repentance. He instructed them to “shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5 ESV). This symbolic act was meant to condemn the unrepentant Jews as unbelieving, defiled, and subject to divine judgment. And Jesus knew that there would be plenty of Jews who would refuse to listen to His disciples. These men would experience the same level of rejection Jesus had encountered in Nazareth.

All of this is in keeping with the words of John found in the opening chapter of his gospel.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:11-13 ESV

Sadly, all those Jews who believed themselves to be the children of God but who refused to accept Jesus as the Son of God would find themselves rejected by God.

Equipped with divine power and a clear message, the disciples made their way into the far reaches of Galilee, “preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (Luke 9:6 ESV). They called the people to repentance and “cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13 ESV). This brief but eventful venture would do wonders for the disciples’ confidence and go a long way in solidifying their faith in Jesus. It would provide them with a glimpse of the future when they would receive the Great Commission from their resurrected Lord and Savior. The day was coming when He would depart and turn over the ministry of the gospel to these very same men. And they would take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. But for now, they were being given a taste of things to come.

It’s important to note that Jesus instructed His disciples to preach the gospel. But the content of that gospel message concerned the coming of the kingdom of God. When we hear the term “gospel” we tend to think of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. For those of us living on this side of the cross, the gospel has come to mean the good news regarding salvation made possible through Jesus’ sacrificial, substitutionary death on our behalf. But for the disciples and all those living prior to Jesus’ death, the gospel concerned the arrival of the King and His kingdom. Jesus made that point perfectly clear to His disciples.

“As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’” – Matthew 10:7 NET

…he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God. – Luke 9:2 NLT

And that message concerning the kingdom was to be delivered to the people of Israel. They were to be told that their long-awaited Messiah had come. The time for the nation’s restoration and renewal had finally arrived. But it would be dramatically different than what they had expected. Rather than deliverance from Roman oppression, Jesus had come to offer them freedom from their captivity to sin and the God-ordained death sentence that hung over their heads. But Jesus knew that the disciples would find plenty of unreceptive ears and unrepentant hearts. That’s why He warned them, “I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town!” (Matthew 10:15 NET). 

The disciples were going to have the perplexing experience of performing miracles while encountering stubborn disbelief. The messengers would find themselves rejected just like their Master. And this unexpected reaction by the Jewish people would leave the disciples further confused. How would Jesus ever restore the fortunes of Israel if His own people refused to believe that He was the Messiah? And what hope did the disciples have if their Master and His message of the kingdom was falling on deaf and disbelieving ears?

But these men had much to learn, and they would have even more questions regarding the kingdom of God and their role in it as the days progressed.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When Circumstances Cause Our Faith to Stumble

18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19 calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 20 And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” 21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Luke 7:18-23 ESV

All the while Jesus was traveling throughout Galilee, teaching and performing miracles, John the Baptist was locked in a dungeon, the prisoner of Herod Antipas. John had gotten himself in hot water with the Tetrarch of Galilee for having boldly confronted him about his illicit relationship with his brother’s wife.

Herod had arrested and imprisoned John as a favor to his wife Herodias (the former wife of Herod’s brother Philip). John had been telling Herod, “It is against God’s law for you to marry her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of a riot, because all the people believed John was a prophet. – Matthew 14:3-5 NLT

During his imprisonment, John’s disciples had been keeping up with the activities of Jesus and relaying to their master all that they had seen and heard. Evidently, they had been in Nain when Jesus raised the dead man back to life and they delivered a full report on this unprecedented miracle to John. They probably included the reactions of the crowd.

“A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” – Luke 7:16 ESV

But this news left John in conflict. He had clearly believed that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel. He had declared Jesus to be “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). After his baptism of Jesus, John had confidently proclaimed, “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34 ESV). Yet, now John found himself locked in a prison cell and he must have wondered about the prophetic promises regarding the coming Messiah. He had plenty of time to think about how his own circumstances seemed to contradict what Isaiah had said would happen when the Messiah appeared in Israel.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. – Isaiah 61:1 ESV

As John looked around at his less-than-ideal surroundings he must have begun to have second thoughts about Jesus’ identity. During his confinement, he had become conflicted and his former confidence in who Jesus was had begun to weaken. At one point, John had boldly proclaimed his unwavering belief in Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and the Son of God.

“I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

“He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” – John 3:28-36 ESV

But as John languished in prison, his certainty was shaken. So, he sent two of his disciples to Jesus with a message.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – Luke 7:19 ESV

You can sense John’s confusion and concern. He is not denying the supernatural nature of Jesus’ miracles. But he is simply trying to reconcile what he has been told about Jesus’ activities with what he had been expecting of the Messiah. There was little doubt that Jesus had been doing Messianic-like miracles. He had fulfilled all of the prophetic predictions concerning the anointed one of God.

In that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. – Isaiah 29:18-19 ESV

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. – Isaiah 35:5-6 ESV

“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
    I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
    a light for the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness. – Isaiah 42:6-7 ESV

It is easy to understand John’s conflicted state. While he knew that his role would greatly diminish with the coming of the Messiah, he had never considered that it would include his imprisonment. Like every other Jew, John was looking for a Messiah who was going to re-establish the David dynasty and return Israel to power and prominence. John was looking for the Kingdom of God on earth. And while Jesus’ miracles were impressive and provided undeniable evidence of God’s power, John seems to have been waiting for proof that Jesus was the Warrior-King who would put an end to Roman rule and reinvigorate the fortunes of God’s chosen people.

Luke indicates that when John’s disciples arrived and delivered his question to Jesus, they were treated to a demonstration of Jesus’ miraculous power.

At that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind. – Luke 7:21 NLT

Jesus seemed to be answering John’s question with visible, tangible proof. But just to make sure that the two disciples of John understood what they had seen, Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22 NLT).

Jesus provides John with a list of miracles He had performed that clearly demonstrate His fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. All of these things were meant to provide evidence of His Messianic role. But it seems clear that John had been looking for something more. He had a clear expectation that the Messiah would come in judgment, delivering the wrath of God against the enemies of Israel. But Jesus would later clarify the nature of His first advent.

“I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark. I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken.” – John 12:46-48 NLT

Like most Jews of his day, John had conflated the predictions concerning the Messiah’s first and second comings. He had been expecting Jesus’ miracles to be followed up by military action against the Roman occupiers of Israel. He had been hoping that Jesus would use His growing popularity among the people and His divine power to lead an insurrection that would finally put an end to Israel’s misery.

But Jesus encouraged John to remain patient and not lose hope.

“…blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” – Luke 7:23 ESV

Jesus could sense that John was beginning to have doubts. So, He encouraged Him not to be offended by what he saw. The Greek word translated as “offended” is skandalizō, which carries the idea of stumbling over a rock or impediment. John was not to allow his unfulfilled expectations concerning the Messiah to trip him up. Jesus was fully aware of John’s predicament and most likely knew that John would never leave the prison alive. But He did not want John to lose heart. John was allowing his personal circumstances to determine his belief in the Messiah. And Jesus was encouraging him to do just the opposite. John was to examine his circumstances based on the clear evidence of Jesus’ Messianic power and authority. No, John had not personally experienced deliverance from the dungeon in which he was imprisoned but that did not negate the fact that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Not every lame person in Israel had been healed. Not every blind person had received sight. There were still countless people suffering from deafness and leprosy. And it’s unlikely that John was the only occupant of Herod’s prison.

Jesus was not yet done. His ministry had just begun. And all those who would continue to believe would not be disappointed. In fact, they would be blessed. In time, they would find that Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. But for now, they were going to have to trust and believe, regardless of the circumstances.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Twelve

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

17 And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, 18 who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all. Luke 6:12-19 ESV

Luke was the author of the gospel that bears his name as well as the book of Acts. Both were written to an individual named Theophilus, a close acquaintance of Luke’s. These two works were intended to provide Theophilus with a complete chronicle of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, while also describing what happened to the disciples after Jesus returned to His Father’s side.

He prefaced the book of Acts with a note of explanation, informing Theophilus of the connection between the two works.

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. – Acts 1:1-2 ESV

Luke went on to record Jesus’ last words to His disciples just before He departed.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 ESV

The rest of the book of Acts provides a detailed history of what happened after the disciples returned to Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit came just as Jesus had promised and the disciples were dramatically and permanently transformed by His indwelling presence and power.

As one reads Luke’s gospel account, it becomes apparent that he had a two-part series in mind from the beginning. He had likely been conducting first-person interviews with the disciples and other followers of Jesus. He had spent countless hours chronicling the events of Jesus’ life, all the way to His death in Jerusalem. But for Luke, that was not the end of the story, it was only the beginning. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension paved the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the church – the Body of Christ.

So, in his gospel, Luke shows a keen interest in how Jesus chose His disciples because he knew these men would play a vital role in the future of the ministry. Luke is the only gospel author who states that Jesus called His disciples apostles. The term “apostle” means “sent ones” and Luke uses it six times in his gospel and 28 times in the book of Acts. These men would become the means by which Jesus carried on His ministry even after His departure. Jesus would commission them to carry the Gospel message to the ends of the earth.

“Go therefore and 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 I have commanded you.” – Matthew 28:19-20 ESV

But how did these particular men end up with this weighty responsibility? What were their qualifications? Why did were they chosen to carry on the work of Jesus? Luke attempts to answer these questions as he recounts Jesus’ selection of the twelve. And he begins by explaining that Jesus spent an entire night in prayer before choosing the men who would become His apostles. Luke has made it clear that Jesus had many followers. He was constantly surrounded by large crowds and there were many who had begun to believe that He was the long-awaited Messiah. But after His all-night conversation with His Heavenly Father, Jesus called His followers to join Him on the mountain top.

And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. – Mark 3:13-15 ESV

Jesus set apart these men from among all the others, and they would become His inner circle. He would spend the next three years pouring into their lives and preparing them for the future ministry they would inherit when His work was done.

It should not be overlooked that Jesus went to a mountain top in order to receive direction from His Heavenly Father. And immediately after this encounter, He called the men who would become His apostles and began to teach them. This entire scene is reminiscent of Moses’ ascent to the top of Mount Sinai where He received the Law from God and then took it down to the valley, where he taught it to the people. Jesus was the new Moses, imparting the commands of God to the people so that they might live in keeping with His will and in a way that would honor His name. Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Moses.

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 ESV

Jesus descended from the mountain accompanied by His 12 disciples and began to teach the large crowd that had gathered.

And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon – Luke 6:17 ESV

Despite His confrontations with the religious leaders, Jesus’ reputation continued to spread. While the high priest and his fellow members of the Sanhedrin were busy trying to figure out how to eliminate Jesus, the people were flocking from all over Israel to see and hear Him. And Luke records that the audience consisted of two groups: “A great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people.” In other words, those who came were made up of the convinced and the curious. There were some who believed Jesus to be the Messiah and others who had come to see if all the rumors about His miracles were true. And, as always, there were those who came to be healed. For them, the debate over whether Jesus was the Messiah was secondary and superfluous. Their interest in Him was far more personal and practical. The diseased and demon-possessed had traveled all the way to Galilee in the hopes of receiving healing from Jesus. And they were not disappointed. Luke reports that even “those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured” (Luke 6:18 ESV).

For the first time, the 12 men whom Jesus had chosen, found themselves in the center of all the interest surrounding Him. They were crushed by the crowds pushing and shoving to get close to Jesus. Luke provides a somewhat benign description of the scene: “Everyone tried to touch him, because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone” (Luke 6:19 NLT). But it seems likely that the newly appointed disciples found all of this to be a bit overwhelming. They were no longer spectators, standing on the outside and observing Jesus from a distance. They found themselves in the eye of the storm and probably wondering what they had gotten themselves into. An odd mixture of excitement, fear, and wonder must have filled their minds as they viewed the chaotic scene taking place around them.

This was just the beginning. These 12 men had no idea what was coming next or what the following three years would contain. But suddenly, Jesus turned His attention from those who clamored for healing and addressed the men He had chosen to be His apostles. And what He had to say to them would be like nothing they had ever heard before. As mind-blowing as His miracles had been, they were about to be blown away by the content of His message.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Hardened Hearts

45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. Mark 6:45-52 ESV

Three of the four gospels include this story and all three indicate that it happened immediately after the miracle of the bread and the fish. The context is essential to understanding what takes place and helps provide much-needed insight into Mark’s rather condemning conclusion: “they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.” (Mark 6:52 NLT).

Mark’s harsh-sounding critique seems to paint the disciples in an unflattering light but, when taken in context, it provides the reader with a fair and honest assessment of their ongoing spiritual transformation. They were works in process. Their comprehension of Jesus’ true identity was in a constant state of flux and it was complicated by their own personal agendas and expectations. Their concepts of the Messiah had been formed by their Hebrew roots and highly influenced by the religious indoctrination they had received as young boys at the local synagogue in their hometowns. Their unique experiences with Jesus were informative and instructive but were also confusing and contradictory to their preconceived notions about the coming Messiah.

Jesus was not operating according to their expectations. His miracles, while powerful and impressive, didn’t seem to be ushering in the Kingdom the disciples, as Jews, had long anticipated. His words, while spoken with authority and filled with interesting stories and fascinating parables, didn’t always make sense. He spoke cryptically and about subjects that seemed out of keeping with someone who had come to be King of Israel.

So, this particular story must be viewed within the immediate context of the surrounding events. Mark indicates that as soon as the disciples had finished gathering the 12 baskets of leftover loaves and fish, Jesus instructed them to head by boat to the village of Bethsaida. Jesus then dismissed the crowd and headed to a secluded spot for some alone time with God the Father. Mark provides no details concerning this divine conversation between Father and Son, but it is safe to assume that it mirrored the other prayers of Jesus recorded in the gospels. These moments of isolation and intimate communion with His Heavenly Father were important to Jesus. It was during these occasions that Jesus shared His heart and received instructions. Perhaps Jesus prayed for the disciples, sharing with God the Father His frustration with their inability to grasp the meaning of His messages and miracles. Jesus knew these men had been given to Him by God, but He also knew that they were having difficulty understanding who He truly was and the real purpose behind His incarnation.

When Jesus had completed His time in prayer, He made His way back to the shoreline, where He spotted the disciples “making headway painfully, for the wind was against them” (Mark 6:48 ESV). John indicates that “they had rowed about three or four miles” (John 6:29 ESV). 

Don’t minimize the circumstances surrounding this scene. It is somewhere around 3:00 a.m. The sky is pitch black, the wind is howling furiously, and the white-capped waves are pounding against the sides of the small fishing boat. The disciples, four of whom were professional fishermen, were struggling to keep the boat afloat and headed to their final destination. And Jesus witnessed all of this from the safety of the shoreline.

But then He did something extraordinary and unexpected. He stepped out into the sea and began to walk on the top of the water. And Mark adds a very important detail to his narrative.

Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. He intended to go past them – Mark 6:48 NLT

Jesus walked toward the disciples but was fully intending to walk right past them and on to Bethsaida. He wanted them to see Him and take hope and confidence in Him. If He could walk on the waves in the midst of the storm, they had no reason to fear. Just the sight of Jesus, walking calmly and confidently on the tops of the waves, should have instilled a sense of peace in the hearts of the disciples. But instead, they reacted in fear.

but when they saw him walking on the water, they cried out in terror, thinking he was a ghost. They were all terrified when they saw him. – Mark 6:49-50 NLT

They had not been looking for Jesus. And when He suddenly appeared. they didn’t recognize Him because they were not expecting Him to show up in that inhospitable context. It’s interesting to note that the disciples had shown no fear until Jesus appeared unexpectedly. There’s no indication that the disciples had feared the storm. They were simply struggling against the wind and waves, attempting to make their way to Bethsaida as Jesus had instructed them. But their demeanor quickly shifted from focused determination to abject fear when they spotted this strange figure walking toward them in the midst of the darkness and violence of the storm.

Sensing their terror, Jesus quickly identified Himself to the frightened men.

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” – Mark 6:50 ESV

They had not recognized Him because they had not expected Him. No one in the boat had been calling out to Him. In the midst of their difficulty, they had forgotten all about Jesus. They had become so consumed with the task at hand that they had neglected to think about the very one who had sent them on this storm-tossed and ill-fated excursion. Seeing Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the storm should have been enough to remind them of the power and authority of the one they served. They had just witnessed Him feed more than 10,000 men, women, and children; using nothing more than five small loaves and two fish. They had just recently returned from their own missionary journey where they had cast out demons and performed other miracles of healing. But in the wee hours of the morning and in the middle of a storm-tossed sea, any thoughts of miracles or the Messiah were nowhere to be found.

And in a characteristic act of mercy and grace, Jesus altered His plans and joined the disciples in midst of their struggle. Rather than walk by, He entered into. And as soon as His foot touched the deck of the boat, “the wind ceased” (Mark 6:51 ESV). His presence brought peace. And the disciples “were utterly astounded” (Mark 6:51 ESV). They were blown away. The Greek word Mark used is existēmi and it literally means they were beside themselves. And one has to ask why this particular miracle made such an impact on them. Had they not seen Jesus do other incredible, mind-blowing miracles? What was it about this one that left them beside themselves in wonder?

And Mark provides the answer:  “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51 ESV). They had not connected the dots. It is likely that the bow of the boat contained the 12 baskets full of leftovers they had gathered. But they were not yet able to understand the significance of the miracle that Jesus had performed. By transforming five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed an army, Jesus had clearly demonstrated His divine power and authority over the creation. He had done the impossible. And yet, the disciples did not understand. Oh, they fully grasped the reality of the miracle because they had seen it happen. But they were blind to the message it was intended to send: Jesus was God.

And Mark notes that their hearts were calloused and hardened. In their fallen human state, they were incapable of discerning the message contained within the miracles of Jesus. They were unable to connect all the dots and complete the picture that was being revealed right before their eyes. But step by step, miracle by miracle, Jesus would continue to disclose Himself to these men. He would patiently and persistently display His power and authority so that, eventually, their beliefs about Him would line up with God’s will and not their own.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Men on Mission

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. Mark 6:7-13 ESV

In the closing half of verse 6, Mark reveals that Jesus “went about among the villages teaching.” At this point in His ministry, Jesus is concentrating His energies and efforts on the region of Galilee. Having been rejected by the citizens of His own hometown of Nazareth, Jesus has moved on, taking His message of the Kingdom to other towns and villages where He will find a more receptive audience.

In this section, Jesus, as Master and Teacher, begins to prepare His disciples for the role they will play when the time comes for Him to return to His Father’s side in heaven. These men had been hand-picked by God (John 17:6) and assigned to serve by Jesus’ side, but their greater contribution to the Kingdom would come after the Son’s eventual departure.

For some time now, they have been witnesses to the witnesses of Jesus. They have seen Him cast out demons, heal the sick, minister to the needy, display His power over the elements of nature, and confound the people with His preaching and parables. But now, they were going to become participants rather than spectators. These men were going to be given an opportunity to practice what Jesus has preached. Instead of standing in the background safely observing the ministry of Jesus, they will find themselves on the frontlines of the effort to declare the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. And to validate their message, they will be given unprecedented power to perform miracles, just like their Lord and Master.

Jesus chooses to send them out in pairs, most likely in keeping with the Old Testament teaching concerning witnesses. Since these men would be declaring the news regarding the kingdom’s arrival and the reality of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, a second witness would serve to validate that message. And Jesus knew that these men would need the strength and encouragement that comes with companionship.

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NLT

This entire enterprise was intended for the benefit of the disciples. While the nature of their message and ministry was vital, Jesus was giving them this assignment to prepare them. As He has been doing all along, Jesus is attempting to strengthen their faith. Despite their constant exposure to His teaching and their front-row seats to His amazing displays of power, they still struggled to comprehend His true identity. Even after witnessing Him calm the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee, they had expressed their shock and displayed their uncertainty.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” – Mark 4:41 ESV

Jesus knew that His disciples remained unconvinced as to who He was. They wanted to believe He was the Messiah of Israel, but so much of what He said and did seemed to contradict their expectations and aspirations. They couldn’t deny His power and it was clear, from the crowds that followed Him wherever He went, that Jesus was growing in popularity. But His ongoing disputes with the religious leaders confused the disciples. How did He expect to unite the people and lead them in victory over the Romans if He continued to alienate the most powerful men in the nation?

But the disciples had much to learn about the Kingdom and the reign of the Messiah. They were going to have to repent of their preconceived ideas concerning God’s plans for His people. They had their own visions of the future and when Jesus did not do things the way they expected, they found themselves wrestling with doubt.

So, this brief mission on which they were being sent was meant to put them on the frontlines of the battle and bolster their belief in the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. As He prepared to send them, He gave them “authority over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6:8 ESV). They would find themselves possessing the very same power He had displayed and that had allowed Him to cast out the demons from the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). But, while they would have access to great power, they were to place themselves on the mercy and provision of God. Jesus instructed them to travel light and to trust God for all their needs.

He told them to take nothing for their journey except a walking stick—no food, no traveler’s bag, no money. He allowed them to wear sandals but not to take a change of clothes. – Mark 6:9 NLT

Matthew reveals that Jesus provided strict instructions regarding the destination of the disciples. They were to focus their efforts on the Jews and were prohibited from ministering among the Gentiles and Samaritans.

“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.” – Matthew 9:5-8 ESV

Their message was clear. They were to declare the same news that John the Baptist had preached in the wilderness of Judea. It was the same message of the kingdom that Jesus had been spreading throughout Galilee. And to validate their message, they were given the power to perform the same kind of miracles that Jesus did. These signs and wonders would provide proof that their message was from God and that its content should be heard and heeded.

And, Jesus warns, if anyone should refuse to listen to their message, the disciples are to walk away. They are not to waste their time on those who reject the message of the kingdom and the call to repentance. He instructs them to “shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (Mark 6:11 ESV). This symbolic act was meant to condemn the unrepentant Jews as unbelieving, defiled, and subject to divine judgment. And Jesus knew that there would be plenty of Jews who would refuse to listen to His disciples. These men would experience the same level of rejection Jesus had encountered in Nazareth.

All of this is in keeping with the words of John found in the opening chapter of his gospel.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:11-13 ESV

Sadly, all those Jews who believed themselves to be the children of God but who refused to accept Jesus as the Son of God would find themselves rejected by God.

Equipped with divine power and a clear message, the disciples made their way into the far reaches of Galilee. They called the people to repentance and “cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13 ESV). This brief but eventful venture would do wonders for the disciples’ confidence and go a long way in solidifying their faith in Jesus. It would provide them with a glimpse of the future when they would receive the Great Commission from their resurrected Lord and Savior. The day was coming when He would depart and turn over the ministry of the gospel to these very same men. And they would take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. But for now, they were being given a taste of things to come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson