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The Ambassadors of the Kingdom, Part 3: Persevere in the Difficult Task

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Dec 28, 1997

Matthew 10:16-23

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Turn with me in your Bibles if you will, to Matthew chapter 10.  If you remember in our previous studies of this particular chapter, in the first few verses Christ appoints an inner circle of twelve disciples and then in verses 5-15, He begins to give them specific instructions on what they are to do in their first mission journey on His behalf.  They are to go into the towns and surrounding villages of the countryside in which they are, to proclaim the kingdom of heaven.  They are to go out in dependence upon Him, in search of  the lost sheep of the house of Israel, ministering His word, dependent upon His power, trusting in God’s providence to supply them for their needs, and so the Lord Jesus tells them to travel light, don’t take anything extra with you, don’t even take an extra cloak, but go out and proclaim the message of the kingdom.  And He reminds them that the message they will take to those villages and towns is of eternal significance, for if the people who hear them preach that message reject that message, the Lord Jesus says their judgment will be greater than the judgment of God upon Sodom and Gomorrah.  And when one recalls the story of God’s dealings with Sodom and Gomorrah, one has to ask, “Well how could you have a greater judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah?  I mean, surely, fire from heaven is relatively severe judgment?”  And yet the Lord Jesus say, the word of the gospel of the kingdom is so important, and it’s so clear, and it’s so full of the glory of God and His grace toward sinners, that if it is rejected the judgment for those who reject it will be greater than the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah.  And so they who journey, their whole mission is imbued with the sense of significance, eternal significance. 

As we come to this passage today, particularly in verses 16 to 23, we are coming to a section of Matthew 10 which has broader implications, not only for us but for the apostles’ ministry.  Those first instructions which Christ gave His disciples, many of them were very situation specific: what not to carry, what to carry; what to do in the case of different circumstances.  Now, He begins to broaden His instructions.  Many of the instructions which he gives to the disciples in verses 16 to 23 are far more comprehensive, they apply not only to this first missionary journey, but they apply to their missionary work after Christ has gone, and so there are certain direct applications of them to us today, even more direct than the ones that we saw last week as we studied verses 5 to 15.  So let’s turn now to this passage, where the Lord Jesus gives predictions of trouble to His disciples, as well as counsels of comfort to His disciples.  Hear God’s holy word beginning in Matthew 10 verse 16: 

Matthew 10:16-23 

Our Lord, we praise You for Your word, we praise You for its eternal profitableness.  We thank You that it speaks to our every circumstance, our every exigency.  We pray now that by the Spirit, You would open our eyes not only to understand this word with our minds, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that our minds, our attitudes, our posture, our outlook, our priorities reflect the truth of Your word.  We recognize, O God, that we need the Holy Spirit to do this, we need the Spirit to illumine our minds and we need the Spirit to work in us in accordance with grace, that we might truly embrace the truth.  Help this to be so.  O God, if there are those here this day who do not know You savingly, open their eyes, even for the first time, that they might behold wonderful things from Your word.  We ask all these things in Jesus name, Amen. 

As we come to this passage today, there are at least three things to bear in mind.  The first thing is this:  the disciples were expecting Jesus to set up His kingdom immediately.  You won’t understand the force of Jesus’ words to the disciples unless you understand that.  The disciples were expecting Jesus to set His kingdom up, as they conceived it, immediately.  They were looking sometime very soon for the Lord Jesus to set up that kingdom.  After all, He had been saying to them, over and over, things like, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” “The kingdom of God is near.”  And they were actually led by that and certain other things which were actually misconceptions to think that the Lord Jesus’ kingdom, and the way they conceived it, was going to be very shortly established.  And so the Lord Jesus was going to have to address those misunderstandings connected with that.  Notice also that they conceived the kingdom in triumphalistic terms.  Not only did they expect the kingdom to be set up immediately, they expected in that kingdom to have a rather prominent position and rule.  The Lord Jesus Christ is the Messiah of Israel, ruling over a righteous land, restored to the love of the Lord God of Israel, worshipping Him, walking in His way, they would rule as judges and elders in Israel along with the Messiah.  A rather important, prominent position they were anticipating attaining when Christ's kingdom was set up.  This too, caused the Lord some concern and He knew He had some teaching to do in that area, for they were up for a rude awakening. 

Notice also that they conceived of the kingdom in the same sort of earthly terms as many of the people of Israel did.  They conceived of it in almost militaristic and civil terms, as if the Lord Jesus were going to set up a government, throw out the Romans, and reestablish Israel as an independent nation.  All three of those misconceptions the Lord Jesus would have to clear up, and so today, we will see the Lord Jesus, in His commissioning sermon to the apostles, correct some of their mistakes in their understanding about the kingdom of God.  There are many great truths we can learn this day,  but let me direct your attention to two or three. 

I. Those who serve Christ in the world need both Grace and Wisdom.
The first you’ll see in verse 16 where you see the words of Christ commissioning the apostles.  The apostles are commissioned there, and we learn that those who serve Christ in this world need both grace and wisdom.  If we are going to serve Christ effectively in this world, we need both grace and wisdom.  Christ says, “Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.”  Notice what the Lord Jesus says there, “I send you out.”  Those are words of commissioning.  That phrase means ‘I am commissioning you as My  official representatives.  You will be My spokesmen to the people of Israel.  I’m sending you out as those who are going to be My heralds.  You are going to proclaim My kingdom.’  What an encouragement those words must have been to the disciples.  Christ is virtually saying, ‘Look, you’re not going out on your own, your going out because I sent you.  You’re not going out on your own, you’re going with My words.  You’re not going out on your own, you’re going with My message, with My power, you’re going with My blessing, and you’re going to go with My presence, for as you do what I have called you to do, I am going to be there with you.’  He’s going to make that promise explicitly later on in the Gospel of Matthew,  “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Those would have been words of great encouragement to the disciples, there’re now being cut loose to minister.  They had been feeding and feasting on the word which Christ had taught them, now it’s their job to go herald that word to others and they needed encouragement.  If you’ve ever been shoved out for the first time to bear witness on your own, you know the fear and trepidation which must have been pulsing through their own hearts, and so it would have been an encouraging thing to hear. 

But, Christ does not exempt them from personal responsibility in preparing for this mission.  Yes, they would remember they were going in His power.  Yes, they would remember they were preaching His message.  Yes, they would remember that He was going to be with them, and it would be His blessing that would determine the outcome of their labors, but they were also to be shrewd as serpents and harmless as doves.  Because of the difficulty of the task that the Lord was sending them to, He said they had to simultaneously manifest two qualities: they had to both be wise and innocent. 

How difficult it is, my friends, to put three things together at once, zeal for the Lord, wisdom, and purity of intention.  O, those three things are very difficult to get together in the same person.  They were to have wisdom, they were to act wisely, they were to have zeal for the Lord, holy zeal for the Lord, proclamation of the kingdom, and at the same time, be wise.  William Hendriksen gives us a beautiful description of the kind of wisdom the Lord was calling them to have. He says,  “The keenness here recommended as a human quality involves insight into the nature of one’s surroundings, both personal and material.  It involves circumspection.  It involves sanctified common sense, wisdom to do the right things at the right time and place in the right manner.  It involves a serious attempt always to discover the best means to achieve the highest goal, and earnest and honest search for answers to such questions as, ‘How will this word or action of mine look in the end, how will it affect my own future, the future of my neighbor, and the glory of God?  Is this the best way to handle this problem, or is there a better way?’  That is the kind of wisdom which the Lord Jesus was calling to His disciples to manifest simultaneously as they manifested holy zeal.  And we ourselves know friends who have the gift of holy zeal, or the gift of wisdom, but we don’t know many friends who have the gift of both, because they’re hard things to go together. We know friends who are bazookas for Christ, and we know friends who are so careful that they never can quite get around to issuing the offense of the gospel, even in the most unoffensive way.  It’s difficult to be both wise and zealous for the Lord at the same time, and that’s precisely what Christ calls His disciples to be. 

Notice as well, though, even as they are to be wise, even as they are to be shrewd, even as they are to be circumspect and careful, they are at the same time to be harmless or innocent.  Those people who are the best strategizers and thinkers, those who are most circumspect, are sometimes prone to either looking out so much for their own interest that they don’t look out for the interest of others, or they actually begin to compromise for the sake of keeping an offense from coming about.  And so the Lord Jesus says, ‘You are to be harmless, you are to be innocent, you are to have only good intentions toward others, and, you are to compromise not at all with evil.’  What a tremendous thing Christ is calling His disciples to: Zeal for the gospel, wisdom and innocence, all rolled up in one, that’s what His disciples are to have.

I want you to note as well in verse 16, that they must be conscious of their distinction from the world, he says, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”  He wants them to know, you are a sheep, you are not a wolf, and the wolves are not sheep.  I am sending you out as sheep to the wolves because there are some wolves out there that I want to turn into sheep.  But you are not them, and they are not you.  You are distinct, you are different from them.  My people are different.  And so the Lord Jesus sends them out as His official representatives with a  challenge to be both wise and harmless, and to recognize that they are distinct. 

We ourselves have that same calling as believers, to go out into the world with both grace and zeal for His truth, and wisdom and innocence, and it’s a difficult thing.  Grace and common sense are the rarest of combinations. There was a Scottish minister last century who used to tell his students, “You need three things to be a minister of the gospel: grace, Greek and gumption”  Now gumption is a wonderful old Scots word.  It can mean either stickability or perseverance, or can mean common sense.  I believe that it is in that latter sense that he was referring.  You need grace, Greek and common sense.  And he would say to them, “If you don’t have grace, you can go to Christ and He’ll give it to you.  If you don’t have Greek, you can come to me and I’ll teach it to you.  But if you don’t have gumption, I don’t know where you can get it.” 

And there’s a great deal of truth to that my friends.  Great grace and common sense in the cause of Christ, serving Him in the world, are a rare combination, and that very fact ought to drive us to pray for them as we minister on His behalf.  College students know this.  Perhaps there is a student who has grown up in a professing Christian home, growing up in church all their life.  They go off to college.  They hear the preaching of a faithful campus minister in an RUM group, and they are brought to a saving relationship with Christ.  They trust in Him and profess Him and feel that for the first time they understand the truth, and suddenly, very clearly, they see the failure and failings of their family.  And so immediately at Christmas break they go back home to inveigh against their parents with regard to their wickedness and ignorance in the things of the truth.  It can sometimes cause family difficulties, can’t it?  Great grace and common sense are the rarest of combinations, but David showed that kind of grace and common sense, did he not, in his dealings with Saul?  Great zeal for God, and yet respect for the position that Saul had been put in.  Did not Abigail show that kind of grace and common sense when she had to put up with that half-man, Nabal?  O, she could have told him a thing or two, but how patient she was with him.  Paul showed that kind of grace and common sense, did he not, in dealing with those who opposed him in Jerusalem?  That is the kind of grace and common sense to which Christ is calling His disciples, and calling you and me.  May we pray indeed for great grace and common sense. 

II. Those who serve Christ in the world must be prepared to face opposition.
Notice also in verses 17ff, we see Christ issue a warning to His apostles.  Here He teaches that those who serve Christ in the world, must be prepared to face opposition.  The disciples were anticipating a kingdom which was going to lead them to great prominence and leadership, and the Lord Jesus wanted to prepare them for a kingdom that was going to expose them to persecution.  And so, He tells them to beware of men for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in the synagogues. 

Notice that Christ tells the disciples that they must be prepared for both religious and civil persecution.  So far from their message being openly embraced by the majority of Israel, the thanks that they were going to get for preaching this message, was that they were going to be kicked out of their own churches, and they were going to be treated as criminals by the civil courts of their land.  You see, the disciples were expecting their message to meet with success.  They were expecting that message to resonate with the people and be a popular message, but the Lord Jesus says, don’t expect that kind of success. 

Notice as well in verse 21, He says, I want to tell you that the gospel message that I’ve given to you is even going to divide families, it’s going to turn parents against children, and children against parents, and brothers against brothers.  There are many in this congregation who have known that kind of pain in their embrace of the gospel, as family members rejected them because they embraced the gospel.  The Lord Jesus makes it clear to His disciples that He takes precedence when those kinds of pressures come to bear, when a person says, “It’s either your Christ or your mother, or Christ or your father,” then the choice has been made.  Christ must take precedence.  The disciples must be prepared for this; they must not expect success at every turn.  Indeed, Christ says some of the opposition that they will face will be savage; they’ll seek their lives.  My friends, in our own day, we must not give in to the temptation to alter the gospel to make it more popular, because the very enmity against the gospel that we face when the gospel is properly preached and proclaimed, is not a sign that we’re doing something wrong, but it may well be the sign that we’re doing precisely what God wants us to do individually and corporately.

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