I have two thoughts for you today. The first concerns “the twelve” while the second involves Jesus’ instructions: “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Mt 10:5-6)
This is the first time in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus calls to Himself a “select team” of disciples to whom He will assign a mission. Up to this point in time, the disciples were called one-by-one, witnessed Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of heaven being at hand, and watched Him perform miracles. Now they are being sent out to proclaim the Kingdom.
Jesus’ choice of twelve as the number of His “select team” has obvious symbolic importance as the number of the sons of Jacob and thus of the tribes of Israel. The symbolism will become explicit in 19:28, where these twelve disciples are given a role when, alongside the Son of Man seated on his own glorious throne, they too “will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
There is no reason to believe that these twelve Galilean men were in fact drawn from all twelve traditional tribes; their significance was in their number, not in their ancestry. When one of the Twelve was lost, the number was sufficiently important for him to need to be replaced (Acts 1:15–26). So, from an early point in His ministry Jesus was casting membership in the Covenant People based now not on tribal origin but on the Messiah’s call. 1
The same is true today. We have all kinds of modern “tribal identities.” Where does Covenant People rank on the list of importance and on the list of being that person in an identifiable way in the world?
Where not to go
There are three-to-four explanations for Jesus’ early mission instructions. Rather than rehearse them all with you, let me talk about the one that I think is most relevant to us. Jesus has assembled the “select team” but He wants them focused during their first mission. There is a whole world, but there is a plentiful harvest right in the Twelve’s own backyard of Galilee.
Pastor Rick Warren in his book “Purpose Driven Church” latches on to the idea of a “target audience.” “The practice of targeting specific kinds of people for evangelism is a biblical principle for ministry” [p. 158]. This comes after he had written:
Too many congregations are naive in their thinking about evangelism. If you ask the members, “Who is your church trying to reach for Christ?” the response will likely be, “Everybody! We’re trying to reach the entire world for Jesus Christ.” Of course, this is the goal of the Great Commission, and it should be the prayer of every church, but in practice there is not a local church anywhere that can reach everybody. [p. 155-6]
For your church to be most effective in evangelism you must decide on a target. Discover what types of people live in your area, decide which of those groups your church is best equipped to reach, and then discover which styles of evangelism best match your target. While your church may never be able to reach everyone, it is especially suited to reaching certain types of people. Knowing who you’re trying to reach makes evangelism much easier. [p. 157]
Another relationship to “our own backyard” is suggested by Warren:
I believe that the most effective evangelistic strategy is to first try to reach those with whom you already have something in common. After you’ve discovered all the possible target groups in your community, which group should you focus on first? The answer is to go after those you are most likely to reach. [p. 173]
It seems likely to me that these Jewish men would have (1) been more accepted among their own people than with the Gentiles; and (2) would have been more familiar with the habits and customs and language of people like themselves. At the same time, there were some great differences among these twelve. Perhaps the most diverse: Matthew, the tax collector, who had worked for the Romans occupation forces and Simon “the Cananaean” (a “zealot” in Luke/Acts) who had probably wanted all the Romans out of Canaan.
To find the former Roman hireling Matthew and the revolutionary Simon together among the disciples is quite striking. As John Meier states, “The startling juxtaposition of this former Rome-hater with Matthew, a former lackey of Rome, shows that the new community of Jesus has embraced and transcended the tensions in the old community of Israel” (Meier, Matthew, 105).
It makes sense that Matthew would have an easier time witnessing to other tax collectors than he would with other Zealots, and the reverse for Simon — even though both had been converted from their former ways of thinking and living.
C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves, p. 48): “Dogs and cats should always be brought up together — it broadens their minds so.” Maybe, besides broadening our minds, it helps the church witness to a larger segment of society.
1 France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007. Print. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. 376-77