Mark 6:6b-13; 30-32. Two by two.

And he went about among the villages teaching. 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. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 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.” So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them…

 

…The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

 

So far, Mark has arranged his accounts loosely into cycles of miracles and other pieces of narrative, each cycle with a different focus. In the first cycle, the point was simply to show what God’s kingdom is going to be like, right at the outset, as the king appeared. So Jesus casts out a demon, heals Peter’s mother and many sick people, and cleanses a leper, in order to show that under his reign, Satan’s power will be broken, the curse will be lifted, and uncleanness will be no more. Under God’s reign, Jesus is the King. So Jesus commands some disciples to follow him, and teaches with authority in the synagogues.

In the next cycle, a new element is introduced, namely that of opposition and division. God’s kingdom is not only a place of blessing, but also a place of conflict. There are those who harden their hearts and oppose the reign of King Jesus, despite its obvious goodness. In all of the snapshots of Jesus’ ministry under this section- the healing of a paralysed man, the healing of a man with a withered hand, the calling of Levi- Mark’s focus is not so much on the miracles themselves as the disputes which they occasioned. And Mark also records the dispute over plucking of grain on the Sabbath, and the occasion when the religious leaders accused Jesus of being under Satanic control, and the time when Jesus’ natural family said that he was a madman and tried to take him away until he got better. The disciples are marked out as Jesus’ true family, because they are in his kingdom. Mark wants to point out that the kingdom of God is essentially divisive. When it comes, it makes things much clearer, and the goats are plainly shown to be different from the sheep.

The next cycle focuses on those who do respond to the kingdom of God, and who grasp the blessings offered. Mark chooses two more miracles out of the many which Jesus did in order to make a point about faith. The blessings of the kingdom are grasped by faith. Both the woman and Jairus are commended for their faith.

Now Mark comes to the time when Jesus sent the disciples out as heralds of his kingdom. So far, they have been learners, observing Jesus in all he did. Now they are to go and be his apostles. Between the sending of the Twelve (v6-13), and their return (v30-32), Mark tells us about what happened to John the Baptist, who he had introduced right at the start of the gospel.

 

The sending and return of the Twelve

 

1) What is the relationship of the Twelve to Jesus?

Teachers in Israel would have different groups of followers. Some would hear them when it seemed convenient- when the teacher visited their home town, for example. Others would be more interested, would have marked out a particular teacher as a favourite of theirs, would identify themselves in some sense as a supporter, might offer him hospitality, or put themselves out and travel to the next town to hear him teach. But there would be a small and dedicated group who were actually the disciples of the teacher. They would call him “Rabbi” (My teacher). They would be allowed to sit at his feet, to hear him intimately. They would be allowed to share his life in every way. They would follow him everywhere he went, listen to all his teaching. He would teach them privately, apart from the crowds, and take them deeper into his thought. They would eat with him, sleep where he slept, even leaving home and family for a while to follow him. The Twelve are chosen by Jesus personally to be his disciples. They have left home and family for his sake, as Peter says (Mark 10:28). Jesus sees them as his family, and says so publicly (Mark 3:34).

In some sense, they are actually an extension of Jesus himself; his body. The Twelve are the embryonic church. There are twelve of them because they are his new Israel, the new twelve tribes.  They, along with the prophets, will be the foundation for the church (Ephesians 2:20). The structure will be built on them after Pentecost, but for now, they are all that there is. They are the group publicly identified with Jesus. We have Paul’s teaching in his letters to churches that the church is Christ’s “body”

 “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many”… “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body”… “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” I Corinthians 12:12-27.

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”… “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:11-16.

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Ephesians 5:22-33.

“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” Colossians 1:24.

Your body is the physical organism by which you interact with the world around you. You pick things up, put them down, eat, drink, communicate- all by using your body. The church is the physical thing by which Jesus Christ himself interacts with the world. Paul is drawing out similarities between (variously) a man and his natural body, a man and his wife, and Christ and his church. The Twelve stand in this intimate relationship to Jesus. When people reject the apostles, they are rejecting Jesus himself. Mark is concerned to point out that when Jesus goes hungry, the twelve apostles go hungry.

But more even than that, they are his plenipotentiary ambassadors- the apostles of Jesus Christ. They are sent out by Jesus to be his personal representatives. He gives them authority to use his power over the demons. They do his work, in his name, by his authority.

 

How is this relevant to us today?

We are linked to the apostles. We are part of the superstructure, and they are part of the foundation. We should do as they did in looking to fulfil Jesus’ commands and work to build his kingdom. There are a thousand practical implications here:

Do we see our fellow church members as part of the same body?

Do we care for them as part of the same family?

Do we work together as one unit for the same goal?

Perhaps this is highlighted by the big difference between modern believers and the twelve. We are not apostles with Jesus’ authority over the demons. There are other ways in which the power of God should be evident through us. Unlike them, we are not on a whistle-stop tour through the nation. We have time to live alongside people and let them see the way we live our lives. Are we conspicuously different from the world around us? Conspicuously more holy? This should be evident in us as individuals, and also in our families, and (most of all) in our churches. Our churches should be places where the presence of the Holy Spirit cannot be denied. We should evidence the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. Under the surface of most other associations of fallen men and women, lurk resentment & rivalry- the workplaces, the social clubs, the political parties.  Not so in genuine churches. They are supernatural. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” John 13:35.

 

 

2) Why are they sent out two by two?

There is undoubtedly a practical element to it- they are weak and need support from one another. They are given Jesus’ power, but they are still vulnerable. And they will likely come under attack. Jesus has caused controversy, and in some places, he has been rejected. The Herodians and Pharisees have already plotted together to kill him (Mark 3:6). The servants cannot expect to be treated any better than their master. They will face hostility too. It would be dangerous and foolish to go out alone. And they will face questions. The teachers of the law might try to trip them up on various points from the law and the prophets. When Jesus came to the Temple, he was asked difficult questions in order to trip him up. Two heads are usually better than one in such cases. They will be more effective in pairs. We need a balance when we think of them. Sometimes they seem to be great men of faith. Others they seem so weak and fragile and wrong-headed. They are real men.

But more than that, they are witnesses. In the Old Testament, when a serious case came before the village court, the elders could not convict on the evidence of just one witness (Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). These men are going out to bear witness to the fact that Messiah has come. The King has arrived. They will tell people about his teaching and his deeds. Their witness has got to be trustworthy.

 

How is this relevant to us today?

As servants of the same master, we cannot expect any better treatment either. And so we need to be wise and acknowledge our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Having just thought of the ways God’s power should be at work in us, we also need to recognise our flaws. Some of these are due to the limitations of finite beings. Some of them are due to our sinful failings. Although redeemed, we are not yet made perfect. In Luther’s words, we are “simul iustus et peccator”– at the same time righteous and sinners.

Christian biography can be unrealistic and unhelpful here, with pictures of supermen who use every disappointment as a springboard, leap high buildings in a single bound, and leave converts in their wake wherever they go. Even an undeniably great man like the apostle Paul was left crumpled and bleeding, an apparent failure in many of the cities he visited. We aren’t strong enough to go it alone.

 

3) Why are they to take nothing for the journey?

Is this redolent of any Old Testament passage? When Israel were called out of Egpyt, they left in a hurry. They didn’t have time to pack. Maybe they’d have liked to prepare, to pay off and call in debts, to say goodbyes, to set affairs in order. But it was not to be. They were to eat the Passover with their belts fastened, their staffs in their hands, and their sandals already on (Exodus 12).

Like the Exodus from Egypt, the disciples have an urgent mission. The apostles are God’s messengers. They are going to call the nation out of Egypt and back into covenant with God and obedience to his law. They might like to pack some things- a change of clothes and a spare pair of sandals at least, and some money for food and shelter. But they are not given that chance. They must go now.

This is perhaps one reason why Mark has recorded the section about John’s death here. It is another example of his split-screen technique. And it is one not necessitated by chronological demands. Mark could have recorded John’s demise anywhere in the book. But he inserts it between the sending and the return of the Twelve. We will (D.V) look at this section next time, but for now we can note that Mark is calling our minds back to the opening of his Gospel, where John appeared in the wilderness, baptising with a baptism of repentance. This was an initiation ritual. John was performing it down at the Jordan river, the entry-point into the land. He was performing that initiation ritual to call out a new Israel; an Israel from within Israel. The people had disobeyed, and there was judgement in the land- the Romans had defeated them and occupied the place, and every Jew knew that God had promised to protect them from their enemies so long as they were obedient. John called out a repentant people who wanted to renew covenant with God.

The Twelve were the seed of Jesus’ new Israel, and they were to call other Jews to join them in this nation. This is a new Exodus. The people have been in exile, not in Egypt, but within the land itself. They have been in spiritual exile, and now the disciples are going about like Moses, gathering them together and calling them out. They will not cross the physical Jordan as God’s people did under Joshua, but they will cross from the world into God’s kingdom in a different sense. Moses’ exodus was only a shadow. This is the reality. And there is a sense in which it is beginning here in this passage, as the disciples go out. It is a work of urgency just as was the first exodus.

 

How is this relevant to us today?

Planning ahead is not wrong. Packing adequate provisions for a long journey is plain commonsense, provided that you have time to do so.  But our message should be an urgent one. We are not speaking “Peace, peace” where there is no peace. We are telling men and women and children to flee from the wrath to come. There is a sense of haste to it.

And we are to do what we can with what we have, now. Proper planning is sometimes necessary. If a church wants to set up an orphanage, or a pastoral seminary- both worthwhile aims- then these are not things which can be done overnight. The church will have to save money, buy property, plan over many years perhaps. All well and good. But we are never to let long-term aims become an excuse for short-term inactivity. O.K, so you want a larger kitchen in order to strengthen the kingdom of God by offering hospitality to others in the church who live alone and go back to empty houses when they leave your meetings… But there’s nothing stopping you from inviting them in for coffee today. If a job’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing badly.

 

4) Why are they to stay in only one house in each place?

It would be inappropriate, given their position as messengers of the kingdom. When Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there”, he doesn’t mean “stay in the house until you depart from the house”. It would be difficult to do anything else, and such an instruction doesn’t need giving. Rather, the idea is that the apostles should pick a house in a place, and stick with it until they move to the next town. The apostles will arrive at a village, proclaim the Gospel, call the people to repent and to follow Jesus, heal and cast out demons, and then ask for a bed for the night. The next day, they will do the same again. Maybe they will spend a week in one town, if there are many who want to hear them and think about their message. And Jesus foresees a situation arising where they accept lodging with someone, and a few days later somebody else comes up to them and says “Why don’t you come and stay with me for the next few days? I’ve got a bigger house. I can supply hot water in the mornings. My food is better quality. You’ll be much more comfortable with me.”

The idea here is that of soft bribery. There is nothing wrong with comfort and enjoying the good things God gives. And there might be all sorts of unselfish reasons for accepting such offers of hospitality; it would mean personal contact with two homes instead of one; the new house might be bigger and more suitable for teaching meetings; it would reduce the burden on the householders to share the hospitality. But if this sort of thing was allowed to happen, it could give the impression that the disciples were hawking themselves around, using their position as ambassadors of the great kingdom to obtain favours. It would undermine their whole message. They are calling a disobedient people to repentance. They are not to be bought off with a hot bath.

They are messengers of the king who has wealth beyond compare. And he is giving away his wealth. His ambassadors can’t afford to give the impression that their favour can be bought. The Gospel cannot be bought. It is a free gift.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23)

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” (Isaiah 55:1-3)

 

How is this relevant to us today?

We are not to be bribe-able either. I’ve heard people say of churches “They’re only after your money”. Partly that’s a pathetic and wicked excuse to ignore the Gospel- throw mud at the messenger and you might get away without having to listen to the message. But it’s partly because we sometimes give that impression. With collections, and fund-raising events, and little thermometers outside church buildings to show how much of the money for the new roof has been raised so far, we can easily give the impression that we’re out to part fools from their money. And we have a solemn responsibility not to do so. It undermines the Gospel.

We should also not be gullible, and not be afraid to call evil evil when it comes under a “Christian” banner. The US Senate is currently investigating 6 “mega-ministries” for a form of fraud in which tax-exempt status for churches, given with the rider that the tax-exempted funds are not to be for personal use, has been abused. Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer (4 of the 6 under investigation), and many others have become rich from their “ministries”. It is a public disgrace, and these charlatans should be ashamed of themselves.

 

5) Why are they to shake the dust from their feet when they leave a place that will not accept them?

This is something we see again in Acts, and it has a very similar meaning there. In Acts 13:51, Paul and Barnabas go to Antioch in Pisidia (this is very relevant to our impending summer studies in Galatians. The church in Pisidian Antioch was one of the Galatian churches, and we can see something of the makeup, and likely fracture lines, of that church in Acts 13. This is crucial to a proper understanding of Paul’s letter). When Paul and Barnabas arrive, they preach in the synagogue to the men of Israel and the God-fearers about Jesus. They draw crowds, and the Jews become jealous, and revile Paul. Paul then pronounces judgement on them, and turns to the Gentiles, who rejoice. But the Jews stir up persecution against the missionaries, and have them run out of town. And as Paul and Barnabas leave, they shake the dust from their feet as a testimony against that place.

Again in Acts 18:5-6, we have this statement,

When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.'”

Paul was shaking dust out of his robes, as a symbolic declaration.

Devout Jews, if they left the holy land, the land of promise, would shake the dust off their feet when they came back in across the border. They would see it as contamination- Gentile dust, dirty dust, unclean dust. They didn’t want to get the unclean dust all over the soil of God’s clean earth. Gentile dirt would contaminate the clean land. So they shook the dust from their feet, as a symbolic declaration that they were now leaving the unclean place, and coming back in to the holy land, out of the world.

So what the disciples do is radical. When a town rejects them, they are to shake the dust off their feet as they leave, as if it were unclean dust; but they are visiting towns in Israel! They are declaring towns which were well within the boundaries of Israel to be Gentile towns. Israel was a land under God’s protection. It was a land where there were guaranteed blessings, so long as the Israelites obeyed. It is all there in Deuteronomy 28:1-14. Their harvests would be good, their enemies would be defeated, everything they did would be smiled upon by the Almighty. But if they disobeyed the Lord, and were not careful to do all his commandments, then all of these blessings would be turned into curses upon them, which is all there in the much longer and more explicit section of Deuteronomy 28:15-63.

The apostles were removing God’s blessing from these towns. Effectively, they were redrawing the boundaries of Israel. They were declaring places that would not welcome the Messiah to be no longer part of the commonwealth of Israel- to be unclean places.

 

How is this relevant to us today?

We start where the twelve ended. None of our towns are holy places. God has not promised protection and blessing to any of our towns. There was only ever one holy land, and it ceased to be holy when Israel refused their Messiah. Darkness fell on the whole land at the crucifixion (Mark 15:33), just as it had fallen on Egypt before. If there is a holy land now, then it is not a physical land. It is the church. Churches, not nations, are promised God’s blessing, and his protection, and his kindness.

This passage is not there to teach us that we should preach somewhere, then move on; a hit-and-run strategy. That may be a sensible use of resources, but it is not a scriptural command. The apostles are not forbidden from ever going back to the places they’d left. This is not a one-strike-and-you’re-out scenario. Many of those places must have been visited again when the believers went out from Jerusalem in Acts. But if the apostles returned, it would be with the awareness that this place had forfeited blessing already. It was a place over which God’s wrath loomed large. Our attitude should perhaps be more like that as we evangelise.

And it tells us to have courage, confidence, boldness, as we proclaim the Good News.

In our pluralistic society, we grow up in a world in which every point of view must be valid and every opinion must be valued. We are told that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and that to be unshakeably certain of something is somehow arrogant. There can be no dogma, and the only heresy is that there could be such a thing as heresy. Growing up breathing such an atmosphere, it is easy for us to feel that we shouldn’t push our views on people. In fact, even the construction of the previous sentence shows that I am a child of post-modernity. “Our views”, as if we have our views and other people have theirs, and that’s just fine? We can feel that when somebody gives us a hearing, they are doing us a favour by being so tolerant and reasonable.

Precisely the opposite is true. We are doing others a favour when we tell them about the saviour, not them us by giving us a hearing.  When the Queen writes the invitations to her annual garden party, do you think she words them “Dear Sir, I hope you don’t think me too pushy, but would you mind awfully if I invited you to a garden party? I would be most grateful if you could come- if you’re not too busy, of course”? Of course not. She will phrase the invitation kindly and graciously, but the fact remains that she is doing the invitees an honour by inviting them to meet her- they are not doing her an honour by attending. So it is with the kingdom of God. We can proclaim a royal invitation from the king to come under his rule and be delivered from the powers of darkness.

When the twelve were rejected, those who passed judgement upon them were in fact cutting themselves off from God. Those who refuse to listen to the Gospel today are confirming themselves as being under wrath. We are doing them a kindness, for which we shouldn’t need to apologise.

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