Compelling Compassion

I have been meditating on the selection and appointment of the twelve disciples. Right now I am focusing on Matthews presentation of this important event. I have been thinking about the context surrounding the passage where Jesus calls out the twelve and sends them forth to cast out demons, heal, and preach (Matt 10:1-4). This event is recorded in both Mark and Luke but both of these authors place it in a different context. In Matthew’s gospel the context helps us understand some important truths about the motivation and purpose of this mission.

If you read the preceding context of the appointment narrative you will find Jesus is in the fray of ministry. He just raised a little girl from the dead, healed a woman with severe menstrual bleeding, given sight to blind men, and restored a mute mans voice (Matt 9:18-34). From town to town he is bombarded with the needs of the sick, oppressed, possessed, and broken. As he looks out upon the needy crowds he feels a deep sense of compassion (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) for them. He sees them as harassed and helpless sheep because they lacked a shepherd (Ez 34). Moved by his compassion he instructs his disciples about the needs of the harvest and calls upon them to pray. “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” (Matt 9:37-38).

After this piece of instruction the narrative moves directly into the selection and appointment of the twelve disciples. This event is set squarely in the context of the great needs of the world, the untouched harvest field, the compassion of Christ, and prayer. We must understand the appointment of these twelve men as an expression of Christ’s compassion for the harassed and helpless. We must see that the selection of the twelve and their appointment is directly tied to the massive harvest field with its great lack of workers. We must also recognize that the disciples appointment is the result of prayer. Not the prayers of Christ or others but their own prayers. They are praying to the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers and before they know it they are the ones sent.

The context following the event fleshes out the manner in which the disciples are to fulfill their task. Jesus trains these new harvesters in God’s field on how to harvest and what they should expect as they labor in the field. The instruction is thorough and sobering. His instruction is a field manual of sorts. If you looked at the table of contents you would find these topics: destination, housing, money, resources, preaching, healing, length of stay, discerning when to leave, persecution, conversions, and rewards (Matt 10:5-42). Jesus selects, appoints, and equips those whom he sends forth to work in his harvest. It is important to note also that the image of the harvest is exchanged for the metaphor of the slaughter house. His twelve are being sent as sheep into the midst of wolves. The result of this situation goes without saying. The compassionate mission of, with, and for Christ is inherently costly. How could it be any other way—it’s the mission of the Christ who is moving inexorably toward a cross.

The striking thing about this brief discussion on the mission of Christ and the sending of the twelve is the compelling power of compassion. There are many proper motivations for engaging a lost and hurting world and here we see that compassion is an important one. Compassion drove Christ to his cross and it compelled him to send his followers to the nations. The sent ones among all peoples are a tangible expression of the compassion of God.

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