The disciples as the presence of Jesus in Matthew 10

The gospel read for Trinity 4 in Year A of Matt 10.40–42 is perhaps the strangest choice in the whole lectionary—at only three verses! And yet this short passage has some really significant features that offer enormous potential for reflection:

a. They are very clearly structured as a unit, with an opening and matching conclusion, and a set of three parallels embedded.

b. They are almost without equivalent in the other gospels, though the concluding phrase is found in the debate about ‘other exorcisers’ in Mark 9.38–41—and yet the theological idea here is found throughout the NT.

c. They have an important function in drawing together, rounding off, and to some extent qualifying Jesus’ teaching on mission and testimony in the earlier parts of chapter 10.

d. They articulate, in narrative form, the equivalent of a Pauline ‘theology of the body of Christ’, which is a distinctive perspective of this gospel, and is key in reading some of the later passages.

Let’s look at each of these in turn together!

First, consider the structure. The pair of sayings in verse 41 take the form of general proverbial maxims, and are parallel to one another, as well as each including the parallel of ‘receiving’. The opening and closing sayings, though, which introduces and conclude the section, are framed in personal terms, addressed to ‘you’ (plural) that is, the disciples who have been sent out on mission (an event that is rather left hanging) and who will, in due time, face severe pressure for their testimony.

Here is the text set out to reflect these patterns:

The opening sentence has the ‘step-stair’ structure that we find in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel: ‘receives you/receives me/receives me/receives the one sending me’; compare ‘In the beginning was the Word/and the Word was God/and God was the Word…In him was life/and the life was light/and the light shines…’ (John 1.1, 3, following the word order of the Greek text).

English translations vary in the way they render the key, repeated term that I translate here as ‘receive’. The verb dechomai is quite general—but it needs to be read here in the light of its use earlier in the chapter, when the language of ‘receive’ in Matt 10.14 clearly has a sense of ‘welcome and offer you hospitality’ (expressed in the negative).

The central proverbial sayings use the slightly odd idiom ‘receive a … in the name of a …’. Again, English translations vary, but it is clear that the sense here is that the person is being received, welcomed and offered hospitality because they are known to be a prophet, righteous person or (in the final saying) a disciple of Jesus.

The word used of ‘receiving a reward’ is not the same term, but a synonym lambano; it is not unusual in the teaching of Jesus for sayings to be repeated but with synonyms. Overall the effect is to make these sayings very easy to remember and repeat. I suspect you can already repeat this passage from memory and without making a mistake—have a go! (Because of the pattern, learning it from a more word-for-word translation is actually easer than learning it from a paraphrase or dynamic equivalence translation.)

The double parallel of ‘prophet in the name of a prophet’ and ‘righteous person in the name of a righteous person’ sets up our understanding for the final, slightly extended parallel, ‘one of these little ones…in the name of a disciple’, which makes it clear that, as elsewhere, ‘little one’ and ‘disciple’ are synonymous. As we can see from Jesus’ use in Math 11.25, ‘little one’ does not denote a special subgroup; all disciples are ‘little ones’. The picture above of a little girl receiving a cup of water is a metaphor for every follower of Jesus.

There is no sense here of a progression of ‘rank’ from ‘prophet’ to ‘righteous’ to ‘disciple’; these terms are elsewhere used interchangeably, and the fact that the section starts and ends with direct reference to Jesus’ disciples contradicts any sense of ordering. Although ‘prophet’ is a less common term at this stage in the story than it will become in Acts and Paul’s letters (and in teh gospels the term mostly refers to John the Baptist and Jesus himself, for example in Matt 11.9), Jesus does talk about sending his prophets out in Matt 23.34, and he has already talked about the experience of his followers as parallel to earlier ‘prophets’ (Matt 5.11–12).

In terms of its content, the opening saying includes two significant theological ideas—the notion that responding to Jesus’ disciples is tantamount to responding to him, and the notion that responding to Jesus is tantamount to responding to God himself.

This double sequence of disciple—Jesus—God is found in the sayings about welcoming a child (as a counter to the disciple’s dispute about greatness) in Mark 9.37 and Luke 9.48, as well as Jesus’ comment about judgement in the context of the return of the Seventy (Two) in Luke 10.16. But, as I have noted in other discussions, we tend to think of this as a distinctively Johannine idea, and it is articulated very pointedly (in one of Jesus’ double Amen sayings) in John 13.20. The identification of response to Jesus with response to God has been seen earlier in the Fourth Gospel, in John 5.23 and John 12.44–45.

But the identification with the community of ‘little ones’ with the presence of Jesus is also found in the teaching about the ekklesia, the community of disciples, in Matt 18.5 (the receiving of a child) and in the key statement that ‘where two or three are gathered, I am there with them’ (Matt 18.20). And, even more significantly, we see exactly the same phenomenon in the so-called ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25.40. How people have responded to ‘the least of these’—a term that must refer to Jesus’ disciples, and not to the poor in general, is understood as how they respond to Jesus himself.

These ‘representative’ sayings do make sense in the context of Jesus’ ministry as it is recorded; the idea that Jesus has been ‘sent’ by the Father, and Jesus’ ‘sending’ of his disciples both have weight.

Underlying such sayings, with their repeated reference to being ‘sent’, is the principle later enshrined in the Jewish legal institution of shaliach, the ‘one sent’, an ambassador or representative who was understood to have the full authority of the one who sent them (m Ber 5.5, ‘a man’s agent is himself’) (France, NICNT, p 413).

But of course, as Matthew is writing from a post-resurrection and (more importantly!) from a post-ascension perspective, the physical absence of Jesus, anticipated in his physical absence as the disciples depart on the mission that he has sent them, transforms these sayings into something more substantial. The departure of the disciples to take the presence and authority of Jesus into the places where he is not (yet?) physically present himself anticipates and is a metaphor for the mission of the post-ascension church, sent out into the world that Jesus is (no longer, and not yet) physically present until he returns. In that ‘in between’ time, Jesus’ disciples carry his presence and bear his authority.

It is worth noting how this final section holds together the earlier teaching on mission, and the nuance that it brings to our reading of it.

The first part of chapter 10 has recounted the names of the Twelve, and Jesus’ specific commission to them on a particular occasion, sending them into the remaining towns of Galilee in order to complete his ministry there, taking his presence and power into places he is not physically present.

But, as part of Matthew indicating that this is not simply an historical point of interest, but in fact offers a paradigm for wider Christian mission, his account then blends (from Matt 10.16) into Jesus’ more general teaching about mission, testimony and persecution, which has clear pointers to the period after Jesus’ ascension and the later mission of the early church.

By and large the first, specific part is more positive, and the second, general part is more negative. After additional, related teaching about the relationship of servant and master, whom it is right to fear, and Jesus’ ministry bringing division, this final section ties it all together—and ends on a more positive note, focussing on those who do receive Jesus’ ambassadors as genuinely having an encounter with God himself.

The language of ‘reward’ might at first seem trivial—but it is a prominent idea in Matthew, and is integrally connected with eternal destiny, being contrasted with ‘punishment’. The ‘reward’ for faithful discipleship is set against the futility of those who parade their ‘righteousness’ throughout the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5.12, 5.46, 6.1, 6.2, 6.5, 6.16). But the sharpest contrast comes in Matt 25.31–46, where the ‘reward’ is spelled out as ‘the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’, and ‘eternal life’ contrasted with the ‘eternal fire’ reserved for those who have turned the ‘little ones’ away.

But this conclusion to the ‘mission’ teaching introduces and important differentiation. Although the principles of mission appear to be universal, in practice there will be those who are itinerant and boundary-crossing in their actual, physical circumstances, and those who are settled, offering hospitality and effective mission by their partnership with those who are itinerant. Both together receive the same reward.

If the presence and power of Jesus are made real in his followers, now that he is physically absent, then this and related passages in Matthew are the equivalent of Paul’s teaching on Christians as constituting the body of Christ, and being ‘in Christ’. ‘God himself enters houses with Jesus’ messengers. What a statement!’ (Jeremias, Theology, p 238 cited in France NICNT p 413). There are some important practical consequences to note.

First, we need to remember that the presence of Jesus in and with his disciples is consistently described in relational, and not institutional, terms. It not about ‘salvation being found in the Church alone’ as institution, as some Catholic theology has expressed it from time to time, but that the relational presence of Jesus is made real in the relational presence of his people. Jesus’ presence in the ‘church’ is not to be closed off and protected, but to be connected with the world around through relationships.

Secondly, it also implies that, in one sense, there is nothing for us to ‘do’ to make this real. We are temples of God, and the priestly presence of God, simply by being disciples of Jesus and filled, daily, with his Spirit. This ministry of presence and power is just part and parcel of what it means to be in Jesus, and to have his presence in us.

Thirdly, though, in contrast, if people’s response to Jesus is indicated by their response to us, then we had better look as much like Jesus as we can! It is no accident that this apparently effortless depiction of Jesus’ presence through us comes at the end of a chapter which began with the commission of those Jesus sent to ‘cast out unclean spirits, heal every disease, and proclaim the kingdom’. There is work to do!

Finally, we need to note that we bring both blessing and judgement. We are to be salt and light; we are to be light shining in the darkness; we are to bring blessing to the world around us. But that world will not always receive these blessings, and it refuses them at its peril.

And whatever we do, we do it not in our own authority, but as ‘little ones’ sent by Jesus and bringing his presence and power with us.

Come and join James and Ian as they discuss this passage and its implication, and what this means for preaching and for ministry.

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23 thoughts on “The disciples as the presence of Jesus in Matthew 10”

  1. “How people have responded to ‘the least of these’—a term that must refer to Jesus’ disciples, and not to the poor in general ..” I don’t think that the *must* here is justified, though it is possible.
    There is the linguistic link between these verses in Matt 10 and Matt 25: 31-46 which Ian make much of, but Mathew’s also gospel develops ideas eg what began as good news for the Jews becomes a gospel for all nations.
    The opening teaching in Matthew is Blessed are the poor, the needy. The final teaching is blessings on those who respond to need. For those of us who are not poor, we can find blessing, and a welcome into the Kingdom, in how we respond to the poor and needy. Matthew like the letter of James is quite a “doers” gospel. The sermon on the mount ends with the wise man who builds on the rock – the one who hears and does (7:24); we are called to do the will of our Father in heaven (7:21).
    To read Matt 25 31-46 more expansively is not to go against the wider teaching of Jesus, but to fill it out. It re-reminds us who seek to follow Jesus that it is doing what he says that matters not just hearing. It is a more difficult reading for us as it demands action from us. Matt 10 reminds us that those who show care to us are valued for doing so, and that should affect how we see them, but Matt 25 puts the focus much more demandingly on the disciples, then and now.
    I know others will disagree- but I do not see a necessary connection between Matt 10 and Matt 25 such that *must* is the right word. I think the more challenging reading is closer to the call of Jesus and very much in tune with the teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.

    • Matthew 25:45 has “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these you did not do it to me.” But Matthew 25:40 has “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers you did it to me.” So, “these” are “my brothers” (and sisters, the Greek plural encompasses both).

      It is the use of “my brothers” which is the strong indication that those being referred to are Jesus’ disciples. Matthew 12:46-50 gives light to this. To say that “brothers” refers to the poor in general needs some substantial support from the NT.

      In Matthew 10:42 it is also hard to avoid the conclusion that the receiver of the drink is a disciple. The use of ‘these’ in the context can only refer to disciples. It must be vain to think that at this point Jesus is waving his hand in the direction of some children while making a statement unconnected with the previous ones.

    • I think the fact Jesus elsewhere refers to ‘his brothers’ as those who follow Him makes a strong case for Ian’s understanding.

  2. “Secondly, it also implies that, in one sense, there is nothing for us to ‘do’ to make this real. We are temples of God.”

    Should not ‘temples’ be in the singular?

    • We have both in Scripture:

      Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies. (1 Cor 6:19-20)

      What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

      ‘I will live with them
      and walk among them,
      and I will be their God,
      and they will be my people.’ (2 Cor 6:16)

      you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)

        • But all these are references are to a singular temple – the NIV translation cited of 1 Cor 6:19-20 is incorrect. Temple (naos) is in the singular and translated as such in ESV. It is not a surprise to me that NIV got it wrong.

          • Good spot, Colin.

            I’ve just had a look at the Bibles on the BibleGateway site, and the only two Bibles that render ‘naos’ as ‘temples’ are the NIV and the NIRV. The NIRV however, is merely a simplified Edition of the NIV.

            Furthermore, The NIV certainly has some glaring theological biases; (cf. “Truth in Translation : Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament” by Professor Jason BeDuhn).

  3. I wanted to correct a sentiment that has arisen on another thread.

    It cannot be right or fair to blame Ian Paul for malice and homophobia in the comments sections or to infer he is allowing it to happen.

    He cannot possibly be expected to police an open access blog. Any general block he might put in place would be circumvented by a troll in minutes.

    He could close down the comments section entirely. He is perfectly entitled to regard that as a victory for trolls they should not be given.

    He is not to blame. The other people who comment need to take safeguarding in social media far more seriously.

    • Ive rarely if ever seen a ‘homophobic’ comment. Believing same-sex sex is wrong in God’s eyes is not homophobic. Im tired of people using that word to describe such a position, held by Christians and Jews for thousands of years.

  4. Ian, as always, a great article.
    One thought… you said ‘Secondly, it also implies that, in one sense, there is nothing for us to ‘do’ to make this real.’
    I would argue the opposite, that there is much to do to make this real.
    I was thinking particularly of the Eph. 5:18 imperative to ‘be filled with the Holy Spirit’ and conversely Eph 4:30 ‘do not grieve the Holy Spirit.’
    My take on this is that as we obey these commands, we are more readily available/ effective in witnessing to the resurrection.

  5. The more I consider this short passage the more I am somewhat puzzled.

    Does v40 refer to those coming to faith? Are the ‘ones’ in v41 similar people? How wide is the group from which the ‘whoever’ in v42 is drawn? Dick France relates these verses to ‘supporters’, i.e. those who are of fixed abode taking in those who have an itinerant ministry.

    If these verses refer to reaching outside the community of faith, that is quite an interesting mode of mission. Rather than doing things for others, those sent are to receive from those being reached.

    There is a puzzle about the prophet’s/righteous person’s reward. Is this the (same) reward which a prophet/righteous person receives? Or is it the reward that the receiver of missioner receives from the one received?

    V42 has: and whoever gives…I say to you will by no means lose his reward

    This seems not to be about receiving a reward but about not losing a reward. Is it just an example of litotes or is there an actual possibility of losing the reward gained in v41?

  6. I was thinking about welcome, gifts and rewards in prayer for my daughter’s mission yesterday. She has founded a children’s centre in a slum district, which looks after 52 infants while their parents work. She raised the funding for the centre, and has now also managed to get a community centre built, offering training, health support etc. Most children and family who come are from a deprived minority group. She works alongside a team of ten people. I sent her this message before I saw Ian’s article but perhaps there is a little overlap:

    Dear xxxx,

    In prayer yesterday, I was reminded of how many of those who come may not feel very important but they are important to God. I prayed that every person who comes would be made welcome by the team, and that welcome is part of the ministry – to the children, to the mothers, to any visiting dads. But then I felt God saying another thing:

    Each person coming to the centre… they should not only be welcomed, they should be seen as ‘Gift’.

    It’s not just about what the team may do ‘for’ them (though that is precious)… but the team should remember that every person is priceless treasure, loved by God, uniquely made by God. So each person who comes should be seen as a gift, bringing offering of themselves… I don’t mean money, but what they bring to community, as who they are.

    And if we see people as gifts from God, it may help when we find someone difficult and they try our patience. It may remind us that somewhere wrapped up inside them, who they are is something God has made, something with potential, someone needing love or respect or understanding.

    Anyway, these were my thoughts when I was praying yesterday.

    Giving out – – – > welcome and inclusion

    Receiving in < – – – gift to the community from God in the people who come

    • When I re-read my post, I did feel prompted to post it like I felt prompted in prayer yesterday. But I’m not sure it exactly fits in with Ian’s passage, yet somehow I feel a connection. (Being honest, I don’t always understand things, but sometimes I feel them.)

      Then I looked at Matthew 18 and it helped me put welcome and gift into focus some more:

      At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”

      He called a little child and had him stand among them.

      And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

      “Therefore whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

      “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name, welcomes me.”


      This is maybe the scripture behind what I felt God trying to say to me yesterday: the little ones, and the young mothers, and the dads, and the elderly who visit the centre…

      They bring gift. Yes, you do well to offer them a cup of water, and welcome, and love.

      But never forget that they are also gift, capable of giving to you. Because in welcoming them, you may meet with God.

      Maybe it’s the same with the drunk tramp who shows up at the back of the church.

      I think mission is about being ready to receive as well as to give.

  7. Splendid article, thanks.
    Littles ones, prophets, righteous are all part and parcel of what a Christian, believer in, follower of, Jesus, is following his works, life, death resurrection and ascension.
    It is of a piece with the beatitudes description of what a Christian is. His works not ours make it real, actualised, realised, achieved.
    Does it go without saying that knowing that to be true is key to knowing who we are in that not a reward in itself? Though I’m not sure that would cover in full the theology of Christian reward and inheritance.
    It is knowledge of a prophet, who speaks forth of Christ, to every tongue tribe, nation, powerless and powerful, received or rejected, and foretells.


    It would be interesting to seriously consider what exactly the message of ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ (which is a synonym for ‘The Kingdom of God’; cf. Dan. 2:44), was, that the twelve disciples were sent to proclaim in Matt. 10:7 ff. This message would essentially, have been the same “Gospel” ( “Good News”) that Jesus Himself preached in Mark 1:14-14 (cf. Luke 9:6).

    As Anglican scholar, N.T. Wright has usefully noted, the Christian, New Testament hope consists fundamentally (cf. 1 Cor. 15:18) of a future embodied resurrection, at Christ’s Parousia, and involves a renewed earth (cf. Matt. 5:5; 25:31; Dan. 7:14, 18, 22, 27; Acts 3:21; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 5:10). Praise God !

  9. Thanks Ian, and others who have commented on the thread.

    Some of us will be preaching on this text in the context of services where newly ordained deacons are being introduced to their churches for the first time, or at priests/presbyters first service in that office. Any thoughts on whether this text has any special bearing on the ordained ministry (I note that in 11:1, which rounds off the teaching, it is described as having been given to the twelve – so, implicitly, *not* to the disciples more generally?

    Is there something about how the church has a responsibility to recognise the authority of ministers sent by Christ, and embodying his action? (I realise how badly wrong this can easily go!!). And that it is in the right response to that authoritative preaching/teaching/sacramental ministry that the whole church is enabled to realise its vocation to be the presence of Christ in the world?

    How might you preach this in the context of Petertide ordinations?

    • Good question Peter! For me, the simple answer is a ‘no’; we commented on a previous week’s reading that the language Mattthew uses shows that the teaching of Jesus here applies to all.

      A more nuanced answer would be that any leaders in the church bear a particular responsibility to embody these things—not because of any ontological change, but because they are exemplars.

      Does that help?

      • Thanks Ian. I’m pretty unfussed about the language of ‘ontological change’.

        But I do wonder whether there might be more to the relationship between the ordained and the whole people of God than simply the former exemplifying what all are called to be.

        In some sense, don’t we want to say the ordained are sent by God to preach, teach, care and lead – and that the Church won’t be all that the Church can be unless it receives those who are sent to it well?

        I am of course aware of the dangers of clericalism… but sometimes we can go so far in avoiding one error that we risk running into their opposites.

        However… even though this might be true, I also suspect you’re probably right that it would be reading a bit too much into Matthew 10:40-42. (Though it is addressed to the twelve rather than to all, isn’t it?)

      • Thanks Ian. I’m pretty unfussed about the language of ‘ontological change’.

        But I do wonder whether there might be more to the relationship between the ordained and the whole people of God than simply the former exemplifying what all are called to be.

        In some sense, don’t we want to say the ordained are sent by God to preach, teach, care and lead – and that the Church won’t be all that the Church can be unless it receives those who are sent to it well?

        I am of course aware of the dangers of clericalism… but sometimes we can go so far in avoiding one error that we risk running into their opposites.

        However… even though this might be true, I also suspect you’re probably right that it would be reading a bit too much into Matthew 10:40-42. (Though it is addressed to the twelve rather than to all, isn’t it?)

  10. Two key questions. Who is a prophet? And, what is meant by ‘reward’?

    As regards the first question, the most relevant parallel is Matt 23:34 – prophets whom Jesus would send after his ascension to warn the last generation that destruction was coming unless it repented. Destruction came 40 years later. These prophets were not popular. Some were flogged, some were crucified. So what if a prophet today had a similar message – would he be well received? (Surely this is the key application of the passage?) In my experience, he would not be. Jesus singles them out first because they are the least likely to be well received, and second because their reward will be greatest, because their calling is more demanding than simply to live a righteous life or be a disciple (demanding enough though the commended righteousness and discipleship are). Prophets are awkward people, but Jesus says, honour them, they have important things to impart.

    In the Greek, the word for reward is misthos, which typically means reward in a financial sense – pay or wages. Scripture says that Yahweh (i.e. Jesus, since he is the one who will judge and reward) will repay each person according to his works (Prov 24:12, Isa 62:11, Matt 6:1-18, 16:27, Luke 6:38, 14:11-14, 19:11-27, I Cor 3:8–13, II Cor 9:6, Gal 6:9, Eph 6:8, I Pet 1:17). Those whose sins are forgiven will be rewarded according to what they have done in the body (II Cor 5:9). This aspect of the gospel, prominent though it is in the NT, is very much underplayed in Protestant Christianity. Jesus wants to motivate us, but a false belief that salvation is simply a black-and-white, all-or-nothing matter causes his teaching to go unheeded.

    Here too, Jesus’s point is that salvation is a broader matter than just “Believe that Jesus died for your sins on the cross and you will receive eternal life”. He is saying that, even in the case of those who are not his disciples, treating his disciples kindly will be meritorious and counted in their favour when they come before him. As the parable in Luke 19:11-27 makes clear, there will be specific, temporal rewards of service and honour in the kingdom apart from the reward of eternal life.


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