Before we get started, let me say something to any unbelievers who may be here today. The most faithful way to read the Bible is to try and see what the author meant to communicate to the people he was writing to—and that includes trying to interpret what Jesus meant to say to the people who were listening to him at that moment. Then we take what that first meaning and we try to see how that meaning applies to us today. Cultures changes and times change, but God’s Word does not—so if he’s talking about something that is culturally conditioned, we need to try and see why he said that, and apply that “why” to us today, in our context.
I say this because in this text Jesus is talking to his disciples, and he gives them something to do—a mission to accomplish—and he’s going to tell them how to go about accomplishing that mission. And while the particular details of what it looks like to fulfill that mission might be a little different today (because we live in a different time), the mission itself is the same. And that mission is given to all Christians, everywhere: everyone who is today a disciple of Jesus.
So if you are not a Christian, it might be easy for you to imagine that what Jesus is saying in this passage doesn’t really apply to you, because you aren’t a Christian and so he’s not giving you this mission. But that’s not true: this passage absolutely applies to you, because Jesus is going to tell his disciples how to deal with those who accept or reject the message of the gospel, and that choice—to accept or reject the gospel—is one you’re going to have to make. And as we’ll see, it’s a serious choice.
So don’t check out if you’re not a Christian: this passage is every bit as important to you as it is to us.
That being said, let’s get into it. We’ve just seen Jesus leave Galilee and begin to make his way toward Jerusalem, where he will soon be killed. But a lot of things will happen, and he will say a lot of things, in between now and then. He’s just told three people how much it will cost to follow him—namely, everything; so the tone of this passage is quite heavy.
And Luke gives us a bit of an introduction to what Jesus will say in v. 1:
1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two* others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.
[* NOTE: In v. 1, as in v. 17, many old and reliable manuscripts contain “seventy-two others,” while many other old and reliable manuscripts contain “seventy.” The ESV, like most modern English translations, have opted for “seventy-two,” while the French Segond 21 has chosen 70. Since no doctrinal issue is at stake here, I have decided to use the French translation choice as the basis in this message, and refer to this group as “the seventy.”]
There are twelve men who are in Jesus’s “inner circle”—the disciples who followed him during his ministry. But they were far from the only ones. There were a good many other people who believed in him and who followed him, and here we see Jesus do something similar to what he did at the beginning of chapter 9, but with a lot more people.
In chapter 9, he sent out his twelve disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He’s going to do the same thing here, but this time he will send out seventy more people to go ahead of him in pairs to different towns, to get those towns ready for his coming.
But before he sends them, he’s going to talk to them, to get them ready for what they’re about to do. (This is the scene in the movie where the coach gives the inspirational speech before sending the team out on the field.) What he says can be roughly divided into two sections: one section which directly concerns the seventy he is sending out; and another section which concerns the people who will hear their message, and the way to deal with their various reactions to it.
I. CONCERNING THE ONES WHO PROCLAIM THE MESSAGE
Few Laborers (v. 2)
2 And he said to them, “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.
Now this is a verse Christians know very well; it’s something we often pray, that God will send out laborers for the harvest.
But the metaphor isn’t immediately clear for everyone. The idea of the harvest is an important one in Scripture. A farmer plants seeds in a field, and these seeds won’t be useful for a while; but eventually the moment comes for the harvest, when he can collect all the fruit which has grown. All throughout Scripture you see God doing things that don’t seem to have immediate importance, but which will pay off later. In a way the entire history of the Old Testament is that way—all of the Old Testament is God doing a series of things which would find their culmination in Jesus.
So what is “the harvest” that Jesus is talking about? Ultimately, it’s the moment when, after his death, resurrection and ascension, he will come again to renew the earth and gather all of his children from all of history to live with him on the New Heavens and the New Earth. That hasn’t happened yet: Jesus still hasn’t returned, and (in case you hadn’t noticed) this earth is still not perfect. So these “laborers” work to prepare the harvest: to tell as many people as possible about Jesus and to help more and more of them become his children.
But the crazy thing here is not the idea of the harvest—even though, if you think about it, Jesus’s return and renewal of the earth does sound insane. The crazy thing is that Jesus says that “the laborers are few.” There’s lots to be done, but not enough people to do it.
And that’s crazy because he is literally just about to send out seventy people into this relatively small region, to share the gospel and get people ready for Jesus. That’s a team most pastors would envy. But it’s still not enough. He says that from the beginning, his disciples are going to be fighting an uphill battle: there’s going to be a lot to do, and not enough people to do it.
So when he gathers these seventy together, he tells them, “I know it looks like there are a lot of you here, but the harvest is bigger than you think, and you can’t do it all alone.” So what is his solution? It’s not first to prepare and train and work to make more laborers, but to pray.
Which is significant—because it suggests that ultimately, God is the one in charge of whether or not his harvest succeeds. God is the one who takes it upon himself to raise up laborers, and to make them ready, and to send them out. The laborers will have their part to play in all of that, but it is first and foremost his responsibility. So we should ask him to do it.
A Dangerous Mission (v. 3-4)
3 Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.
So it’s going to be dangerous. You are going to have enemies, who will try and stop you and hurt you and devour you.
But these enemies, when they encounter you, will see that you are entirely different from what they will have imagined. V. 4:
4 Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.
In other words, there are two things that will set you apart. First, you will trust God so completely for your provision and protection that you will take nothing with you. Nothing that would be considered basic human needs: no money, no bags, no extra clothes. You’ll waste no time greeting people on the road. You will depend on God for your provision, and you will depend on God to fulfill his mission right on time.
The second thing which will set you apart is your disposition: you are not going out as warriors, but as “lambs” in the midst of wolves. You will not convert people by coercion or intimidation or violence, but by meekness and service. You will be humble; you will strong-arm no one. I am sending you our as laborers, not soldiers.
Peace (v. 5-6)
5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ 6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you.
The idea of “peace” was much richer in Jesus’s culture than it is in ours—it is not merely the absence of conflict. Saying “Peace be to this house!” meant, “It is our wish that full well-being, as deep as it can possibly go, would come to you and your family.” It was a very rich way of saying that we are for you; that we want your good.
But what is crazy is not that Jesus’s followers would wish that kind of peace on others—that’s exactly why Jesus came. What is crazy is that depending on the way people responded to the gospel, whatever Jesus’s followers conveyed is what happened. The kind of peace he is talking about is something only God can give. And yet, Jesus says that if “a son of peace is there,” your peace will stay with him. The peace God gave you will be shared with him. But if not—if someone rejects the message you have come to give him—that peace will not go to them.
In other words, Jesus says, if they reject you, they reject me. To be able to be, in a sense, an ambassador for Jesus, is an insane responsibility—especially given how imperfect Jesus’s disciples were. But it is a responsibility he freely and gladly gives his followers.
The laborers should be cared for (v. 7)
Lastly, Jesus says that those who labor to share the gospel with others should be provided for by those whom he is serving.
7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house.
In other words, don’t go around, knocking on door after door, looking for money or ways to provide for yourself. If they take you in and let you serve them, then they should provide for you. Why? Because how will you serve them properly if you keep having to make additional trips to find a way to provide for yourself and your family?
Especially if you're a member here, you'll have noticed that in this church we've talked a good deal about the importance of setting up a salary for the pastor of the church—whether it's myself or someone who will come after me. And I've been so encouraged by the way you've taken that responsibility seriously: it reflects what the Bible drives us all to do.
I knew a pastor once who worked full-time during the week for a telecommunications company, so that his church would not have the burden of paying him. His heart was in the right place, but he was misguided. It is not a burden for the church to pay their ministers; it is the most basic of obligations. If that church had paid their pastor, then he would have been free to devote himself full-time to the church, and they would have had the joy of benefiting from his full, undivided service, as well as the simple joy of knowing that they were doing the right thing.
These things directly concern the ones who are going out to spread the message of the kingdom: how to pray, how to prepare, how to minister, and how to survive while you are ministering.
Jesus will continue to speak to the seventy, but the emphasis of his statements is going to shift now: from those who are sharing the message to those who are receiving the message.
II. CONCERNING THE ONES WHO HEAR THE MESSAGE
Two Responses: Receive or Reject (v. 8-16)
8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 9 Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
Now this is the first time he’s said it this way, so let’s take a minute and define some things here. What does it mean in this context for someone to “receive” one of the seventy he is sending, and what does it mean to “reject” them?
It was not just a matter of letting them into the town, or into one’s home; “receiving” the disciples meant receiving and accepting what they had come to bring—namely, the good news of the kingdom of God. When they “received” the disciples, what they were actually receiving was Christ and his gospel.
So the disciples would go from town to town, and some towns would “receive” them—they would be open to Jesus’s disciples and his message. The disciples would heal the sick in this town (again, proving that Jesus really was who he claimed to be).
But the most important thing the disciples brought was not healing, but this final proclamation: The kingdom of God has come near to you. This wouldn’t have been all they’d say, of course; J.C. Ryle described this as a kind of summary statement of their whole message.
But it was a very loaded summary statement, and it would have meant a lot more to first-century Jews than it does to us today. Talk of the kingdom of God would have immediately brought to mind the Old-Testament promises of the Messiah. When they heard, The kingdom of God has come near to you, they would have understood, The Messiah has come. The promises you’ve been waiting for are about to be fulfilled!
This was breathtaking news; and we are meant to leave this sentence with the understanding that receiving Christ will be met with reward. It seems like a simple thing—receiving Christ. And it is. But the reward that we get in exchange for receiving him is unthinkable: all the fulfillment of God’s most wonderful promises toward his people, summed up in the person of Jesus. To receive the disciples was to receive Christ; to receive Christ is to receive the kingdom of God; and to receive the kingdom of God is to see all of his promises fulfilled for you.
But some towns did not receive them. V. 10:
10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you.
This “wiping the dust of the ground off one’s feet” was a sign of judgment against the town they were leaving. The picture was that if you rejected Christ, you were utterly foreign to God, and you had no part in him.
And what he says next is absolutely chilling—v. 11b:
‘Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’
In both cases—in the case of those receiving and of those rejecting—the same wonderful thing has happened. The kingdom of God has come near. The God you have been waiting for; the fulfillment of the deepest desires of your heart, those which aren’t conditioned by culture or upbringing but which are inherent to all humanity; eternal joy and happiness forever; finally being able to do what you were created to do… This is the kingdom of God, and it has come near.
And you cast it out. You wanted no part of God, or his kingdom. So the result will be swift and harsh (v. 12):
12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. 13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.
The Jews hearing this would have known what he meant. They would have remembered the story in Genesis 19, when God destroyed Sodom for its wickedness by raining sulfur and fire down on it. They would have remembered how the prophets so often condemned the cities of Tyre and Sidon for their idolatry and pride and materialism.
Can we be honest? That seems awfully harsh. And this is one of the problems people have with the God of the Bible. Why would a God of love execute judgment against someone for something that doesn’t seem all that bad (compared to some of the really evil things people have done)?
There’s a reason why, and although we may not realize it, it’s something that all of us inherently understand.
Not many people would be upset if they saw you slap a mosquito on your arm. It would be quite a different story if it wasn’t a mosquito you slapped, but a newborn baby. We see those who abuse children as so vile, and so despicable, that they deserve the harshest appropriate punishment.
Why are we more upset at someone hitting a baby than someone hitting a mosquito? Because the gravity of the sin increases in proportion to the value of the one sinned against. Because a baby is a human being, with its own worth and value and dignity. And not only is it a human being, it is a helpless, innocent human being, who has done nothing to deserve that abuse, and who should have been protected rather than mistreated.
The gravity of the sin increases in proportion to the value of the one sinned against.
God is more valuable than any human being—more valuable than any being. He is the most inherently worthy being in existence; and that is why rejecting God and his gospel is worthy of such judgment.
Sodom and Tyre and Sidon were judged harshly; but whatever they got was “more bearable,” Jesus says, than those who reject God in these cities, because to these cities, the kingdom of God has come near. And if the mighty works done in [your cities] had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.
Jesus gives one final word before sending them out (v. 16):
16 “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
This is a stunning affirmation, which summarizes everything he’s just said. When people reject the gospel, it’s not an idea, or a philosophy, or a religion, that they are rejecting. When they reject the gospel, they are rejecting God himself, the most infinitely worthy being who exists. And because the gravity of the sin increases in proportion to the value of the one sinned against, those who reject the gospel are guilty of sin of infinite gravity.
What about us?
Now—what about us? We weren’t there when Jesus sent out these seventy disciples; we weren’t among their number. Why is this text so important to us today? This happened before Jesus died on the cross; surely things are different now. Surely his death, that ultimate act of love, made it so that such ministry is no longer necessary, or that the punishment of rejecting the gospel message is no longer so harsh.
I’m sorry, but that’s not the case. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul speaks in a very similar way to Christians in the church at Corinth—after Jesus’s death, after he sent out the apostles to plant churches. Paul speaks of all Christians as being “ambassadors for Christ,” bringing the same message to people who don’t know him.
2 Corinthians 5, starting at v. 17:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
This is the good news—the kingdom of God has come near, and has made anyone in Christ into a new creation. We are no longer the sinners we once were, but through Christ’s work, God declares us righteous—he reconciles us to himself and declares us new. And he sends us out to share this same reconciliation with others.
18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.
The same thing happens. He sends us out as ambassadors of his Son, and makes his appeal through us. And that appeal is summarized in two simple sentences:
We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
All the gospel can be summed up in that simple call: be reconciled to God. God made Jesus, who never sinned, take our sins upon himself so completely that we can say he became sin for us. And he gave us his perfect, sinless life so completely that God calls us the righteousness of God.
This is the good news of the gospel: that the infinitely worthy God has offered a gift which is unthinkably good. So rejecting the good news of the gospel means rejecting the infinitely good God who offers this unthinkably wonderful gift.
This means two things for us today—one thing for believers, and one thing for unbelievers.
Christians, you are ambassadors for Christ. You must never think that your job is simply to spread good cheer and help others, like year-round, altruistic Santa Clauses. You should share your joy, and you should help others, but that’s not all you are called to do.
You are ambassadors. You are on a mission of the highest good possible, and this mission is of the utmost urgency. You don’t know how many chances the people around you are going to have to hear the gospel. You don’t know whom God will place in their paths. The seventy were dead-set on their mission; they would not be distracted by useless conversations or entertainment on the road. They had a job to do, and they fixed their eyes with laser-like focus on the task at hand.
Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your relationships. Don’t waste your conversations. This text calls us to feel the weight of this mission, and to get to work today. You don’t need a degree in theology to share the good news. All you need is faith that God can use any conversation about the gospel, even the most fumbling and incorrect, to change someone.
So don’t waste your time. Get to work.
Unbelievers, you have now heard the message. If you’re here today, and you have listened to this sermon, you know everything you need to know. You know that Jesus lived a perfect life for us, and died the death that we deserve, that we might be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to God.
That means I can say, with every bit as much certainty as the seventy were called to say, that the kingdom of God has come near to you. It’s up to you whether that fact is a sign of celebration for you, or a sign of judgment against you.
So you have a choice to make. Either receive it, or reject it. If you rejected the gospel in the past, the good news is that it’s never too late. Jesus will never turn away those who come to him in faith. But if you reject him today, there is no guarantee that you will have another opportunity to receive him tomorrow. You don’t know what’s going to happen after we leave here today. You don’t know if you’ll be alive tomorrow.
So I implore you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Receive the gift of the gospel, receive the gift of Jesus Christ, and enjoy him forever with us. Anyone can come; and all are welcome.