Sending Out the Twelve Apostles
10:1 Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits so they could cast them out and heal every kind of disease and sickness. 10:2 Now these are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (called Peter), and Andrew his brother; James son of Zebedee and John his brother; 10:3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 10:4 Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
The disciples here begin to answer the prayer that they themselves were urged to offer, Mt 9:37f.
Apostles – Matthew’s only use of this word, but appropriate here because the word means ‘”one sent forth” as an ambassador who bears a message and who represents the one who sent him. The qualifications included (1) seeing the Lord and being an eyewitness to his resurrection, (Ac 1:22; 1 Cor 9:1) (2) being invested with miraculous sign-gifts, (Ac 5:15-16; Heb 2:3-4) and (3) being chosen by the Lord or the Holy Spirit.’ (Mt 10:1-2; Acts 1:26)’ (Ryrie)
Undesigned coincidence. Matthew records the disciples names in pairs (whereas Mark and Luke records them as individuals). A plausible explanation is found in Mk 6:7, where we read that the disciples were sent out two by two.
Undesigned coincidence. ‘Comparing Matthew 10:2 with Mark 3:18 and Luke 6:15, where the Apostles are named, Matthew moves his own name to after Thomas’, and adds the epithet ‘the publican’. This might be expected from a humble man who nevertheless wanted to explain who he was without humiliating himself too much.’ (Source)
10:5 Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. 10:6 Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
“Do not go among the Gentiles…” – A specific instruction for a specific mission. Jesus has already anticipated, both in word and deed, the welcoming of Gentiles into God’s kingdom. His primary mission was to Israel, Mt 15:24, although after the resurrection everything would be different (see Mt 28:19). The redemptive order (which goes back to the call of Abram, Gen 12:3) is: to the Jew first, and then the Gentile (Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8; 13:46; Rom 1:16; 2:10).
‘Gentile’ country would have been to the north – Tyre and Sidon, and to the east – the Decapolis. Samaritan towns lay to the south.
Carson suggests that for the Samaritans to even be mentioned presupposes Jesus’ earlier success there, recorded in Jn 4. Beyond any pragmatic reasons for not evangelising the Samaritans at this time there were probably theological reasons: as the Jewish Messiah, Jesus himself restricted his ministry mainly (Mt 15:24), although not entirely (Mt 8:1–13; 15:21–39), to the Jews. Worldwide expansion would come in God’s good purposes, Mt 28:19; cf. Rom 1:16.
Jesus applied this restriction to himself in Mt 15:24. It was not meant to be absolute (Mt 8:5-13; 15:21-28), nor permanent (Mt 28:19f).
Marshall (New Testament Theology) comments: ‘The need for this command arises out of the realities of the geography: Galilee was heavily populated with Gentiles and was adjacent to Samaria, through which people would travel to Jerusalem. Theologically the mission has as its priority Israel and specifically the needy people in it (the marginalized and the poor). All the evidence points to the fact that the historical Jesus did focus his mission on the Jews, as the embarrassing incident in Mt 15:21–28 (note Mt 15:24 par. Mk 7:24–30) indicates. At the same time, there is an openness to Gentiles throughout the Gospel that indicates that for Matthew this limitation was confined to the mission of Jesus and was not binding on the early church.’
10:7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’ 10:8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give. 10:9 Do not take gold, silver, or copper in your belts, 10:10 no bag for the journey, or an extra tunic, or sandals or staff, for the worker deserves his provisions.
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” – Some would bring this command under the rubric of Mt 28:19, and insist that Christ desires his people today to do all these things (including raising the dead). But this is not necessarily so: there are other commands within this very passage that are clearly specific to the mission that Jesus was then sending his disciples out on (including the instructions not to enter any Samaritan town, and not to take gold, silver, or copper, etc). So it cannot be assumed that the ministry of miracle-working was not also restricted in the same kinds of way.
The contributor to Harper’s Bible Commentary struggles to makes sense of Matthew’s inclusion of this material. Noting that ‘Matthew’s primary concern is not a biography or history of Jesus but a manual for the church of his day’, he says that ‘the puzzle of the missionary charge is that the earlier part, down to Mt 10:23, seems irrelevant to the conditions of Matthew’s community.’ The commentator then wonders: ‘Is Matthew deliberately trying to “historicize”—i.e., to reconstruct how things actually were in Jesus’ time, a time very different from his own? Is Matthew just a conservative editor content simply to preserve traditions even when they have lost their relevance? Perhaps Matthew was more aware of the difference between Jesus’ time and his own than modern scholars give him credit for. Perhaps he believed that this charge containing sayings that were designed for very different situations from his own still has something relevant to say. Perhaps missionaries still go out from Matthew’s community, and their requirement of a minimum of baggage is meant to symbolize the urgency of the mission. Perhaps Matthew’s community needs reminding that, although they have turned toward the Gentiles, they must not give up on Israel. And what about the coming of the Son of man before the completion of the mission to Israel? Perhaps Matthew still felt that this promise provided an incentive to urgency in mission not only to Israel, but also to the Gentiles.’ It is, of course, less of an interpretative struggle to accept that Matthew wrote these things down because they reflect, in substance, what Jesus actually said these.
No bag for the journey – They are to travel light; perhaps it was a quick journey. They could count on traditional hospitality at the hands of many devout Jewish householders. Notice the later change of instructions in Lk 22:36.’ (Ryrie)
According to Mk 6:8f, both sandals and a staff were allowed. NBC observes that the word translated ‘take’ normally means, in Matthew, ‘obtain’: ‘is the prohibition, therefore, not of using normal essential travelling equipment but of buying extra?’
10:11 Whenever you enter a town or village, find out who is worthy there and stay with them until you leave. 10:12 As you enter the house, give it greetings. 10:13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come on it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 10:14 And if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your message, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or that town. 10:15 I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town!
Worthy – The word is used four times in vv10-13. The sense here may simply be ‘welcoming’.
Although they would be empowered to work miracles, their own needs would be met through the hospitality of others.
‘To give or return “peace” meant to bless or retract a blessing from an individual or a household.’ (Blomberg)
‘A pious Jew, on leaving Gentile territory, might remove from his feet and clothes all dust of the pagan land now being left behind, thus dissociating himself from the pollution of those lands and the judgment in store for them. For the disciples to do this to Jewish homes and towns would be a symbolic way of saying that the emissaries of Messiah now viewed those places as pagan, polluted, and liable to severe judgment.’ (Carson, EBC)
Cf. Gen 18:20–19:28. ‘The increasing culpability of such rejection probably stemmed from the fact that God’s revelation in Christ was that much clearer and more immediate.’ (Blomberg)
‘No one can encounter Jesus without increasing his responsibility and, if he is unbelieving, his guilt’ (Ridderbos).
Persecution of Disciples
10:16 “I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 10:17 Beware of people, because they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues. 10:18 And you will be brought before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them and the Gentiles.
“Sheep…snakes…doves” – A vivid set of similes. In their vulnerability (sheep among wolves) ‘they need to be shrewd without being harmful; innocent without being gullible.’ (NBC)
Clearly, this teaching implies something wider in scope than the mission of the Twelve in Galilee.
10:19 Whenever they hand you over for trial, do not worry about how to speak or what to say, for what you should say will be given to you at that time. 10:20 For it is not you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
When the arrest you – lit. ‘hand you over’. The thought is probably of being handed over to the Gentile authorities (cf. v18), as happened to Paul and others.
Do not worry about what to say or how to say it – The context is one of persecution, and not of regular teaching ministry. This reassurance is not a licence for lazy preaching.
‘This does not mean that the mind of the persecuted apostle is a tabula rasa (blank tablet) and that then in some mechanical fashion God will suddenly begin to write words upon that blank space. On the contrary, neither when these witnesses are brought to trial nor when they—think, for example of Matthew, John, and Peter—write books or epistles will their personality be suppressed, or will the previous apostolic training which they received from Jesus be nullified. All this will be enlivened and sharpened and raised to a higher plane of activity. It is in that organic sense that what they must speak will be given to them in that hour.’ (Hendriksen)
10:21 “Brother will hand over brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 10:22 And you will be hated by everyone because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 10:23 Whenever they persecute you in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
“You will not finish going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” –
10:24 “A disciple is not greater than his teacher, nor a slave greater than his master. 10:25 It is enough for the disciple to become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more will they defame the members of his household!
Beelzebub means “lord of flies,” a guardian deity of the Ekronites, (2 Kings 1:2) but used by the Jews as an epithet for Satan. The name may have been a mocking Hebrew alteration of Baal-Zebul, a local archdemon of northern Palestine and Syria. For Jesus’ enemies to allege that he was possessed by Beelzebub was the worst kind of blasphemy.’ (Mk 3:22) (Ryrie)
Fear God, Not Man
10:26 “Do not be afraid of them, for nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. 10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light, and what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops.
10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) idiosyncratically understands ‘those who kill the body’ to be the Romans, whereas ‘the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ is Satan, the real enemy. But, as France remarks, ‘No such power is attributed to Satan in the Bible, nor is the Christian bidden to fear him.’
“Be afraid” – On fear as a motive, Heb 4:1.
“Body…soul” – Osborne: ‘Jesus is not drawing an absolute distinction between the two parts of a human being, body and soul, as if we are a dualistic being rather than a whole person. Still, he is saying that if all a person can do is destroy your mortal body, that is nothing to fear. The most important part of a person, the soul, will live on. Moreover, we all look forward to a new “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44) anyway, to be received at the parousia.’ Note the parallel in Lk 12:5 – “Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell” (emphasis added).
“Destroy in hell” – For those with a traditionalist view, the word ‘destroy’ signifies, not extinction, but ruin; not loss of being, but loss of well-being. This interpretation goes back at least as far as Tertullian, who espoused a Platonic view of the immortality of the soul (see Fudge, The Fire That Consumes).
Calvin argued from this text not only that the soul survives death, but that it is immortal. But, as Philip Hughes remarks, ‘it is difficult to see how he could derive an argument for the immortality of the soul from this saying, since it would seem, quite to the contrary, to imply the soul’s mortality: that God can destroy both soul and body must surely mean that the soul is destructible.’ (in Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (p. 186). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
Blomberg asserts that ‘”kill,” like “destroy,” does not imply annihilation but eternal suffering, as the qualification “in hell” makes clear.’ So also Morris: ‘The reference to hell shows that we are not to understand “destroy” as annihilation. Jesus is speaking of the destruction of all that makes for a rich and meaningful life, not of the cessation of life’s existence.’
Holman Apologetics Commentary: ‘This verse leads some to argue for a doctrine of annihilation, where the damned are destroyed rather than punished eternally. However, a broader look at the topic shows Gehenna is a place where the judged are cast not to be destroyed, but to be punished. For instance, Matthew himself elsewhere described Gehenna as being a place of enduring weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30).’ It has to be said, however, that none of these verses states that the suffering of Gehenna is ‘enduring’ (i.e. everlasting).
But for France, hell is ‘a place of destruction, not of continuing punishment, a sense which fits the origin of the term in the rubbish dumps of the Hinnom valley, where Jerusalem’s garbage was destroyed by incineration.’ Again: ‘it would…be better to speak of true life (the “soul”) not as eternal but as “potentially eternal,” since it can be “destroyed” in hell.’ (NICNT)
So also Nixon (NBC): ‘The soul in biblical thought is not immortal, except when new life is conferred upon it through Christ . . . Hell is therefore the place of its destruction as Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was of the rubbish of Jerusalem.’
Barclay (DSB) also thinks that ‘something very like’ conditional immortality is taught by Jesus here. ‘This belief holds that the reward of goodness is that the soul climbs up and up until it is one with all the immortality, the bliss and the blessedness of God; and that the punishment of the evil man, who will not mend his ways in spite of all God’s appeals to him, is that his soul goes down and down and down until it is finally obliterated and ceases to be.’
‘The Old Testament introduced the notion of eternal punishment in Dan 12:2, indicating that the lost will also be resurrected, but for the purpose of eternal shame and contempt. While the worst punishment that earthly courts can inflict is death, Jesus taught his disciples not to fear those who can kill the body, but rather God, who can also cast people into hell. (Lk 12:4-5) Isa 66:24 speaks of an undying worm and unquenchable fire-the same imagery Jesus uses to warn about hell. (Mk 9:42-43,47-48) Jesus also described it as “outer darkness,” where people “weep and gnash their teeth.” (Mt 8:12) The Lord described eternal punishment for the wicked as well as eternal life for the righteous, showing that both are without end. (Mt 25:46) The rest of the New Testament is in agreement. (2 Thess 1:9; Rev 20:10-15) Just as that Bible utilizes earthly things to symbolize heavenly bliss, so the description of hell as fire may be metaphorical for torment. However, the torment of hell is as real as the joy of heaven, even if our pictures of the two are less than perfect.’ (EDBT)
10:29 Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. 10:30 Even all the hairs on your head are numbered. 10:31 So do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.
‘It is noteworthy that in both Gospels, immediately after the warning that the condemnation of God is to be feared, comes the encouragement that the protecting love of God is to be trusted: the God who takes note of the fall of a single sparrow knows every hair of his children’s heads.’ (Lk 12:6-7; Mt 10:29-31) (HSB)
“Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” – ‘That is, each one has exercised the care and attention of God. He has fixed the number; and though of small importance, yet he does not think it beneath him to determine how few, or how many, they shall be. He will, therefore, take care of you.’ (Barnes)
“Do not be afraid” – ‘Why not? Because God’s meticulous sovereignty—whether we live or die—serves his holiness and righteousness and goodness and wisdom. In Christ we are not his dispensable pawns. We are his valued children. “You are of more value than many sparrows.”’ (Piper, Coronavirus and Christ)
10:32 “Whoever, then, acknowledges me before people, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 10:33 But whoever denies me before people, I will deny him also before my Father in heaven.
“I” – “The Son of Man” in Lk 12:8.
‘Now confession of Christ, though it is regarded by the greater part of men as a trifling matter, is here represented to be a main part of divine worship, and a distinguished exercise of godliness.’ (Calvin)
Not Peace, but a Sword
10:34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. 10:35 For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, 10:36 and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.
The parallel in Lk 12:51 has ‘division’ instead of ‘sword’.
We have here a figure of speech (a mashal) that presents an aspect of truth in a striking and apparently paradoxical way. The intent is not to present a universal truth, but to make people think. To be sure, the ultimate purpose of Christ’s coming is to bring peace (see Isa 9:6, and also Psa 72:3, Psa 72:7; Lk 1:79; Lk 2:14; Lk 7:50; Lk 8:48; Jn 14:27; Jn 16:33; Jn 20:19, Jn 20:21; Rom 5:1; Rom 10:15; Rom 14:17; Eph 2:14; Col 1:20; Heb 6:20-7:2, but this is not achieved without tribulation (Acts 14:22) and bitter opposition.
The ‘contradiction’ between this teaching and that of Mt 5:9, for example, is therefore apparent, rather than real.
‘The form of the statement not to expect Jesus to bring peace (“do not imagine;” cf. Mt 5:17) suggests that this would have been the natural inclination of the disciples. Was not the gospel a message of peace (cf. Mt 5:9; 10:13)? Would not the age of the kingdom of God bring peace with it? (cf. Lk 1:79 Isa 9:6 11:9) The answer must clearly be yes in its final realization and even in some sense in the present. (cf. Jn 14:27) But in the peculiar and unexpected interim period of the proclamation of the kingdom, as has already been shown, strange things may be expected by the disciples and later messengers of the kingdom.’ (WBC)
‘The sword Jesus brings is not here military conflict, but, as vv35f show, a sharp social division which even sever family ties…As long as some men refuse the Lordship of God, to follow the Prince of peace will always be a way of conflict.’ (France)
‘When some great cause emerges, it is bound to divide people; there are bound to be those who answer, and those who refuse, the challenge. To be confronted with Jesus is necessarily to be confronted with the choice whether to accept him or to reject him; and the world is always divided into those who have accepted Christ and those who have not.’ (DSB)
‘In the “liberal” West people who have become Christians have occasionally been disowned and disinherited by their families and have lost their jobs. And under totalitarian regimes of the right or the left there has been and still is untold suffering for Christ.’ (Carson)
“I have come to turn…” – Although such an expression ‘would ordinarily be taken in the sense of purpose, here it is more a way of describing the effect of the coming of Jesus and the proclamation of the kingdom. Response to the message of Jesus and his disciples will be mixed and hence cause dissension among members of the same household.’ (WBC)
According to Wright, this saying invokes Mic 7:6, where the prophet declares that when God is doing a new thing, dissension will inevitably arise. Some will oppose God, and therefore God’s people. Jesus is saying: ‘Don’t be surprised if that happens to you.’
10:37 “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 10:38 And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 10:39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it.
‘A man must love his wife, family, friends, and even his enemies (cf. Mt 5:44), but he must love Jesus supremely.’ (Carson)
‘You cannot follow Jesus without having to make crucial choices of where your ultimate loyalty lies.’ (NBC)
As commonly applied, ‘taking up the cross’ refers to some aspect of health, circumstance, or relationship which is incongenial – ‘a cross I have to bear’. But as originally intended, the saying is much more radical.
Crucifixion was not unusual in Roman Palestine. The picture here is of the convicted criminal carrying his cross through the crowded streets to the place of execution: a picture of shame as well as pain.
Of those who heard Jesus on this occasion, some, if not most, lived out his teaching literally. Peter was crucified; James the Son of Zebedee was beheaded. (Ac 12:2)
If this was not to be the disciples’ literal fate, as it was their Master’s, it is an indication, firstly, of the kind of treatment they could expect; if they followed the Master, they could expect ridicule, rejection, and even death. It is an illustration, secondly, of the attitude they should show, v39 etc. This attitude is one of abandoning all earthly hopes and ambitions, and of steadfastly following Christ, wherever the path might lead.
We might compare this costly discipleship with the no-strings-attached-God-loves-you-anyway approach of some modern types of evangelism.
“Take the cross” – this is the cost of discipleship; “follow me” – this assures ample compensation. Cf Rom 8:18; 2 Cor 4:17.
‘This reference to a cross needed no explanation, for the Jews had seen thousands of their countrymen crucified by the Romans. Allegiance even to death is demanded of Christ’s followers.’ (Ryrie)
Hagner (WBC) is confident that ‘this reference to taking up one’s cross in following Jesus is anachronistic since it becomes understandable only after the initial announcement of Jesus’ passion (if then!). (Mt 16:21) The exhortation to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus is found again, more reasonably, in Mt 16:24, although Mt 20:19 is the first reference to the cross or to crucifixion. The important saying about losing and finding one’s life (Mt 16:25) is also conjoined to Mt 16:24 (as in the present passage). This anachronism points again to Matthew’s redactional activity and to the pertinence of this material to the post-resurrection Church.’ We think that Hagner’s confidence is misplaced, given the widespread use of crucifixion at that time.
Hagner, however, is surely correct when he pinpoints the meaning of our Lord’s statement: ‘Taking up one’s cross refers not to the personal problems or difficulties of life that one must bear, as it is sometimes used in common parlance, but to a radical obedience that entails self-denial and, indeed, a dying to self. To take up one’s cross is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who is the model of such radical obedience and self-denial (cf. Mt 4:1-11).’
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it” – ‘Losing’ one’s life, according to Carson, may come about either through martyrdom or self-denial; such persons will ‘find’ their life in the age to come.
‘It has been suggested that life here means very much what we mean by “self”; to concentrate one’s best energies on oneself is to destroy oneself, whereas to lose oneself in the service of Christ is to find oneself.’ (Morris)
Note that this loss of life is ‘because of me’: ‘the disciple puts Jesus before his own natural inclinations and interests as well as before those of his family.’ (France, TNTC)
10:40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. 10:41 Whoever receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever receives a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 10:42 And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you the truth, he will never lose his reward.”
This teaching is quite closely parallel to that of Mt 25:31-46 (The Sheep and the Goats), and provides a key to interpreting that often-misunderstood passage. The emphasis here is on the reception of those first disciples as they engaged in mission; the focus in the later passage is on the reception, and its consequences, right up to the end of the age.
Carson thinks that the movement is from the ‘greatest’ to the ‘least’ of Jesus’ disciples: from apostles (v40), to prophets (v41), to ‘these little one’ (v42). All are subject to the hostility of the world; to receive and support such is to receive and support Christ himself. Indeed, it is to accept God himself (‘him who sent me’, v40).
‘In all these three illustrations Christ meant to teach substantially the same thing, that he that would entertain kindly, or treat with hospitality himself, his disciples, a prophet, or a righteous man, would show that he approved their character, and should not fail of proper reward. To receive in the name of a prophet, is to receive as a prophet; to do proper honour to his character; and to evince attachment to the cause in which he was engaged.’ (Barnes)
“Whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” – On Jesus being sent by the Father, see Mt 15:24; 21:37; Mk 9:37; 12:6; Lk 4:18; 10:16; Jn 3:17, 34; 5:23, 24, 40; 9:4, 7; 10:36; Gal. 4:4; 1 Jn 4:9). And then the Father has authorised the Son to send his disciples, Mt 28:18–20; Jn 17:18; 20:21.
‘‘God himself enters the house with Jesus’ messengers. What a statement!’ (Jeremias, NTT, p. 239). Thus the reception afforded to Jesus’ disciples becomes the test of a man’s relationship to God, as will be spelt out more fully in 25:31–46.’ (France, TNTC)
‘To receive a prophet because he is a prophet (as in 1 Ki 17:9–24; 2 Ki 4:8–37) presupposes, in the context of v.40, that he is Christ’s prophet; the same came be said about the “righteous man.” Thus the person who receives a prophet receives Christ, his word, his ways, and his Gospel, and he or she expresses solidarity with the people of God (these “little ones”) by receiving them for Jesus’ sake (cf. 2Jn 10–11; 3Jn 8).’ (Carson)
‘Notice again the thought of mission: Jesus had been sent. The thought is that of the outworking of one great divine purpose in which the Father, Jesus who had been sent by the Father, and the disciples who were being sent by Jesus all had their part. They were so closely connected that any honor paid to the disciples had to be regarded as something that overflowed to Jesus and to the Father.’ (Morris)
“A prophet’s reward” is, perhaps, (a) a reward commensurate with the status of a prophet, or (b) the reward that a prophet himself would receive (cf. Mt 5:12), or, (c) a share in the reward that the prophet himself receives.
“Whoever receives a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward” – ‘The reward is promised because in the man who knocks at his door the welcomer recognizes “a righteous person,” that is, one who practices the true religion. The man who devotes his life to the performance of the urgently necessary and eminently noble task of providing lodging for, cooperating with, and encouraging God’s traveling children is promised the same reward as are those whom he befriends.’ (Hendriksen)
To give “a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” is to give the smallest gift to just one of the most insignificant (in the world’s eyes) of Christ’s disciples.
Giving a cup of cold water was, says France, a basic act of hospitality in the East, and therefore taken for granted and not deserving of any reward. But even this courtesy, extended to the least of Jesus’ disciples because he is a disciple, will not be unrewarded.
Note the mission context of this saying (v40f). This helps define ‘these little ones’ – they are disciples of Jesus, bearing witness to him. It also suggests an element of risk in offering even basic hospitality to disciples, whose work of evangelism would often take place in the face of opposition and persecution (cf. Acts!).
“In the name of a disciple” means, ‘because he is a disciple’ (France et al).
These little ones, then, are Christ’s disciples. They are not necessarily children. Nor (suggests France, commenting on Mt 18:6) are they necessarily ‘little’ by the standards of God’s kingdom, but rather in the eyes of the watching world – they are ‘the poor in spirit’, ‘the meek’, ‘the persecuted’, and so on. ‘The disciples are called “little ones” because they are insignificant, without status, and powerless in society.’ (Osborne)
Gundry thinks that ‘these little ones’ are disciples who do not hold positions of leadership in the church; but that is, of course, to import a later church situation back into the teaching of Jesus.
“Because he is my disciple” – ‘The sole reason for rewarding those who treat Jesus’ disciples well is not because they are prophets or righteous people—they are in fact “little ones”—but because they are Jesus’ disciples.’ (Carson)
‘Jesus is saying in three roughly equivalent ways that those who receive his followers, because they accept what those individuals stand for, will in turn be received by God. “Because he is” is literally in the name of and refers to recognizing the prophet, righteous person, or “little one” for who he or she is. The “he” in each of these cases (vv. 41a, 41b, 42a) thus refers to the disciple and not to the one offering hospitality. The person receiving the disciple is thus becoming a believer. “Receiving” or “not losing” a reward in v. 42b must therefore imply receiving or not receiving eternal life, not some specific status in heaven.’ (Blomberg)
“His reward” – ‘What reward? Think of peace of mind now (Mt 10:13), public acknowledgment by Christ himself at his return (Mt 25:34ff.), and ever afterward all the blessings that are bestowed solely by grace, according to works (Mt 16:27).’ (Hendriksen)