There is no such thing as indifference to Christ. You’re either for Him or against Him. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his sermon series in the gospel of Mark to consider the striking message that Jesus sent out His disciples to proclaim.
Today we are back in the gospel according to Saint Mark, to the sixth chapter. I will be reading from Mark 6:7–13, and I’ll ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits. He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts— but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics.
Also He said to them, “In whatever place you enter a house, stay there till you depart from that place. And whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!”
So they went out and preached that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.
He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.
O Lord, we thank You so much for this inspired record of the ministry of Jesus. At times, we flatter ourselves thinking we know all there is to know or that we surely know enough about Him, until we are brought fresh to the pages of the Gospels, where our feeble knowledge is exposed, and we get new glimpses of His person. O Lord, this morning, show us more of Jesus that our ardor, affection, and passion for Him might increase. For we ask these things in His name. Amen.
The Mission of the Twelve
In our last look at Mark’s narrative, we saw Jesus’ experience going back to His hometown of Nazareth, how He was greeted with hostility, scorn, and rejection. Then we read at the end of verse 6 that He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching—that is, He left Nazareth and returned to the lake region of Galilee, to the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, and now we have a record of what is essentially a trial mission for the disciples.
Up to this point, the disciples had been learning. Jesus had been teaching them about the kingdom of God. For the most part, with respect to Jesus’ miracles, they were spectators and students. Now, He sent them on a mission to try out what they had learned and to see what power they had received from Him.
What I read this morning is only the beginning of the account. In the middle of the full account of the mission of the Twelve, Mark interjects the beheading of John the Baptist and other matters. This morning, we will just familiarize ourselves with the beginning of this missionary outreach of the disciples.
We read in verse 7, “And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two.” There is something we do not want to miss here: before Jesus sends anyone anywhere, He first calls them. He had already called each of the Twelve to be a student under His rabbinic tutelage. He called them again to assemble them for a purpose: He called in order to send.
We do not want to miss that. People love it when we tell them that Jesus says, “Come unto Me, all you who are burdened and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” We like it when Jesus says, “Come to Me.” But any time you come to Jesus, what does He say? “Go ye into all the world, making disciples of all nations.” We see that pattern of coming and going, of being summoned and then sent, in this gospel account.
Jesus “began to send them out two by two.” There are two things I want to observe in that clause. First, when it says, “He began to send them,” the word Mark uses is a variation of the verb form of the word meaning “Apostleship.” An Apostle is one who is sent, apostolos. We read in the New Testament about “disciples” and “Apostles,” and we tend to think that the two words are synonyms. They are not. A disciple is a learner, a student. An Apostle is one who is commissioned by the Master, to whom the Master designates His own authority.
That distinction is critically important for us because the New Testament tells us that the foundation of the church is the prophets and the Apostles. The Apostles have Apostolic authority over the church of all ages because they are given that authority by the One who sent them. I remind you that the first Apostle in the New Testament, the Apostle par excellence, is Jesus. Remember, Jesus said, “I speak nothing on My own authority but only that which was given to Me by the One who sent Me.” Our Lord Himself is the supreme Apostle of the Father, and He carries in His ministry nothing less than the authority of the Father. When Jesus commissions men to be Apostles, He gives them His own authority.
This is important today because people are trying to tear the Bible into various parts. I often hear people say, “Jesus I like, but Paul I can’t stand; Paul is a chauvinist who denigrates women,” and so on. Paul says nothing to us and the church except by the authority of Jesus Christ. If you do not like Paul, you do not like Jesus.
Jesus Himself said: “Those who receive you, receive Me. If they reject you, they reject Me.” You do not know anything about Jesus except through the testimony of the Apostles. So, it is a false dichotomy to separate Apostolic testimony and authority from the authority of Christ. That is important, and the church must fight that battle in every generation.
Returning to our text, Jesus sent the Apostles out “two by two.” Why two by two? It seems to me that He would get more reach by sending them one by one, and each could go to a separate village. That would double the missionary outreach. But two by two involves companionship and partnership, and it harkens back to the Old Testament principle where something was established as true if testimony was given by two witnesses. So, Jesus sent them out to testify about Him and the coming kingdom of God. He sent them by twos, so that what one proclaims, the other verifies.
Jesus gave the Apostles “power over unclean spirits.” The word here is one we have run into already on more than one occasion. It is the word exousia, which sometimes is translated “authority.” Other times it is translated “power.” The normal word for sheer power, force, or might is the Greek word dynamis, from which we get the word dynamite. But here, it is the power contained within this authority that Jesus gave to the Apostles in their trial mission. This was not the final commissioning of the disciples to become Apostles—that came much later. But for this local mission to which Jesus sent them, He authorized and empowered them.
Authentication by Miracles
Earlier this morning, I read from the fourth chapter of the book of Exodus. You might remember the struggle Moses had when God commanded him to go to Pharaoh and say: “Let My people go. Israel is My son, My firstborn son, and you’ve enslaved him. I want you to release him so that he can come to My holy mountain and worship Me.”
“You want me to go where? You want me to say what? You want me to tell the people who are enslaved to follow me? You want me to tell Pharaoh to let them go?” It is as though Moses was saying: “Are you kidding me? Lord, nobody is going to believe me. You know I’m not an eloquent man. I’m slow of speech, and I have no intrinsic authority. Who will listen to me?”
What did God say to Moses? He said: “Moses, what’s that stick you’re leaning on? Throw that stick on the ground.” When he threw the stick on the ground, it became a snake. Moses likely jumped back and was fearful. God said, “Grab it by the tail.” So, he grabbed it by the tail, and it became the stick again. Moses was amazed.
Then God said: “I’m not finished yet. Put your hand in your bosom.” Moses put his hand in his bosom, and God told him, “Pull it out.” When he pulled it out, it was white as snow, covered with leprosy. Now Moses was terrified. God said, “Put it back.” He put it back, brought his hand out, and it was like the rest of his flesh, with no sign of disease. Finally, God said, “Take the water, throw it on the ground.” It became blood.
What was the purpose of all that? One of the things Christians seem to misunderstand more than anything else is the purpose of miracles in the Bible. The fundamental purpose of miracles both in the Old Testament and the New Testament is to authenticate agents of revelation.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said, “Teacher, we know You are a teacher sent from God, or else You wouldn’t be able to do the things that You do.” You see, God does not empower demons to perform authentic miracles. They do lying, counterfeit works, but true bona fide miracles are restricted in the Bible to those upon whom God places His seal of approval.
That was what was happened with Moses. God essentially said: “When Pharaoh won’t believe you—and I’m going to harden his heart—turn that stick into the snake. Turn the water into blood. You will demonstrate My power in such a way that even Pharaoh will not be able to gainsay.” The same thing happened with Jesus when He said, “If you see Me casting out Satan by the finger of God—that is, by the Holy Spirit—then you know that the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
So, before Jesus sent out the Twelve, two by two, in their teaching mission, He gave them power and authority over the demonic realm. Our Lord imparts His power to those who represent His name and teach His truth.
Just a Staff
The text continues, “He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts—but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics.” What were these instructions about?
First, Jesus said, “You’re going to travel light.” This again brings to mind Exodus and the Passover, the night in which the children of Israel were commanded to be ready at a moment’s notice to leave their homes at the summons of God. They were to be dressed to move quickly and to travel light with no time to pack. Jesus said the same to His disciples: “When you go, all you can take with you is a staff.”
If you notice what the other Gospels say, they say “no staff.” So why do the other gospels say “no staff” and Mark says, “Take the staff”? There is a distinction here. You might remember the equipment of the shepherd in the Old Testament. Remember the 23rd Psalm: “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” The staff was the shepherd’s crook, which also served as a walking stick. If one of the sheep wandered off, he could hook it around the neck and bring it back onto the path. The rod was a weapon of defense against an animal like a bear or lion, or if a crook came—pardon the pun—if a thief came to rob the sheepfold, the shepherd would use the rod to defend the sheep against the robber.
So, we do not have a conflict between Mark and the rest of the gospels. Jesus was saying, “You’re not allowed to take your powerful rod with you, but you can take a walking stick.” Incidentally, in church history, the symbol for the bishop has always been the crook of the shepherd. Not that bishops are crooks, but bishops are supposed to be shepherds, and that is why that symbol emerged in church history. Jesus said, “You can take the staff, but you can’t be packing more on this journey.”
Depend on the Father
Jesus said, “No bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts.” When He said “no bag,” that did not mean “no suitcase.” It meant no beggar’s bag. When we take up the collection every Sunday morning, we pass the bags in order to collect the money for the church. Jesus, when He sent out the Twelve on this occasion, said: “No bags. You can’t ask for money on this trip. You have to depend on My Father at every point of this mission. No bag. No bread. You can’t even take anything to eat with you. No copper—that means not the slightest bit of change. But wear sandals and do not put on two tunics.”
Why no bread? Jesus said: “When you go to a village, as soon as you enter, look for somebody who will house you, feed you, and grant you hospitality. It will be their responsibility to provide bread for you. It will be their burden to provide housing for you. Don’t give that a thought. You are to concentrate on your mission, and I want you to be free from concerns about food and money and housing.”
Notice that Jesus said, “When you go into the village, if somebody receives you into their home, you go into that home, accept their hospitality.” For how long? “As long as you’re in the village.” What was the point there?
Listen carefully to what Jesus was doing. He was saying, “When you enter the village, if a poor person comes to you and says, ‘I offer my humble abode for your headquarters while you’re ministering here among us,’ and you go into that person’s house knowing that the accommodations are spartan, and then the next day the wealthiest person in the village says, ‘I didn’t know you were coming earlier, so why don’t you come over to my house? I have grand quarters for you,’ then is too late. If you get a better offer, don’t take it.”
I see this happen in the ministry all the time. A small church invites you to speak, and you accept the invitation. You put it on your calendar. They put it on their calendar. Three months later, some big national event comes along and says: “R.C., can you come speak at this? Five thousand people are going to be in the audience, a wonderful honorarium.” What do you do? You say: “I’m sorry. I have a previous commitment.”
Merchants and hired workers do this all the time. They say, “I’ll be over to your house to do such and such work for you.” It is a small job, but they make the appointment. Then they do not show up because, in the meantime, somebody gave them a better offer. We do not let our yea mean yea and our nay mean nay. Jesus said, “Go to the village, and whoever welcomes you, accept their hospitality for the duration.”
Why did Jesus say they could only have one tunic and not two? In the ancient world, travelers who had to stop at night where there was no inn had to sleep outside. The purpose of the second tunic was to be a covering from the elements as they slept under the stars. Jesus said: “I’m not going to let you sleep under the stars. You’re going to be cared for by those who host you in the villages.”
The Two-Edged Gospel
Jesus continued: “Whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them.” There is no such thing as indifference to Christ. You are either for Him, or you are against Him. In the kingdom of God, there is no neutral ground.
The standard technique in mass evangelism today is that after a sermon is proclaimed, we offer the invitation: “As many as would like, please come.” We do not say: “As many who would like to respond to Christ, come now. Those who don’t want to respond to Christ may go to hell.” We do not say that. That would be political incorrectness with a vengeance, would it not?
But the gospel is a two-edged sword. If you receive it, the benefit is eternal life. If you reject it fully and finally, you do so to your everlasting peril. Jesus said that when He came, He brought a crisis into the world. Krisis is the Greek word for judgment. He told His disciples: “When you go to a place and they don’t receive you and your teaching, leave that town. But before you leave, shake the dust off your feet.”
Dusting off one’s feet goes back to antiquity, to traveling Jews who would go to pagan countries and gentile communities for business reasons, selling their wares. When they came home to cross the border back into Israel, the rabbis required that they literally shake the dust off their feet, lest they bring the contamination of the pagan community into Israel. That symbolized God’s judgment upon paganism.
In this text, Jesus was sending the men to the villages of the Jews, and He said, “If they don’t hear you, shake the dust off your feet, just as you shake the dust off your feet that belongs to pagans, because if they don’t heed the preaching of the gospel, even if they’re Jews, they’re pagans.” That was the message, and it gets even more serious.
Here is the scary part: “Shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!” There is a textual variant here. Not all the manuscripts of antiquity include the extension of verse 11. But the translators of the Bible I am giving to you were convinced that the manuscript evidence warranted including this in the text. Some other day we will talk about textual variants, but for now, listen to what Jesus was saying: “If there’s a village that doesn’t receive My disciples, they are going to have to answer for that on the day of judgment. I tell you with certainty, it’s going to be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah, whom God destroyed with fire in the Old Testament, than it will be for those villages.”
There Will Be Judgment
There are a couple of things we need to learn from what Jesus said in this text. One is that this is one of the many times Jesus talked about a last judgment. There will be a last judgment, and every one of us will have to appear at that last judgment.
We also need to see from this text a principle that occurs at least twenty-five times in the New Testament: God’s judgment on the last day will be a matter of degrees. There are degrees of sin. There are degrees of works of obedience. Though our works carry no intrinsic merit, Jesus tells us at least twenty-five times that our reward in heaven will be according to the measure of obedience we give in this life.
Paul warned the impenitent Romans that they were heaping up wrath against the day of wrath. I do not know how many times I have heard men say, “I’ve lusted, so I might as well keep going.” Or: “I’ve committed this sin once. Nothing’s going to hurt me if I commit it ten more times.” Every sin will be brought into judgment, and God’s justice will be perfect. Some will be visited with many stripes, some with few stripes.
We see in this text that there is a greater judgment given to these people who heard the Apostles of Jesus than even the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which symbolized the nadir of human decadence in the Old Testament. If you reject Christ, your judgment will be worse than the judgment God poured out on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Some people might say: “We do not believe that. We don’t believe there is judgment. We don’t believe in a God of wrath. We do not believe in a God of justice. We believe if there is a judgment, you are either in or you are out, and it does not make a difference how far out you are.” I will never forget when my professor in seminary said, “The sinner in hell would give everything that he had and do anything that he could to make the number of his sins during his lifetime one less.” Who talks like that today? No wonder people do not want to listen to the Scriptures. No wonder people do not want to listen to our Lord Jesus Christ. But it was the Lord Jesus who developed a theology of scaring people. We need to fear God. We need to fear His wrath. Jesus saves from what? From the wrath that is to come.
So, we have a small picture of the history of the mission of the church in the small trial mission of the disciples: “Go to the villages and preach the kingdom of God with My authority. If they reject it, shake the dust off your feet and consign those people to My Father’s judgment.”
So, the disciples went out, and they preached that people should repent, the same message John the Baptist preached and that Jesus preached—a message nobody wants to preach today—that people must repent to enter the kingdom of God. They cast out many demons. They anointed with oil many who were sick, and they healed them. This text introduces this first Apostolic mission. After we look at the interludes that are to come, we will see how this mission proceeded.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.