Why did Jesus prohibit his disciples from going to the least reached?

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. – Matthew 10:5–6

Why did Jesus not send his disciples to Gentiles and Samaritans? The Gentiles were the people who knew the least about the true God. From a missiological standpoint, they were the least reached. The Samaritans knew something of the Law but were not accepted as genuine worshippers of the God of Israel. They were also unreached and proved to be among the most responsive to Jesus’ message. Among them, Jesus saw one of his greatest harvests (John 4:35-42).

The Jews, on the other hand, had already received many opportunities to hear about God’s grace over the centuries past through the prophets and the Law of Moses. Many of them were very resistant to any message that would suggest that they were not the sole recipients of God’s grace. When Jesus talked about Gentiles as the special recipients of Gods’ grace during the time of Elijah and Elisha, his own childhood neighbors tried to kill him (Luke 4:24-29).

We understand from Scripture that the Good News of the kingdom of God needed to be offered to the Jews first. God offered the blessing of salvation first to the physical descendants of Abraham (Acts 3:25-26)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. – Romans 1:16

But why did Jesus expressly forbid his disciples to go to the Gentiles and even to the Samaritans to preach the good news of the kingdom of God?  Could they not have done both – to the Jews and also to the Samaritans and Gentiles? After all, Jesus himself went into Samaritan and Gentile towns at times. The story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 is a wonderful story of an entire town of Samaritans coming to faith in Jesus as the Saviour of the world. There is solid evidence to argue that the feeding of the 4000 and the healings in Mark 7:24-37 were all done among Gentile populations. Obviously, these ministry times were very positive experiences for Jesus. Why did he forbid his disciples to do the same things that they had already observed their Master doing?

I believe it was because the disciples were not yet ready for the challenges of cross-cultural ministry. This is demonstrated by the negative and vengeful response of James and John to rejection in a Samaritan village.

And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. – Luke 9:52–55

How quickly they reverted to their prejudices from childhood against the Samaritans!

In his commentary on John, D.A. Carson says that the sending out of the 12 disciples in Matthew 10 was a training mission. If Jesus had not expressly forbidden his disciples to go to Samaritan villages, they might have been tempted to try to duplicate what happened in Sychar (the harvest of John 4). They might have assumed that all Samaritans would welcome them and their message with open arms as did the villagers of Sychar. But preaching the Gospel across the deeply-ingrained cultural barrier between Jews and Samaritans was not going to be nearly so simple and straightforward. It would have been a mistake to stereotype all Samaritans or to expect that the identical approach Jesus used in Sychar was going to work in every other Samaritan village.

What the disciples needed in their first evangelistic ventures was a mission that was relatively simple and straightforward. They needed opportunities where they could repeat the same message over and over again without needing to do a lot of cultural analysis and ethnographic study. That is what the Matthew 10 commission entailed. The message was simple – “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.'” The equipment needed was minimal. The pattern was repeatable. When you get driven out of one village, go to the next and do the same thing all over again.

It is obvious that in those early days of following Jesus, the disciples were not yet ready for something as complicated and challenging as preaching the Gospel cross-culturally. As Carson says:

the Twelve were still far too immature to attempt cross-cultural evangelism of a people they would accept only when the welcome mat was out: cf. Luke 9:52–56, where at least some disciples are eager to call down fire from heaven on another Samaritan town that shut its doors against Jesus and his followers.

D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary p. 239–240.

Jesus had an evangelistic strategy for His disciples, and that strategy included going to the ends of the world to all peoples with the Gospel (Matt 28:19-20).  But Jesus also had a training strategy, and that meant that his messengers needed to learn first by engaging those who were of their same culture and language. In so doing, they would build their confidence and competence, and so become prepared for cross-cultural evangelism in the future.

So in order to accomplish his long-term strategy of reaching the least reached, Jesus refused to send out his disciples initially to the least unreached or to the most receptive.  Those to whom they were to go were lost and needed to hear this message. But they were not the least unreached, nor were they the most receptive. In time, after they had gained experience in preaching to their own countrymen, to those of their own culture and religious background, Jesus would send them to the nations. But not yet.

How can we follow the same pattern in preparing cross-cultural missionaries today? Here are some conclusions I am making, albeit somewhat tentatively.

  1. Make sure that those who are going into cross-cultural ministries have had ample opportunities to first disciple others in their home culture.
  2. Find opportunities for short-term ministries among those who are possibly less strategic in terms of missiological priority but more likely to be good training opportunities. We need to find ways to build the confidence and competence of our new cross-cultural workers before sending them out to tackle the most challenging cross-cultural barriers.
  3. Recognize that the maturity and wisdom needed for assessing the needs of those in other cultures and adopting a variety of contextualized approaches are only developed over time. The ability to do ethnographic research is a valuable tool for any cross-cultural missionary, but the research skills can never be a substitute for a lifelong walk of discipleship with Jesus.

Would you agree with these conclusions? I welcome your comments.

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