Summary of the Text
The Transitive Property of Welcoming: In elementary school math you learn various basic principles of working with numbers…the commutative property, the associative property, the distributive property, and so forth. The opening of this lectionary passage could be termed the “transitive property of welcoming.” In arithmetic this property tells you that if A=B and B=C, then it is also true that A=C. With welcoming the equivalence hinges on Jesus, who both sends and is sent. According to Jewish law a duly authorized emissary was to be received as an extension of the one who sent them. With Christ this identification is not only in a legal, but an ontological sense: as the only-begotten Son, Jesus identifies perfectly with the Father; and as the fully human incarnate Word, Jesus can identify completely with his church.
Jesus as “Apostle”: Jesus refers to the Father in verse 40 as “the one who sent” him (ton aposteilanta). We tend to associate the English cognate “apostle,” of course, with the disciples whom Jesus sent out into the world, but there is a way to think of Jesus also as an “apostle” of sorts. Indeed, the reason that his disciples can become apostles is precisely because the One who was sent to us extends that mission to them. This theme of Jesus being sent and sending is particularly strong in John’s gospel (though with John generally preferring pempō to apostellō to describe the sending).
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent (apestalken) me, so I send (pempō) you.’” (John 20:21; cf. also John 20:21, which parallels the sense of Matt. 10:40).
Word Study: dechomai and misthos: Two repeated words stand out in this short passage, with forms of dechomai (receive/welcome) occurring six times and with misthon (reward) appearing three times. Dechomai in its most basic sense refers to “receiving,” and English translations will translate the word thus around three-quarters of the time. While we do at times in English speak of “receiving” a person (or of having a “reception line” at an event), it is a bit more natural with regard to people to speak of “welcoming.” There is some ambiguity as to whether “receiving a prophet” refers to the person or the message of the prophet (or perhaps to both). The cup of cold water offered to a “little one” in verse 42 could suggest that the emphasis of this whole passage is on extending a hospitable welcome to the various categories of people mentioned in the passage.
The Christian emphasis on unmerited grace can make us shy away from talk of rewards. Protestants, especially, have a tendency to gravitate toward places in Scripture where “reward” is used in a negative sense—whether as a poor alternative to grace (think of the self-righteous in the Sermon on the Mount already having their misthon via human praise), as blood money (the misthon tēs adikias—“reward of unrighteousness”—paid to Judas, as described in Acts 1:18), or as recompense for evil behavior (the same expression, misthon adikias, in 2 Peter 2:13, rendered in the NRSV as “the penalty for doing wrong”). But Scripture does indeed speak also of “rewards” in a positive sense, yet in a way that need not threaten our commitment to grace without merit. The Reformed confessions are a helpful guide in thinking through how grace and reward can exist together.
Q. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next? A. This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace (cf. Luke 17:10). (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 63);
However, we do not ascribe this reward, which the Lord gives, to the merit of the [one] who receives it, but to the goodness, generosity and truthfulness of God who promises and gives it, and who, although he owes nothing to anyone, nevertheless promises that he will give a reward to his faithful worshippers; meanwhile he also gives them that they may honor him. (Second Helvetic Confession, Ch. 16).
Testing Prophets? Both before and after this pericope in Matthew’s gospel (in chapters 7 and 24), Jesus warns about false prophets. In this chapter 10 context of instructing his disciples for a difficult task (being sent like sheep into the midst of wolves!), discerning between true and false prophets seems to be beyond the purview; in this case that determination seems already to have been made. Yet tensions may arise when trying to apply this instruction in other circumstances—when are we to “welcome” a supposed prophet, and when are we to test such a one? Do we get a “grace period” for background checks before a full welcome is extended? The challenge is less acute if we follow the many translations that understand dechomai more in the sense of a welcoming hospitality than of uncritical acceptance of a message. But, even apart from the immediate context of Christ sending out his apostles, this instruction seems to apply primarily to “tried and true” prophetic voices.
“In the Name of…” The phrase “in the name of” (eis onoma/ ev onomati) occurs around thirty times in the New Testament. In almost every case something is done or said in God’s name—we are to believe in the name of the Son (John 3:18), to baptize in the triune name (Matthew 28:19), to give thanks in the name of Christ (Ephesians 5:20), to anoint in the name of the Lord (James 5:14), and to “do everything” in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17). Peter heals in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:6), we are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:11), and the One who comes in the name of the Lord is called blessed (each account of the triumphal entry). In only three instances do we find this expression not in reference to God, and all three are in this week’s text: whoever welcomes a prophet “in the name of a prophet,” whoever welcomes a righteous person “in the name of a righteous person,” and whoever gives a cup of water “in the name of a disciple.” Having been conditioned by the consistent use elsewhere in the New Testament, it feels a bit jarring for this welcome not to be extended “in the name of Jesus.” It’s possible that the expression in this case means simply “on account of being.” But for these three exceptions to the “in the name of” rule to be clustered following Christ’s saying that whoever welcomes them welcomes him could mean that this variation is another expression of the ”transitive property of welcoming”—to welcome a prophet or disciple sent by Christ in the name of the prophet or disciple is, in essence, a welcome in Christ’s name
A Prophet’s Reward: What exactly is “a prophet’s reward”? Different Christian traditions have varied understandings of what is meant by “prophet” (and especially how we should understand the designation after the apostolic age). And we’ve seen already some of the challenges involved with scriptural “reward” language. Perhaps we are to follow the Heidelberg Catechism reference to Luke 17:10 and interpret this within the context of prophets simply doing what they are ordered to do. Maybe the “reward” is an intrinsic satisfaction of being used by God—consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:18—“What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”
Especially noteworthy here, beyond discerning what exactly is meant by “prophet” and “reward” is that this reward also “transfers” to the one receiving the prophet. If we understand this reward to be, at least in part, intrinsic to the prophetic work, this sharing of the reward would be almost expected. Without someone to receive the prophet, can the prophet function as such? (how does the old saying go—“If a prophet fells a tree alone in the woods, does it make a sound?”). It may be more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), but both are blessed, as each depends on the other.
No Good Deed… No good deed, it is said, goes unpunished. While this may often be true in our fallen world, this is not the case in God’s economy. We hear often, and perhaps preach often, about how seemingly minor sins cause us to fall short of God’s perfection. My Reformed tradition emphasizes that even our very best works are tarnished by sin (see, for example, Heidelberg Catechism, Question 62). And I agree that we need to be reminded of this, lest we turn from complete dependence on God’s grace and start to trust in our own character and merit. But it’s also good to be reminded of the other side—that God sees and rewards our smallest acts of faithfulness. The good that we manage to do matters, even if it seems to us to have made no real difference, even if it goes otherwise unnoticed, even if it—as the saying goes—is “punished.”
Darren Pollock is Pastor of Panorama Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary. A graduate of UC Davis (BA in classics), Princeton Seminary (MDiv), and Calvin Seminary (PhD in historical theology), he lives in Temple City, CA, with his wife Ashley, two young children Charlie and Carter, and step-cat Fanny.
Darren is the author of Early Stuart Polemical Hermeneutics: Andrew Willet’s 1611 Hexapla on Romans (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017). He has also been published in Jonathan Edwards Studies, Anglican & Episcopal History, and Word & World, and he contributed multiple entries to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017).
After Christ and his family, Darren most loves crossword puzzles and Scrabble, Zion National Park, good coffee, passion fruit, and the ascendant Sacramento Kings.
Every Christian is a sent one. There is no such thing as an unsent Christian.
What it Means to Be Sent into the World
[Jesus] sends us into the world as he was sent into the world (John 17:18; 20:21). We have to penetrate other people’s worlds, as he penetrated ours: the world of their thinking (as we struggle to understand their misunderstandings of the gospel), the world of their feeling (as we try to empathize with their pain), and the world of their living (as we sense the humiliation of their social situation, whether poverty, homelessness, unemployment or discrimination).