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The Instructions of Jesus Regarding Missionary Lifestyle

Author: Ed Matthews
Published: August 2014

MD 5.2

Article Type: Text Article

Missionary lifestyle has long been subject to vigorous discussion. What do the Scriptures say regarding the topic? Do the words of Jesus when sending His disciples apply today? Do the epistles add any clarity to the question? Do the instructions of Christ apply to missionaries only or equally to all of his followers? The Scriptures are consistent when they are allowed to speak for themselves.

What is the appropriate lifestyle for a missionary? If given a choice, most missionaries might opt for a mansion instead of a mud hut. Should they? Lifestyle decisions are very personal (or so the Western world assumes). Do missionaries have the right to decide how they should live? Those preparing for missionary service are encouraged to follow the instructions of Christ. Missionary trainers often say the pursuit of personal rights culminates in the acceptance of Jesus as Lord. Once that right has been exercised, only responsibilities remain. Is this a proper reading of Scripture? Must we abandon our right to lifestyle choices as a messenger of the cross?

Exhortations of Scripture

When one studies the requirements for discipleship, it is quickly observed that two areas of concern are mentioned: people and possessions.

1. People. Jesus asked his followers to put him first—above other people, especially family members (Luke 14:26). In point of fact, his first followers left parents and fellow workers (Mark 1:20)—though they were promised a new and larger circle of relatives (Mark 10:29–30).

2. Possessions. Distrust of wealth was a central teaching of Jesus (Mark 4:19), for the wealthy will find it difficult to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23). Hence, the Master encouraged renouncing all possessions, selling them, and giving the proceeds to the poor (Luke 12:33–34). When called into discipleship, the followers of Jesus left their jobs (Mark 1:16–20). When sent into the mission field, the disciples were instructed to leave behind their possessions (Mark 6:8–9). The recipients of their message would provide their needs (Matt. 10:10). Those who left their possessions were promised an abundant reward (Mark 10:29).

Analysis of Commitment

What did Jesus mean? Do his exhortations apply today? For whom did he intend these extraordinary demands? The texts under consideration were addressed to the “disciples.” The term disciple referred narrowly to “the twelve” (John 2:2) and broadly to “those who believe” (Matt 10:42). In this section of the article, comments will be restricted to the narrower sense—those Jesus sent out as missionaries.

1. Specific demands. When the Lord called the disciples to become “fishers of men,” they left both employment and family (Luke 5:11). It was a practical consequence of changing vocations. Those who answer the call to mission should, out of the necessity of the assignment, sever their ties with employment and relatives in order to go overseas.

2. General requirements. While the specific demands mention the disciples by name, the general requirements refer to unknown persons. Three requirements are stated. First, whoever plans to follow Jesus should weigh the cost of insecurity, which likely grew out of the specific demands above (Matt 8:18–20). Second, whoever follows Jesus should put his mission above all other human plans (Luke 9:59–60). And, third, whoever wants to follow Jesus must make an absolute commitment without regrets or afterthoughts (Luke 9:61–62). These general requirements have a single purpose: In order to be with Jesus, to be his missionary, one must be ready for everything and prefer him over all things. These requirements do not ask for concrete renunciation but refer to an unconditional commitment to the Lord—a commitment that takes priority over all other values.

Preparations for Mission

The preparation of the twelve and the sending of the seventy-two are concerned with the opposition that the messengers would encounter: hate, persecution, and death (Matt 10:17–24). Thus, the Lord issues special instructions to his missionaries.

1. Strategic arrangements. Christ sends his messengers in pairs (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1). They are to greet no one along the road (Luke 10:4). They are forbidden to move from house to house (Luke 10:7). These missionaries are also given particularly strict instructions concerning what they could take on their journey (though the stipulations varied).

Provisions for Mission Matt
Bread No
Bag No No No
Money No No
Staff No Yes
Extra tunic No No
Sandals No Yes No

The Gospel of Mark began the list of instructions with the words, “take nothing for the journey” (Mark 6:8) but allows a staff and sandals (Mark 6:8–9), both of which are prohibited by Matthew. What does all of this mean? It seems that the intent is not ascetic poverty (or scorn of wealth) but functional poverty (or necessity of the task). In others words, mission requires haste. Therefore, missionaries are to travel light, to be unencumbered. God (and the good will of the hearers) would provide (Matt 10:10; Luke 10:7; 22:35). It is apparent, however, once the conditions change—namely, when they encountered hostile situations—Jesus recommends different behavior (Luke 22:36).

2. Spiritual preparations. Though Jesus sent out the disciples as peaceful envoys, they would eventually confront opposition (Mark 13:9, 12). Initially, the religious leaders would attack the missionaries (Luke 21:12). Later, the messengers of the Lord would be “hated by all” (Mark 13:13), which included their very own families (Matt 10:21; Luke 21:16). These hate and persecution sayings are placed in the context of sending out the twelve as well as the suffering at the end of the age. Matthew places them in both contexts (Matt. 10:17–18; 24:9), while Mark and Luke restrict them to the eschatological discourse alone (Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12–17). Opposition was obviously a common experience for the first missionaries. It is, likewise, a similar experience for their contemporary counterparts (Matt 10:25).

All of the passages that address missionary preparation revolve around the idea of being “with Jesus” (Mark 3:14; 5:18). Since he was central, all other realities (family, occupation, security, and self-affirmation) were thrust to the periphery. The missionary texts concentrate on the decision (rather than the behavior) of commitment. “Denial of oneself” is the bedrock of missionary service (Matt 16:24–28). Such submission requires “forsaking all.” The urgency of mission demands “taking nothing for the journey.” Nevertheless, behind all of these stipulations is the example of the Lord, the model of self-renunciation (2 Cor 8:9).

Characteristics of Ministry

The history of the early church echoes the requirements which were clearly articulated during the ministry of the Lord. How did the early church respond to his demands? Did they alter any of them and, if so, in what way?

1. Acts. Because Acts was authored by Luke, we are afforded an opportunity to see how he views the extraordinary demands of Jesus operational in the life and growth of the young community of faith. First, the attitude of the early church toward money is quite clear. The Lord insists on his followers divesting themselves of their possessions in order to share with others, especially with the poor (Luke 12:33; 14:33). Describing the life of the first community of believers in Jerusalem, Luke shows in a concrete way how such sharing is done. Those who have possessions sell them and place the proceeds at the apostles’ feet to be shared or distributed according to the needs of each one (Acts 2:43–45; 4:32–45; 5:2). In the Gospel of Luke, the sharing is with the poor in general, while in Acts the sharing is with believers in particular. Divestiture does not lead to poverty but community. The same theme plays out in other texts (Acts 11:29; 20:33-35). Though Luke makes no allusion to the sayings of Jesus in Acts, it is clear that the renunciation was not asceticism—a repudiation of wealth—but the creation of a community of believers through the sharing of wealth.

Second, the attitude of the early church toward suffering is also clear. For example, Stephen prays for those who are in the process of stoning him to death (Acts 7:60). So, too, Paul endures hardship for Jesus’ sake (Acts 9:16; 20:23). Paul and Barnabas put their lives on the line for the Lord (Acts 15:26). They attach no value to their existence (Acts 20:24); therefore, they are ready to die for Christ (Acts 21:13). They are glad to suffer humiliation for “the sake of the name” (Acts 5:40, 41). Such was and is the calling of a missionary.

2. Epistles. The letters describe the messianic significance of Jesus and his effect on the behavior of the first century saints. It is no surprise, then, that the historical elements of his life and ministry are almost totally absent in the epistles. Still, the letters announce several radical demands which closely resemble the requirements of discipleship enunciated by Jesus. The following are pertinent. First, Christians need an enduring faith. The early church suffered various trials: hunger, thirst, abuse, insult, imprisonment, beatings, and poverty (1 Cor 4:11; 2 Cor 6:4–5, 10). Such was the fate of every believer (2 Tim 3:11–12). Yet, those who suffered were abundantly blessed (2 Thess 1:5; 1 Pet 2:19–20; 4:13–14). The epistles obviously reflect Jesus’ emphasis.

Second, a community of possessions is necessary. Paul insists on churches helping poor saints (Rom. 15:26; Gal 2:10). Therefore, he organizes a collection for the believers in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1–4). He calls it a koinōnia, that is, a sharing (2 Cor 8:4). The sharing of material possessions is a proof of Christian-ness (1 John 3:17; 4:20), a demonstration of the correct understanding of a believer’s relationship to money (1 Tim 6:17-19; Heb 13:16). Quite clearly the disciple of Jesus must be free from dependency on material things (1 Cor 7:31; Phil 4:6). All of this echoes the sobering challenge of Jesus (Matt 6:25–34).

Third, discipleship demands a deep love. The compassion of believers is distinctive in a world of secular values. They are called upon to bless those who persecuted them Rom 12:14; 1 Cor 4:12), to return good to those who hurt them (Rom 12:20), to avoid anger (Col 3:8), and to show courtesy to everyone (Titus 3:2). If those are not outrageous enough, believers are also to refrain from revenge (Rom 12:17; 1 Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:8–9). Even though there was injustice, believers are not to demand their rights (from fellow saints) (1 Cor 6:7). Rather, the followers of the humble Galilean must bear with others (Col 3:13), carry their burdens, (Gal 6:2), and refrain from judging them (Rom 14:4, 10). If correction is needed, it must be carefully administered (2 Thess 3:15; Eph 4:32). All of this requires a new attitude (Col 3:12). The teachings of the post-resurrection epistles are strikingly similar to the pre-resurrection sayings of Jesus. Faith in Christ calls for a radical reorientation of a believer’s relationship with both God and man.

Significance for Today

What does all of this mean for us today? How should a missionary understand these radical sayings?

1. Particular instructions. All of the requirements for missionary service can be clustered around four instructions. In other words, Christ called for drastic actions that measured faithfulness.

First, the missionary must follow Jesus. In order to be his messenger, one must deny oneself, take up the cross, and follow him. This will lead to opposition, persecution, and even death. To walk with the Lord, one must put him ahead of family and possessions when they stand in the way of complete commitment. When sent into mission, the messenger relies on the grace of God (Acts 14:26).

Second, the missionary must love others. To love our fellow human beings, one must refrain from judging and condemning. The missionary is called to forgive, to reconcile, to avoid harsh words and bad feelings—to be compassionate as God is compassionate—toward both his fellow missionaries and the local people.

Third, the missionary must live a life of humility. The kingdom is given to those who hunger and thirst for it, who suffer till it comes, who are as defenseless and powerless as children. Though works of righteousness are required, no matter how much is done, the missionary will be an “unworthy servant.” For the Master will never be indebted to the slave.

And, finally, the missionary must share his possessions. Riches are a permanent danger, though poverty is never presented as a goal or asceticism a way of life. Missionaries are to be suspicious of money because it tempts them and those to whom it is given to place their trust in material possessions. The call to sell everything must be seen in the perspective of giving, distributing, and sharing with the saints in order to form community.

2. Appropriate interpretations. As radical demands, these unusual sayings often appear impossible. This may be due to Jesus’ use of paradoxical expressions in order to make striking, unforgettable images. It is useful to form a taxonomy of these statements. On one hand, some of the radical requirements cannot be taken literally: become a child, carry your cross, and give to everyone who asks. These statements are designed, as exaggerated expressions, to suggest that extreme (though not literal) action is necessary. On the other hand, many of these radical demands contain degrees of literalness, that is, they are literal “in some circumstances” over against “in all situations.” In some circumstances, such as going the second mile and letting everything possessed be taken away, the demands apply to events where a greater power inflicts abuse. In every situation, such as renouncing oneself and losing oneself, the demands are definitive orders to obey.

Relevance to Mission

How do these outrageous stipulations apply to contemporary missionaries? A cursory reading of the text reveals an unchanging core of requirements in the shockingly drastic suggestions of the concise and riveting message of Jesus. He leaves no wiggling room (except where the radical requirements cannot be taken literally). He allows no options. There is no debate. Christ must be put above everyone and everything else (Col 1:16-18). He must be obeyed (Luke 6:46).

1. Disturbing challenge. The Lord confronts self-confidence, overturns self-indulgence, and shatters self-sufficiency. Faced with these demands, the missionary feels powerless. And, even when the radical expressions are placed in their contexts, they are still disturbing. There is always the temptation to diminish their relevance, to decrease their importance. One can kill their intensity through endless exegesis. Or, as it has often happened, one can reduce their rigors by assigning them to certain groups, such as monastic orders, which relieves the masses of their responsibility. Though the interpretation of these extreme demands is not always literal, they cannot be set aside as simply pious daydreaming.

When the situation warrants it, missionaries must risk their lives. When circumstances require it, they must share their material possessions, must forgive their oppressors, and must walk humbly among the proud. Of course, the committed will constantly fail (though they must not declare the undertaking impossible nor assign the responsibility to someone else). Instead, missionaries will suffer the tension and reproach associated with the challenge of their calling. Rather than alleviate the pain through clever interpretation, rather than relegate the task to others, ambassadors of the gospel will take seriously the radical demands of their Lord (in spite of the disturbance these requirements bring). Missionaries accept being challenged beyond their capability, troubled by their failures in trying to do the difficult, but they are happy that it ignites their faith to anticipate the fullness of the kingdom, to dream of heaven where these extreme commitments will be a way of life.

2. Deliberate acceptance. The motive for accepting the extravagant demands of Jesus revolves around the coming of the kingdom. The sovereignty of God calls for radical change—conversion (Mark 1:14–15). The reign of God overturns established norms, traditional structures, and past behavior. A new lifestyle, a comprehensive reorientation of values, is required. When these demands are detached from the kingdom, they slide into rigid legalism. When stripped of the kingdom connection, they become misguided humility that has no place in missionary service (Col. 2:20–23).

The motive for living these radical requirements is threefold. First, they are a stepping stone to being with him (Mark 3:14; 5:18). To walk with him, to be his disciple, means sharing his mission, accepting his fate. Thus, we leave family and face opposition to be “worthy” of him (Matt 10:37–38), to be his disciple (Luke 14:26–27; 33). Second, these extravagant demands are the way of being godly. In other words, the reason to love others, especially those who do not love us, is to become like God (Matt 5:45). We are called to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). This “perfection” or maturity is unconditional love, namely, sacrificing oneself for the good of others. By behaving in this way, the follower of Christ “lives in God and God [lives] in him” (1 John 4:7–11, 16b).

Third, these outrageous requirements are an avenue of blessing. The missionary accepts the difficult conduct required by Jesus with good reason. In announcing the extraordinary demands, the Lord mentioned what—at first glance—might appear to be a self-seeking motive. Such attitudes and behaviors are the conditions for having treasures in heaven (Matt 19:21), obtaining life (Mark 9:43), or entering the kingdom (Mark 9:47). Everything surrendered for Jesus’ sake will be restored a hundred times over (Mark 10:30). Deeds done in secret will be rewarded openly (Matt 6:6). Therefore, the messenger of God becomes a servant, shares with the poor, avoids anger, does not judge (or condemn), endures violence, and loves his enemies because rewards accompany such conduct. In other words, silhouetted behind these challenging demands is the golden rule: “do unto others what you would have others do unto you” (Matt 7:12). Clearly, such attitudes and behaviors have their compensation (Luke 6:38).

Radical living is not the commitment of a select few, elite saints huddled in a secluded community off the beaten path. The extraordinary demands of Jesus are addressed to all who believe. Taken as a whole, situated in their proper context, and correctly understood, these outrageous requirements are not—in the first century or in the twenty-first century—the responsibility of any particular group. They involve all who claim Jesus as their Lord. If missionaries had been more attentive to this fact in the past, if they were more attentive to it today, the aroma of Christianity would be compelling and the mission of God would be nearer to what he wanted it to be.

After attending Abilene Christian University and Fuller Theological Seminary, Ed Mathews received his Doctor of Missiology in 1980. He taught missions for thirty-eight years at Abilene Christian University. He was chairman of the Department of Missions for twelve of those years. During his tenure, he taught various missions courses: Theology of Mission, World Religions, Ethnotheology, History of Missions, Missionary Research, and Leadership Training by Extension. He retired in 2008. Ed continues to live in Abilene, Texas. He uses his time to write on missions, teach a Bible class on Sunday morning, and chair the mission committee at a local congregation.

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