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Does Jesus’ Command to “Freely Give” Apply Today?

Aug 23, 2023 — Conley Owens

In Matthew 10:8, Jesus said “freely you received, freely give.”  One modern translation says, “you received without paying, give without pay.”  Many, including myself, have taken this as a clear indication that no minister should ever charge for ministry.  More particularly, this command continues to regulate biblical instruction today, forbidding teachers from selling biblical teaching.  I do not limit this to sermons, but believe it extends to gospel conferences, seminaries, Christian literature, etc. That is not to say that ministry shouldn’t be financially supported.  In the next two verses Jesus explains that ministers are to be supported, “a worker is worthy of his food.”  However, this support is to come through generous partners rather than sales of biblical teaching.  In the case of those initial disciples, it was to come through a “worthy house” (Matt. 10:11-12) or a “son of peace” (Luke 10:6-7) rather than from hearers in exchange for kingdom proclamation.

Of course, there are many others who have rejected this interpretation, arguing that descriptive passages should not be read prescriptively.  And it’s true: a narrative passage that contains a command does not necessarily imply that the command applies to us today.  In Jeremiah 13:1, the Lord tells Jeremiah to buy a loincloth, yet this does not mean that we should also buy a loincloth.  So, if Jesus tells the disciples to freely give, why does this necessarily imply we must freely give?  The primary key in biblical interpretation is context; does the context really indicate that this command applies to Christians today?

While narratives are definitionally descriptive, we must be prepared to recognize qualities or patterns that imply prescription.  Scripture is full of narrative, and an approach that fails to find implications for the believer today in narrative fails to truly understand its message, especially given the words of 2 Timothy 3:16—“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”  For example, Acts 2:42 says of the early Christians, that “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  Given that this passage describes the foundation and character of the fledgling church, the modern church should devote itself to such things as well, even if many aspects of Acts 2—speaking in tongues, mass baptisms, etc.—are not normative for the church today.

We have an obligation to follow Scripture to its logical conclusions.  Consider for a moment this obligation in light of Jesus’ frequent question, “have you not read?”  In speaking to the Sadducees, Jesus argues for the resurrection on the grounds that God said he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that he is not the God of the dead, but of the living.  Do those two portions of revelation when combined actually argue for the resurrection?  Apart from Jesus’ words, I think most people would be ready to say something like “Maybe, but the safe approach is to not take Scripture too far.”  But according to Jesus, that’s not the case.  According to him, refusing to see the implication of Scripture is just as dangerous as taking it too far.  Between these two ditches of finding prescriptions where they don’t exist and failing to see them where they do, there is no superior ditch.  So let us follow Scripture to its logical conclusions, what are often called the “good and necessary consequences” of Scripture.  The good and necessary consequence of Matthew 10:8 is not merely that 1st century kingdom proclamation must not be sold, but that 21st century kingdom proclamation must not be sold.

While it may seem a bit backwards, I’d like to start with objections and then afterward build a positive case for the idea that Jesus’ command regulates ministry today.  That is, I’m going to begin by defending the face value meaning of Matthew 10:8 before positively arguing for it.  I’ll proceed in this way because I truly believe that the burden of proof lies on those who would reject its face value meaning—that when Jesus said we should “freely give,” it means we should “freely give.”

Objection 1: “Freely give” only applies to miracles, not preaching or teaching

In full, Matthew 10:8 says, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”  The rest of the imperatives in this verse are commands to perform miracles.  It would seem that the command “freely give” or “give without pay” speaks specifically of miracles, not preaching or other forms of ministry.

For the sake of transparency, it’s probably worth mentioning that there are a host of respectable Christian theologians—especially beginning in the 17th century—who have promoted this interpretation that the command to freely give only applies to miracles.  However, in my research on this matter, almost every theologian that has taken this position was contending with or trying to distance themselves from Quakers or Anabaptists more generally.  Many Anabaptist groups have historically rejected the idea that ministers should have regular financial support, and they often used this verse to promote their rejection of salaried ministers.  The orthodox contending with the heterodox found it easy to appeal to the miraculous context.  While I support salaried ministry, ministry regularly supported by financial partnership with other believers, I do not believe this to be the best response.

Matthew 10:8 does indeed speak of miracles, but Jesus’ instructions to the disciples do not begin there.  Rather, he explains their activity in the preceding verse, “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matt. 10:7).  While it has a different nature than the various commands to perform miracles, it belongs in the same list.  The disciples are to freely do all of the above.  Just as they are to freely perform miracles, they are to freely proclaim the kingdom of heaven.  In other words, they are to freely proclaim the gospel.

Objection 2: “Freely give” only applies to the first mission, not subsequent ones

Many have stated that this command of Christ is only for the first mission of the disciples.

One simple response is that this is not the only mission where Jesus instructs  his disciples to freely give.  At the end of the gospels, he sends out his disciples and presses this command even further.  Let me explain by way of comparison.  At their first mission, in Matthew 10:9-10, Jesus said,

Do not carry any gold or silver or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.

In other words, while he said they shouldn’t charge for their message, he made provisions for their support, saying, “Take no money bag.” Later on, when Jesus sends out the disciples a final time in Luke 22:35-36, Jesus says,

Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you out without purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered.  “Now, however,” he told them, “the one with a purse should take it, and likewise a bag; and the one without a sword should sell his cloak and buy one.

In other words, while he does not repeat the command not to charge for their ministry, he goes even further by telling them to take a purse.  On the first journey, they were not to charge, but they at least were to expect support, not needing a bag of money.  When they finally go out, they are not to expect any financial assistance, so they need to take money.

Additionally, the first mission is a prototypical mission.  What I mean is that it is designed to set the example for other missions.  We should expect that where there is meaningful overlap with the concerns of subsequent disciples, this mission is particularly designed to establish the pattern for us to follow.  When discussing evangelism, how often are we willing to go to this passage and glean all that it has for us? The notion of shaking the dust from our feet, the command to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, the command not to fear man, etc.—these are all commands that pertain to the first mission, yet we recognize them as applying to all subsequent missions. This is because we correctly identify  the first mission as the prototypical mission.  We acknowledge it as designed to set patterns for all subsequent missions.  What distinguishes the command to “freely give” from any other aspect we would be willing to apply to evangelism and biblical teaching today?  I would argue that nothing does.

Perhaps one might argue that the surrounding commands like “raise the dead” only apply to the first mission; but I see this as no real rebuttal to the fact that the prototypical mission must set the pattern.  The Lord is free to specify some things particular to the first mission, and some to all.  The famous Anglican divine Jeremy Taylor wrote that to say “freely give” only applies to the first mission because the surrounding commands are temporal, is like saying that the Sabbath must still be on Saturday because the other nine commands surrounding the fourth are eternal.[1]

Objection #3: “Freely give” only applies to missions to the lost, not teaching the saved

One might concede that this applies to future missions, but only missions to the lost and not to believers.  After all, the disciples were sent to share the good news with those who had not heard it.

Interestingly, Matthew 10 provides the perfect testing ground for this hypothesis since this first mission was not only to the lost, strictly speaking.  In verse 6, Jesus said, “Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.”  It might be easy to focus on the notion of the “lost sheep”, but the fact of the matter is that these were the visible people of God.   They were the people who had been entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2).  They were the people who had heard the gospel preached beforehand to Abraham according to Galatians 3:8.  Undoubtedly, many of these people trusted in the coming Messiah and were the faithful ones the New Testament regards as awaiting the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25).  Given that many in Israel were believers, this command most certainly applies to teaching believers as well.

Objection #4: “Freely give” only applies to the gospel, not all biblical teaching

Fourth and finally, one may object that this command is only for the gospel, not for other biblical teaching.  I hope that my response here satisfies anything not covered in any of the previous objections.

All biblical instruction, if rightly understood, is not merely distantly related to the gospel, but directly connected.  Consider that in 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul says that he decided to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and him crucified, yet in Acts 20:26-27 he says that if he neglected any of the counsel of God, blood would be on his hands.  Did Paul stick to only a handful of “gospel passages,” or did he preach the whole counsel to the Corinthians?  It must have been the latter.  If that’s the case, then the whole counsel of God regards Christ and him crucified.  It would be improper to so distinguish the gospel and other biblical teaching such that we could charge for one but not for the other.

Consider also Colossians 1:25, where Paul says that he became a minister to make the word of God fully known.  In Colossians 1:27, he describes how he makes the word fully known: by proclaiming Christ.  And in the next chapter, he plainly declares that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ.  In other words, to make any part of Scripture fully known is to declare Christ from the Word.

Even Jesus himself explained that all of Scripture is about him and, more particularly, his gospel. Luke 24:44-47 reads,

Jesus said to them, “These are the words I spoke to you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.  And he told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and in his name repentance and forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.

Perhaps you do not come from a theological tradition that is eager to see Christ and the gospel in all of Scripture.  If you need further persuasion on this point, please check out the wealth of literature on christocentric hermeneutics (my favorite of the lot is Dennis Johnson’s Him We Proclaim).

To create a hard distinction between the gospel and other biblical teaching is to essentially commit what I call the milk/meat fallacy, the idea that the gospel is the beginning of Christian instruction, but other, more advanced teaching is needed for the mature believer.  However, if you read the texts on milk and meat like Hebrews 6:1-2, it should be apparent that the milk is not the gospel; rather the milk is elemental principles (laying on of hands, washings, the notion of resurrection, etc.) while the meat is the understanding of those things in light of the gospel.  That is, the more advanced Christian instruction is, the more directly it is understood in Christ.  The gospel is meat, not milk.  The entire argument there in Hebrews 6 is that in order to avoid falling away, you must ensure you are saturated in the gospel, the teaching of Christ.

In the end, if we say the gospel is priceless, but further Christian teaching can be offered for a charge, we misunderstand the pervasiveness of the gospel in all of special revelation, and by this, we misunderstand the pricelessness of the Word of God.

Positive Case #1: The motivation to “freely give” is eternal and applies to all biblical wisdom

My handling of objections has probably made much of my positive case, but there are still a few things to be said.  First, Jesus provides a motivation to “freely give,” and it is one that  persists all the way to our generation.

Jesus does not merely say “freely give,” but prefaces it with a rationale: “freely you received.”  This motivation does not apply only to the first disciples; it is still the case that we have freely received.  To quote Jeremy Taylor again, “there is in [this command] something that is Spiritual, and of an eternal decency, rectitude and proportion.”[2]

This does not only apply to the gospel which has been given to us freely, but to all special revelation which has been given to us freely.  One might argue that when they teach, they are not offering what they obtained freely, but what they learned over much study and many hours of seminary.  However, no true understanding of Scripture is possible through merely natural or secular means.  Consider the words of 1 Corinthians 2:12-13,

We have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.  And this is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.

Is this not the understanding we are trying to impart? It is not an understanding that is taught naturally, but one that must be taught by the Spirit.

This observation of motivation explains why we are willing to apply other parts of Matthew 10 to Christians today.  Why be wise as serpents and innocent as doves?  Because we are still sheep in the midst of wolves (Matt. 10:16).  Why should we anticipate persecution?  Because a disciple is still not above his teacher (Matt. 10:24).  Why should we not fear man?  Because man still cannot destroy the soul and we are still of more value than sparrows (Matt. 10:28-31).  Likewise, why should we freely give?  Because the enlightenment we are trying to impart still is not obtained naturally, but supernaturally.  Even today in our modern world, the message we have comes from special revelation and the illuminating work of the Spirit.

Positive Case #2: The rest of the New Testament confirms that we ministers must “freely give”

I believe that one of the best pieces of evidence that the command to “freely give” applies broadly to biblical instruction, even in our era, is its confirmation elsewhere in Scripture.  These are numerous, and it is beyond the scope of this article to go into all of them, but it is worth listing several here.

What then is my reward? That in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not use up my rights in preaching it. (1 Cor. 9:18)

Was it a sin for me to humble myself in order to exalt you, because I preached the gospel of God to you free of charge (2 Cor. 11:7)

For we are not like so many others, who peddle the word of God. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as men sent from God. (2 Cor. 2:17)

For they went out on behalf of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men, so that we may be fellow workers for the truth. (3 John 7-8)

Positive Case #3: History confirms that “freely give” was not a temporary ethic

It’s worth noting that when Jesus said, “freely you received, freely give,” he was not developing an entirely new paradigm for ministry, but largely affirming the pattern of rabbinical teaching.  There is a mountain of scholarly research on rabbinic views of money and ministry at the time of Jesus.  Much of it is inconclusive, but scholars generally agree on the fact that there was a fairly strict ethic that regulated what a rabbi could receive, and in what context.  In the Talmud, Nedarim 37a.2 offers a paraphrased interpretation of Deuteronomy 4:5: “Just as I teach you for free, without payment, so too you also shall teach for free”.  Bekhorot 29a.8 likewise interprets Deuteronomy 4:5 as saying “Just as I learned from God for free, so too, you learned from me for free.” That same reference goes on to say that even if one paid for their own training, they should still teach for free.  To summarize, the fact that there was already a rabbinic ethic that forbade charging for teaching Scripture testifies to the fact that Jesus is offering an ongoing ethic that applies to Christian teaching in general, not merely a one-time ethic or something that only applies to one aspect of the Christian message.

Additionally, the early disciples affirmed the command to freely give as a continuing injunction.  The Didache is the oldest known extrabiblical Christian writing in existence, being authored in the first century.  As far as the New Testament goes, it likely only incorporates Matthew.  It even uses the phrase from Matthew 10:10, “worthy of his food” (Didache 13.1).  Chapter 11 of the Didache says “Let every apostle, when he cometh to you, be received as the Lord; but he shall not abide more than a single day, or if there be need, a second likewise; but if he abide three days, he is a false proph­et. And when he departeth let the apostle receive nothing save bread, until he findeth shelter; but if he ask money, he is a false proph­et. … And whosoever shall say in the Spirit, Give me silver or anything else, ye shall not listen to him;” (Didache 11.4–6, 12a).

Even later in Christian history, Matthew 10:8 was frequently referred to in battles against simony, the selling of ordinations.  Read Gregory the Great, Hus, Wycliffe, or countless others that wrote against simony, and you will see that they almost universally appealed to Matthew 10:8.  To argue that this verse applies narrowly to the presentation of the gospel and miracles, but not further Christian ministry in our era is to go against a long history of the interpretation of this verse amid an important theological controversy.

Positive case #4: The nature of the Christian message requires us to “freely give”

Lastly, the presentation of Christian instruction is reflective of the message itself.  Because we have freely received, we should freely give.  Because special revelation and the salvation that accompanies it has been given freely, it must be offered freely.

Isaiah summarizes what we find all through the very heart of God’s revealed character:

Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you without money,
come, buy, and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost! (Isa. 55:1)

The Bible itself even ends on this same note:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” Let the one who hears say, “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come, and the one who desires the water of life drink freely. (Rev. 22:17)

In Matthew 10:8, the disciples offer a message of free grace, and so they offer it freely.  We likewise offer a message of free grace, so we should offer it freely as well.

We recognize this in so many areas: we wouldn’t charge for sermons; we wouldn’t charge for sitting in a pew, and we would frown on those churches in the past who have had pew rents.  Why then, would we charge for any Christian teaching?

Let us not fall prey to the sort of sophistry that would see how much we can get away with or how many things we can charge for.  Let us simply embrace the command of Matthew 10:8 at face value.  Let us truly reflect the radical grace and generosity of our God. Just as we have freely received, let us freely give.

  1. Taylor, Jeremy, Ductor Dubitantium, 541-542. ↩︎

  2. Taylor, Jeremy, Ductor Dubitantium, 542 ↩︎

Conley Owens

Author of The Dorean PrincipleMDiv

Conley is a software engineer, a pastor at Silicon Valley Reformed Baptist Church, and a father of eight kids. He is also the author of The Dorean Principle: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity.

I began exploring issues with licensing back in college, and over time I witnessed the substantial friction it created in ministry. I was convicted regarding the harm commercial practices cause the church, but for a long time, I was never sure if the Bible had much to say directly about the matter. It turns out it does!

All original content is freely given and dedicated to the public domain.