When Jesus told his disciples to “freely give”, what exactly were they to freely give? Just the basic gospel message? Everything they owned?
These words of Jesus are often quoted abstractly, as if they were just a wise saying or something to aspire to. But they do in fact have a clear context, and that context is crucial for determining the scope of this command of Jesus.
Let’s closely examine the context, and especially the lead up to Jesus’ command:
Matthew 9:35-10:10 (Berean Standard Bible)
35Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness. 36When He saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
37Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. 38Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest.”
10:1And calling His twelve disciples to Him, Jesus gave them authority over unclean spirits, so that they could drive them out and heal every disease and sickness.
2-4These are the names of the twelve apostles… [omitted]
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go onto the road of the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
9Do not carry any gold or silver or copper in your belts. 10Take no bag for the road, or second tunic, or sandals, or staff; for the worker is worthy of his provisions.
In this passage we have Jesus doing his ministry, “preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness” (9:35), and then commissioning the twelve disciples to do the same. He gives them the authority to perform miracles (10:1) and tells them to preach and heal just as he has been doing (10:7-8). And straight after doing so he tells them to “freely give” because they have “freely received” (10:8).
We can therefore determine that when Jesus said the disciples had “freely received”, he was referring primarily to the gospel message as well as the power to perform miracles. And likewise, they were to “freely give” the gospel message and perform miracles free of charge. We can helpfully sum this up as “ministry”. But ministry can have a broad range of meanings, so it is important to further refine exactly what it should encompass in regard to free giving.
Narrowing the scope
Some will argue that “all of life is ministry” and so Jesus’ command could be taken to mean that you can’t sell anything, or have to live communally as some of the early disciples did for a time (Acts 4:32). The generous spirit and dedication to the gospel is certainly something we all should learn from, but the difference between Acts 4 and Matthew 10 is that the passage in Acts is descriptive, whereas Jesus’ command is prescriptive. It is an imperative (δωρεὰν δότε).
The specific actions Jesus directs his disciples to perform are “preach”, “heal/cleanse”, “raise the dead”, and “drive out demons” (10:7-8). These are all spiritual activities.
It is important to remember that the function of healings in Jesus’ ministry were not simply for him to serve as a doctor, but were a form of gospel proclamation. John describes Jesus’ healing of an official’s son as “the second sign that Jesus performed” (John 4:54). Jesus did not heal everyone he could see, such as when he healed only one man at a pool full of people with ailments (John 5:1-13). Healings were not just about helping the sick but “so that the works of God would be displayed” (John 9:3). So we should not confuse miraculous healings with medical work today. God does heal through both miracles and doctors, but it is the miracles that are in view in Matthew 10 and not regular healings.
Thus the instructions to preach and to heal are ministerial activities that are spiritual in nature, and Jesus’ command should not be broadened beyond that. Ministry should affect all of life, but that doesn’t mean the command to freely give does.
Broadening the scope
The real problem is not Jesus’ command being interpreted too broadly, rather it is usually interpreted too narrowly, often to the point of making it completely obsolete. Some might attempt to narrow it as follows:
- It only applied to that specific journey
- It only applied to the twelve disciples
- It only applies to evangelism
These arguments all have common problems:
- The command is in response to “freely receiving”, which is true of anyone who has received the gospel of God’s grace.
- Paul applied the command to his own ministry (1 Cor 9:18, 2 Cor 11:7), not just the twelve disciples.
- If the command no longer applies then it is ok to sell the following: prayer, baptism, communion, entry to church, etc. God forbid.
Furthermore, regarding evangelism:
- Miracles were to be freely given, not just evangelism.
- Jesus specifically forbid the disciples to go to gentile towns on that particular trip (10:5), so it wasn’t evangelising non-believers but rather discipling existing followers of Yahweh.
- Jesus was teaching and discipling the twelve for long periods of time as free ministry, which is what he was training them up to do as well as “workers of the harvest” (9:38).
It is therefore right and appropriate to apply this command to all forms of gospel ministry. This includes preaching, teaching, Scripture, worship music, ministry resources, and anything else that specifically deals with spiritual matters. Importantly noting that those who serve in these ways are to be financially supported in their freely given ministries, just as Jesus’ disciples were (10:10).
Without this command of Jesus, there is nothing to stop Christianity from becoming a commercial enterprise. I really wish that was a warning for the future. It is in fact what many forms of ministry have already become.
See also Mark 6:7–13, Luke 9:1–6, Luke 10:1-17 ↩︎