By Peter Robinson

As I was growing up, my church did regular mission trips with groups of people from the church. I don’t mean overseas missions. We did missions to other churches in our part of the world. There are two mission trips that I participated in that I remember vividly; one to a church in Montreal and another to the north shore of the St. Lawrence above the Gaspe. A group of people (20-30) would go out from our church to another church, or — in the case of the north shore — to a few churches scattered among the small, remote communities. It was always a rather eclectic group of people, including some new Christians, but we all wanted to be there.

And that sounds a lot like Luke 10, when Jesus sends out the 70.

After the people sent out have returned, Jesus prays: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”


We were not wise or intelligent or mature in our faith, but for a week or even just a long weekend we would engage with local Christians, to encourage them and help them engage with their local community. Those were great and formative experiences for me.

The sending out of the 70 is filled with urgency. I love the way it starts: Jesus tells his followers to pray to God, the Lord of the harvest, to send out laborers for the harvest. And then, before they have a chance to pray for someone to go, he says, “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” That’s the urgency of the harvest. When a crop ripens on a farm, when the harvest is ready, whether that is wheat or apples or grapes for ice wine, there is an urgency to get the crop in, because if you don’t, it may quickly spoil. The wheat will be flattened by wind and rain, the apples will fall from the trees and rot, the frozen grapes will thaw and spoil. A farmer knows that you need to get out there and get the job done before the crop is ruined. The sense of urgency is compelling.

Two thousand years down the road, it is a little difficult for us to feel the same sense of urgency the 70 may have felt. If anything, the church, particularly in North America, feels a little tired and discouraged — and harvest, what harvest? All around us we hear about the decline of the church. Most people are indifferent to the Christian faith, and others are openly antagonistic. Jesus couldn’t have had 21st-century North America in mind when he said, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.”

It is understandable that we might not see the immediate applicability of this passage. Until, that is, we take a second look. The taut cord of urgency in this mission is grounded in the need of the people. The urgency is compassion. The urgency is that the people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Whether people are aware of their need doesn’t change the urgency. If anything, a lack of awareness intensifies the urgency.

When Jesus said “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few,” he didn’t mean the fruit was falling off the trees, or that it was going to be easy.

Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” It is another powerful image: a flock of sheep being led, by their shepherd, into a pack of wolves. The wolves aren’t going to cozy up to the sheep or lie down with the lambs. They will be hunting, wreaking havoc; it will be a slaughter. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” There is no pretense here that it is going to be easy. A little later in Luke 10, Jesus warns his followers what to do when people reject the gospel, because they are going to reject the gospel. Jesus expects people to reject the gospel, to reject him. Where did we ever get the idea that mission should be easy?

This is not your typical harvest. It is human beings — cantankerous, independent, consumer-driven, self-sufficient human beings. And yet they need the gospel. We are a society, a world, that needs the good news of the kingdom, peace, and healing, whether we realize it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. Jesus sends his followers out with urgency because of his compassion for those who are lost, lest their lives be ruined and destroyed. That is what underlies this urgency.

And that brings us back to who is being sent out: this sending of the 70 echoes the sending of the 12 in chapter nine. Here are 70 followers of Jesus who are told to bring God’s peace, cure the sick, proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. It’s the same task Jesus gave to the 12 in Luke 9, but now it is a much larger group of people.

Scholars suggest a couple of different reasons why 70 were sent out. One option is that the 70 represent the leadership of Israel. That would align with Numbers 11, when Moses appointed 70 assistants. Another thought is that this is a reference to Genesis 10, when the number of the nations of the world is listed as 72; a reminder that God’s mission is to the whole world. This suggestion resonates with Luke’s concern for the Gentiles, and would in turn prefigure the global mission in Acts.

In what way is the number 70 significant? It is an interesting question. But my question is this: How in the world did Jesus find that many people to send out to proclaim the gospel? Can you imagine how long it would take to train 70 people? When we speak of Jesus’ followers, we think first of the 12 and then more broadly of the crowds that showed up for different events; a few leaders and lots of followers, similar to most of our churches today. But here we have 70 people sent out on mission; sent out as evangelists or missionaries to bring God’s peace, to heal the sick, and to proclaim the kingdom of God. It is extraordinary, it is risky. Does Jesus know what he is doing?

We are much more careful. Before we send people out, they need a long process of training and developing. They need to have reached a certain level of maturity in their faith before they start thinking about ministry. After all, we don’t want them to reflect badly on the gospel. And we don’t want them to be disillusioned. We know better than to send people who are not fully trained.

But Jesus sends them out and the “sent” come back excited (v. 17). Now we could write off their excitement as simple naiveté. After all, they haven’t really experienced how difficult ministry can be. Give them a bit more time, and some of their newfound excitement will wear off — it always does. Then they will wish they had taken it a little more slowly. They’ll wish that they hadn’t been as precipitous in getting involved in ministry. We have learned, through hard experience, that ministry is best done by the experts, preferably the officially designated leaders in the church. There are good reasons why we should be careful and take our time.

And yet the urgency in our world, in our communities, right now means that we can’t sit back and wait until people are fully formed before they enter into the mission of God. Indeed, this is the very real question: Will anyone grow up in their faith until they have gone out into the world, have joined in the mission of God, until they have tried to share something of the kingdom of God?

The 70 came back excited about God, excited about their faith. (v. 17) Yes, they still had a lot of growing up to do (we still need theological colleges). But they tasted, they experienced the power of the gospel. Perhaps that is the very thing that helped them grow up. And maybe that is why so many people in our churches never grow up. They have never been sent out. We expect them to grow up in their faith first, and then they will be ready for a ministry position. We invite them to be part of small groups or courses and get them involved in church work, but we don’t send them out with the gospel. And they don’t grow up in their faith. The sending of the 70, for that matter the sending of the 12, tells us that mission doesn’t follow maturity. It is essential to maturity. They were not wise, they were not intelligent, they were infants, and yet Jesus sent them out.

About The Author

Growing up as the son of an Anglican minister, Peter Robinson worked long and hard to avoid ordination — ultimately to no avail. He has served in parishes in England, France, and the Diocese of Toronto, where he continues to serve when given the opportunity. He currently teaches at Wycliffe College, where he is professor of proclamation, worship, and ministry. He and his wife Tiffany — who is close to completing her PhD on a theology of space — live a very busy life in East Toronto with three teenagers.

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2 Responses

  1. Daniel Martins

    I believe it was Archbishop Ramsey who said something like, “God does not call those who are fit. He fits those whom he calls.”


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