Those are the easy questions. But when we go to the text itself, the questions become more challenging. Verse 40 is straightforward enough and contains no translation issues: “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” But who is meant by “you” in this verse? Just the 12? Or is the intended audience broader than that, as it is in the very next verse where it seems to be expanded to include prophets and righteous persons. And verse 42 seems to include anyone who does something in the name of a disciple, though that’s something few if any of us have ever done. When did you last do anything in the name of a disciple?
Let’s start with the verse in the middle and see whether that sheds any light on the other two: “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.” What can that mean? But listen to the ESV translation: “The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.” This is completely different! For starters, we can’t tell whether the prophet and the righteous man are the ones being received or the ones doing the receiving or, perhaps, both! And it only gets worse in verse 42, where the Greek word that is rendered “little ones” in many translations is given as “humble followers” in one translation and as “one of the least of My followers” in another. Clearly no little children are present, and children do not really fit the context very well. And again there’s confusion as to whether someone is receiving someone else in the name of a disciple, or receiving him because one or both of them is a disciple. Have I lost you yet?
You can see why I was tempted to skip the Gospel and preach instead from Paul’s letter to the Romans, where the grammar is clearer even though the interpretation is a matter that fiercely divides Christians. Not wishing to drown in those contentious waters, I decided to abandon all normal practice and preach from Genesis.
But I don’t wish to leave you in a sea of confusion about the Gospel; so I will tell you what I think Jesus actually meant in these remarkably difficult verses. The heart of the matter lies in the very first verse, verse 40. Here there’s no confusion of persons, and what flows from the blessed deed is absolutely clear: “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” Accepting the probability that Jesus intended these words to apply not only to the 12 but to all believers, He’s telling you and me that as His representatives in the world, whenever we’re received as persons bearing witness to Him, the one receiving us will be receiving both Jesus and the Father Who sent Him. Of course we can complete the picture by adding that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, so that the entire Trinity is involved in our ministry of extending the Gospel message. It’s the Great Commission in action. We’re just the witnesses.
Does this help us understand the next two verses? Here’s one possibility that seems clearer and that definitely suits the idiomatic Greek figure of speech embedded in these two verses:
“Whoever receives a prophet because the person he is receiving is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous person because the person he is receiving is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives a cup of cold water to a person of the least importance solely because the person is a disciple (of Jesus), truly, I say to you, he will in no way lose his reward.”
One could view this translation as dangerous, simply because no one else has put it in print. But the fact remains that this understanding of what Jesus is saying may be the only one that fits the grammar perfectly while wholly disclosing a plausible and meaningful understanding of what Jesus meant. To paraphrase slightly, just in order to leave you with greater clarity, Jesus may be saying in these verses that when we are received by someone to whom we are ministering in Jesus’ Name, we will be leading that person both to Jesus Himself and to our Heavenly Father. And when anyone receives a prophet or a righteous person, he will be rewarded in kind. And when we give nothing more than cold water to someone who is lightly regarded by others, we are guaranteed a spiritual reward. The Gospel of the Lord.
So, what about Abraham and Isaac? This decidedly is one of the most important incidents in the entire Old Testament, a benchmark demonstration of trusting God no matter what the circumstances and no matter how bad the odds. Joe Deiss grew up in Kentucky, the land of the greatest thoroughbred race horses, and Joe knows all about odds. What are the odds that Abraham, obeying a direct commandment of God, will take his son, the son of promise, off to some remote location, build an altar and offer his son as a sacrifice for no known reason other than that God told him to do it? What are the odds that Abraham will return with his son alive? They’re odds we might not be eager to take were we in Abraham’s shoes!
Did you notice that God calls Isaac Abraham’s “only” son, whom he loved? We all know about Ishmael, Abraham’s son through Sarah’s servant, Hagar. We just heard about him in last week’s OT reading. But Isaac was the son of promise, the one through whom God had promised Abraham that his seed would be perpetuated and his progeny would become “as many as the stars in the heavens” (Genesis 15). This made Isaac Abraham’s “only” son in a very real and heightened sense.
Here obeying God was an incredibly risky proposition. It often is. And it’s not uncommon for God to issue a commandment without offering us the slightest explanation of how things will turn out. Obeying God would mean rather little if we always were assured in advance of a ringingly positive outcome. Knowing that a great outcome definitely lurks ahead takes away the very possibility of being tested as well as the opportunity for exercising faith. Have you ever found yourself in a circumstance where you knew exactly what God wanted you to do, yet you had no idea how it would turn out? Have you gone ahead and done it anyway? How do you respond when one of your dearest loved ones questions or challenges what it is that you’re doing? God seldom speaks to us as directly and concretely as He spoke to Abraham; but often His message and its demands are perfectly clear to us. Yet we hesitate, often to the point of losing the opportunity that was right before us. Apparently Abraham never hesitated for a moment, not even when his “only” and dearly beloved son says to him, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
And what was Abraham’s response? He immediately gave the right answer: “God will provide!” We may confess that this answer sounded naïve, almost preposterous, and that it probably would not have been the answer we would have given under the circumstances. We might have been inclined to say something like, “To be perfectly honest, I have no clue.” But Abraham answered simply, “God will provide.” Of course we can read this story and we know in advance that this was the right answer, that it was the only right answer that could have fallen from Abraham’s lips at that very moment. Still, it might not have been my answer or yours. “God will provide!” It’s so simplistic. But often as not, with God simple is right and good.
God demonstrated convincingly that Abraham’s answer was the right one when he provided the substitute, a ram caught in a nearby thicket, a poignant foreshadowing of the substitutionary sacrifice of God’s only Son as “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.” God’s provision was so dramatic and so convincing that Abraham renamed the place “Yahweh Yireh,” “God will provide,” a Name for God that has survived to this day. It literally means, “God will see to it!”
Perhaps this story of faith in action was in the apostle Paul’s mind when from prison he penned this famous verse: “My God will provide all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). Paul certainly knew well the stellar example of Abraham's faithful obedience, and he used it as a basis for his teaching on justification by faith alone in Romans and Galatians. The angel, speaking to Abraham, says, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” And notice that the angel clearly is speaking on behalf of God Himself when the angel says “you have not withheld your only son from Me!” Abraham acted in faith, confident that God would provide. And He did.
It doesn’t require a clever preacher or teacher to help you make the application – to see how this lesson from one of God’s chosen persons relates directly to our lives as we walk with God. Yes, we may have known persons who shirked personal responsibility in life by saying glibly, “God will provide,” and who then waited for other persons to bail them out. But we’ve known far more persons and, to our shame, often the persons in the mirror, who forget that God’s provision is a promise on which we may rely.
Yes, it requires the exercise of faith, more faith than we may think we can muster. But when we lay claim to the fact that we serve a God Who is “Yahweh Yireh,” Who is able, ready and willing to provide when we exercise faith in Him, we’re freed from a great burden of anxiety and helplessness. He is able. He is able to provide. He resides in us in the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish His perfect will whenever we’re yielded to it in faith.
What an incomparable promise! What an incomparable God! What an incomparable opportunity and privilege to watch Him at work in our lives. You truly may rest in this confidence, this morning and every morning: “God will provide.” Take that truth home with you and live in it this week. Believe it. Trust it. “God will provide.” He did for Abraham, and He will for you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen