In Matthew 10:41 Jesus says, “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet receives a prophet’s reward.” A prophet’s reward. Our eyes and mind go right past that phrase without thinking too much about it. We hear “prophet’s reward” and think, “big reward”—something really good. So in our mind the passage becomes something like this: “Any time you’re asked to host an important Christian leader, you should definitely do that because you will get a big reward out of it.”
But such a reading ignores two of the key things we should keep in mind every time we open the Bible.
The first thing is that the Bible is first and foremost a revelation of the character of God. The purpose of each scripture in the Bible is to reveal something about God. Secondarily—and sometimes quite importantly—a scripture may also reveal something about us, or command us to do something. But as important as those things are, we should always “seek first the character of God” every time we open the Bible and read any scripture. So when we focus our attention in any scripture on what we’re supposed to do, or what’s in it for us, it’s a guarantee that we’re missing the most important thing that the scripture is seeking to give us, namely, a revelation of the character of God.
The second thing that is wrong with reading today’s scripture in the way I indicated is that it totally ignores the context! The scripture today comes at the tail end of a passage that begins with Jesus having his guts turned when he saw the people of Israel wandering into great danger because they were like sheep without a shepherd: the religious leaders had failed them. They had even claimed that Jesus did what he did in partnership with the devil. Jesus, in great concern, gathered his twelve best students to send them out to extend his shepherding to the lost sheep. He ordered them heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons.
But here’s the part of the context that is absolutely crucial for understanding today’s scripture: He warned them that when they went out to shepherd those sheep, they would face persecution and martyrdom. “Behold I send you out like sheep surrounded by wolves,” he says. Beginning in Matthew 10:17 he says,
Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.
And in verse 21 he says,
Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.
Keep in mind, when Jesus sends them out, he requires that they go out with nothing. He says in verse 9, “neither gold nor silver nor copper…nor bag…nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs.” So they are to be completely dependent on those that they meet—most of whom, he tells them, will try to kill them!
That’s the context for today’s scripture. Those are the verses we should have in mind when we hear Jesus say, “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet receives a prophet’s reward.”
So the first thought that should come to mind is: Life is not so easy for prophets. Prophets are people who are completely identified with God’s message. They’re not people who have a message from God. They are the message from God. Prophets have no message of their own. They can only say, “Thus saith the Lord!” Prophets are like the human versions of angels: the messengers of God. Unlike angels, scripture sometimes shows them putting up a little resistance against the message God gives them to share (or in the case of Jonah, a lot of resistance). But as Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 20:9,
But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.
So the prophet has to deliver the message. If they don’t, the fire that is shut up inside their bones burns them up.
But here’s the problem: once they deliver their message, the people who hear the message light a fire from the outside that burns up their bones anyway!
That’s the nature of being a prophet: Either get burned up from the inside by God or burned up from the outside by those who don’t like what God has to say. In the Bible, false prophets get stoned for telling a lie. True prophets get stoned for telling the truth.
So from the standpoint of this world, if we ask, “What is the prophet’s reward?”, the answer is clear: Death. Persecution followed by suffering followed by death. Really painful death, in most cases. In Hebrews 11, we read about the great pioneers of faith. Many of these were prophets. And in Hebrews 11:36-38 we get a list of how many of the prophets suffered and died:
Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
One of the reasons why they were wandering in deserts and mountains and living in caves and in holes in the ground is that not many people wanted to host prophets. Hosting prophets was dangerous. Consider the case of Obadiah. During the time of Elijah, we read in 1 Kings 18:4,
While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.
In other words, Obadiah had received prophets in the name of prophets.
Jezebel and Ahab were trying to kill all the prophets, but most particularly Elijah. So we read in 1 Kings 18:7-14:
As Obadiah was walking along, Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, “Is it really you, my lord Elijah?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Go tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.’”
“What have I done wrong,” asked Obadiah, “that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death? As surely as the Lord your God lives, there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear they could not find you. But now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ I don’t know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshiped the Lord since my youth. Haven’t you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord? I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water. And now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ He will kill me!”
The message here is clear: If you receive a prophet in the name of a prophet, you will receive the same punishment as the prophet.
And that was true not only in Old Testament times. Jesus says it would be true for his followers as well. In fact, in Matthew 5:10-12, he prophesies that this will happen to his followers—to prophets as well as the righteous. Remember that the righteous also get mentioned in today’s scripture, in Matthew 10:41, when Jesus says, “He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.” As Jesus is about to tell us in Matthew 5:10-12, hosting a righteous man will get you killed these days, too:
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
In that scripture, Jesus mentions the great reward of the prophets and the righteous. He says simply that it is a “great reward in heaven.” He does not specify what it is. The one thing that’s specific is that the reward is not here on earth. What’s here on earth for prophets and the righteous is a whole lot of suffering for righteousness’ sake, all for the name of Christ. The Book of Revelation shares that same thing when it speaks about the reward of the prophets at the end of time. In Revelation 11:18, the twenty-four elders in heaven cry out to the Lord,
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.
Notice the mention of the “small people” who revere the name of the Lord. They receive their reward, too, just as Jesus says they would in today’s scripture in Matthew 10:42, when he says,
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.
So we could end our look at this scripture at this point with this very important conclusion: Hosting prophets, righteous men, and even small Christians is dangerous work. You will likely suffer in this lifetime if you do so, and you may even die. But if you do, you will receive a great reward in heaven—the same as the prophets, the righteous men, and the small Christians themselves.
That would be a very important conclusion, but it would not get us to the main point of today’s scripture, or the main point of scripture overall. The main point of scripture is to reveal to us something of the character of God. What is it that today’s scripture reveals?
And here is where we find the truly amazing part of the message.
It is true that Christ will give a prophet’s reward to the one who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet. But what is truly remarkable about the character of God is that Christ does not just give a prophet’s reward. He himself receives it, too.
That is, the character of God is not that he lives in heaven, handing out great rewards to those who are willing to suffer for his name on earth. As the Nicene Creed says, “He came down from heaven…” God did not just send prophets to die for him. Instead, he died for them.
In Matthew 21:33-39, Jesus tells a story about a landowner who planted a vineyard.
Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
And that’s exactly what they did.
As the day of his sacrifice grew near, Jesus looked out over the city and cried out, in Matthew 23:37,
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…
He spoke specifically about the prophets and righteous men and small Christians in Matthew 23:34-36:
Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
And that’s exactly what happened. All of the righteous blood that had been shed on earth came upon that generation…and he carried all of that sin, on the cross. “For our sakes he was crucified…”, says the Nicene Creed.
That is what this scripture reveals about the character of God. It is not only that “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me,” as he says in the scripture today. It is also that he who sent the prophets sent himself, to die the death that all prophets die due to their identification with him.
When the writer of Hebrews lists the suffering of all the pioneers of faith, he writes in Hebrews 11:16, “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God.” But it is because God himself suffered the very same things that we do that we are not ashamed to call him our God: Immanuel, God with us.