Peter Sammons ponders ……


Numeric puzzle

I am convinced that nothing happens in Scripture in a haphazard, unplanned or un-sequenced manner. God is simply not like that. He knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). When God acts, or He instructs, there can be more than one layer of meaning and insight into what He is doing, and what His purpose is. It is helpful if we perceive this clearly. The depth of our relationship with Him may limit what we see, and do not see.

There are two accounts in Scripture of the Lord Jesus sending out His disciples in what many would style ‘missionary’ activity. The word ‘mission’ is not actually found in Scripture, the nearest is the Greek apostolos, or one sent. (Latin, missio, a translation of the Greek apostol?, “a sending,”. This appears only once in the English New Testament (Galatians 2:8). For anyone who wants to dig deeper into this, here’s a truly excellent resource:

When we go out on ‘mission’ we are by definition ‘sent’. In whose name and by whose authority? Something we all need to ponder. Let’s now dig-in to those two instances of Jesus “sending-out” His people, and what might have been the underlying prophetic message involved.


In Luke 9: 1-9; Mark 6: 7-13; and Matthew 10: 1 – 16 we find recounted the same event of Jesus sending out the twelve. The key elements are these:

  • He sent out thetwelve disciples
  • He sent them out two by two
  • They were told not to take anything except a staff (no food, money, spare clothes)
  • Stay in one house (don’t move about)

It is the gospel writer Matthew who adds what is potentially the key to the whole ‘mission’. In Matthew 10: 5-6 Jesus told them not to preach to anyone but “the Jews”. No ‘heathen’ (gentiles) were to be approached. The Jews were double-specified as “the lost sheep of Israel” (10 v 6). The Disciples (apostles) were to be single-minded about this matter.

What was going on at this point, and is the sending of the twelve a ‘model’ for us today, or should we seek a deeper meaning in this?

Perhaps our first question is why did the Lord Jesus send out twelve? Well, plainly there were twelve Disciples, the inner-core of the new Jesus movement. Our question subtly shifts to, why did Jesus choose twelve disciples in the first place? Here, there is widespread agreement that the twelve are prophetic symbols of Israel, God’s Chosen People. There are twelve tribes of Israel and any encounter of the number twelve in Scripture is likely, in some sense, to be a code-number denoting Israel and her relationship with God.

For the Jew, first

The apostle Paul confirmed that the gospel is for the Jew first and then the gentile (which really ought to be translated as ‘heathen’, but for the time being we shall let that awkward truth pass uncommented). Paul’s specific statement is found in Romans 1:16. There is an ordering in gospel presentation – it remains in place today – the Jew will hear first, and then the message of the Kingdom is extended outwards towards those who are not a part of the ethnic family and are, by raw definition, heathen and so ‘outside’ the promises of God to those who are chosen, by election. Election means by God’s sovereign choice. Whilst God chose for Himself a representative People, Israel, it was always His intention that the blessings and benefits of Election should be made available to a wider community across planet Earth.

We must pause what plainly is a huge study, at this point. The best exploration of this is, I think, Alex Jacob’s “The Case For Enlargement Theology”. He makes the case that the older ‘covenant’ with Israel was always to be enlarged by God to encompass all of humankind. Jeremiah 31: 31 speaks of “a” new covenant (note, not “the” new covenant) that would be written direct on people’s hearts and minds – implying a personal relationship and (Christians would confirm) the idea of being ‘born again’ into a new and eternal family, energized by Holy Spirit. Deep stuff! Far more than we want to cover here!

Back to the sending out of the twelve; this was not haphazard, and it was not because Jesus had only twelve to ‘send’. No, the good news message was to be preached to God’s Chosen People first. Jesus undoubtedly had a plan to send His great message more widely, but there was (and is) an ordering. The disciples were not to speak to the heathen (‘gentile’), rather they were to be single-minded and preach to those elect as the Chosen People. Jesus knew that ultimately His message would be rejected by Israel. In a real sense it is still rejected today although, praise our Lord, more and more Jewish people are coming to faith in Yeshua ha Massiasch – Jesus the Messiah, in English. Today God is definitely on the move amongst Hs ancient People ……


When we go out on mission, is the sending of the twelve a reliable modern ‘model’? The answer is awkwardly ‘yes, and no’. It has been said – admittedly by those of somewhat ‘liberal’ Christian persuasion – that the reference to ‘purse’ (as in take no purse) does not necessarily preclude taking cash. Rather it might be understood as do not make generous provision but rather go out in a measure of vulnerability. It is the vulnerability aspect that is the most elemental part, not the lack of monetary provision.

There is some truth in this. There’s undoubtedly something evil in the idea of rich Christian ‘missionaries’ fetching-up in a mission field complete with low-mileage Mercedes, cash, credit cards, Rolex watch, and ‘gold-standard’ health insurance. Simplicity and close identification with the Lost is paramount. Ideally we should be as vulnerable as the Lost – certainly not, as it were, ‘lording it’ over them. No purse, no provision, seems to underscore this.

Jesus’ sending of the twelve also needs to be understood in its concurrent cultural and ethnic context. Whilst the disciples undoubtedly ‘went out’ in a measure of vulnerability, there was a certain social context about this project. They went out in Jesus’ name and Jesus was at this time, to use a modern term, a celebrity. So there was no need to ‘manufacture’ a public interest, people were genuinely warmed-up and some would have been wondering, is this the promised messiah?

Equally significant in terms of context, there were tribe and family affiliations and the sense that the community was expected to care for the traveler. A failure to care for a Jewish stranger was a social disgrace, at the very least there was an obligation to provide somewhere for the traveler to sleep. We remember in the nativity account, Joseph and Mary were offered (what is widely assumed to be) a stable in lieu of anything better. In the Emmaus road account we see a ‘stranger’ being asked to stay for the night. Such social norms are not an expectation today in the modern West – although they might still operate more broadly in the developing world. In biblical times family affiliation was also strong, so although the Disciples went out in vulnerability, it is not quite true to say that there was absolutely no ‘plan’ behind their going out, or that they were likely to ‘starve’! On meeting friends and relatives, there was an unspoken obligation.

Even so, this going out in vulnerability helped the Disciples, and helps us, to depend totally on God. And in mission that must be a thoroughly good thing. It is in our weakness that His strength is revealed (2 Corinthians 12:9). The Lost need to encounter us in our weakness, but simultaneously in His strength!

We need to weigh carefully the sending out of the twelve as a modern mission ‘model’. Then, family ties, social expectations and obligations and ‘sleeping rough’ (in extremis) was legal, and accommodated within the social structure. Today’s highly complex society means that sleeping rough can have legal consequences attached. We live in an era of ‘megalopolis’ where cities are merging. There are fewer and fewer hedges to sleep under, especially where the Lost are most likely to be found – in towns and cities. Somehow our mission model must engage with the society in which we find ourselves today, not an era that arguably ended (in Britain, at any rate), fifty years ago.

Crucially, Jesus did not send His disciples into a void with no clear objective. Rather the opposite! They were to go to the lost sheep of Israel, and to minister in power. They were to preach the good news of the Kingdom – not a ‘gospel of salvation’, but a message of the nearness and accessibility of that same Kingdom. Should this be our focus today?

Seventy two

It is only in the gospel of Luke that we are told about the sending out of the seventy two. So what was happening here?

In Mark chapter 6 and Luke chapter 9, the sending of the twelve is shortly before the feeding of the five thousand. We again see, perhaps, a pre-planned programme of exposure of the Jesus Community to His power and His authority. No wonder His name spread so widely – at least within Galilee and Judaea (and, we understand, amongst the non-Jewish Samaritan communities as well).

In Luke chapter 10 we find the sending out of seventy two in the context of opposition – Samaritan . So even at this stage gentile (heathen) opposition is beginning to match Jewish opposition. Jesus immediately reminds His followers that there is, and always will be, a profound ‘cost’ to following Him in this world. It does not come cheap. It did not then, and it does not today. Think right now of Christians in China or Iran, or closer to home in Russia and even EU countries where ‘hate laws’ constitute the latest wheeze against Christians.

Was the sending out of the seventy two a random instruction? Was it essentially “go out My followers and chat wherever you can about Me, and do nice things”? Was it random, unstructured an un-sequenced? Straightway we can say ‘no’, there was definitely method in Jesus’ instruction and in His commissioning.

The instructions were not dissimilar, in outline, to the earlier commissioning of the twelve. That need to go in vulnerability remained (Luke 10: 4). In fact Jesus seems to have recognized an added level of vulnerability insofar as they were to go out as “sheep among wolves”. Was this because they would encounter more heathen (‘gentiles’)? The answer is probably ‘no’, but it’s an interesting thought.

Why seventy two? Was it because Jesus ‘happened’ to have seventy two available, and so that’s the number He sent? Or is there a deeper significance to the number?

We revert, momentarily, to the sending of the twelve; their mission was to the Israelites (Galileans and Judeans) and to no one else. The mission was, in effect, prophetic and marked the changing of a season. It marked the change of one era to a succeeding era. It marked the ending of the inwards gospel focus and the emergence of the outwards focus. The sending of the seventy two marked the beginning of that outward focus. But we still must settle, why seventy two? Would eighty have been better, or even one hundred?

Six of the Worst

The number six in Scripture is often the number of imperfection and the number of Man. It is notable that the unholy trinity is denoted by the number ‘666’. Whilst the focus of the earlier Disciples’ mission had been solely to Israel (prophetically indicated by the number sent, denoting the twelve tribes of Israel, with none excluded) the focus of the later mission, whilst still within the lands of Israel, was ‘open fields’, to all and sundry, to Jews and to gentiles (heathens).

The dynamic is that Israel is going OUT to the World at large, with the good news of ………… not love, not ‘salvation’, not avoiding Hell, or not being forgiven all your wrongs against God (sin), but rather and more simply, the good news of the Kingdom and its nearness.

So why seventy two? The answer is surely that Israel (12) is now going-out to Mankind as a whole (6), the message of salvation has gone global and symbolically that is represented as 6×12 = 72. There is nothing haphazard, then, in the number chosen. It is a powerful and prophetic symbol. It is reality. Israel and her Kingdom has gone out to the World. God is on the move, right across this planet. The final harvesting season is here, and the harvest field extends right across planet Earth. That’s why we’re called to pray earnestly for workers in God’s harvest field (Matthew 9: 38). And that is why, in a very real sense, every Christian is called to evangelism – it’s our #1 job!

I don’t want to delve more now into the question of ‘numerology’. We have said enough for now. In my book “The Messiah Pattern” I include an Appendix on key numbers in the Bible, and interested readers might want to look at that – it’s freely downloadable as a PDF and the relevant part is Appendix 4, page 151:

Seventy two are sent

Finally let us reflect on the sending out of the seventy two. We note that a few translators render 72 as ‘70’, but the vast majority of serious exegetes and the earliest texts render this clearly as 72. I do wonder, however, whether in the years ahead we will see a change of consensus from 72 and towards 70. Given the liberal and anti-Israel bias of much of the institutional ‘church’, I would not be too surprised!

So we are looking at Luke 10: 1-24. Was this mission random? Was Jesus’ instruction in essence, go out and minister just wherever you please, because it’s all equally good and what we need to do is simply to minister to the needy? No! It was nothing like that! The key elements I pick out are these:

  • go out two by two – still a wise pattern
  • lambs among wolves – the whole world whether Jew or Gentile, will revile against
  • no purse = vulnerability
  • stay where you are welcome = don’t move about
  • Heal
  • witness prophetically against those who reject
  • when we go in Jesus’ Name, Satan is undermined

Was this ‘sending’ haphazard, or was it thoroughly planned and orchestrated? Whilst we cannot be definitive about this, the clearest clue about the over-arching objective is in 10: 1. The seventy two were sent to every town and place where Jesus was about to go. The mission seems first and foremost in the context of a plan and that plan was about meeting people where they were living and/or working.

The objective was to reach people, and there is an instruction about not becoming sidetracked. Specifically this is 10: 4 – do not greet anyone on the road. No! The mission was determinedly to the towns and the seventy two were ambassadors for Jesus – and we might add, they were His warming-up act (if I can say that with all due reverence). The people would know what to expect because the seventy two had ministered in the name of Jesus. The following-on Jesus visit would therefore be something the communities could not ignore or deny, and their rejection of Jesus would inevitably be marked in the heavenlies, as would also their receiving of Him (John 1: 12). That’s true today.

Don’t get sidetracked? Is Jesus’ specific instruction not to speak to people on the highway still one that we should observe? Certainly we can say we should not become sidetracked when we are witnessing. There are myriad cul-de-sacs down which Satan would divert us. People to whom we minister will very often try to deflect our purpose, and change the subject if they possibly can. We should be aware of this and deal with it as we feel the Spirit moves. Sometimes we will persist, sometimes desist – the Spirit will give us supernatural wisdom. But we really should be wary that we do not easily become sidetracked, it’s the enemy’s favourite tactic.

An Ethiopian

Should we not speak to people on the highways and byways? The Bible does not give us a definitive answer, and arguably Jesus’ instruction was for the seventy two rather than for all Christians of every era. But perhaps there is something here about linking mission activity to clear objectives and holding ourselves fully accountable. It’s better to have a plan even if God subsequently amends the plan – and that is always His prerogative. But to go out haphazardly, by contrast, is difficult to justify. That said, many churches do put out street teams as a part of their regular evangelistic activity, but perhaps the key element in this is that they are ministering on their own streets in their own neighbourhood under a clear plan, and with a support network based locally.

Acts 8: 26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch) is sometimes held up as a random encounter with a divine outcome, yet I feel this is a weak exposition. In 8: 26 Philip is told to go to a specific place, implying God had a divine appointment in the offing. Essentially the man was already warmed-up (v 32-33) and needed someone to unlock a deep mystery. This was something that Philip could do easily, hence the divine appointment. After the eunuch’s baptism, Philip was taken “suddenly” away (v 39). Whether this was, as perhaps implied, a supernatural exiting, is not for me to say. The text, once again, does not tell us specifically. Perhaps the real point is that the task was now done and the Ethiopian was now ‘clear’ to continue to his own destiny and his own life of walking with the Lord. Job done!

Final thought

In the 12 and in the 72, God was moving in the prophetic. Not everyone at the time (let alone today) would “see” the prophetic significance, but it is there hidden in plain sight! A new covenant was coming in (or should that be a renewed covenant? Scholars still discuss this enthusiastically), as an old covenant was being rendered ‘outmoded’ (Hebrews 8: 13). The first mission was to Israel, the second and bigger one was Israel to the wider world. There was a plan and an objective behind each mission. People were to be encountered where they were at ……… And that’s still a mission priority.


 Peter Sammons is commissioning editor at Christian Publications International. He is author of “Rebel Church” (2013), “The Prince of Peace” (2015) and “Three Days and Three Nights – That Changed the World (co-authored with David Serle) in 2019.