Differing Levels of Relevance to Differing Audiences
The question of relevance pertains to importance and value, usually attached to someone or something by an individual or certain group of individuals. We attach relevance to the advice of our peers and elders, facts and statistics, and particular issues of the day. Relevance is usually personal in that it will differ from individual to individual. One thing may have more relevance to one particular person than to another. Certain things may be more relevant to certain groups more than to others. For example, the issue of the historical character of Abraham Lincoln is more relevant to a historian than to a theologian or philosopher. The subject of epistemology, however, will have more relevance to the theologian and philosopher.
The Scriptures also have relevance. The words spoken by historical figures such as Elijah, Jeremiah, and Jesus have differing levels of importance and value to different individuals and audiences. To demonstrate my point I will examine Matthew 10, attempting to measure the level of relevance to three distinct groups of people: the original hearers of Jesus' words, the original readers of Matthew's gospel, and those reading Jesus' words today in the United States. Through this I hope to discover what relevance Matthew intended for his readers. This will necessitate the examination of Matthew's literary context to see chapter ten's logical connection to preceding chapters.
The problem of relevance has much to do with context. Context is not limited to literary context, but includes historical context as well. There are many barriers to communication that occur between individuals while face to face. The issue is complicated somewhat when the discourse is written down by a reporter and read by contemporaries without the presence of the author. The situation is worsened when that discourse is recorded by a reporter and read by an audience far removed in time from the historical and cultural setting of the original discourse. This gap often breeds misunderstanding of the author's intended meaning and a loss of relevance to the present reader. The impact and importance of the original message to the original hearers can slip through the gaps and be lost the modern reader of the Bible.
Jesus' words in Matthew 10 had extreme relevance to Jesus' original audience, the twelve disciples. It was at this point in time that they were specifically chosen from among the multitudes that had been following Jesus and appointed apostles of the Lord. Jesus commissioned them labor in the harvesting of souls for the first time (10:5-15). They were commanded to preach only to Israelites (10:5-6), heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out devils (10:8). Gold, silver, brass, bags, tunics, sandals, and staffs were not allowed on the journey (10:9-10). Jesus warned them of the persecution that would follow in the days to come (10:16-42). The cost of discipleship was great. It could result in being hated, whipped, or killed (10:17, 22, 28). This message had extreme relevance to the Twelve because their lives were being changed in a major way. They were being sent out by Jesus to perform the very same works He had been doing. This task put their lives in jeopardy (10:1).
The readers of Matthew's gospel would not have reacted the same way to Jesus' words as did His disciples. They would have understood its historical and cultural context, but it would not have been nearly as relevant to them as it was to the Twelve, because they were not of those actually commissioned by Jesus.
What Matthew's audience might have found relavent was Jesus' discsussion concerning the cost of discipleship. The church was suffering persecution in those days and would have easily related to Jesus' warning that the world would hate them and seek to kill them.
In our day, this passage has little relevance and evokes little emotion or feeling, as compared to the former audiences. The historical gap is great, and our cultural/political situation is not at all similar to that of the Jews in first century Palestine. Even the content of what was spoken does not apply to us. Jesus told the Twelve that they were not to preach to the Gentiles, but only to the Jews (10:5-6). Since this time, however, the Gentiles have been evangelized. Most of the church is comprised of Gentiles in our day.
Jesus also commanded the Twelve to leave behind their valuables and accessories (10:9-10). This too has little relavence to us, because we know that this was a temporal charge. Jesus later commanded His disciples to do otherwise (Luke 22:35-36). Some of what was spoken only had temporal relevance. This is not to say that we can not get anything out of what was spoken and done, but that it does not directly apply to us, and therefore, we generally will not attach much importance or value to it.
Discovering an author's flow of thought in any discourse is very crucial to understanding the author's original intent. This becomes even more important when an author takes someone's words and actions that were spoken and occurred at various times and selectively strings them together. We must then determine how the author was using the words and actions of the story figure to make his literary point, whatever that point may be. Concerning Matthew 10, it seems that Matthew's point of relating the contents of this chapter was to show the transition from Jesus' solo ministry, to include that of the Twelve.
The backdrop for chapter ten is seen in chapters eight and nine. These two chapters are filled with accounts of Jesus ministering to the sick and the devil-possessed. We also see accounts of those who desired to be disciples. The healings accounted for are a leper (8:2-4), the centurion's servant (8:5-13), Peter's mother-in-law (8:14-15), those brought to Jesus in Capernaum (8:16), a man of palsy (9:2-8), the woman with the issue of blood (9:20-22), Jairus' daughter (9:18-19, 23-26), and a deaf man (9:32-34). He cast devils out of those in Capernaum (8:16), the two men of Gergesa (8:28-34), and a deaf man (9:32-34). During this time Jesus had two requests for discipleship. A scribe and another man requested discipleship but seem to have been rejected (8:19-22). Later Jesus requested that Matthew accept the call to discipleship (9:9).
Matthew 9:35 sums up the two chapters by saying, "And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people." When Jesus saw the multitudes who needed a shepherd, His heart went out to them (9:36). It was at this point that Jesus told His disciples to pray for laborers to be sent into the field of harvest (9:37-38). Jesus was pushing Himself to His full human capacity. He had exhausted His capacity to minister to the multitudes and now needed assistance. It was at this point that the Twelve were selected in chapter ten. Their job was to do what Jesus had been doing alone up to that point: preaching the kingdom of heaven (10:7), casting out unclean spirits, and healing (10:1).
The relevance of any given Biblical text can vary because of the historical/cultural/political gap that separates us and the Biblical writers. What may have had a lot of relevance to others in the past may have little relevance to us today, or vice-versa. The relevance of Matthew 10 to Jesus' disciples was great because it involved them particularly. The relevance to Matthew's audience would have been less significant, but still would have been fairly high due to the persecution they were suffering at the time. The relevance of Matthew 10 to us today is very little in comparison to the above groups; nevertheless, there are still things that can be learned from the passage and that we can benefit from. Finally, Matthew 10 is preceded by the context of Jesus' exhaustive ministry. Matthew intended to show from chapter ten how Jesus began to multiply His ministry, and the cost of discipleship.
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