While Matthew doesn’t give us a clear sense of the passage of time between stories, it is safe to assume by this point that Jesus’ disciples had by now been studying at the Master’s feet for several months - possibly more than a year. During that time they had spent every moment in Jesus presence, and seen so many wondrous things - healings, miracles, sermons - that John, in his gospel, tells us that if they were all written down, the whole world would not be able to contain the books that would be written.
The disciples likely would have been content to continue sitting at Jesus’ feet - following Him from town to town, ministering to His needs as they absorbed every lesson and marveled at the incredible things that happened whenever He was there. But Jesus, like any good teacher, knew that the destiny of a student is not to sit in the classroom forever. The disciples were following Him - learning to be more like Him - not for their benefit, but so that they could be a blessing to the world. And He knew that all too soon, His time on earth - and thus their training - would be at an end.
And so, Jesus sends the Twelve out on a “trial run.” Each was sent on a circuit of nearby towns with a simple message: “The Kingdom of Heaven is near” and told to heal any ailments brought to them. In effect, they would be pretending to be their Master for a few days - traveling around, preaching the Kingdom, and wielding the power of the Spirit. As He sends them out of this maiden voyage, Jesus gives them three lessons to keep in mind - lessons that we, as their fellow disciples, would do well to remember as we go out to serve the Kingdom.
First, if they were going to follow Him, they would need to learn to depend upon God alone. Jesus instructs His disciples not to bring anything with them - no money, provisions, not even a change of clothes or a tent. Rather than putting their faith in their own ingenuity, they would have to trust that God would prepare the way for them and provide for their needs. The mission God had set them on was too big for them to do on their own power - they would have to learn to look to the Father to succeed.
Next, Jesus tells His disciples to expect resistance. Many would not accept their message, others would outright hate them because of who they served. “If they call me a devil, just imagine what they will say about you,” the Master wryly observes. To be a Christian means living in hostile territory; Jesus’ disciples, both then and now, should be prepared to be shunned, rejected and even persecuted. It’s just a hazard of the job.
Finally, Jesus reminds His disciples that following Him is costly. He tells us that anyone who is not willing to lose family, prestige, even their life should turn back (considering that ten of the twelve would eventually die martyrs’ deaths, we should take the warning seriously). Building the Kingdom is not for the faint of heart. This world is in the hands of the enemy; he will not surrender it easily.
It is worthy remembering that, while Jesus gave these instructions for the Twelves’ benefit, Matthew records them for ours. This chapter exists because the author assumes that we too will go out into the world, much as our spiritual ancestors did, and would want to have the Master’s guidance as we do. The life of a disciple cannot be lived in constant comfort, focused only on feeding the self. If we are to follow Him, we must prepare to go - that is where His path inevitably leads.