As I’ve mentioned a few times recently, I’ve been studying what the authors of Scripture had to say about itinerant servants. By “itinerant servants” I am referring to believers who travel from place to place to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to strengthen the churches.
The difference between an “itinerant servant” and one who is not itinerant would be their intention. The itinerant servant plans to travel; he or she does not intend to stay in the same place. The itinerant servant may stay in one location for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, even a few years; but he or she intends to go to another place to continue serving God.
A person who moves to a new location but intends to stay in that place would not be considered an itinerant servant. Similarly, a person who goes to one location for a short time but intends to return “home” shortly would not be considered an itinerant servant. The itinerant servant travels and keeps traveling.
Now, there are some examples in the Old Testament that could be referenced in relation to itinerant servants. However, for this study, I’ve decided to start in the New Testament. Similarly, many people begin their study of itinerants with Paul. However, it seems that the Gospels should be the starting point if we want to understand traveling servants in the New Testament.
The predominant itinerant servant, of course, is Jesus himself. Throughout the Gospels, he specifically says that it is his intention to travel through the cities and villages. For example, consider this passage:
And Jesus went [kept on going] throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:35-38 ESV)
This passage not only shows us that Jesus traveled from place to place, but it also tells us why. Jesus had compassion on the people that he knew he would find in those cities and villages.
Similarly, much of Luke’s Gospel is a travel narrative as Jesus travels around beginning in Galilee and heading toward Jerusalem.
Jesus was not only presented as an itinerant servant of God by the Gospel authors, he also sent his followers out as itinerants, using himself and his word as an example for them. First, in the passage immediately follow the Matthew 9 passage above, we see Jesus sending out the 12 apostles as itinerants.
His instructions to these 12 are important as we try to understand the work of itinerants:
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. (Matthew 10:5-14 ESV)
In this passage, Jesus tells the 12 to proclaim the gospel and care for people (heal, raise, cleanse, cast out), much like he had been doing earlier. Furthermore, he told them to accept only hospitality – a place to stay and food to eat. They were to work from family to family as they were accepted into a household.
It is also from this passage in Matthew that we see the connection between apostles and itinerant servants. Matthew uses both the noun form (“apostles” – “sent ones”) in Matthew 10:1 and verb from (“sent”) in Matthew 10:5 of the term from which we get the English transliteration “apostle.”
In Luke 10:1-11, Jesus sends out seventy-two of his followers with very similar instructions to those given to the 12 in Matthew 10. In this case, though, he does not limit their service to “the children of Israel.” Also, in the Luke 10 passage, we see that Jesus specifically sent these disciples out in pairs.
(These last two passages – Matthew 10 and Luke 10 – do not demonstrate that the 12 apostles or the 72 disciples were itinerant at this point. In fact, they did not intend to continue traveling. Perhaps we could say they were temporarily itinerant. However, the passages do demonstrate how Jesus was preparing his followers to be itinerant servants.)
These passages concerning Jesus and his followers form the foundation of itinerant service in the Gospels.
Do you know of other important passages in the Gospels concerning itinerant servants? What else should we point out in the passages above?