Are All Christians Instructed to Raise the Dead?
This exhortation, taken of course from Matthew 10:8, is often heard as a commission to all Christians to do all of those things (for some reason the cleansing of lepers, which is also mentioned here, appears less frequently). Depending on the context, it may also be heard as a challenge to Christians who are not doing those things that they should be expectant for more; it may even be heard as a warning that such Christians do not have sufficient faith in God, and need to adopt different habits / attend different conferences / buy different books / use different techniques if they are to develop it. But even when these implications are not intended (or heard), the question still arises: are ordinary Christians actually instructed to raise the dead?
Before attempting an answer, it is worth pointing out: if Jesus gives us an instruction, then we should really follow it. In fact, we are sinning if we don’t. “Anyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice,” he says, “is like a fool who built his house on the sand.” “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” So we can’t really fudge this one, as if the answer doesn’t matter. If Jesus has instructed all his followers to do something, we should all be doing it.
Nevertheless, I don’t think he has. I think the commission in Matthew 10:8 is directed specifically to the twelve, rather than being a continual instruction for all Christians, everywhere. (I should say at this point: I certainly believe that the dead being raised is one of the signs of the coming of the kingdom of God, and I know people who have seen the dead raised, and I suspect that there is far too little expectation for it in the contemporary Western church, not far too much. My point is that it is an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the kingdom, not an obligation.) Here are a few reasons why I say that.
1. The text of Matthew 10 makes it very clear that Jesus is talking to the twelve, rather than the crowds that we heard about at the end of Matthew 9 or the start of Matthew 11. “He called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, and to heal every disease and affliction” (10:1). “The names of the twelve apostles are these” (10:2). “These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them ...” (10:5). “When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples ...” (11:1).
2. Many of the instructions in the surrounding verses clearly do not apply to all believers, whether biblically, historically or today. Go nowhere among the Gentiles. Go to the lost sheep of Israel. Take no money for your journey. Don’t take a change of clothes or shoes. Stay in one house in any given town. Shake the dust off your feet if they reject you. And so on (10:5-15).
3. There are no other texts in Scripture in which Christians are commanded to raise the dead. As such, the only text which tells anyone to raise the dead is the one in which the twelve are specifically in view.
4. All of the raisings from the dead in the New Testament take place through Jesus or the apostles.
5. In 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, Paul asks rhetorically, “Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing?”, and expects a negative answer (this is clearly the force of mē pantes dunameis; mē pantes charismata echousin iamatōn).
6. Historically, even in seasons where miraculous healings have been plentiful, raisings from the dead have been exceptionally rare. Today, even amongst the most enthusiastic proponents of the idea that all Christians are instructed to raise the dead, they remain highly unusual, and (significantly) are normally brought about through a small group of individuals, rather than the entire community.
So no, I don’t think Jesus instructed all his followers, everywhere, to raise the dead. I think Matthew 10:8 was an instruction specifically to the twelve, like the rest of the passage—although as I’ve said, raising the dead is clearly something that some believers do sometimes.
Obviously, sharp-eyed readers will notice that much of what I’ve said here could also be used to argue that Jesus never instructed all his followers to heal the sick, cleanse lepers or cast out demons either. But, given that there are plenty of other texts we’d need to consider on that one, it will have to wait.