Once when I was about eight years old, my mother sent me out on my first “mission”—to go to the supermarket and buy a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread. She put the money in my hand, gave me her instructions, and I got on my bicycle and set out to accomplish the task. I don’t remember if she said, but I am sure I knew, that she expected me to return with milk and bread and her change, not with milk, bread and some cookies or candy.
There is something exciting that happens when a person is chosen by another to go out and do something. Someone trusts you with his money, with his instructions, with a job to do, and sometimes with his reputation. The one who is sent represents the one who sends him, and that is a sacred responsibility and honor. There is a profound sense of satisfaction when someone executes the task entrusted to him.
In the Bible there are many examples of someone sending someone else out on a mission. Abraham sent his faithful steward to find a wife for his son Isaac (Gen. 24). Jacob sent gifts to Esau (Gen. 32:13‑20). Kings sent out messengers, armies, shipments of goods. G‑d sent prophets to speak for him. Yeshua sent his disciples to carry his message and to act on his behalf, even empowering them to heal and do miracles in his name.
The relationship between the sender and the one sent is called “agency”. One person appoints another to act as his “agent”, whether it be to do business, to deliver a message and bring back an answer, or to do a certain job for him. In this article I will examine how this concept of “agency” plays out in various ways in the biblical story.
“Sending” and Agency in the Tenakh
The Hebrew word for an agent is shaluach, one who is sent, from the verb shalach, to send. The Greek equivalent in the Septuagint is apostelo, also meaning to send, from which we get the noun ‘apostle’, meaning someone who is sent. (Incidentally, the word ‘epistle’, a letter or document that is sent, comes from the same verb.)
While any person could appoint anyone else to be his agent, the most common examples of agents are those who are sent by G‑d or by a king. King David sent servants to Abigail to propose marriage to her. She received the messengers graciously and then went with them to become David’s wife. Her accepting the proposal from the servants was the same as if David himself had proposed and she had accepted.
NRS 1 Samuel 25:40 When David’s servants came to Abigail at Carmel, they said to her, “David has sent (shalach) us to you to take you to him as his wife.”
On the other hand, mistreating messengers is an insult to the one who sent them, as happened to David in 2 Samuel 10. David sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites after the death of his father. The king suspected them of spying, and brutalized them. David took this as a personal affront, and went to war against the Ammonites.
In the Bible, the most common sender is G‑d, and the ones who are sent are the prophets. We see in this example in Ezekiel the dynamic of sender and sent one, how the sent one represents the sender. G‑d warns Ezekiel that, because Israel does not want to listen to G‑d, they will not listen to him either.
Ezekiel 3:5 For you are not sent (shaluach) to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel … 7 But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me …
The act of sending does not necessarily mean the person must travel to another place to deliver the sender’s message or conduct his business. The important part of ‘sending’ is the commissioning of someone to act on behalf of the one who commissions. It is much like giving a power of attorney in modern legal terms. Here is a case where the prophet Ahijah is ‘sent’ to deliver a message to the wife of Jeroboam. But the prophet does not go anywhere; rather, she comes to him.
1 Kings 14:6 But when Ahijah heard the sound of her feet, as she came in at the door, he said, “Come in, wife of Jeroboam; why do you pretend to be another? For I am charged (shaluach=sent) with heavy tidings for you.”
King Jehoshaphat—in an interesting parallel to Yeshua’s sending of his disciples to bring the good news of the Kingdom of G‑d to the cities of Israel—conducted a reform in his kingdom. He removed the idolatrous places of worship, and then he sent out his officers, with a Torah scroll, to teach Torah in the cities of Judah.
2 Chronicles 17:7 In the third year of his reign he sent his officials, Ben-hail, Obadiah, Zechariah, Nethanel, and Micaiah, to teach in the cities of Judah … 9 They taught in Judah, having the book of the Torah of the L‑RD with them; they went around through all the cities of Judah and taught among the people.
Happily, the people received these messengers and the Torah they brought, and the king and his kingdom prospered. G‑d brought fear upon his enemies, and the Judeans had peace and blessing.
So we see that, in the Bible, G‑d appoints agents to bring his messages and do his work in the world. Agents of G‑d are usually the prophets. Agents have the stature of the person who sent them. Such agents are authorized to conduct the business of the sender.
Agents and Agency in Jewish Law
By the time of the Mishnah, roughly corresponding to the New Testament period, Jewish law had worked out the concept of agency as a legal principle. A person could appoint an agent, often in the presence of witnesses, to represent him and carry out the instructions of the sender on his behalf. Legally the agent was like the sender. What the agent did was considered as though the sender himself had done it. This could be good or not so good. An agent who bungled his mission brought shame on the one who sent him.
This principle is articulated in the Mishnah in the context of a person who is appointed by the congregation to lead the public prayers on their behalf.
Mishnah Berakhot 5:5 One who is praying, and makes a mistake, it is a bad omen for him; and if he was a delegate (shaliach) of the congregation, it is a bad omen for the congregation, because a person’s agent is like himself.
An agent is called a shaliach, which is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew word shaluach used in the Tenakh. Both derive from the verb shalach, to send. This mishnah cites the dictum that was commonly known in Jewish law, “a person’s agent is like himself”.
Anyone could appoint an agent to conduct his affairs, as we see in the case of a marriage proposal.
Mishnah Kiddushin 2:1 A man may betroth by himself and through an agent, and a woman may become betrothed by herself and through an agent …
The agent must carry out the sender’s instructions precisely, or else the transaction he performs is not legally binding.
2:4 One who says to his agent, “Go out and betroth on my behalf a certain woman in a certain place,” and he went and betrothed her in another place, she is not betrothed.
It could happen that an agent would betray his sender for his own benefit.
3:1 One who says to his fellow, “Go and betroth to me a certain woman,” and he went and betrothed her for himself, she is betrothed to the second one.
This agent proposed marriage to the woman designated by the sender, but he proposed that she marry himself rather than the sender. This voids the agency, and the betrothal holds, but she is engaged to the agent who proposed to her, and not to the original sender.
Whether the commission was for the purpose of buying or selling, marriage or divorce, or any kind of business, dealing with the agent was legally exactly like dealing with the one who sent him.
Agents and Apostles
In the Gospels and other Apostolic Scriptures (NT), the sending of agents is fairly common. When Yeshua prepared to enter Jerusalem, he sent two disciples to get the donkey he was to ride on (Luke 19:29ff). Likewise, in Luke 22:8, “Yeshua sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover meal for us …’”. In both cases, the disciples/agents had only to say, “The Lord needs these things,” and his instructions were carried out willingly, because the agents were acting in his name, that is, on his behalf.
Yeshua tells many parables that include the sending of servants to conduct business. Matt. 21:33‑41 tells of the land-owner who leased his vineyard to tenants. “When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce” (v. 34), but they beat the servants and tried to keep the fruit for themselves. This was a personal affront to the owner, who came and dealt with the crooked tenants accordingly.
The more formal use of the word and concept of agency in the Gospels is in the context of Yeshua sending his disciples on missions. Matthew 10, and the parallels in the other Gospels, relates the model on which “apostleship” is based.
Matthew 10:1 Then Yeshua summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness … 5 These twelve Yeshua sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.
Yeshua took his twelve hand-picked disciples, gave them authority to do the job, gave them instructions what to do and what not to do, and then sent them out. They became his representatives wherever they went. They did what he was doing, preached what he preached. And they should expect to be treated the same way people treated him—sometimes well, and sometimes not so well. 10:40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Because Yeshua was sent by G‑d, the disciples were not only representing Yeshua, but G‑d himself.
This mission, and others like it in the Gospels, served as training for the disciples, to prepare them for the greater missions ahead. They had to learn the gravity of the tasks entrusted to them, and how to wield the authority they were given. As we see after a similar mission (Luke 10:17), “the seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’”
Doing something “in Yeshua’s name” is a part of the concept of agency. An agent acts in the name of the one who sent him. He is acting as his representative, on his authority. The agent must take care that he acts in a way that honors the sender, that does the will of the sender, and that does not overstep the authority given by the sender. It is a serious responsibility. When we say or do something “in Yeshua’s name”, we must carefully ask ourselves the popular question, “What would Jesus do?” We are claiming to act as his representatives. We do not send ourselves. We are not given his name in order to throw it around for our own purposes. We must be faithful agents.
At the end of his work on the earth, Yeshua sent out his disciples on what is known as the “Great Commission”. The passage is full of the language of agency—authority, G‑d’s name, sending, and his instructions for the mission.
Matthew 28:18 And Yeshua came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
In another place he adds:
John 20:21 “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
This is the basis for apostleship in the New Testament. The role is virtually the same as that of the prophets in the Tenakh.
After Yeshua’s ascension, the apostles understood that there needed to be a replacement for Judas, who had betrayed Yeshua, in order to round out the number of apostles to twelve, as Yeshua had originally intended. Peter set out the requirements:
Acts 1:21 “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Yeshua went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us– one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”
There is a uniqueness to the twelve apostles, because all of them had been witnesses of the words and deeds of Yeshua, and of his resurrection. Paul called himself “the last of the apostles”, partly because he also had met the risen Yeshua on the road to Damascus. After him, there were no more eyewitnesses of the resurrection.
There were others called “apostles” in Paul’s letters, but the meaning there is more like the simple meaning of any agent or messenger. They are sent out by the congregations, or by leaders or other individuals in the congregations. They are not, however, Apostles in the sense of the twelve or Paul.
2 Corinthians 8:23 As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker in your service; as for our brothers, they are messengers (apostoloi) of the congregations, the glory of Messiah.
Philippians 2:25 Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus– my brother and co‑worker and fellow soldier, your messenger (apostolos) and minister to my need…
Throughout the New Testament we find the full range of meanings of agency, from the simple sending of a messenger on an errand, to formal commissioning of messengers from congregations, to the missions of the disciples sent out by Yeshua, to the ministry of the twelve Apostles, and Paul. Now there is one more use of the word that is often overlooked.
Yeshua—the One Whom G-d Has Sent
There are many, perhaps dozens, of names and titles of Yeshua in the Scriptures. One obscure one is found in the Letter to the Hebrew. Perhaps this one does not receive much attention in sermons or prayers or worship services, but once we see it pointed out, the role is clear. Yeshua is called the “apostle of our confession”.
Hebrews 3:1 Therefore, brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, consider that Yeshua, the apostle and high priest of our confession, 2 was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also “was faithful in all G‑d’s house.”
We might not be used to thinking of Yeshua as an apostle, but actually this title is appropriate, as is abundantly clear in the Gospel of John. John never actually calls Yeshua an apostle, but he uses the verb “sent” about 50 times in the 21 chapters of his Gospel to refer to Yeshua as the one whom G‑d has sent. Yeshua speaks of himself many times as the agent of G‑d, bound to do the will of the one who sent him.
John 5:30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
As we have seen, the way people receive and treat the Son sent by G‑d is directly connected to the way they honor G‑d himself, or fail to do so.
5:23 … so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.
Yeshua is the agent, or representative, of G‑d, authorized to do G‑d’s work in the world. Dealing with him is as if one is dealing with G‑d himself. This is one way that we could understand the theologically difficult sayings of Yeshua such as (John 14:9) “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” and (John 10:30) “The Father and I are one.”
Yeshua is G‑d’s agent in the highest sense in which the halakhic concept is used in the Bible.
We have seen how the simple act of sending creates a moral and legal bond between the sender and the one sent. The sent one must act according to the instructions of the sender, and on his legal authority. Doing otherwise results in failure to accomplish the mission, and can bring shame or insult on the sender. Over the centuries of history, “agency” became a legal construct with formal legal consequences.
It is easy to overlook the legal aspect of sending because the act is so common in our lives, as when we put a postage stamp on a letter and mail it, or send a child to the store to pick up groceries. But when we pay attention to the details of many biblical stories, we find the role of agent filled by servants and sons, common people and members of royal courts, prophets and apostles, and even by Yeshua himself. And all of this needs to govern the way we act when we understand ourselves to be sent by G‑d or by his people, and when we pray and act “in his name”. It is a sacred trust.