Many Christians assume, when an unbeliever is unreceptive to the Gospel, there comes a time to “shake the dust off your feet” and move on. This phrase is taken to mean: give up on that person, declare they are a lost cause, or move on to others who might be more receptive. Based on this assumption, I will occasionally be asked, “Here is my situation…At what point should I shake the dust off my feet?” But what if our assumption is wrong? What if we should not be shaking the dust off our feet? What if we are misunderstanding Jesus by taking his words out of context?
Understanding the Context
When it comes to understanding the phrase, “shake the dust off your feet” there are several things we need to understand. This idea is found in four verses of the Bible (Matthew 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5; Luke 10:11). And in all four of these verses, Jesus was sending his disciples out on what is called the “Limited Commission.” It is called this because it stands in contrast with the “Great Commission” (see Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:44-49).
In the Great Commission, Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim the Good News to all people, but the Limited Commission was limited only to Israelites (Matthew 10:5-6). This was a special mission to find out who in Israel was “worthy” to receive the King. The disciples were not to take any supplies with them, because Jewish hospitality (or lack thereof) would help determine the worthiness of a particular home or town. Jesus said:
“Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”Mark 6:10-11
The Limited Commission was never intended to be Jesus’ final instructions about spreading the Good News. It was a very specific part of his earthly ministry.
Understanding the Significance
Shaking the dust off their feet was not simply a way of saying, it’s time to move on. It was an official declaration or “testimony” that this family or town should be marked for judgment (Matthew 10:15). Outside of the Limited Commission, the only other example we have of shaking dust off of the feet is against Jewish communities who rejected Paul’s preaching (see Acts 13:51). In every case, it was an apostolic condemnation of the people living there because they refused to welcome the King’s ambassadors.
Have you ever walked through a forest and seen trees marked for removal? Someone was tasked with locating those trees and marking them to be cut down. This is similar to the task Jesus gave his disciples. If the disciples had to shake a town’s dust off their feet, Jesus said, “It will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (Luke 10:12).
Do we realize this is what we’re saying when we ask, “When should I shake the dust off my feet?” We are essentially asking, “When can I mark these people for condemnation?” Even if we had been tasked with doing that (which we haven’t), should we really be eager to do so?
Understanding the Big Picture
Jesus told a parable that can really help us understand what it means to shake the dust off your feet. Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast to which many were invited (Matthew 22:1-14). However, the invited guests “would not come” (vs. 3). When the master’s servants invited them to “come to the wedding feast” (vs. 4), they ignored, mistreated, and even killed the master’s servants (vs. 6).
The master in Jesus’ parable, “sent troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (vs. 7). Then the master said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find” (vs. 8). The servants went and found all kinds of people to fill the wedding hall with guests.
The Limited Commission, in which Jesus told the disciples to shake the dust off their feet, is equivalent to the first part of Jesus’ parable. Jesus’ servants took the wedding feast invitation to those who were first invited, the Jewish people. Only after their initial rejection could the invitation be taken to the whole world.
Paul wrote about this reality at length in the book of Romans. He said the Good News was for “the Jew first” (Romans 2:9-10). The nation of Israel collectively rejected the invitation Jesus offered; and “their rejection means the reconciliation of the world” (Romans 11:15). Because they rejected the invitation, and the dust of their cities was shaken from the feet of the apostles, the invitation could then be taken to the whole world.
Understanding the Application
As modern believers, we can be thankful for (and humbled by) the Limited Commission. We can be thankful the first-century Jewish world initially rejected the wedding feast invitation. Because of their rejection, space was made for all of us. Today, both Jews and Gentiles can accept the invitation to receive God’s kingdom and be “grafted” into Abraham’s family tree (Romans 11:11-24). In other words, the Limited Commission lead to the Great Commission.
Now that we are living in the era of the Great Commission, there is no instruction to shake the dust off of our feet. We are to “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that [God’s] house may be filled” (Luke 14:23). We are not to give up on whole families and whole towns, as the apostles were told to do in the Limited Commission. Now is the time to keep compelling, inviting, and pleading with people to come to the wedding feast.
Practically speaking, there may be a time when a particular person is not yet ready to accept the Gospel invitation. In such cases, it makes sense to try again later, try a different approach, or allow someone else to try. But there is a big difference between these approaches and shaking the dust off your feet. Shaking the dust off your feet is equivalent to condemning someone. This is why I don’t believe it is our place to shake the dust off our feet.
I love you and God loves you,