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In Matthew 10:40-42, Jesus identifies himself with his disciples and lays some expectations for how he expects them to be treated. I'm curious, though, about the the significance of his "cup of cold water." What is the significance of this act? I'm looking for a socio-historical (or perhaps grammatical/linguistic) information.

Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

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2 Answers 2

I have this to add to Mike's fine answer. In context, Jesus is talking prophetically about the persecution his disciples can expect to encounter in the near future. He addresses as well the necessity for his disciples to die to themselves in their service of their master, Jesus, as He sends the twelve out on a preaching mission.

Then Jesus gives His disciples some practical advice concerning their reception by the people to whom they are being sent; namely, the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As commentators have suggested, there is a descending climax in Jesus' words. At the very head of the list is the Father; next is the Son; followed by a prophet; then comes a righteous man; and last but not least a little one.

I suggest the phrase "one of these little ones" refers to all those disciples of Jesus who by dying to themselves find themselves serving others. Each act of service, Jesus assures the twelve, is unto God and has its reward. Just as Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Ma 20:28; Mk 10:45), so too are His disciple to serve and even to endure persecution on His account.

In the sense of serving, then, we all are servants of the most High God and Father: whether Jesus (but only for a time!), or a disciple, or a prophet, or a righteous man, or even a little one. All of God's servants will be rewarded, even a person who in the name of a disciple gives a drink of cold water to one of God's "little ones" (i.e., His servants)--a cup of cold water being the smallest act of courtesy possible, especially when it is given with a smile (rhetorician's translation!).

In conclusion, the "hierarchy" in God's kingdom turns the normal human hierarchy in society upside down, except for the king. Under the King in the kingdom of heaven, however, come not viceroys and presidents and governors and mayors and advisors and lesser bureaucrats, but "little ones" who recognize their littleness before the King, who gladly take their place as mere servants of their King and who distinguish themselves through acts of service to others and thus to God, the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (He 11:6).

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Short answer. I think the significance is to be understood in the often hot climate of the region as well as the low amount of technology in that society. As it was hot and people had to use water wells to obtain fresh water, giving a cup of water to someone would have been a very common thing. It would be like holding open the elevator for someone today. In other words it is a sample of the smallest act of charity commonly practiced at the time.

The only reference I could dig up is the social atmosphere at 'watering place' where 'singers' would congregate:

“You who ride on white donkeys, sitting on your saddle blankets, and you who walk along the road, consider  the voice of the singers at the watering places. They recite the victories of the LORD, the victories of his villagers in Israel. (NIV, Judges 5:10-11)

Jesus also speaking to a women at a well shows that it was a social place where people might pass common courtesies to each other by sharing a cup.

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