Ever notice the dissonance?

The early Christians saw their mission as global in scope, but during his earthly ministry, Jesus explicitly declared his mission to be focused only on Israel (Matt 15:24).

When traced backwards, the flow of universal mission of the early church runs into the rocks of Jesus’ striking particularity. What gives?

Here’s my brief attempt at giving an answer.

Jesus the Nationalist

The Gospels reveal a Jesus focused on Israel. In fact, his ministry appears to be focused so relentlessly on the Jewish people that many scholars have debated whether Jesus was concerned with outsiders at all. When taking into consideration the nations-focused mission of the early church as directed by the risen Jesus that was so prominent in Christian thinking, it is striking to discover that this global impulse appears to be absent from Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Furthermore, the Gospels record Jesus as being up front about his nationalistic intentions. He claimed that his mission was only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24), a statement made upon his initial refusal of a Gentile woman who asked for healing for her daughter.

It is interesting to note the parallel between the global vision of the risen Jesus as manifested in the actions of the early church and the nationalistic vision of Jesus’ earthly ministry as manifested in the disciples’ avoidance of Gentile towns in favor of “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6, 23).

Other statements reinforce Jewish priority during the ministry of Jesus, including his decision to choose twelve disciples (corresponding, most likely, to the twelve tribes of Israel) and the fact that the “God of Israel” received the glory when Jesus did engage in brief ministry in Gentile territory (Matt 15:31).

The Wrong Answer

Because of the apparent discrepancy between Jesus’ ministry focus and that of the early church, some scholars assume the evangelists had ulterior motives in the way they portrayed Jesus’ interactions with others.

For example, the Jesus Seminar chooses to pit Mark’s intentions against those of Matthew, postulating that Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing of a Gentile woman’s daughter is meant to justify the church’s Gentile mission, whereas Matthew’s account is “an effort to reinstate a narrower scope for Jesus’ activity.” While it is undeniable that each evangelist chose particular emphases in shaping the Jesus stories, this kind of speculation is wrongheaded. After all, both accounts show Jesus answering the request, and both Gospels also include an emphasis on global mission. (We could make the case that Matthew envisions the Gentile mission even more clearly than Mark does.)

Regardless of how one interprets the evangelists’ different accounts of the same event, it is clear that Jesus’ focus was on reforming Israel, not bringing his kingdom message to the rest of the world. His focus on Israel can be seen in his prophecies and pronouncements of judgment on the nation. Through symbolic, prophetic actions like cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25; Matt 21:18-22) and cleansing the temple (Mark 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-16), as well as strong prophetic denunciations (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21, 13:6-9), Jesus made his particular focus on Israel clear.

Christ’s Mission to Israel for the World

The messianic identity of Jesus, formed and shaped by the Old Testament promises and the Jewish prophets, leads in a direction that simultaneously complicates and resolves the issue. Instead of seeing Jesus’ messianic mindset in terms of either or, one ought to see his mission as to Israel on behalf of the nations. In other words, in narrowing his focus to Israel, Jesus does the work necessary for the entire world to be blessed.

If Jesus saw himself as Israel’s Messiah, the one who will constitute a new Israel, and if he purposefully acted in ways that fulfill the role of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah and the vocation of Israel as the light of the world, then it is no surprise that he would focus his ministry squarely on his Jewish contemporaries.

Jesus’ ministry was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel precisely, because he is the good shepherd come to gather the renewed Israel around himself and to launch their trajectory into the world with the healing grace God always intended to flow through his chosen people. Jesus ministered to the Jews for the Gentiles.

Therefore, we should say the mission of Jesus is first to Israel (through his own ministry) and then to the Gentiles (through the actions of his apostles), but this trajectory should not be reduced merely to salvation-historical terms. Instead, the mission of Jesus to the Gentiles (through his apostles) should be seen as contingent upon the success of his mission to the Jews.

Mission to the nations depends upon Jesus’ accomplishment of his mission to Israel. The particularity of Jesus’ earthly ministry serves the universality of God’s ultimate vision for the world.

Conclusion

Creating too strong a dichotomy between Jesus’ mission to the Jews and the church’s mission to the Gentiles is unhelpful. As the long-awaited Messiah who fulfills Israel’s vocation, Jesus accomplishes the mission of Israel through his own life and work, thereby bringing the blessing of Abraham to the nations, as was promised in the Old Testament.

The mission to the Gentiles was not at the expense of mission to Israel, nor was it merely an extension. Instead, Israel was to be the catalyst through which God would accomplish his promises to the world.

Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel in order that through his regathering and reconstituting the true Israel, the blessing of salvation would be released to flow from Israel and into all the world, just as God promised in the Old Testament.

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30 thoughts on “Why Did Jesus Say He Came Only for Israel?”

  1. Tim says:

    Thanks, Trevin. I’m reading through N. T. Wright’s “How God Became King” right now, and this theme of Christ, as Israel’s Messiah, ushering in the Abrahamic promise of blessing to all nations is really recalibrating up my biblical-theological categories, in a good way! Suddenly, texts like Gal. 3:14 become so much richer when viewed in this light.

  2. I remember reading through Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God and truly thinking this through for the first time. Of course it opened up a lot of Paul as well. Great little summary of the Jesus as Israel for the Gentiles point. Super helpful.

  3. Let’s not assume that when Jesus says He’s come to the lost sheep of Israel that by “Israel” He means literally Israelites. But that story ends with Jesus giving the woman what she asked for thus showing that in the end He considered her part of “Israel”.

    So, I reject the premise that by “Israel” Jesus ever meant that His ministry was confined to the nation.

  4. Clark says:

    I like this answer, but I would add that Jesus left a few hints that his mission, although primarily for Israel, would eventually expand to all nations (for example John 10:16) he was “amazed” by the faith of some Gentiles, including the Syrophonecian and the centurion. Also, the prophesied rejection by Isreal had to occur before the door to the Gentiles was opened. His death and resurrection had to occur to tear the veil between God and Jew, and destroy the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. (Gal 3:28-29)

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      You’re right, Clark. And there are also hints in Jesus’ parables – particularly his later ones.

  5. Lucas Dawn says:

    While in Mt. 10 Jesus sends his disciples only to Israel, and while in Mt. 15:24 he says he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, he does end up healing the Gentile daughter in the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. And this is not the first time: at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus’ fame as a healer spread quickly to Syria, and they brought him “all the sick, those with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them” (Mt. 4:24). Then 4:25 says great crowds followed him, including those from the Decapolis and from beyond the Jordan. Already, in 4:15 Matthew says Jesus’ living in Capernaum fulfills Isa. 9:1-2, about being in “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
    Various other passages in Matthew also have Jesus healing or ministering to Gentiles (e.g., healing the centurion’s servant in 8:5f., after he entered Capernaum, and contrasting the Gentile’s faith with that of Israel, a contrast found later also in 15:28 – “great is your faith!”). So Jesus is from the beginning an “internationalist,” the new king who welcomes outcasts (of the kingdom of Israel) and inaugurates a new kingdom that welcomes Gentiles as well as Jews.

  6. anaquaduck says:

    The parable of the good Samaritan among other things demonstrates Jesus scope, also the “other sheep” of a different pen in Jn 10.

    If we go to Revelation then the idea becomes not just the twelve tribes of Israel but many nations…the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Isaiah speaks of it also.

    I dont know much about the “harmony of the gospels” but I am assured they are trust worthy.

  7. Steve says:

    great post. informative and concise – reminding us not to create false dichotomies in the life of Christ. Keep up the good work.

  8. anaquaduck says:

    Regarding some Bible critics…CMI had an article on one of its pages yesterday which made a good point to me.

    Choosing to give different details isn’t a contradiction, assuming the details don’t make the stories mutually exclusive

  9. John Dunn says:

    Tracing Jesus’ ministry backwards shows IMO that Israel was a federal representative of the nations under the Law . . . an Adamic rebel whose covenantal failure under the Law needed to be fulfilled and atoned for by Messiah, so that the blessing of salvation would flow to the nations, apart from the Law, through grace alone.

  10. Bryant says:

    Why didn’t this article mention that maybe the point of this passage was not simply to show that “What’s good for Israel is good for Gentiles” but that that gentile woman was one of the lost sheep of Israel because her faith was great?

  11. John says:

    Trevin, I would like to suggest a different interpretation (sorry for the length). To say that Jesus relentlessly focused only on Jewish people loses sight of so much that Jesus did and misses a huge theme in the Gospels. Jesus’ ministry was extended to Gentiles to a surprising degree. We see this right from the beginning of Jesus’ mission (Matt 5:23-25). Much of his ministry took place in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt 4:15). Jesus commended the faith of the Roman centurion (Matt 8:10) and the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:28). Jesus intentionally went out of his way to minister to the Samaritan woman and village (John 4:3-4) and to Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:21). Jesus clearly envisioned the future worldwide scope of the gospel advance (Matt 8:11, 24:14, 25:32, Mark 14:9, Luke 24:47, John 10:16). In fact, when Jesus spoke about going away, his opponents assumed that he would go and teach the Greeks (John 7:35).

    The two apparent exceptions are Matt 15:24 and Matt 10:16. The missionary statesman, Don Richardson, has shed much light on the Matt 15 passage. If you skim the surface of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman, it would appear that Jesus ignores her, dismisses her, and is rude to her (“dogs”), actions which do not seem consistent with Jesus’ character. Here is where the preceding context is so important. In Matt 15:1-20, Jesus has just been teaching his disciples about the importance of inner purity over outer, ritual purity. Jesus then specifically goes to a Gentile region and “coincidentally” runs into a Canaanite woman, all for the purpose of testing to see if his disciples have understood his point. At first, Jesus says nothing, in order to give his disciples room to respond, which they derisively do. Jesus then plays along with the preconceptions of his disciples to reinforce their judgments (“Israel” and “dogs”). But then, when the Canaanite woman responds with great faith (which Jesus knew she would do), he shocks his disciples by commending her faith. The real-life example reinforced the message that Jesus had just taught the disciples in a way that they would not soon forget.

    With Matt 10:16, Jesus tells his disciples not to go to the Gentiles because of their own weakness, which continued up into the early part of Acts. But even then, Jesus would have his disciples “dragged before governors and kings. . . to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matt 10:18). What the disciples would not willingly do, Jesus would accomplish through other means.

    Now the gospel does not seem to go forward in full force until after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but this was not only true for Gentiles but for Jews as well. After Jesus ascension, the number of his followers was quite small (Acts 1:15). But after Jesus’ resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, the gospel would spread with new power and breadth, to the Jews (Acts 2:41) and, eventually, to the Gentiles.

    1. Charity says:

      Many people making comments are trying really hard to convince themselves that Jesus did not really mean what He said. …”But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came to Him and kept asking Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is shouting out after us.’ But He answered and said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’…..(This did not say Israel as a region, but the lost sheep of THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL….this does NOT mean Gentiles.)…”But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’ And He answered and said, ‘IT IS NOT GOOD TO TAKE CHILDREN’S BREAD AND THROW IT TO THE DOGS.’ But she said, ‘Yes, Lord; but even dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered and said to her, ‘O woman, your faith is great; be it done for you as you wish.’ ” I can understand why Gentile Christians would have a problem acknowledging some of the issues that present themselves in this passage. I accept Trevin’s explanation as valid….he did not try to deny that Jesus meant what he said. To those who are desperately trying to change the meaning: If possible, look at this issue objectively, search the scripture to try an prove your theory wrong and see what you come up with. You are missing at least one important point regarding how His disciples behaved toward Gentiles after many years of following Jesus’ example and after His ascension into heaven, even after the “Great Commission”. Peter had to be commanded by God in a dream to go to a Gentile’s home. Otherwise he was terrified and mortified to do such a thing. Too many times Christians are trying to put Jesus in the box they need Him to fit in, instead of really seeking out who He was and what He stood for, even when some facts are difficult to reconcile. I appreciate it when I see a Christian willing to address such uncomfortable topics without trying to change Jesus’ words. Trevin’s explanation seems to be one we should be able to accept. I think one of the goal’s of Christianity is to know Him, and we can’t know Him if we are more intent on making Him fit into individual or Church doctrine than facing the facts.

      1. David says:

        Hi Charity, Jesus told Peter that the revelation that the Father gave him that He (Jesus) is the Messiah is the truth that Jesus would build His Church on. If you really want to know who the bible says Jesus is; look up all the Messianic prophecies. Remember Jesus said He did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill [the messianic prophecies].

  12. Mark Mc says:

    Hugely helpful article for me.

    I teach a high school Bible class and was asked about this out of Romans 11 this afternoon.

    Thanks!

  13. Well, I am in agreement with the stance that Jesus knew what the Father had sent Him to do. I feel that Jesus had the church that He had come to set up in mind when speaking about Isreal in the context of this article. Before He ascended, He provided the command He wished to be carried out. There is no doubt in my mind about who the new Isreal is, Jews and Gentiles in the Body of Christ–the church.
    http://www.21stcenturuconfusion.com
    http://www.zachmalott.com

  14. Eric Chabot says:

    Nice to see someone who finally gets it. You nailed it!

  15. Mark G says:

    Christ’s ministry includes his birth, death, resurrection and sending of the HS at Pentecost. It was Jesus himself who appointed and sent Paul. It was Jesus himself who told his disciples that his leaving them was for their benefit. He was raised incorruptable and in power and has been given all rule and authority.

  16. Mike Bird says:

    Trevin,
    Mate, I wrote my Ph.D thesis on this topic. It was published as “Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission.” In short, I agree with you, Jesus went to Israel because it was always God’s plan that a transformed Israel would transform the world.

    1. David says:

      Hi Mike, have you ever wondered why the English translators discided to use “Gentile” the Latin translation of the Greek word “ethnos” instead of the English equivalent “nation”. Could it have been because they needed the bible to represent a group of people that didn’t exists, a group of people that didn’t need to keep the covenants that God made with Israel ( and all that would join with them)? The answer is yes and this group of people are called “Gentiles”. When you read the NT change the word Gentile to nations, it changes the meaning. God told us to be careful not to add or take away from His Word.

      The real problem is that Chistianity is based on the doctrines created by the Catholic Church in the 4th century, and the Catholic Church claims authority over God’s Word and have added and taken away from it.

  17. Israel was chosen through Abraham for global salvation and mission to nations, i.e., gentiles. Israel having failed in its set goal by God, Jesus had to focus on Israel first to make Israel understand Jesus is Christ for gentiles too. Was the manger belonged to a gentile? Bethlehem belonged to Jews? Yes, Jesus is for both.

  18. Excellent, excellent post. The only thing that would probably change if I had written it would be the difference in writing styles peculiar to each author. The meaning and context would remain the same. Good Job and good witness!

    ~Zach

  19. David says:

    The difficulty in understanding this statement is in the definition of who The lost sheep are. The doctrine that creates the confusion is that all 12 tribes are represented by the Jews. This is not true. Jesus said He was sent…. We naturally conclude that God sent Him to the lost sheep, but the Jews were not lost, and God didn’t make a mistake. Instead of trying to make this statement fit our theology, let’s take it at face value and understand what the scriptures say about it. This title “lost sheep”, scripturally refers to the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom who were scattered among the nation. These lost sheep are not Jews and have lost their identity, meaning the have forgotten God’s ways and that they are His people. So who are they today? They are the people that Jesus was sent to. The people that accepted Him. They are us. God doesn’t make mistakes. Believers in the Messiah are the lost sheep and these people, us, are physical descendants of Abraham……..Israelites.

  20. Celtblood says:

    Wow, the way so many evangelists manipulate the meaning of scripture to get what they want from it never ceases to amaze me. This is a classic example. Face it, Yeheshua (translates into Joshua, not “Jesus”) was a Jew, period. His ministry was intended as a movement within the Jewish religion, period. If the scriptures are even remotely accurate (and we will probably never know how accurate they are, since we don’t have a time machine), the “Jesus” character failed to fulfill the OT messianic prophecies. One must face the fact that, based upon the OT definition of messiah, “Jesus” did not meet the qualifications, nor did he meet the requirements in the deeds he supposedly performed, which is why the Jews do not recognise him as the messiah, and I would think they would know what they’re doing. This is why contemporary Christianity relies so heavily upon the words of Saul/Paul, who if we’re to believe NT scripture, basically invented a new faith from the teachings of a Jewish leader.

  21. IAMWHOIAM says:

    I completely agree Celtblood and well said. However, people arrive at the end to start when pertaining to religion and work back as a patch work trying to make the pieces congruent. The truth needs no crutch, yet here you have witnessed twenty (and there will be many more)”chrisitains” utilize semantics and playful linguistics as their crutch to prop up their preconceived notion as to how Jesus should be or what he meant. I do enjoy the language contortionists though. Each has it RIGHT and all figured out proving who right…..? ME!! LOL

  22. David says:

    Hi Celtblood, are you referring to the main article or some one’s comment? Why would you think Yeshua’s ministry was intended for the Jewish religion? Who do you think the “lost sheep of the house of Isreal” are? According to the Bible they are not the Jews. Which messianic prophecies did Yeshua fail to fulfill? About Paul; I wouldn’t blame him for Christianity, it was the Roman Catholic church that establishments the new testament books as part of the scriptures in order to create the Christian religion as we know it. They eliminated the Law of Yah in order to subjugate their own doctrines thereby creating a new, pagan religion.

  23. wilson says:

    Jesus was sent by God to save sinners, not the righteous. Judaism (Talmudism) is not a Religion, but a legal system; the Law (Torah, written by the Levites), based on a racial creed as Chosen to micromanage every aspect of human existence, with focus on depopulation of the goyim: a 3000 year mission of destruction. Beginning with the Levites–to the Pharisees– to the Talmud rabbis, to the Zionists, made themselves into G_d. “Hear O Israel, you are to cross the Jordan, enter in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than yourselves.”– Deuteronomy 9:1.

  24. Jeff says:

    Trevin, Jesus came to the lost sheep of Israel to write the last chapter of the historic enmity between God and humanity.

    Israel’s utter rejection of the Messiah was the final “brick in the wall” between God and man that God built, so that Jesus could tear it down and demonstrate who He is.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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