Was Jesus the Messiah for the Whole World?

Jesus’ Ministry was Only for the Jewish people

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

Christians, especially Catholic (the name means universal) Christians, believe wholeheartedly that Jesus was sent to the world (John 3:16). They are correct insofar that later Christians after the departure of Jesus thought that Jesus was a messenger, a saviour for the entire world and not limited only to the children of Israel. This however is starkly at odds with the historical documentary evidence that we have of Jesus’ actual ministry. From the earliest strata of information, scholars have carefully gleaned that Jesus preached solely to the Jewish community and did not intend to promulgate a universal or Catholic Church (ekklessia) with a global network of believers. His message was exclusively for the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” and had absolutely nothing to do with the ‘goyim’ (Gentiles) and these were the fundamental parameters of religion upon which the primitive church or Urgemeinde operated.

The truth of the matter is recorded by Matthew in chapter 10 in spite of a contradictory instruction attributed to Jesus much later in the gospel (Matthew 28:19), which many scholars dismiss as ahistorical or a later historical development. In chapter 10 of Matthew we read a clear cut instruction from the lips of Jesus concerning the limits of his earthly ministry:

“These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6; King James Version)

Jesus could not have been more unequivocal in his command to the 12 apostles who were his only disciples that they should only deliver the message of Jesus’ ministry to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (ta probata ta apololota oikou ‘Israel).

Commenting on the verse, Rev. Dr. Alexander J. Grieve, who was Principal and Professor of Systematic Theology in the Scottish Congregational Theological Hall, Edinburgh, writes:

X. 5-42. The Charge to the Twelve. — The section forms the second of five passages into which Mt. collected the sayings of Jesus. The Markan account (6:7-11) is followed by Lk. 91-5, but Lk. 10:2-6 (the Seventy) is from Q; Mt. 10:5-16 combines the two sources. The mission is limited to Jews, hardly, in view of 6, 23, to the Jews of Galilee. Lk. 10 omits the limitation; he wrote mainly for Gentiles. Indeed, when Mt. wrote, the limitation was obsolete. Yet it shows that Jesus came to realise the Jewish hope, and though Gentiles are not wholly barred from the Kingdom (8:11f), the enter only as an appendage. Not yet is humanity welcome without distinction.” [1]

It is noteworthy that the reference given regarding the concessionary or provincial acceptance of Gentiles into the fold, i.e., Matthew 8:11 is not exactly clear. The verse speaks of “polloi apo anatolon kai dysmon hexousin” (many from the east and the west shall come) which may well refer to Jews from the east and the west, and not the whole human race, gentiles of any nation. Grieve does not make a reference to Matthew 28:19 (Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost) for his point on the peripheral acceptance of Gentiles because like many other biblical scholars, he too sees this global dispensation as a later ecclesiastical development introduced by those that had no connection to the historical ministry of Jesus. Commenting on Matthew 28:19, Grieve writes:

“19 reflects the change in that mission brought about by the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, who had regarded His work as confined to Israel. The Church of the first days did not observe this world-wide command, even if they knew it. The command to baptize into the threefold name is a late doctrinal expansion. “ [2] *

Almost one hundred years later, the scholarly consensus that Jesus’ ministry was directed only to the Jews is retained. This is strongly reflected in ‘The People’s New Testament Commentary’. Emeritus Professor of New Testament in the Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University, Dr. M. Eugene Boring and Bandy Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament Emeritus in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Dr. Fred. B. Craddock comment:

10:5b-6 Go nowhere among the Gentiles: The disciples are sent to Israel, all Israel, and only to Israel. The Greek genitive expression lost sheep of the house of Israel does not designate only a part of Israel, but is an apositive genitive that identifies “lost sheep” with Israel as such. Historically, the mission of the earthly Jesus was limited to Israel (see Rom. 15:8).” [3]

Driving the point home, former Senior Lecturer at Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion and currently Visiting Fellow at St. John’s College, Durham University, Dr. William R. Telford writes in his excellent introduction to the New Testament:

“Where ecclesiology is concerned, we can say that it is unlikely that the historical Jesus ever intended to found a ‘church’ as such. The church as an institution was a later development. Jesus instead called, or selected, a body of twelve disciples, who were perhaps representative of the twelve tribes of Israel.They were thus the symbolic or representative community of the new age. His mission, and theirs, was confined to the Jewish nation. His message, and theirs, was to announce God’s coming kingdom, and to urge and exhort their fellow Jews to prepare for it. Before they went the length and breadth of Israel, the kingdom, and the Son of Man (its inaugurator), would come (cf. Mt. 10:5ff., and esp. v. 23). This message was rejected by the Jews, however, and Jesus was crucified as a Messianic pretender. Nevertheless, the primitive community continued to see itself as the ‘true’ Israel. Like the Qumran sectarians, they awaited their Messiah, in this case the returning Jesus as the Son of Man (cf. Mt. 24:24-31). As a community they may be described, therefore, as a Jewish apocalyptic sect (or in contemporary terms, a millenarian movement), and indeed, given the reaction of their fellow Jews to their eschatological message, as a despised and persecuted apocalyptic sect.” [4]

In the above, Telford positively affirms that the parameters of Jesus’ ministry was limited to the people of Israel, the Jewish community. And all others of the Gentile nations were not to be included. The disciples hearkened this worldview and delivered Jesus’ teachings only to the children of Israel or the so called “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. And this exclusivist movement was continued by the disciples and the primitive church even after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus and they awaited Jesus’ return and kept his teachings within the Jewish community.

 

Addendum:

Matthew 10:5 which unequivocally sets the boundaries of Jesus’ earthly ministry is matched only by the emphatic declaration by Jesus himself regarding his dispensation in Matthew 15:24.

“But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24; King James Version)

This verse is perhaps even more clearer if it is understood in its context. The story goes that a Canaanite woman, which Mark 7:26 interestingly identifies as ‘Ellenis syrophoinikissa to genei’ (a Greek, of the Syrophoenician race), approached Jesus begging him to help her daughter who is possessed by a demon crying to him, “eleeson me, kyrie uios Dauid” (have mercy on me, lord son of David). The following verse (v. 23) notes that Jesus simply ignores her begging and even his disciples who were with him “erotoun” (implored) their master to help her, but he firmly tells his disciples to “apolyson auten” (dismiss her). He then says the memorable words above, “ouk apestalen ei me eis ta probata ta apololota oikou ‘Israel.” (I was not sent but to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.) But this woman is persistent and refuses to leave. She “prosekynei” (literally means licking the hands of its master as a dog, but figuratively means bowing or prostrating to another out of respect) before Jesus and says, “Kyrie, boethei moi.” (Lord, help me.) Jesus still refuses to render any assistance to this poor Gentile woman and dismisses her rather roughly as one of the “kynariois” (dogs), i.e., “It is not right to take the bread of the children and cast it to the dogs.” In other words, “the children” here refers to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and “bread” here would be God’s blessings upon them that are not to be shared with the Gentiles who are akin to dogs. One would think that the woman would relent after such a remarkably cold treatment, but she does not. She shamelessly accepts the label of a dog and says, “Nai, kyirie; kai gar ta kynaria esthei apo ton psichion ton piptonton apo tes trapezes ton kyrion auton.” (Yes, Lord; even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.) In her reply, she solemnly accepts the canine identification of Gentiles and that the children of Israel are their masters. And perhaps once she has lowered herself to that very level, of a slave or a servant, a dog unto the children of Israel, Jesus in this episode is moved by her spirit (v. 28) and gives her the “crumbs” that she so desired and her daughter gets healed.

In this pericope, it becomes very clear that Jesus’ strict exclusivism is an inescapable historical datum. Jesus illustrates to his disciple in this episode how important it is to keep to the Jewish community and to preach only to them and that God’s blessings that He has given to them through Jesus is not to be so freely shared with outsiders. The woman only receives a small fraction of the actual “bread” because she exhibits genuine spiritual awakening that puts her in her place: that of an inferior to the children of Israel. Gentiles are dogs as they do not belong to the family and as such may not be deemed as one of the members of Jesus’ ministry. Commenting on the episode, Grieve writes:

XV. 21-28. The Healing of the Greek Woman’s Daughter (Mk. 7;24-30*). — Lk. may have thought the story unacceptable to his Gentile readers. Mt. adds the saying, “I was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He makes the woman come out of the heathen territory, for Jesus could hardly go thither, much less work a miracle, after the prohibition to the disciples in 10:5. 23f. suggests that He desired, out of compassion, to overstep His Divinely imposed limit, but that He must abide within. There is a struggle in His mind. Perhaps 26 is more accurate than Mk. 6:27, which implies that Gentiles shall be fed by-and-by.” [5]

First, it should be noted that Mark 6:27 in the quotation given as a reference is a mistake. Obviously, this is a slip of the mind and the good scholar actually meant to reference Mark 7:27 which parallels Matthew 15:26 that he refers to. Secondly, according to Grieve Matthew adds verse 24 to the episode as it is absent in Mark. But it is quite possible that this is originally in Q rather than Mark (Mark and Q [Quelle meaning source] are the two common sources for Matthew and Luke in the two-source hypothesis to which most scholars concede), but it is omitted by Luke because as Grieve testifies, “Luke may have thought the story unacceptable to his Gentile readers.” Should this be true and that may well be the case, since Matthew 10:5-6 clearly solidifies the idea and uses the same expression “ta probata ta apololota oikou ‘Israel” (the lost sheep of the House of Israel) as Matthew 15:24, then 15:24 is most probably not an editorial note by Matthew but is the words of Jesus indicating the restriction imposed upon his ministry. Grieve states that Jesus was not able to tag along with her into the Gentile areas because of the clear prohibition that he himself had given to his disciples earlier in Matthew 10:5, but despite that, he was moved by the woman’s persistence and acceptance of her role as a dog unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel and so he somewhat sidestepped the “Divinely imposed limit” and allowed her a peek into the kingdom. The “crumbs” that she was afforded through the little peek was all that Jesus was prepared to offer the Gentile, otherwise, his actual ministry is not for her or any of the other Gentiles. He was to “abide within” the “Divinely imposed limit”.

 

Notes:

[1] Grieve, A. J. (1920). Matthew. In Arthur S. Peaker & Alexander J. Grieve (Eds.), A Commentary on the Bible. London: T. C. & E. C. Jack, Ltd. p. 709

[2] Ibid. p. 723

* For a more detailed discussion on Matthew 28:19 you may proceed to my article that specifically deals with the verse at http://unveiling-christianity.net/2008/12/30/matthew-2819/

[3] Boring, M. E. & Craddock, F. B. (2010). The People’s New Testament Commentary. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 46

[4] Telford, W. R. (2014). The New Testament: A Beginner’s Guide. London: Oneworld Publications. p. 59

[5] Grieve, A. J. Op. Cit. p. 714

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2 Responses to “Was Jesus the Messiah for the Whole World?”

  1. john says:

    salaam

    what is your reply to the apologists who say “he was testing her faith” ?

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      Wa’alaikum salam
      Testing her faith or otherwise, what is clear is that the episode together with the evidently stark absence of Jesus’ preaching to anyone except those of the “lost sheep of the House of Israel,” prove that his ministry was not targeted for those beyond the people of Israel.

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