The widow of Zarephath, Naaman the Syrian, and the redemption of the world

Read time: 6 minutes

One of the ways the evangelical church is attempting to correct the traditional notion that salvation has to do with individuals going to heaven when they die is to affirm instead the idea of salvation as the redemption of creation. J. Richard Middleton’s book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, is an excellent contribution to the enterprise. But does the argument work? My sense is that the paradigm oversimplifies the biblical narrative, either by suppressing much of the political detail or by assimilating it into a universalised notion of redemption. Middleton’s discussion of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, I think, illustrates the problem.

Based largely on a reading of the “Nazareth manifesto” episode in Luke 4:16-30, Middleton argues that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God entailed the promise of “concrete, this-worldly deliverance and restoration” (258). The manifesto applies, in the first place, to Israel, and Middleton recognises this. But his statement of Jesus’ mission at this point has a wider perspective: it is to “proclaim in word and deed that God is at work restoring this fractured world—breaking the grip of evil, healing diseased bodies, bringing life out of death” (259).

When he describes the new age which Jesus is inaugurating, he speaks of God “restoring broken, fallen, needy human beings and reversing evil (every form of bondage, poverty, and blindness) so that the world (the kosmos, which God so loved, says John 3:16) might again manifest God’s true purposes from the beginning—purposes for shalom and blessing” (260).

What is the basis for this expansion of the scope of Jesus’ teaching? How does a manifesto for Israel become a manifesto for the world? How does Middleton justify injecting John 3:16 into a summary of Luke’s account of the events at Nazareth?

The exegetical argument rests entirely on Jesus’ response to those who expressed surprise that such “gracious words” should come from the mouth of Joseph’s son. He complains that people never take a home town prophet seriously, and then goes on to relate two pertinent Old Testament incidents:

But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian. (Lk. 4:25–27)

Middleton draws the conclusion from this that “Jesus clearly intends to have his listeners understand that the kingdom of God breaks down the opposition between Jew and gentile that had been hardening among many first-century Jews into an unbridgeable gulf” (265). Moreover, since the stories involve a poor woman and a powerful man, Jesus has effectively abolished all distinctions of ethnicity, gender and status. Even Naaman, who had to humble himself to obey Elisha, is to be included among the “poor”—the ʿănāwîm—who receive good news. So these two prophetic narratives are the “key to interpreting the Nazareth manifesto” (267).

I’m not persuaded.

1. For a start, it’s not much to go on. If this radical re-application of Isaiah’s prophecy was such an important part of Jesus’ programme, why is it confined to his home town of Nazareth? Simeon speaks of the “salvation” that will be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk. 2:29-32), but he means only that YHWH’s act in saving his people will reveal something about him to the nations (and, note, will bring glory to Israel). The good centurion is not saved, but his confidence in Jesus is contrasted with Israel’s lack of faith (Lk. 7:9). The good Samaritan is a righteous non-Jew. He is not saved; he serves to highlight the unrighteousness of the priest and the Levite (Lk. 10:36-37). Where else does Jesus challenge Israel to accept that the kingdom is open not only to tax collectors, prostitutes and “sinners” but to “total outsiders”?

2. When Luke tells the story of the sending out of the seventy-two, there is no express restriction of their mission to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” as in Matthew (cf. Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24). But Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem (Lk. 9:51), and the seventy-two are sent “into every town and place where he himself was to go” (Lk. 10:1; cf. 9:52). The coming near of the kingdom of God will mean judgment for those towns of Israel (such as Chorazin and Capernaum) that do not receive the messengers (10:10-15). This is clearly a mission to Israel.

3. Jesus tells the two stories in Luke 4:25-27 not to expand the scope of the kingdom message but to confront the faithlessness of the Jews in Nazareth. This is a very different controversy. Yes, Israel’s God may occasionally have sent a prophet to bless a foreigner, but Jesus makes no attempt to develop the principle systematically. The Sidonite widow, Naaman the Syrian, the centurion, and the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman all have the same prophetic function in the Synoptic Gospels: they are an embarrassment to faithless Israel. Notice that Jesus states “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” before the argument about Israel and prophets flares up.

4. The point that Jesus explicitly makes is that there were many widows and lepers in Israel but they were overlooked. The message to the Jews in Nazareth is that, in the coming eschatological crisis, they will have no grounds for complacency. It is a word of judgment much like that pronounced later against Chorazin and Capernaum (Lk. 10:13-15).

5. Arguably, the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 reinforces the boundary between Israel and the nations—though this is not something that Jesus brings out. On the one hand, Naaman resents the fact that he must wash in the Jordan: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” (2 Kgs. 5:12). On the other, Naaman takes two mule-loads of earth from Israel back with him to Syria, “for from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the LORD” (2 Kgs. 5:17). Symbolically, Naaman has become a proselyte or a sojourner.

6. It’s perhaps also worth noting that in Isaiah’s vision of Zion’s restoration, a clear distinction is maintained between foreigners who will come to tend Israel’s flocks, plough the fields, dress the vines, and the Jews who “will be called the priests of the Lord” (Is. 61:5-6). Middleton suggests that Jesus omits this aspect of the vision because he does not want to reinforce his audience’s “insider versus outsider” mentality (267). More likely, it is simply not relevant for the immediate controversy in Nazareth.

So I think we can agree with the first part of Middleton’s argument—that when Jesus proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God, he has in view a concrete, this-worldly transformation, rather than something of a more abstract, or spiritual, or heavenly nature. But I don’t see how we can make Jesus himself a prophet or agent of the sort of universal social transformation that Middleton appears to have in mind. What the narrative demands at this point is a clear and consistent focus on the historical existence of Israel. It is the concrete, this-worldly transformation of Israel that is at issue. We may now have good reasons to promote a much more holistic understanding of what it’s all about, but I remain of the view that we should not do so at the expense of the historical contingency and short-sightedeness of the New Testament texts.

We just read the centurion story a couple of nights ago for family devotions, and something that struck me was that the Jews told Jesus that he should help the centurion because the centurion was a friend to the Jews and had even built their synagogue. This event is told on the heels of Jesus sermon where he contrasts the fate of the faithful poor and oppressed with the faithless rich and powerful.

So, here we have a man who, if not rich, is certainly powerful and meets the definition of “oppressor” in terms of politics. And yet, he cares for the poor and the oppressed people of God and helps them. He is on their side. He refers to Jesus as “Lord” and obviously has faith that Jesus can heal his servant.

What a total, thoroughgoing embarrassment this would be to the oppressive power structure of the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees. This man is not just a Gentile — everything about him defines “the opposition.” But despite his circumstances, he is a compassionate friend to Israel and helps them when they cannot help themselves, as well as recognizing the authority of Jesus and what he has come to do and has implicit faith in him. What a holistically powerful example.

John Shepard | Tue, 10/30/2018 - 17:27 | Permalink

I am not sure what you mean when you say: “The good centurion is not saved, but his confidence in Jesus is contrasted with Israel’s lack of faith.” Are you saying the centurion was not a beleiver in Jesus? Or are you looking at the text from some other position?

@John Shepard:

Hi John,

My point, basically, is that Middleton overstates the scope of Jesus’ mission. Middleton argues that Jesus is restoring humanity. I think he is only interested in restoring Israel.

I don’t recall what Middleton says about the centurion, but what I meant by the “good centurion is not saved, but his confidence in Jesus is contrasted with Israel’s lack of faith” is that the Gentile centurion is not the object of Jesus’ mission. He is not an example of humanity restored by Jesus. He clearly believes that Jesus can heal his (Jewish?) servant, but as far as the story goers, he serves only to highlight Israel’s lack of faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9).

Philip Johnson | Wed, 10/31/2018 - 16:25 | Permalink

After 47 years since being made a new creature in Christ Jesus…after spending roughly 44 of those years (post-conversion) among ‘protestants’, Romanists, Eastern ‘orthodox’, House church groups et al, The Lord has brought me full circle, and I totally agree with most (if not all) of what you have represented Mr. Middleton as writing.
Covenantal Theology, ‘replacement theology’ are and were bankrupt (spiritualizing; over-metaphorizing) meanderings that leaves/left sincere seekers wandering in a fog of speculations and confusion. In other words, the ‘word of truth WRONGLY divided’ (2 Tim. 2:15).
The ‘right division’ (correct partitioning) of the word of truth that Paul, under inspiration, writes to Timothy about is a mandate… a key without which a faithful workman cannot open the doors of understanding and revelation.
Appreciate your posting about Mr. Middleton’s book. I have found very useful (though I am not at all in total agreement with the late A.E. Knoch’s assumptions in some areas). With respect to the salvation of ALL (universal reconciliation) which I have come to see as entirely Scriptural, I would recommend two works: 1. “100 Scriptural Proofs that Jesus Christ Will Save All Mankind” by Erasmus Manford (1815 — 1884), and “150 Reasons for Believing in the Final Salvation of All Mankind” by Thomas Whittemore (1800 — 1861).
is also an extremely useful reference site.

Kind regards,
Philip Johnson