I argued last week that Jesus believed that his mission would lead not to a fundamentally new people of God, following the destruction of national Israel, but to the restoration and renewal of Israel, on the basis of repentance and Jesus’ atoning death, under a new covenant and a new régime.
But what about the Gentiles? Is there any indication in the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus expected Gentiles to be involved in this whole thing? I will suggest that the answer to this question is yes, but not in the way we usually think.
There are a small number of passages that have sometimes been put forward as evidence that Jesus contemplated the inclusion of Gentiles in restored national Israel. A couple of negative considerations, however, should be registered first: on the one hand, Jesus is insistent that the kingdom mission is exclusively to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” and not to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:6; 15:24); and on the other, there is no indication that the Synoptic writers used their Gospels to address the intense controversy later generated by the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people.
These considerations alone constitute a serious obstacle to the thesis that Jesus expected believing Gentiles to be included in the communities of restored Israel in the period from his death to the end of the age.
But perhaps that’s the wrong way to think about it. I will argue that the time frame is the critical factor here. So as we review the relevant texts, we have to ask two questions: Does Jesus make reference to the Gentiles? If he does, how and when are they involved?
God can raise up from these stones children for Abraham
John the Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). Read through a Pauline lens, this might be taken to mean that Gentiles will be added to Abraham. But the saying has in view the coming judgment of God on the particular generation of unrighteous Israel represented by this “brood of vipers”; and arguably, John means no more than that God can produce new descendants for Abraham from the stones, following the destruction of this evil generation.
Nothing in the wording or context points beyond Israel. Indeed, it is likely that this passage from Isaiah lies in the interpretive background:
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Is. 51:1–2)
This is not an image that can be easily subverted to include Gentiles. In its context in Isaiah it evokes the promise made to Abraham and the assurance that his descendants would be blessed and would flourish, even after the catastrophe of the exile. In the absence of any pointers to the contrary, we should assume that John meant that God would bless and multiply his people even though the unrighteous generation would be destroyed.
How naturally the metaphor would have been taken as a statement about Israel’s predicament is evident from Jesus’ later admonition of the Pharisees:
And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Lk. 19:39-40)
He might almost have said, God is able to raise up people from these stones to cry out against you Pharisees.
Many will come from east and west
Impressed with the faith of the centurion, Jesus said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matt. 8:10–12; cf. Lk. 13:29).
Interpretation is not straightforward.
Jesus commends the centurion’s faith, but the force of the statement lies in the implications for Israel: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:10). Statements about the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian serve the same purpose (Lk. 4:25-27): they are an argument for the rejection of many in Israel, not for the assimilation of Gentiles into the covenant people. These Gentiles are incidentally blessed but they function in the narrative as an indictment; they are not included.
Moreover, in the Old Testament it is only scattered Jews who come from east and west and north and south (Ps. 107:2-3; Is. 43:5-6; Zech. 8:7). The (limited) participation of Gentiles in the restoration of Israel is stated in other terms. There are no Gentiles around when Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel that “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Lk. 13:29).
However, the juxtaposition of the word to the centurion who recognises the authority of this “Lord” (Matt. 8:6) and the saying about the “eschatological banquet” is striking and difficult to dismiss.
But is Jesus saying that Gentiles will be included in the communities of his disciples? I don’t think so.
The feast happens at the moment of eschatological crisis. It is not an enduring state of affairs. It is a moment of celebration at the end of the age of second temple Judaism, when judgment has been given against the wicked and corrupt generation, when the Son enters into his kingdom, when his followers are either rewarded or punished, brought in or excluded (cf. Matt. 24:45-25:30).
I suggest, therefore, that if Jesus is speaking of the Gentiles in this passage, he means that righteous, perceptive Gentiles like the centurion will share in the celebration of YHWH’s victory over his enemies and the vindication of his Son at the parousia. It is beyond the purview of the narrative to determine whether they will be part of the restored people of God in the age to come, in the happy-ever-after that follows the wedding feast of the Son (keeping in mind that happy-ever-afters are never as happy as we would like them to be).
This understanding is much closer to the Old Testament idea that foreigners would, in various ways, participate in and celebrate the restoration of Israel following the exile (e.g., Isaiah 60).
We may also draw comparison with the magi who came to pay homage to Israel’s new born king… and then went home again.
In the perspective of the “historical” Jesus, these are not Gentiles who believe that God has raised his Son from the dead, who are filled with the Spirit, and who become part of restored Israel in the period leading up to the parousia. They are not the Gentiles of Paul’s mission. They are Gentiles who—after the eschatological event—will see what YHWH has done in the midst of his people, for the sake of his reputation in the world, and will give glory to his name.
We find much the same argument in Romans 15:8:
Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. (Rom. 15:8–9)
Jesus was the anointed servant of YHWH to Israel; through his faithfulness to the point of death on a Roman cross he confirmed the promises to the patriarchs regarding the future of Israel; and the Gentiles glorified YHWH for his mercy towards his people.
He will proclaim justice to the nations
Jesus withdraws from Capernaum. Many follow him. He heals them but orders them not to make him known (Matt. 12:15-16). Matthew sees this as a fulfilment of Isaiah 42:1-4 LXX, with some modifications:
Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope. (Matt. 12:18–21)
The direct fulfilment appears to lie in the words “nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets”, but Matthew is clearly interested in the larger narrative: Jesus is the servant of YHWH, who received the Spirit at his baptism, who will “proclaim a judgment (krisin) to the nations”, who will succeed (eis nikos) in bringing a judgment or verdict (krisin) to the nations, and in whose name “the nations will hope”.
The thought here is not of Gentiles being included in restored Israel but of the proclamation and enactment of a divine judgment that will bring about the restoration of Israel and ultimately of a new regional geopolitics, whereby YHWH will rule over the nations through his king.
My righteousness draws near swiftly; my salvation will go out, and the nations will hope in my arm; the islands will wait for me and hope in my arm. (Is. 51:5 LXX)
The nations look forward to seeing YHWH act to save his people. This demonstration of his faithfulness towards his people will give the surrounding peoples cause to believe in Israel’s God. They will hope in the future rule of this God over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Paul quotes Isaiah 11:10 to exactly this effect: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12).
The wedding guests
In the parable of the wedding feast those who are invited but refuse to attend are the ruling elites, to whom the parable was addressed (Matt. 21:45-46), not the whole of Israel. Like the wicked tenants of the vineyard, they mistreat and kill the king’s servants. So the “king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (Matt. 22:7). Those who are then brought in off the streets are the despised, unprivileged, undeserving Jews who saw in Jesus the opportunity of redemption.
In Luke the parable is told following Jesus’ exhortation to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” to a feast rather than friends, brothers, relatives or wealthy neighbours (Lk. 14:12-14). In this case, the servants are sent out first to the streets of the city to bring in the “poor and crippled and blind and lame”, and then to the rural areas outside the city, but there is no basis at all for equating the second group with Gentiles. “Despite regular claims to the contrary, it is at most a ministry beyond that of Jesus…, and not a ministry to the Gentiles, that is made room for here” (Nolland).
If we are not persuaded by this, then we would again have to recognise that Gentiles are brought in at the eschatological climax to celebrate the victory of God over his enemies and the restoration of his reformed people, under a new covenant, under a new régime.
Judgment of the nations
When the Son of Man comes to reward and punish those who have been entrusted with the task of proclaiming the coming intervention of God both to Israel and to the nations, there will also be a judgment of the nations (Matt. 25:31-32). This is not the final judgment. People are judged according to how they responded to the presence of his vulnerable disciples (“the least of these my brothers”: Matt. 25:40) in the period leading up to the judgment of Israel.
This is emphatically a judgment according to works. Faith does not come into it. But those Gentiles who acted compassionately towards the disciples will be invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).
The point to note, again, is that these Gentiles do not become part of the covenant people in the period leading up to the judgment of Israel, the parousia of the Son of Man, and the vindication of the disciples. But they are judged worthy to be part of the new order when it is established. Their inclusion, therefore, is very different from that of the Gentiles who believed that Jesus had been made Lord before the historical realisation of YHWH’s rule over his people and, ultimately, over the nations.
The parallel, in this case, is with Romans 2. When God judges the Greek-Roman world, righteous Gentiles (not Gentile Christians, pace Wright) who do not have the Law, will put unrighteous Israel to shame:
They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:15–16)
1. The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels expected the restoration of ethnic Israel following judgment, as a consequence of his own suffering, under a new covenant in the Spirit, under a renewed Davidic régime, within a generation.
2. He did not envisage the inclusion of Gentiles in the transitional communities of eschatological witness, in the manner of the Pauline mission.
3. He did expect Gentiles to come as Gentiles to celebrate the eventual establishment of YHWH’s kingdom, the wedding feast of the Son, following judgment on the defiant state of Israel.
4. He taught that at least some righteous Gentiles would participate in the subsequent reign of YHWH, which may mean that he thought in terms of the reign of YHWH over the nations of the Greek-Roman world, though this belief barely registers in the Gospels.