What is the basis for the mission to the Gentiles?

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As a thoroughly Gentile church we take the logic of a mission to the Gentiles for granted, but it’s not as obvious or inevitable as we might think. Jesus appears to have been almost entirely occupied with a mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24; cf. Jer. 50:6) and, while in the flesh, even to have opposed the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:5). The community of believers in Jerusalem—the direct heirs of his mission to Israel—had a hard time coming to terms with the unconditional inclusion of Gentiles in the renewal movement. It was clearly not a self-evident extension of the program. So how did it come about? What was its theological underpinning?

Jesus’ mission to Israel

Jesus believed that before the “end” would come the good news of the coming kingdom of God would be “proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14). The end in view was the end of the suffering that his disciples would have to endure in the build-up to the destruction of Jerusalem. The good news of the kingdom was the announcement that God was about to shake the heavens, judge his people, establish his Son as king at his right hand, and vindicate the suffering community of Jesus’ disciples. It is this act—or series of acts—of divine sovereignty that was to be proclaimed throughout the whole empire (en holēi tēi oikoumenēi).

The vindication of the Son of Man would entail a judgment of the nations (Matt. 25:31-46). The “sheep”, who received and cared for Jesus’ disciples as they pursued their mission, would “inherit the kingdom”; the “goats”, who failed to receive and care for the disciples, would be excluded from the life of the age to come. This is one of the few places in the Synoptic Gospels where the eschatological impact of the impending events on the nations is explicitly addressed.

The so-called Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) presupposes the same historical time-frame. Jesus promised that he would be with his disciples until the end of the age, when the corrupted structures of Jewish national life would be destroyed, when a new régime would be installed (cf. Matt. 26:64), and when the disciples would be vindicated for their loyalty to him and faithful proclamation of the gospel. In these post-resurrection instructions, however, the task of the disciples was not only to proclaim the good news to the nations of the Greek-Roman world. They were also to “make disciples of all the nations”, to baptize people into a movement characterized by its commitment to Father, Son and Spirit, and to teach them to “observe all that I have commanded you”. The words mathēteusate panta ta ethnē cannot be interpreted to mean “make Jewish disciples from all the nations”. The allusion to Daniel 7:14 in Matthew 28:18 suggests that this was the means by which Israel’s jurisdiction over the nations will be established. Craig Evans notes:

Israel will conquer the nations, not with the sword (Matt 26:52) but with the gospel, the good news of the reign of God.1

The mission to the nations

The Gentile mission in Acts emerged when Gentiles—in the first place, God-fearers already attracted to Judaism—believed the story of what God was doing to transform the status of his people in the world. Cornelius believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and had appointed him to be “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42), and therefore he received the same Spirit as the Jews who believed. The Gentiles in Antioch in Pisidia believed the “word” that God had kept his promise to the fathers by raising Jesus from the dead, making him king, giving him the nations as his inheritance, and offering forgiveness of sins to Israel as way of escaping the coming destruction (Acts 13:30-41, 48).

The same argument is found in Romans 15:8-9. Christ became a servant to Israel “in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs”, but also so that the “Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy”—mercy not towards the Gentiles but, as the following quotations make clear, towards his people Israel. The nations would praise YHWH because he had done something in Israel that will ultimately lead to the rule of a Davidic king over the nations (15:12). As I’ve said before, the Gentiles are saved by the salvation of Israel. But more importantly, they see in what has happened in Israel a foreshadowing of a political-religious revolution to come.

The Jews needed forgiveness of sins on account of their long-standing disaffection, their refusal to listen to the prophets, and their rejection of the Christ (cf. Acts 2:23; 3:3; 4:27; 7:52; 13:27). The Gentiles needed forgiveness of sins because in ages past they had walked in their own ways, worshipping idols, etc., being given over to the various practices that ensued from the fundamental repudiation of the creator (cf. Acts 14:16; 17:22-31; Rom. 1:18-32). Forgiveness of the Gentiles anticipated the coming judgment of the pagan world, just as forgiveness of Jews anticipated the coming judgment against Israel.

What connects the mission to Israel and the mission to the Gentiles is the conviction that Israel’s Messiah would not only judge and rule over his own people but would also judge and rule over the nations. This only really makes sense if we understand both phases historically, in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, on the one hand, and the conversion of the Greek-Roman world, on the other. Peter Leithart is one of the few scholars I have come across who takes the contingent aspect of the New Testament vision seriously:

God’s empire is not a transhistorical aspiration, an ideal, or a sentiment of fellow feeling among nations. It takes concrete form in a catholic church, where rival rulers and emperors, rival nations and empires, become table fellows and, under the church’s discipline, are to learn the Lord’s ways of peace and justice. Under Jesus and filled with the pentecostal Spirit, the ecclesial empire is a historical form of international community. The church is the eschatological empire already founded.2

The inclusion of Gentiles, justified by their belief that God had put Jesus forward as a propitiation for the sins of Israel, was a concrete sign that the God who had called Abraham as the “forefather” of Israel was indeed the God of the whole world and not of the Jews only (cf. Rom. 3:29). In this way the family of Abraham would inherit the world (Rom. 4:13). A fundamentally new political-religious reality was in view. As Leithart says, the gospel of the kingdom is the “gospel of God’s imperium”. 

The Old Testament background

The conviction regarding the nations has its origins in some key Old Testament texts. YHWH establishes his king, declares him to be his Son, and gives him the nations to rule as his inheritance (Ps. 2:4-9). He makes Israel’s king sit at his right hand, to rule in the midst of his enemies, to execute judgments among the nations (Ps. 110). The salvation of Israel will demonstrate to the nations that there is no other god besides YHWH, “a righteous God and a Saviour”, therefore every knee shall bow to him, and every tongue will swear allegiance (Is. 45:21-23). Finally, the faithful persecuted saints of the Most High will be given authority to rule over the nations when the beast-empire is judged and destroyed (Dan. 7:9-27).

Jesus’ words to the high priest at his trial evoked just this scenario: “I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). I think it unlikely in this setting that he was claiming the authority to judge and rule over the nations—he rather envisaged an eschatological rule over the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Lk. 22:30); but such an outcome was certainly there to be explicated by the post-resurrection church.

  • 1C.A. Evans, [amazon:978-0521011068:inline], 484.
  • 2Peter A. Leithart, [amazon:978-1608998173:inline], 2012, 52.

Andrew, this is a very interesting topic you have opened up, based on a historical narrative reading of the mission to the Gentiles. I am very aware how most missiologists read Matt 28:18-20, as a contemporary global mission. I think your argument is more contextual, that this shares the same Second Temple historical time frame in an apocalyptic manner. You also emphasize how contingent the emergence of this mission to the Gentiles was, based on events that followed in Acts.

Not all scholars, however, see a Gentile mission in Matt 28. Writing from a social stratification of the Jewish Diaspora, Malina and Rohrbaugh (2003, footnote, p. 141-142) view this as instructions to teach Israelite communities among the diaspora (as in Damascus, etc), rather than a Gentile mission. They write, “the disciples are now ordered to go to Israelites living among ‘all nations,’ not just in the region of ‘the house of Israel’ in Galilee, Perea, and Judea as in Matt 10:5.” 

But Matt 10:5 does implicitly acknowledge a mission to teach and heal Gentiles was as social possibility; as does Matt 23:15, in a negative way. McKnight (1991), among others, has documented the Pharisaic mission to the Diaspora, so a Jewish mission to the Gentiles, not just distant Jewish synagogues was not unthinkable in that historical period, given the population centers of Jews among Gentiles, in Antioch, Damascus, Edessa, Alexandria, Cyrene, Cyprus, Babylon, Rome, Athens, Ephesus, and Tarraco (Spain). John 7:35 acknowledges these teaching missons also by those outside the Jesus movement.

Andrew, your theological analysis is spot on, in terms of Son of Man connections to the nations! But perhaps P.OST readers can comment here. How much scholarly support is there, if any, for taking a contrarian view, that Matt. 28 is only speaking of a Jewish mission? I am less read in these areas, but how have Dale Allison, or David Sims approached this, in terms of apocalyptic or sociological analysis. 

Also, who, if any, of other New Testament biblical theologians, have differentiated between various theologies of Gentile mission, among the various Gospels (cf. Wilson, 1973).

Malina, B. J., & Rohrbaugh, R. L. (2003). Social-science commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (2nd ed.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press. pp. 141-142 

McKnight, S. (1991). A light among the gentiles: Jewish missionary activity in the Second Temple period. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Wilson, S. G. (1973). The Gentiles and the Gentile mission in Luke-Acts. New York: Cambridge University Press.

@Jay Gary:

Jay, thanks for the response.

A mission to the diaspora in the terms you describe may be historically or sociologically plausible, but Matthew 28:19-20 rather falls between two stools in that regard.

On the one hand, the most that we hear from Jesus during the course of his ministry to Israel is that the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed to the nations, in keeping with Isaiah’s vision: messengers are sent to the nations to declare the glory of Israel’s God and the nations come to Zion to see the glory of the God of Israel, bring the exiles with them (Is. 66:18-20). This falls short of a program of conversion and disciple-making.

On the other hand, the commission of Matthew 28:19-20 looks to the critical eye very much like a retrojection from the experience of the early church because the Trinitarian baptismal formula does not occur until the Didache. Certainly most critical scholars are not going to attribute the thought as it stands (there may be an underlying commissioning logion) to the historical Jesus—Allison, for example, thinks that it obviously promotes “purely ecclesiastical convictions” ([amazon:978-0801048753:inline], 21-22). Hagner suggests that the formula is a “liturgical expansion of the evangelist consonant with the practice of his day” (Matthew 14-28, 887). In any case, the resurrection is presupposed, which is the factor that fundamentally motivates and explains the subsequent mission to the nations.

Presumably the ban “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (Matt. 10:5) refers to Gentiles in or in close proximity to the Jewish territories. They are not to be distracted from the specific goal of seeking out the lost sheep of the house of Israel. I also wonder whether Matthew 23:15 offers much support for the idea of a Gentile mission given the emphasis on a making a single proselyte. Hagner (669) notes McKnight’s reservations about the idea of a Gentile mission and suggests that the reference is more likely to the conversion of a God-fearer—and we might speculate a high profile God-fearer.

Beyond that there’s not much I can contribute—I don’t have other resources to hand.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew, this is very helpful. It is plausible then for the Jesus movement to lean upon return from exile texts from Isaiah (66:18-20) and to envision a larger ingathering, to complement the Jewish diaspora, in keeping with the end of Israel’s suffering. These larger aspirational and apocalyptic texts, then are the imaginal backdrop out of which both a mission to the Jews and Gentiles emerged. This is close to Pitre’s Jesus, the Tribulation and End of Exile. Althought Pitre argues that Jesus saw the mission as the ingathering of the ten lost tribes. I am not sure what to think about that! Have you interacted with Pitre’s writings? 

peter wilkinson | Sat, 02/09/2013 - 18:09 | Permalink

I was looking at the significance of the phrase ‘son of man’ on an earlier thread, and saw a cross-over with the argument being presented here.

My problem with the presentation can be summed up in the phrase

The inclusion of Gentiles, justified by their belief that God had put Jesus forward as a propitiation for the sins of Israel

If the Gentiles were not included in the propitiation offered by Jesus for Israel (largely rejected by them), they were not justified. There is no justification logic for Gentiles otherwise, because there is no other justification route provided for them. Simply to say they were justified by believing in what Israel’s God had done for Israel is no logic, just as it is no logic to say that Israel’s God forgave the Gentiles for their sins because they believed in what He had done for Israel.

The core argument here, even though it is not made explicit above, is that the controlling paradigm of the narrative of Israel, which is provided in the gospels in particular, is the Daniel 7 narrative, with Daniel 7:13 and the ‘son of man’ at its heart. This is expressed in vindication of (historic) Israel (albeit in an entirely new mode) over her pagan enemies through the linked events of Roman destruction of Jerusalem which eventually triggered judgment on Rome.

In a recent (October 2012) collection of essays, ‘Who Is This Son Of Man?’ edited by Larry Hurtado, Hurtado summarises and brings up to date the on-going debate about the significance and meaning of the ‘son of man’ in the gospels. He points out that the self-description by Jesus was only ever made by himself (apart from a question in John 12:34), and is subsequently never used in the teaching or proclamation of Acts and the letters. This would be strange if the Daniel 7 narrative was so central to the mission of Jesus, in the way that is being developed, as, for instance, in the post above.

Apart from the few clear references to Daniel 7 in the gospels, there is also good reason to think, according to Hurtado, that the other references to ‘son of man’ had no connection with the Daniel 7 narrative. Hurtado also argues, against some popular academic opinion, that these references were made by Jesus himself, rather than being retro-imposed by the church at a later stage.

Again, I think that a narrative historical interpretation has to go beyond the framework which has been developed here so far.

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, thanks for your comments and for highlighting Hurtado’s chapter.

If the Gentiles were not included in the propitiation offered by Jesus for Israel (largely rejected by them), they were not justified.

That’s odd. I would more or less agree that Gentiles were included “in the propitiation offered by Jesus for Israel”. At least, they were included in a people that had benefited from the propitiation offered by Jesus. The Johannine tradition collapses this so that Jesus’ death is a propitiation for the whole world, but the dominant argument in the New Testament, I think, preserves the distinction.

But neither Jews nor Gentiles were justified by Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. Abraham was not justified by a sacrifice. He was justified by his belief and trust in a promise. Likewise, Jews and Gentiles were justified by their belief and trust in the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the eschatological fate of Israel.

The core argument here, even though it is not made explicit above, is that the controlling paradigm of the narrative of Israel, which is provided in the gospels in particular, is the Daniel 7 narrative, with Daniel 7:13 and the ‘son of man’ at its heart.

Actually, the core argument is that the “controlling paradigm of the narrative of Israel” is drawn from Psalms. 2, 110, Isaiah 45, Daniel 7-12, and a number of other texts, which point to the belief that YHWH would eventually come to rule over the nations. I think that was made explicit above. My argument is that Daniel 7-12 was especially important because it introduced into the narrative the part played by a suffering community of the saints, who would be vindicated when the pagan oppressor was finally judged.

As for Hurtado’s argument

Regardless of whether the origin of Jesus’ self-designation is to be found in Daniel 7, Jesus certainly made use of Daniel 7 to interpret his own role. Hurtado admits this:

Unquestionably, Daniel 7.13-14 was drawn on and alluded to in several NT texts (esp. Mark 14.62; Matt 26.64; Mark 13.26; Matt 24.30; Luke 21.27; Rev 1.7). (12)

His argument is against taking “the son of man” as a title. My view is that “the son of man” is not primarily a title but, in effect, a narrative—a narrative, moreover, that comes to include the suffering community of Jesus’ followers, who waited for vindication at the time of YHWH’s judgment of the pagan world. It’s important to keep this in mind when reading Hurtado’s chapter: he is not arguing against the relevance of Daniel 7-12 for understanding aspects of New Testament thought. He is arguing against the view that Jesus spoke of himself as “the son of man” because he found the expression in Daniel 7:13.

…and is subsequently never used in the teaching or proclamation of Acts and the letters.

You slightly misrepresent Hurtado here. The expression is found outside the gospels (Acts 7:56), and in a number of places we have the anarthrous form (without the definite article), most notably Rev. 1:13 and 14:14, which Hurtado thinks are likely to allude to Daniel 7:13. He rather dismisses Acts 7:56 as Luke’s “larger presentation of Stephen’s martyrdom as echoing Jesus’ interrogation and death”, but I think it is highly significant that Stephen sees the exalted Son of Man at the moment of his martyrdom. In any case, the overall narrative of Daniel 7-12 is much more widely evidenced than the use of the “son of man” phrase alone would suggest (see my [amazon:978-1620324592:inline]).

Finally, I’m not sure about the one reason Hurtado gives for rejecting the view that “the son of man” originated “through Jesus perceiving Daniel 7.13 as the crucial text in forming his self-understanding and his use of the expression”:

One important reason, again, is the lack of evidence that ‘the son of man’ functioned as a claim made by believers about Jesus’ significance in first-century Christian texts. If ‘the son of man’ originated in Jesus’ pondering of Daniel 7.13-14 and served in particular as his device to affirm his identify as the human-like figure of that passage, it is very curious that this expression was not then taken up in early Christian proclamation and confession. Why would early Christians have dropped or ignored the expression, if it had served in Jesus’ own teaching to identify himself as the exalted being in the Daniel passage? (13)

One reason why the early church did not make much further use of the expression may be that it was not perceived as a title which could be used in third person reference in the way that “the Christ” or “the Son of God” could be. Stephen’s words would then be anomalous, though if we had more accounts of early Christian martyrdom in the New Testament things might be different.

We might also ask why there is no restatement of Mark 13:26 or 14:62 in the rest of the New Testament, which Hurtado regards as unquestionable allusions to Daniel 7:13-14. I think he focuses too much on the isolated expression at the expense of the argument that is being made or the story that is being told.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks for a polite reply. I’m also glad that you referred to propitiation in 1 John (“He is the atoning sacrifice/propitiation/hilasmos for our sins, and not for our sins only but also the sins of the whole world” — 1 John 2:2). It occurred to me almost immediately after sending the comment that this was conclusive: Jesus died for Jews and Gentiles, but you have anticipated me.

You say that for Gentiles, the significant meaning of John is

they were included in a people that had benefited from the propitiation offered by Jesus

I’d have thought 1 John was much clearer than this: Jesus died for the sins of Gentiles as well as Jews. It was the propitiation of Jesus’ sacrificial death that cleared them both of guilt with regard to sin.

You say of John, and so of 1 John 2:2, that

The Johannine tradition collapses this so that Jesus’ death is a propitiation for the whole world

That is subsituting a very clear meaning for one that is mystifyingly difficult to understand.

You then explain this, first by saying that a sacrifice was not necessary for justification, since Abraham was declared righteous/justified by his faith (in a promise), and that Jews and Gentiles likewise are justified by faith

 in the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the eschatological fate of Israel

There’s something missing here. Paul interprets Abraham’s faith (as expressed in the ‘justification’ passage in Genesis 15) in Romans 4 as “in God who justifies the wicked”. Since there was no obvious wickedness in Abraham when he was justified, he illustrates this with an accompanying example, of David, in Psalm 32, where sin is confessed and forgiveness received as justification of the wicked apart from works (of the law), ie by faith.

How did this justification of the wicked come about? Not through faith in “the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the eschatological fate of Israel”, as you put it. It is explained in Romans 3 (looking backwards) and Romans 5 (looking forwards).

In Romans 3, it was/is justification “to all who believe”, Jew and Gentile, “there is no difference”, and thereby receive justification “freely by his (God’s) grace that came by Jesus Christ. God presented him as a hilasterion (mercy seat), through faith in his blood — Romans 3:22-25.

In Romans 5, was/is justification through faith — Romans 5:1, “by his blood” — Romans 5:9. The act of Jesus’ death on the cross was the axis and pivot by which “the many will be made righteous (justified)” — Romans 5:19, which is appropriated by faith for those who believe.

Faith in the God who makes the promises was the basis of covenant inclusion for Abraham, and continues to be so throughout the period of the law. Faith in the means whereby sins highlighted by the law, ie the death of Christ, was the necessary means by which justification could be received and the promises could be realised. In fact faith in Christ as the appropriator of the promises and inclusion in him was the point to which the entire narrative is leading.

Someone has just called, so I can’t respond to the Hurtado comments — but thanks for looking so carefully at it.

@peter wilkinson:

You then explain this, first by saying that a sacrifice was not necessary for justification…

No, that’s not quite what I said. What I said was that a person is not justified by a sacrifice. A person is justified by his or her belief in something. Justification by faith—by a concrete act of trust in God. Abraham was justified by his belief in the promise. David was justified by his belief in “him who justifies the ungodly”. And I think that Paul’s argument here is that Jews and Gentiles were justified by their belief in the atoning significance of Jesus’ death for Israel—they were justified by their trust in what the God of Israel was doing in and through his people for the sake of his glory in the eyes of the nations. I presume that “justified by his blood” in Romans 5:9 is shorthand for “justified by faith in his blood”.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew, please allow an interjection from  a complete stranger. You say that justificatiion by faith means believing or trusting in God, as Abraham did at the sacrifice of Isaac. But Abraham’s faith was more than belief alone, it was belief exemplied by something that he actually did, namely bringing his son Isaac to the appointed place of sacrifice! I am unaware of any text in the Old Testament that propagates the idea of “justification by faith” alone.

This is something we almost never see in the Synoptic Gospels either, so far as I know, unless a retrojection obtrudes itself or we are dealing with the well-known role that positive belief can play in making cures possible. It is mainly something that we see in the New Testament after Jesus’s death. A good example is in Acts 16, where the warden of the prison from which Paul and Silas have just miraculously escaped asks them, in his astonishment, “What must I do to be saved?” and is simply told, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (verses 30-31). He is not shown to repent, a key element for salvation in the teachings of both John the Baptist and Jesus, his faith in itself seems to be sufficient to “justify” him! We are then told that “he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God [note how believing in Jesus and believing in God are thought to be synonymous!] — he and his whole family” (verse 34).

I think we may safely presume they lived happily ever after!

This seems to be a fundamental theological marker that distinguishes the Old Testament and the Synoptic Gospels on the one hand, from those seven epistles by Paul that are held to be unquestionalbly authentic. Any concordance will show the difference: the Synoptics use the words “repent” and “repentance” a total of 35 times, whereas Paul only uses them only 7 times together. On the other hand, the Synoptics use the word “faith” 44 times, whereas Paul uses them for a total of 95 times together!

I think it is generally accepted that in the Old Testament deeds are held to be more important than faith. This is so because, as in the example of Abraham, they both embody and validate faith. What else can prove that it is really there? In Paul, however, faith is a deed in itself, in fact, the “mother of all deeds” and so far superior to all others that it immediately demotes them in rank to being no more than mere “works.”

The first approach is Jewish, the second “Christian,” but which did Jesus follow himself? When people ask him the warden’s question, “how can I be saved?” he typically refers them to the Law, as he does in the case of the rich young man, whom he advises to do a superlatively good deed, “go sell your possesions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30.

At the same time, he seems to show only contempt for those who say they have faith in him as the “Lord,” but do absolutely nothing to exemplify it with deeds:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say? I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice: He is like a man building a house , who dug deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, a torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete” (Luke 6:46-49).   

Jesus characteristically follows the Jewish recipe for salvation that is based on deeds, which is not surprising since he was Jewish himself, believing in the Torah and the Ten Commandments, where faith has no part.

Of course, he never knew Paul, the Gospel writers, later redactors of the Gospels or the fathers of the Church, all of whom developed a complex theology that came to be called “Christianity,” making free use of his title, but one which he probably never would have recognized as his own, had it come to his attention!

My best wishes for a new year of peace and health!