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.