This issue came up in some teaching I did recently. Why did Jesus instruct his disciples not to go in the way of the Gentiles or to the towns of the Samaritans but only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5-15)? Doesn’t that contradict the “great commission”, when the disciples are sent out into the whole world to make disciples of all nations? Students tended to resolve the problem by arguing that the kingdom was offered first to Israel as God’s chosen people and then to everyone else. That seems to me to be at best half right and to entail a mistaken notion of the kingdom of God.
The underlying assumption seemed to be that kingdom is roughly equivalent to salvation. It is a wonderful new thing that is held out to humanity on the grounds of the death of Jesus, and it is only really an accident of “salvation-history” that the Jews got first bite of the cherry.
This gets both kingdom and salvation wrong. The mission of the disciples in Matthew is meaningful only on the assumption that “kingdom” is and remains an integral part of Israel’s story. It is not something extraneous that is offered to Israel first like a cream cake, which they turn down because they are dyed-in-the-wool legalists, and it’s then passed round to the Gentiles, who scoff it gratefully. In fact, I would say, the story of Israel is the story of kingdom. Or it’s the story of how to fail and succeed at cake making.
The lost sheep of the house of Israel
The disciples are not to go “in the way of the Gentiles”; nor are they to enter any city of the Samaritans. They are to go only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5-6). Mark and Luke do not have this explicit restriction, but it is clearly presupposed (Mk. 6:7-13; Lk. 9:1-6; 10:1-12).
Scholars debate whether the phrase “lost sheep of the house of Israel” means that all Israel is lost (an epexegetical genitive) or only part of Israel (a partitive genitive). In context, however, the “lost sheep” are the crowds which are coming to hear Jesus in the synagogues, upon whom he has compassion “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”; and the disciples are workers sent out to reap this harvest (Matt. 9:35-38). The likely allusion to Ezekiel 34:5 (“So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd…”) means that these are sheep which have been abandoned by the worthless shepherds of Israel. So Jesus sends his disciples to proclaim the kingdom to those who have been failed by the current leadership in Jerusalem, but the point presumably is that all Israel has been failed by the current leadership.
The geographical restriction is reinforced by the saying that they will “not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23). We should also note the limited time frame here: Jesus’ expectation is that the Son of Man will come before the disciples have been able to proclaim the impending reign of God in every town of Israel. Their evangelistic mission, therefore, is confined not only to one geographical entity but also one generation (cf. Matt. 16:28).
Jesus and the nations
In the course of their mission the disciples will be “dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matt. 10:18), but this presupposes the political situation in Israel under Roman rule. It does not have in a view a mission to the nations.
Later Jesus will say to his disciples that he himself was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). When the Canaanite woman asks for help, he tells her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Her stubborn faith wins him over, but the exception proves the rule: she merely benefits incidentally from the preaching of the coming reign of God to Israel—from the overspill from Israel’s healing.
The faith of the centurion is also exceptional, but it may point forward to the participation of Gentiles in the celebration of the reign of God when it comes. At the moment when the “sons of the kingdom”—that is, those Jews who expected to be “first”—are thrown into the outer darkness, “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). The centurion is not saved by his faith, but he believes that the God of Israel is doing something significant in Israel through Jesus, and he is repaid for that belief by the healing of his servant. If, then, the many who will come from east and west are not actually Jews of the diaspora, they are those Gentiles who, like the centurion, believe and celebrate the fact that YHWH has saved his people from annihilation through Jesus.
In a rather different eschatological scenario, Jesus says that when the Son of Man judges the nations at his coming, those Gentiles who attended to the material needs of the disciples during their evangelistic mission will inherit the kingdom (Matt. 25:34-40). This cannot be construed as a salvation of the Gentiles by faith; rather, they are rewarded for their compassion. As with the faith of the centurion, it is a secondary response to what God has done for his people.
The visit of the magi following the birth of Jesus is also sometimes put forward as evidence that the particularism of the disciples’ mission was only temporary. But the magi come only to pay proper homage to the new born “king of the Jews”—the “ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matt. 2:1-6).
The great commission
The “great commission” has the same limited temporal horizon as the earlier mission—Jesus promises to be with his disciples until the end of the age of the second temple Judaism (Matt. 28:20). The difference is that this takes place after the resurrection. Because “All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to Jesus, he sends them out into the wider Greek-Roman world to “make disciples of all nations”. Their mission must now take account of the fact that the Son of Man has been given the authority anticipated in Daniel’s vision:
And royal authority was given to him, and all the nations of the earth according to posterity, and all honor was serving him. And his authority is an everlasting authority, which shall never be removed—and his kingship, which will never perish. (Dan. 7:14 LXX)
If the Son of Man is to have authority over the nations, then it is fitting that he should have disciples not from Israel only but also from the nations. Paul has a similar argument in Romans 3:28-30 with respect to justification by faith: God’s people will be justified by faith rather than by works of the Jewish Law in order to demonstrate to the world that YHWH is God not of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles.
The post-resurrection situation is also in view in Jesus’ assertion in the apocalyptic discourse that the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole oikoumenē as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14). Again, it must be stressed that this “gospel of the kingdom” is the proclamation of what YHWH is doing in Israel for the sake of his name in the world. This is not a gospel of personal salvation. It is not the assurance that one day God will put the world to rights. The task of the disciples is to tell first Israel and then the nations, in the period leading up to the war against Rome, that through all these events YHWH is bringing about his own purposes for his people.
The kingdom of God and the story of Israel
So the disciples are sent to out to proclaim to Israel that within a generation YHWH will judge his people. He will turn everything upside down and inside out. Those on the top will be overthrown, those at the bottom will be lifted up. Those on the inside will be cast out, those on the outside will be brought in to celebrate the inauguration of a new age with the patriarchs. This is the coming kingdom of God, from Israel’s perspective—the dramatic and decisive transformation of the condition of God’s people.
But the transformation of Israel by the living and true God will inevitably have implications for the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Sooner or later the nations will recognize that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (cf. Phil. 6:9-11). In the meantime, this future eschatological event will be anticipated by the baptism of Gentiles in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, who will become disciples of the one who will eventually be confessed as Lord by all the peoples of the oikoumenē.