My response to Peter Wilkinson’s attempt to show from Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus had no thought of reforming or restoring Israel as a nation has grown too long to post as a comment. My contention, more or less in agreement with Caird and Wright, is that the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels announced a coming judgment on the state of Israel, largely because of the corruption and obduracy of the ruling elites, but he nevertheless expected the people of Israel to continue under a new covenant in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies, with himself as its true king.
I would suggest, further, that Paul had not moved very far from this belief even at the time of the writing of Romans. God’s people were at heart reformed, new covenant Israel as heirs to the promises made to the patriarchs according to the flesh, but an increasing number of Gentiles were being added to this people, grafted in to the rich root of the patriarchs, on the basis of their belief that Jesus had been made Lord above all powers. This was not, alas, having the effect of making the Jews jealous, but Paul clung to the hope that after judgment his people would see the error of their ways and so repent and be saved. It didn’t work out that way, so we are now left with an overwhelmingly Gentile people of God drawing unnaturally on the promises made to Abraham.
But all that’s beside the point. Here I consider each of the passages in Matthew that Peter cites in support of his view, and several that he doesn’t.
Matthew 1:21: The angel tells Joseph to call the boy Jesus because “he will save his people from their sins”.
Matthew 1:22-23 The Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah has reference to the presence of God with his people to judge and redeem them.
Matthew 2:1-6 The birth narratives make much of the fact that Jesus would be “king of the Jews”, “a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel”. The trajectory of the infancy stories is firmly in the direction of the redemption of sinful Israel and the establishment of Jesus as king. This theme runs all the way through the crucifixion. It makes no sense to present Jesus as the Davidic king who would rule over his people for ever if Israel as a people was to be terminated.
Matthew 3:16-17 Jesus is identified at his baptism as the anointed servant, the true Jacob, obedient Israel, which would bring justice to the nations (Is. 42:1-9).
Matthew 3:10 John the Baptist speaks of “trees” plural, allowing for a differentiation within Israel. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Trees that do bear good fruit (all the righteous and the repentant sinners in the Gospels) will not be cut down.
Matthew 3:12 The metaphor of the threshing floor entails the separation of the righteous from the unrighteous. Only the unrighteous are destroyed. Part of Israel will survive as Israel. Nothing in the imagery suggests that the wheat becomes something completely different.
Matthew 4:1-11 The testing in the wilderness identifies Jesus as obedient Israel.
Matthew 4:12-16 Jesus’ ministry begins with the quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2, which is a prophecy not of judgment and termination but of restoration.
Matthew 5:17 “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets” means that Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and the prophets. He must fulfil the Law and the Prophets without abolishing them or negating their relevance for Israel as Law and Prophets.
Matthew 7:13-14, 24-27 Jesus says that most Jews are going through a wide gate leading to destruction but some will find a narrow path leading to life. The two ways image is used in the Old Testament to describe the choice between life and death put before Israel (cf. Deut. 30:15; Jer. 21:8). The parable of the two houses serves a similar purpose.
Matthew 8:11-12 It’s quite possible that Matthew intended the faith of the centurion to anticipate the later faith of Gentiles in the authority of Jesus as Lord, but this does not mean that Jesus thought that national Israel would be excluded from the kingdom. If it is correct to think that Jesus is referring to Gentiles rather than to scattered (cf. Is. 43:5; Zech. 8:7) or unprivileged Jews, the most we can say is that they will be included in the eschatological celebration of the reformation of Israel. The “saved” will recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—this is not Paul’s theology of inclusion in the promise to Abraham by faith. The “state” of Israel will fail, but Israel will survive without a state, as it did during the exile.
Matthew 9:16-17 The sayings about the cloth and wineskins relate to fasting, not to “the old nation of Israel”. “Two little parables pick up the theme of a new and joyful pattern of religion which is incompatible with the old traditions represented by the fasting regimes of the Pharisees and the followers of John” (France). Of course, if we take the saying out of context, we can make it mean whatever we like.
Matthew 11:20 That the cities of Israel face catastrophic judgment is not in dispute. The issue is whether Jesus thought that “Israel” as a people would survive. I think it is pretty clear that Jesus expected a righteous, repentant remnant to be justified, to become a new community of Israel, living according to a Law written on their hearts by the Spirit in a new covenant, recognising the exalted Jesus as its king.
Matthew 12:39, 46-50 Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees as an “evil and adulterous generation”, but at the same time he says of his disciples, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:49–50). This is said to Jews about Jews. There is no basis for the assertion that Jesus is dissociating himself from “racial ties”—the distinction is between the religious elites and the ordinary people who gather to hear Jesus. The same thought is found in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Matthew 13:1-30, 36-43 The parables of the sower and the weeds all have to do with division within Israel between those who respond positively to Jesus’ message and those who do not, between the righteous and the unrighteous. Israel will be judged, but the wheat of Israel—the righteous—will be preserved. The imagery does not allow for the destruction of all Israel and the beginning of something completely new.
Matthew 15:21-28 The faith of the Canaanite woman is a rebuke to faithless Israel. But the healing of her daughter is incidental. Matthew does not suggest that the encounter changes Jesus’ mission “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. This saying evokes the narrative of Ezekiel 34:1-24: Jesus is the “one shepherd, my servant David”, who is set over the sheep who have been maltreated by the corrupt leadership of Israel. Jesus’ purpose is to recover, restore and govern the lost sheep of Israel as their true Davidic king.
Matthew 16:4 The “evil and adulterous generation” sayings are always directed at the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. This does not mean that there will not be repentant and righteous Jews who will survive the destruction as Jews to be the nucleus of a renewed Israel. Yes, the failed “state” of Israel and its institutions faced destruction—especially the temple. But everything that Jesus says and does assumes the continuation of something from within Israel as a sufficient expression of a new covenant people. He fulfils the Law and the Prophets by judging and restoring Jacob.
Matthew 17:17 The whole point of the story of the healing of the epileptic boy is the exhortation to the disciples to have faith: “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20). Whatever precisely that means, it is clear that Jesus expected part of Israel to demonstrate a viable faith and therefore not be included in the “faithless and twisted generation”.
Matthew 20:20-28 The little exchange between Jesus and the mother of the sons of Zebedee tells us only that those who will reign in the coming kingdom of God will gain that authority because 1) they have suffered (“Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”), and 2) they have not acted autocratically in the manner of the Gentiles. Authority in the kingdom will come by following the path of the suffering Son of Man. The passage certainly cannot be used as evidence that Jesus expected something other than Israel to continue.
On the contrary, the twelve disciples (signifying the beginning of a restored family of Jacob—not of Abraham) would be ruling over Israel: “Truly, I say to you, in the restoration (palingenesian), when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28, modified translation). Josephus uses palingenesia for the “restoration” of the homeland (patris) following the exile (Jos. Ant. 11.66).
Matthew 21:12-13 The destruction of the temple did not mean the destruction of Israel as a nation, only as a state. The people of Israel survived the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians—they just needed to find a new modus vivendi. Jesus evokes precisely this narrative when he quotes Jeremiah in the temple: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jer. 7:11). It will become a “house of prayer for all peoples” when God restores Israel following judgment. Presumably Jesus believed that he himself would be the new temple, but this cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament narrative of the judgment and restoration of the people of Israel.
Matthew 21:18-19 The withering of the fig tree is usually understood as an acted parable for the coming judgment. The curse seems pretty final: “May no fruit ever come from you again!” In context, the fig tree may represent the temple in particular rather than Israel itself, which is why there is no conflict with the numerous other parables and sayings which point to the continued existence of a renewed people. “The withering of the fig tree is thus an apocalyptic word of judgment… that will find its analogue in the future destruction of Jerusalem and its temple” (Hagner).
But this is not obviously the meaning that is attributed to the miracle. Jesus approached the tree because he was hungry, and he makes the miracle an example of what the disciples will be able to do if they have faith and do not doubt. Perhaps Micah’s lament is more appropriate, in which case the cursing of the fig tree would represent Jesus’ anger over injustice in Israel:
Woe is me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered, as when the grapes have been gleaned: there is no cluster to eat, no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. The godly has perished from the land, and there is no one upright among men; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts the other with a net. (Mic. 7:1–2, modified)
Matthew 21:43-44 In the parable the vineyard planted by the master is presumably Israel, the people (cf. Is. 5:1-7); the wicked tenants are the corrupt leadership of Israel: “The identification of the tenants as the current Jerusalem leadership is demanded both by the context in which this parable is set (as still part of Jesus’ response to the chief priests and elders, which began in v. 27) and by the explicit comment in v. 45” (France). The old leadership of Israel will tbehe replaced by a new leadership. France again is worth quoting:
The term ethnos, “nation,” … takes us beyond a change of leadership to a reconstitution of the people of God whom the current leaders have represented. But on the other hand the singular ethnos does not carry the specific connotations of its articular plural, ta ethnē, “the Gentiles.” We may rightly conclude from 8:11–12 that this new “nation” will contain many Gentiles, but we saw also at that point that this is not to the exclusion of Jews as such but only of those whose lack of faith has debarred them from the kingdom of heaven. The vineyard, which is Israel, is not itself destroyed, but rather given a new lease of life, embodied now in a new “nation.”
France also suggests that there may be a deliberate echo of Daniel 7:27: “And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High” (Dan. 7:27). If this is correct, it is the suffering righteous, the community of the Son of Man, who will inherit the governance of the restored people of Israel—that is, the disciples who will sit on thrones judging Israel (Matt. 19:28; 20:20-28).
Matthew 23-24 Jesus prophesies judgment on the current evil generation, which will come in the form of war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. But in this judgment the humble will be exalted (Matt. 23:12)—those Jews defined by the beatitudes, the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented, the lepers and demoniacs who were healed, the disciples who take up their own cross and learn to lead by serving, and so on. Again, everything points not to the absolute termination of Israel but to its continued existence under radically new conditions. In the judgment Israel will be turned upside down—the mighty will be thrown down, the lowly and meek, the poor, those who mourn, will be raised up. But it will still be Israel.