There is an argument that when the Synoptic Gospels speak of Jesus coming to Israel, we must imagine him making a journey from heaven to earth to fulfil God’s purposes.
The demons ask Jesus, “Have you come here to destroy us?” (Mk. 1:24 par. Lk. 4:34; Matt. 8:29). Jesus says that he has come to preach the gospel (Mk. 1:38; cf. Lk. 4:43), not to call the righteous but sinners (Mk. 2:17 par. Matt. 9:13; Lk. 5:32), not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfil them (Matt. 5:17), to cast fire on the land (Lk. 12:49), not to bring peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34 par. Lk. 12:51), not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45 par. Matt. 20:28), and to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10).
Simon Gathercole insists in his book The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that these sayings provide “evidence for the advent of Jesus from heaven in the Synoptic Gospels” (175). I think the evidence is flimsy.
Let’s consider, for example, the last saying, which comes at the end of the story of the “salvation” of Zacchaeus: “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (apolōlos)” (Lk. 19:10).
Gathercole thinks that the verse ‘provides fairly strong evidence for preexistence, because it describes the dynamic movement of “seeking” and “saving” reminiscent of the parable of the prodigal son and of the metaphor of the shepherd who leaves his flock to go out to search for the one stray sheep’ (168).
I don’t see the relevance of the parable of the prodigal son here, because the son is not “lost”, and no one goes out looking for him; he just comes to his senses and returns to his father. But the story of the shepherd who goes looking for the “lost” (apolōlos) sheep needs to be considered, along with the awkward sayings about Jesus being sent “only to the lost (apolōlota) sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24; cf. 10:6). Matthew also tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).
What persuades Gathercole that the imagery suggests pre-existence is that it appears to have been inspired by the prophecy against the worthless shepherds—that is, rulers—of Israel in Ezekiel 34. He recognises that both God and David function as good shepherds in this passage, but he argues that “the action of Jesus here actually suggests the work of God.”
God is the shepherd who will seek out his scattered sheep; he will bring them out and feed them; he will seek the lost and save his flock (Ezek. 34:10-22). David gets only a rather brief mention (34:23). So if Jesus is the shepherd who seeks and saves the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he does so as God who has come for that purpose. “In conclusion…,” Gathercole says, “it seems extremely likely that Luke has in mind the preexistence of Jesus, and a corresponding coming from heaven” (169).
At first glance, this is a compelling argument. God says that he himself will do exactly what the shepherds of Israel have failed to do:
I will seek the lost (apolōlos), and I will turn about the one that strayed, and I will bind up the crushed, and I will strengthen the abandoned, and I will watch the strong, and I will feed them with judgment. (Ezek. 34:16; cf. 34:4; Jer. 23:1-4).
We should notice also that this is prominently framed as a prophecy to the “house of Israel”, which is dying because of its transgressions, which has become desolate, its people greatly reduced in number, which is a valley of dry bones (33:10-11; 35:15; 36:10, 37; 37:11). So the story is that God will seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel and restore his people by breathing the new life of his Spirit into them (Ezek. 37:11-14).
But the question is: how will he do this? He will bring them from the nations to which they have been scattered to “make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel”; and “David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd” (Ezek. 37:24; cf. 2 Sam. 5:2; Jer. 23:5; Mic. 5:2-5).
So the story is played out on two levels. On one level, God would seek and save the lost and harassed sheep of the house of Israel. On another level, political action would bring about the return from exile—by the hand of God’s “anointed” servant Cyrus, for example (Is. 45:1)—and the re-establishment of Israel in the land under a Davidic king who would shepherd his people.
I think we see the same narrative bifurcation in the Gospels.
In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables to explain why he hangs out with tax collectors and sinners: a shepherd goes looking for one lost sheep, a woman seeks diligently for a lost coin, and a father celebrates the return of his wayward son, much to the annoyance of the “righteous” brother.
These are not stories about Jesus’ mission. They are stories about the rejoicing which there will be in heaven, before the angels of God, “over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15:7, 10). In other words, these stories are told from a heavenly perspective, and arguably the shepherd and the woman represent—if anyone—the God who seeks and saves the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The parable of the prodigal son is not about seeking and saving, but the reconciliation of this “sinner” with his father Abraham reflects the same transcendent perspective. When the beggar Lazarus dies, he is carried by angels to be restored to Abraham (Lk. 16:22).
But on another level, on the level of agency and “political” action, the God who is the shepherd who seeks and saves the lost sheep of the house of Israel sends his anointed Son, as a servant, to seek and to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. So Jesus tells the Canaanite woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24).
It is this sending which translates the theological story into concrete political action. In this respect, I think we have to say that Jesus comes not in the person of God but as the agent of God on earth, who will actually bring about the transformation of judgment, redemption, and restoration.
There is more to this agency than is suggested in the role of David, who will feed the sheep and rule over them (Ezek. 34:23-24; 37:24-25). Jesus will attain this responsibility and rule only by way of severe opposition and suffering, which is why he has been sent and comes to seek and save the lost as the “Son of Man” (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45; Lk. 19:10). But the Gospel narrative conforms to the functional distinction that we find in Ezekiel.