Jesus and the Jewish Commission

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This article is part of a series on Jesus the Jewish Messiah by Gerald McDermott. Click here to view other articles in this series.

Jesus sent off the Twelve after commanding them, saying, “Don’t take the road for the Gentiles and the city of the Samaritans. Keep on going instead to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).

I was taught for many years that Jesus came to universalize the particular. That the Old Testament was all about a particular people (the Jews) and a particular land (Israel), but that the New Testament was about the universal—all the people of the world, and all the lands of the world.

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The Great Commission

According to this popular view among both churches and scholars, Jesus recognized that the Judaism of his day was too narrow, too parochial. That’s why at the end of Matthew he gave the Great Commission to disciple all the peoples and all the lands of the world:

As you are going, make disciples of all the Gentiles, baptizing them in the name  of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all the things which I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19).

But some twenty-five years ago I noticed that Jesus in Matthew was barely interested in the Gentiles until the Great Commission at the end.  As one scholar has put it, “The Matthean Jesus is not a missionary to the Gentiles and . . . has only sporadic contact with Gentiles and ventures only once—and without particular emphasis—into the region of Tyre and Sidon, which actually comprised large areas of formerly Israelite Galilee.”[1]

The Jewish Commission

This scholar adds that Jesus’ only contacts with Gentiles in Matthew are with the Capernaum centurion and the Canaanite woman, and both stories are related to Jesus’ mission to Israel, “giving a ‘signal’ of what is to change when the risen Lord commands it” as he ascend to heaven.

In Matthew 10 Jesus tells the apostles not to go to the Gentiles or Samaritans but only to fellow Jews—the lost sheep of the House of Israel:

Jesus sent off the Twelve after commanding them, saying, “Don’t take the road for the Gentiles and the city of the Samaritans.  Keep on going instead to the lost Sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).

This Israel-centered focus is repeated in Matthew by its concentration of Jesus’ teaching on the cities and villages organized by their (Jewish) synagogues. In 4:23 Jesus is said to have gone throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. In 9:35 Jesus went around to all the cities and villages teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom and healing every sickness and every malady.

The exception proved the rule. When the Canaanite woman asked Jesus to cast out her daughter’s demon, Jesus replied, I was sent only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel (15:24).

The apostles were told to continue Jesus’ signs and wonders in their own mission to Jews in Israel:

As you are going, preach [to them] saying, “The kingdom of the heavens has come near.”  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons (Matt 10:7-8a).

Jesus’ telling the apostles to do what he did meant not only doing the same miracles he did but also limiting their mission to Jews. After his ascension, however, they were to go to the Gentiles in all the lands of the world.

So Jesus’ mission—according to Matthew–was to the particular people of the Jews in Israel the particular land. He left it to the apostles after the ascension to bring the gospel of the kingdom to the other people in the rest of the world.

The end of the Jews?

Was this the end of gospel focus on Jews and the land of Israel? Not according to Matthew scholars. Akiva Cohen argues that Matthew’s gospel expects a restoration of Israel in the future and a mission to Gentiles—“two parallel ongoing missions.”[2] Joel Willitts writes, “Matthew believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Davidic messiah whose appearance meant the eventual restoration of exilic Israel on the one hand, and on the other the worship of the God of Israel among all the nations.” [3]

Mainstream Christian thinking until recently has held that these two missions in Matthew—to the Jews and then the Gentiles—mark the transition in the NT from Jews and Israel to Gentiles and the world. One stops and the other begins. The second elbows out the first, as it were, by suggesting that the God of the NT is no longer interested in the Jewish people or the land of Israel. The Great Commission swallowed up the Jewish Commission as the whale swallowed Jonah. The Gentiles in this version replaced Israel.

Evidence from the second century, however, shows that Matthew’s two missions were thought to continue concurrently. Because Anglicans tend to read the Bible at the feet of the Fathers, they should be interested in this patristic witness. A mid-second century version of the Great Commission suggests some Fathers believed in concurrent missions, one to Israel and one to Gentiles.

He answered and said to us, “Go and preach to the twelve tribes of Israel and to the Gentiles and to the land of Israel towards East and West, North and South; and many will believe in me, the Son of God.”[4]

This evidence from the second century supports the view that the Great Commission does not mean a permanent transition from Israel’s Jews to the world’s Gentiles. As NT scholar Peter Stuhlmacher writes, Matt. 28:19 “in no way excludes Israel; in no way replaces Israel with the Gentiles. On the contrary, it presupposes the restoration of Israel as a people and as a territory.”[5]

Preparation for the Great Commission

Still, many wonder, whatever Jesus’ intentions for Israel ultimately, why did he restrict his earthly ministry to the Jewish Commission? When all the world was in such need?

The answer is what the prophets taught, that God called his Jewish people to be a priestly nation to be a collective “light to the nations” (Isa.49:6). Jesus’ mission was to recall the Jewish people to their original calling—that which God told Abraham the father of the Jewish people was the calling of his progeny, to be a blessing to the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). When they were called back to that original commission, they would be more effective in telling the Gentiles of the earth that they too were called to follow Israel’s Messiah.

And it worked. By the mid-first century, there were already tens of thousands of Jewish Jesus-followers in Jerusalem alone, and according to some historians, at least a hundred thousand in the Diaspora abound the Roman Empire.[6]  It is no wonder that the number of Gentile Jesus-followers then rapidly increased.

[1] Ulrich Luz, Studies in Matthew, 8, quoted in Akiva Cohen, Matthew and the Mishna: Redefining Identity and Ethos in the Shadow of the Second Temple’s Destruction (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 147.

[2] Cohen, Matthew and the Mishna, 183.

[3] Joel Willitts, “Zionism in the Gospel of Matthew,” in McDermott, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, 138.

[4] Epistula Apostolorum 30, quoted in Cohen, Matthew and the Mishna, 179.

[5] Peter Stuhlmacher, “Matt 28:16-20 and the Course of Mission in the Apostolic and Postapostolic Age,” in Adna and Kvalbein, eds., quoted in Cohen, Matthew and the Mishna, 179.

[6] By about 57 AD, a little more than two decades after the Messiah’s resurrection, James and the elders at Jerusalem told Paul “many ten thousands [myriades]” of Jews had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah (Acts 21:20). Historians have learned from emperor Claudius’ census in 48 AD that there were seven million Jews in the empire, and that about 2.3 million of those were in Israel, with 200,000 to 400,000 Jews in Alexandria, Egypt.  Since there was a maximum Jerusalem population of 400,000, messianic Jews were at least 5% of the population of Jerusalem.  If five percent of the Empire’s Jewish population was messianic, that means a minimum of 400,000 messianic Jews in the first century. Scholars such as David Stern think these numbers are far too small, that the number of Jewish believers was actually much larger.

Cover image: James Tissot, The Jewish Commission

Published on

March 24, 2023

Author

Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott serves as Distinguished Professor of Theology at Jerusalem Seminary, priest-in-residence at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Crozet, VA.

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