Today I aim to briskly scan the four canonical Gospels of the New Testament for what light they shed on the relationship between ethnic Israel and the Church (constituted by believing, confessing followers of Jesus regardless of nationality), particularly with respect to what Jesus himself may have contemplated about such matters. Such a task, if done properly and fully, would be enormous and require multiple volumes of scholarly tomes. Fortunately, I’m on the job, and thus no such wearisome adjectives need apply to this post or the academic quality found therein. For my purposes and by way of a core summary, I will list several overall points of emphasis that are found recurringly throughout the Gospels that touch, directly or indirectly, upon our subject and that seem significant to me. Synthesizing and interpretation will be delayed until other NT documents are probed for their contributions in later posts. NOTE: I give Matthew pride of place in the selection I draw from below purely for the sake of convenience. Parallel passages elsewhere in the Synoptics can be consulted with profit.
1.) The special, unique place of Israel in God’s redemptive plan for the world is reaffirmed. This, of course, is no shocker. Yet it bears repeating that the historical Jesus of the Gospels was no wandering Cynic peasant-poet or Gnostic philosopher spouting forth universal, abstract truisms completely unrelated to Israel’s history, mission and destiny. Whoever Jesus Christ was (and is), Israel lay at the heart of his own self-conception and stated aims and intentions. Simply put, the identity of Jesus Christ is indecipherable apart from the Jewish people and their fate:
Matthew 19:28–“Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, 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.” (cf. Luke 22:30)
Matthew 10:5-7–“These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
Matthew 15:24–” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
2.) Jesus is the culmination of all of God’s promises to Israel in the OT. Nor just in the popular sense of explicit prophecy & direct fulfillment (though not less than this, either). In his three temptations in the wilderness for forty days, Jesus is obedient where Israel failed spectacularly. He goes down to Egypt and back up again in the true Exodus. He is the ultimate law-giver on the mountain, the One whom Moses pointed to. Endless examples of such intentional parallelism and culmination could be adduced. Furthermore, the “fulfillment” motif running through Matthew’s Gospel includes both symbolic and typological elements; Mark sees Jesus as bringing about God’s promised kingdom to Israel. Luke, especially in his early introductory chapters, simply cannot stop mentioning the promissory significance of Jesus for ethnic Israel (cf. Luke 1:16-17, 32-33, 54-55, 68, 4:17-21, etc.)
3.) Nonetheless, a curious (often offensive) pattern begins to emerge in Jesus’ ministry: the “outsiders” are shockingly designated “insiders” by Jesus (and vice versa). Rogues, prostitutes, “sinners”, tax collectors and, yes, even Gentiles, are commended for their response of faith to Jesus in spite of what would seem to be a host of other characteristics that would disqualify them from membership in any conventional understanding of what defines Israel’s identity. At the same time, seemingly upright, pure ethnic Israelites find themselves under the ferocious criticism of Jesus for inherently misunderstanding the nature of God’s covenant with His people. Apparently ethnicity–in and of itself–is insufficient in Jesus’ stern evaluation, at least apart from faith and heartfelt obedience to God’s commands. It is, of course, a perpetual danger to read later NT patterns of thinking into the earlier stages of the Gospel narratives. But is this a foreshadowing of (or foundation for) passages such as Romans 2:25-29?
Matthew 3:7-10–“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Matthew 9:33-34–“And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”
Matthew 15:25-28–“But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.” (note verse 24 in the immediately preceding context!)
Cf. Matthew 8:5-13. Of special note is the extended discourse found in John 8:31-59, which repays close reading, especially in light of how frequently it is ignored by contemporary scholars for its flagrant ecumenical impropriety.
4.) In response to the massive rejection of Jesus’ claims and ministry by ethnic Israel, divine judgment upon God’s people is ominously predicted to fall within a generation. In their place (and who is “they”?), a “fruitful” people will be raised up by God and given the kingdom. Who these people are–or what qualifies them for such blessing–is unclear in the Gospels.
Matthew 8:10-12–“When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 21:33-44–“Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’ Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
Luke 23:26-31–“And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
There are numerous other significant passages that could and should be closely pondered in addition to the three I have cited: Matthew 22:1-14, Matthew 23:1-36, 23:37-39, Judgment on the Temple & Curse of the Fruitless Fig Tree (Matthew 21), the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), Luke 13:22-35, 19:41-44, 20:9-18, etc. In this regard, it is worthwhile (and tantalizing!) to point out that Jesus seems to have been fond of referring to his band of followers by terminology that was used of ethnic Israel in the OT (such as “light of the world”, see Matthew 5:13-16, etc.).
5.) A coming world-wide mission to the Gentiles is launched as a result of the new stage of redemptive history ushered in by Jesus’ death and resurrection:
Matthew 28:18-20–“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Mark 16:15–“And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (though admittedly this passage is highly disputed and most likely not included in the original manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark)
Luke 24:46-47–“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (cf. Luke 2:32)
John 11:49-52–“But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
Next week: Galatians