16 So the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain Jesus had designated. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).
16 “I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of people, because they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 And you will be brought before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them and the Gentiles. 19 Whenever they hand you over for trial, do not worry about how to speak or what to say, for what you should say will be given to you at that time. 20 For it is not you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:16-20, emphasis mine).
14 Then he appeared to the eleven themselves, while they were eating, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen him resurrected. 15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17 These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands, and whatever poison they drink will not harm them; they will place their hands on the sick and they will be well.” 19After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God (Mark 16:14-20, emphasis mine).
36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 But they were startled and terrified, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 Then he said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; it’s me! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones like you see I have.” 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still could not believe it (because of their joy) and were amazed, he said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 So they gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in front of them.44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Messiah would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 Now during the blessing he departed and was taken up into heaven. 52 So they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple courts blessing God (Luke 24:36-53, emphasis mine).
26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me, 27 and you also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27, emphasis mine).
19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” 22And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained” (John 20:19-23, emphasis mine).
6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.” 9 After he had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mountain called the Mount of Olives (which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away) (Acts 1:6-12, emphasis mine).
In this lesson we will be focusing on our Lord’s command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The essence of this command is that the gospel must be preached world-wide so that those from every nation, tribe, people and language will come to faith and praise God eternally before His throne. This was something that was not only new and novel to many Jews; it was also abhorrent to them. Early in Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke, He went to the synagogue in Nazareth, where He read from Isaiah 61:1-2 and then told them that this messianic prophecy was fulfilled in their hearing (Luke 4:16-21). The people joyfully received this announcement, but then Jesus went on to make it clear that as Messiah He also came to save Gentiles (Luke 4:22-27). This angered our Lord’s Jewish audience so greatly that they sought to kill Him (Luke 4:28-29).
We see a similar account in Acts 22. The Apostle Paul has been arrested on the basis of the false accusation that he is anti-Semitic and that he has defiled the temple by bringing Gentiles into it (Acts 22:27-29). The crowds wanted to tear Paul limb-from-limb, but the Roman soldiers arrived in time to rescue him (Acts 22:30-32). After Paul convinced the commander that he was not the Egyptian terrorist that he supposed, the Apostle asked to address the crowd (Acts 22:33-39). The commander granted his request, and Paul shared his testimony with the crowd. They listened attentively up to this statement:
20 And when the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing nearby, approving, and guarding the cloaks of those who were killing him.’ 21 Then he said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles’” (Acts 22:20-21).
At this point, the crowds went wild, insisting that Paul should not be allowed to live (Acts 22:22-23). There was something about Gentile evangelism that incensed the Jews.
There are several reasons why it is appropriate and necessary for us to focus our attention on the evangelization of Gentiles at this point in the Gospel of Matthew. First, it is where Matthew has been leading us from the beginning of this Gospel. Second, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the program of God is a mystery that God revealed through the apostles, and especially through Paul. Thirdly, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles is a dominant theme in the New Testament. It is an underlying theme in many of the Epistles, in addition to the Gospels and Acts. We will have more to say about this as we get into the lesson.
An Observation about the Great Commission
Before we get into our text, I would like to point out an observation that may prove helpful to you. Many of you may be like me, thinking that Jesus gave the Great Commission just once in the New Testament. This is not the case, as can be seen from the various “Great Commission” texts cited at the beginning of this lesson. The “Great Commission” was given on several occasions.
Without belaboring the point here, a form of the Great Commission is given on at least three occasions, at three different times, and at three different places. Let me briefly summarize these below:
Place: A mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16)
Time: Shortly after the resurrection (Matthew 28:7-16)
- Mark and Luke (possibly John)
Place: Jerusalem (implied in Mark, Luke 24:33)
Place: The Mount of Olives (Acts 1:12)
Time: At the end of the 40 days of our Lord’s appearances (Acts 1:3)
Just prior to His ascension (Acts 1:9-11)
The reason I have chosen to point this out is that many assume there was but one occasion when Jesus gave the Great Commission. We can see that this is not the case. Jesus thus repeated this command (this commission) several times. We should see that this commission is one that has been given considerable emphasis in the New Testament.
Making Disciples of Gentiles in the Book of Matthew
If time permitted, it would be possible to show that the evangelization of the Gentiles was anticipated in the Old Testament. But for now, let’s limit our focus to the New Testament, beginning with the Book of Matthew.
Matthew has been preparing us for the evangelization of the Gentiles since the first chapter of his Gospel. In chapter 1, Matthew gives the genealogy of our Lord. In that genealogy, three Gentile women are included (Tamar, verse 3; Rahab and Ruth, verse 5). If Gentile women can be a part of Messiah’s lineage, then Gentiles may be part of His spiritual offspring. In Matthew 2, we find the Gentile magi, coming from afar to worship “the King of the Jews,” while the Jews in Jerusalem are troubled by the news of His birth. Jewish rejection and Gentile acceptance will become a pattern, not only in Matthew, but in the Book of Acts as well and continues even today.
In chapter 3, we find the account of John the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and he, like Samuel his predecessor, introduced God’s choice for Israel’s king. With Samuel’s designation came a special manifestation of the Spirit, empowering Israel’s king for his ministry. Likewise, John the Baptist’s designation of Jesus was followed by the Spirit descending upon Jesus (Matthew 3:16-17). In John’s proclamation that the kingdom of heaven was near, he warned his Jewish audience not to depend upon their physical lineage:
“And don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!” (Matthew 3:9)
Being Jewish would not save them; only Jesus could save them.
In chapter 4, Jesus is said to have commenced His earthly ministry in “Galilee of the Gentiles”:
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been imprisoned, he went into Galilee. 13 While in Galilee, he moved from Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled: 4:15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and on those who sit in the region and shadow of death a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:12-17, emphasis mine).
In a way that I do not fully understand, Jesus’ commencement of His ministry in this Gentile territory signaled His identity as Israel’s Messiah, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 9:1-2). The fourth chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John all indicate that Jesus will bring salvation to the Gentiles.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus makes it clear that law-keeping will not save anyone, including Israel’s top religious leaders:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Entering into the Kingdom of Heaven was not a matter of law-keeping, but a matter of the heart. There was nothing in the Sermon on the Mount which prevented a Gentile from entering the kingdom, except having a new heart.
Matthew 8 contains the wonderful story of the centurion’s faith. This Gentile’s servant was sick, so the centurion asked Jesus to heal him. When Jesus offered to come, the centurion amazed Him by his faith:
8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! 11 I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that hour (Matthew 8:8-13).
Notice especially our Lord’s response to this Gentile’s faith. He had faith unlike anyone in Israel. His faith exceeded the faith of the Jews. Jesus went on to speak of other Gentiles who would enter into the kingdom of heaven. He said that while many (Gentiles) would come from afar to enter the kingdom, many of the Jews would be thrown out into outer darkness. How could Jesus have said it any more clearly? By faith, many Gentiles would be saved; because they did not believe in Jesus, many Jews would be excluded from the kingdom and sentenced to eternity in hell. Once again, we see Jewish unbelief and Gentile faith.
In Matthew 10, Jesus sent His disciples out to proclaim the good news to the people of Israel. The disciples were specifically instructed not to go to the Gentiles on this mission:
5 Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’” (Matthew 10:5-7)
And yet in His instructions to His disciples, Jesus made it clear that there would be a time when they would go to the Gentiles:
16 “I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of people, because they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 And you will be brought before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:16-18, emphasis mine).
This sounds very similar to the words the Lord gave Ananias to speak to Saul (soon to be known as Paul) at the time of his dramatic conversion:
15 But the Lord said to him [Ananias], “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).
One of my favorite accounts in Matthew is the encounter of the Canaanite woman with Jesus, when she begged Him to deliver her daughter from demon possession:
21 After going out from there, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 24 So he answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour (Matthew 15:21-28, emphasis mine).
It was not yet time for the gospel to be proclaimed to Gentiles (as we have seen from our Lord’s words in Matthew 10:5-6), and yet this Canaanite woman came to Jesus, pleading with Him to have mercy on her daughter. In essence, Jesus told her that His mission was to present Himself to Israel as their Messiah. She was not put off by this. Her faith was great, and she believed that His grace would also be poured out upon Gentiles. Of course she was right, and far ahead of the thinking of the Jews (or even the disciples) at this moment in time. The Jews vehemently opposed any talk of Gentile salvation (see Luke 4:16ff. and Acts 22:21-22), but this woman clung to her hope of this very thing. Gentile faith is praised and rewarded.
The first time the word “church” is found in the New Testament is in Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, both times the word “church” is found in the Gospels, it is found in Matthew:
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:16-18, emphasis mine).
Here, Jesus is introducing the church for the first time in the New Testament. The church is founded on the saving work of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, on the cross of Calvary. The church will break down the gates of Hell, snatching some from Satan’s grasp and from eternal damnation.
The second time we find the term “church” in Matthew is in chapter 18:
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20, emphasis mine).
This text deals with church discipline. Notice that a willfully sinning saint (even a Jewish one) is to be treated like a Gentile after rebuke and correction has been repeatedly rejected. The point I wish to make here, however, is that the church is in view, not just Israel. Matthew assumes the birth of the church at Pentecost, and the church will be composed of Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female:
In Matthew 21, there is another clear reference to the birth of the church and to widespread Gentile evangelism:
41 They said to him, “He will utterly destroy those evil men! Then he will lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his portion at the harvest.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 For this reason I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and the one on whom it falls will be crushed.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, because the crowds regarded him as a prophet (Matthew 21:41-46, emphasis mine).
The parable Jesus told here was hard hitting, and the religious leaders had a fair sense of what Jesus meant. The parable was intended to convey to these leaders that their rejection of Him as the Messiah would cost them their place in the Kingdom of Heaven. The kingdom would be given to others – Gentiles – who would receive Him and produce fruit for Him. Notice the verses which immediately precede this parable:
14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted against him, as to how they could assassinate him. 15 Now when Jesus learned of this, he went away from there. Great crowds followed him, and he healed them all. 16 But he sternly warned them not to make him known. 17 This fulfilled what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet:
18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I take great delight.
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
20 He will not break a bruised reed
or extinguish a smoldering wick,
until he brings justice to victory.
21 And in his name the Gentiles will hope” (Matthew 12:14-21, emphasis mine).
Matthew has definitely been preparing his readers for the Great Commission in the closing verses of his Gospel. Indeed, one would find it difficult to miss the point that this is the conclusion Matthew wanted to reach. Matthew 28 is ample evidence of Jewish unbelief, even after the miracle of our Lord’s resurrection. No wonder this Gospel ends with the command to “make disciples of every nation”!
God’s purpose in saving Jews and Gentiles and making them a part of his church is clearly revealed (even emphasized!) in the rest of the New Testament. For the moment, I call your attention to these passages from Romans 15 and the Book of Revelation:
7 Receive one another, then, just as Christ also received you, to God’s glory. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of God’s truth to confirm the promises made to the fathers, 9 and thus the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Because of this I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and I will sing praises to your name.”
10 And again it says:
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
11 And again,
“Praise the Lord all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him.”
12 And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles,
9 They were singing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were killed, and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9, emphasis mine).
9 After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7:9, emphasis mine).
Understanding the Disciples’ Reluctance to Carry Out the Great Commission
When we read the Book of Acts, it is quite obvious that the disciples (and, indeed, the saints in Jerusalem) were not quick to carry out the Great Commission. Indeed, one could almost say that Gentile evangelism took place in spite of the disciples and the early Jerusalem church.
The “Great Commission” in Acts is recorded in the first chapter:
6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8).
We see no missions’ conferences in Acts, and no particular eagerness to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. We do see resistance, however. The first wave of missionary activity took place as the result of the death of Stephen:
1 And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. 2 Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. 4 Now those who had been forced to scatter went around proclaiming the good news of the word. 5 Philip went down to the main city of Samaria and began proclaiming the Christ to them (Acts 8:1-5).
We are introduced to Saul (Paul) here, before his conversion in Acts 9. But what I wish for you to see is that the Jerusalem church was literally forced to leave Jerusalem and to carry the gospel to those living outside Jerusalem and Judea. In Acts 6, the apostles and church leaders in Jerusalem appointed seven men to oversee the feeding of the widows, so that they (the apostles) could devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). One might assume that this meant the apostles would devote themselves to “making disciples of every nation,” but this was not the case. It was two of the men appointed to oversee the feeding of the widows who became the trail blazers of Gentile evangelization. Stephen’s death brought on a wave of persecution that scattered the church (except the apostles), while Philip went down to Samaria, preaching Christ to these despised half-brothers of the Jews (see John 4:9).
When we come to Acts 10, we read of Peter’s strong resistance to going to the house of a Gentile. In chapter 11, we read of the strong reaction of the Jerusalem church leaders (which surely included some, if not all, of the apostles) to Peter’s evangelization of Gentiles:
1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them” (Acts 11:1-3).
I will grant that the pretext for their rebuke of Peter is that he “went to the uncircumcised and [ate] a meal with them” (verse 3). But verse one informs us that the occasion for their reaction was the evangelization of Gentiles. Peter explained how he was led to preach to these Gentiles, and how God saved them, almost in spite of him. He was still preaching when the Spirit came down on these believers and produced a second Pentecost. How could he refuse water baptism to those who had been baptized by the Spirit?
I am amazed at the way Luke describes their response:
18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.” 19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord (Acts 11:18-21, emphasis mine).
Reluctant though they were, the Jerusalem church leaders could hardly deny God’s hand in the salvation of these Gentiles. And yet this admission that God had purposed to save Gentiles did not change their practice. It was not the Jerusalem Jewish believers (apostles included) that led the advance of the gospel to reach Gentiles. It was instead a number of unknown, unnamed Hellenistic Jewish believers who could not keep the good news to themselves, and thus proclaimed Christ to the Gentiles at Antioch. Gentiles were saved, and a church was born. The apostles in Jerusalem did respond by sending Barnabas, but none of them seems to have been personally involved. As you may know, Barnabas sought out Saul (Paul), and the both had a very successful ministry (along with others – see Acts 13:1) there at Antioch. The Jerusalem church “drug its feet” in carrying out the Great Commission.
Why? Why were the Jewish saints in Jerusalem, including the apostles, reluctant to carry out the Great Commission? That is what we will now seek to answer.
Understanding Jewish Reluctance to Evangelize Gentiles
The evangelization of Gentiles caught Jewish believers off guard because this was a mystery to the Old Testament saint. There were Old Testament texts which spoke of God’s salvation including Gentiles. Matthew 12:15-21 (cited above) includes one such prophecy from Isaiah 42:1-4. Nevertheless, the references to the salvation of Gentiles were not understood as such, because this was a mystery to be understood only after the coming of Christ, a mystery that was revealed through men like Paul:
25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that had been kept secret for long ages, 26 but now is disclosed, and through the prophetic scriptures has been made known to all the nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith (Romans 16:25-27, emphasis mine).
1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles 2 if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that by revelation the divine secret was made known to me, as I wrote before briefly. 4 When reading this, you will be able to understand my insight into this secret of Christ. 5 Now this secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, 6 namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. 7 I became a servant of this gospel according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the exercise of his power. 8 To me—less than the least of all the saints—this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ 9 and to enlighten everyone about God’s secret plan—a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who has created all things (Ephesians 3:1-9, emphasis mine).
31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32, emphasis mine).
25 I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God—given to me for you—in order to complete the word of God, 26 that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:25-27, emphasis mine).
In the Bible, a mystery is not something about which nothing has ever been revealed. It is something that has been revealed, but has not been understood. It was Paul’s privilege to show how God had, from eternity past, planned and purposed to bring Jews and Gentiles together into one body, the church, through the saving work of Jesus Christ:
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands— 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22, emphasis mine).
This mystery – that God, in Christ, would reconcile to Himself both Jews and Gentiles in one body – required some very dramatic changes in the thinking and practices of the Jewish believers, including the apostles. There are a number of ways in which the thinking of Jewish believers had to change. I will illustrate with several of these radical changes.
THE GOSPEL AND THE LAND OF ISRAEL
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. 2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (Genesis 12:1-3, emphasis mine).
God had not only chosen a people (the seed of Abraham) by whom to bless the world; He had also chosen a place where He would bless. God called Abram from his homeland to the land of Israel. When Jacob fled back to Paddam-Aram, it is possible that he never intended to return to the Promised Land. But God gave Jacob a dream, which deeply impressed him with how special the Promised Land was:
10 Meanwhile Jacob left Beer Sheba and set out for Haran. 11 He reached a certain place where he decided to camp because the sun had gone down. He took one of the stones and placed it near his head. Then he fell asleep in that place 12 and had a dream. He saw a stairway erected on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens. The angels of God were going up and coming down it 13 and the Lord stood at its top. He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. All the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name and that of your descendants. 15 I am with you! I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you!” 16 Then Jacob woke up and thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, but I did not realize it!” 17 He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” 18 Early in the morning Jacob took the stone he had placed near his head and set it up as a sacred stone. Then he poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, although the former name of the town was Luz. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God is with me and protects me on this journey I am taking and gives me food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and I return safely to my father’s home, then the Lord will become my God. 22 Then this stone that I have set up as a sacred stone will be the house of God, and I will surely give you back a tenth of everything you give me” (Genesis 28:10-22, emphasis mine).
While they were still in the wilderness, God told the Israelites that He would designate a special place of worship:
But you must seek only the place he chooses from all your tribes to establish his name as his place of residence, and you must go there (Deuteronomy 12:5).
Later, Jerusalem would be designated as the special place where the temple would be built and Israel would come to worship. In his prayer of dedication for the temple, Solomon indicated just how special this place was:
29 Night and day may you watch over this temple, the place where you promised you would live. May you answer your servant’s prayer for this place. 30 Respond to the request of your servant and your people Israel for this place. Hear from inside your heavenly dwelling place and respond favorably… . 35 “The time will come when the skies are shut up tightly and no rain falls because your people sinned against you. When they direct their prayers toward this place, renew their allegiance to you, and turn away from their sin because you punish them (1 Kings 8:29-30, 35, emphasis mine).
Even Naaman the Syrian understood that there was something special about the land of Israel:
15 He and his entire entourage returned to the prophet. Naaman came and stood before him. He said, “For sure I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Now, please accept a gift from your servant.” 16 But Elisha replied, “As certainly as the Lord lives (whom I serve), I will take nothing from you.” Naaman insisted that he take it, but he refused. 17 Naaman said, “If not, then please give your servant a load of dirt, enough for a pair of mules to carry, for your servant will never again offer a burnt offering or sacrifice to a god other than the Lord (2 Kings 5:15-17, emphasis mine).
During the time of their Babylonian captivity, the Israelites mourned because they were not able to worship God as they did in the land of Zion:
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sit down and weep when we remember Zion.
2 On the poplars in her midst we hang our harps,
3 for there our captors ask us to compose songs;
those who mock us demand that we be happy,
saying: “Sing for us a song about Zion!”
4 How can we sing a song to the Lord in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand be crippled!
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
and do not give Jerusalem priority over whatever gives me the most joy (Psalm 137:1-6, emphasis mine).
When we come to the New Testament, we find a radical change with regard to the land. Notice this reference to Jacob’s dream (cited above), with its revisions:
49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!” 50 Jesus said to him, “Because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 He continued, “I tell all of you the solemn truth—you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:49-51, emphasis mine).
Jacob had a dream in which he saw a ladder, with angels ascending and descending on it. His attention was drawn to the land on which the ladder was placed – Israel. But when Jesus refers to this same phenomenon, He makes a significant change – He is the ladder! The important thing is not where the ladder is placed (the land), but who the ladder is (Jesus, Israel’s Messiah). He is more important than the land. He is the only way of access from earth to heaven.
The same truth is expressed in different terms in John 4:
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You people worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But a time is coming—and now is here—when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (the one called Christ); “whenever he comes, he will tell us everything.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I, the one speaking to you, am he” (John 4:19-26, emphasis mine).
The Old Testament saint normally thought of the kingdom in earthly terms. It is evident in the Gospels (as in early Acts – see Acts 1:6) that the disciples were thinking of the kingdom as an earthly one. Jesus taught otherwise.
Matthew uses the expression “the kingdom of heaven” 31 times in his Gospel. No other Gospel employs this expression. Jesus made it clear that His kingdom was a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one:
36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36, emphasis mine).
The writer to the Hebrews says that the Old Testament saints came to realize this as well:
13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16, emphasis mine).
Since the kingdom is a heavenly one, rather than an earthly one, our citizenship is a heavenly one:
But our citizenship is in heaven—and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20, emphasis mine).
Therefore, we must consider ourselves “strangers and pilgrims” on this earth:
11 Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul (1 Peter 2:11, emphasis mine).
When the Israelites were still in the wilderness, God gave instructions to construct the tabernacle, which would be His dwelling place among them:
“Let them make for me a sanctuary, that I may live among them” (Exodus 25:8).
God indicated to the Israelites that when He brought them into the land of Canaan, He would designate a more permanent place where they were to worship Him. This would be the place where God would dwell among them:
“But you must seek only the place he chooses from all your tribes to establish his name as his place of residence, and you must go there” (Deuteronomy 12:5).
The temple thus became a very sacred place to the Jews:
Why do you look with envy, O mountains with many peaks, at the mountain where God has decided to live? Indeed the Lord will live there permanently! (Psalm 68:16)
He lives in Salem; he dwells in Zion (Psalm 76:2).
Certainly the Lord has chosen Zion;
he decided to make it his home (Psalm 132:13).
But when Jesus came to earth, He became God’s permanent dwelling place among men; He replaced the temple:
“Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
Now the Word became flesh and took up residence [literally, tabernacle] among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father (John 1:14).
14 He found in the temple courts those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting at tables. 15 So he made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple courts, with the sheep and the oxen. He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold the doves he said, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will devour me.” 18 So then the Jewish leaders responded, “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” 19 Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” 20 Then the Jewish leaders said to him, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and are you going to raise it up in three days?” 21 But Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 So after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the saying that Jesus had spoken (John 2:14-22, emphasis mine).
What is even more amazing is that all those who are “in Christ” by faith become a part of the temple, or perhaps I should say that He dwells in us as His temple:
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands— 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22, emphasis mine).
4 So as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God’s sight, 5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5).
There was a very carefully defined priesthood in the Old Testament, the Aaronic Priesthood. But Jesus came as a new and better priest, after the order of Melchizedek:
19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, sure and steadfast, which reaches inside behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus our forerunner entered on our behalf, since he became a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:19-20; see also 5:6-10; chapter 7).
And because of our identification with Christ by faith, all believers become a holy priesthood:
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).
4 From John, to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from “he who is,” and who was, and who is still to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood 6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father—to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen (Revelation 1:4-6, emphasis mine).
THE SONS OF ABRAHAM
THE PEOPLE OF GOD
After God dispersed mankind at Babel (Genesis 11), He promised to bring salvation and blessing to the world through the seed of Abraham:
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. 2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. [3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed].
God’s promise to Abram was to bless him, and through him (his seed) to bless the nations. It became apparent in Israel’s history that God would include Gentiles among those He blessed. In Matthew’s genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17), we find three Gentile women in the line of the Messiah: Tamar (verse 3), Rahab and Ruth (verse 5).
Many of the Jews began to think of themselves (Israel) as the elect and the Gentiles as the condemned. They felt that a mere biological link to Abraham was sufficient to save them. John the Baptist strongly debated this false assumption:
“And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Matthew 3:9, emphasis mine).
Jesus declared that His true family was not necessarily His biological relatives, but those who followed Him:
46 While He was still speaking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. 47 And someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” 48 But He answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” 49 And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers! 50 “For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50, emphasis mine).
Paul, too, argues that being a “true Jew” is not a biological issue, but a spiritual issue:
28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God (Romans 2:28-29, emphasis mine).
14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; 15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16 For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you” ) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist (Romans 4:14-17, emphasis mine).
Paul corrects the popular misinterpretation of the Abrahamic Covenant by insisting that the “seed” of Abraham through whom the world would be blessed was not the nation Israel (plural), but the Messiah, the “true seed” (singular) of Abraham.
16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ (Galatians 3:16, emphasis mine).
The true “sons of Abraham” are those who, like Abraham, have placed their faith in God, and in His provision for their eternal salvation.
13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants—not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed—the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do (Romans 4:13-17, emphasis mine).
While many of our Lord’s “own people” – the Jews – did not receive Him, a good number of Gentiles have believed in Him, thus becoming God’s children, God’s people:
11 He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children 13 —children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God (John 1:11-13, emphasis mine).
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off [Gentiles] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace (Ephesians 2:13-15, emphasis mine).
The people of God are not Jews only; indeed at this point in time, the Jews are blinded to the truth of the gospel (2 Corinthians 3:12—4:4; cf. also Romans 11). Not all the descendants of Abraham are children of God (Romans 9:7). The people of God, the sons of Abraham, are those who have trusted in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah and our Savior.
PURITY AND HOLINESS
To be holy is to be set apart. Balaam acknowledged this in his blessing (instead of cursing) of Israel:
8 How can I curse one whom God has not cursed, or how can I denounce one whom the Lord has not denounced? 9 For from the top of the rocks I see them; from the hills I watch them. Indeed, a nation that lives alone, and it will not be reckoned among the nations. 10 Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or as a number, the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my latter end be like theirs” (Numbers 23:8-10, emphasis mine).
In particular, the Old Testament law prescribed very strict rules about the food the Israelites ate. Their food must be ritually “clean”:
And you will be holy people to me; you must not eat any meat torn by animals in the field. You must throw it to the dogs (Exodus 22:31, emphasis mine).
43 “‘Do not make yourselves detestable by any of the swarming things. You must not defile yourselves by them and become unclean by them, 44 for I am the Lord your God and you are to sanctify yourselves and be holy because I am holy. You must not defile yourselves by any of the swarming things that creep on the ground, 45 for I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God and you are to be holy because I am holy. 46 This is the law of the land animals, the birds, all the living creatures that move in the water, and all the creatures that swarm on the land, 47 to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between the living creatures that may be eaten and the living creatures that must not be eaten’” (Leviticus 11:43-47, emphasis mine).
The Jews had greatly amplified these food laws (and other laws) beyond that which God had commanded:
9 He also said to them, “You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to set up your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you would have received from me is corban’ (that is, a gift for God), 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this.” 14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand. 15 There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.” 17 Now when Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” (This means all foods are clean.) 20 He said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 23 All these evils come from within and defile a person” (Mark 7:9-23, emphasis mine).
Jesus distinguished between Jewish traditions and the Old Testament law. In addition to this, He taught that defilement is not external, but internal. It is a matter of the heart. It is not becoming holy by merely staying away from certain things. No one was holier than our Lord, and yet He was accused associating with sinners:
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2; see also Matthew 9:10-13; 11:18-19).
Before Peter could go to the house of a Gentile like Cornelius, he would need to be convinced that he would not be defiled by foods that were “unclean.” Thus we learn from Acts 10 that God had to dramatically make the point that the Old Testament food laws were set aside.
9 About noon the next day, while they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted to eat, but while they were preparing the meal, a trance came over him. 11 He saw heaven opened and an object something like a large sheet descending, being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth and wild birds. 13 Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; slaughter and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “Certainly not, Lord, for I have never eaten anything defiled and ritually unclean!” 15 The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into heaven (Acts 10:9-16, emphasis mine).
Paul found it necessary to clarify his teaching on separation, lest some interpret it as an excuse for not associating with unbelievers:
9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 In no way did I mean the immoral people of this world, or the greedy and swindlers and idolaters, since you would then have to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person (1 Corinthians 5:9-11, emphasis mine).
This lesson has focused on our Lord’s command to “make disciples of all nations.” I have attempted to show that the Jewish church (including the apostles) was reluctant to do so. I have also sought to demonstrate why. The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about the New Covenant. It took time for the radical changes required by the New Covenant to become clear, and even longer for these changes to be embraced and implemented. Indeed, when we read the Book of Acts, we see that it was neither the Lord’s Jewish apostles (His disciples in the Gospels), nor the Jerusalem church, that led out in reaching Gentiles. This came about by a number of unnamed Hellenistic Jewish Christians, including Paul (see Acts 11:15-26).
I would suggest to you that there are likely a number of obstacles that stand in the way of our carrying out the Great Commission as we ought. Prejudices and pre-conceived ideas of what it means to be a Christian may need to be scrutinized and, if they are wrong, sacrificed to the cause of Christ. In the Great Commission of Matthew, our Lord instructed us to teach new believers to obey all He commanded. He commanded us to go and make disciples. Are there things in our thinking, or in our lives, which keep us from obeying this command? If so, let us deal with them, and then hasten to obey this command.
I confess that I read our text in Matthew as a Gentile. I am genuinely sad to read that the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah, even after His resurrection. I am likewise saddened to realize that the Jewish apostles were less than perfect, and even slow to carry out the Great Commission. But as a Gentile, I realize that it was this very unbelief and rejection of Jesus by the Jews that God purposed to open the door to Gentile evangelism:
11 I ask then, they did not stumble into an irrevocable fall, did they? Absolutely not! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their transgression means riches for the world and their defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full restoration bring? 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Seeing that I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if somehow I could provoke my people to jealousy and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 If the first portion of the dough offered is holy, then the whole batch is holy, and if the root is holy, so too are the branches… . 25 For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob. 27 And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” 28 In regard to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but in regard to election they are dearly loved for the sake of the fathers. 29 For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were formerly disobedient to God, but have now received mercy due to their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all (Romans 11:11-16, 25-32).
This passage in Romans 11 reminds us that we dare not become arrogant about our salvation, which was all of God. Just as God gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites because of the sin of its inhabitants:
4 Do not think to yourself after the Lord your God has driven them out before you, “Because of my own righteousness the Lord has brought me here to possess this land.” It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out from before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness, or even your inner uprightness, that you have come here to possess their land. Instead, because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you in order to confirm the promise he made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 6 Understand, therefore, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is about to give you this good land as a possession, for you are a stubborn people! (Deuteronomy 9:4-6, emphasis mine; read also Genesis 15:14-15; Leviticus 18:24-28).
Let us not forget that God’s purposes for Jews are not completely fulfilled, and thus there is a future for Israel (Romans 11:25-32). In our evangelistic efforts, let us keep in mind that we are commanded to preach the gospel to all nations, and this includes Israel, As a matter of fact as soon as the time of the Gentiles is over then begins the time of the Jews again, and that time might be as soon as all the Jews are back in their land! We are seeing that happen right now!
Our text is one of many compelling commands to take the gospel to those who are lost. It is foundational to missionary activity:
13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 14 How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news” (Romans 10:13-15).
The Great Commission requires some dedicated saints to actually go to distant lands. It requires the church to send these people out, standing behind them with their prayers and their pocketbooks. Let us not overlook the tremendous opportunities that God has given us to reach those from distant lands who have come to the United States as students. International Students Incorporated (ISI) is one of a number of organizations that seeks to facilitate friendship evangelism with foreign students.
A number of years ago, I heard a man to speaking, who had written a book about the dangers of the “fortress church.” I think we need to be aware of the fact that Christians today may have a fortress mentality similar to that of the Jewish saints of Jesus’ day. Let’s take the “go” of the Great Commission seriously. We have to leave the security of the walls of our homes and our church and go where the lost are. We must learn from our Lord to incarnate Christ in a lost and dying world. The Great Commission condemns the fortress mentality. Is it possible that we have embraced this mentality in some ways? Are we so absorbed in our “church activities” that we have little time or energy to “go” to where the lost are? Are we doing too much for ourselves in the church, rather than going forth as a church? The Great Commission challenges us to think of these things.
Finally, is it possible that the New Covenant and the Great Commission challenge us to consider whether or not patriotism or nationalism hinder our obedience to this command of Christ? After 9-11, there was a swelling of national pride and patriotism. Let us remember that we are strangers and pilgrims in this life, and that our citizenship is in heaven. Let us not be like Jonah, whose nationalism (among other things) hindered his obedience to the Great Commission of his day.
May God expose any hindrance to our obedience to take the good news of the gospel to all the nations, and to make disciples, to the praise and glory of God.
9 They were singing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were killed, and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9).
9 After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7:9).