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Does Jesus Care about the Gentiles in Matthew’s Gospel?

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Matthew is regularly described as the most “Jewish” of the four Gospels, in part because it is believed that he wrote to a largely Jewish audience. This often influences the way people interpret this Gospel. In particular, God’s concern for the Gentiles is often called into question.

At two different points in Matthew, Jesus identifies the target of his and his disciples’ mission as being only “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6, 15:24). Does this exclude Gentiles from Jesus’s saving work in Matthew? Does this reveal Jesus’ lack of concern for non-Jewish people? How can these statements about an exclusively Jewish mission be true in light of the Great Commission—to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)—at the end of this Gospel?

I believe Jesus does in fact show a great concern for the Gentiles in Matthew’s Gospel. The seemingly contradictory statements do not show a lack of concern for the nations. Rather, Matthew’s Gospel is a narrative presentation of the principle found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s power to save everyone, but there is an order to that salvation. It comes “first to the Jew and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Salvation history has a precise order that is portrayed in the pages of Matthew’s Gospel. 

To see this clearly, consider the two passages where Jesus’s concern seems to be only with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

From Local Rejection to Global Hope 

On the heels of Jesus’s teaching, proclaiming, and healing ministry (Matthew 9:35), Matthew gives readers the second of five major discourses from Jesus. In what has come to be known as the “Mission Discourse,” Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to do many of the same things Jesus himself performed in Matthew 5–9. 

This sending, however, comes with specific instructions. The disciples are to “go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5–6). In other words, they are specifically instructed to go to Jewish cities rather than Gentile cities. This Mission Discourse illustrates the “first to the Jew” portion of Romans 1:16. 

However, in the next chapter, Matthew reveals that this mission was not well received by the people of Israel. This generation received neither John the Baptist nor Jesus (11:1–19), despite the fact that John and Jesus came with different (but related) missions and styles of ministry. The result was the same: Israel did not receive them.

We also see Israel’s rejection when Jesus denounces the various (Jewish) cities that did not repent at his might works (Matthew 11:20–24). These cities did not repent, Jesus tells us, because their hearts had been hardened to the truth. The Father had “hidden” the truth from the “wise and understanding” (11:25–26). However, this divine hiding, as Matthew’s next chapter makes clear, served a truly incredible purpose: the gospel that had come first to the Jews was destined to go to the Gentiles.

Moving on to Matthew 12, Jesus is accosted by the Pharisees, the Jewish leadership, for picking grain on the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders still do not understand who it is they are dealing with. He then heals a man on the Sabbath, and the “Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (12:14). Their hearts are hardened and their eyes are blinded. Jesus continues healing, however, and orders those he heals to not make him known (12:15–16). All this, as it turns out, was to fulfill Isaiah 42:1–3. Jesus, the Spirit-filled Messiah, would “proclaim justice to the Gentiles,” and “in his name the Gentiles will hope” (12:18, 21).

The order of salvation, as demonstrated in Matthew 10–12, is first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. We can perhaps go even further: it is through the ministry to the Jews—including their subsequent hardening and rejection of Jesus—that the Gentiles find hope. 

Eating the Crumbs

The second occurrence of the phrase “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” comes in the story of the Canaanite woman who approached Jesus and cried out for mercy on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus, somewhat surprisingly, denies her by claiming that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The woman persists in her request, and Jesus denies her again, saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (15:26). The woman replies in a final attempt to prevail upon Jesus by saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (15:27). Jesus is impressed with her faith and heals her daughter. 

Two points are worth noting here. First, the woman is described as a “Canaanite.” This is different from Mark’s account where she is described as a “Syrophoenician.” Matthew uses the outdated term because it represents one of the main villains from the Old Testament, the Canaanites. It heightens the shocking nature of the story. Not only is this woman a Gentile, she is a Canaanite, a despised inhabitant of the land that Israel had to drive out. 

Second, the woman does not deny that salvation comes first to the Jews. She acknowledges that it is proper for the Jews to receive the bread first, and crucially, it is through the children eating the bread that the crumbs fall from the table for the dogs to eat. This means that it is through salvation (bread) coming to the Jews (the children) that the Gentiles (dogs) are saved. As Patrick Schreiner says, “The order is part of the means of including Gentiles. When the children eat the bread, some will fall, and then the dogs can also eat from their master’s table. Israel’s eating of bread is the means by which the Gentiles receive crumbs.”[1]

So, far from excluding the Gentiles, the Gospel of Matthew presents the saving of the nations through a particular redemptive order. For the Gentiles to be saved, salvation must first come to the Jews. What began as a mission to the “lost sheep of Israel” eventually extended to “all nations.” 

 

[1] Patrick Schreiner, Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus, 195.

Ryan Johnson received his PhD in New Testament from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and he serves as an online adjunct professor at Trinity Baptist College in Jacksonville, Florida, and a Book Briefer for Accelerate Books.
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