Has God always been concerned about extending His love and forgiveness to all nations and peoples of the earth?
To discover how this is true, we must read our Bible as Jesus read His. Jesus only had what we today call the Old Testament. In His Hebrew Bible — the Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms — we learn that God’s grace was never limited to one nation or people group.
God initially chose one man, Abraham, through whom He would grow the nation of Israel (Genesis 12). Israel was meant to be “ … a light for the nations, that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, English Standard Version). And from this nation would come another, Messiah, who would fulfill all of what was written and hoped for in the Old Testament, thereby bringing the blessing of Abraham to the nations.
With unbroken continuity, the New Testament picks up right where the Old Testament left off. The foretold Messiah enters history, and God’s promise and plan of salvation are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. God sent His Son, Jesus, that whoever believes in Him would have eternal life (John 3:16).
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The first book of the New Testament, Matthew, begins right where the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, ended even though there were 400 years of silence from God between the two books.
Malachi was a Jewish prophet — someone who spoke to God and for God. A prophet enforced the Mosaic covenant, a collection of laws under which the nation of Israel lived. The book’s message warns of an imminent day of judgment called “the Day of the Lord.” It would be “a great and terrible day” of “cleansing and burning” and also a time of great joy and reward for the faithful.
The judgment would be particularly severe on the nation of Israel and its leaders because of specific sins against God such as hypocritical worship (Malachi 1:7-14), social injustice (2:10), pagan religious practices (2:11), divorce (2:16) and withholding tithes and offerings to God (3:8-10). But above all, the prophet declares, God’s patience is coming to an end because the people who were supposed to make God — Yahweh — known and shown to the nations of the world have failed to do so. Instead, they have disrespected His name (1:15-14). They were not reflecting God to the nations. But God’s purpose will not be defeated, for all over the world, His name is to be known and honored among the nations. In every place, prayers and worship are to be offered to Him (1:11).
Because God is so concerned that He be honored among the nations, He is about to act, Malachi warns. He will first send a forerunner, a “frontman,” to prepare the way for Him (Malachi 3:1). The forerunner will come in the likeness of an Old Testament prophet; he will stand in the tradition of the fiery man of God named Elijah (Malachi 4:5).
After the forerunner has prepared the way, then God, the Son, will come Himself (Malachi 3:1).
Jesus identified John the Baptist as the “Elijah” whom Malachi had promised. Jesus declared: “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:13-15, Revised Standard Version).
Jesus was warning that a turning point in history was near. The last of the prophets — John the Baptist, a type of Elijah — had been sent to bring about a message of reconciliation with God. Some months later, after the death of John the Baptist, He again identified John as the type of Elijah the prophet foretold by Malachi:
“But I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands. Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist” (Matthew 17:12-13, New American Standard Bible).
John the Baptist had been sent as a messenger to prepare the way for God’s Son, Jesus, the Messiah. John suffered just as the Messiah would suffer. Jesus had come to announce a new covenant promise to replace the old covenant that had been broken between God and Israel.
The Book of Malachi summarizes the Old Testament books as a unified story that point to the future. It highlights the spiritual failures of God’s chosen people, Israel. It also speaks of Yahweh’s unfailing love for His people. It was this love that sent Jesus into the world, as noted in the opening of the New Testament.
Where the Israelites had failed, God’s Son, Jesus, would succeed. Jesus knew that the covenant agreement God made with His people at Mt. Sinai (in Old Testament times) had been broken again and again by a disobedient people. After a long line of prophets was sent to call them back to following God, they still failed. In Jesus’ earthly life, He paid the penalty for disobedience by His once for all sacrificial death on the cross. And He lived out and fulfilled the covenant law perfectly so that a new covenant could be introduced on behalf of a new people of God. He would make “one new man” from both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:15,16). There was a note of urgency with which Jesus began His ministry.
The Gospels — the first four books of the New Testament — confirm this all-inclusive concept of God’s plan to save those who believe in Him — Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus shows that He undertook God’s rescue mission for all mankind through the distinctive title He used for Himself, in the strategy of His ministry and in His teachings.
Jesus was “the Son of God” referred to prophetically in Psalm 2:7, and during His trial before the Jewish religious council called the Sanhedrin, He acknowledged this. But the title which He used most often throughout His ministry was “Son of Man.” More than 40 times in the Gospels the term is used, always by Jesus referring to Himself. The disciples never used the term, but called him “Lord,” “Master” or “Teacher.” Again and again, He said it: “ … the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20, ESV). “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6, ESV). “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8, ESV). “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26, ESV).
Jesus derived this term from two principal sources: the Old Testament Books of Ezekiel and Daniel. “Son of Man” is the distinctive title applied to the prophet Ezekiel by God and occurs 87 times. The Hebrew translation of Son of Man is “ben Adam,” literally, “Son of Adam” or “son of mankind.” Originally, when used to refer to the prophet Ezekiel, it meant only “man,” as opposed to God, and reminded Ezekiel of his humble status. But by the time of Jesus, the term had become an honorific title of the Messiah, and many passages in the Book of Ezekiel were idealized and interpreted messianically. As He read the book, Jesus likely noted the similarities to Himself and His calling: “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against Me” (Ezekiel 2:3, ESV). “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from My mouth, you shall give them warning from Me” (3:17, ESV).
Especially significant for Jesus were the passages concerning a remnant to be spared (6:8); the new heart and spirit (11:19; 1 36: 26-27); the new everlasting covenant (37:26); and the promise that the Gentile nations would come to know the Lord, God of Israel (37:28; 38:23, 39:7). All these were to be fulfilled by Jesus as Son of Man.
Daniel 7:13-14 was also in the mind of Jesus when He used the title “Son of Man.” There it was an Aramaic term, “bar enash,” instead of “ben Adam.” But the meaning is similar, “enash” being the word for mankind in general, as against an individual male person. In rabbinical commentary and popular thought, the term had already been highly spiritualized, indicating the ideal man, almost divine in nature. While not one of the accepted books of the Bible that came from God, the Book of Enoch, an apocalyptic discourse widely circulated during the first century, exalted the figure even beyond Daniel’s vision. But it is not necessary to assume that Jesus was influenced by Enoch. The words of Daniel are clear enough:
“I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven,
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations, and men of every language Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed” (7:13-14, NASB).
Jesus knew that these things prophesied in Daniel 7 would take place after His suffering on the cross, His resurrection and His return to heaven. He claimed the title for Himself, thus identifying Himself, not only with the Hebrew people or the Jewish nation but with the whole human race, with all the families of mankind.
The Son of Man title taken from the Book of Ezekiel showed how Jesus emphasized His own perfect humanity. Taken from Daniel, it showed He understood His identity as the Messiah — the anointed One from God and promised deliverer foretold from the Old Testament. Jesus was the perfect God-man who would bring in God’s everlasting kingdom for both Jew and Gentile.
The vision of a kingdom that included Jews and Gentiles was part of Jesus’ plan from the very beginning of His ministry.
Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth demonstrates that His life purpose extended far beyond the nation of Israel. He was not surprised that His own people — the Jews — did not receive His message. “That’s the way it has always been,” He said. (Luke 4:24, author’s paraphrase). He then gave an example: “There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah … and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow” (Luke 4:25-26, ESV). His hearers knew the rest of the story told in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings 17. Received into a Gentile home, Elijah performed the remarkable miracle of replenishing the flour and oil, then later restored the widow’s son to life — not a Jewish widow, but a Gentile!
Jesus did not stop with the example from the ministry of the Prophet Elijah. He rubbed salt into the wounded feelings of His audience with the story of Naaman, the Syrian. He was not only a Gentile but a military leader-captain of the Syrian army, which at that time was at war with Israel and had almost eradicated the hapless little nation (2 Kings 5:1-14). Namaan was stricken with leprosy, and although there were many lepers in Israel, “ … none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27, ESV).
No more dramatic illustration could have been given that the grace of God was not limited to the people of Israel and that Gentiles often displayed greater faith than those who were considered “children of the kingdom.” It is a small wonder that the proud citizens of Nazareth were infuriated at this brash young man who insulted their nation and called into question their privileged status as God’s chosen people! But for His miraculous power, they would have hurled him to His death on the jagged rocks at the foot of a cliff (Luke 4:28-30).
Jesus did have a deep conviction of a special mission to the Jewish nation, who were God’s treasured possession (Exodus 19:5). He expressed this so strongly that some have concluded that He envisioned no mission beyond Israel. But careful consideration of all His words and actions reveals that it was a question of strategy: As Paul later expressed it, His mission was “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16; 2:10, King James Version).
Jesus’ concern for Israel was shown in the instructions to the 12 disciples as He sent them out on their first preaching mission. “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles,” He said, “and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6, NASB). The apostle Paul later wrote, “God, having raised up His servant, sent Him to you (the Jews) first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness (Acts 2:26, ESV, author’s clarification in parentheses).
His ministry was restricted primarily, but not exclusively to the Jews (Matthew 8:1-13). Indeed, in the very same context is the prediction that the preaching ministry of the disciples would be extended to the Gentiles; “You shall even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:18, NASB 1977).
Luke’s Gospel tells of a later preaching mission in which 70 others were sent out two by two (Luke 10:1). Just as the 12 apostles symbolically represent the 12 tribes of Israel, the 70 symbolize the Gentile nations. In Genesis 10, the descendants of Noah are listed, 70 in number.
Rabbinical tradition assumed that this was the total number of nations scattered over the earth after the Tower of Babel and repeatedly referred to the 70 Gentile peoples. Jesus may have used this means of symbolizing His long-range purpose. The 12 were sent to heal the sick and announce the nearness of God’s kingdom. The 70 were sent later on a training mission in preparation for their ultimate mission to the whole world.
Jesus ministered to the Jews for the Gentiles.
Most of the public ministry of Jesus was conducted in Jewish territory. Under the circumstances, the number of personal contacts with Gentiles recorded in the Gospels is surprising. He healed a Gadarene (Gentile) demoniac (Matthew 8:28-34). Another time, among 10 lepers healed, one was a Samaritan (a mixed race, half-Jew), and Jesus remarked upon the fact that only the foreigner returned to thank Him (Luke 17:12-19).
A Samaritan woman was the sole audience for one of Jesus’ greatest dialogues. She received the assurance that the time was near when God would be worshipped, not just in Jerusalem (where the Jews worshipped) or at Mt. Gerizim (where the Samaritans worshipped), but all over the world “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:5-42).
A Canaanite (Gentile) woman’s faith was rewarded when her daughter was healed. Much has been made of Jesus’ challenging remark at the beginning of the encounter: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24, ESV). He declined to heal her because His mission was first to the Jews. The woman understood and didn’t challenge this. Even so, she humbly submitted herself to Jesus, asking for His mercy. The significant point is that Jesus did minister to this Gentile woman and praised her faith in the presence of His disciples and the Jewish onlookers (Matthew 15:28). This incident echoed forward to Romans 15:8-9 that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.
Another example of Jesus reaching the Gentiles involved a Roman centurion whose servant was healed. Commander of a band of 100 foreign soldiers quartered at Capernaum to keep the peace, this Roman leader was despised by the Jews who resented this “army of occupation.” Conscious of his own authority as a military man, he humbly assured Jesus that it would not be necessary for Him to go to his house to heal his servant (and thus render Himself unclean — because He was a Jewish man — by entering a Gentile home). “But only say the word, and my servant will be healed,” he declared with genuine faith (Matthew 8:8, ESV). Jesus turned and announced to the Jewish crowd which was following Him: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10, ESV). He did not stop there but continued with this solemn prediction: “I tell you, many such foreigners shall come from the east and the west to join Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But many others who thought they were ‘sons of the kingdom’ (the chosen people of Israel) shall be shut out” (Matthew 8: 11-12, author’s paraphrase).
In Jerusalem, during the week of Passover, a group of Greeks who had made a commitment to follow the laws of Judaism asked to speak with Jesus (John 12). Their request for an audience caused Jesus to declare: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23, ESV). The deep interest of the Greeks was evidence that the world was ready for His redemptive mission to be culminated by His atoning death: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32, ESV). “All men” — Greeks as well as Jews — this is the clear implication of these profound words recorded by John.
The events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem bear eloquent testimony to the fact that He moved resolutely toward the cross.
He entered the city on a donkey, in order to fulfill the prophet Zechariah’s prediction from the Old Testament of a king who would speak peace to the nations and whose dominion would be from sea to sea (Zechariah 9:9-10).
Then He went to the temple and found greedy religious businessmen taking advantage of those that had come to worship. So He cleansed this corruption from the court of the Gentiles (the outermost court of the temple in Jerusalem that could be entered by all peoples), declaring sternly, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17, ESV).
Standing in the temple, He denounced the chief priests and Pharisees, the official leaders of the Jewish nation, for having failed to be good stewards of the truths of the kingdom which had been entrusted to the chosen people, and solemnly declared, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43, ESV).
When asked concerning the end of the age, Jesus said, in effect: “Don’t be misled. It will not be as soon as some think. For this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all nations, and after that, the end shall come” (Matthew 24:4-14, author’s paraphrase). Concerning His return in glory, He was purposely vague, declaring, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36, ESV). But when He does come, He promised, “Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32, ESV).
Just before the Passover, at a house in Bethany, an adoring woman anointed His body with costly ointment. When she was criticized for her extravagance, Jesus stoutly defended her with these words: “ … She did it to prepare Me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:12,13, ESV).
The next evening in the upper room with His disciples, He sealed the new covenant with them, in anticipation of His death. He declared as He passed the cup, “for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28, ESV). Only the disciples were present, and all were Jews. But Jesus knew that the small nucleus of a new chosen people, the remnant of Israel, was soon to be enlarged, as the many for whom He died heard the good news of His love and forgiveness and placed their trust in Him as their Lord and Savior.
After Jesus’ resurrection, His last words before He went back to heaven gave instruction to His followers: ”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 end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV).
God’s heart has always been for the nations, and the global vision of the risen Jesus remains the same. Jesus’ call is for His followers to reach all peoples with the good news of His love and forgiveness.
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Adapted from “All Nations in God’s Purpose” (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1979), Chapter V. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Copyright 2001 Cru, Inc. All rights reserved.
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