The early Christians saw their mission as global in scope, but during his earthly ministry, Jesus explicitly declared his mission to be focused only on Israel (Matt 15:24).
When traced backwards, the flow of universal mission of the early church runs into the rocks of Jesus’ striking particularity. What gives?
Here’s my brief attempt at giving an answer.
Jesus the Nationalist
The Gospels reveal a Jesus focused on Israel. In fact, his ministry appears to be focused so relentlessly on the Jewish people that many scholars have debated whether Jesus was concerned with outsiders at all. When taking into consideration the nations-focused mission of the early church as directed by the risen Jesus that was so prominent in Christian thinking, it is striking to discover that this global impulse appears to be absent from Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Furthermore, the Gospels record Jesus as being up front about his nationalistic intentions. He claimed that his mission was only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24), a statement made upon his initial refusal of a Gentile woman who asked for healing for her daughter.
It is interesting to note the parallel between the global vision of the risen Jesus as manifested in the actions of the early church and the nationalistic vision of Jesus’ earthly ministry as manifested in the disciples’ avoidance of Gentile towns in favor of “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6, 23).
Other statements reinforce Jewish priority during the ministry of Jesus, including his decision to choose twelve disciples (corresponding, most likely, to the twelve tribes of Israel) and the fact that the “God of Israel” received the glory when Jesus did engage in brief ministry in Gentile territory (Matt 15:31).
The Wrong Answer
Because of the apparent discrepancy between Jesus’ ministry focus and that of the early church, some scholars assume the evangelists had ulterior motives in the way they portrayed Jesus’ interactions with others.
For example, the Jesus Seminar chooses to pit Mark’s intentions against those of Matthew, postulating that Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing of a Gentile woman’s daughter is meant to justify the church’s Gentile mission, whereas Matthew’s account is “an effort to reinstate a narrower scope for Jesus’ activity.” While it is undeniable that each evangelist chose particular emphases in shaping the Jesus stories, this kind of speculation is wrongheaded. After all, both accounts show Jesus answering the request, and both Gospels also include an emphasis on global mission. (We could make the case that Matthew envisions the Gentile mission even more clearly than Mark does.)
Regardless of how one interprets the evangelists’ different accounts of the same event, it is clear that Jesus’ focus was on reforming Israel, not bringing his kingdom message to the rest of the world. His focus on Israel can be seen in his prophecies and pronouncements of judgment on the nation. Through symbolic, prophetic actions like cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25; Matt 21:18-22) and cleansing the temple (Mark 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-16), as well as strong prophetic denunciations (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21, 13:6-9), Jesus made his particular focus on Israel clear.
Christ’s Mission to Israel for the World
The messianic identity of Jesus, formed and shaped by the Old Testament promises and the Jewish prophets, leads in a direction that simultaneously complicates and resolves the issue. Instead of seeing Jesus’ messianic mindset in terms of either or, one ought to see his mission as to Israel on behalf of the nations. In other words, in narrowing his focus to Israel, Jesus does the work necessary for the entire world to be blessed.
If Jesus saw himself as Israel’s Messiah, the one who will constitute a new Israel, and if he purposefully acted in ways that fulfill the role of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah and the vocation of Israel as the light of the world, then it is no surprise that he would focus his ministry squarely on his Jewish contemporaries.
Jesus’ ministry was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel precisely, because he is the good shepherd come to gather the renewed Israel around himself and to launch their trajectory into the world with the healing grace God always intended to flow through his chosen people. Jesus ministered to the Jews for the Gentiles.
Therefore, we should say the mission of Jesus is first to Israel (through his own ministry) and then to the Gentiles (through the actions of his apostles), but this trajectory should not be reduced merely to salvation-historical terms. Instead, the mission of Jesus to the Gentiles (through his apostles) should be seen as contingent upon the success of his mission to the Jews.
Mission to the nations depends upon Jesus’ accomplishment of his mission to Israel. The particularity of Jesus’ earthly ministry serves the universality of God’s ultimate vision for the world.
Creating too strong a dichotomy between Jesus’ mission to the Jews and the church’s mission to the Gentiles is unhelpful. As the long-awaited Messiah who fulfills Israel’s vocation, Jesus accomplishes the mission of Israel through his own life and work, thereby bringing the blessing of Abraham to the nations, as was promised in the Old Testament.
The mission to the Gentiles was not at the expense of mission to Israel, nor was it merely an extension. Instead, Israel was to be the catalyst through which God would accomplish his promises to the world.
Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel in order that through his regathering and reconstituting the true Israel, the blessing of salvation would be released to flow from Israel and into all the world, just as God promised in the Old Testament.