Two prophetic activities make up the bulk of the Gospel narratives.
- Jesus healed crowds of Jews in the countryside, in homes, and in synagogues, all while announcing the arrival of the kingdom through powers, teachings, and parables.
- Jesus debated priests, lawyers, scribes, and Pharisees concerning the Jewish scriptures wherever he met them; in Jerusalem, Galilee, the Jordan Valley, etc.
The primacy of these two activities in the narrative tradition confirms what we can know about Jesus’ mission from the sayings tradition: Jesus was a son sent to the vineyard of Israel to collect his father’s produce (Mark 12:1-8); he was a mother hen sent to Jerusalem to take his chicks under his wings (Matthew 23:37); a shepherd sent to rescue the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mark 6:34, Matthew 10:5-6, Luke 15:1-7); a physician sent to bind up Israel’s sick (Mark 2:16-17).
For Jesus, preaching his message “in neighboring towns” amounted to “preaching the message in their synagogues” (Mark 1:38-39). This Israel-centric approach was so entrenched among the early Jewish Christians that it persisted long after the first Greek converts (Acts 17:1-2). Jesus’ mission, and the mission of his earliest followers, was thus largely, if not entirely, to and for Jews. As Paul attests, Christ was “a servant to the circumcised” (Romans 15:8). He came to help “the descendants of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16).
As such, it is not surprising that in the course of his prophetic tours through Galilee and Judea, Jesus regularly shared meals with a wide range of Jews. He and his disciples sometimes relied on Jewish hosts for lodging while they proclaimed the news of the kingdom in their towns and synagogues.
None of these activities, however, characterize Jesus’ encounters with gentiles. Jesus did not heal crowds of pagans or announce his message of the kingdom in their cities and temples. Nor did he claim to be a prophet sent to the nations according to the sayings tradition. Rather, it appears that the historical Jesus largely practiced what the Matthean Jesus preached: “Go nowhere among the gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). Although our sources betray knowledge of some association with Samaritans, there is simply no evidence that Jesus served gentiles en mass or associated with them beyond brief encounters.
This is not to say that Jesus never interacted with gentiles. He surely did. But these interactions were very different and prove to have been the exception to the rule. Jesus appears to have fed first the children of Israel as the saying goes: “First let the children have their fill, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).
That this was the case is obvious when we outline Jesus’ interactions with gentiles.
- The Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5): Jesus’ first encounter with a gentile is really an encounter with a demon. Jesus vanquishes the unclean spirit but does not allow the restored gentile to become a disciple. Instead, Jesus makes him an apostle: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” The once demon-possessed man takes with him not the message of the kingdom then, but a corollary message regarding the greatness of Israel’s God.
- The reverent centurion (Matthew 8/Luke 7): A righteous centurion recognizes the authority Israel’s God has given Jesus, and is praised for his faith. After he heals the centurion’s slave, Jesus contrasts Israel’s faithlessness with the faithfulness of those gentiles who will eat with Abraham when the kingdom is established.
- The Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7): A gentile mother secures a cure for her daughter by acknowledging the superabundant mercy of Israel’s God manifested through his servant, Jesus. She also acquiesces to the preeminence of Jesus’ mission to the children of Israel.
- God-fearing Greeks (John 12): Some Greeks who are celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem seek out Jesus. Jesus does not meet with them but takes the opportunity to announce his impending death and resurrection to his disciples. While Greek interest in Jesus and Israel’s god seems to signal the glorification of the Messiah and the expansion of God’s flock outside the bounds of Israel, the Fourth Evangelist remains resistant to anachronism: Jesus did not freely associate with Greeks.
When we contrast these encounters with Jesus’ ministry to Jews, we find a few things missing.
- Jesus does not dine with, stay with, or otherwise associate with his gentile clients. Jesus does not teach them, tell them parables, or make them disciples. The theological statements Jesus does make during his interactions with gentiles are brief and sometimes meant to shame Israel for their infidelity and sometimes meant to affirm the priority of the mission to Israel.
- The message about the kingdom is absent. Gentiles are rightly praised for their reverence shown to Israel’s God and his prophet—Jesus even alludes to their inclusion in the messianic kingdom—but gentiles are still not recipients of the kingdom proclamation. God-fearing gentiles may benefit from God’s kingdom, but it is not their kingdom to possess. The kingdom must instead be “restored” to Israel (Acts 1:6-7).
One of the conclusions we can draw from these passages is that Jesus’ kingdom message was Israel-specific. He was not immediately interested in a gospel to the nations. Rather, Jesus suspected the Davidic monarchy would be restored, Israel’s enemies would be defeated, and, as a consequence, righteous gentiles would enjoy Israel’s supremacy. As Jesus knew from Isaiah’s vision, God-fearing gentiles would come to a glorious Jerusalem to honor God and learn righteousness. Such gentiles would, however, remain outside the bounds of God’s chosen people. They would return home after their pilgrimage.
While history vindicated Jesus’ kingdom proclamation, it did so in ways Israel surely did not expect. The hope for a kingdom restored to Israel and Jerusalem was dashed when the nation by in large rejected their Messiah. Callous to Jesus’ message and unmoved by jealousy, Israel’s Judean population, the religious leaders included, were swept away in a rebellion against Rome. Hand in hand with Israel’s obstinacy and demise, God’s spirit was inexplicably moving powerfully among gentiles throughout the empire. In the face of God’s actions through Christ’s spirit, the Jewish apostles were unable to deny such gentiles full membership into the family of God.
In consequence, the elected ἔθνος upon which the kingdom was to be bestowed would now be a people ransomed from every nation and tribe united by faith in Christ’s impending eschatological judgement. The predominantly gentile churches situated in Asia Minor and Rome, not the Jewish churches headquartered in Jerusalem, would inherit the blessings of David when Christ returned to slay Greco-Roman paganism and establish his kingdom in its place.