Jesus and The Failed Gentile Mission
When Jesus called Peter to become a fisher of men, I seriously doubt the Apostle had any thought of the role he would someday play in fulfilling Israel’s sacred mission to the Gentiles. For him, one who most closely related to the older brother in The Parable of The Prodigal Son, sharing the heart of the father for the gentiles, proved a stressful ministry challenge into his older years.
Before we are too harsh on our great brother, let me ask you a question. How many Israelite characters can you name who ministered to Gentiles?
- Moses came out of Egypt with a mixed multitude who were absorbed into Israel.
- David had Gentiles as part of his entourage… like Uriah whom he murdered after stealing the poor man’s wife.
- Elijah won Naaman in 2nd Kings 5 after healing him from a skin disease.
- Jonah was instrumental in the conversion of the sailors through both his proclamations of YHWH’s glory and his own “death” at YHWH’s hand in the midst of the storm. He also preached a message to Nineveh and turned many from their wickedness, no matter how unhappy he was about the deliverance.
- Daniel and his friends were powerful witnesses for YHWH even in the face of death threats… and actual murder attempts.
- The exile and diaspora forced Jews to spread abroad, advancing YHWH’s fame (even if by accident) through their dedication to preserving Torah and Synagogue.
The First Great Commission
When God called Israel out of Egypt and met with them at Sinai, he gave them a commission. It was the natural extension of the commission to man in the garden of Eden. (Genesis 1:26-30) God created the world with a purpose; He created it to become something, and put that “something” into the hands of His regents in the world—humanity.
It was a commission whose fulfillment was promised through THE ONE when humanity fell into sin (Genesis 3:15), that ONE person who would perfectly represent the Creator in this world. For though man should fail, God will not allow his word to return void. He will accomplish His purposes. Creation will become what God intended it to become when He made it… even if He has to come to earth as a man to fulfill it Himself… one standing in for all.
It was a commission handed off to THE ONE, Noah, and then adapted for the Seed of THE ONE, Abraham, chosen from among all the sons of men to bear it forward. Israel, Abraham’s seed, was called to be a nation of priests, holy to YHWH, fulfilling His purposes in creation, representing the Nations to God, and God to the nations. (Exodus 19:5-6)
The Commission Inverted
This commission falls on hard times, however. Isaiah 2:1-4:6 unpacks the trouble. God has called Israel to be a light to the nations, which is an ongoing theme in Isaiah, a mission to be fulfilled ultimately by THE ONE great Messiah who is to come. Israel, however, strives not to affect the nations, but to be like them. They forsake Torah and emulate the vile practices of the peoples around them; they worship idols and give themselves over to bloodshed and immorality. God, however, will fulfill His purposes in and through them. He will use exile to purge them of this tendency, to create usable instruments for His glorification the world over out of a remnant of Israel, the seed Abraham, the seed of the woman.
When Israel returns to the Holy Land after exile they are cured of Idolatry… sort of. They are so skittish about idolatry that one risked instant stoning and riots at the very hint of physical idol worship. This says nothing of the human tendency to establish idols in the heart, but there would be no truck with actual images.
Rise of the Pharisees
Unfortunately, as is the won’t of human nature, they also became so antiseptic, so paranoid, and so determined to keep themselves unstained by the world, that, far from fulfilling their commission as a nation of priests, a light to the Gentiles, they enculturated hatred for the Gentiles. It becomes a defining feature.
Pharisaic disdain for non-Jews (and less committed Jews) is expressed in their writings with enough vehemence as to make your average hate monger blush. “The Traditions of the Elders,” a stimulus for Jesus’ personal Gentile mission in Mark 7, is not a code word for Jewish oral law in general but represented 18 vigorously enforced, and newly passed, oral laws that were specifically designed to strain all Gentile Jewish relations to the breaking point. Their single aim was to drive a wedge of hatred between the Jew and the non-Jew.
The heartland of Judaism (Judea) manifests its most vicious forms. As one spreads out from Judea, the rule-keeping grows sloppier. The Pharisees work aggressively to bring the regions of Galilee and other outlying areas into line with their own rigid sense of Torah keeping. They also have strained relations with Hellenistic Jews who have been forced to live abroad in the Roman Empire… a tension that carries on within the Christian church thereafter. They also relegate classes of people like sinners whose Jewish sloppiness was unbearable to them, and tax-collectors who earned their keep working for the Roman authorities to tax their fellow Jews.
So, in the face of Jewish leadership’s failure to fulfill their commission as a people called to be a kingdom of priests, a light of the nations, not to mention their antiseptic self-congratulating trust in their own goodness before God the Father, Jesus decides to school them on the nature of the Father’s heart for all His Children and not just for those who “were born to the right parents,” and who “do everything right.”
Jesus and the Gentiles
Why does Jesus eat and drink with tax-gatherers and sinners? Why does Jesus receive them? Is that really the question? Based even on the most basic elements of human compassion, (demonstrated in the parable of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son) which is an empty shell compared to the compassion of the Heavenly Father, the real question is, “Why don’t they?”
There are prodigal sons, prodigal daughters, prodigal people groups, prodigal nations, and Jesus arises as THE ONE son of David, THE ONE son of Abraham, THE ONE seed of the woman to fulfill Israel’s commission to the world.
He establishes a church whose own commission encompasses the others. God’s regents are meant to win the lost… everywhere. Thus, Jesus commissions, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
So, Jesus’ promise to Peter that he would be a fisher of men, is illustrated in The Parable of the Prodigal Son, calling him to share the heart of the heavenly father for the lost the world over. It is also met with the Great Commission as Jesus’ last words on earth to him.
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