The Bible begins by describing the entire human race – all two members of it. When we reach the story of Abraham in the twelfth chapter, the Bible’s focus narrows. Because of the promises God made to Abraham, he and his descendents (who became the nation of Israel) become the focus. The remainder of the Old Testament retains that focus by recording the history of Abraham’s descendents. The last time God spoke to Israel was 400 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (this time period is called the intertestamental period).
Did the birth of Jesus, marked by the beginning of the New Testament with the historical chronicles of his eathly ministry — the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — bring an end to this focus on Israel? Did the focus of the Bible return to all of mankind with the penning of Matthew 1:1? Or did the earthly ministry of our Lord continue the focus on Israel? What do the Scriptures say?
- Jesus is described in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 as a direct descendent from Abraham on both sides of his earthly family. Hence, He was an Israelite.
- An angel appeared to Joseph in Matthew 1:18-23 to tell him that the baby should be named Jesus “for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” Not all people, although in retrospect we understand that was true. God chose to hide the universality of Christ’s work on the cross at that time, and reveal it later. At the point in history described by Matthew 1:22, it was still a mystery hidden in God. The angel then reminded Joseph of a prophecy from Isaiah 7:14. Since Isaiah was a prophet sent to Israel and not all of mankind, this prophecy also illustrates that the focus is still on Israel and not all of mankind.
- Herod asks the Wise Men in Matthew 2:2, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” He didn’t ask, “Where is He who has been born king of all mankind”! The priests and scribes answered him with a quote from the prophet Micah (sent to Israel’s northern and southern kingdoms after their division following Solomon’s reign), who prophesied that this king would come from Bethlehem in Judah, and that He would “shepherd My people Israel.” Micah did not say that the king would come from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and did not say He would shepherd all of mankind. Micah was very specific (under the influence of the Holy Spirit), and Jesus was the exact fulfillment of his specificity.
We could go on to cite verse after verse out of not only Matthew, but Mark, Luke and John as well. The frequency of references to Jesus earthly ministry being targeted at Israel does not wane as we get closer to the cross. Consider two more examples:
- Matthew 10:5-7 “These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them, saying, ‘Do not go in the way of the Gentiles and do not enter any city of the Samaritans’ but rather go to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. and as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
- Matthew 15:22-24 “And behold, a Canaanite woman came out from that region, and began to cry out, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly deomon-possessed.’ But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came to Him and kept asking him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is shouting out after us.’ But He answered and said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” The woman persisted, and eventually her humility and faith won healing for her daughter. The point here is that Jesus made two specific negative statements against healing her daughter on the basis that she was not an Israelite. To focus on the fact that in the end Jesus healed the girl, and thus conclude that Christ’s earthly ministry was to Jew and Gentile alike, is to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel by ignoring the entire discourse that went before, not to mention that Christ considered her healing to be on the level of mere crumbs that fell from a table that was clearly set for only Israel. Clearly in Christ’s perspective she did not belong at the table, nor did He invite her to dine at the table on the basis of her faith. The Apostle Paul’s revelation included the perspective that Jew and Gentile are on an equal footing in the church today (Romans 10:12), but that is far from the perspective presented in this passage.
Was Israel unaware of this focus? No, indeed! As Our Lord taught during His earthly ministry, everything He did was prophesied in the Old Testament. No Israelite was ignorant of the promises of land, population, and rule that had been made to their ancestor Abraham. In fact, there were many in Israel at Jesus birth who were expecting the king to come and establish Israel as ruler over all of the gentile nations:
- Herod was obviously expecting a political competitor who he felt worthy enough to attempt to murder as an infant (see Matthew 2:16-18)
- Simeon, a devout old man, was waiting in the Temple daily because the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen “the Lord’s Christ” — as he did (see Luke 2:25-36)
- Anna, an eighty-four-year-old widow who actually lived in the Temple, never leaving it, recognized the infant Jesus immediately as the coming king (see Luke 2:37-38)
Exceptions such as the healing of the Centurion’s servant in Luke 7:1-10 are present in the four gospels where Jesus steps briefly outside the perspective of ministry to Israel. But it is always on the basis of faith that puts the meager faith of Israel to shame, and always in a manner that is demonstrative of how the Gentile nations will be blessed under the rule of Israel in the days of the Kingdom. The exceptions are just that — exceptions, few and far between.
Israel’s expectation was that the long-promised king who would rule the world from David’s throne was coming, and it was both a national and a personal expectation. We find that expectation still present and not countermanded in the interim in any way by Jesus, all the way through a full forty days after His resurrection, as He gathered His disciples around Himself one last time before ascending into Heaven (Acts 1:4-6). Their pressing question to Him was, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (We shall have much to say about His answer when we consider this passage in its proper sequence in the narrative.)
Was Israel expecting a King and a Kingdom throughout Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry? Study the Scriptures to see if it is so.