The Lost Sheep of the House of Israel

Jesus is indicating that the focus of his earthly mission was primarily to the Jews.

These words are striking in their context because of the obvious persistence of the Gentile lady pleading with him and the apparent perplexity of the disciples who were privy to the conversation. But it is striking also because it echoes directly what Jesus had already said to the disciples when he sent them out to preach the gospel of the kingdom (Mt 10.6).

 

There are many occasions when what seem like throwaway remarks from Jesus say far more than we may realise. One in particular is heard in our Lord’s exchange with the Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon (Mt 15.21-28), where he tells her, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

These words are striking in their context because of the obvious persistence of the Gentile lady pleading with him and the apparent perplexity of the disciples who were privy to the conversation. But it is striking also because it echoes directly what Jesus had already said to the disciples when he sent them out to preach the gospel of the kingdom (Mt 10.6). Two questions that arise in both instances are ‘Why did Jesus put this restriction on his mission, as shared with his disciples?’ and ‘What did he mean by “the lost sheep of Israel”?’ And, flowing from both, ‘What relevance, if any, does this have for the church through the ages?’

With respect to the limits Jesus set on his earthly mission, he was clearly not suggesting that they would extend into his ongoing mission through his apostles. He makes this clear in the Good Shepherd discourse in John’s Gospel, where he says, ‘And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd’ (Jn 10.16). His mission to the Jews would extend – in line with God’s covenant with Abraham (Ge 12.3) – to his mission to the world. His charge to the apostles, ‘…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’ (Ac 1.8), confirmed this and set the ever-expanding horizons for that mission – not just through them in their lifetime, but also through the enduring apostolic testimony entrusted to the church.

So, in the setting of Matthew, Jesus is indicating that the focus of his earthly mission was primarily to the Jews. In line with God’s covenant purpose, unfolded in the interlocking sequence of covenants established throughout the Old Covenant epoch, the gospel of saving grace was, ‘to the Jew first…’ (Ro 1.16). The significance of this is intensified by the fact it is only in Matthew’s Gospel – with its primarily Jewish target audience – that the expression ‘lost sheep of Israel’ occurs and also that its roots lie in the nature of his people’s need described by Jeremiah (Je 50.6).

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