John’s universal gospel
To whom did God send his son?
To those of us who have been shaped by the theology of the church, the answer may seem obvious: God sent his son to the whole world. Any casual reader of the Fourth Gospel knows this. John’s unexpected Messiah does not come strictly to or for the Jews; rather, his Messiah comes to and for anyone who will believe (John 3:36). In a sense then, John’s de-historicized Jesus is eternally sent—his Jesus comes to individuals in all times and all places, delivering human beings from abstractions like sin, death, and wrath. Such is the universal gospel that we have inherited from the church’s great theologians.
While this universal gospel should be affirmed by Christians, its force relies more on the idiosyncratic and theological peculiarities of John than on the full witness of the New Testament. A corrective is necessary. We need to listen to the full testimony of the earliest Christians in order to understand the complex ways in which Jesus’ prophetic mission to Israel at the close of the Second Temple period became the universal gospel. We need to work backwards.
Israel spurns her invitation
As we scratch deeper at the question asked above, other perspectives buried within the New Testament emerge. Take the Gospel of Matthew for instance. Having studied John, we might be surprised to find that in Matthew Jesus twice prohibits his disciples from going to the Samaritans and gentiles (10:5, 15:24). According to Matthew, Jesus was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Stranger still, this same evangelist has Jesus command his apostles to “go to make disciples of all nations” (28:19-20) after the resurrection. By the end of Matthew’s Gospel then, the exclusive mission to Israel that Jesus inaugurated has been abandoned. Jesus’ focus has turned to the nations. What explains this sudden change?
Consider the historical circumstances faced by the church as Matthew was writing at the end of the century. The attempted mission to the Jews had by then failed and Jerusalem lay in ruins. During this time the church had quickly become a predominantly gentile community. The same gospel that was first announced to the Jews had become the gospel announced to (and accepted by) the gentiles. Matthew has thus compressed all of this into his story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In Jerusalem’s rejection of its Messiah and in the Great Commission to the nations Matthew has represented the whole experience of his late first-century community.
Luke too is aware of this development but provides a less telescoped vision of the situation. According to Luke, the apostle Paul initially preached to Jews, stopping in synagogues throughout the Mediterranean. But after the Jews in Antioch reject him, Paul declares “it was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). Paul makes similar announcements in the face of Jewish resistance throughout Luke’s account and by the final episode of Acts, Paul (and thus Luke’s community) has renounced the mission to the Jews altogether (Acts 28:25-28).
Taking Luke’s testimony into account, Jesus’ resurrection did not mark the close of the mission to the Jews. The first Christians struggled all throughout the first century to persuade Israel—their primary target audience. But it became increasingly clear that the gospel to the Jews had become the gospel to the gentiles.
The invitation goes to the gentiles
As Jews solidified their rejection of the gospel, the early Christians came to understand their refusal in terms of divine hardening, largely with reference to Isaiah’s ministry of doom (Isaiah 6). God had apparently handed a recalcitrant Israel over to her own treachery and as such the nation was no longer capable of turning in repentance (Romans 9, Matthew 13:13-15, 23:33, John 8:44, 9:39, 12:37-40). The pagans now found an open seat at the messianic banquet. As the mostly gentile church of the late first century saw it, this had been God’s plan all along; to sow the seeds of the universal gospel.
An earlier invitation?
There is more to the story though. While the outline provided thus far gives the impression that Jesus himself, like the later gentile church, was largely concerned with the extension of the gospel to the gentiles and with God’s looming abandonment of Israel, this is simply not the case. As Matthew 10:5 and 15:24 hint at, Jesus’ mission was marked by a general avoidance of gentiles. Take, for instance, the testimony of the Pharisees. When the Pharisees reprimand Jesus they do so not because he associates with pagans, but because he carouses with Jewish sinners—the unclean, the tax collector, the prostitute (Mark 2:13-17). And if the infamous story of the Syrophoenician woman is to be taken seriously, Jesus was concerned with the children seated at the master’s table, not with the dogs under it (Mark 7:24-30).
What Jesus experienced in his own ministry then was not the movement of God’s favor from Jew to gentile, but rather its movement from elite Jew to marginalized Jew. Those to whom the gospel was originally sent—to the Pharisees, the priests, the Torah-obedient, and the wealthy—largely rejected Jesus. In response, Jesus turned his attention to Israel’s outcasts.
There are a few key texts that illustrate this.
- In the parable of the Great Dinner/Wedding Feast (Luke 12:15-25/Matthew 22:1-14) the first (messianic) dinner-invitations are sent to a landowner, an owner of oxen, a business owner, and a married man—all men of considerable means. These characters reject the offer and as a result the master of the feast invites the poor and crippled seeing as “those invited were not worthy” (Matthew 22:8-9). So ends the parable. But as is the case with many of the parables, the figures in this parable represent Jesus’ immediate peers. In this case, they are represented by Jerusalem’s wealthy religious class.
- According to Luke, Jesus tells the parable while attending a dinner hosted by a wealthy Pharisee. While there, Jesus stirs controversy twice; first by healing an Israelite with dropsy on the Sabbath (Luke 14:1-6), and second by reprimanding the dinner guests for choosing the seats of honor rather than humbling themselves (Luke 14:7-14). Clear enough, the parable’s unworthy prospective guests stand in for Jesus’ affluent host and compatriots. The parable’s crippled and the poor stand in for the unclean Israelite with dropsy.
- Matthew’s immediate context sheds similar light on the identity of the proverbial characters. Jesus tells the parable in Jerusalem, directing its message to the priests and Pharisees who promptly seek to entrap him (Matthew 21:45, 22:15). They are those rejecting God’s invitation. More explicit still, Matthew’s version of the parable designates Jerusalem as the “town” belonging to the first invitees. The master of the feast destroys their town with his “troops” on account of their insolence (Matthew 22:7)—clearly an allusion to the war with Rome.
- The parable of the wicked tenants conveys an almost identical message. As in Mathew’s telling of the Wedding Feast, the scribes and priests of Jerusalem again constitute Jesus’ audience. In this parable, however, a master sends his servants and son to the tenants of his vineyard so that he might collect its produce. The tenants mistreat the servants and kill the master’s son. As a result, the master destroys the tenants and replaces them. So ends the parable.
- Our first clue to the meaning of the story comes in the listener’s response. They realize Jesus spoke this parable “against them” (Mark 12:12). Jesus’ thinly-veiled allusion to the religious leaders of Jerusalem is transparent. They are the tenants of Israel. From there the rest of the pieces fall neatly into place. The master is God, the son is Jesus, the vineyard is Israel (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7), the produce is obedience, and the unexpected inheritors of the vineyard are those now rejoicing in the master’s son, Jesus—the poor, the sinner, the unclean, and the crippled.
- In Matthew 23:37-38/Luke 13:34-35 we find a concise recapitulation of both parables: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate.”
- As the prophets before him, Jesus comes not to Galilee or Israel, but specifically to the city of David. From Jerusalem Jesus seeks the approval of the rulers, not of the outcasts.
In light of this evidence, it is not precise enough to say the Messiah was sent to Israel. Jesus was sent to those initially deemed most worthy to benefit from the Messiah and his kingdom: to the Jewish religious leaders headquartered in Jerusalem. They were to rule with Christ over the new Davidic kingdom. In this way, Jesus’ mission to marginalized Jews was predicated on his failure to convince Israel’s tenants. Just as God sent Elijah and Elisha to gentile widows in order to arouse Israel’s jealousy, so too did Jesus go to the crippled and the poor to stir the jealousy of Jerusalem’s elite.
It should be admitted, however, that only the dimmest hints of this original mission to the religious elite remain. The Jewish leaders set themselves against Jesus at such an early stage that their once-privileged position in the kingdom has been all but lost by the tradition. In a similar fashion, the bond between Jesus and the Israelite outcast was also a very early, if unexpected, outcome of Jesus’ preaching. That Jesus would be rejected by the Jewish leaders and accepted by the Jewish riffraff is taken as a foregone conclusion.
The later gentile church was by in large not concerned with either of these great ironies. Their concern was in defending their newly-acquired status as God’s chosen people against the protests of proto-rabbinical Judaism.
But despite being overshadowed in the early Christian writings, we are able to glimpse the assumption shared by all of Israel, Jesus included—the religious leaders would enter the kingdom first and sit down in seats of honor at the messianic banquet. This fact alone explains the caustic taste Jesus’ ministry to Jewish outcasts left in the mouth of the Jewish leaders. It also explains the bitter irony in his words: “truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). No one expected this.