The New Testament, Israel, and the Nations

This post is part of the Series "Israel and the Great Commission"

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When most people think of the Great Commission in the New Testament they think primarily about the nations which is completely understandable.

19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching 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 ESV)

The Great Commission instructs the church to disciple the nations, but to fully obey the Great Commission we have to remember that the command is given in the context of a redemptive story in which God is joining together the salvation of Israel and the nations.

The Great Commission also tells us to teach the nations to observe all that Jesus commanded. That means it is far more than evangelism. We are commissioned to bring the nations into obedience to all the teaching of Jesus and this is why it is so important that we examine all that Jesus said about Israel and the nations. This is part of doing the work of the Great Commission.

It is important to notice how Jesus frequently mixed together both the salvation of the nations and the salvation of Israel. If we take Matthew 28:19 as an isolated passage it can seem that Jesus has shifted His emphasis to the nations, but when we look more comprehensively at Jesus’ teaching we can see that when He mentions the nations He usually includes Israel and visa-versa.

In order to understand the Great Commission in a robust way we have to be familiar with all of Jesus’ teaching and recognize that He joined Israel and the nations together. By looking at a few passages we can see His commitment to save both and this gives a better understanding of what Jesus had in mind as the outcome of the Great Commission.

Matthew 24

Matthew 21 through 23 tells the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem as King while being rejected by the religious leaders of the city as their King. Throughout this passage Jesus emphasizes His commitment to Israel and the nations. In Matthew 21, one of Jesus’ first rebukes is related to the temple. He cleanses the temple and reminds the religious leaders that the temple must be known as a place of prayer:

13He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:13 ESV)

To fully understand what Jesus is saying, we have to recognize that it is a quote of Isaiah 56:7:

7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7 ESV)

Isaiah prophesied that the temple was to become a house of prayer for all people. Isaiah 56:6 predicts that God would draw “foreigners” to Himself. When Jesus cleansed the temple and gave His rebuke, He was addressing two different things:

  • First, Israel must come into her calling. The nation is called to demonstrate pure worship and to be known as a place of prayer.
  • Second, Israel’s calling is ultimately to be a place of prayer for the nations. Jesus was reminding Israel of her call to the nations and God’s intention to both redeem Israel and invite the nations into His house.

After facing the rejection of the leaders in Jerusalem, Jesus makes a staggering statement in Matthew 23:39:

39For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:39 ESV)

When Jesus told the religious leaders of Jerusalem they will not see Him, He was referring to something very specific. In order to understand what He is saying, we have to put this statement in context within the entire passage. Jesus is not saying they will not see Him in any way because He will be publicly crucified in just a few days. This statement is in the context of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city as King in the way Zechariah prophesied (Matthew 21:1–11) and the rejection of Jesus as King by the Jewish leaders.

Because the plan of redemption is only accomplished when Jesus returns as King over all the earth this is an incredibly significant passage. Jesus is saying He will not enter Jerusalem again as King until Israel welcomes Him as their King. Jesus refuses to be King over the Jews until they willingly love and welcome Him, and He predicts a day will come when the leadership of Israel will welcome Him as their King. This means a day is coming when Israel is saved, loves Jesus completely, and invites Him to rule over her.

In Matthew 23, Jesus makes His second coming and His rule as King from Jerusalem dependent on the salvation of Israel. Therefore, a robust understanding of the Great Commission must include the fact that Jesus will not return until Israel is saved. The unusual events of Matthew 21-23 confuse the disciples about God’s plan and they ask Jesus for clarity on the process that will bring about Israel’s salvation and His Messianic reign (Matthew 24:3). In Jesus’ answer to how Israel’s salvation will come about, Jesus emphasizes the salvation of the nations:

14And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14 ESV)

For the disciples the “end” referred to the salvation of Israel and the beginning of the Messianic reign. In Matthew 23:39 Jesus committed to not begin that reign until He saved Israel. In Matthew 24:14, Jesus told his disciples that the end would not come until all the nations receives a witness. Jesus made sure the disciples understood that the Great Commission to the nations and the salvation of Israel are deeply connected.

Jesus’ return depends on both the salvation of Israel and the salvation of the nations. This is the strongest commitment that Jesus can give to either of these. Believers frequently refer to Matthew 24:14 when they speak about the Great Commission but we have to bring in the entire context. Matthew 24:14 is in the context of how God will save Israel (Matthew 23:39). We have to understand both components of God’s plan. Most believers recognize the New Testament’s promise that every tribe and tongue must hear the gospel, but what we must see is that this is not a new idea in the New Testament. It is a continuation of what was spoken in the Old Testament and it is deeply related to Israel’s salvation.

Jesus again affirms His commitment to the salvation of Israel only a few verses later in verse 30:

30Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:30 ESV)

Because of the reference to the “tribes of the earth,” Matthew 24:30 is often assumed to refer to the mourning of the nations at Jesus’ judgments. It is true that the wicked in the nations will mourn at Jesus’ coming because of His judgments, but it is not what this verse refers to. Jesus is referring to a specific event that is predicted in the Old Testament, where Zechariah prophesies:

10“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. 11On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12The land shall mourn, each family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; (Zechariah 12:10–12 ESV)

Zechariah describes a dramatic moment in Israel’s future. He speaks of the day when all of Israel will see Jesus again, only this time they will see Him as the One who was pierced by them and for them. The great mourning in Israel will be the mourning of repentance. It is the great day when Israel sees Jesus again and recognizes He is the One who loved her all along. It is the day she receives Him, family by family, as her Savior and mourns over how she rejected and resisted Him.

The word “earth” in Matthew 24 is a flexible word that can refer to earth in general or a specific land. Matthew 24:30 is not referring to a sorrow in the tribes of the earth. It is referring to a specific time of repentance among the tribes of the land—the tribes, or families, of Israel. Since this is the first thing that Jesus references when He describes His glorious coming, it indicates how central it is in His thinking. When He comes, Israel will mourn over Him, love Him, and turn to Him in repentance. In other words, when Jesus thinks about His second coming the first thing He thinks about is the salvation of Israel. Matthew 24 shows us that Jesus’ understanding of the end of the Great Commission is the salvation of both Israel and the nations. Both are joined together in a deep way.

Acts 1

Matthew 24 is not the only passage where Jesus connects the salvation of the nations to the salvation of Israel. In Acts 1, Luke records a conversation between Jesus and the disciples just before Jesus’ ascension. Luke tells us that Jesus taught on the kingdom for forty days, and gives us a final question the disciples asked that reveals quite a bit about the content of Jesus’ teaching during that time:

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6–8 ESV)

The disciples asked Jesus a single summary question after forty days of teaching: “Will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” This question alone is very revealing. It demonstrates that one of Jesus’ primary emphases in His teaching during that time was the establishment of a kingdom in Israel. The question demonstrates He obviously gave them the expectation that He would bring about the hope of the Old Testament—the fulfillment of the promises given to Israel.

The fact that the disciples asked Jesus if He would “restore” the kingdom to Israel means that the salvation they were referring to is connected to Israel’s history. It is not a completely new Israel with no connection to the Israel that has gone before. Jesus did not dismiss their expectation of a glorious future for Israel nor did He correct their understanding of His teaching. Jesus taught for forty days, and if He had intended to redefine their thinking regarding what would happen to Israel, He would have done that. Instead, He left a Jewish audience with the continuing hope that He would save Israel and fulfill what the prophets predicted concerning Israel’s future.

If Jesus did not intend to restore a kingdom to Israel, this would have been the time to explain that and redefine the apostles’ hope. Instead, He did the opposite and affirmed their expectation. The only reason that Jesus would have done this is that He remains committed, as the promised Messianic King, to restore Israel and fulfill the promises made to Israel.

Many theologians argue that Jesus’ first coming was the fulfillment of all of Israel’s promises and that the kingdom of God takes on a radically different direction after the first coming—a direction that no longer includes a restored kingdom of Israel. However, note that Jesus not only affirmed Israel’s future, but He also emphasized a future kingdom for Israel. If He had fulfilled Israel’s calling in His suffering, death, and resurrection, He would not speak of Israel’s restoration in a future tense. Jesus’ language indicates He did not teach that Israel’s promises were fulfilled in His first coming. His answer to the disciples makes it plain that there will be a future time when He restores Israel. Israel’s story is not finished or fulfilled in His first coming.

Jesus’ answer did not correct the apostles’ Jewish expectation; instead, He simply gives them two very important pieces of information.

  1. He addressed the timing of their expectation. The glorious kingdom would not come to Israel immediately. It would take time.
  2. He connected Israel’s restoration with the mission to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

The disciples longed for the restoration of Israel, but Jesus gave them a commission to the nations. The fact that Jesus gave them a command to the nations as a response to their desire for Israel’s salvation reveals that Israel’s salvation and the salvation of the nations are deeply connected. Israel cannot be saved without the nations receiving the gospel and the nations receiving the gospel will result in Israel’s salvation.

The disciples, being Jewish, were obviously excited to hear Jesus affirm their expectation of Israel’s salvation and the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. However, Jesus added one more element to their expectation. He told them first to take the gospel to Judea (the Jewish people), next to Samaria (the people who were related to the Jewish people), and then to the ends of the earth (all the Gentiles). Not only must Israel be saved, but the Gentiles must hear the gospel and receive blessing as well. Acts 1 reveals how deeply intertwined Abraham’s three promises are. They are interrelated and dependent on each other. Israel cannot be saved unless the Gentiles also receive salvation, and the gentile salvation will not come apart from the ultimate salvation of Israel.

Acts 3

Peter, like Jesus, also expected both a salvation for Israel and for the nations. In Acts 3 Peter spoke about the future fulfillment of the promises made to Israel:

20that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:20–21 ESV)

Peter, like Jesus, plainly states there will be a time in the future when God restores all the things that were spoken by the prophets. His prediction here is an echo of Acts 1:6–7, and Peter’s statement helps give additional insight into what Jesus taught the disciples during His forty days of teaching. There are several things we have to note here.

First, Peter expects a future fulfillment of biblical promises. This means the promises of the prophets are not fulfilled in the first coming. More specifically, Peter does not see a fulfillment of Israel’s promises in Jesus’ first coming. He predicts a future day, an appointed time, when Jesus will fulfill them.

Second, Peter uses the same language of “restoration” that Jesus uses in Acts 1. Peter predicts a day of restoration is coming, and while he didn’t explicitly say “Israel” as Jesus did in Acts 1:6, from the context it is clearly Israel. If Jesus communicated a “new” Israel that was disconnected from historical Israel, Peter would not have used the language of restoration. He would have used different language that looked forward to a “new” Israel without any connection to the Israel of the past.

Third, the word Peter uses for restoration, ἀποκατάστασις (apokatastasis), is very significant. This is the word used in the Septuagint[1] for the future return of the Jews in the nations to the land of Israel. To understand Peter’s use of this word, it is important to understand how the Jewish community viewed the end of the exile. Sometimes, we assume the Babylonian exile ended when a Jewish remnant returned to Israel a few hundred years before the time of Jesus. However, the return from Babylon was only the return of a remnant. Most of the Jewish people never returned to Israel. This explains, for example, why Paul regularly encountered synagogues in his early missionary journeys into the gentile world. After the Babylonian exile of 586 BC, most Jews never returned to Israel; therefore, the exile had not yet ended though there was a remnant in the land of Israel.

To this day, only about half of Jews in the world live in the state of Israel. The exile has not yet ended because the Jewish people have not been restored entirely to their land. However, the prophets all predict a time when God will bring all the exiles, all the Jewish people, back to Israel from the nations (Psalm 14:7; 102:13, 19–20; Isaiah 11:11–12,15–16; 27:12–13; 35:5–10; 41:9; 43:6–7; 49; 52:11–12; 60:4; 61:1–3; 66:20; Jeremiah 31:8–10; Ezekiel 39:25–28; Joel 2:32–3:1; Hosea 11:11; Micah 2:12–13; 4:6–7; 5:6; 7:12; Zechariah 10:6–11). A complete restoration of Israel requires all the exiles to be regathered to Israel—something that has not happened to this day. When Peter predicts the restoration of all things, using this specific word, he is referencing the restoration of Israel and the return of all Jewish exiles to the land.

Finally, Peter says Jesus must restore “all” the things the prophets spoke about. Jesus’ first coming was a fulfillment of many prophecies, but it was not the fulfillment of all the prophecies. Peter’s reference to the Old Testament prophets is a reference to their predictions concerning Israel and her Messiah. Peter is fully aware that Jesus, as the Jewish Messiah, should have restored the kingdom of Israel and regathered all Jewish exiles. He anticipates this will be the chief objection that his Jewish audience will make to the idea that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, which is precisely the reason he is using this kind of language. He is telling a Jewish audience that the restoration of Israel will happen, and Jesus will bring it about when He returns.

Peter does not make even a single effort to redefine Israel to his Jewish audience in order to validate that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, and this is very significant. The apostles were not hesitant to confront Jewish expectations about Messiah in their preaching, so it is important to recognize Peter does not confront them on their expectation regarding Israel.

He affirms the kingdom of Israel must be restored and the exiles must return. He does not explain Jesus’ failure to do that in His first coming as a shift in God’s intentions regarding Israel. He explains it similarly to how Jesus does in Acts 1—as an issue of timing. Jesus will do all that the prophets spoke about. It simply will have to wait for a future time. He must come again, and He must restore Israel. His first coming did not fulfill every promise, and He must return again to fulfill all that the prophets spoke.

Just as Peter affirms the future salvation of Israel, he also recognizes God’s divine plan to save the gentiles. In Acts 10 Peter is sent by God to take the radical step of preaching the gospel to Cornelius and a group of gentiles.

28And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me”…34So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him…44While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:28-29; 34-35; 44–47 ESV)

Peter is often thought of as an apostle primarily to the Jews, but the Lord gave Peter a profound experience (Acts 10:9-16) relating to God’s intension to save the gentiles. Peter went to preach at the house of a gentile named Cornelius and was a part of an event that radically changed the gospel. After Acts 10, the gospel was no longer a message primarily for a Jewish community. It began to rapidly spread among the gentiles. Peter also played a significant role in the apostle’s decision about what to require of the gentiles who had received the gospel. In Acts 15 Peter stood up at the Jerusalem council and reminded the apostles that God had accepted the gentiles as His own people.

7And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:7–9 ESV)

Though Peter primarily ministered to the Jews and at times overly identified with Jewish believers (Galatians 2:11-14) God also made sure that Peter encountered God’s heart for the gentiles. As an apostle, Peter had to carry both parts of God’s plan – the salvation of Israel and the salvation of the gentiles.

Revelation

Like Peter, the apostle John was also given a dramatic prediction of the Lord’s commitment to save both Israel and the nations. As John introduces the book of Revelation, in verse 7 he summarizes what the events of the book are intended to accomplish:

7Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. (Revelation 1:7 ESV)

Like Matthew 24:30, this is also a quotation of the mourning prophesied in Zechariah 12. It is a mourning unto repentance. John is not predicting sorrow in the nations at Jesus’ return, but rather the glorious moment when Israel comes to repentance and embraces Jesus. The fact that John emphasizes this in his introduction to the book tells us how central it was in John’s expectation. Just as this is the first thing Jesus emphasized when He described His second coming (Matthew 24:30), so also it is the first prediction John makes to introduce what will happen as a result of the events described in the book of Revelation.

John summarizes the dramatic events of the book of Revelation as the events that will bring about the fulfillment of Israel’s promises. When the events of the book of Revelation are finished, Israel will have embraced her Messiah in mourning, repentance, and deep devotion. John also emphasizes the success of the gospel among the gentiles. When John sees the Lamb in Revelation 5:9, he identifies Jesus as the One who has ransomed people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation:

9And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, (Revelation 5:9 ESV)

Not only will Jesus save Israel, He will also secure a saved remnant from every gentile “family” on the earth. A little further in the book, in Revelation 7, we find the same promise mentioned again.

9After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, (Revelation 7:9 ESV)

Again, John sees a great number of Gentiles who have been saved and redeemed by Jesus. John is being told that, in the midst of the most difficult time in human history and before His plan is finished in this age, God will release salvation among the gentiles.

John’s dramatic vision is introduced as a commitment to save Israel and as a prediction of great gentile salvation. Both are key parts of the end of the gospel mission in the book of Revelation. Both are the result of the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Israel and the Nations are Deeply Connected in the Great Commission

It is a common assumption that the New Testament shifts the focus from Israel to the nations. It is certainly true that the New Testament gives a clear directive to take the gospel to the nations and also describes the spread of the gospel among the gentiles. However, the New Testament does not treat the Great Commission to the nations as something completely new and disconnected from God’s promises to Israel.

When we look at the New Testament carefully and look at what Jesus said and how the apostles viewed their mission, we see that the salvation of Israel and the salvation of the nations were deeply intertwined. Jesus did not redirect the church to go to the nations because He was finished with Israel, He sent the church to the nations because He remains committed to Israel. The Great Commission in the New Testament is a continuation of the plan of redemption announced in the Old Testament. The mission comes into much clearer focus and accelerates as the church is commissioned to go to the nations, but the essence of the mission remains the same.

[1] The Septuagint is an ancient translation of the Old Testament into Greek used at the time of Jesus and in the early church. Many of the quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament quote the Septuagint.

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