Some Christian young people wear a bracelet with the letters “WWJD,” which stand for the words, “What would Jesus do?” It is not a bad question to ask, but it may not be quite the right question. Perhaps we merely need to ask, “What did Jesus do?” The fact is that when it comes to discerning our relationship with the world, our Lord has already provided us with instruction, illuminated by His example.
In Lesson 13, we focused on the Old Testament, where we found that Israel was set apart by God to be the recipient of His blessings, as well as to be the receptacle for divine blessings for the Gentiles. We see this first set forth in the Abrahamic Covenant:
1 Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
2 And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
3 And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NASB 95, emphasis mine).2
We also learned that the Old Testament law actually served to facilitate the evangelization of the Gentiles. The law served to promote Gentile evangelism in the following ways:
1. God promised that when the Israelites obeyed His law, He would materially bless them with an abundance of children, cattle, and crops.3
2. God required the Israelites to show charity toward the needy, including foreigners in need.4
3. Foreigners were given legal standing in Israel and were not to be discriminated against in the administration of justice.5
4. Foreigners who embraced Israel’s faith could participate with Israelites in worship.6
Last week, we looked at a few instances in which foreigners (Gentiles) were drawn to faith in Israel’s God. There were women like Rahab (who saved the lives of the Israelite spies who came to her at Jericho) and Ruth (who attached herself to Naomi). Likewise, there were men like Naaman, the leper, who came to Israel for healing, and Nebuchadnezzar, whom Daniel served when he was taken as a captive to Babylon. But there were all too few instances in which Israelites actively encouraged Gentiles to embrace their faith in the God of Israel.
When I read the account of Rahab’s “conversion” to faith in the God of Israel, I see that this is due almost entirely to Rahab’s initiative.7 Then, when I turn to the Book of Ruth, I am distressed to see that Naomi encouraged her two daughters-in-law to return to their homes, to their pagan families, and to their heathen god:
8 Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Listen to me! Each of you should return to your mother’s home! May the Lord show you the same kind of devotion that you have shown to your deceased husbands and to me! 9 May the Lord enable each of you to find security in the home of a new husband!” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept loudly. 10 But they said to her, “No! We will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi replied, “Go back home, my daughters! There is no reason for you to return to Judah with me! I am no longer capable of giving birth to sons who might become your husbands! 12 Go back home, my daughters! For I am too old to get married again. Even if I thought that there was hope that I could get married tonight and conceive sons, 13 surely you would not want to wait until they were old enough to marry! Surely you would not remain unmarried all that time! No, my daughters, you must not return with me. For my intense suffering is too much for you to bear. For the Lord is afflicting me!” 14 Again they wept loudly. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung tightly to her. 15 So Naomi said, “ Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her god. Follow your sister-in-law back home!” (Ruth 1:8-15, emphasis mine)
One can hardly call Naomi’s words “evangelistic.” She tells her two daughters-in-law that God has been harsh with her (hardly seeker friendly!), and then encourages Ruth to go home to her god like her sister-in-law. It seems that marriage and child-bearing is Naomi’s ultimate goal, not trusting in God.
It only gets worse when we come to the Book of Jonah. God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh, where he must warn the Ninevites of coming judgment. Jonah knows the heart of God all too well. He is nearly certain that his preaching will produce repentance and thus forgiveness, rather than rejection resulting in divine judgment.
10 When God saw their actions – they turned from their evil way of living! – God relented concerning the judgment he had threatened them with and he did not destroy them. 1 This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “ Oh, Lord, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish! – because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment” (Jonah 3:10—4:2, emphasis mine).
The Israelites may not have been as emphatic or as demonstrative as Jonah was in his disobedience to God, but they did lack God’s compassion. They did not care for the vulnerable members of their community:
21 How tragic that the once-faithful city has become a prostitute! She was once a center of justice, fairness resided in her, but now only murderers. 22 Your silver has become scum, your beer is diluted with water. 23 Your officials are rebels, they associate with thieves. All of them love bribery, and look for payoffs. They do not take up the cause of the orphan, or defend the rights of the widow (Isaiah 1:21-23).
They still went through their rituals, but they did not truly love God, nor did they do things that were an expression of His heart. They continued to practice their rituals and ceremonies, but God did not seem to hear their prayers nor respond to them. So God poured out His heart in Isaiah 58, explaining why their “fasting” was futile, and then instructing them about the nature of genuine fasting and its benefits:
6 No, this is the kind of fast I want.
I want you to remove the sinful chains,
to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke,
to set free the oppressed,
and to break every burdensome yoke.
7 I want you to share your food with the hungry
and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people.
When you see someone naked, clothe him!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise;
your restoration will quickly arrive;
your godly behavior will go before you,
and the Lord’s splendor will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call out, and the Lord will respond;
you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’
You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you
and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.
10 You must actively help the hungry
and feed the oppressed.
Then your light will dispel the darkness,
and your darkness will be transformed into noonday.
11 The Lord will continually lead you;
he will feed you even in parched regions.
He will give you renewed strength,
and you will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring that continually produces water.
12 Your perpetual ruins will be rebuilt;
you will reestablish the ancient foundations.
You will be called, ‘The one who repairs broken walls,
the one who makes the streets inhabitable again’” (Isaiah 58:6-12, emphasis mine).
Isaiah 58-628 is one of the most fascinating and beautiful portions of God’s Word. In Isaiah 58, God tells His people that He despises their religious rituals. The outward form of religion is there, but not the function God desires. Though His people fast and pray, God does not answer because their fasting is self-serving. The “fasting” God desires is the denial of one’s personal appetites and desires in order to pursue a higher goal – either sacrificial ministry to those in need (Isaiah 58:6-12) or the worship of their most worthy God (Isaiah 58:13-14). Doing this is being a light (Isaiah 58:8, 10), and it is also the key to experiencing God’s blessings (Isaiah 58:8-9, 11-12).
In Isaiah 59, God makes it clear that the problem of unanswered prayer is not to be explained in terms of some divine deficiency, but rather in terms of the sinfulness of His people:
1 Look, the Lord’s hand is not too weak to deliver you;
his ear is not too deaf to hear you.
2 But your sinful acts have alienated you from your God;
your sins have caused him to reject you and not listen to your prayers (Isaiah 59:1-2).
Verses 3-15 go on to describe Israel’s sins in detail. Not only do God’s people fail to be a “light to the Gentiles,” they are themselves walking in darkness:
9 For this reason deliverance is far from us
and salvation does not reach us.
We wait for light, but see only darkness;
we wait for a bright light, but live in deep darkness.
10 We grope along the wall like the blind,
we grope like those who cannot see;
we stumble at noontime as if it were evening.
Though others are strong, we are like dead men (Isaiah 59:9-10).
Israel’s sin is such that they are helpless and hopeless without God. What a picture of all mankind. Apart from Christ, we are hopelessly lost. No amount of effort on our part can save us. And thus it is only God who can save:
16 He sees there is no advocate;
he is shocked that no one intervenes.
So he takes matters into his own hands;
his desire for justice drives him on.
17 He wears his desire for justice like body armor,
and his desire to deliver is like a helmet on his head.
He puts on the garments of vengeance and wears zeal like a robe.
18 He repays them for what they have done,
dispensing angry judgment to his adversaries and punishing his enemies.
He repays the coastlands.
19 In the west, people respect the Lord’s reputation;
in the east they recognize his splendor.
For he comes like a rushing stream
driven on by wind sent from the Lord.
20 “A protector comes to Zion,
to those in Jacob who repent of their rebellious deeds,” says the Lord.
21 “As for me, this is my promise to them,” says the Lord. “My spirit, who is upon you, and my words, which I have placed in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth or from the mouths of your children and descendants from this time forward,” says the Lord (Isaiah 59:16-21).
What a beautiful picture of our salvation, a salvation God Himself accomplishes for helpless sinners. All who repent and believe in Him will receive this salvation, and the promised Holy Spirit as well. What an incredible picture of the coming Messiah and the salvation He will bring about.
In the next (60th) chapter of Isaiah, we find that Israel’s “light,” the Messiah, has come.9 He has come to enlighten not only Israel, but also the nations:
1 “Arise! Shine! For your light arrives!
The splendor of the Lord shines on you!
2 For, look, darkness covers the earth
and deep darkness covers the nations,
but the Lord shines on you;
his splendor appears over you.
3 Nations come to your light,
kings to your bright light (Isaiah 60:1-3, emphasis mine).
Can we not see this prophecy fulfilled in the coming of our Lord Jesus? Is it any wonder that in Matthew 2, we read of the wise men from the East being guided to our Lord’s birthplace by an amazing light in the heavens? Did Isaiah not prophesy that nations would come to the light of Messiah? Did he not say that kings would come to that light? And later in this same chapter of Isaiah, we are given even more details concerning Messiah’s arrival:
5 Then you will look and smile,
you will be excited and your heart will swell with pride.
For the riches of distant lands will belong to you
and the wealth of nations will come to you.
6 Camel caravans will cover your roads,
young camels from Midian and Ephah.
All the merchants of Sheba will come,
bringing gold and incense [frankincense] and singing praises to the Lord (Isaiah 60:5-6, emphasis mine).
What the NET Bible renders “incense” in Isaiah 60:6, the NASB and the ESV render “frankincense.” And so the wise men from the East follow the light to the One who is the Great Light, and they come bearing gold and frankincense.10
But this is by no means the end of it. When the angels appeared to the shepherds (in Luke’s gospel), the glory of the Lord shone brightly around them.11 More light, I take it. In the first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus is called the “true light.”12 When the elderly Simeon was privileged to see the Messiah, he recognized Him as the source of blessing to Jews and Gentiles alike:
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying, 29 “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: 32 a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:25-32, emphasis mine).
When Matthew described the commencement of our Lord’s public ministry, he cited a text from Isaiah,13 describing Jesus as a light that has dawned upon men who are in darkness:
13 While in Galilee, he moved from Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,
14 so that what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles –
16 the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,
and on those who sit in the region and shadow of death a light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to preach this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:13-17).
We should not be surprised then when we read Luke’s account of our Lord’s appearance at the synagogue in Nazareth:
16 Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and the regaining of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to tell them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read” (Luke 4:16-21).
Is our Lord’s coming not the fulfillment of the “fast” of Isaiah 58:6-12? When Jesus cited Isaiah 61:1-2 and then told those gathered that this prophecy was fulfilled that very day, Jesus was claiming to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies, not to neglect all the other Old Testament prophecies, concerning the coming of Messiah. The Jews of Nazareth saw it that way. They joyfully savored the words of Jesus about the Promised Messiah, but were puzzled because they thought they knew His humble origin:
All were speaking well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words coming out of his mouth. They said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22)
But Jesus wanted it to be very clear to His Jewish audience that since He was the Promised Messiah, He was not just the Savior of the Jews; He was the Savior of all men. Jesus pointed out a very uncomfortable fact about His earthly mission. It was not to save Jews alone that He had come, but also to save Gentiles. He had come as a light to the Gentiles:
23 Jesus said to them, “No doubt you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ and say, ‘What we have heard that you did in Capernaum, do here in your hometown too.’” 24 And he added, “I tell you the truth, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up three and a half years, and there was a great famine over all the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a woman who was a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, yet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:23-27).
Here was a truth His audience was not willing to accept.
28 When they heard this, all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, forced him out of the town, and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way (Luke 4:28-30).
Israel still resisted and refused to carry out their Great Commission, their calling to be a light to the Gentiles. And they would not hear of (or from) a Messiah who made this a part of His mission.14 But if Jesus was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, then He must be a “light to the Gentiles,” and not just to the Jews. He must be a blessing to all nations by providing salvation for men of every race and tribe:
8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of God’s truth to confirm the promises made to the fathers, 9 and thus the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Because of this I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and I will sing praises to your name.”
10 And again it says:
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
11 And again,
“Praise the Lord all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him.”
12 And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles,
in him will the Gentiles hope” (Romans 15:8-12).
9 They were singing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were killed, and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. 10 You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).
The words of Isaiah 61:1-2 were prophecy, but in Jesus, they became the preface to His earthly life, ministry, and teaching. As we have already seen, Israel’s Great Commission was first articulated in Genesis 12:
1 Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
2 And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
3 And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NASB 95).
One would naturally assume that all the families of the earth would be blessed by all of Abram’s descendants, but this was not the case. As Paul would later put it, “not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel” (Romans 9:6). As time progresses and biblical revelation becomes more detailed,15 we find that the messianic line continually narrows. The Messiah was first prophesied to come from the seed of the woman (Eve – Genesis 3:15), and then of Noah’s descendants. Then the messianic line narrowed to Abraham, then to Isaac (not Ishmael), followed by Jacob (not Esau), then Judah, and David, and finally Jesus. It was Paul who made it clear that God’s covenant blessings would come through one seed – Jesus – and not through the nation Israel collectively:
15 Brothers and sisters, I offer an example from everyday life: When a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).
So in the Old Testament, God refers to Israel as His servant, but man’s sinfulness becomes more and more apparent, and thus the hope for Messiah grows (and as divine revelation progresses). The “servant” (Israel) becomes the Servant (Messiah):
8 “You, my servant Israel, Jacob whom I have chosen, offspring of Abraham my friend, 9 you whom I am bringing back from the earth’s extremities, and have summoned from the remote regions – I told you, “You are my servant.” I have chosen you and not rejected you. 10 Don’t be afraid, for I am with you! Don’t be frightened, for I am your God! I strengthen you – yes, I help you – yes, I uphold you with my saving right hand!” (Isaiah 41:8-10)
1 “Now, listen, Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!” 2 This is what the Lord, the one who made you, says – the one who formed you in the womb and helps you: “Don’t be afraid, my servant Jacob, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen! 3 For I will pour water on the parched ground and cause streams to flow on the dry land. I will pour my spirit on your offspring and my blessing on your children” (Isaiah 44:1-3).
1 “Here is my servant [Servant] whom I support, my chosen one in whom I take pleasure. I have placed my spirit on him; he will make just decrees for the nations. 2 He will not cry out or shout; he will not publicize himself in the streets. 3 A crushed reed he will not break, a dim wick he will not extinguish; he will faithfully make just decrees. 4 He will not grow dim or be crushed before establishing justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait in anticipation for his decrees” (Isaiah 42:1-4).
13 “Look, my servant [Servant] will succeed! He will be elevated, lifted high, and greatly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13).
11 Having suffered, he will reflect on his work, he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. “My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins. 12 So I will assign him a portion with the multitudes, he will divide the spoils of victory with the powerful, because he willingly submitted to death and was numbered with the rebels, when he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels” (Isaiah 53:11-12).
Jesus introduced Himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s messianic prophecies. Let us consider how our Lord fulfilled these prophecies by being a “light to the Gentiles.” For lack of time, we will focus our attention on Jesus and the Gentiles in the Gospel of Matthew. We have already seen how the Gentile wise men from the East came to worship Jesus as the “King of the Jews.”16 And we have seen how Matthew introduced our Lord’s public ministry as that of a light shining in the darkness.17 In our Lord’s teaching at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, I am particularly interested in these words:
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way. 13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people. 14 You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:10-16, emphasis mine).
Our Lord is speaking to His disciples here,18 encouraging those whom the scribes and Pharisees would disdain – the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the gentle and merciful. Theirs will be the kingdom of heaven. For most Christians, life now is vastly different from the Kingdom of God (eternal life) then. Those who want heaven on earth now are susceptible to all kinds of error and extremes. This is especially evident in the health and wealth prosperity gospel, which claims God wants us to be rich, happy, and healthy today, and that the only thing keeping us from these things is our lack of faith.
Our Lord’s teaching on being “salt and light” is found in the context of future blessings and present persecution. If one is to stand out as a Christian, he or she is likely to be opposed. Thus, our Lord teaches the blessedness of being persecuted for His name’s sake.19 Salt has value only when it is distinct from that to which it is added. When salt is “salty,” it takes but a little to stand out and to benefit the flavor. The same is true of light. Light is most needed in the darkness. Light has no value when it is concealed (under a basket). Thus, Christians must be willing to stand out as Christians, to be distinct from the society and culture in which they live. In so doing, the gospel will shine forth. And in the process, persecution may result. But those who are persecuted for being salt and light are declared by Messiah to be blessed.
Notice in particular that in this text being a “light” is not described in terms of our speech, but rather in terms of our good deeds:
“In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
From Isaiah 58, we know that these deeds are not mere religious rituals, but genuine acts of mercy. Thus in Matthew 6, our Lord condemns mere external acts of ceremonial religion, performed for the praise of men rather than to the glory of God.
Our Lord is not advocating good works alone, without words that point men to God. Good works give credibility to our words. We see this consistently in the life and ministry of our Lord. Our Lord’s works gave His teaching added authority and set it apart from that of the scribes.20 Let us continue in Matthew to see how our Lord’s words were buttressed by His works.
5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him asking for help: 6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.” 7 Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! 11 “I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that hour (Matthew 8:11-13).
The centurion was a Gentile, though I suspect his servant was Jewish. He asks Jesus to heal his servant. Our Lord was ready and willing to go to this Gentile’s house to heal the servant. The centurion seems to have understood that entering the house of a Gentile was defilement for a Jew.21 This centurion had great faith – greater than what our Lord found in Israel. He knew that a man of great authority can accomplish his purposes at a distance. As a commander, this centurion could send orders to soldiers who were a great distance away, and he could expect them to obey. Surely Jesus need not come to his home to heal his servant, but He had only to speak a word. Jesus marveled at his faith and declared that with such faith, he and other Gentiles would enter into the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (i.e. the kingdom of God). Many Jews who lacked faith in Jesus would be expelled from the kingdom. Thus, God’s blessings were for men and women of faith, men and women who trusted in Jesus as the Promised Messiah. Jews and Gentiles who have trusted in Jesus will enter the kingdom; those who reject Jesus (Jew or Gentile) will be excluded. Jesus came as a “light to the Gentiles” as well as to the Jews.
Our Lord’s instructions to His disciples might appear to contradict this, but when one looks more closely, it can be seen, even here, that Jesus anticipated the evangelization of the Gentiles:
5 Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: “ Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’ . . . 16 “I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of people, because they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 And you will be brought before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:5-7,16-18, emphasis mine).
It is true that on this “first missionary journey” the disciples were forbidden by Jesus to go to the Gentiles, or even to the Samaritans. But this was because Jesus must first be presented to the Jews as the Promised Messiah. They must first reject Him, and then the gospel would be spread abroad. Yet even in His first “commission,” our Lord makes it clear that His disciples will eventually bear witness to governors, kings, and the Gentiles. We will see how this prophecy begins to be fulfilled in the Book of Acts.
15 Now when Jesus learned of this, he went away from there. Great crowds followed him, and he healed them all. 16 But he sternly warned them not to make him known. 17 This fulfilled what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet: 18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I take great delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. 19 He will not quarrel or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. 20 He will not break a bruised reed or extinguish a smoldering wick, until he brings justice to victory. 21 And in his name the Gentiles will hope” (Matthew 12:15-21, underscoring mine).
It is almost incredible that in Matthew 15, we find an account of our Lord’s gracious dealings with a woman identified as a Canaanite:
21 After going out from there, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that area came and cried out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demon-possessed!” 23 But he did not answer her a word. Then his disciples came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us.” 24 So he answered, “ I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and bowed down before him and said, “Lord, help me!” 26 “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said. 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, your faith is great! Let what you want be done for you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour (Matthew 15:21-28).
If time would permit, I could demonstrate that this Canaanite woman had greater spiritual insight regarding “bread” than the Pharisees,23 or even the disciples.24 Of all the “Gentiles” whom we would expect Jesus to send away (as the disciples were asking), surely this Canaanite woman would be among them. And yet she seems to understand that our Lord is testing her faith more than turning her away. What He does for this woman, He will do for many others, through His disciples.
The account of the feeding of the 4,000 is recorded in Matthew 15:29-39. I have often marveled at the dullness of the disciples. But a more careful look at the context seems to indicate that there was something unique about this miraculous meal, something that distinguished it from the feeding of the 5,000 – it was provided for a crowd of Gentiles. Jesus has entered Gentile territory, thus the encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. No wonder the disciples seem so clueless. They cannot imagine Jesus doing for Gentiles what He had so recently done for a crowd of Jews. The point is that Jesus had compassion on both Jews and Gentiles. And the amazing thing is that Matthew appears to be written to a Jewish audience.
Thus the so-called “Great Commission” should not come as any great surprise to Matthew’s readers:
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
It is perhaps less surprising to find that Luke’s Gospel has virtually the same instruction:
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:45-49, emphasis mine).
5 For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But 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 farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8, emphasis mine).
I wish to make two points. First, Jesus fulfilled where Israel failed. Jesus fulfilled that which Israel failed to do. Israel was called to be a light to the Gentiles, and they failed miserably. Why should we be surprised? Israel failed to keep the Old Testament law, and being a light to the Gentiles was part of what the law required.
There are few examples of Gentiles coming to faith in the Old Testament. Even in those instances, it was not due to some Israelite’s meticulous obedience to God’s law or their concern for another’s eternal destiny. One could say that Rahab, Ruth, and the Ninevites (for example) were saved in spite of, rather than because of, Israel’s faithfulness and passion to see Gentiles come to faith.
Because of Israel’s disobedience, they would never fulfill their calling to be a light to the Gentiles. And so the Old Testament prophets began to speak of the coming of Messiah, who would fulfill where Israel failed. He would not only bring salvation to God’s wayward people (Israel); He would bring salvation to the Gentiles. The Book of Isaiah thus contains many prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, and when our Lord Jesus comes to earth in the Gospels, we see that He perfectly fulfilled these prophecies.
What was true of the Israelites is true for every Gentile as well. Where we fail (and we all do fail), Christ fulfills. We Gentiles, like the Jews, are incapable of living up to the standard God requires. We are all sinners, Jew and Gentile alike, but thanks be to God He provided a way of salvation through the person of Jesus Christ.
9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 10 just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one, 11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood, 16 ruin and misery are in their paths, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 3:9-26).
Paul says the same thing more concisely in the Book of Ephesians:
1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:1-10, emphasis mine).
How beautiful those two words – but God – are! We are all sinners, justly deserving the condemnation of God’s eternal wrath (hell). But God sent Jesus to do what we could not do. Jesus came to the earth and lived a perfect life. Beyond being sinless, Jesus cared deeply for helpless, hopeless sinners. His earthly ministry was one of compassion. Whether in word or deed, Jesus showed compassion to those in dire need. He healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out demons. And through His sacrificial, substitutionary death on the cross, He bore the judgment we deserve. Through faith in Him unworthy sinners are justified, forgiven, and granted eternal life. If you have never trusted in Him, I urge you to do so now.
Second, we see that our Lord’s earthly ministry as the Promised Messiah was not merely one of words, but also one of good works. The deeds of the scribes and Pharisees didn’t match their words, and thus our Lord repeatedly accused them of being hypocrites. Jesus not only spoke the words of truth; He lived them. The Old Testament required the Israelites to show mercy and compassion to the foreigner as well as to their needy brothers. Being a “light to the Gentiles”required not only speaking the good news about God’s grace, but also demonstrating His grace and compassion to those in need.
I used to think that our Lord’s miracles were performed primarily as signs, as proof of His identity and power as the Messiah. And, of course, His miracles did accredit Jesus:
25 Jesus replied, “I told you and you do not believe. The deeds I do in my Father’s name testify about me. 26 But you refuse to believe because you are not my sheep.” . . . 32 Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good deeds from the Father. For which one of them are you going to stone me?” . . . 37 If I do not perform the deeds of my Father, do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even if you do not believe me, believe the deeds, so that you may come to know and understand that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 10:25-26, 32, 37-38).
The people who heard Jesus teach observed the miracles He performed, and thus they distinguished Jesus from their own powerless religious teachers:
28 When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, 29 because he taught them like one who had authority, not like their experts in the law (Matthew 7:28-29).
They were all amazed and began to say to one another, “What’s happening here? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” (Luke 4:36)
But if our Lord’s miracles were only proof of His identity and power, then how do we explain the fact that Jesus often performed His miracles privately, or instructed those healed not to tell others?
Then Jesus said to him, “See that you do not speak to anyone, but go, show yourself to a priest, and bring the offering that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Matthew 8:4; see also 9:30; 12:16; Mark 7:36; Luke 8:56).
How often we see our Lord Jesus responding to the needs of men out of compassion:
As he got out he saw the large crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14).
Then Jesus called the disciples and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have already been here with me three days and they have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry since they may faint on the way” (Matthew 15:32).
30 Two blind men were sitting by the road. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 31 The crowd scolded them to get them to be quiet. But they shouted even more loudly, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stopped, called them, and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him (Matthew 20:30-34).
I have sometimes sought to justify my lack of compassion in a way that sounds pious but really isn’t. Naturally, it is most pious when one can cite Scripture:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).
In the same way, the promise that I make does not return to me, having accomplished nothing. No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend” (Isaiah 55:11).
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart (Hebrews 4:14).
The Word of God is the gospel, and it is the power of God unto salvation. God’s Word does accomplish what He purposes. His Word is living and active. But that is no excuse for me to merely “speak” the truth; I must also “live” the truth. My words (even though I may cite Scripture) must be accompanied by works that show the love and compassion of Christ.
How easy it is to read Ephesians 4:15 in this way:
14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ (Ephesians 4:14-15, NASB 95, emphasis mine).
The NET Bible, along with the ESV, renders these verses more accurately, reflecting that the word “truth” is a verb and not a noun. Truth is not merely to be spoken; it is to be lived out with love:
14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head (Ephesians 4:14-15, emphasis mine).
If like Jesus, we are to be a “light to the world,” then we must do so in deed as well as in word. And that is precisely what Jesus taught:
14 You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, emphasis mine).
May God grant that men and women see the “light” in the person of Jesus Christ, and then live out that light for the blessing of others. This is what Israel was to do, but failed. Now that Jesus has come as the “light of the world,” we can be blessed by Him and thus become a blessing to others. May the light of Jesus shine through all who have come to trust in Him, by our words and our deeds.
1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 14 in the Following Jesus in a Me-First World series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 28, 2007. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
8 It is hard to know where to start or where to stop in Isaiah, for it is all so wonderful. But at the moment, I will focus on chapters 58-62.
9 That is, He has come “prophetically.” These chapters in Isaiah portray man’s sin, man’s helplessness, and God’s gracious gift of salvation through the coming of the Messiah. The coming of Messiah is yet future in Isaiah.
15 I am speaking here of “progressive revelation.” In the first five Books of the Law, God provides an outline, but as we continue to read later on in the Bible, more and more details are revealed. Thus, God reveals His truth progressively. As we see from Ephesians 3:1-13, God did not reveal the mystery of the church until after the resurrection and ascension of our Lord.