WHAT was the object of our Lord's earthly ministry? The answer to this question is fundamental, for on it depends our right understanding of the New Testament Scriptures. We are told to "rightly divide the word of truth," to notice carefully the divisions marked out in "the oracles of God," and to distinguish things that differ.
Did our Lord come at His first advent for the sake of the Jew, or did He come to start His work among all the peoples of the earth? Was His preaching meant primarily for the Jew, or for all nations? Are we to go to the gospels for our marching orders today? Most believers would answer off-hand, without stopping to consider, that our Lord's earthly ministry was for all, indiscriminately. If so, the teaching in the gospels will fit us in our modern life of today. But when we try to obey the specific commands of our Lord, we find they do not suit modern conditions. The directions in the gospels are not meant for the churches to which Paul ministered. These specific directions are wholly suitable to a Jewish community, but not to a gentile use. They imply a nation under the law of Moses, circumcised and obedient to all the Mosaic legislation, and, as such entirely foreign to all our modern church life. There is certainly a tremendous amount of uncertainty, and error too, in regard to our Lord's earthly mission.
"ALL Scripture is for our learning." We cannot be too clear on this point. But equally clear must we be that all Scripture is not about us. Most of Scripture is about the Jew; some small amount is about the gentiles, and some again about the present grace. The student needs to read and study all Scripture, and there is much for him to learn of God, and His ways and dealings with these three classes. But the believer should specially know and master the Scriptures about the body of Christ, and there find specific directions for his own guidance. The sooner the Bible student realizes that all Scripture is not about one general class only, the clearer will be his grasp of what God's Word means. We want to pay more particular attention to what Scripture says on this subject, and it says a great deal.
When we come in our reading across a passage like that spoken by our Lord in Matthew 15:24, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel," we are apt to be startled by the newness of the idea. It is surely striking. Is it really true that our Lord's earthly ministry was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Is it true that His preaching while here on earth, was for the Jews only? For, if so, we must alter many of our modern ideas and practices.
Our whole grasp and mastery of the New Testament depends on this knowledge of our Lord's earthly mission. To be sure of all the facts, we need to read carefully all the so-called "New Testament." Such a study clearly reveals two important truths. First of all our Lord had an earthly ministry conducted by Himself and His apostles, the record of which is contained in the four gospels and the acts of the apostles. Secondly, our Lord had quite as clearly a heavenly ministry, the first part of which was to believing Jews who accepted His Messiahship, and it is recorded in the Jewish epistles and the book of the Revelation. The second part of this heavenly ministry was addressed to the body of Christ, composed chiefly of gentiles, and this is recorded in the Pauline epistles to the churches. These two ministries of our Lord, the earthly and the heavenly, make up the whole teaching and substance of the "New Testament" Scriptures. The "New Testament" is a record of these two and of nothing else.
In the "Old Testament" we read in promise and prophecy of God's kingdom to the nation of Israel under Messiah. When that time of blessing came the gentiles would be blessed through the Jew. At mount Sinai, God made a covenant with the Jew about this mission. In Exodus 19:3-6, we read about this covenant proposed by God. "In the third month when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai...And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel. Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings and brought you unto Myself. Now, therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
This covenant suggested by God was that the Jews should be a nation of priests to mediate between God and the nations. Their duty as such would be to teach the nations God's laws, and to offer up the sacrifices of the gentiles in worship to God.
To this proposed covenant the people gave a speedy answer. "And Moses came, and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, `All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.' And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord."
The Lord then said that He Would come down to Moses in a thick cloud and speak with him, and the people would believe him forever. Meanwhile the people were to sanctify themselves. Three days later, God descended upon mount Sinai in might and majesty, with smoke, fire, thunders, and lightnings, and an earthquake and the voice of the trumpet. Then God gave to the people, through Moses, the Ten Commandments, and His laws as contained in chapters 20 to 23 of Exodus. In chapter 24, we read that "Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, `All the words which the Lord hath said will we do.'"
Moses then wrote out all the words of the covenant as given in these four chapters, offered burnt offerings and peace offerings unto the Lord, then read from the book of the covenant in the audience of the people, and again the third time they promised to obey it.
In this solemn way, God gave to Israel their mission as a nation. They were to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation in the earth. They were to minister for God to the nations of the earth as a nation of missionaries proclaiming God's truth. They were to teach the gentiles, and in due time, Messiah would come to establish His kingdom over the whole earth. The Hebrew prophets are full of promises about this kingdom, and of statements that Messiah would come to the Jews, and, through them, bless the gentiles. They are clear about Christ's earthly mission thus promised.
In the gospels of Matthew, Mark,, Luke and John, we have the story of this earthly ministry. In due time Messiah came exactly as promised. He was promised to the Jew, and He came to the Jew. Was His ministry to the Jew as the prophets had indicated? It will be worth while to examine the evidence in the first gospel, and perhaps elsewhere, so as to get an indication of the true answer. It is of the utmost importance to be clear on this. So we will examine some seven or eight statements in Matthew's gospel and elsewhere in the "New Testament," to see what Scripture teaches on this point.
(1) Matthew's gospel starts off with a table of our Lord's descent from Abraham and David. The object is to prove that our Lord was a true Jew, and descended in the royal line through David from Abraham. Hence He is proved to be a Jew, a royal descendant of King David, and in fact the only person alive who had a right to be king of the Jews. And as long as He is alive, He only has legal right to be Israel's King. He is rightfully Israel's Messiah. He had the right to start the earthly mission long ago promised, and to set up God's kingdom upon earth.
(2) After stressing the legal right to the kingship of the Jews, we are told in chapter 1, verse 21, what His work should be. "Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins." His people, or nation, was the Jewish people. No mention is made by the angel in this announcement of any mission to gentiles. His earthly work primarily was to save the Jews from their sins. It is quite true He came to save all, but stress is laid here on the Jews first. God's plan was, and is, first of all a holy Jewish nation fitted to become a kingdom of priests in the earth, and afterwards to convert the gentiles.
(3) In chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew, we get the record of what is usually called "The Sermon on the Mount." In this manifesto on the opening of His ministry, our Lord, as King, states His laws for His subjects to obey. The whole atmosphere is Jewish. Appeal is made to the Jewish law which they are to obey. The disciples were not to act as gentiles did. Gentiles made eating, drinking and clothing the chief objects of life. Disciples, however, were to seek first God's kingdom and righteousness, and all these other things should be added to them.
(4) Later the Lord sent out His twelve disciples on a mission over the land. Their commission is given in chapter ten of Matthew. The very first order is not to go to gentiles or Samaritans, "but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." This first mission was to Jews only. It was to be only in the land of the Jews, and not even Samaritans in the land were to be approached. Whatever the Lord's own mission was, He never sent His disciples to gentiles, or on mission work outside the Land, or outside the chosen people.
The churches today want authority to evangelize the world, and are hard put to find it, for their self-appointed task of converting the nations.
The Lord's command here is "Do not go to the gentiles or the Samaritans." This mission of the Twelve certainly gives no warrant for our modern missions. Fancy a modern missionary going out without money, and being told to "heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils; freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses. Take no luggage, and make no provision for your journey." Such directions are utterly opposed to today's practice.
(5) On one occasion our Lord came into contact with a foreigner. She was a woman of Canaan whom the Lord met when on the borders of the land near Tyre and Sidon. She addressed Him as "Son of David," and asked for mercy on her daughter grievously vexed with a devil. To her the Lord deigned not a word. She kept on crying out, and the disciples begged that she should be sent away. To them the Lord said, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." When the woman took her position as an out cast, the Lord gave her her request. But she had no right as a gentile to any of the benefits of Messiah's earthly ministry. He was sent only to the Jews. Hence He never preached to foreigners, nor had dealings with them, and never went out of the land.
These are some of the statements and facts as given in Matthew's gospel. The Lord's own words are a sufficient answer to our question, that His earthly ministry was to the Jew only.
(6) There are other statements, however, on this point. Let us look at Romans 15:8. "Jesus Christ was a minister of the Circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers."
This is one of the clearest passages of Scripture about our Lord's earthly ministry. It was the risen Lord's inspired message given to us through Paul during His heavenly ministry as recorded in the books which follow the acts of the apostles. By the Circumcision is plainly meant the Jewish people. To them our Lord came as a minister to fulfil the truth of God and to confirm the promises made to the Jewish patriarchs. After such a clear statement as this, it is unnecessary to press the point further. The Lord's earthly ministry was to the Jew to fulfil what God had previously promised. Then this ministry being to the Jew it was not, of course, to the gentiles. His earthly mission, though indirectly of greatest benefit for the Uncircumcision, was not to them. God's plan was "to the Jew first," and later, to the gentile. But this later ministry to the nations was not during the Lord's earthly life.
(7) Let us look also at Hebrews 1:1,2, where we read these words addressed to Hebrews, or Jews, as we generally call them now: "God Who...spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son." Here again it is plainly stated that the Lord's spoken words were to the Hebrews. The gentiles are not primarily concerned in this ministry at all. Can words be clearer or more pointed?
These are seven samples of the evidence presented by Scripture as to the Lord's work on earth. It is as clear as daylight and overwhelming in its proof. Such being the case, we must read the gospels in the light of these facts. The conclusion is that Christ's earthly mission was primarily to the Jewish people. But at the close of His work on earth, He told the Twelve that He was going away, but would come back again. Meanwhile He had many things to say which they could not then bear. He would send the holy Spirit to guide them and to show them these matters in detail as well as things to come (John 14:3; 16:12,13). So a later ministry was promised and necessary to complete the Lord's work. Events showed that this later and heavenly ministry consisted of two parts: (a) To the Jew and recorded in the Jewish epistles--Hebrews, James, Peter, John and Jude--and the book of the Revelation. (b) Epistles to the body of Christ (after Israel rejected the offer contained in the Acts) given through Paul and contained in the epistles to the churches recorded in Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus and Philemon. These two parts are a fulfillment of the Lord's promise to the Twelve in the upper room.
(8) There is also another bit of evidence. Our Lord's ministry was a proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. This is explained in Daniel 2:44. "And in the days of these kings (gentile empires referred to in the preceding verses) shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever." See also in Daniel 7:13,14,27. The kingdom of heaven promised is to be on earth, under Messiah, and is to be given to the Jews who shall rule the nations under their King, the Lord Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven will not come till gentile rule be abolished. So this kingdom is not here yet, for we still have rule by many and different nations. Messiah must come before the kingdom of heaven can be established. Then the prayer "Thy kingdom come" will be answered in fact. Today the kingdom of heaven is not in existence.
According to international law a kingdom connoted three things, and unless these three be present, there cannot be a kingdom. A kingdom is a country and its people ruled over by a present king. Let any one of these three be absent and there is no kingdom. When there is no king we get a republic, such as France or the United States.
So the Lord must come to earth again before this promised kingdom can be set up. This kingdom of heaven promised long ago and often, is Jewish and shall be world-wide. The Lord was rejected when He first came to set up this kingdom. His proclamation was not accepted by His own nation, nor was it accepted either when made again to the nation by the apostles as recorded in the Acts. So it is deferred till our Lord returns in power. Meanwhile, as we read in the last chapter of Acts, "the salvation of God is sent unto the gentiles." In the interval the body of Christ is being formed and, when completed, will be taken up to be with the Lord, and after that the Lord will come to earth again to establish the kingdom of heaven.
The Lord's ministry and that of the apostles who followed Him being a proclamation and offer of the kingdom of heaven, and this kingdom being Jewish, is an added proof of the objects of the Lord's earthly mission. This fact is of tremendous importance to us. Every believer should be clear and precise on this point.
Certainly results follow logically. But there is so much prejudice than we hardly dare mention them except in the briefest reference.
(1) Take the Sermon on the Mount. It is the code of laws given by the King for the subjects of His kingdom. But till the kingdom exists the laws cannot be enforced nor do they suit. When the kingdom comes the Sermon on the Mount will be the principles to be obeyed by all. Till that day it results in confusion to interpret these laws of the earth kingdoms of today. So with our Lord's teaching generally. The special statements belong to a time when the kingdom will be set up and not before.
(2) The commissions the Lord gave were not meant for the present time. That in Matthew 10 was for a mission to the Jews. That in Matthew 28 is for the millennium when the Lord's people, the Jews, will have to teach and discipline all nations, and the Lord will be with them on the earth all the time. To take this as the commission for the church today results in confusion. There is no mention of the gospel in it at all. So with the other commissions given in the gospels. The commissions for us are found in Paul's epistles. Today our mission is to evangelize and not to govern the nations.
(3) There is the vexed question of baptism. This was a Jewish rite and is usually translated "washing" in the "Old Testament." A Jew who broke the law had to bring a sacrifice to God and be baptized before approaching God. This for every time he sinned. The Baptist made it a rite significant of acceptance of the Messiah. No person can enter the kingdom without immersion in water. But now, baptism in holy spirit by our Lord alone can make us members of the body of Christ, and water baptism is no longer obligatory or of any use. To perform this command of the law now, is to fall from grace.
(4) Lastly there are rules of guidance for right living. For the Jewish disciple they are in the gospels. For the member of the church today they are collected in the exhortations given us by our Lord from heaven to keep, and found in the latter portions of Romans and Ephesians, as well as in Corinthians, Philippians, Thessalonians, and Paul's personal epistles. Those laws in the gospel do not suit us today; these entreaties in the epistles suit us exactly and cover every detail of our daily life.
All Scripture is for us, but it is not all about us. Give the Jew what belongs to him. Then there will be no confusion and no difficulty.