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‘Why Foreign Missions?’ 4, Jesus, His People, and the Nations in Matthew’s Gospel

‘Why Foreign Missions?’ 4, Jesus, His People, and the Nations in Matthew’s Gospel

The last two answers to the question, ‘Why foreign missions?’ explored Israel’s involvement with and their mission to the nations.  Just how does Israel’s mission to the nations involve the Church?  To begin to answer this question, the link between Israel and the Church in the New Testament needs to be made.  Matthew's Gospel makes the case for such a link, and one of the ways to discuss Matthew's mission theology is to look at how this Gospel uses several Old Testament texts.  Matthew shows how Jesus and the Church pick up the mission of Israel to the nations.

Matthew 1.21: ‘Jesus’

Mt. 1.21 appears to quote Ps. 130.8 loosely to explain the meaning of Jesus’ name as ‘salvation.’  Ps. 130.8 reads, ‘And he [‘Yahweh’; Greek: ‘Lord’] will redeem Israel from all his sins [Septuagint: ‘lawlessness’].’  Mt. 1.21 says, ‘…for he will save his people from their sins’ (my translations).  The psalm speaks of waiting for God’s redemption of Israel, which the text in Matthew is saying comes through Jesus.  By replacing the psalm’s ‘Israel’ with ‘his people,’ Matthew allows the meaning of the psalm to include non-Israelites as well.  Thus, when Jesus says that he will build his church (16.18), he has in view something less than and more than Israel: all who are his people, both Jews and Gentiles.

Matthew 13.31-32: Tree

The kingdom of heaven—the message of Jesus—opens up a new understanding of who God’s people are.  Ezekiel 31 uses the image of a great tree to describe the greatness of the kingdom of Assyria.  V. 6 speaks of how the birds of the air made nests in its boughs, animals gave birth to their young in the shade of its branches, and all nations lived in its shade.  The lesson of Ezek. 31 is for Egypt, and the point is that no nation should become so haughty as to exceed its position with respect to God's reign.  Jesus' parable of the mustard seed (Mt. 13.31-32) echoes this image.  The brief parable depicts the kingdom of heaven as to all appearances the least of all powers, just as the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds.  Yet, once grown, it houses the birds of the air.  With Ezek. 31 in its background, the parable of the mustard seed suggests that the Kingdom of heaven provides a home for all people on the earth.  The kingdom of heaven replaces the kingdom of Israel, and the citizens of the kingdom are Jesus’ disciples, made up of Jews and Gentiles.

Matthew 8.11-12 and 22.2-14: Banquet

Jesus sees the faith that the centurion has in him to heal his servant as a foreshadowing of people from the east and west coming to eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 8.11-12).  Another reference to this banquet in Matthew again points to the inclusion of Gentiles (Mt. 22.2-14).  Jesus also uses this banquet image in reference to the Last Supper: the Last Supper is a foretaste of the great banquet to be eaten on Mt. Zion when God is King forever, when all nations are invited, and when death is overcome.  The image of a great banquet at God’s table can be found originally in Isaiah 25.6.  (It is used negatively in Ezek. 39.17-20.)

Matthew 12.17-21: Servant

Matthew identifies Jesus as the Servant in Isaiah (Mt. 12.17-21, quoting Is. 42.1-4; Mt. 8.17 quoting Is. 53.4).  This identification also recalls Isaiah 49:6: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."  Reflection on the identification of Jesus with the Servant could well lead to reflection on Jesus' role in bringing light to the nations.

Throughout Matthew: ‘Son of Man’

Jesus' preferred self-designation, 'Son of Man,' derives from Dn. 7.13: one like a son of man descends on a cloud from heaven to render judgment.  All four Gospels attest to Jesus’ use of this title.  As ‘Son of Man,’ Jesus must have reflected on what his role with respect to the nations, not just Israel, was to be.  Dn. 7.14 says, 'To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.'  Thus Daniel 7 is significant for Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom and his self-understanding as ‘Son of Man,’ and it is also important for him for in regard to his ministry to the Gentiles as well.

Psalm 2 and Psalm 22

Two psalms in the OT which that were generally used with reference to Jesus have to do with the nations.  Ps. 2.8 states that the king—understood by the Jews as the Messiah--would conquer and rule over the nations.  Psalm 22 was read by Matthew (and other New Testament authors)  in reference to Jesus’ suffering and death (cf. Mt. 27.35, 38, 39, 40, 41, 46, 50-52).  The psalm concludes by saying that ‘all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all families of the nations shall worship before you.  For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.’  Possibly the centurion’s confession that Jesus was the Son of God (Mt. 27.54) and when Jesus sends his disciples to the nations (Mt. 28.19), this crucial psalm is once again in view.

Matthew 12.39f; 16.4: Nineveh and the 'South'

Jesus' identification of his entombment with Jonah’s three days in the large fish (Mat. 12.39f; 16.4) involved further reflection on what followed in Jonah's life: a mission to the Gentiles (12.41).  The Gentiles of Nineveh accepted Jonah’s message, but Israel was rejecting Jesus’ message.  Similarly, the Queen of the South came from the ends of the earth to hear Solomon (Mt. 12.42), but one greater than Solomon was now present, and Israel was rejecting him.  Jesus stated that he was greater than both Jonah and Solomon, and therefore one must assume that the significance of both OT figures beyond the borders of Israel was something on which Jesus reflected.

Matthew 28.18-20: the Great Commission

Jesus’ famous great commissioning of the disciples that concludes Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 28.18-20) seems to reflect the conclusion of Isaiah: Is. 66:18-20.  In the passage from Isaiah, the survivors—the remnant of Israel or some select group from the remnant—are sent out to the nations to declare God’s glory and gather in the dispersed people of Israel.  Six regions are named, and they suggest the distant lands in each direction of the compass beyond Israel.  The restored remnant of Israel, along with ‘all nations and tongues,’ shall go to Jerusalem to see God’s glory.  Thus the restoration of Israel includes an extension of God’s rule over the nations.


Jesus’ self-understanding as savior and king over all nations can be seen from these texts.  The people of God—Jesus’ disciples, the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, the church—include people from both the Jews and the Gentiles.  The mission of the disciples—Isaiah’s survivors from Israel’s exile--is a mission to the nations to declare God’s glory, complete the ingathering of the Jewish dispersion, and include the Gentiles in Jesus’ salvation.  Thus the Church takes up the mission of Israel to the nations.  It is a mission that can be summed up, as Is. 66.18-20 states, as declaring God’s glory to the nations.  This is the heart of foreign missions.