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Why Foreign Missions? 12. Israel and the Gentiles in Luke’s History of Salvation

Why Foreign Missions?  12. Israel and the Gentiles in Luke’s History of Salvation

In this study, I will outline what Luke says about Israel and the Gentiles in Luke and Acts, relying in part on David Bosch’s excellent discussion of this topic.  Does foreign missions mean an abandoning of the Jews?  Does it mean that Israel falls out of God’s plan in salvation history?  In answering these questions, I will examine the significance of Jesus' and the Church's geographical movement as well as the theology of salvation history in Luke and Acts.

David Bosch’s Understanding of Geography and Theology in Luke’s Salvation History

+David Bosch states that

… the overall outline of the two books [the Gospel of Luke and Acts] is geographical, from Galilee to Jerusalem and again from Jerusalem to Rome, but this doubtless has more than geographical significance.  Geography simply becomes a vehicle for conveying theological (or missiological) meaning.  Luke employs it so as to disclose the relationship between the mission of Jesus and the mission of the church.  Jerusalem, in particular, is for Luke much more than a geographical center.[1]

As already noted (study 11), +David Pao emphasises the theological significance of Jesus’ statement that the disciples will be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8) over against any geographical significance for Luke-Acts.[2]  However, as Bosch argues, geography and theology work together for Luke.  The fact that Luke’s Gospel is geographically structured (Galilee, journey to Jerusalem, Jerusalem) supports the possibility of a geographical structure for Acts as well.[3]  Luke shows Jesus on a mission to do what was needed in Israel so that redemption would flow from Jerusalem.

The Plausibility of a Geographical Mission in Salvation History According to the Old Testament

Just how plausible is a geographical mission in salvation history according to the Old Testament?  A consideration of various texts in Psalms and Isaiah mentioning Zion (Jerusalem) demonstrates that such a perspective is highly likely.

As Messiah, Jesus must go to Zion to fulfill Psalm 2 (‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill,’ v. 6).    Zion is the place where God dwells (e.g., Ps. 135.21), where God is exalted over all the peoples (Ps. 99.2), from which God rules (Ps. 110.2), where God’s name is declared when peoples and kingdoms come to worship the Lord (Ps. 102.16, 21-22).  Salvation will come out of Zion (Pss. 9.14; 14.7; 53.6), and all flesh will come to God in Zion (Ps. 65.1-2).

In Isaiah, God’s deliverance, his salvation, is placed in Zion (Is. 46.13).  The ‘Gospel’ that ‘God reigns’ comes to Zion (Is. 52.7), and the people see the Lord’s return to Zion in plain sight (Is. 52.8).  God comes as redeemer from Zion to a sinful Israel and makes a new covenant with them (Is. 59.20-21), and he sends one anointed by his Spirit to provide for those in Zion (Is. 61.1-3).  Once Zion is restored after its destruction (e.g., Is. 51.3), a remnant of its survivors can engage in the task of restoring God’s exiled people and Gentiles (Is. 37.31-32; 66.18-22).  Also, once Zion is restored, the peoples of the earth can gather there to learn righteousness.  As Isaiah states,

In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem (Is. 2.2-3; cf. Mic. 4).

Thus the restoration of dispersed Israel requires a restored place to which they can gather.  Isaiah says,
… the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Is. 35.10; 51.11).

Not only so, but foreigners will also be brought to God’s holy mountain to minister to him, if they join themselves to him (Is. 56.6).  Nations and kings will bring gifts to God at his temple (Is. 60). 

While Pao finds an allusion to Is. 49.6 in Acts 1:8 (as noted in the study 11), surely there is also a Scriptural echo to all these verses in the Psalms and Isaiah that speak of God’s restoration of Zion, teaching in Zion, and proclamation from Zion—where God dwells.  The geographical movement of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel to Jerusalem entails the bringing of salvation to Zion in fulfillment of the Scriptures.  The geographical movement of the Church in the book of Acts from Jerusalem entails the extending of salvation to the ends of the earth in fulfillment of the Scriptures.

An Open Invitation of Salvation to the Jews and Gentiles

Jesus’ first sermon in Luke indicates that, even as the Jews persecute Jesus and the Church, salvation has come and is being offered to both Jews and Gentiles (Lk. 4.16ff).  This story is repeated throughout Luke and Acts: the Gospel continues to be offered to the Jews even if the response is minimal and the Gentiles are responding in greater numbers.

In Luke’s central section, where Jesus sets his face resolutely to go to Jerusalem and challenges his disciples to pick up their crosses and follow him (Lk. 9.21 or 51-19.27), Jesus encounters Samaritans three times.[4]  In Lk. 9.52-53, a Samaritan village does not receive Jesus because he was headed to Jerusalem.  This shows the antagonism of Samaritans towards the Jews, but it also shows that Jesus’ mission to include Samaritans could not take place until his mission to the Jews was fulfilled.  In Lk. 10.30-37, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, opening up new categories for mission: the one who shows mercy, even if a Samaritan and not the Jewish priest or Levite, is the neighbor to those in need.  In Lk. 17.11-19, Jesus heals ten lepers, and only the Samaritan leper returns to thank him.  These incidents from the middle section of the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is travelling from Galilee through Samaria to Jerusalem, foreshadow the Church’s ministry in Samaria in the middle section of Acts, when the Gospel is being taken beyond Jerusalem to Samaria and before it goes to the ends of the earth (Acts 8.1-25).

In Acts, Paul repeatedly offers the message of salvation to the Jews (in Salamis, Cyprus, 13.5; in Pisidian Antioch, 13.14ff; in Iconium, 14.1ff; in Lystra, 16.1ff; in Philippi, 16.3ff; in Thessalonica, 17.1ff; in Beroea, 17.10ff; in Athens, 17.17; in Corinth, 18.4; in Ephesus, 18.19; in Asia, 19.10; 20.21; in Rome, 20.17ff).  The hope of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that Jesus had been the one who would redeem Israel (Lk. 24.21), and the disciples’ question at the beginning of Acts (Acts 1.6) about the time when Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel hang over all these narratives.  The Gospel is being offered to the Jews.  Some believe, while others reject the message and persecute the Christian missionaries.  In the words of Isaiah, the remnant is taking the message of salvation from Jerusalem to the nations where the Jews are scattered and where the Gentiles live (Is. 37.31-32; 66.18-22).  Some from both groups are accepting the message, and others from both groups are rejecting it.  Isaiah not only predicted this mission of restoration and salvation, but he also predicted Jewish rejection of it (Is. 6.9-10, quoted in Acts 28.26-27).  Jewish rejection, however, does not thwart the message going to and being accepted by the Gentiles (Acts. 28.28).  Nor does Gentile acceptance of the message close off a mission to the Jews.  Instead, the story of Acts leaves the reader to anticipate a future time when Israel will accept God’s salvation.

Furthermore, as Bosch points out, Luke’s salvation history is not that the message of salvation goes to the Gentiles once the Jews reject it (let alone that the Jews have been rejected).[5]  He continues, ‘There is no break in the history of salvation.  [For the Jews] not to be converted means to be purged from Israel; conversion [of Jews and Gentiles] means a share in the covenant with Abraham.  The promises to the fathers have been fulfilled.  The church is born from out of the womb of Israel of old, not as an outsider laying claims to Israel’s historic prerogatives.’[6]  Indeed, a future time of acceptance of salvation by the Jews is envisioned by Luke (Lk. 13.35; 21.24; Acts 1.6).

What Luke presents is the unhindered progression of God’s plan of salvation on the one hand,[7] and the present reality of Israel’s rejection of it amidst the Gentiles’ acceptance of it (Acts 28.25-28).  This leaves room for a future in which Israel will accept God’s salvation and the kingdom will be restored to Israel (Acts 1.6).[8]  This does not compel us to accept any present developments in Israel as relevant to salvation history: the New Testament looks for the Jews’ acceptance of the salvation that Jesus brings, not some reconstitution of a national Israel.  The imagery of a return to Zion may or may not be literal—we shall only know in hindsight.  What we do know, however, is that the offer of salvation stands open to Jews and Gentiles alike in Luke’s theology, as it does in our day too.

[1] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, pp. 88-89.  Bosch references: Jacques Dupont, The Salvation of the Gentiles: Essays on the Acts of the Apostles (NY: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 12f; R. J. Dillon, ‘Easter Revelation and Mission Program in Luke 24:46-48,’ in Sin, Salvation and the Spirit, ed. D. Durken (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1979), p.241; and Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Missions (Maryknoll, NY: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 255.
[2] Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), p. 95.
[3] Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus, p. 95.
[4] As noted by D. Bosch, Transforming Mission, pp. 89-91.
[5] D. Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 95.
[6] D. Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 96.
[7] See John T. Squires, The Plan of God in Luke-Acts, SNTS 76 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
[8] So also David Ravens, Luke and the Restoration of Israel, JSNTS 119 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).