These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10.5-6).
Most people do not know the above verses are in the Bible. Most who do know, don’t know what they mean. This study will reveal what the verses mean and why Jesus said them.
Separation of Jew and Gentile
Throughout the Old Testament, Jews were commanded to remain separate from Gentiles. The reason for the prohibition was that Israel was to be a special people (Deuteronomy 14.2, 26.18) before the Lord. The purpose of this separation was largely to prevent Jews from being drawn away into worshiping false gods (cf Exodus 20.2-6).
Despite this, some Gentiles became believers in the God of Israel. Examples of these were Rahab (Joshua 2, Joshua 6; Matthew 1.5; Hebrews 11.31), Ruth (Ruth 1; Matthew 1.5)–both of whom were our Lord’s ancestors–and Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5.1-19). God commanded Jonah to go to the Ninevites and the entire city was saved (Jonah 1.1-2; 3.4-10). After the conquest and captivity of the northern kingdom and later the southern kingdom, Jews were forced to have greater contact with Gentiles. The testimony of Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon who conquered the southern kingdom, is recorded in Daniel 4. He came to trust the God of Israel–Daniel’s God. Therefore, there were always exceptions in which Gentiles were blessed by Jews under the provisions of God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12.1-3).
Universal Blessing of Gentiles
According to prophecy, Gentiles were to be blessed by Jews in a much larger manner than the examples above (Isaiah 42.1-4; Isaiah 60.1-5; Zechariah 8.20-23; Romans 15.8-12). Such blessings would be the result of Israel’s kingdom and the presence of their King, the Messiah. All this presupposed Israel’s acceptance of their Messiah. Until this occurred, a universal blessing of Gentiles by the nation was not possible.
Presentation of the King
The gospels are the story of Jesus’ presentation of Himself as Israel’s King and Messiah. Jesus proclaimed that His kingdom, which had been proclaimed by the prophets, was near (Matthew 3.2, 4.17; Mark 1.15; Romans 15.8-9). In it, the Messiah would be established as King over the nation as David’s greater Son. This was what the angel told Mary (Luke 1.28-33). In this kingdom, Israel would be preeminent nation among the nations (Deuteronomy 28.1, 13) and Israel’s covenants would be fulfilled.
Even a casual reading of the gospels should reveal that Jesus had no ministry to Gentiles. But to most, this statement is shocking. Most people think Jesus came to proclaim salvation to all who would believe in Him. But the Biblical record does not support this claim. In His earthly ministry, Jesus came to proclaim Himself as Israel’s Messiah. Not until later, through God’s revelation to Paul, did He reveal that Jesus was the Savior of the whole world.
According to Old Testament prophecy, no plan existed for Gentiles to be blessed universally apart from the Jews accepting their Messiah. But the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah. How then could Gentiles possibly be blessed? Was God’s plan thwarted? The answer is both yes and no. The Jews had a legitimate choice but God knew how they would choose. Einstein once said God does not play dice. But in reality, God not only plays dice, His dice are loaded. God had an answer to how Gentiles could be blessed despite Israel’s failure. His answer was Paul. But we’re getting ahead of the story.
The reason Jesus commanded His disciples not to go to Gentiles was that ever since God called Abraham, Jews had priority. Gentiles were excluded (Ephesians 2.11-13). God gave Israel an opportunity to accept their Messiah. If they had, the kingdom would have come and universal blessing of Gentiles would have come in the kingdom of God (Matthew 6.10). Peter was still hoping for this result even after the nation had crucified her Messiah (Acts 3.17-21).
Matthew recorded Jesus’ healing of a Canaanite woman. Below is the account.
21 Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” 23 B
ut He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” 24 But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 26 And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once (Matthew 15.21-28).
Jesus had escaped the pressures of the crowd and gone north to the area of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman found Him. She found Him because she had a problem. Aren’t we all this woman? This woman’s problem was her daughter: she was demon-possessed. We can only imagine what suffering she had endured and how hopeless her situation seemed. We do not know what she had heard about Jesus. But she knew exactly who He was and addressed Him by His proper title. Notice what she said: she asked for mercy, she called Him Lord, and she called Him “Son of David.” The woman had her facts straight. Jesus’ lack of response seems almost cruel. He refused even to acknowledge her.
The disciples then got into the picture. How embarrassing! What a nuisance! This Gentile, and a woman to boot, was causing a scene! They implored the Lord to send her away. We don’t know how long this went on but it is reasonable to assume several minutes. Finally, because of her persistence, Jesus told her He was sent only to Jews. The woman would not be turned aside. She was desperate. She got into His way. She bowed down before Him and begged Him to help her. Matthew’s language is that she was continually prostrating herself before the Lord (ἐλθοῦσα προσεκύνει αὐτῷ). Again Jesus rebuffed her. He told her that it was not “good” (καλός), that is, right or proper to “take the children’s (Jews) bread and throw it to dogs (κυνάριον)–little dogs–(Gentiles) such as she. The woman was remarkable. No doubt distraught, she kept her presence of mind: she agreed with Him. She (you have to love her nimble mind) replied that even “little dogs” got crumbs from the master’s table. The woman did everything right. She recognized Jesus for who He was. She agreed with Him about everything He had said. But she used His own words to keep her hope alive. What must have the Lord thought of her? This was a woman to be reckoned with! Her faith was beyond compare. Jesus replied, “Oh woman!” (In today’s language we would say, “What a woman!”) “Great is your faith! Your wish is granted.” And we read her daughter was healed immediately.