Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15:24 that He was “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” has caused some confusion among Bible readers over the years. However, when we examine the context of this statement, as well as the overarching message of the Scriptures, the meaning becomes clear.
In Matthew 15, Jesus has an encounter with a Canaanite woman who begs Him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Initially, Jesus does not respond to her, and the disciples urge Him to send her away. Jesus then makes the statement in question: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). On the surface, this seems to contradict the universal scope of Jesus’ ministry. However, Jesus was highlighting a specific priority, not an exclusive limitation.
As the Messiah, Jesus came first to serve the people of Israel, God’s chosen nation in the Old Testament (cf. Romans 15:8). Israel had been called by God but had wandered from Him, becoming “lost sheep” in need of a shepherd. Jesus’ earthly ministry focused on seeking out these lost Jewish sheep and calling them back to the Father. However, this priority did not mean Jesus’ ministry was limited to Jews alone.
Even within the context of Matthew 15, Jesus goes on to commend the Canaanite woman for her great faith and heals her daughter. If His ministry were exclusive to Jews, this encounter would not have occurred. Jesus performed many miracles for, and interacted with, Gentiles throughout His ministry showing His inclusive mission (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10, John 4:46-54). The book of Matthew itself concludes with the Great Commission, commanding followers of Jesus to make disciples of “all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Several key truths help explain Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15:24:
- As the Jewish Messiah, Jesus’ earthly ministry focused first on the lost sheep of Israel in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (cf. Isaiah 53:6; Jeremiah 50:6; Ezekiel 34:5-6, 11-16).
- Jesus came not only for the Jews but also for the “other sheep” – Gentiles who would believe (John 10:16). His ultimate mission was worldwide.
- The gospel message would go first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). But it was always intended for all people.
- After His resurrection, Jesus commanded His followers to take the gospel to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The Great Commission makes His inclusive purpose clear.
In summary, Jesus highlighted His primary mission to Israel, not an exclusive limitation. As the Messiah, He came first to the Jewish people but His ultimate purpose was global. Jesus lived, died, and rose again for the sins of all humanity (1 Timothy 2:3-6). By God’s grace, anyone who repents and believes can become His follower and be saved (John 3:16). Jesus came to seek and save people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 5:9).
The Historical Context of Jesus’ Ministry
To fully understand Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15:24, it is helpful to examine the historical context of His earthly ministry.
In the 1st century A.D., Israel was under Roman occupation. The Jews were waiting expectantly for the Messiah – the descendant of King David who would deliver them and reign over a restored Kingdom of Israel (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Isaiah 11:1-16). When Jesus began His ministry, the Jews wondered if He might be this long-awaited Messiah.
However, the popular conception of the Messiah was often more nationalistic and political in nature than spiritual. Many expected a revolutionary Messiah who would overthrow Rome. But Jesus defied these expectations, declaring that His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Rather than political liberation, Jesus offered spiritual salvation from sin.
As the Messiah, Jesus initially directed His ministry toward the Jewish people, who had been entrusted with the oracles of God in the Old Testament (Romans 3:2). God had chosen Israel and made promises to one day bless all nations through them (Genesis 12:1-3). Though the Jews had repeatedly broken covenant with God, His promises remained. Jesus came first to the lost sheep of Israel, calling them to repentance and fulfilment of their commission.
However, Jesus did not ignore Gentiles. His ultimate mission encompassed all humanity. As pockets of faith emerged in the Gentile world, the gospel spread rapidly beyond Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 11:19-21). The Great Commission at the end of Matthew signaled this global purpose from the beginning.
In summary, Jesus came first to Israel as their Messiah, calling them to repentance and spiritual renewal. But His ultimate purpose included people of all nations coming to faith through the gospel. Jesus was and is the Savior of the world.
Old Testament Prophecies Concerning Jesus’ Ministry
Jesus’ initial focus on Israel also fulfilled numerous Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah’s ministry. Here are some key examples:
- Isaiah 53:6 – Says that “all we like sheep have gone astray” but the Servant’s atoning sacrifice would bear “the iniquity of us all.” Jesus came first to the lost sheep of Israel.
- Jeremiah 50:6 – Israel is “lost sheep” whose shepherds (leaders) had caused them to stray. Jesus came to shepherd the lost sheep.
- Ezekiel 34:5-6, 11-16 – Indicts Israel’s false shepherds who had not sought the lost sheep. God would seek them and send His Servant David (the Messiah) to shepherd them.
- Zechariah 9:9 – The King come to bring salvation would come “gentle and riding on a donkey” (as Jesus did in His Triumphal Entry).
- Micah 5:2 – The ruler of Israel would come from Bethlehem. Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Jesus clearly fulfilled major Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah’s coming, ministry, and purpose – prophecies which pointed first and foremost to ministering to the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15:24, when seen in this context, is completely consistent with Old Testament expectations.
At the same time, the Old Testament contains hints and prophecies that the Messiah would ultimately bring salvation to all nations, not Israel alone (Isaiah 49:6). Jesus fulfilled these inclusive prophecies as well.
Israel’s Status as God’s Chosen People
In the Old Testament, Israel was uniquely chosen by God for special purposes. God promised to bless all nations through Abraham and his offspring, the people of Israel (Genesis 12:1-3). Though they broke covenant with God, they still remained His elect people.
Thus, when the Messiah arrived, it made sense He would come first to Israel in fulfillment of God’s promises. As Paul explained in Romans 9-11, God’s covenant promises to Israel remain intact. Though the nation rejected Jesus and the gospel went to the Gentiles, God still has a future plan to redeem Israel (Romans 11:25-29).
Jesus’ focus on Israel during His earthly ministry made perfect sense in light of Israel’s unique, covenant status as God’s chosen people. God had promised to one day restore them, and Jesus came as their Messiah to fulfill that promise. Though Jesus’ ministry was inclusive of Gentiles, His focus on the “lost sheep of Israel” was an important fulfillment of prophecy.
Jesus Interacting with and Blessing Gentiles
While Jesus’ earthly ministry focused on Israel, He encountered and blessed Gentiles as well, showing that His ultimate mission extended beyond Israel:
- The Magi – These Gentile wise men from the East were guided to worship the newborn Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12).
- The centurion’s servant – Jesus healed this Gentile’s sick servant, commending his great faith (Matthew 8:5-13).
- The Gerasene demoniac – Jesus healed this possessed Gentile man across the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:28-34).
- The Syrophoenician woman – After initially highlighting his mission to Israel, Jesus healed this Canaanite woman’s daughter, commending her faith (Matthew 15:21-28).
- Ten lepers – Jesus healed ten lepers near Samaria, including the grateful Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19).
- The Roman centurion – Jesus healed this Gentile’s servant and praised his faith (Luke 7:1-10).
These examples demonstrate that while Jesus’ focus was Israel, His ultimate mission was universal. He blessed and interacted with Gentiles throughout His ministry, signaling His inclusive purpose.
The Great Commission and the Gospel to All Nations
After His resurrection, Jesus commissioned His followers to take the gospel message to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47). This Great Commission makes it clear that His intention was always to bless and save people from every tribe and nation.
In Acts, we see the early church begin to spread beyond Judea and Samaria into Gentile regions. The conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 is a major milestone showing the gospel was for Gentiles too. The Great Commission is fulfilled as the gospel reaches Rome and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Jesus’ statement about being sent to Israel never meant an exclusive mission. The Great Commission and book of Acts make clear that His intention has always been to redeem people from all nations through the gospel.
Israel’s Rejection of Jesus and the Gospel to the Gentiles
Tragically, Israel as a nation rejected Jesus and His message. Though many Jews did accept Him, the religious leaders opposed and crucified Him.
This paved the way for the gospel to spread rapidly to the Gentile nations. Paul explains this divine “mystery” in Romans 11 – since Israel rejected the gospel, salvation has come to the Gentiles in the interim (vv.11-12, 17-21). Gentile inclusion was always God’s plan.
Thus Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:24 explained His initial ministry focus on Israel, not an exclusive limitation. When the Jews rejected the gospel, it expanded beyond them, just as Scripture foretold.
Jesus as Savior of Both Jews and Gentiles
While Jesus came first to the Jews, His ultimate purpose was to die for the sins of all humanity – both Jew and Gentile. Several key passages make this inclusive mission clear:
- John 3:16 – God loved the world and gave His Son to save whosoever believes.
- John 10:16 – Jesus is the Good Shepherd with other sheep (Gentiles) who will become one flock with Jewish believers.
- 2 Corinthians 5:19 – God was reconciling the world to Himself through Christ.
- 1 Timothy 2:3-6 – God desires all people to be saved and gave Himself as a ransom for all.
These and other Scriptures make it clear that while Jesus’ earthly ministry focused on Israel, His ultimate purpose was to be the Savior of all – both Jews and Gentiles alike.
Jesus Gathering His Sheep from Every Nation
In John 10, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. He explains He has “other sheep” (Gentiles) who will also become part of His one flock:
“I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)
This prophecy is fulfilled in Revelation 5:9 where Christ has redeemed people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” by His blood. His redemption extends to sheep from every fold – both Jews and Gentiles.
Jesus came first to regather Israel, the lost sheep. But His ultimate mission was to redeem people from every nation to make them one flock under Himself, the Good Shepherd.
Summary of Key Points
To summarize, here are key reasons and explanations for Jesus’ statement about being sent only to the lost sheep of Israel:
- As Jewish Messiah, Jesus came first to Israel, God’s chosen people, fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.
- Israel had been called by God but wandered from Him, becoming “lost sheep” in need of a shepherd.
- Jesus ministered to Jews but also interacted with and blessed Gentiles, signaling His inclusive mission.
- The Great Commission shows God’s plan to bless all nations through Christ.
- Israel’s rejection of Jesus opened the door for rapid gospel spread to Gentiles.
- Jesus ultimately lived, died and rose again to be Savior of all – both Jew and Gentile.
In summary, Jesus highlighted Israel’s priority to explain His messianic mission. But this priority did not mean exclusion of Gentiles from God’s salvation. The ultimate purpose from the beginning was to redeem people from every nation into one flock under the Good Shepherd.
Jesus’ statement that He was sent only to “the lost sheep of Israel” has a straightforward meaning in context. As Jewish Messiah, Jesus’ earthly ministry focused first on Israel, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and God’s covenant promises. However, this priority did not imply an exclusive limitation. Jesus interacted with and blessed Gentiles throughout His ministry. The Great Commission, book of Acts, and Epistles make clear God’s intention to bless all nations through Christ. From the beginning, Jesus came to lay down His life to save people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. By God’s grace, the Good Shepherd continues gathering His sheep from every corner of the world into one flock.