By Keith Thompson
Muslims claim Jesus was only sent for the Jews and that his mission did not involve Gentiles. Instead, according to Muslims, it is Muhammad who is meant for the Gentile world. In order to argue their position they twist certain biblical verses and ignore others. In this essay we will provide some exegetical and historical clarity on this issue to help out our Muslim friends see the truth of the matter.
In an essay, Muslim apologist Osama Abdullah claimed, “Jesus was sent only to the Jews and not to Mankind!” To try to establish this Osama misapplies Matthew 10:5-6 and 15:24. We will address these texts and then provide a positive case Jesus was sent for the Gentile world as well.
“These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (Matthew 10:5-6).
It is erroneous for Muslims to assume just because at this early period Jesus instructed the disciples to preach only to the Jews, that this meant this was Jesus’ permanent plan for them. Instead of this text representing Jesus’ and the disciples’ long-term mission, Craig Keener remarks, “. . .the prohibition does fit a short-term mission during Jesus’ ministry and its expectation of some fort of imminent kingdom”(1). Leon Morris also offers some sobering insight: “All this means that on this first mission the Twelve were to work in Galilee; the roads to the north and east led to Gentile territory, while that to the south went to Samaria”(2). R. T. France likewise notes, “The geographical terms used here (‘way of the Gentiles,’ ‘town of the Samaritans’; cf. towns of Israel,’ v. 23) indicate a restriction on the area to be visited rather than a total ban on contact with Gentiles and Samaritans as such. . . . This limited scope of mission was to apply for the initial period of proclamation until the undeniably primary focus of Jesus’ mission as Messiah of Israel had been established; only after that, and after his death and resurrection, would it be appropriate to widen the scope deliberately to include Gentile and Samaritan areas”(3).
Twelve verses later we see recognition the disciples would eventually be going out to the Gentiles, “you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:18). The fact is if Jesus went to the Gentiles at the same time as the Jews in the beginning of the mission, instead of going to the Jews first, He would unnecessarily offend his Jewish people who anxiously expected their King to fulfill their history and show special care for them (Luke 2:25). Thus, this was Jesus’ first mission. Then afterwards he went to the Gentiles (we will prove the same Scriptures further teach this). This the apostle Paul well understood when he said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
In sum, the language in Matthew 10:5-6 does not indicate Jesus and the apostles would never go the Gentiles, but just that this first mission would be Jew-centered.
“He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (Matthew 15:24).
Here again we are in the world of that initial or first stage where the Jews are the beginning focus. However, the narrative itself in context shows Jesus healed a Canaanite woman’s daughter after she begged him (v. 28) indicating the verse in question’s alleged absoluteness can be pierced, and that according to vv. 26-27 there was enough of Jesus’ metaphorical bread even for the dogs (i.e., the way the Jews referred to the ungodly Gentiles in the ancient world).
Moreover, the totality of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew as well as Mark, Luke and Old Testament teaching, demonstrates the second stage in the mission would indeed include the Gentile world. To this evidence we will now turn.
Positive Case Jesus was sent for Gentile World
That in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus affirmed the Gentiles would eventually be reached by his disciples, we see in 8:11-12 that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:1-12). This undoubtedly refers to Gentiles coming to God from east and west(4). Moreover, in 24:14 Jesus says, “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). Also, in 26:13 Jesus affirms, “wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13). And lastly Jesus said in 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Because this is clear and Osama recognizes it refutes his position, he has to redefine the Greek word “nations” here to not refer to Gentiles nations, but to “all people of Israel.” However, the Greek word is ethnos and according to Baur, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich’s A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament the word does not refer to “all people of Israel” as Osama claims, but to “a body of persons united by kinship, culture, and common traditions, nation, people” with, in the New Testament, the connotation of “gentiles” and “non-Israelite Christians”(5). Thus, the best academic lexicon says just the opposite of what Osama asserts. This is why many translations actually render ethnos as “Gentiles” in many texts (e.g. ESV, Acts 21:25). Also, there are many texts where ethnos is mentioned in complete distinction from the Jews proving the error of Osama’s claims. For example, Acts 14:5 says, “When an attempt was made by both Gentiles [ethnos] and Jews…” (Acts 14:5). If Osama was right this would be saying “an tempt was made by both Jews and Jews.” Another example is in Romans 3:29 which says, “is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles [ethnos] also? Yes, of Gentiles [ethnos] also” (Romans 3:29). Hence, clearly Osama is wrong and the texts we cited do refer to Jesus being for the Gentiles as well.
That in Mark and Luke Jesus also affirms He is for the Gentile world is evidenced by the following texts. In Mark 13:10 we read, “the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations” (Mark 13:10). In Luke 2:32 Jesus is called “a light to the Gentiles.” In Luke 13:29 Jesus said, “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). This again refers to Gentiles around the world. Finally in Luke 24:47 we read, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). This text helps establish our thesis that although the Jews were first, the Gentiles would follow in regards to Jesus’ mission.
The Old Testament predicted the Messiah’s mission would involve the Gentile world as well. This further proves our case Jesus was meant for the Gentiles and not only the Jews. In Psalms 2:7-12, clearly a messianic psalm, we’re told about the Messiah, the Son, who will rule God’s kingdom including Gentile nations. In v. 8 we’re told the Gentile nations will become the possession of God. This implies the salvation of many Gentiles and the destruction of the wicked ones. Moreover, continuing this theme of Messiah’s role in the salvation of the Gentile nations, Isaiah 2:2 says in the last days “all the nations shall flow to it [i.e., the mountain of house of the Lord]” (Isaiah 2:2). This is so that “he [God] may teach us [Gentiles] his ways and that we may walk in his path” (v. 3). Also, referring to the Messiah and the Gentiles, Isaiah 11:1, 10 say “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. . . . In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:1, 10). Similarly, on this same theme, in Isaiah 19:19-25 we’re told one day the Egyptian and Assyrian Gentiles will make vows to the true God, YHWH. In Isaiah 42:1 we read about the Messiah and the Gentiles nations some more: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1). Moreover, in regards to the servant or Messiah, Isaiah 49:6 says, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). This is explicit. Lastly, in Amos 9:11-12 we’re told about the restoration of the house or family of David (i.e., messianic connotations)(6), and the inclusion of the Gentile nations in light of the restoration of the house or family of David: “‘In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,’ declares the LORD who does this” (Amos 9:11-12). The inclusion of the Gentiles connected with Messiah’s reign is clear.
In conclusion, the biblical evidence is decisive in regards to Jesus coming for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. We haven’t even discussed Acts or the epistles which also clearly affirm this. The Muslim idea Jesus was not for the Gentiles but that Muhammad was, is just not a concept that can be squared with the Bible at all. It is a false teaching devised by a false prophet who was utterly ignorant about biblical theology.
1) Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012], p. 390
2) Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, [Wm B. Eerdmans, 1992], p. 245
3) R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, ed. Joel B. Green, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, , p. 382
4) Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012], p. 390
5) Baur, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, [The University of Chicago Press, 2000]. pp. 276-277
6) David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 431