After selecting twelve disciples, Jesus instructs them for their mission to the villages of Galilee. The first of these commands may surprise some readers, since Jesus restricts their mission to the Jews. They are not to go to Gentiles or Samaritans at all!
The first of these instructions is to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-8a). Does this command imply Jesus only came to the Jewish people? Jesus tells them to not even go to Gentile or Samaritan villages, although the Jewish disciples of Jesus would certainly not have considered entering either a Gentile or Samaritan town.
- When asked by a Gentile woman to heal her daughter, Jesus states it is not right to give food for the children to dogs. In Matthew 15:24 Jesus repeats the words from 10:6, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (cf., Mark 7:24-30 which does not have the lost sheep line).
- James and John want to call fire down from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village for refusing to receive Jesus (Luke 9:54). Even though Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman, his disciples are surprised he is talking to the woman (4:27).
- Even as late as Acts 10 Peter is reluctant to preach the Gospel of the God-fearer Cornelius and he is criticized when he returns to Jerusalem (11:1-3). James is still suspicious of Paul’s gentile mission in Acts 21:17-26.
It is therefore not surprising Jesus tells his disciples to only go to the Jews. The announcement that the Kingdom of God is near, and Jesus is the Messiah would have little meaning for a Samaritan and less for a Gentile. Mike Wilkins asks why Jesus would bother with the command if the disciples were not likely to go to the Gentiles anyway. For Wilkins, the prohibition dispels any doubts about whether Jesus was really the messiah. This is “Israel’s opportunity” and later they will be responsible for their rejection of the Messiah (Matthew, 390).
Is this restriction retracted in the Great Commission? Perhaps. But in the Book of Acts the initial mission was to still to the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2-7) first. There is suspicion of Philip’s mission in Samaria (Acts 8) and of Peter’s mission to Cornelius (Acts 10). Even in Acts 21 it does not seem like James is operating under the Great Commission; he is not reaching out to Samaritans or Gentiles (and probably not Hellenistic Jews). John Nolland argues Matthew did not consider the Great Commission as a “replacement of the mission to Israel with a mission to the Gentiles,” Jesus’s disciples are to continue their mission to Israel after the resurrection (Matthew, 429).
Who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel? The “lost sheep of the house of Israel” alludes to Jeremiah 50:6 and evokes the long exile of Israel. Just prior to the final destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of God’s people among the nations, God describes the people as “lost sheep,” ignored by their shepherds and harassed by the nations. Remember Matthew has just described the Jewish crowds as “sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). As the messiah, Jesus is the good shepherd sending his working into the world to care for the lost sheep.
The twelve are to proclaim the same message as Jesus, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Although repentance is not specifically mentioned in 10:6-7, Jesus condemns the villages of Galilee because they did not repent after seeing his miracles (11:20-24). The disciples are to do the same messianic signs as Jesus in Matthew 8-9 (heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons).