Although the Gospel according to Matthew was written specifically for a Jewish audience, the presence of Gentiles near Jesus is a recurring theme in its narrative, sometimes in contrast to the devotion of Israelites. For example, while the Magi (Persian astrologers) come a long way to honor Israel’s true king, the chief priests and scribes (Herod’s wise men) make no effort to do so. A Roman centurion’s faith is praised by Jesus as greater than that of Israelites (Matt. 8:10). The Gentile execution squad is the first to confess Jesus’ divine Sonship after His crucifixion (Matt. 27:54). In this distinctive way, Matthew highlights three things: (1) God’s redemptive plan has always included all the nations on the earth; (2) Gentiles are not insensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit; and (3) laying aside ethnic, cultural, and religious prejudice to love and serve others, as Christ did, is a prerequisite to effective cross-cultural ministry. Thus, apart from being a call to global mission, Matthew’s Gospel also is a message of ethnic reconciliation in Christ.
The other Gospel writers also highlight notable interactions of Jesus with Gentiles: He extended His outreach to the Gentile region of the Gadarenes (Mark 5:1), He healed a Roman centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1–10), and He ministered to a Samaritan city (John 4). Jesus’ interactions with foreigners revealed that the kingdom of God is for all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus demonstrated in practical ways that God has always been concerned with extending His love and forgiveness to all nations.
God’s Missionary Heart for the Nations During Old Testament Times
God has always desired a covenant relationship with all human societies. Not only was God concerned with saving Israelites but also, through Abraham, He wanted His redemptive grace to be extended to every nation (Gen. 12:1–3). The calling of Abraham to be a blessing to all nations singularly indicates that the inclusion of these nations in God’s redemptive plan was not an afterthought. Said differently, God’s desire for the Gentiles (the nations of the world) to experience His salvation was not His plan B. Centuries later, after the call of Abraham, God extended the same call to Abraham’s biological descendants (Israel) to be a nation of priests to all nations (Exod. 19:6). On numerous occasions, God reminded the Israelites that they were chosen not because they were the best among the nations (e.g., Deuteronomy 7) but because God loved them. Israel was chosen to be the vehicle through which other nations would come to know and worship God. Israel was to be a light to the rest of the nations. In Jeremiah 2:3, Israel is referred to as the firstfruit of God’s harvest, meaning there was a larger harvest outside of Israel. Right from the time that God called Abraham to be His flag bearer, His plan was to bring salvation to both Jews and Gentiles alike. Israel, as a nation, was therefore not chosen by God to the exclusion of every other nation. The account of the Old Testament is punctuated with stories of Gentiles who embraced the God of Israel as their God. Examples include Rahab, Ruth, Uriah the Hittite, and the Queen of Sheba.
Although God chose Israel as a nation to be His representative, He did not leave the mediation of His redemptive plan only to them. In many other ways, God unrelentingly revealed Himself to people of other nations. Ellen G. White makes the following important observation: “Outside of the Jewish nation there were men who foretold the appearance of a divine instructor. These men were seeking for truth, and to them the Spirit of Inspiration was imparted. One after another, like stars in the darkened heavens, such teachers had arisen. Their words of prophecy had kindled hope in the hearts of thousands of the Gentile world.”—The Desire of Ages, p. 33.
Melchizedek, a Canaanite priest-king, is one such non-Israelite to whom God reached out without the intermediary of other humans. Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High (El Elyon). The account of Melchizedek’s encounter with Abraham in Genesis 14:14–24 is very instructive. Abraham identifies his God, Yahweh, with El Elyon in three ways. First, he conjoined the two divine names—Yahweh and El Elyon—in a gesture that suggests they point to the same God (Gen. 14:22). Second, Abraham gave Melchizedek’s description of El Elyon to Yahweh: Maker of heaven and earth (Gen. 14:22). Third, Abraham’s acceptance of Melchizedek’s blessings and his gift of his tithe to the Canaanite priest suggest that Abraham legitimized Melchizedek’s priesthood (Gen. 14:19, 20). God had chosen Melchizedek “to be His representative among the people of that time, although he belonged to the Canaanite Community.”—Jacques B. Doukhan, Genesis, Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2016), p. 214.
It is important to note that God’s unrelenting missionary outreach to His creatures in various ways does not make believers’ involvement in mission irrelevant. Matthew 28:18–20 and 1 Peter 2:9 point out that making disciples for Christ is our fundamental reason for existence both as a church and as individual believers. It is a privilege for us to be co-laborers with God in what He could accomplish perfectly well without our participation. Also, knowing that God is ahead of us, preparing the ground for the sowing of the gospel seed, is another incentive to accept the privilege He graciously extends to us to be part of His team.
God’s Missionary Heart for the Nations in the New Testament
As noted above, although most of Jesus’ public ministry was conducted in Jewish territory, the number of His personal encounters with Gentiles recorded in the Gospels is remarkable. Jesus goes as far as stating that He has other sheep outside of the Jewish community (John 10:16). Through the life and ministry of Jesus and His commissioning of His followers to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20, Acts 1:8), the early Christians gradually understood that God’s covenant promise to welcome not just the descendants of Abraham but people of all other nations as His heirs would be enacted through the witness of the church. With the conversion of Cornelius’s household (Acts 10), something new broke into the life of the nascent Christian community. That event and the subsequent lengthy deliberation on the meaning of this new thing that God was doing (Acts 15) convinced the early church that the admission of the Gentiles into the commonwealth of believers, as full beneficiaries of God’s redemptive work in Christ, was ordained by God. As such, there was nothing they could do to invalidate this divine decree. Rather, it was now their responsibility not to overlook anybody in the sharing of the gospel.
As the inclusive people of God, called out of every nation to constitute one spiritual entity (1 Pet. 2:9), the church was called, enabled by the Holy Spirit, and commissioned to execute the missionary task of being the light of the nations, which Israel as a nation had failed to become. First Peter 2:9 therefore makes clear that the entire Christian community is God’s particular possession from among all the peoples of the earth. This verse combines the assertion of the identity of believers as God’s elect and holy covenant people with their responsibility of proclaiming the wonderful acts of God to all who have not yet surrendered their lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Convinced of his apostleship to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13, Rom. 15:16, Gal. 2:7) and boosted by the proceedings of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), Paul dedicated the bulk of his ministry to the Gentiles. His unfailing commitment to this mission propelled the gospel outside the borders of the nation. God’s aim for commissioning Paul to the unreached Gentiles was to show that His offer of salvation is for all people.
Knowing God’s intention for every people group to experience His salvation, we are called to take up His mission. Just as Israel, as a nation, was mandated to be a light to the Gentiles, we as Christians—or spiritual Israel—also are commanded to be God’s ambassadors to people who have not yet accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior (Matt. 28:18–20, 2 Cor. 5:20). Clearly, Christ’s disciples have an obligation to the unreached. The good news is that we do not necessarily have to go to the ends of the earth to find the unreached. There are, in every context of life, people who have not yet responded to the gospel. They may be our next-door neighbors, our colleagues, our classmates, our customers, our patients, or our students. We may encounter them as immigrants, refugees, international students, diplomats, or international businesspeople. Whatever the social, cultural, and religious background of the unreached people we encounter and minister to, we need to acknowledge that we cannot effectively minister to any group of people without first freeing ourselves from stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination toward them. We, therefore, need to pray that God will liberate us from any such prejudice.