The Story Behind Matthew 10 and the "Lost Sheep of the House of Israel"
An Astonishing Truth!
by Pastor J.S. Brooks
This command by Christ to His Apostles reads as follows: “These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
This command of our Savior is often ignored from our modern pulpits, even though a “double witness” exists in Matthew 15:24, in the conversation between Christ and a Canaanite woman. Here we read these key words again: “But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Dr. Robert Smith seems exasperated at this while admitting that, “a natural and yet astonishing conclusion is drawn from Jesus’ argument.”
This Biblical scholar refers to the Apostles’ preaching to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” as “astonishing” three times in a single volume of a Lutheran Bible commentary. He seems at a complete loss to explain such a statement by our Savior that so decisively contradicts the theology of Lutheran and most other denominations. One wonders whether he would prefer to declare these enigmatic words fraudulent! This, however, would be a difficult thing to do since our Savior repeated this identical command in two different contexts.
There are several reasons why our Savior’s words baffle and confuse the modern theologians. First, they have no concept of the true meaning of the term, “the house of Israel.” Modern scholarship insists that this phrase is identical in meaning to the single word, “Israel.” If that is the case, then why did Christ append the words, “house of” to his command? Many reason that perhaps this was just poetic license or a flowery phraseology that added nothing to the meaning. It never occurs to them that when Christ referred to “the house of Israel,” he really did mean the ten-tribe entity known by that name in Scripture. (Jer. 31: 27, 31, 33; Ezk 37: 11, 16; Hos. 1:4, 6; Amos 9:9; etc.) Other names for them are “Ephraim” (Isa. 9:9, Ezk. 37:16, 19; Hos. 4:17; 5:5, 9, 11-14; 6:4; etc.) or the sons of Joseph (Gen. 46:27; Heb. 11:21, etc.).
Secondly, modern theologians are confused by Christ’s words because they do not consider the ten tribes of the house of Israel to ever have been “lost.” A great many writers today insist that the house of Israel was never exiled by Assyria (other than a small handful of people), and therefore they supposedly never went anywhere at all. Others say that the Bible is correct that Israel was exiled (2 Ki. 15:29; 17:6; 18:11), but that “they all came back” a very short time later. Therefore, we are told that there are no exiled or lost tribes of Israel anywhere in the world. Yet Christ referred to an Israel that was still “lost” in His day!
A third source of confusion then results. If Israel was never physically exiled and lost, then our Savior could only have spoken of a lost Israel in a spiritual sense. If so, why then did our Savior refer solely and specifically to the ten-tribe “house of Israel,” when the two-tribe house of Judah was just as spiritually in need? This would be a very obvious oversight on our Savior’s part!
A fourth confusion is caused by modern theologians’ assumption that Christ was speaking to all believers instead of giving a command specific to the twelve Apostles as the text clearly states. They assume that Christ only wanted “Jews” to be offered salvation, although “the house of Israel” was never Jewish.
An additional confusion exists over Jesus’ statement that the kingdom of God was “at hand.” This is an abject contradiction of modern theology which makes that kingdom entirely future and Millennial because of the supposed rejection of our Savior by all of Israel. However, if all of Israel did not reject the Savior, if a branch of the chosen tribes did accept the Christian faith when it was delivered to them, then the rationale for the “postponement of the kingdom” is removed entirely. (see Col. 1:13)
The word “astonishing” is pregnant with meaning. It comes from the Latin words “ex” = out, and “tonare” = to thunder. Webster’s dictionary defines it as “to stun, astound, bewilder, or overwhelm.” An interesting synonym given is “to render senseless.” This certainly fits, since Christ’s words make no sense at all to the scholars, and renders their theories senseless concerning Israel. Yet another synonym is “to amaze, to surprise greatly, as with something unaccountable; to confound.” True again, for Christ’s statement concerning Israel goes against much of the popular teaching in our pulpits.
Again Webster’s offers a meaning for “astonish” as “sudden emotion or passion.” Is this why some people get angry when you proclaim the truth concerning “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”? Lastly, Webster gives the meaning of “very wonderful.” Yes! How very wonderful this truth about the lost tribes is. One is reminded of Deuteronomy 28:37, “Thou [Israel] shalt become an astonishment.” Perhaps there is more to that verse than we have previously considered?
We are often told that modern scholarship does not accept our views concerning the lost tribes of the house of Israel. If so, perhaps we are in good company, for neither do they accept Christ’s view on that subject, as can be seen by Dr. Smith’s comments above. Yet there are some leading scholars who do more than hint at the truth of what we teach.
Dr. Craig Keener, in his Commentary on Matthew, tells us: “Jewish people often thought that ten of the twelve tribes were lost and would be restored only in the end time.” He then refers to the writings of two other scholars, Jeremias and Sanders, who also believe this. What they are really saying is that the two houses, Israel and Judah, would be reunited at the end of this age. If so, the house of Israel must still be an entity separate and distinct from Judah somewhere in our world today.
Author and professor Dr. Robert H. Gundry of California, in his commentary on the gospel of Matthew, states: “The lostness of the nine-and-a-half northern tribes, which was supposed in some quarters during the New Testament era, may have sharpened the point of [Christ’s] metaphor. The regathering of the lost sheep heralds the Messianic Age of salvation.” Notice the important points he makes here. The house of Israel was missing and considered “lost” during the New Testament era, the time of Christ. Furthermore, this scholar also believes that the house of Israel will only be fully regathered at the dawn of the Millennium, or Messianic Age. Since that is future, the regathering of the house of Israel certainly did not take place 2,700 years ago!
There should be nothing at all astonishing about Christ’s teaching concerning “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Instead, what is really astonishing is that more Christians have not come to see and accept this important and very Biblical truth.
Interesting Note to Matt. 15:24: Alford’s Greek Testament (I:164) says, “It was not this woman’s dwelling-place, but her descent, which placed the bar between her and our Lord’s ministrations.”