Some Christian circles hold the position that the Lord Jesus came to save only the twelve tribes of Israel. Two verses provide the cornerstone for this view — in Matthew 15:24 where the Lord Jesus says to a non-Israelite woman,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
And also His command to His disciples in Matthew 10:5-6:
5 These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them, saying, “Do not go on a road to the nations, and do not enter a city of Samaritans; 6 but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
They further contend that Jesus initially came only for the house of Judah — that is, the remaining southern kingdom of Israel — consisting mostly of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi. But then, they contend, Jesus had to die before He could extend salvation to the other ten Israelite tribes — who had been completely divorced from the covenants — to bring them back in — or remarry them.
Therefore — the argument goes — that when the Lord gave the command in Matthew 10:5-6, He was actually telling the the apostles to stay with the southern kingdom of Israel but leave out any of the northern kingdom Israelites — the “gentiles” or “nations” — until such time as He had died and brought them back into the covenants.
Bringing in the “divorced tribes” would be how they explain the bringing in of “the nations” into the New Covenant. In other words, “the nations” — in their line of reasoning — never refers to the Genesis 10 nations — but rather refers only to the scattered Israelites from within those nations.
When the Lord said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” we would certainly agree with the plain interpretation that during the Lord’s time on the earth, His mission would not exceed the scope of the Israelites themselves. However, these circles take these verses a step further to mean that the scope of the Lord’s work would never exceed the literal descendants of Israel — that the scope of His work would never expand to the Genesis 10 nations — even after His crucifixion.
Although we have shown why this view is wrong from many different angles in our other studies, we’d like to address it here from this specific angle. Moreover, we would also like to consider its effect on prophecy concerning Israel.
THE LOST SHEEP OF THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL
First, let’s consider what the term “Israel” (Strong’s 3478) means — rather than presuming that we all know what it means. In the Scripture, many times nations are named according to their patriarchs. For example, the Moabites were called according to their patriarch “Moab.” Or the Edomites were called according to their patriarch “Edom” — otherwise known as Esau. In the Hebrew text, the Egyptians were called according to their patriarch “Mizraim.”
When we refer to Mizraimites, Edomites or Moabites, we are not referring to lands or countries with borders but rather to groups of people who are bound according to their common ancestor. Whether a Moabite is in the land of Moab or in South America, they are still a Moabite.
Likewise, when the word “Israel” is used in Scripture, it doesn’t refer to a country or any specific piece of land — rather, it refers to all of those who can trace their patrilineal descent back to Jacob — who was renamed “Israel” (Genesis 32:28). Therefore, an Israelite is an Israelite no matter where they may find themselves geographically. That is, they don’t stop being Israelites just because they are not in the literal “land of Israel.” Furthermore, when we see the word “Israel” in the New Testament, we should consider the true meaning of the word — that is, all twelve tribes who could trace their patrilineal descent back to Jacob — and not just the small Israelite remnant in Judea.
Therefore, when anyone in the New Testament uses the term “Israel,” it can mean only one thing — all Israelites regardless of where they may dwell — whether in Judea, Samaria, Egypt or elsewhere.
This distinction is important to keep in mind — because Christians who hold the view that the Lord intended to save only Israel interpret Matthew 10:5 and Matthew 15:24 with different standards on this point. When the Lord said, “Do not go on a road to the nations, and do not enter a city of Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” He implicitly created an important distinction — which is, that the “nations” and “Samaritans” are exclusive from the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That is to say, here Christ Jesus clearly does not take them to mean the same people.
One might object that Samaria — from where we get the name “Samaritans” — was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel — and, therefore, Samaria should surely be inhabited by Israelites, correct? Not so fast — 2 Kings 17:6 says,
In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and led the people of Israel into exile to Assyria, and settled them in Halah and Habor, on the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
Then in 2 Kings 17:24,
Then the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and settled them in the cities of Samaria in place of the sons of Israel. So they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities.
After Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, they deported most of the population — moving them northward into Assyria and beyond. One of the curses for a disobedient Israel was given in Deuteronomy 4:27,
The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord drives you.
Acts 2:5 confirms that “there were Judeans residing in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.” Note how when Israelites come out from among the nations, the Scriptural writers specifically qualify it by saying, “Judeans….from every nation.”
James also writes to “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (James 1:1). And if all twelves tribes are dispersed abroad, that would most certainly include even members of the southern kingdom — Judah, Levi, and Benjamin — like Paul who was a Benjaminite (Philippians 3:5) and came from Tarsus (Acts 21:39).
In John 4:12 the Lord Himself speaks to an Israelite woman — within a Samarian city — who acknowledges Jacob as her father (or patriarch) — attesting that at least some minority of Israelites did remain in Samaria despite the Assyrian mass deportation — and that the Lord ministered to them because they were of the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Herein lies an obvious difficulty for the view — If the Lord said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” how could that statement exclude entire tribes of Israelites? Even if — hypothetically speaking — certain tribes were divorced from the covenants, they would still be Israelites. Of course, Israelites were still Israelites in Egypt before the covenants were even made in the first place — just as the Lord said of His people in Exodus 4:22, “Israel is My son, My firstborn.” It’s not the covenants which make them Israelites according to the flesh — but rather it’s their patrilineal descent from Jacob which makes them so.
Therefore, if the Lord said that He came only for Israelites, then the scope of “the lost sheep” spans across all twelve tribes of Israel. Furthermore, the idea that entire tribes could be divorced does not work in light of Luke 2:36 — where a woman from the tribe of Asher — supposedly one of the divorced tribes from the northern kingdom of Israel — is found serving at the temple and prophesying. Obviously, the Israelites in Judea — and God Himself — accepted her as a true Israelite — otherwise she never would have been allowed in the temple.
As we mentioned earlier — in Matthew 10:5-6, the Lord creates a distinction between Israel and the nations. Even though there were Israelites scattered throughout the nations and Samaria, the apostles were to go only to “the cities of Israel” (Matthew 10:23) — where they’d be sure to encounter only Israelites.
Yes, there were scattered Israelites outside of Judea, but if they didn’t have time to cover even the cities of Israel according to Matthew 10:23 — then they certainly would not have time to go to all of the dispersions.
If there was an Asherite in the temple (which there was) — and if the Lord ministered to Israelites in the northern kingdom area of Samaria (which He did) — despite commanding His disciples not to go there — then there’s no merit to the idea that He came first only for the southern kingdom of the house of Judah when He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Furthermore, we see scattered Israelites “from every nation under heaven” attending the feasts in Acts 2:5.
Here we see a shell game being played in the “only-Israel-is-saved” method of interpretation — although not necessarily intentionally — as we ourselves made the same mistake at one point.
On one hand, in Matthew 10, the Lord Jesus said to avoid the nations and the Samaritans — which He qualifies as going only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, not going to the nations and the Samaritans necessarily means going to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Yet some Christians will insist, “Christ was referring only to the southern kingdom — or the house of Judah — in that command.”
On the other hand, some Christians often use Matthew 15:24 to prove that the Lord came only for Israel as a whole. They will say, “According to Matthew 15:24, Christ said that He came only for Israel. Therefore, He did not come for the nations at all.” They remain oblivious to the fact that they have applied different standards to the same concept which is written exactly the same in Matthew 10:6 and 15:24 — word for word — “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
In other words, according to their argument, “Israel” in Matthew 10:6 means just “the house of Judah” — whereas in Matthew 15:24 Israel means “all twelve tribes of Israel.” In order to retain a consistent interpretation, these Christians must either allow Matthew 10:6 to mean “all twelve tribes of Israel” — in which case their view that the Lord had to die in order to remarry the southern kingdom Israelites would not work. Or they must allow Matthew 15:24 to simply mean “the house of Judah” — an irreconcilable conundrum.
Moreover — as we already specified, “Israel” always means all twelve tribes generally — notwithstanding any theological position on where any given tribe stands in relation to the covenants. Therefore, to say that Matthew 10:6 refers only to “the house of Judah” doesn’t work ab initio — at the outset. Furthermore, there’s nothing in the Scripture which states that the Lord Jesus would come only for the house of Judah in the first place — thus the position is begging the question — assuming the validity of its own premise instead of proving the validity of its own premise.
They might quote something like Zechariah 12:6 which says, “The Lord also will save the tents of Judah first, so that the glory of the house of David and the glory of the inhabitants of Jerusalem will not be greater than Judah” — as if to somehow prove that the Lord would first come only for the house of Judah — the southern kingdom — and save the northern kingdom only after that.
However, using this verse as a witness would suffice to convince only someone who wanted to believe it in the first place — but that doesn’t seem to be what Zechariah 12:6 is saying at all — especially when reading the passage in its greater context. The passage seems to refer to some event where despite the inhabitants of Jerusalem supporting the lands around them (Zechariah 12:5), their salvation and glory will neither precede nor exceed the house of Judah whom they supported (Zechariah 12:7). Zechariah 12 does not explicitly mention — nor does it even imply — the northern kingdom of Israel — and to nevertheless insist that it does is merely another example of begging the question.
In addition to that, it doesn’t make sense to ever interpret “the nations” as referring to Israelites who are scattered among the nations. “The nations” are not plots of land or countries — they are the actual peoples who trace their patrilineal desent back to their patriarchs — whether Genesis 10 patriarchs or some later patriarch. The entire point of Genesis 10 is to define who “the nations” actually are. To say “nations” without qualifying the statement in any way can never refer to Israelites in light of the distinction made by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 10:5-6.
Let’s recap the points we have covered so far:
- “Israel” always means the twelve tribes.
- Israelites are still Israelites regardless of their status regarding covenants.
- “Nations” — unless qualified — always refers to peoples with common ancestors — not countries or lands.
- The Lord distinguishes Israel from the nations and Samaritans (Matthew 10:5-6).
- “Divorced” northern kingdom tribes are found in Judea and are aware of their identity (Luke 2:36).
- The Lord ministers to what are likely “divorced” northern kingdom Israelites remaining in Samaria — who are also aware of their identity (John 4:12).
The only recourse we have is to take a consistent approach to our interpretation of Matthew 10 and 15. In both cases, the “Israel” in “lost sheep of the house of Israel” means Israel generally — all twelve tribes. If any Christians maintain that the Lord came to save only Israelites — and insist that the scope of the New Covenant would never extend further than “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” — then they must apply that standard consistently across the entire book of Matthew at the very least. Yet it cannot be applied consistently as we have already highlighted — at least not without begging the question.
The Lord Jesus did not want His disciples to go to the nations in Matthew 10:5-6 because He had not yet made the New Covenant by the shedding of His blood. After the Lord’s death and resurrection He says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). This stands in stark contrast to, “Do not go on a road to the nations….but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6) Indeed, now that He had died, the nations could be welcomed into the New Covenant.
Does the phrase “lost sheep of the house of Israel” mean all twelve tribes — or does it mean only the tribes which make the majority constituent of the southern kingdom Israel?
If we insist that the statements in Matthew 10 and 15 prove that the Lord Jesus only ever came for Israel, then we must also conclude that He only ever came for the tribes of the southern kingdom — or else applying that same definition to Matthew 15:24 wouldn’t work.
If we conclude that it means all twelve tribes, then we must conclude that Matthew 10:5-6 also means all twelve tribes — otherwise we cannot use Matthew 15:24 as proof that the Lord Jesus only ever came for the twelve tribes of Israel.
Furthermore, if we conclude that it means all twelve tribes, then we must conclude that the Genesis 10 nations have indeed been included in the New Covenant — according to the distinction created between Israel and “the nations” in Matthew 10:5-6 — and cross-referenced with Matthew 28:19.
There’s just no way that Matthew 10:5-6 and Matthew 15:24 could prove that the scope of the New Covenant would never extend past Israel. Quite the opposite — adding in Matthew 28:19 proves that the scope of the New Covenant definitely includes the non-Israelite Genesis 10 nations. In order to conclude otherwise, we would have to knowingly interpret Matthew 10:5-6 and Matthew 15:24 with different standards — without really being able to prove why — unless we merely assumed why.
To clarify our own position more specifically, ultimately the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” does not even mean every Israelite according to the flesh who ever lived. In other words, not all Israelites are lost sheep — or even sheep to begin with — just as the Lord said to Israelites, “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep.” (John 10:26)
Israel as a whole represents the children of the flesh, while the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” represents the children of the promise — according to Romans 9. The “lost sheep” come out of all twelve tribes of Israel, but they are not every individual from the twelve tribes of Israel — just as Revelation 7:4-8 specifies.
IMPLICATIONS ON PROPHECY CONCERNING ISRAEL
It’s not very difficult to prove that the scope of Christ’s work included only the twelve tribes of Israel during His time on earth — yet included all the Genesis 10 nations after His death. The Lord says in John 10:16,
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice; and they will become one flock, with one shepherd.
Matthew 25:31-33 refers to the one flock,
31 “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left.
Those from the nations who are part of the other sheepfold — according to John 10:16 — are separated out from among their respective nations. Recall that these nations are not lands or countries — as we have explained in detail, “every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9) are unmixed descendants of Noah grouped according to their common patriarchs. The Lord further qualifies the sheep as the righteous — and the goats as the unrighteous — in Matthew 25:34-46.
Yet some Christians may contend that John 10:16 necessarily refers to the bringing northern and southern kingdoms together under one ruler. After all, the Scripture says, “And the sons of Judah [the southern kingdom] and the sons of Israel [the northern kingdom] will be gathered together, And they will appoint for themselves one leader” (Hosea 1:11).
Yes, the northern and southern kingdoms will be united, but this regathering does not exclude the nations from the covenant promises. Just because the northern and southern kingdoms will be united, does not logically mean` that the nations cannot be united along with them. Simeon says in Luke 2:29-32,
29 “Now, Lord, You are letting Your bond-servant depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all the peoples: 32 A light for revelation for the nations, And the glory of Your people Israel.”
Yes, He will be “for the nations and….Israel.” In Romans 15:12 Paul quotes Isaiah 11:10 saying, “There shall come the root of Jesse, And He who arises to rule over the nations, In Him will the nations hope.” In Romans 15:10 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:43 saying, “Rejoice, you nations, with His people.”
The Lord has united the two kingdoms of Israel — and He has united those nations who have joined along with His people. They are all united together under the New Covenant — under the Lord Jesus.
Now a common practice among some Christians is to claim that when New Testament authors quote prophecy concerning Israel, it is proof that only Israelites are welcome in the New Covenant. For example, Jeremiah 31:31 says, “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
As we have mentioned, just because He made the “new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” does not exclude the Genesis 10 nations from the new covenant. There’s no logical reason to make this claim — although we can certainly see how it might be appealing to someone who wanted to believe it — especially those who insist that every Israelite who ever lived will be saved unconditionally.
Yes, He did make the covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah — but where does Jeremiah 31:31 specifically exclude the nations?
Or as another example, if Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 saying, “But the righteous one will live by faith,” it does not logically follow that the prophecy could only ever apply to Israelites. The nations who join Israel under the New Covenant must obviously live by the same teachings as the Israelites themselves. Paul said to Timothy — a non-Israelite (Acts 16:1) — in 2 Timothy 3:16-17,
16 All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man or woman of God may be fully capable, equipped for every good work.
Therefore, one may quote Scripture or prophecy directed to Israelites because at the very least it will be beneficial for them. Although to take this further, the nations are literally joining Israel — thus everything which applies to Israel applies to them as well. We even have precedent for this concept as Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 9:14, Numbers 15:16 and Numbers 15:29 all — in varying contexts — say that there must be “one law for the native among the sons of Israel and for the stranger who resides among them” (Numbers 15:29). Isaiah 56:6-8 says,
6 “Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, To attend to His service and to love the name of the Lord, To be His servants, every one who keeps the Sabbath so as not to profane it, And holds firmly to My covenant; 7 Even those I will bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” 8 The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, “I will yet gather others to them, to those already gathered.”
Here we see explicit proof that foreigners may hold firmly to the covenant of the Israelites. The Lord will bring the nations to His holy mountain Israel — of which Ezekiel 20:40 says, “For on My holy mountain, on the high mountain of Israel…” According to Isaiah 56:8, these nations will be brought to His holy mountain over and above the gathering of the dispersed Israelites. Therefore, the gathering of the dispersed Israelites is not exclusive from the gathering of the nations to Israel. Isaiah 66:18-21 says
18 “For I know their works and their thoughts; the time is coming to gather all the nations and tongues. And they shall come and see My glory. 19 And I will put a sign among them and send survivors from them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Tubal, and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard of My fame nor seen My glory. And they will declare My glory among the nations. 20 Then they shall bring all your countrymen from all the nations as a grain offering to the Lord, on horses, in chariots, in litters, on mules, and on camels, to My holy mountain Jerusalem,” says the Lord, “just as the sons of Israel bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. 21 I will also take some of them as priests and Levites,” says the Lord.
If these “countrymen” from the nations are brought like a grain offering by Israelites, then these “countrymen” are something other than Israelites. After all, Israelites “were entrusted with the actual words of God” (Romans 3:2) — it is Israel’s job to bring the gospel to the nations and bring them in — just like the apostles actually did in Acts — hence why the nations are referred to as Israel’s children in Isaiah 49 and Revelation 12.
Furthermore, if the Lord will “take some of them as priests and Levites,” then this cannot be referring to Israelites. To make that statement about only Israelites would be entirely redundant — because Israel already contains priests and Levites.
As a final thought, it is never helpful in this matter to quote — out of context — Amos 3:2 which says, “You [Israel] only have I known among all the families of the earth.” Yes, He knew only Israel at that point — but then Isaiah 66:19 says,
“I will set a sign among them and will send survivors from them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Rosh, Tubal and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard My fame nor seen My glory. And they will declare My glory among the nations.”
In other words, here Isaiah 66:19 acknowledges that God saves those whom He had not previously revealed Himself to.
Clearly, the Genesis 10 nations as a whole — aside from a few individual exceptions like Noah, Abraham, and Issac — did not know Yahweh, the God of Israel — and He would be entirely new to them — as when Paul would witness Christ to these nations. As we have shown, the Scripture is full of prophecy showing that all the Genesis 10 nations would know God — despite not having known Him in the past.
To conclude then:
- The nations are joining Israel itself.
- The nations will serve the Lord Jesus united along with the house of Judah and the house of Israel.
- The nations will be gathered from their places over and above the regathering of the Israelites who are scattered among the nations.
- Prophecy concerning Israel is not limited to literal descendants of Israel under the New Covenant — the nations are joining Israel and therefore everything which applies to Israel applies to them as well.
- Just because God knew only Israel in the past, does not preclude Him knowing the nations in the future.
- The “nations” are unmixed descendants of Noah — not every intelligent biped who dwells in a particular country.