The Lost Sheep of the House of Israel

There are many occasions when what seem like throwaway remarks from Jesus say far more than we may realise. One in particular is heard in our Lord’s exchange with the Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon (Mt 15.21-28), where he tells her, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

These words are striking in their context because of the obvious persistence of the Gentile lady pleading with him and the apparent perplexity of the disciples who were privy to the conversation. But it is striking also because it echoes directly what Jesus had already said to the disciples when he sent them out to preach the gospel of the kingdom (Mt 10.6). Two questions that arise in both instances are ‘Why did Jesus put this restriction on his mission, as shared with his disciples?’ and ‘What did he mean by “the lost sheep of Israel”?’ And, flowing from both, ‘What relevance, if any, does this have for the church through the ages?’

With respect to the limits Jesus set on his earthly mission, he was clearly not suggesting that they would extend into his ongoing mission through his apostles. He makes this clear in the Good Shepherd discourse in John’s Gospel, where he says, ‘And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd’ (Jn 10.16). His mission to the Jews would extend – in line with God’s covenant with Abraham (Ge 12.3) – to his mission to the world. His charge to the apostles, ‘…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’ (Ac 1.8), confirmed this and set the ever-expanding horizons for that mission – not just through them in their lifetime, but also through the enduring apostolic testimony entrusted to the church.

So, in the setting of Matthew, Jesus is indicating that the focus of his earthly mission was primarily to the Jews. In line with God’s covenant purpose, unfolded in the interlocking sequence of covenants established throughout the Old Covenant epoch, the gospel of saving grace was, ‘to the Jew first…’ (Ro 1.16). The significance of this is intensified by the fact it is only in Matthew’s Gospel – with its primarily Jewish target audience – that the expression ‘lost sheep of Israel’ occurs and also that its roots lie in the nature of his people’s need described by Jeremiah (Je 50.6).

In many ways the bigger question is what Jesus meant by this turn of phrase. It can hardly have meant merely that the Jews were bereft of true spiritual leaders. (Although in one sense this was true in that elsewhere he denounces the Pharisees as ‘blind leaders of the blind’ [Mt 15.14].) Rather, it points to their actual lostness.

Even though these people were members of the covenant community outwardly, they had yet to experience what that meant personally. So, again interestingly in Matthew’s Gospel, we have the record of his being named ‘Jesus’ precisely because ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Mt 1.21). For this reason, during his earthly ministry, Jesus’ ministry was directed towards the Jews who were the heirs of the promise. And in the initial phases of his continuation of this ministry as recorded in Acts, the apostles followed this pattern by making the temple and the synagogue their first ports of call as they proclaimed Jesus as the Christ. But did this aspect of the apostolic mission exhaust what Jesus had in mind when he used the language of ‘lost sheep’ within the covenant community? Almost certainly not.

Just as there were those in ancient Israel who enjoyed outward covenant privilege without any personal experience of its inward, saving efficacy; so too in the church through the ages. There have always been and always will be those in the church who are within the outward orbit of covenant privilege; but who know nothing of its reality in a life-changing way. The apostle John indicates as much when, speaking of those who had deserted the church, said, ‘They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us’ (1Jn 2.19). And this sad story has been repeated through the ages in every congregation – even the most orthodox.

This brings us into the wider and enduring relevance of Jesus’ words to the church through the ages. Far from being an issue for God’s ancient people as his covenant community, it has been an ever-present issue for the church through the centuries. Indeed, in many ways, for those who have yet to trust in Christ for their salvation, there is no better place to try and hide from the call and command of the gospel than in plain sight among God’s professing people in the church. Within the visible church there have always been vast numbers of people who have never bowed the knee to its Lord and head.

What does this mean for Christ’s ministers in the church? That they too, like their Master, must recognise there will always be lost sheep within their flock. Whether it be children of believers – born into the privileges of the covenant, but yet to embrace the One through whom alone they are authenticated – or adults who profess to be Christians, but whose understanding of what that means is their own and not the Bible’s. Since this will always be true, our ministry must always have a gospel edge. We do not simply presume that all who profess faith are truly converted, but will keep Christ front and centre in our preaching.

It will also impact our pastoral involvement with our people. Just as Jesus knows his sheep ‘by name’ – a way of saying, ‘I know you fully’ – so we his under-shepherds will never be content with mere surface acquaintance with our people, but will seek to so earn their trust that they allow us to see the real ‘them’.

The ‘fields’ are not just ‘ripe for harvest’ in the pagan world we live in; they are also ripe for harvest in the churches we serve.


Mark Johnston