Day 289: Why did Jesus send the Disciples “Only to the Lost Sheep of Israel?” (Matthew 10:6)

5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 10:5-6)

In Matthew 10, Jesus sends the Twelve disciples out on their first preaching mission. Actually, since they are specifically being sent out, let’s call them apostles this time (Day 282: Are Disciples and Apostles the Same Thing?

(Luke 6:12-16) Luke 9:1-5 and Mark 6:7-13 are the parallel passages to Matthew 10. The details in the three accounts are nearly identical. Mark notes that the apostles were sent out two by two, and also that the people should repent, which is missing from the other two versions. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same story in all three gospels.

Except for one thing. In Matthew’s version, the apostles are told specifically to avoid Gentiles and Samaritans, but to focus on “the lost sheep of Israel” (i.e., the Jews). What’s that all about?

We’ve talked before about how Matthew is the most Jewish of the four gospels (See Day 276), so it’s tempting to see this as Matthew’s bias poking through, especially since the Roman John Mark and the Gentile Luke omit this part of Jesus’ instruction from their accounts.

This won’t be the only time Matthew uses this phrase about the lost sheep of Israel. Matthew 15:21-30 and Mark 7:24-30 both tell the story of a Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter (Mark calls her a Syrophoenician woman). But only Matthew records Jesus saying to the woman “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24).

If you hold a high view of Scripture, meaning you believe it is God’s inspired, inerrant word, then you can’t argue that Matthew’s account is “tainted” with the author’s own prejudice. If it’s God’s Word, then you have to accept that Matthew said what God intended him to say. So we have to look for another explanation.

One possible reason for Jesus’ instruction that His disciples avoid Gentile and Samaritan towns is that they weren’t ready for it. They may have still had too much of their own prejudices and biases in the mix. Look what happens, for example, when Jesus does send messengers ahead of Him to a Samaritan town. The town rejected Jesus, and James and John jump at the chance to call down fire from heaven to consume them (see Luke 9:51-56). What if Jesus had not been there to tell them to cool their jets?

Another possibility is that it was just a matter of priorities. The ever reliable folks at GotQuestions explain it this way:

Every ministry must have priorities, and Christ’s ministry was no exception. When Jesus sent His disciples to preach the good news of the kingdom, He expressly told them, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus did not forbid their preaching to all Gentiles; He did, however, narrow their focus to the areas which should be most receptive—those who knew the Law and were expecting the Messiah. Paul, in his missionary journeys, followed the same priority of preaching to the Jews first (Romans 1:16).


At the end of the day, Scripture doesn’t give a reason for Jesus telling His disciples not to go to the towns of Gentiles and Samaritans, but I praise God for how little this matters. Even Jesus’ harsh-sounding word to the Canaanite woman is not the end of the story. Her daughter was healed. And His command to the apostles in Matthew 10:5-6 was reversed by His command in Acts 1:8, when He told them they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Praise God that while the gospel is for the Jew first, it is also for the Gentiles (Romans 1:16)! If you are reading this as a non-Jewish Christian, you have been grafted in to the tree (Romans 11:11-31). Thanks be to God!






One response to “Day 289: Why did Jesus send the Disciples “Only to the Lost Sheep of Israel?” (Matthew 10:6)”

  1. […] that–a theory, so I hold it very open-handedly. But I wonder if, after the twelve returned from their preaching mission, Jesus made each of the twelve responsible for three pairs of missionaries themselves. Maybe He […]

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