How interesting that Jesus spent so much of His earlier years in Galilee, known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt. 4:15), no doubt named because of the non-Jewish influence in the province. In this region, in Nazareth, Jesus spent the majority of His years before starting His public ministry. Thanks to its position, Nazareth was near major routes traveled by Roman army units, as well as merchant caravans. As a result, Jesus must have been in contact with non-Jews His whole early life (not to mention the time in Egypt).
After His rejection in Nazareth (see Luke 4:16–31), Jesus centered His ministry in the cosmopolitan Galilean city of Capernaum. Contacts with Gentiles and their world significantly impacted His ministry and teaching. Even though He focused on Israel, the wider world was His concern. During the more than three years of His ministry between His baptism and ascension, on at least six occasions Jesus had direct contact with persons from Gentile nations. We will look this week at the Gospel accounts of these contacts.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, August 22.
In the time of Jesus, ancient Israel was divided into three provinces: Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. Samaria was situated between Galilee and Judea. The Samaritans worshiped the God of Israel, but they also worshiped pagan gods imported from foreign lands. As an initial mission field, Samaria was ideal for the apostles because it was geographically close to Israel.
The Samaritan woman was alert, well-informed about the history of her people, and asked intelligent questions. She led the conversation with her questions. Jesus, however, responded to her questions and statements with the things that would benefit the woman spiritually. The only point where Jesus changed the conversation was when He told her to bring her husband, knowing that she wasn’t married but had been with several men. Of course, asking her to do this opened the way for Him to reach out to her, however uncomfortable she had become. Nevertheless, by doing this, He was able to witness to her in a powerful way.
Also, we shouldn’t miss what happened in John 4:27. The disciples were surprised because Jesus was talking with this foreign woman. Jesus transgressed a few Jewish customs: first, asking a Samaritan woman to give Him a drink; second, being alone with her. In Israel, a man could not be seen alone with a woman unless she was a family member. Jesus followed Jewish customs when in Israel. However, in Samaria, He was outside Jewish territory and not bound by Jewish traditions, even though as we have seen elsewhere, Jesus distinguished between human-made traditions and the commands and precepts of God.
In Capernaum, a Roman officer of centurion rank (commander of 100 men) sought out Jesus. The Jews resented the occupying Roman army, and many Romans hated the Jews. Despite this vast cultural and political divide, we can see the close relationship here between this Roman and the Jews.
In Luke’s account, he said that the centurion went to the “elders of the Jews” (Luke 7:3, NIV) to ask them to bring Jesus. And, fascinatingly enough, they did just that, asking Jesus to come heal the man’s servant. Who were these elders? The text doesn’t say, but it seemed to have related to Jesus differently than did some of the other leaders.
Meanwhile, the centurion was obviously a man of faith; his words to Jesus, “speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed” (Matt. 8:8), were an incredible testimony to his belief in Jesus. The centurion “did not wait to see whether the Jews themselves would receive the One who claimed to be their Messiah. As the ‘light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’ (John 1:9) had shone upon him, he had, though afar off, discerned the glory of the Son of God.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 317.
The centurion understood and respected Jewish religious sensitivities. He knew that according to law a Jew was not allowed to enter a Gentile’s house; so, he requested that Jesus minister from a distance. The servant was healed. The faith of the Gentile centurion was rewarded. Jesus pointed out that the centurion was a prototype of the great day when people from all over the world would join the Jewish patriarchs at the Messianic banquet.
The region of the Gadarenes was an area formerly dominated by Greece, but it had become part of the Roman province of Judaea. The man in the tombs was obviously possessed, and his possession manifested itself in horrific ways. He truly needed divine aid, which he got. That this liberation took place in Gentile territory is confirmed by the presence of the pigs. It is interesting to notice the reaction to this economic loss when the pigs drowned; the townspeople asked Jesus to leave their territory. Jesus in turn asked the healed man to stay. He was to witness to his own people about Jesus; no doubt, too, his changed life, even more than his words, would be a powerful testimony.
In the next incident, the child in the region of Tyre and Sidon was “ ‘demon-possessed and suffering terribly’ ” (Matt. 15:22, NIV). Her mother, a Canaanite, illustrated the cultural melting pot of that region. Her Canaanite ancestors were displaced from their land when Israel inherited it under the leadership of Joshua. Here, again, we see Jesus reaching out to those who weren’t of Israel proper.
In talking to her, Jesus used somewhat harsh language, likening her people to dogs, but it tested her faith and showed her humble willingness to get the help she needed.
“The Saviour is satisfied. He has tested her faith in Him. By His dealings with her, He has shown that she who has been regarded as an outcast from Israel is no longer an alien, but a child in God’s household. As a child it is her privilege to share in the Father’s gifts. Christ now grants her request, and finishes the lesson to the disciples.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 401.
The lesson was that, contrary to their understanding, the work of the gospel is not just for the Jews but is to go to other nations, as well.
Notice first that the unfortunate men all knew Jesus. They called Him by both name and title, pleading for intervention. What’s fascinating, too, is that they were not cleansed right then and there. They were told simply to go and present themselves to the priests, as specified in Leviticus 14:2. The fact that they just turned around and went showed that they believed in Him and His power to heal them.
Only the Samaritan, though, expressed appreciation for what Jesus had done. The nine did not forget to go to the priests, but they neglected to give thanks to their Healer. The Samaritan, as the text reads, turned around even before he got to the priests. Though the text doesn’t say that the other nine were Jews, the location makes it very likely; besides, the fact that Luke specifically mentioned that he was a Samaritan, and that Jesus called him “this stranger” (Luke 17:18), makes it likely that the other nine were, indeed, Jews. Although Jews normally had no dealings with the Samaritans, their malady transcended those barriers. Common misfortune and tragedy, what Albert Schweitzer termed “the fellowship of suffering,” had broken down an ethnic divide. Their common need for cleansing, healing, and saving had brought them, collectively, to Jesus.
Nevertheless, Samaritans and other foreigners were not the immediate goal for Jesus’ ministry—“ ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’ ” (Matt. 15:24, NIV). He planned first to establish a strong mission base among the Jews. Throughout His ministry, however, He gave His followers evidence that the gospel should go to the whole world. Although this point became clear only after His resurrection, even before then Jesus did things that were to open the minds of the disciples to the idea that world mission would become their main task.
“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’ Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ ” (John 12:20–23, NIV). How does this incident help us to understand the heartfelt cry of people everywhere for salvation, for hope, for answers that can be found only in Jesus?
These Greeks were probably converts to Judaism, since they came to Jerusalem to worship at the feast. Commentators have noted that these Greeks went to Philip, who, though Jewish, had a Greek name, which might have attracted them to him. Thus, while pioneering Christian work can be accomplished by foreign missionaries who have cultural sensitivity and a sympathetic understanding of the people they want to win for Christ, the most effective groundbreaking work is done by people with the same background as the target people.
The Greeks came only days before Jesus’ crucifixion. They no doubt were amazed by His words about His suffering, death, and final victory. (The voice from heaven gave them something to think about, as well.) Jesus would have been encouraged by their desire to “see” Him. Their approach signaled the beginning of world evangelization. It was acknowledged even by the Pharisees, who had exclaimed, “ ‘The world has gone after Him’ ” (John 12:19, NKJV).
What we see here are men, outside of Judaism, wanting to come to Jesus. What a sign that the world was ready for His atoning death! These Greeks, representing the nations, tribes, and peoples of the world, were being drawn to Him. Soon the Savior’s cross would draw the people of all lands and in all subsequent times to Him (vs. 32). The disciples would find the world ready to receive the gospel.
Further Study: “ ‘I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ ” (Matt. 8:11, 12, NIV). Though these words were spoken in a particular context, in reference to a particular people, we shouldn’t miss the principle. Those who have been given great privileges, great advantages in terms of spiritual and theological truths, need to be careful. It’s easy to become complacent about truths that we have been given, truths that in some cases no one else is preaching and teaching. First, we need to make sure that we keep ourselves grounded in these truths; then, second, we need to be willing to teach these to those who don’t know them.