The Gathering of Israel

One of the biggest problems many people have in reading the gospels is that they don't have a clear sense about what Jesus was up to during his ministry.

Specifically, the dominant paradigm seems to be that Jesus wandered around for three years practicing random acts of kindness, with no unifying objective other than being nice to the people he happened to run into that day. 

But Jesus did have a mission and agenda. He was engaged in the gathering of Israel.

In the Old Testament, it is prophesied that Israel would stumble and be scattered among the nations, but that God would act to regather them. For example:

Deuteronomy 30.1-3
And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.

The prophets used the image of God being a shepherd to speak about this gathering of scattered Israel:

Ezekiel 34.11-16
For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

This text almost reads as Jesus' mission statement in the gospels. Jesus describes himself as "the good shepherd," whose voice the sheep hear and follow (John 10). Jesus has compassion on the crowds because they were "like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9.36, Mark 6.34), and he describes his ministry as like that of a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go looking for the one lost sheep (Matthew 18, Luke 15). 

Even more, in Ezekiel 34, before God is described as a shepherd, the prophet levels an indictment at the leaders of Israel for being poor and effectual shepherds:  

Ezekiel 34.7-10
“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.

So much of Jesus' conflict with the religious leaders in the gospels flows right out of this text. If you gathered up all these texts in the gospels--from Jesus' conflicts with leaders deemed to be poor shepherds to Jesus seeking the lost sheep and caring for the weak and injured sheep--you'll have almost the entirety of the gospels before you.

All that to say, Jesus had a mission and agenda. He wasn't aimlessly wandering around practicing random acts of kindness. Jesus was engaged in the restoration and renewal of Israel, gathering the lost and scattered sheep back under the care of God.

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