I received the following question:

 I was reading through Matthew this morning and I read the part about a Canaanite woman who came to Christ requesting to have his daughter healed.  He turned her away and said something like: I came to save Israel: You wouldn’t feed your kid’s bread to dogs, would you?”  She said something like “Yeah, but sometimes the dogs eat crumbs off the master’s table.” Christ then healed the woman’s daughter because of the woman’s faith.

My question is this: Did this occur when Christ was focusing his earthly ministry strictly on Jews?  At what point did Christ include gentiles in his efforts?  I’m also interested to hear anything you may know about the cultural norms between Canaanites and Jews at this time- that Christ would imply that the woman (or her race) is/are a dog/s.  Thanks!

Well, this is an extremely interesting portion you bring up, and it does clearly show some important truths about how Christ was viewing the Gentiles at this time. You are absolutely correct in concluding that this is a good indication that Christ was only ministering to Jews at this point. In fact, I would narrow it down even more than that, to say that He was only dealing with those Jews that were inside the land of Israel. In Matthew 10:5-6, He says in sending out the twelve apostles, “5 These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: ‘Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. 6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As Christ said to the disciples in the story you mentioned above, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24.)

In all four gospels, there are only two examples of times when Christ blessed a Gentile. Once is the story you mentioned, where He made an exception because of her faith. I believe her faith was in accepting Christ’s assessment of her. He gave her the dog’s place, so she accepted the dog’s place and requested the dog’s portion. This was great faith indeed. Imagine if Christ showed up at one of our modern-day churches, went up front, and proclaimed, “I just wanted to let you know that you’re all a bunch of dogs.” I don’t know how many people would stick with Christianity after that. Not that He would actually do that, of course, but my point is that most are generally not submissive enough to God to accept this kind of assessment. This was great faith on the part of this woman.

The other Gentile who was blessed during Christ’s ministry was the centurion whose servant was sick in Luke 7. In this case, an exception was made because of this man’s attitude toward the Jews, he “loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.” (Luke 7:5) Abraham had been promised that “I will bless those who bless you,” and so this centurion received blessing because of his treatment of God’s people.

Therefore, the only two instances of Christ blessing Gentiles during His earthly ministry are exceptions. The rule was that He was “not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

At what point did Christ include Gentiles in His efforts? That is a great question, and is the central issue that surrounds dispensationalism. The common view that is held by most protestant churches comes out of the Protestant Reformation, and is called “reformed theology.” Reformed theology includes what is called “replacement theology,” the idea that the “church” of today replaces Israel. This theology takes all the New Testament as being for us today…that is, that anytime that the New Testament talks about Jews, because they think we replace Israel, we can plug ourselves into those statements. They will even do the same thing in the Old Testament, although they will usually only do it with promises of blessing, never with threats of punishment. The classic example is of a Bible where one page was entitled something like “God’s promised blessings on the church,” and the next page was titled “God’s punishments upon unfaithful Israel,” and yet both pages were the same chapter talking about the same company of people, Israel. I do not hold with this idea, and think this is making bad use of the Bible. It is just as much a failure to believe if you do not believe who the Bible says it is talking to as if you do not believe what it says to them.

A few hundred years ago in the Brethren movement, some independent-thinking Bible students realized that the traditional viewpoint of reformed theology did not explain what is actually written in the Bible. Passages like the one you mentioned clearly show that the division between Old and New Testaments is not the only important division in the Bible, or the one that marks God’s movement from working with the Jews to working with the world at large. They believed that passage you mentioned (among others) disproves reformed theology’s viewpoint of when God’s dealings with Israel ended. Thus a new theology was born, called “dispensational theology.” Dispensationalism seeks to make a clear distinction between God’s work with Israel, and His work with us today, believers out of all nations.

Now dispensationalists acknowledged that Christ’s work while He was on earth was with Israel. They decided, then, that the cross must be what changed that, and that the “church” that exists today started on the day of Pentecost, or Acts 2. Thus, they acknowledged that Israel is still the center in the four gospels, but in the rest of the New Testament, believers today are the center. This view, classic dispensationalism, was popularized by a man in England named C.I. Scofield, and became popular in the U.S. through his Scofield Reference Bible. The biggest supporter of dispensational theology was probably the Baptists, although not all of them are dispensationalists. There were dispensationalists in many of the other churches, however, even in traditionally reformed churches like the Presbyterians. The other group that has the most dispensationalists, perhaps, is the Pentecostals/charismatics.

Now, is the idea that Christ’s death on the cross marks the end of God’s work with Israel and the beginning of His work with believers from all nations today accurate? If we start examining this view, even this decidedly more advanced view has problems. For example, when Christ sent out His twelve apostles after His resurrection in John 20:21, He said to them, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Yet if Christ was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, does this not mean that, if the disciples were sent the same way, that they also were not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Moreover, Christ begged the Father on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Can we believe that the Father ignored the Lord’s request and held the sin of Israel against them? I do not believe that God could ever have refused a request of Jesus Christ, since He and His Father are One. Thus, I would conclude that God DID forgive the Jews, and that He therefore had to give them another chance.

If we examine the actions of the apostles early in the Acts period, we will find that they have no conception of going to anyone but Israelites. The statement of Peter (speaking by inspiration) on the day of Pentecost was, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39.) Those afar off are the scattered Israelites who were in the dispersion outside the land of Israel. These were now to be reached, though they had not been reached during Christ’s earthly ministry. Yet Israel was still the focus. In Acts 3 Peter confirms this again, when he tells the Jews in the temple, “To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.” Again in Acts 4:10, “let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole.” Even their meeting place was in the temple, Acts 5:12b, “And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.

After the stoning of Stephen, the gospel went out to Samaria, Acts 8:5. “Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them.” However, Samaria was the land of the half-Jews, and as such they still qualified as Israelites (same goes for the Samaritans Christ talked to in John 4.) It was not until Acts 10 that a Gentile even heard the gospel, and that was in Acts 10 at the household of Cornelius. I will be going over Acts soon, so will only speak of it briefly here. God had to show Peter a vision thrice repeated before he would even go to Cornelius’ house, Acts 10:9-16. The point of this vision was for him to not count Gentiles as unclean, Acts 10:28-29. (This vision had nothing to do with unclean food being clean, but this was its real point.) Yet even then, Peter did not realize that God wanted him to preach the gospel to Cornelius. In his mind, the gospel was still so much intended for Israelites, that, when he stood before Cornelius and his household eager to hear the Word, instead of starting in preaching the gospel to them, he asked, “for what reason have you sent for me?” (Acts 10:29b) When it was clear to him that the Spirit wanted him to preach the gospel, he and the Jews with him were still astonished when the Gentiles not only received it, but also received the same sign of speaking in tongues as they had received at Pentecost, Acts 10:45-47. “And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, 47 ‘Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’” This was an odd event, and no one really understood it at the time. We must note that Cornelius was already a God-fearer before Peter was sent to him. He was not an idol-worshipping, pagan Gentile. However, even after this, we read in Acts 11:19, “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.

When Paul started his ministry, some believe that the difference between Jews and Gentiles had long since been totally eliminated. Yet this is clearly not true. For Paul always went first to the synagogues of the Jews to preach the gospel in every city where he went. In Pisidian Antioch, he proclaimed to the Jews who did not believe, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.” So the Holy Spirit through Paul says it was necessary that the word of God be spoken to Israel first, even in Acts 13. Paul turned to Gentiles in this city, but this still did not change his primary focus, for in the very next city we read that, “Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed.” So they still were focusing on the synagogues. Even all the way up in Acts 28:17, when Paul first arrived at Rome, we read that the first thing he did was call the rulers of the Jews together. “And it came to pass after three days that Paul called the leaders of the Jews together.

Paul explains in Romans 11 his policy throughout his ministry until that time. (Romans was written shortly before his arrest in Jerusalem and journey to Rome for trial.) Romans 11:1-2a. “I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew.” Gentiles are spoken to, and described as branches grafted into Israel. Moreover, they are reminded that they are subservient to Israel, since that nation supports them and not vice versa. “And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, 18 do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.” (Romans 11:17-18) This does not describe the state of Gentile believers today, yet it did when Paul wrote Romans. The Jews still had the priority, even in the gospel itself. Romans 1:16. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” The Jews still had the advantage in every way when Paul wrote Romans 3:1-2. “1 What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? 2 Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.” The oracles of God just means the words from God…basically the inspired books of the Bible. All the books written up until Romans (this includes James, I,II,and III John, Jude, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, I and II Thessalonians, and Hebrews) were committed, then, to the Jews, not to Gentiles. (History books like Acts might have been written later, but they were about an earlier time, when the Jews still had preeminence.) So this gave the Jews a huge advantage!

So, when did the preeminence of the Jews end, and the Gentile believers of today take an equal place with Israel? Well, we can establish one thing for sure: it was before Paul wrote Ephesians. For in Ephesians 3:1-6, we read, “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles— 2 if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, 3 how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, 4 by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), 5 which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: 6 that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel.” Verse 6 proclaims that the “mystery” is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel. In Greek, the three words “heirs,” “body,” and “partakers” all have a common prefix that means “fellow,” “same,” or “joint.” In other words, the Gentiles (all nations, including Israel,) are joint-heirs, a joint-body, and joint-partakers. No Jews first. No Gentiles branches subservient to the root of Israel. There has been a positional change between the writing of Romans and the writing of Ephesians. Contrast Romans 11 with Ephesians 3, and you will see that these two chapters cannot both be true of the same people at the same time. There has to have been a major change in between.

I believe that the change in question took place at Acts 28:28. There, Paul declared to the Jewish leaders in Rome, after about half of them had accepted the message of Christ and half of them had rejected it, “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!” The reasons why I believe this is “the place” where all things changed are many, and some are quite complicated. I am planning a major study on this very issue coming up. For now, notice that this takes place between the writing of Romans (before Paul’s arrest in Acts 21) and the writing of Ephesians (during the two years as prisoner in his own hired house in Rome in Acts 28:31.) Also, that God’s salvation was “sent” (the verb form of “apostle,” which I believe means that it was authorized) to the Gentiles (that is, the nations.) At this point, Israel stopped having preeminence. At this point, all nations became “joint.”

The Israelites, especially those in the land, were prejudiced against all Gentiles, and called them “dogs.” This was not unique only to Canaanites, although they were viewed as particularly bad since Israel had been supposed to drive them all out of the land (and hadn’t.) As I showed above, God’s work was with Israel exclusive of all Gentiles, not just of Canaanites. Yet it is important to note that Christ actually uses a milder form of the word “dog” which means, basically, a puppy. Dogs, since they were unclean, were not allowed into a Jewish household, but sometimes they would take in the puppies to allow their children to play with them, kind of like we take in goldfish. Once they became adults, however, they were put out. That Christ called this woman a puppy rather than an adult dog gave her the opening to ask for a puppy’s privilege.

I suppose that is more than you thought you would get, but you just happened to ask about something that is an important key to what I believe regarding the Bible.

Thanks for the question. Hope to see you in the future sometime soon.