Jesus was in the area of Tyre and Sidon, a coastal region in extreme northeastern Galilee (Matthew 15:21) when a Canaanite woman came to Him with a request to heal her demon-possessed daughter. For a while, Jesus did not respond to the woman’s entreaties, and she followed Him and continued to beg for mercy. Finally, the disciples, feeling that the woman was a nuisance, asked Jesus to send her away. Then Jesus said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
We should understand Jesus’ words here not as an outright rejection of the Gentiles—moments later, He heals the woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:28)—but as a fulfillment of prophecy, a setting of priorities, and a test of the woman’s faith.
In Jeremiah 50:6, God calls Israel His people and “lost sheep.” The Messiah, spoken of throughout the Old Testament, was seen as the one who would gather these “lost sheep” (Ezekiel 34:23-24; Micah 5:4-5). When Jesus presented Himself as a shepherd to Israel, He was claiming to be the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy (Mark 6:34, 14:27; John 10:11-16; see also Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 5:4; and Revelation 7:17).
Jesus’ words to the Canaanite woman also show an awareness of Israel’s place in God’s plan of salvation. God revealed through Moses that the children of Israel were “a holy people to the LORD . . . chosen . . . a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). It was through the Jews that God issued His Law, preserved His Word, and sent His Son. This is why, elsewhere, Jesus tells a Samaritan that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). In Matthew 15, when the Jewish Messiah says that He was sent to “the house of Israel,” He is simply connecting His presence with God’s purpose in Old Testament history. Christ was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Galatians 4:4-5).
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).
Finally, Jesus’ words to the Canaanite woman served as a test of her faith. She came to Jesus believing that He was the “Lord,” the “Son of David,” and the giver of mercy (Matthew 15:22). His delayed answer and seemingly exclusionary statement brought from her a further, passionate, public expression of her faith in His unlimited power (Matthew 15:27).
This act of compassion and healing of a Gentile is a beautiful picture of Christ’s ministry to the whole world—the Jewish Messiah is also the Savior of all who will believe (Matthew 28:19; John 10:16; Acts 10:34-36; Revelation 5:9).