The Church has been an almost wholly Gentile institution for so long that it’s easy for Christians to forget that in the beginning, the followers of Yeshua were all Torah-observant, traditional Jews operating in a wholly Jewish context. Indeed, Christian commentaries on the book of Acts often seem bemused or exasperated that there was ever a question that Gentiles should be included among the Disciples. Others say that it was natural that the Jewish believers would not have understood this, based on Ephesians 3:4-7:
By which, when you read, you can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Messiah; which in other generations was not made known to the children of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy emissaries and prophets in the Spirit; that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of his promise in Messiah Yeshua through the Good News, of which I was made a servant, according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power.
The phrase, “in other generations was not made known” is taken to mean that the Church was not prophesied in the Old Testament, being a mystery only to be revealed in the New.But is it true that Gentile inclusion in the Holy One’s people was not prophesied in the Tanakh (OT)? Not at all! On the contrary, that the Gentiles would be saved was the constant proclamation of the prophets. What was obscured was that they would be “fellow citizens” (Eph. 2:19) and “fellow heirs” (3:6) alongside the Jews. While many, if not all, of the rabbis readily acknowledged that there would be Gentiles who had a place in the World to Come,1 they anticipated them being subjects and slaves to Israel, just as Israel had long been slave to Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome (as passages such as Isaiah 66 and Zechariah 14 seem to indicate). Even so, the adoption and citizenship spoken of by Paul and John were always prophesied in the Tanakh (Old Testament). For example, the idea of Gentiles having citizenship in Israel’s future “empire” appears in Isaiah 19:21-25:
The LORD will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day. Yes, they will worship with sacrifice and offering, and will vow a vow to the LORD, and will perform it. The LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing. They will return to the LORD, and he will be entreated by them, and will heal them. In that day there will be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria; and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day, Israel will be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth; because the LORD of Hosts has blessed them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”
Notice that peculiar phrase, “Israel will be the third with Egypt and with Assyria.” This cannot mean that Israel, in which lies Jerusalem, “the city of the great King” (Mat. 5:35, Psa. 48:2), will be the third in preeminence to Egypt and Assyria (as frankly has been the case for most of her history). Rather, just like the earlier passages we saw which say that the Gentiles would rally to the Messiah before Israel’s land and monarchy were restored, this prophecy is saying that Israel would become a blessing on the face of the earth after the people of Egypt (which is to say, the Copts) would be known as God’s people and those of Assyria (a still-existing ethnic group in northern Iraq which has remained predominantly Christian to this day) would be known as the work of God’s hands. Then Israel would join them and a highway would run between them, indicating peaceful political unity. In a sense, the imagery is that of Egypt and Assyria being peaceably annexed into the greater Israeli “empire” by willing submission to Israel’s King, Yeshua the Messiah.
Likewise, the language of adoption is used of the Gentiles in Isaiah. In chapter 54, verses 1-3, the prophet says,
“Sing, barren, you who didn’t bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who did not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of your habitations; don’t spare: lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes. For you shall spread out on the right hand and on the left; and your seed shall possess the nations, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.”
Here, as in Amos 9:11-12, when the Holy One says the barren woman, Israel, will “possess the nations,” it does not mean that she will possess them as slaves, but rather, as verse 1 makes clear, as children.
1“Although, as one naturally expects, the Talmud is concerned chiefly with Israel, there is nothing exclusive about its doctrine of repentance. It is available to all who would use it. It is said, that ‘the Holy One, blessed be He, looks to the peoples of the world, hoping that they will repent and so bring them near beneath His wings’ (Num. R. x, 1); and, ‘the Holy One, blessed be He, bids the peoples of the world repent so that He may bring them near beneath His wings’ (Cant. R. vi, 1).” (Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud: The Major Teachings of the Rabbinic Sages (BN Publishing 2008), pp.111f). Likewise, Maimonides (12th Century), wrote in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:11 “Righteous gentiles have a share in the world to come.” However, this opinion was far from universal; for a counter-example, see Cohen, pp. 391f.