The Great Gathering: When Jesus Brings Everyone Home
Anyone who is not with Me is against Me, and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters. (Matthew 12:30)
To me, one of the most interesting things about Jesus’s confrontations with the Pharisees is the light they shed on his true mission.
Because the Pharisees and other leaders judged Jesus on their idea of what his mission should be, his responses to them frequently revealed more about what his mission actually was.
Certainly this was important for them to grasp. But it’s important for us too, because we often lose sight of the mission of Jesus. If we don’t know what he wants, how can we join him as fellow workers, or even respond appropriately when he reaches out to help us?
In general, when Jesus spoke of his mission, he alluded back to the prophets. Jesus’s self-understanding was always deeply rooted in the types and prophecies of the Old Testament. This verse is one of those allusions.
In his own words, Jesus came to gather. He saw this work as so important, so central, that everyone either took part in it or actively worked against it: “Anyone who does not gather with Me scatters.”
Lost Tribes and Banished Nations
These days, I think most of us understand that the Jews anticipated a Messiah who would be a warrior-king, a freedom fighter who would rescue them from the oppression of Rome — which was, in turn, just the latest in a long line of pagan oppressors that had ruled the Jewish people almost continually since the exile to Babylon roughly 600 years before.*
This is a fairly easy story for us to understand: after all, it’s the stuff that blockbuster movies and Netflix series are made of. An oppressed, freedom-loving people; a tyrannical foreign empire; a hero who will come to the rescue.
And more personally speaking: many of us experience oppression of many kinds, be it spiritual, physical, emotional, or yes, even political. We naturally resonate with this idea of Jesus as a deliverer, one who rescues us.
And Jesus did come to address oppression — although not exactly in the blockbuster way the Jews expected.
But long before that, Israel had experienced another tragedy, one that is far more foundational and seemed much more final. And even before that, the nations of the world had undergone the same thing. And even before that, our first parents had started the whole calamitous chain. And Jesus also came to rectify this tragedy — the original problem facing humankind.
This problem was not oppression, but separation — from God, from other people, and from an intended destiny.
And it’s a story that plays out in Scripture again and again.
About 140 years before the Babylonian exile, the ten tribes of Israel’s Northern Kingdom were defeated by Assyria, banished from their land, and scattered throughout the Gentile nations — to be forever lost.
And this story, awful as it was, only echoed an earlier one, so far back in human history that it stands nearly at the dawn of time: the scattering of the nations at Babel, throughout the earth and away from the presence of God.
And even before that, Adam and Eve were banished from Eden and the presence of God there.
Long before the problem of oppression, there was the problem of scattering — that the people of the world, created to dwell under the shadow of the Almighty, were banished from his presence and became lost.
In every case, the banishment was originally a response to sin and rebellion, and in many ways it was actually for the protection of the banished. The scattering was a work of God, and it had a purpose. “Our God is a consuming fire,” as Hebrews 12:29 tells us, and the rebellious cannot live in his presence.
And yet, God always intended to bring the lost home again. He always intended to “seek and to save” the scattered children of earth, to cover their sins and call them back to himself.
For all of us, this too has a personal meaning: before we were ever enslaved and oppressed, we were away. As human beings this is our greatest need: to come home to God. As St. Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
And so, in exactly the right moment in human history, Jesus appeared with a mission — to gather his own back to himself.
The Prophets and the Great Gathering of Israel
Many passages in the Old Testament spoke of a day when Yahweh would gather his scattered people and bring them home — even those who had been lost among the nations, and even the nations themselves.
The great gathering is one of the most beautiful themes in Scripture, with powerful imagery of restoration, healing, joy, and above all, welcome.
“The days are coming,” Jeremiah wrote, “that it shall no more be said, ‘The LORD lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but ‘The LORD lives, who brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands where He had driven them.’ … ‘Behold, I will send for many fishermen,’ says the LORD, ‘and they shall fish them; afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.’” (Jeremiah 16:14–16)
(“Follow Me,” Jesus told his first disciples, “and I will make you fishers of men” [Matthew 4:19, NKJV].)
In Zephaniah 3, the Lord prophesied of this day:
“The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
You shall see disaster no more.
In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Do not fear;
Zion, let not your hands be weak.
The LORD your God in your midst,
The Mighty One, will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
He will quiet you with His love,
He will rejoice over you with singing.
“Behold, at that time
I will deal with all who afflict you.
I will save the lame,
And gather those who were driven out;
I will appoint them for praise and fame
In every land where they were put to shame.
At that time I will bring you back,
Even at the time I gather you;
For I will give you fame and praise
Among all the peoples of the earth,
When I return your captives before your eyes,”
Says the LORD.
(Zephaniah 3:15b-17, 19–20, NKJV)
Jeremiah wrote exultantly, “I will gather them from remote regions of the earth — the blind and the lame will be with them, along with those who are pregnant and those about to give birth. They will return here as a great assembly!” (Jeremiah 31:8). Later in the same chapter, God promised that in this time when the lost were gathered back to God, he would make a new covenant with them.
In Ezekiel 11, this same link — of gathering and covenanting — is seen again:
Therefore say: This is what the Lord GOD says: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. … And I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove their heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, so they may follow My statutes, keep My ordinances, and practice them. Then they will be My people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:17, 19–20)
And why? What is God’s reason for going to such great lengths to bring the scattered home again and remake them into a people covenanted anew with God?
Jeremiah gives us the reason earlier in chapter 31, verse 3:
The LORD has appeared of old to me, saying:
“Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love;
Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.”
Jesus and the Ekklesia of God
The language of new covenant makes it clear that God wasn’t simply talking about bringing people together in a geographical sense: he intended to convene them in a holy assembly — a covenanted congregation, or to use the Greek term, an ekklesia.
These days the charge is sometimes leveled that Jesus “didn’t come to found a church,” but in fact he did. Ekklesia is the Greek word we translate “church.”* It is the word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe the people of God assembled at Sinai, where they received the first covenant, and its verb form means “to gather.”
Jesus wasn’t just talking about calling everybody around a campfire to sing songs and listen to him teach: his mission was to bring the whole world back to God, to gather them as a new covenant people built on the foundation of Israel and drawn from all the nations.
As Jeremiah and Zephaniah both pointed out, this new assembly would give pride of place to the weak, the lame, the broken and afflicted; to women, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. And as usual when it came to Jesus’s fulfilling of Old Testament expectations, the gathering would not only break ethnic barriers and old enmities, it would even transcend the limitations of time and space.
To quote Paul:
[He has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him. (Ephesians 1:9–10, NKJV, emphasis mine)
Bringing Everyone Home
So here we are, two thousand years later. We are living in the great gathering, the era in time when God is drawing all humanity to himself — inviting us into the holy assembly of those covenanted with him.
“If you are not with me, you are against me,” Jesus said to the bystanders in his own day. “He who does not gather with me scatters.”
When Jesus began his ministry, he called fishermen to follow him and announced that they were going out to fish for people.
And so this is our great mission, our great calling: to take part in the gathering. To come home together with all the people of God, taking our own place in the ekklesia through repentance and faith.
And then to go forth as fishers and hunters, to seek the lost that they may be saved.
We don’t all do this in the same way. We don’t all have the same gifts and callings. But we all share the same mission.
The message has gone forth: the time for the gathering has come. The banished have been called home. The family is waiting, in heaven and on earth. The King is in our midst, rejoicing over us with singing — for he has loved us with an everlasting love.
*For a relatively succinct summary of all this, check out Refiner’s Fire: The Struggle and Triumph of John the Baptist.
*If you’re interested to know how ekklesia became church, you can trace the etymology here: https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=church
This is Part 213 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
I could not write this blog without the generosity of those who support it on a monthly basis. Thank you all so much! To become a supporter for any amount of your choosing, click here.
Photo by Rita Vicari on Unsplash