Why did Jesus only appear to a relatively small number of people?

THE SHORT ANSWER: The bible teaches that it has always been God's plan to reveal himself to the Jewish people, and they would in turn reveal God to the Gentile nations. Jesus' ministry fulfilled this plan exactly.

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God’s plan has always been to reveal himself by way of the Jewish people. 

The Jews were to be the direct witness of the Messiah and then the message would be spread by them to the world. (Isaiah 43:10-11) He says, “You are my witnesses -oracle of the LORD- my servant whom I have chosen…” There are many verses in the old Testament that teach that God would be revealed to the world through the Jewish people. (1 Kings 8:60-61. Psalm 46:10-11. Ezekiel 37:28.)

It’s estimated that there were around 2 million Jews in Israel at the time of Christ. Jesus’ ministry lasted for about three and a half years. A population of 2 million divided over three and half years, means that if he could be seen by an average of 1,566 people per day, he could be seen by all of Israel by the end of his ministry. We know that there were days when he spoke to as many as 5000. So it’s reasonable to assume that all who lived in Israel had seen him and knew who he was by the end of his ministry.

Jesus explains that he was sent specifically to shepherd Israel, but not the Gentiles... yet. 

(Matthew 15:24) This is important. Jesus’ purpose was to be witnessed by the Jews, and then the Jews were to spread the news about the Messiah who had come.

Even when Jesus sent his disciples out to do ministry he told them to only go to the Jews. (Matthew 10:5-6) This shows that during Jesus’ life, his ministry priority was the Jews. Christianity would later spread, but while Jesus was on the Earth it was for the Jews first.

Jesus cast out a demon from a gentile’s son, even though he claimed it wasn’t his mission to minister to gentiles at that time. (Matthew 15:28)

Eventually he planned to bring in gentiles, but it wasn’t part of phase one. (John 10:16) The gentile phase would come later.

Paul points out this two step plan when he said in Romans, “for Jew first, and then Greek [Gentiles]. (Romans 1:16) Paul followed this ministry plan himself on his missionary journeys. He would go to the Jewish communities first, and then to the gentiles.

During the last week of Jesus life, Greeks [non Jews] came to See Jesus.  What happened next was strange.

After hearing that non-Jews from another part of the world were there to see him Jesus makes an announcement. In the very next sentence Jesus announces that “the time has come for the son of Man to be glorified.” That meant the time had come for him to give up his life. (John 12:20-26) Not exactly sure why, but apparently foreigners asking to see Jesus was a sign that his mission had been completed. I speculate that this indicated his ministry goal had been reached. The news of him had spread even beyond Israel.

He appeared to all that he intended to appear to in order to fulfill the first phase of his mission. 

He intended to offer Israel first dibs. He intended to give Israel the opportunity to turn to their God by believing in the Messiah. However, Israel didn’t do it, except in small numbers.

His mission was fulfilled, nonetheless, by these small numbers. The twelve disciples and a few hundred followers were what the church started as.

Salvation was offered to the Jews first then the gentiles. 

Even so, Jesus knew that the majority weren’t going to accept it. He even made a prophecy that corresponds with this. (Luke 21:24) He said that Jerusalem would be destroyed  (which happened in 70 A.D.) and the “times of the gentiles” would follow. This era called the “times of the gentiles” would last until the Jews took back Jerusalem.(which happened in 1967 A.D.)

During the “times of the gentiles” a second phase of the plan was simultaneously going on. Gentiles would be offered salvation. The book of Acts records the transition of Christianity from a Jewish group of believers to a budding world wide faith that included people of all races, not just Jews.

After Jesus’ death in 33 A.D. Israel existed as a nation for another 37 years, until it was destroyed in 70 A.D. I speculate that had the Jews experienced a change of heart about Jesus in that 37 year time period, Jesus would have returned and set up his Kingdom then. The apostles seemed to be convinced that Jesus would return within their lifetimes. I theorize that he would have if Israel had turned to him. It was a 37 year period where Israel had the opportunity to repent as a nation and cry out for their messiah. However, the majority did not.

It was during this 37 year period that the gospel of Mark and Matthew were written. They were written in order to convince the Jewish people that Jesus was the Christ. They were written in hopes that Israel would come to their senses concerning what they had seen. No doubt, the authors of these books wanted to see Israel turn to Jesus in hopes that his return would happen soon.

This answers a question that comes up a lot, “why are the first three gospels so different from John?”

John’s gospel was written about 65 A.D. This was likely a decade after Mark was written. John fills in some gaps in the story that the other gospels left out. Secondly by that time, the attention of the church had begun to shift toward the gentiles. Jerusalem was nearing it’s end, and the Jewish people who were still in Israel would soon be dispersed throughout the world.

In John’s book, he seems to have accepted the fact that Israel was not gong to turn to Christ any time soon. In the gospel of John, he focuses more on the individual’s role in salvation rather than Israel’s role as a nation. He says (John 20:30-31) his purpose is that individuals would receive eternal life for believing in Jesus, as the Christ, the Son of God.

So the world is in a holding pattern. 

We know, also from John, that Christ won’t return until two things happen. The first is that all of Israel will be saved. Paul says this. “a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.” (Romans 11:26)

This means that Israel’s hardness of heart toward the Messiah has stalled the return of Christ. That’s a good thing if you’re a gentile. The period known as the “time of the gentiles” lasted until 1967, when Jerusalem was taken back by the Jews. Notice that Paul said, “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” This implies that God allowed this to happen so that he could provide invitation into salvation for gentiles.

The gospel must be preaching in all of the world. 

This will be done by a group of 144,000 Jews in the end times. We know they are Jews because it tells us in Revelation how many are from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. (Rev 7) Jesus talks about this mission work (Matthew 24:14, Revelation 14:6) He says, "And this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

Jesus claims that these things would happen shortly after the "times of the gentiles" comes to an end. We are potentially very close to the tribulation.

So I’ve answered this question in a very circuitous way. Jesus appeared to the number of people he intended to; all of Israel. He did this because it is Israel’s responsibility to preach the gospel of the Messiah, and his Kingdom to the whole world. They have not fulfilled that mission yet, but God hasn’t forgotten the plan. Soon.