What does the Old Testament have to say about missions?
The mission of God lies behind the whole of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament and the particular task which we call missions today. So one of the earlier texts we will look at is the text in Genesis 12, because in that text we find the tremendous revelation of Yahweh to Abraham where he reveals to Abraham a covenantal promise which is marked by God’s initiative. In that covenant, which is Genesis 12:1-3, God makes three promises to Abraham which are repeated on several occasions to Abraham and again through Isaac and through Jacob. He promises Abraham that He will bless him personally. That is to say, there is a numerical blessing. Abraham is one person. His wife Sarah is childless. Yet we read that God is going to multiply his descendents and make them as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. These are some of the metaphors that are used to describe this personal, numerical blessing made to Abraham. But secondly, it is not only a personal blessing made to Abraham, it also comes as a national blessing with specific geographic implications. He promises Abraham that he will take possession of the gates of their enemies, that he will become a mighty nation, his descendents would take possession of the land which we now call the Promised Land, the land promised to Abraham. So there’s a numerical blessing to Abraham, there’s a national blessing to the people of Israel, and then, thirdly, there’s this marvelous spiritual blessing to “all nations on the earth.” That text, Genesis 12, which says, "And in your seed all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” [cf. Genesis 22:18; 26:24; 28:14].
So this is a passage which is extremely important and is repeated to Abraham at several important junctures. For example, in Genesis 22:17–18 he says these words: “I will surely bless you and make your descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” That is the numerical blessing. Secondly he tells him, continuing in v. 17, “Your descendents will take possession of the cities of their enemies.” That’s the second part of the blessing, a national blessing. And then thirdly, v. 18, “and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed me.” So these three parts of the covenant, the numerical, the national, and the spiritual (“to all nations”) are repeated in almost the exact same words to Isaac in Genesis 26:3 and 5, to Jacob in Genesis 28:13–14, and numerous times and in various ways throughout the Pentateuch.
It’s actually quite interesting that when Moses stands before the people in the opening chapter of Deuteronomy, that great passage, which occurs some 400 years after the original promise to Abraham, you nevertheless have this wonderful experience where Moses says to the people in vv. 10–11, when he looks out over the nation of Israel that’s gathered there, poised to go into the Promised, he says in v. 10: “The Lord has increased your numbers today so that you are as many as the stars in the sky.” So Moses acknowledges even before they go into the Promised Land that the first part of the Abrahamic promise has been fulfilled within Egypt itself. But God’s plan was never that the Israelites would simply be numerous and multiply exceedingly as slaves in Egypt. The 430 years of Egyptian slavery was soon to be passed by the next stage which actually calls them to take possession of the land. And so there is a long process, throughout the book of Joshua especially, where we find the Israelites taking possession of the land and fulfilling almost completely, but certainly significantly, the geographic portion of this, that they will take possession of the land that God promised to Abraham.
The problem, of course, is this third part of the blessing, the spiritual blessing to all nations. That becomes very, very difficult for them to sometimes gain possession of because they are so busy worrying about maintaining their possession of the land. They eventually get exiled, and therefore it becomes extremely difficult for them to even think about the larger, global implications of their calling as the people of God. I do want to point out also that in the larger lectures we not only demonstrate how this promise is found in the Law, the Pentateuch, but also how it’s found in the Prophets and the Writings. We have tremendous promises found in Scripture. For example, in Psalm 2, where we have the nations of the world to whom has been given this great promise that God wants to bless them, and instead we meet in Psalm 2 the nations raging and plotting against the LORD – that is Yahweh – and against His anointed one – that is the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. And in that wonderful passage in Psalm 2, you have the Father promising the Son, not just that He would save Israel, but instead, a much broader agenda which is part of the mission of God. “I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” – so this great promise that God will, in fact, bless the nations. This is done throughout the Old Testament in a number of ways.
This also appears not only in the strand of the Law and the Writings, but also in the Prophets themselves where you have a number of examples where you have the leadership of Israel recognized this tremendous hope that God was bringing them to and would carry them to through His abundant promises. For example, take the passage in Isaiah 49:6ff. This passage, which is quoted in the New Testament, is a tremendous insight into the great vision of God for the people of God. This, like Psalm 2, is a conversation between the LORD and the Suffering Servant, the Messiah, who we of course now know is our Lord Jesus Christ. And this is what the LORD says to Jesus Christ. He says to Him, pathetically, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Now, this is an extremely important passage because here are the Israelites facing exile, facing the loss of even the second part of the Abrahamic covenant, and yet, the vision of Isaiah is not just that they would be restored to their land — that would be the greatest prayer of any Israelite. “Oh, come back from exile. Be restored to the land.” But instead, the vision is always much, much greater. He says, “It is too small a thing if your prayer is only that I save the tribes of Israel and bring you back from exile.” He says, “The real vision is that I will make you a light for the Gentiles that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” What a great vision!
And this, of course, is picked up on very readily by the New Testament. The apostle Paul, for example, when he talks about the missionary journey to the Gentiles, he quotes this passage and he says specifically, “This is what the Lord said commanding us” – that is commanding the church – “to take the message to all peoples on earth.” So the apostle Paul understands that this Messianic promise which is fulfilled in Christ’s coming is brought in application to the world through a very strong message and emphasis on the role of the church of Jesus Christ in the world. In the larger lectures we explain more carefully how this process happens. If you read Acts 13 we find that this is exactly the point that Paul makes. Paul says in reference to his turning to the Gentiles, in Acts 13:46, “We had to speak the Word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us.” Now, he says “us” there; he doesn’t say “what He commanded Christ” but “what He commanded us” – that is, the church – “I will make you” – which we normally think of as a reference to Christ, the Messiah, but it’s actually here in the Greek, in the singular text which would make it refer to Christ, “I will make you” that is Christ, “a light to the Gentiles.” But Paul has said this is commanded to the Church. So, “I will make you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” So this is a promise made about Christ, but it is brought to the world through the instrumentality of the obedient church who obeys the Great Commission and brings this great message out into all the earth.
So, in summary, the Old Testament has strong emphasis on God’s heart for the nations, not just Israel but all nations, found in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. This, of course, is explored in greater detail in the expanded lectures that are available through biblicaltraining.org.