Does the Old Testament point us to God’s heart for the nations, or is it only all about Israel?
In the previous two posts, I have covered two issues related to the importance of missions: the incredible need for the gospel in areas and among people who have never heard it and also how the very character of God demands the missionary nature of His people. Both of these arguments are backed by the Bible, however, in today’s post we will walk through Scripture and see the imperative nature of this message in the Old Testament. I will follow up with the New Testament in a later post.
Missions in the Old Testament
George Peters wrote, “The Old Testament does not contain missions; it is itself ‘missions’ in the world.” For a more thorough treatment of this topic, I would direct you to his book, A Biblical Theology of Missions. What he is saying is that, unlike in the New Testament where we find clear proclamations to go and preach the gospel, the Old Testament demonstrates God’s missionary actions in the world. The missionary heart of God is evident throughout all four sections of the Old Testament. Let’s look at some examples from each:
In Genesis chapters 1-11, God has been dealing with the entire human race. However, when we come to chapter 12, the focus of the book narrows down to one man, Abram. From this point on, the Old Testament will deal primarily with Abram’s descendants, Israel. However, while Genesis 12:1-3 marks the beginning of God’s covenant with Abraham and ultimately the people of Israel, He still makes it clear that the whole world is His focus by including in verse 3 the statement that, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” We understand now that this is a direct reference to the fact that the Messiah would come from Israel. Even so, He is not for the Jews only but for all people. To drive the point home further, on both occasions in which God repeats the covenant statement to Abram’s descendants, He repeats this line as well. In Genesis 26:1-4 it is repeated to Isaac, and in Genesis 28:10-14 it is repeated to Jacob. Clearly, while God has a special call upon the nation of Israel, it is not just for Israel’s sake.
Moving forward, we see God’s special plan for Israel in Exodus 19:6, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel was to be a kingdom of Priests. The role of the priest in the Old Testament was to represent the people before God. Throughout the Law we have provisions made for how Gentiles could be a part of the community of God. When the Temple was constructed, it was made with an outer court especially for the Gentiles to be able to come and worship. It is this outer court that Jesus cleanses in the gospels. Mark 11:17 includes the additional statement by Christ that the temple is to be a “house of prayer for all the nations.” Solomon further drove home the purpose of the Temple in relation to Gentiles in his prayer of dedication in 1 Kings 8:41-43 and capped it off in verse 60, “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and there is no other.” One need only recognize the unique placement of the nation of Israel at the crossroads of all major trade routes between Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor to recognize the significance of placing them there as a testimony to all nations of who God was. Israel was to be a lighthouse to the nations, testifying to the one true God, and in this calling to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” they repeatedly failed by going after idols. Missions in the Old Testament is frequently described as being ‘come and see’ while the message of the New Testament is ‘go and tell’. That ‘come and see’ speaks directly to God’s purpose in raising up Israel as a testament to all nations of who He is.
The Psalms give further evidence of God’s heart for all people:
- Psalm 22:27 – “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.”
- Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
- Psalm 66:4 – “All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name.”
- Psalm 67 – “May the Lord be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth…”
- Psalm 145: 10-12 – “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your saints shall bless you! They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom and tell of your power, to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.”
The prophets also proclaim God’s heart for the nations:
- Isaiah 45:22 – “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other.”
- Jeremiah 3:17 – “At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart.”
- Micah 4:1-4 – “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…”
- Habakkuk 2:14 – “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
- Zechariah 2:11 – “And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.”
- Malachi 1:11 – “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.”
The Old Testament clearly shows God’s heart for the nations, for all peoples and ethnic groups. It does prescribe missions as we understand it today; it is missions as the record of God calling a people to be His kingdom of priests and a holy nation that they may represent him to the other peoples of the Earth. The prophets make it clear that all nations will know Him and come to Him, and that the whole Earth will be filled with the knowledge of His glory. This testimony leads us directly into the New Testament where we begin to see the fulfillment of these statements.