This past Sunday I had the privilege of teaching my grandparents’ Sunday School class. I figured that some of you may be interested in the topic of missions in the Old Testament, so here is what I prepared:
God’s mission is to reach all people with the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ, and this mission starts at the beginning of the biblical story. We may think that the Old Testament is only about the children of Israel, and they are definitely the main characters, but as I studied passages in the OT, I was surprised to see how often foreigners and all the nations of the world are discussed.
1. Missions has always been God’s plan A, not a backup plan B.
I’m sure most of you have studied missions before, and you’ve probably looked at the commission that Jesus gave to his disciples in Matthew, and all the stories we have recorded in Acts of the early expansion of the church. But that is not where missions started!
Sometimes we may think that originally God chose the nation of Israel, but because they were disobedient, then he decided to do something else. But God has always been planning to reach all nations through Israel with the good news of His love, and I would like to explore that today.
Promise to Abraham – Genesis 12:1-3
12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Before Israel even existed as a nation, God promised that they would make an impact on all the families of the earth. Israel would be a blessing to all nations through the coming of the Messiah.
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
8 The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”
In the time of Israel, foreigners were not normally allowed to enter the temple. But God intended for the temple, which was His house on earth, to be a place for all people to pray before Him. We see from this verse that ethnic identity is not what makes you a follower of the Lord, but rather it is obedience to His commands, love for His name, and faithfulness to His covenant. Sometimes we may have the same temptation to believe that because of our denominational membership, or our long record of church history, or our family history, that we are secure as followers of Christ, but it is always obedience and faithfulness to God that He desires.
2. Israel was always intended to be the method for drawing all nations to God.
15 “‘And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. 16 And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, declares the Lord, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord.” It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again. 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.
In Jer 3:6, we are told that these words were given in the time of King Josiah, so after Israel was taken into exile, and God is pleading with Israel to return to obey the covenant. We see here that the ark of the covenant, which was the symbol of the presence of God, was never intended to be permanent. But Israel would be source of teaching all nations about God. These shepherds would come from the people of Israel. Even Jerusalem, the city of God, was not intended to be permanent. In John 4:21, when Jesus was talking to the Samaritan woman, who was not an Israelite, He said that the time was coming when worship would not be restricted to a holy mountain or to Jerusalem, or any physical place, but would take place in spirit and in truth. Now let’s look at Isaiah 66, which is a very interesting passage:
15 “For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. 16 For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many.
17 “Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord.
18 “For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, 19 and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. 20 And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. 21 And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.
22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord. 24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
This chapter comes at the end of the book of Isaiah, and we see that this section is talking about God’s judgment on those who are worshipping false gods and disobeying his commands. But God is planning to bring all nations and people groups together and show His glory to all of them. I believe that verse 20 is very significant. Just as Israel was an example for us and all the nations around them in offering sacrifices, we now are called to offer ourselves. Romans talks about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, and we are asked to give our time, our money, our energy, our passion, all that we have in the service of the Lord.
The Biblical Illustrator notes that these locations, Tarshish… Javan, indicates “far Spain, and the distances of Africa, towards the Black Sea, and to Greece, a full round of the compass” (copyright © 2006 Ages Software, Inc. and Biblesoft, Inc.).
When Jesus came, many people were very resistant to the idea that nations outside of Israel could be saved. They wanted to keep all of the blessings for themselves! I think that many of us want to keep within our own social circles and spend time with people who are like us, but that when we do that, we can restrict ourselves. I believe that many of us here are not Jews, and that means that at some point someone had to reach out to another culture and share the news of Christ. There’s much more I could say about this, about how Jesus called his disciples, who were all faithful Jews and Israelites, and commissioned them to build his church, but I have one final point before I summarize and conclude.
3. The goal of missions is worship as well as spreading the glory of God.
God desires all people to worship Him, and to learn about His power and salvation. Let’s look at the following verses from Psalms.
Ps 67:1-3 1 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah 2 that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. 3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! ESV
Ps 117:1-2 Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! 2 For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!
Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament, and is written to the Israelites who have returned after the exile. Even though they have been delivered from their enemies and returned to their promised land, many still do not obey
Mal 1:11-12 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.
God’s name is a representation of God’s character and His mighty deeds. As Christians, we all bear the name of Christ, and that is a great responsibility.