Missions in the Old Testament

It is very clear from the New Testament that God commands the church to be concerned with missions. Missions flows from the heart of God. God’s plan and purpose is to spread His glory through all creation so that people of every tongue, tribe, and nation experience the glory of God through salvation that is found in Jesus Christ. However, God’s plan for missions in the New Testament is not a “plan B” as if an Old Testament “plan A” has failed. God has always had a desire to bring His glory to the nations.

It can be of no doubt that in the Old Testament, God called the nation of Israel to be His special and chosen people. God did not call them because they were better than other nations, on the contrary, they were just as wicked and sinful as all the nations (Deut. 9:4-5). The nation of Israel was called to bear the name of the Lord before a watching world. She had been chosen by God’s grace to be a treasured possession (Exodus 19:5). Her role, as called by God, was to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Priests, in their functions, are mediators. The role of the nation of Israel was to mediate the knowledge of God to the rest of the earth. In other words, when Israel was following the Lord, other nations would see it. This would bring judgment to other nations who rejected but it would also bring gospel witness.

Consider for example the story of Rahab. When the spies come to her house to hide, she has already heard of the name of the Lord. There is a fear in her heart for the Lord. She confesses: “I know that the LORD has given you the land…for we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea…” Her confession is of the divine name and includes the LORD’s exclusivity: “for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above on the earth beneath.” She then requests for mercy from the LORD’s judgment through the spies.  Rahab is the example of a Gentile who is converted because she hears of the glory and might of the living and true God through what He has done in saving Israel. 

The purpose of God calling Israel was not an end in itself for Israel but a means by which God would reveal His name and glory to the nations. While Israel was blessed with the covenants, it was so that God might through her bless the nations with salvation and the revelation of His glory. God’s promise to Abraham and his seed was that “in you all the nations will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).

In Jeremiah 2:3 we read “Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest. All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the LORD.” The second half of this verse reminds us that those nations that attacked and cursed Israel would themselves be judged (cf. Gen. 12:1-3). However, the first lines of this verse point to Israel being a firstfruits of a harvest. Israel had the privilege of being a people called by God but was the first of a harvest of people to be called by the grace of God. God’s plan has always been to spread salvation to the nations. God goes on to tell us through Jeremiah that if Israel repented and walked as the true people of God the nations shall come to the Lord: “and if you swear, ‘As the LORD lives,’in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.”” (Jeremiah 4:2).

As we read through the Psalms or major sections of Isaiah, we should note the number of times the nations are addressed. God’s Word calls them to worship the Lord, to see His glory, to praise His name.[1] God has always been intent on spreading His name through all of creation and redeeming people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. His plan has been to send His eternal Son into this world to effect reconciliation between God and man. Through the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the glory of God would spread to the nations so that they might come to know Him and worship Him.

If God has saved you, He has done so for the praise of His glorious grace (Eph. 1:6). He accomplishes salvation in such a way that He gets all the praise, honor, and glory. But much like Israel’s call in the Old Testament, He has called to you and me into salvation so that others might see the wonder and glory of God. He has saved us to be a kingdom of priests in order that we might proclaim His excellencies (1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:5-6).

[1] For a brief compilation of verses addressing this Old Testament hope, see John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions Second Edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 2003) 167-175. 

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.



Tim Bertolet


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