God’s Covenant: The Foundations of Missions

Rev. Bruinsma is Eastern Home Missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, stationed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2007, p. 89.

In the last article we defined missions. We also began our treatment of the biblical foundation on which all mission work must be built. If the church is to be zealous in her mission work, she must understand that the Bible teaches the indispensable need to carry on such work.

We concluded our last article stating that the necessity of missions rests upon the truth of the covenant. There are two means that God employs to continue the line of His covenant from one generation to the next. One way is through children born to believing parents, and the other way is through mission work—a work that calls those outside of the covenant into the covenant. This truth becomes clear in Genesis 17, when God established His covenant with Abraham. It was not only to Abraham and His children in His generations that the promises of God’s covenant were spoken. God also made it known to Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth would come to share in the blessings of His covenant.

This prophecy to Abraham does not alone attest to the truth that the mission calling of the church is directly connected to the establishment of God’s covenant from one generation to the next. Scripture from Old to New instructs us in this truth.

Old Testament Scripture and Missions

The church of the old dispensation did not do mission work. It did not belong to the labor of the church then. But this does not mean that the Old Testament says nothing about missions. The Old Testament speaks in many places of the future gathering of the nations of this world into the church. J.H. Bavinck observes:

Yet, if we investigate the Old Testament more thoroughly, it becomes clear that the future of the nations is a point of greatest concern. It is in itself striking how often the Old Testament discusses the future of these peoples and interests itself in the salvation that will one day be their lot. This indeed cannot be otherwise, for from the first page to the last the Bible has the whole world in view, and its divine plan of salvation is unfolding as pertaining to the whole world.1

What is more, the many Old Testament references regarding the future gathering in of the heathen nations reveal that this phenomenon is inseparably related to the establishment of God’s covenant in the new dispensation.

To understand this we must make a close examination of Noah’s prophecy concerning his sons in Genesis 9:26, 27: “Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.” It is clear from this passage that Noah was not referring directly to his sons or even his sons’ sons. Noah’s reference here is to the future generations of his sons. Sometime in the development of the future generations of his sons, Canaan’s children would become servants to Shem’s children. (This happened when under David all the nations of Canaan were subdued under his rule.) Likewise, sometime in the future development of Noah’s sons, Japheth’s children would come to dwell in the tents of Shem’s children, that is to say, Japheth’s children would come to share in the blessing of Shem’s children. Concerning the meaning of this latter prophecy we quote the exegesis of Prof. Homer Hoeksema:

The meaning of this central promise is very plain. The blessedness of Shem is none other than the covenant blessing, for Jehovah is the God of Shem. Jehovah as the I AM, the eternal and unchangeable covenant God, is Shem’s God. This God has taken Shem to be his own. This doxology bespeaks the blessedness of the eternal relation of God’s love to his people and of his being faithful and true in that relation. Jehovah is a God unto Shem…. The covenant line, then, is here prophetically specified as continuing in the line of Shem, so that in the generations of Shem, God will establish his covenant. 

Noah’s prophecy regarding Japheth is that God shall enlarge him…. Thereupon Japheth shall dwell in Shem’s tents. He shall become a partaker of Shem’s covenant blessings—not as a mere sojourner, but as dwelling there, that is, sharing fully in the covenant blessings of Shem. The implication is that for a time Japheth will remain outside of the sphere of the covenant and will be left to himself…. But when the great Son of Shem appears and fulfills all things, he widens the tents of Shem and spreads them over the families of Japheth. When Japheth has been enlarged, he also dwells in Shem’s tents, and organically the generations of Japheth enter into God’s covenant and enjoy its blessings. Noah’s prophecy, spoken immediately after the flood, looks through the remainder of the old dispensation to the New Testament gathering of the Gentiles, and ultimately to the final realization of God’s covenant with his people in the perfection of the new creation.2

It becomes clear from Scripture subsequent to this prophecy that God indeed chose to carry on His covenant in the generations of Shem. Out of the generations of Shem God called Abraham and established His covenant specifically with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From Abraham to the coming of Christ, God’s covenant was gradually limited in its scope to include only the children of Israel (Jacob). Moses reminded the nation of Israel of this special privilege prior to entering into Canaan: “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth…. Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.”3

It must be remembered, however, that though God had firmly established His covenant with the children of Shem in the line of Abraham, He never stopped reminding His people that in the future Japheth’s children would also come to share in the blessings of the covenant with them. The Psalms are filled with such reminders. We read in Psalm 86:9: “All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name.” Or again in Psalm 22:27: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.”4 These Psalms and others reminded God’s saints in Israel through song that God would later in history gather His people into His covenant from the nations.

Neither did the prophets allow Israel to forget that there was another way—not directly known to them—that God would gather all peoples of the world into His covenant. Isaiah prophesied of this: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow into it. And many people shall go and say, come ye, and let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.”5 Neither is Isaiah the only prophet that heralded the grafting of the nations into God’s covenant. Jeremiah did, inJeremiah 3:17: “They shall call Jerusalem the throne of the LORD; and all the nations shall be gathered unto it, to the name of the LORD, to Jerusalem: neither shall they walk any more after the imagination of their evil heart.” Ezekiel saw it in his visions; so did Daniel.6

The prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of Malachi, and therefore one of the last prophets to speak before the silence of the inter-testamentary period. In his writings he also plainly proclaims that God would enlarge the scope of His covenant by grafting into His covenant His people out of all the languages and nations of this world. “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all the languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, we will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zech. 8:23).

These prophecies were a constant reminder to the Old Testament saints that someday Noah’s prophecy concerning Japheth would come true. Someday Japheth’s children would come to dwell together with the children of Shem and share with them in the blessedness of God’s covenant of love and friendship. The only truth not revealed to them was how God was going to gather into His covenant line the nations of this world. They did not fully understand the means God was going to use to graft others into the line of the covenant.

Christ and missions

It did not, either, belong to the labor of Christ during His earthly ministry to do mission work. This is why He said to His disciples in the presence of a Canaanitish woman in 
Matthew 15:24: “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When Jesus sent out His disciples, and later the seventy, they traveled from city to city in Palestine preaching and teaching. They were not commissioned by Christ to go to the Gentiles.

But this does not mean that Jesus did not see that day coming! Surely He did! He Himself would accomplish the grafting in of the Gentile nations (the seed of Japheth). Once He ascended into the heavens, He would pour out His Spirit on all flesh. Then would begin the great gathering in of the peoples of this world into God’s covenant. It was because Christ knew this day was coming that He spoke plainly of that day. Having met the centurion in Capernaum, He prophesied in Matthew 8:11: “…many shall come from the east and the west and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” These words reflect back on Noah’s prophecy concerning Japheth’s seed. The nations would share with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Shem’s seed) in the blessings of the covenant.

Not only did Jesus foretell of that day, but He also spoke of the means God would use to accomplish the gathering in of the nations, that is, the preaching of the gospel. In His prophecy to His disciples concerning the end of time Jesus plainly stated: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; then shall the end come.” But before this work of preaching the gospel to all nations could be carried out, Christ must first accomplish the salvation of His people. After all, that is the central message of the gospel: Christ crucified. That is the good news that must be published abroad.

It was only after Christ’s death, and even His resurrection, just prior to His ascension, that Christ finally commissioned His church to carry out the task to preach the gospel outside of the bounds of Jewry. This is the great commission of Matthew 28:19, 20 and Mark 16:15, 16: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” In this command of Christ to His church is clearly revealed the second means God uses to gather His people in the new dispensation: missions.

The New Testament and missions

Little needs be said in this article about the teaching of the New Testament regarding missions. We will be referring to New Testament Scriptures often in the articles that follow. There is one interesting observation out of Acts that can be made about the beginning of mission work in the early church. After Christ commissioned His church to go out and preach the gospel to all nations, it was not as if she jumped on this task with enthusiasm and zeal. This was something new. God did not gather His church in the old dispensation in this manner. It took time for her to get used to the reality that God was now going to include in His covenant other peoples than the Jews. God had to send Peter the vision of the unclean animals, and then send Gentile men to seek him out to preach to them. Christ by His Spirit led Philip to Samaria to preach to the Samaritans. Christ had to appear to Paul and give Paul personal instruction in his task to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Slowly the church learned of her new calling. Having learned, however, this calling of the covenant became very much a work of the early church.

This remains the calling of the church today. God uses the work of missions to continue His covenant today as much as He uses the careful nurturing of our children born into the church. If we fail to understand the importance of missions for the church today, if we see it only as a secondary labor of the church, we do injustice to the truth of God’s covenant. We also undermine the power of the preaching (the means of the covenant) that God uses not only to strengthen faith in those who already believe, but also to work faith in the hearts of others incorporating them too into the covenant of God.

1. J. H. Bavink, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1960), p. 11.

2. Homer C. Hoeksema, Unfolding of Covenant History, vol. 2 (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2001), pp. 51, 52.

3. Deuteronomy 7:6-9. See also Isaiah 41:8, 9.

4. See also Psalm 2:8, 46:4, 10, 65:2, 66:4, 68:31, 72:8-11, 102:15, 18-22, 145:10.

5. Isaiah 2:2, 3. See also Isaiah 18:7, 40:5, 49:6, 22, 23, 54:1-3, 60:1-14.

6. Ezekiel 47:3-5Daniel 7:13, 14.