Missions in the Old Testament

I want to comment on Wilbur Bruinsma’s article in the January 1, 2008 SB on “God’s Covenant: The Foundation of Missions.” He states that Israel in the Old Testament did not do mission work. But wasn’t Israel meant to? (Is. 43:10, 12; 44:8; 52:5; Dan. 12:3;Prov. 14:25). God’s covenant did include those outside Israel, e.g., Ruth and Rahab. And Noah was most certainly a preacher of righteousness to those around him. I would agree that up until New Testament times we hear of very few outside Israel who were part of the covenant, but it seems to me, from Genesis 17:7, that God’s plan was always for all nations. (Abraham was told to circumcise, i.e., include in the covenant, all his servants, who, I guess, were pagans previously.) Is it not true to say that Old Testament Israel failed in its mission? God’s name, instead of being honored and known, was blasphemed among the nations because of Israel’s disobedience.

Dr. Julian Kennedy Bournemouth, UK


Before answering the letter of Dr. Kennedy I would like to thank him for writing. I want to thank him for two reasons. First of all, he reveals a genuine interest in missions and in what is being written in the Standard Bearer about missions. Sometimes those who write for the Standard Bearer wonder how many people are interested in, and therefore even reading, what they write. Dr. Kennedy’s letter indicates such an interest.

In the second place, I thank Dr. Kennedy because his questions and comments give me opportunity to expand on a certain aspect of missions that otherwise would receive only a cursory treatment. His letter certainly gives us food for thought. Neither do I consider my response to his letter the end of the discussion on the Old Testament’s teachings concerning mission work. A careful study of this subject would be of great value to the church.

God’s plan for the nations

One important point that Dr. Kennedy raises is that it “seems to me, from Genesis 17:7, that God’s plan was always for all nations.” I agree with this assessment, especially in light of the verses that precede verse 7. We find in these verses that Abram was to be called Abraham, “for a father of many nations have I made thee.” Furthermore, we find in verse 4 that God would establish His covenant with these nations. The only conclusion that we are able to draw from these verses is that God’s desire according to His eternal plan for all things was to include all nations of the earth in His church and covenant. If we were to view God’s counsel from an organic point of view, it was eternally God’s will to include all nations in His church.

The question we confront, however, is when did God plan for this to take place in time? Was it in God’s plan to gather the nations into His church and covenant during Old Testament times? Or was it His plan to gather in the peoples and nations of this world after Pentecost? We realize, of course, that if it were in God’s counsel to gather the nations in the Old Testament, then the events of the Old Testament would have unfolded in such a way that this would have been accomplished. God’s eternal counsel is determinative for what takes place in time. But the point is, God did not intend to gather all nations into His church in the Old Testament. Noah prophesies in Genesis 9:26, 27 that God’s covenant would be established with Shem’s seed, and only later with Japheth’s seed. The scope of the covenant was narrowed even more when God told Abraham that in Isaac His seed would be called. Moses encouraged Israel before entering into the land of Canaan with the words of Deuteronomy 7:6-8: she was chosen to be God’s church “above all people that are upon the face of the earth.” Later in Israel’s history, Isaiah comforts the elect remnant with these words in chapter 41:9: “Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth and called thee from the chief men thereof . . . .”

The New Testament Scriptures explain what the Old Testament Scriptures only heralded concerning the grafting in of the Gentiles. The apostle Paul gives a beautiful explanation in Ephesians 2:11-22 of the breaking down of the middle wall of partition that separated the Old Testament church from the Gentile nations. In verse 13 Paul writes, “But now in Christ Jesus ye who were sometimes far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”

It is also on the basis of God’s plan regarding the grafting in of the nations of the earth that we receive the instruction of Galatians 3:16-29. This passage traces the line of the covenant from Abraham through Israel until the present, revealing that the promise of the covenant was intended for all those who are in Christ.

God’s plan for the nations revealed in the Old Testament

This does not mean that the Old Testament church was unaware of God’s plan to graft into the church in the future all nations of the earth. God’s people were sensitive to their place in this plan. After citing a number of instances that reveal that Israel lived in the consciousness that it was under the scrutiny of the heathen nations (Ex. 32:12; Num. 14:16Deut. 9:28Josh. 7:9; etc.), J.H. Bavinck, in his book An Introduction to the Science of Missions, page 15, comments on this:

Israel was thus strongly under the impression that its history was not a particular affair of no concern to anyone else, but that God utilized its history to deal with other nations, rather with the whole world. Israel’s defeats and victories, its greatness and subjugations, its wonderful deliverances, and its heavy sufferings are all included in God’s plan for the world. God stretches out his arms to all the world in such events. It is remarkable that Israel is so conscious of its unique position.

God’s church prior to the coming of Christ was constantly reminded of her place among the nations of the world. She was reminded of it in her laws (Ex. 12:28Ex. 20:10; Lev. 19:33, 34), in her songs (Ps. 67:2), and in her prophecies (Is. 2:23). There were even events and people in the Old Testament that served as types and shadows to point God’s people to the future gathering in of the nations. Dr. Kennedy brings up Ruth the Moabitess and Rahab the harlot of Jericho. Another amazing instance is the call God issued to Jonah to preach in Nineveh—the very city that would later take captive the nation of Israel!

Israel’s calling toward the nations

A second important point that Dr. Kennedy raises is that Israel “did not do mission work. But wasn’t Israel meant to? . . . Is it not true to say that Old Testament Israel failed in its mission?” The passages he cites are good ones to consider in this regard. The reader can study them for himself. For the most part these passages bring up the truth that the people of Israel were called to be witnesses of who God is and of His great power. The Hebrew term used in these instances means literally “to repeat over and over again.” This colorful term exhorts God’s people to speak repeatedly to others of the power and blessing of God. Of a truth, it was the calling of God’s people and of His church as a whole in the Old Testament to be witnesses of Jehovah. It is equally true that Israel failed miserably in this! Dr. Kennedy makes a most striking statement: “God’s name, instead of being honored and known, was blasphemed among the nations because of Israel’s disobedience.” May the church of Jesus Christ today take note of that! There is no new thing under the sun. The church can boast of missions today, yet at the same time, by the witness of her members, cause the name of God to be blasphemed among the nations.

Again a couple of points need emphasis in this regard. In the first place, God’s people and church always are called to be witnesses. One cannot be a true Christian (before the coming of the Messiah [Christ] or after His coming) unless he gives witness to others by his life and speech. It was by means of the witness of a young Jewish girl that Naaman came to Elisha and was cleansed of his leprosy and his sin. Daniel and his three friends were witnesses of Jehovah in the courts of many a king in Babylon, just as was Joseph in the home of Potiphar and the palace of Pharaoh. Surely, God’s people in the Old Testament had the calling, just as God’s people today, to be witnesses of God.

Not only was this true of God’s people individually, but it was the calling of the church as a whole in the Old Testament too. As we mentioned earlier, the nation of Israel was keenly aware of her unique place among the nations. She knew she was a witness to God. She knew that God was utilizing the affairs of this nation toward the future salvation of the nations. It was to her shame that she so utterly failed in her calling! How shameful of the Jewish people that by the time of Christ they actually believed that salvation belonged to them simply because they were Jews—as if salvation was inherent in their genes by virtue of their natural birth. By means of this attitude the nation of Israel was not a witness for good among the nations, but made the cause of Jehovah God “to stink among the inhabitants of the land” (Gen. 34:30).

In the second place, however, we may not confuse the witness of God’s people and of the church as a whole with the work of missions. I tried to make it clear in the last article I wrote, Missions: the Work of the Church, that mission work is the official ministry of the church through which she sends out her ambassadors into this world to preach the gospel. This call the church of the old dispensation did not receive. Noah preached righteousness to the world prior to the Flood, that period of time in the history of the church when God had not yet limited the scope of the covenant to the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Jonah was called and sent by God to preach to the city of Nineveh, it was a unique occurrence, certainly not the norm. The prophets in Israel were not sent out by God to preach to the nations. They were sent to speak God’s word to the nation of Israel. I do not believe that it was the calling of the nation of Israel to send out men to do mission work among the nations.

Neither was it God’s plan or purpose in the Old Testament to draw other nations and peoples into the confines of His church and covenant. There were times in her history when the nation of Israel did leave a good witness to the nations. There were many of God’s people, then, who did live in faith and in the active hope of the coming of the Messiah. This witness, however, did not serve to bring the nations to faith and repentance. When Jonah preached repentance in the streets of Nineveh, it spared the city. Many repented of their sin. But this did not serve to incorporate this city into the church and covenant. In fact, it was not many years later that the king of this city took the ten tribes away captive.

For these reasons I believe that it was God’s purpose to gather the nations into His church after Pentecost, not before. In that connection, I also believe that the Great Commission to preach the gospel to all creatures was not given by God to His Old Testament church, but was given by Christ to the church in the new dispensation. Certainly, I do not believe that my response is the final authority on this subject. There is much more that can be discussed on the subject. As I said at the outset, the subject Dr. Kennedy raises is worthy of an in-depth study. I appreciate his bringing it up.