Previous article in this series: April 15, 2012, p. 331.
This is the mystery of the church: people of many nations (the Gentiles) are made fellow heirs, and of the same body with the church of the Old Testament (). Christ has abolished the Old Testament ceremonies of the law in order to make in Himself of two (Jews and Gentiles) one new man ( ). The church is no longer limited to one nation. It has become universal. This mystery was hid in God from the beginning of the world. But according to God’s eternal purpose, which He purposed in Christ, this mystery has now been revealed to us.
It is both revealed and accomplished by means of the preaching of the gospel. Christ, through His church, has preached, and still preaches, peace to the nations that are afar off (). By means of this gospel the people of this world—who were no people—are now made partakers of the promise in Christ. This is why it is the task of the church to preach the gospel of peace. This gospel must be preached to those who are near and to those who are afar off. This means that missions is central to the accomplishment of the eternal purpose of God regarding His church. It is true that the gospel must be preached to those who dwell within the confines of the church. They need to hear the call to faith and repentance. But the same unsearchable riches of Christ must be preached to all nations, since God has chosen to accomplish His eternal purpose and counsel regarding His church in this manner. Missions belongs to the essence of the church in the new dispensation.
Though the mystery of the church is revealed and proclaimed to the church of the New Testament in distinction from the saints in the Old, nevertheless, that mystery was taught through prophecy and through typical events in the Old Testament. The first prophecy that heralded the grafting in of the Gentiles into the church of Jesus Christ was that spoken by Noah directly after the Flood. Noah had planted a vineyard, made wine, and then sinned by becoming drunk on that wine. Noah’s son Ham mocked his father in his sin. Shem and Japheth showed honor and respect to their father by covering his shame. After Noah awoke out of his drunken stupor he learned of the actions of his three sons. InNoah then spoke these words of prophecy concerning them: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. 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; and Canaan shall be his servant.” There are several truths contained in this prophecy that could be explained, but we are interested, for the most part, in the prophecy spoken of Japheth.
Actually, Shem is the son of Noah that received an immediate blessing: “Blessed be Jehovah, God of Shem.” Noah speaks this blessing upon God, and in this sense he praises God. Yet, such a blessing includes Shem. After all, Jehovah, the ever-faithful, never-changing God is Shem’s God. We cannot overlook the truth that the blessedness of Shem lies in the covenant God establishes with him: I will be your God. Neither does this covenant exclude the promise: I will be a God unto your children after you in your generations. Noah’s prophecy indicates that God’s covenant with Noah would be carried on in the line of Shem. Not with every one of Shem’s children, however. As time progressed, God separated Abraham from the rest of Shem’s generations and continued His covenant with Abraham’s children. But it was in the line of Shem that God’s church in the Old Testament was indeed preserved.
Robert C. Harbach, in his commentary, Studies in the Book of Genesis, explains this particular aspect of Noah’s prophecy with perceptive and compelling insight: “Jehovah being the God of Shem, Shem, then, becomes the repository and heir of all the blessings of salvation which God intends for all nations.” A repository is a place where something is stored in order to preserve or save it for a later time. This was true of Shem and his children. In him and his children God stored the blessings of salvation throughout the Old Testament era. The blessings of salvation in Christ were preserved in Shem’s generations through Abraham, until which time God would fulfill His plan of bringing salvation to the nations in the new dispensation.
This is where the prophecy of Noah concerning Japheth applies: “God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.” That God enlarges Japheth refers to the development of the generations of this son of Noah. Truly, when we examine history, we see that the generations of Japheth did become large and prominent in the earth. Concerning them Scripture records in, “By these the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.” The children of Japheth make up the Gentile nations that settled in Europe and beyond.
But what is of great significance is that these Gentile nations born out of Japheth would come to “dwell in the tents of Shem.” This does not mean that some scattered Japhethites would at different times come to dwell in the tents of Shem. It does not even mean that a nation here and there from among Japheth’s descendants would be grafted into the generations of Shem. It means that God would bring the nations that developed out of Japheth under the umbrella of Shem’s descendants. They would dwell together in the same tents. This prophecy of Noah points to a great spiritual event that would take place in the future. That event is the mystery spoken of in, that the Gentiles (Japhethites) should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of God’s promise in Christ by the gospel. The great event Noah spoke of is the day of Pentecost, when the church of the Old Testament broke outside of the restrictions God placed upon it until that time. The blessings of salvation that God had stored in the repository of Shem’s seed during the Old Testament, was then brought out of storage and bestowed upon a church universal—a church out of all the nations of the earth! When the Spirit was poured out on all flesh on the day of Pentecost, God finally brought to pass what was His divine intention from eternity. John Calvin, in his commentaries, has a way with words that few can match in exegeting a passage. He writes in his commentary on ,
Two thousand years, and some centuries more, elapsed before the Gentiles and the Jews were gathered together in one faith. Then the sons of Shem, of whom the greater part had revolted, and cut themselves off from the holy family of God, were collected together, and dwelt under one tabernacle. Also the Gentiles, the progeny of Japheth, who had long been wanderers and fugitives, were received into the same tabernacle. For God, by a new adoption, has formed a people out of those who were separated, and has confirmed a fraternal union between alienated parties . . . . It is truly no common support of our faith, that the calling of the Gentiles is not only decreed in the eternal counsel of God, but is openly declared by the mouth of the Patriarch; lest we should think it to have happened suddenly, or by chance, that the inheritance of eternal life was offered [presented—WB] generally to all. But the form of expression, “Japheth shall dwell in the tabernacles of Shem,” commends to us that mutual society, which ought to exist, and to be cherished among the faithful.
In this same paragraph of his commentary, Calvin explains how this is accomplished by God in the New Testament age. “This is done by the sweet and gentle voice of God, which he has uttered in the gospel; and this prophecy is still daily receiving its fulfillment, since God invites the scattered sheep to join his flock, and collects, on every side, those who shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.” For two thousand years, since the time of the Flood, the mystery concerning the church was hidden from God’s saints. Prophets diligently inquired and searched into the mystery in an attempt to find out what and what manner of time this prophecy of Noah (and others) spoke of. But it was not revealed until Christ, the Son of Shem, came and fulfilled this prophecy. Then was the mystery made known through the preaching of the gospel—a gospel that still is preached by the church to the Gentiles. All of this bespeaks the calling of the church in missions.
We live in the age of missions!
In no other age of history has the church been called to be involved in the work of missions. The church of the Old Testament, though a witness in the earth, was not given the task to preach the gospel to all nations. This is strictly a New Testament mandate. Yet, this is exactly the manner in which the prophecy of God to Noah is fulfilled. This present age, from Christ’s ascension to His parousia (Christ’s return at the end of time), is God’s chosen time for the gospel to go forth to all peoples, races, and nations of the earth. The proclamation of the gospel to the nations belongs to the church of the last days. This is our unique task. It bears repeating: it is not a secondary labor or a luxury. Missions is a part of the essential makeup of the church since Pentecost. The church preaches the gospel. This is how the mystery is revealed and this is how the mystery is accomplished. There would be no church today without the powerful work of Christ through ambassadors He sends out through the church to proclaim the gospel to the Gentile nations of the earth.
That the work of missions is vital to the work of the church is proven by the prophecy of Christ Himself in: “And the gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” The prophecy of Noah must be fulfilled to its fullest extent in order that Christ might return. God had in mind, therefore, already after the Flood—even from eternity in His counsel—a universal church gathered out of the nations. This universal church in eternity is viewed by God organically as one body of people united to Christ by a true and living faith. In this we find the beauty of our confession today: “I believe an holy, catholic church; the communion of saints.” With the Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 54, we can say: I believe that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member of that church of Christ gathered, defended, and preserved out of the whole human race from the beginning to the end of the world. We can say that, even though we were born out of the line of Japheth! We can say that because our generations (wild olive branches— ), by the powerful work of the preaching of the gospel, were grafted into the tree of the church, whose root and fatness is Jesus Christ. That grafting-in of our own generations was accomplished by the mission work of the church in the past. God still accomplishes His purpose today through the same means. The age of missions is not past—not yet.
It is true that we live at the close of the ages. It is true that much of the church has been gathered. But it is equally true that there still are nations that need to hear the gospel. Obviously, the final fulfillment of Noah’s prophecy is still to come. Christ’s command to His church still holds firm: preach the gospel. When that gospel is preached for a witness to all nations, then shall the end come and the final fulfillment of Noah’s prophecy will take place in a new creation.