Missions is the official task of the Church to preach the gospel to all nations in obedience to the injunction of Christ given immediately before His ascension into heaven: “standing on the mount Jesus said to His disciples and thus to His Church: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you alway even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matthew 28:19, 20). It is the purpose of this and succeeding articles to examine the history of the Church’s carrying out of this task. In this issue, as the title indicates, we will study missions in the old dispensation.
One might object by claiming that mission work really did not begin until after Christ’s commission and the outpouring of His Spirit into the Church in the new dispensation. Indeed, at first glance, it appears that missions was non-existent in the age of the shadows. It certainly appears as if the Old Testament was not adapted to mission work. It was the age of the shadows and the typical. And, as such, it was the period of preparation for the gospel. The promise given immediately after the fall (Gen. 3:15) and reiterated all through the old dispensation always referred to the future as to its fulfillment. Christ had not yet come. The Kingdom of heaven—though there were the beginnings and the principles of the kingdom in the hearts of God’s people—had not been realized and the Kingdom was still to come. There was the type of the Kingdom in the nation of Israel dwelling in the land of Canaan with the tabernacle, the altars, sacrifices, feasts, and typical priesthood; but the Kingdom did not come until the pouring out of the Spirit and the dawn of the new day. Salvation was particularistic not only with reference to the elect, but also as far as certain generations, tribes, and nations were concerned. Salvation belonged exclusively to the nation of Israel.
In view of all this it would appear as if we would look in vain to find the beginning of the history of missions in the Old Testament. It is simply a fact that the gospel could not be preached to all nations for the obvious reason that the Holy Spirit had not yet been poured out upon all flesh. Nevertheless, while all this is true, missions did begin already long before Pentecost and the church of the new dispensation.
This is evident from the earliest days of the history of God’s Covenant in the Old Testament. God did not leave Himself without witness to all the world. There is the fact that Enoch preached to the world of his day about the coming of salvation through judgment. One does not read much of. Enoch in the Scriptures, but what we do find is so very significant. We learn fromGenesis 5:24 that Enoch walked with God and was not, for God took him. This walking with God was not some mystical communion that Enoch enjoyed with the Almighty. Enoch was busy. He was a prophet, in fact, who preached. Jude speaks of this in Jude 1:14, 15 of his letter: “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed . . . .” Now it is true that this is not exactly the positive aspect of the gospel. Nevertheless this passage indicates that Enoch preached to all the world of the final redemption and salvation of the church. He spoke of the coming judgment of the ungodly who rise against the church and persecute God’s people. For three hundred years Enoch spoke to these corrupt men in spite of their threats. He spoke against their ungodly deeds and testified against their wickedness. And he preached about the future when God would come with ten thousands of his saints to execute judgment.
This is not the only example. Soon after Enoch there appeared another who preached to the world of his day. Noah also witnessed against the wicked as Enoch had done. II Peter 2:5 identifies this man of God as a “preacher of righteousness,” and we learn fromHebrews 11:7 that Noah condemned the world. Noah did not condemn the world by quietly believing the Word and promise of God but by a living and active faith. He preached. And he preached righteousness. He declared to all the world the righteousness of God. He told the world of his day in no uncertain terms that God was righteous and that he would avenge His cause. Noah preached a definite message. The message was that God was terribly displeased with the sin of the wicked, their apostasy and corruption. He told them that the righteous Lord was coming in judgment, for His Spirit would not always strive with man. Noah proclaimed for no less than 120 years the righteousness of God. And we may be sure that he warned the wicked of the coming of the flood.
The salvation of the church in every nation was anticipated already in the early history of the told dispensational church. When Abraham was called out of Ur of the Chaldees the Covenant of God was restricted to Abraham and his generations. This was the origin of the separate existence of Israel in the midst of the world. God told his servant “And I will make of thee a great nation . . .” (Gen. 12:2). But the Lord also said in verse three of that same chapter, “and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” This promise was reiterated often to Abraham. He was repeatedly told that his seed would be as the dust of the earth and as the stars of heaven in multitude (cf.Gen. 13:16, Gen. 15:5). When God instituted the rite of circumcision He promised Abraham: “And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.” (Gen. 17:6). That same promise is repeated when the Lord changes Abraham and Sarah’s names. Of Sarah it was said: “. . . she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall come out of her.” (Gen. 17:16b). In connection with Abraham’s trial of offering Isaac his son upon the altar God repeats the promise concerning the multiplying of his seed and emphatically asserts: “And in thy seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” (Gen. 22:18). Hence even at the inception of Israel as a separate people God spoke of the day when His church would be gathered from every nation.
A study of the history of Israel shows that there were countless foreigners brought into the church. The sons of Jacob married wives of the Canaanites, there was Zipporah, Moses’ wife, many Egyptians (by no means all children of God!) departed from Egypt with the Israelites, Rahab and Ruth may also be mentioned in this connection. The point was, however, in this time that these converts had to lose their national identity. They were not only brought into the church but in the age of shadows they had to become Israelites. In order to become members of God’s church they had to become Jews. Thus the Lord makes provision for foreigners coming into the church in the Law as given on Sinai. The stranger that would keep the Passover and sojourn with Israel had to be as one born in the land, all his males had to be circumcised. And, said God, “One law shall be to him that is home born, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.” (Exodus. 12:48, 49). The only exceptions to this rule were Naaman, the widow of Zarepath (strikingly enough, Jesus mentions both of these in the sermon He preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, cf. Luke 4:25-27), and there were the citizens of Nineveh to whom Jonah preached. In these instances, however, there is no record in Scripture of salvation in covenant lines of their succeeding generations, while Rahab and Ruth are both found in the genealogies of Jesus recorded inMatthew 1.
The prophets, too, were well aware of the dawning of the new day when salvation would come to all nations. All this was spoken of in the context of Israel’s existence, but nevertheless the universal note is unmistakably heard. In projecting their views of the future the prophets do not hesitate to emphasize the fact of the salvation of the nations. Again and again in the midst of their prophetic judgments of Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt they suddenly break out in joy over the salvation that shall come. In striking language Isaiah mentions that Egypt and Assyria will serve the Lord: “In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria . . . and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.” (Is. 19:23-25).
It is remarkable that in Old Testament prophecy this salvation of the nations is always viewed as a spontaneous coming. We read in Psalm 68:31, for example, “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” The nations shall simply come without the agency of Israel. Isaiah in chapter 2:2, 3 of his prophecy speaks of this plainly: “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 unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth a law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”. This passage teaches that the Church of the new dispensation, “the mountain of the Lord’s house,” shall be so exalted that all the nations of the earth shall be able to see it. And beholding the church they shall be attracted to it, drawn as though by a magnet, and spontaneously come to it, believing that the Lord will teach them His ways so that they walk in His paths.
This does not mean that the human agency of the Church which preaches the gospel is excluded. These passages emphasize that it is the Lord Who efficaciously calls and saves His church. The conversion of God’s people is the Lord’s work. Thus we read in Isaiah 55:5: “Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not, and nations that knew not thee shall run unto thee because of the Lord thy God, and for the Holy One of Israel; for he hath glorified thee.” Here Israel is presented as the agency that shall call an unknown nation. But even then the emphasis falls on the work of the Lord. Nations that knew not Israel shall simply run unto her and that too “because of the Lord thy God.” Many other passages could be cited but let these suffice.
In the Old Testament, therefore, we find the beginnings of Missions. All of this was fulfilled at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ Who after His atoning work, exaltation, and ascension poured out His Spirit upon all flesh, and began the task of gathering His elect church out of every nation, tribe, and tongue.