In the previous articles we have been discussing the work of missions in the old dispensation. The question was raised whether we can properly speak of missions before the new dispensation, that is, before Christ gave the great commission and poured out His Spirit upon the church. The church of the shadows was limited within the narrow confines of national Israel. Those who were converted from heathendom were, for the most part, brought into Israel as proselytes of the gate. The same still applies to the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And therefore the same objection might be raised.
And we naturally repeat the same answer that was given then. We saw that God did not leave Himself without witness among the heathen even in the old dispensation. He proclaimed His Word to the world as it came in contact with the church. God spoke through Enoch and Noah to the world before the flood, declaring that He alone is God and must be served. God witnessed through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the nations of Canaan. God spoke to the Pharaohs of Egypt. He declared His Name to the kings of Babylon through Daniel and his friends. He preached the Gospel unto the repentance of many in Nineveh. Other examples could be multiplied. As we shall see, the same thing holds true at the time of Jesus.
We can even point out that in the old dispensation God gave the promise that in the fulness of time the church would extend beyond the narrow confines of Israel even to the ends of the earth. As evidence of that promise God called Rahab out of Jericho, Ruth out of Moab, and brought repentance unto Nineveh. And again other examples could be cited. This also is true in the ministry of Jesus, as will soon become evident. So if we can speak of mission work in the old dispensation we certainly can speak of it as an essential part of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
In passing, a few remarks should be made concerning the ministry of John the Baptist. John is called the greatest of all the old dispensational prophets, because in his short ministry he came closer to the new dispensation than any before him. He opened the door, as it were, declaring that the kingdom of God was at hand. It was his unique privilege to see the Christ and to point Him out as the fulfillment of all the promises. John condemned the self-righteous Pharisees who sought salvation in the works of the law. He warned that the judgment of God upon Israel as a nation was pending. He called the people to repentance, urging them to forsake their dead works and to seek their salvation in the promised Messiah, Who would presently appear. Even John already warned the people that the kingdom of God was not earthly, but heavenly, and that they should look for that eternal kingdom. Those who repented upon the preaching of John were baptized and thus ushered into the new dispensation. In that sense John’s ministry was also mission work.
When Jesus began His ministry He also condemned the erroneous teachings and the corrupt practices of the scribes and Pharisees. At His first appearance in Jerusalem, which was like an inaugural sermon, the Lord cleansed the temple and warned the leaders that they were destroying the House of God, which He is come to build up. He announced to them that they would destroy the real temple, the temple of His body, and in three days He would raise it up. Although they never understood this saying, they could never forget it. Our Lord likewise in no uncertain terms condemned the “mission endeavors” of the Jews of His day. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more a child of hell than yourselves.” Matthew 23:15.
In their “missionary zeal” these leaders of the Jews were willing to go to the far ends of the earth to win converts for their errors. They worked among those who served idols to convert them to Judaism. Once they obtained a “convert” they forced upon him all their traditions, to every law and precept, so that the convert boasted of his salvation by works even louder than the Jews themselves. Jesus does not hesitate to call these Pharisees “hypocrites,” “children of hell,” who lead others into even greater condemnation with them.
But the positive aspect of Jesus preaching is even more important. He preached the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven, the day of the Lord, to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus repeatedly used the figure of sheep. He liked to refer to Himself as the Great Shepherd Who came to lay down His life for His sheep. John 10:11, 15. He knows His sheep, because they are given to Him eternally from the Father. He calls them by name and they come to Him. John 10:27. He cares for them as His precious possession, leads them in green pastures and beside still waters, feeds them and provides for all their needs, until He has brought them into the sheepfold of glory. John 10:27, 28. These sheep He refers to as “the lost,” whom the Shepherd seeks, finds and brings back into the fold. This was Christ’s mission task. Our Lord speaks of this in the three parables recorded in Luke 15, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. In Jesus’ own words: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:10. Jesus’ mission field was the land of Canaan. Therefore He spent much of His time in Galilee, preaching the kingdom of heaven and calling the people to repentance and to faith in Him. Mark tells us: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” This is significant because it shows the actual content of Jesus’ message. He preached that the promise of God spoken by the prophets of old was now being fulfilled. The types and shadows were touching reality. The expected Messiahwas come and was about to bring the great sacrifice for the sins of His people, and thus enter into His kingdom. He proclaimed not an earthly, but a heavenly kingdom. He called the people to repentance; Himself creating in their hearts by the Word of His power a true sorrow for sin. His Word caused them to labor and to be heavy laden. And to those who labored and were heavy laden He promised rest, actually also giving rest to their souls. He could say with a divine authority that reached into the very heart of the repentant sinner: “Thy sins are forgiven thee. Go in peace.” Matthew 9:2;Mark 2:5; Luke 7:48, 50.
Thus Jesus was faithful to His calling in all the land of Galilee. .He was the fulfillment of the word of Isaiah: “The land of Zabulon, and the land of Naphthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; the people which sat in darkness saw a great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. Matthew 4:14, 15. And Jesus knew that the purpose of God was being fulfilled both in those who were saved and in those who rejected Him. Therefore He breathed a prayer of thanks to God saying: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.”Matthew 11:25, 26.
Jesus also labored in Jerusalem, Judea and Perea. He taught daily, even in parables, and sealed His testimony with signs and wonders to prove that He was indeed the Christ of God. Even there the purpose and result of Jesus’ preaching can best be described in His own words, as He said to His disciples, “unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sin should be forgiven them.” Mark 4:11, 12. Jerusalem that killed and stoned the prophets also had to crucify the Christ to make the measure of her iniquity full, but not without serving the divine purpose that the Shepherd Who lays down His life for His sheep may gather His own unto Himself. Of all that the Father gave to Him He lost none, but the son of perdition, that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. John 17:12.
But Jesus also speaks of other sheep beyond the fold of the Israel of His day. In John 10:16 we read: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice: and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” Obviously, these other sheep are the elect of God from every nation and people of the earth. Jesus is looking into the future, beyond His death and resurrection, even beyond His ascension and Pentecost, to the time when He will be gathering His own into the fold to make the assembly of the elect complete.
Already early in His ministry Jesus “must needs go through Samaria.” John 4:4. The Lord had a mission at Sychar, where the Samaritan woman and many others were brought to faith and salvation. Here were firstfruits of the Gentiles, bridging the gap between the old dispensation and the new and giving promise of better things to come. Later Jesus emphasizes to His disciples the faith of the Roman centurion whose servant was sick. “I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” And then He adds, “Many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 8:10, 11. Had not the wisemen who came from the east to worship Jesus at the time of His birth already promised the same thing? After His rejection in Galilee Jesus took His disciples to the border of Tyre and Sidon, where He showed them the amazing faith that God had wrought in the heart of the Syro-Phoenician woman. As much for the benefit of the disciples as for the woman herself He says: “O woman, great is thy faith!” Matthew 15:28.
This aids us to understand the Greeks in Jerusalem who wanted to see Jesus. John 12:20-24. They had approached Philip requesting an audience with his Master. Philip is aware that these are proselytes, but they are nevertheless gentiles. He consults Andrew, and together they approach Jesus with the request. Jesus answers them by saying: “The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” You can almost sense His eagerness to finish His work on the cross that these “waiting” gentiles may be gathered in. “And I, when I be lifted up from the earth, will draw men all unto me.” John 12:32.
Thus we can draw some very definite conclusions from Jesus’ missionary ministry.
First, that He began at “home” by calling His own unto Himself and thus drawing them out of the apostate church, which was ready to perish.
Second, Jesus in no way depended on the free will of man. He knew very well that no man could come to Him except the Father draw him. John 6:44. And He also knew that “All that the Father giveth unto me shall come unto me: and him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out. John 6:37. He had power with the Father both to convict of sin and to forgive sin.
Third, Jesus was not disappointed when many rejected Him. He knew that God was carrying out His good pleasure both in those who were saved and in those who perished in their sins. Matthew 11:25, 26.
Finally, Jesus also spoke of greater things to come. He brought in a few firstfruits from the gentiles as promise of the full harvest that is gathered in during this present dispensation. Eagerly He anticipated the glory that awaited Him beyond the cross, when seated at the right hand of God He may gather His own unto Himself from all the ends of the earth, until the multitude that no man can number is made perfect in heaven.