Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Toward a Theology of Missions in the Old Testament

            The God of the Bible has clearly revealed His will, in that believers of this age ought to share the Gospel with all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). God’s plan, in giving Christians His Son, is for them to be His tools for use in this age.[1] However, the question must be asked: what is the theology of missions? Ott and Strauss claim, “It is a theological reflection on the nature and task of mission.”[2] At first glance, it seems to belong mostly (or even solely) to the domain of the New Testament (NT) era. It would seem a disagreement exists as to whether or not the Old Testament (OT) has anything to say about missions at all—or whether or not missions should have been a priority to the OT era people of God.
            To that question, A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee respond in the affirmative. They write, “From the very opening words of the Bible important themes in mission appear that are expanded throughout the Old Testament. They lay the foundation for what is found more explicitly about mission in the New Testament.”[3] This paper will show that missions was not only anticipated by but also active in the OT. First, the foundation for missions in the OT will be considered. Then, some examples of missions in the OT will be shown. The NT usages of OT texts will be examined, while the very mission of Jesus Christ will be held as a paradigmatic example of OT missions.

The Foundation for Missions in the Old Testament
            No discussion of a theology of missions in the OT is complete without a reference to Genesis 3:15. That verse, which is quoting God’s judgment upon the serpent, states: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (NKJV). The immediate interpretation of this prophetic utterance is clear: the descendant of Eve will come and overthrow the power of Satan. This is a commonly interpreted Messianic prophecy.
            The background of this prophecy is the sin in the Garden of Eden. Ott and Strauss correctly point out that only by understanding the original sin was a rejecting and breaking of the relationship with God will one understand that Genesis 3:15 is a future restoration of that relationship.[4] The reason this restoration is missional is because it involves God going after mankind to save them. The restoration could not be anything but this. If that is the case then Genesis 3:15 is of necessity a missions text in the OT.
            An objection immediately presents itself: if this is a prophecy, and the prophecy finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, how does this support the thesis that there is missions in the OT? An answer can be found in Moreau. God deliberately came after Adam and Even in their specific situation, and provided them skins (presumably of animals God killed) to wear (cf. Genesis 3:21). This means God concerned himself with mission as it relates to all of mankind from the very moment of the first sin.[5]
            David Filbeck agrees with this assessment when he states, “This universality of sin and its total effect on life from the individual to the societal to the whole world . . . [points] to the missionary message running throughout the Old Testament.”[6] Filbeck is using the argument from the universality of sin to the universality of the redemption to be found in Christ; it is the same redemption being acted upon with the shedding of blood rather than the fig leaves Adam and Eve had supplied themselves.[7] The theological symbolism is clearly that one’s own righteousness is not good enough to cover one’s own sins. Only the righteousness of God can do that. If God involved himself in that, then Genesis 3:15 is indisputably an instance of missions in the OT; it is not merely a foreshadowing of it. Once the foundation for missions in the OT has been established, the examples of missions in the OT should be considered.

Examples of Missions in the Old Testament
            The foundation of OT mission would mean little without any examples of mission taking place. On the contrary, there are several examples of mission occurring within the confines of the OT. Some of them look very much like the NT and even modern models of missions. Others look different, though they manage to fit the mold of missions (given the foundation of Genesis 3:15). The examples of missions to be considered will be either individual or corporate instances of missions. Both are central to spreading the message of God in the OT, just as both individual and corporate considerations are needed in the Great Commission of the NT.

            The first OT example of missions to be considered is Abraham. Genesis 12:1-3 proclaim, in part: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country . . . to the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation . . . and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (NASB). Abraham was called from his geographical location, culture, and comfort to cross cultures on behalf of God. Not only this, but he was promised that from him would come a great nation, even the Messiah (through whom all families of the earth would be blessed). This is precisely how all missiologists would identify a cross-cultural missionary.
            David Filbeck has an interesting insight concerning the term “families” in Genesis 12 and “nations” in Genesis 22. The ideas behind these words convey the meaning of biological lineage (in the former case) and ethnicities or peoples (in the latter case).[8] This means that, as a missionary, Abraham’s mission would ultimately bless all people by all people groups, whether they are large or small. Theologically, the reaffirmation of the Abrahamic covenant comes in Genesis 22 only after Abraham successfully passes the test of obedience to God. Since Abraham trusted God with his lineage, then it is within his lineage that the Messiah will be found.
            This is not the only way in which Abraham was a missionary. His very wandering itself constituted missional activity. Through his unwilling discussion with Abimelech in Genesis 20, he reveals that his God has the power of life and death and is the one true God. Through Abraham, God was narrowing his focus to a particular people—but He did not do this for the purposes of exclusion. In fact, W. Bryant Hicks wrote of this, “Israel was his [God’s] special treasure for the very purpose of being a blessing to them [other nations].”[9] Theologically, then, Abraham stood as an OT example of a missionary: he carried the message of God cross-culturally while anticipating the future Messiah who would redeem the sins of the world.
            The prophet Jonah is a famous—or perhaps infamous—example of an OT missionary. He was, in fact, a prophet of God. Without rehashing the entire story of the book of Jonah, one can say that he is acting as a poor missionary, but a missionary nonetheless. While prophets normally brought messages to Israel and Judah, God did use prophets to pronounce judgment on other nations. While that contributes to the popular-level stereotype that the God of the OT was uninterested in the salvation of the nations at this time, the story of Jonah proves otherwise.
            Johannes Verkuyl uses the story of Jonah to make the argument that mere presence was not enough to satisfy the missionary motif of the OT. There was a real sense of purpose and missionary calling to go answer the “missionary call to all people sounding forth.”[10] Interestingly, what begins the missionary call to Jonah is a pronouncement of judgment. “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2, NASB). Jonah’s response was that he did not want to; he would later say this was because he knew that God was “gracious . . . and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (4:2, ESV). Even in the midst of pronouncing judgment, even God’s disobedient prophet knew that it was for the divine purpose of forgiveness and reconciliation.
            Verkuyl presents this missionary story as one that always contained hope for salvation and the forgiveness of sins in response to repentance.[11] Verkuyl makes the astute point that it was merely the attitude of the prophet that revealed a singular focus on Israel alone with respect to redemption. He claimed, “He [Jonah] wanted a God cut according to his own pattern: a cold, hard, cruel-natured god with an unbending will set against the heathen. He cannot stand to think of the Gentiles as part of salvation history.”[12] Yet they clearly are a concern of God’s, and God is not merely content to stand by—He sends his missionary to proclaim the truth.
The Israelites in the Wilderness
            The Israelites were God’s chosen people; they were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had been in Egypt for four hundred years (cf. Exodus 1), and eventually Moses was called (cf. Exodus 3) to lead them out of Egypt and speak for God. This was to result in Israel being a blessing to all nations by living and proclaiming the message of God. Unfortunately, they did not always do this. In fact, they looked out for their own interests. Walter Kaiser shows this by Israel’s rejection of God’s plan for them to be a kingdom of priests and their priestly role.[13] Kaiser’s observations suggest that the argument that the OT did not intend for there to be missionary activity like the NT fails, because it relies on the poor behavior of the Israelites (and their rejection of God’s plan). He elaborates, saying, “Israel began looking out for her own interests . . . becoming a club of the pious and forgetting her calling to be sharers of blessing.”[14]
            The missionary intentions for Israel did become a missionary reality, however. Christopher J. H. Wright, OT scholar, suggests that the Law was given to Israel in order to form them into the kind of nation that God would use to mediate the blessings of redemption to all other nations.[15] This explains, at least in part, the wilderness wanderings. While it was a punishment for the lack of faith in God, it nonetheless was a time where they lived by the Law given at Sinai, and began to grow accustomed to it.
This is not to say they were ultimately successful. However, the wilderness time culminated in the conquest narratives of the book of Joshua. In chapter 2, two spies were sent to Jericho, and they lodged at the house of Rahab, “a harlot” (v. 1, NKJV). While they are there, she protects the men, and lies to the king of Jericho as to their whereabouts. This act is said to be an act of faith by the author of the book of Hebrews. However accidental the meeting of the spies and Rahab seemed, it was orchestrated as an act of mission from one people to another. Joshua 2:9 and 11 explain, “and [she] said to the men: ‘I know that the LORD has given you the land . . . for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (NKJV). This is the optimal result God intended: the evangelization of people from every tribe and tongue, and it was accomplished via the Israelites’ wandering experience (and its ending).

            The famous quote from Isaiah 6:8 has God asking the Trinitarian question, “Who will go for Us?” with Isaiah’s response being, “Here am I. Send me!” (NASB) While Isaiah’s mission is not cross-cultural, in a very real sense it is counter-cultural. This is because verses 9-10 state that the people of Israel will not hear Isaiah’s message. They will reject it.
            But Isaiah’s message is not simply regarding Israel. Ott and Strauss speak of this when they write, “Isaiah reveals one of his key themes in an eschatological vision of the nations coming to Zion to worship and learn from the Lord.”[16] This is a goal seen even in OT times, so that the argument cannot be made that Isaiah is only referencing the future. It is not as though he was giving a message wholly irrelevant to the people of Israel. The biblical picture is one of the nations coming to Christ in His kingdom; even historically wicked nations such as Egypt and Assyria will do so.[17] The message of Isaiah with respect to missions is that this is a result of the redemptive motif that runs throughout the OT.  In fact, one can make the argument that the context of Isaiah’s message is not simply the fulfillment of redemptive history (in Genesis 3:15), though that surely is the goal. Rather, the goal is also to show Israel’s failure to act as the missionary entity they should have been.[18] This suggests strongly that mission activity was central to the theology of the OT.

Israel in Exile
            The final example to give is Israel in exile. This section can be summarized with the following comment: Israel would not be God’s ambassador to the nations (in going to the nations and in living for God), so God brought the nations to Israel. The Babylonians and Assyrians drove them from the Promised Land. This accomplished a number of things. First, it allowed a godly witness in a heathen land. Consider the story of Daniel. He was taken to Shinar, in Babylonia. It was there he rose to prominence and became a godly influence and testimony.
            Further, Wright demonstrates that even a return to the land of Israel would bring with it the idea of missionary outreach. He wrote, “The promise of restoration for Israel would ultimately extend the knowledge of God for his people first expressed in [Jeremiah] 13:11 . . . would eventually be fulfilled.”[19] It certainly seems as though part of the divine purpose in exiling Israel was the evangelization of the nations.

The New Testament Usage of OT Texts in the Theology of Missions
            A good way of showing that the OT was active in its missions engagement is to show that OT texts actually taught principles of missions. The NT actually uses OT texts in such a way to show that world missions is such a priority for the theology and eschatology of the OT. Among several texts, James Meek attempted to show that several NT texts treat OT texts as missional. He began with Acts 3:25, which is a quote of Genesis 12 and 22. Meek argues that the text teaches fulfillment of Genesis 22 is found in Christ (as the singular “seed”), and thus Gentiles and all nations are included.[20] Meek further claims that Luke reported this particular story for the express purpose of connecting God’s promises and Gentiles. He claimed, “Gentiles are included in the promises of God that were made to the fathers and that have been fulfilled in Jesus . . . by fulfilling the promise to Abraham in Jesus, God extended his blessing to all the families of the earth.”[21]
            The other text that will be considered is the quotation of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:17-21 by Peter. This was in response to those who thought the apostles were drunk. Notably, the explanation of these signs includes what Stanley Porter says is “the extension of salvation to any who call on the name of the Lord.”[22] Porter also considers the eschatological tone of the book of Joel in the quote. The idea is that Luke used Joel as a source to describe that the apostles were then living at the beginning of the last days, so that all nations would begin to come to Christ.[23] If the NT used the OT as describing missions as something in the heart of God from the beginning, then it remains difficult to dismiss the thesis that missions was active in the OT.

Jesus Christ as Missionary Fulfills the Law
            If the NT used the OT texts to discuss missions, it was only because Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of redemptive history. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (ESV). Jesus was the ultimate paradigm of OT mission. Many people do not realize that although Christ’s life is recorded in the NT, his life was lived out in the OT times. Only toward the end of his public ministry did he actively speak of the new covenant.
            It is clear that however one interprets the OT, Jesus’ life was the fulfilled promise of Genesis 3:15. Moreau puts it this way: “God at lasts answers the hopes that the prophets had planted . . . However, the fulfillment of their hopes comes in an unexpected way. Jesus . . . came as a humble teacher prepared to die on behalf of his people.”[24] Jesus is the paradigmatic example of mission for several reasons. First, he came as God living among men. If there ever were a culture change, God becoming a man certainly qualifies. Second, he came to die. There is nothing more central to redemptive history than the sacrificial payment for sins in the death of Jesus Christ.
            In a way, the entirety of Christian existence on earth is predicated on the mission of Jesus. Daniel Carroll agrees when he writes, “Migration is a key metaphor for understanding the Christian faith. All Christians are sojourners and strangers in the world.”[25] He further points to Christ as fulfilling the Law in a way that no one else can; it is through the beneficence of God that one can be saved.[26] Jesus Christ’s fulfilling of the OT Law in an OT setting is the clearest and best example of the OT redemptive story showing the missions heart and activity of God in the OT.

            This paper attempted to show that missions was not only anticipated by the OT, but also active in it. The foundation for all of missions was located and examined in Genesis 3, followed by a discussion of several OT examples of missionaries (for good or for ill). These examples of action were followed by examples of NT writers treating OT texts as a discussion of the mission and how it applied to all nations. Finally, the very person of Jesus Christ is a paradigmatic example of both OT theology and action in missions. Missions is not something found in the OT; it is part of the grand metanarrative of Scripture: redemptive history.

Carroll R., M. Daniel. “Biblical Perspectives on Migration and Mission: Contributions from the Old Testament,” in Mission Studies, 30 (2013:), 9-26.

Filbeck, David. Yes, God of the Gentiles, Too. Wheaton, IL: Wheaton College, 1994.

Hicks, W. Bryant. “Old Testament Foundations for Missions,” in Missiology, ed. John Mark Terry, Ebbie Smith, and Justice Anderson. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998, 51-62.

Kaiser, Walter C. “Israel’s Missionary Call,” in Perspectives, 4d, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009, 10-16.

Meek, James A. The Gentile Mission in Old Testament Citations in Acts. New York: T&T Clark, 2008.

Moreau, A. Scott, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee. Introducing World Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Ott, Craig, and Stephen J. Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Porter, Stanley E. “Scripture Justifies Mission: The Use of the Old Testament in Luke-Acts,” in Hearing the Old Testament in the New Testament, ed. Stanley E. Porter. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006, 104-26.

Verkuyl, Johannes. “The Biblical Foundation for the Worldwide Mission Mandate,” in Perspectives, 4d, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009, 42-48.

Wright, Christopher J. H. “Mission and Old Testament Interpretation,” in Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew and David J. H. Beldman. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012, 180-203.

[1] Craig Ott and Stephen J. Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), xi.

[2] Ibid., xix.

[3] A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World MissionsBaBaker Academic, 2004), 27.
[4] Ott and Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission, 6.

[5] Moreau, Corwin, and McGee, Introducing World Missions, 31.

[6] David Filbeck, Yes, God of the Gentiles, Too (Wheaton, IL: Wheaton College, 1994), 53.

[7] Ott and Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission, 6. They also go on to mention that this sacrifice for sins is only through the shedding of blood, also a very important theological point.

[8] Filbeck, Yes, God of the Gentiles, Too, 62.

[9] W. Bryant Hicks, “Old Testament Foundations for Missions,” in Missiology, ed. John Mark Terry, Ebbie Smith, and Justice Anderson (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 56.

[10] Johannes Verkuyl, “The Biblical Foundation for the Worldwide Mission Mandate,” in Perspectives, 4d, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), 44.

[11] Ibid., 47. It is worth noting that the people of Nineveh seem to be guessing as to whether or not forgiveness is really available to them (cf. 3:9), but modern-day readers have the benefit of theological hindsight.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Walter C. Kaiser, “Israel’s Missionary Call,” in Perspectives, 4d, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), 13.

[14] Ibid., 14.

[15] Christopher J. H. Wright, “Mission and Old Testament Interpretation,” in Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew and David J. H. Beldman (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), 185.

[16] Ott and Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission, 14.

[17] Ibid., 15.

[18] Ibid., 16.

[19] Wright, Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, 190.

[20] James A. Meek, The Gentile Mission in Old Testament Citations in Acts (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 127.

[21] Ibid., 128-29.

[22] Stanley E. Porter, “Scripture Justifies Mission: The Use of the Old Testament in Luke-Acts,” in Hearing the Old Testament in the New Testament, ed. Stanley E. Porter (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 120.

[23] Ibid., 122.

[24] Moreau, Corwin, and McGee, Introducing World Missions, 40.

[25] M. Daniel Carroll R., “Biblical Perspectives on Migration and Mission: Contributions from the Old Testament,” in Mission Studies, 30 (2013:), 11.

[26] Ibid., 17.

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