The Missionary God of the Old Testament
When we think of missions, we usually think of the Great Commission first, about going into all the world and preaching the gospel (Matt. 28:19-20). Yet we need to understand the Old Testament and to see the Great Commission not as something radically new, but as something that fulfils what was promised beforehand. Alec Motyer writes: ‘Old Testament history is one long cry for something better.’ So it is – a better king, better promises, a better sacrifice, a greater covenant, a greater people, a better land. The Old Testament stands on tip-toe, as it were, looking ahead, to the fulfilment of all its promises (1 Pet. 1:10-11, Heb. 11:1-13, 39-40).
The God of the Bible Is the Creator of the Whole World
Genesis 1:1 has missionary implications. God is Lord over all the earth because he is the Creator of the whole earth. Therefore, he is not a tribal god, ruling over one tribe or nation. The Greeks probably had something like 30,000 gods, and Athens was reputed to have more gods than men. The Babylonians – to cite another example – saw Marduk as the god who led a pantheon of about 4,000 gods, but there is a real sense in which Yahweh (‘I AM WHO I AM’) is the God of Babylon. This is not meant in a saving sense but in the sense that the Babylonians were accountable to him alone. So too are all the nations. God is the God of all the earth.
Hence we read that the whole earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Psa. 24:1). The God of Israel is the great King of all the earth (Psa. 47:2, 7). The pagan nations would answer, not to their own gods as they supposed, but to the God of Israel (e.g. Amos 1-2, Isa.13-23, Ezek. 25-32). Yet at the same time strangers in Israel were protected by God’s law (e.g., Lev. 19:33-34). Yahweh is never portrayed as a God whose only interests are those of Israel. When David confronted Goliath, he declared that the giant’s death would mean that ‘all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel’ (1 Sam.17:46). The fact that God is the Creator of the world means that he is the Ruler and Judge of the world, and that all the world stands in relationship with him.
God Planned to Reach the Other Nations in a Saving Way
When God called Abram, he said that he would make him a great nation (Gen. 12:2) and that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). Right from the beginning, the Old Testament looks to the calling in of the Gentiles. Psalm 67 is most missionary minded:
God be merciful to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us, that Your way may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. Psalm 67:1-2
Israel was to be a light to the nations that God’s salvation might reach to the ends of the earth (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). Gentiles were envisaged as coming to worship God in his temple. As early as Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, there is a concern for the Gentiles:
Moreover, concerning a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but who comes from a far country for the sake of Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm, when they come and pray in this temple; then hear from heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, that all peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this temple which I have built is called by Your name. 2 Chronicles 6:32-33; see also 1 Kings 8:41-43
The temple was to be a house of prayer for all peoples (Isa. 56:6-7). There are many places in the Old Testament where God pushes out the boundaries of his saving work to embrace Gentiles: Rahab was a Canaanite, yet became an ancestor of Jesus; Ruth was a Moabitess, but became an ancestor of King David, and ultimately of Jesus himself; the widow at Zarephath looked after Elijah (1 Kings 17:9-24, Luke 4:25-26); Naaman the Syrian commander was healed of leprosy (2 Kings 5, Luke 4:27); and Jonah’s mission, reluctantly undertaken as it was on Jonah’s part, was a mission to Nineveh. Even the Pharisees could be missionary-minded, albeit without the gospel of grace (Matt. 23:15).
God’s Messiah Would Come to All of the World
The Old Testament prophesied that a divine King would come from the tribe of Judah to rule not just Israel but the world (Psa. 2, 22, 45, 72, 89, 110, Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 23:5-6). In the latter days, the days of the Messiah, the kingdom of God would include not only Jews but Gentiles too (Isa. 2:2-3, Jer. 3:17, Dan. 2:44-45). We also are told that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14, Isa. 11:9). The incense of praise will be offered from every place (Mal. 1:11). The appeal thus goes out to all the world:
Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other. Isaiah 45:22
What we find in all its fullness in the New Testament is already present in embryonic form in the Old Testament. God’s call to all to repent and believe the gospel of his Son is a thread running through the whole Bible. The God we worship is a missionary God. So we too need to be prayerfully and intelligently concerned for God’s kingdom across the entire world.