A Brief Overview of Missions in the Old Testament

Missions in the Old Testament, while intrinsically containing the same goal as missions in the New Testament, were different in critical areas.  God intended to bless the nations through the Abrahamic covenant according to Genesis 12:3 which reads, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Walter Kaiser Jr. argues that this text in Genesis 12:1-3 was “the first Great Commission mandate of the Bible.” 

Missions in the Old Testament was through the central location of Israel and the tabernacle, and eventually the temple. The people of Israel were supposed to be the missionaries. However, they often squandered their role as ambassadors of God to the world. Instead, it was the prophets that fulfilled these tasks, and they were sent to the unrepentant people of Israel.  Worse still, the people typically rejected and frequently killed the prophets.  Jesus refers to this in Matthew 23:37:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

The entire nation of Israel was to be mission-minded, but instead, they were self-centered.  God had chosen them to represent Him to the nations actively and they continually failed at their task.  Amidst this backdrop, only Jonah was sent to a foreign land to preach a message of repentance; otherwise, it was always Israel being told to repent. Even Jonah’s mission was utilized to display the hard-heartedness of Israel as the most “heinous” of nations was even brought to repentance by God.  The nation of Israel was supposed to be God’s light to the world. All who looked upon the nation would see God’s greatness and worship Him, but the people failed and became like all the other nations.  The rebellion of these people was climaxed in their murder of the Son of God, the very Messiah they longed for with great expectancy.  Isaiah 1:10-11 likens Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah; their sacrifices had become abominations, and they would be made deaf concerning the very message of repentance they were supposed to proclaim to the surrounding nations. 

The important parallel between Isaiah and the Gospel message is the reality that the Gospel is also used for condemnation.  Isaiah was not told that His message would bring repentance or restoration, as Jonah did.  On the contrary, Isaiah was told his message would seal the coming judgment of the people (Isaiah 6:8-13).  The time for judgment had come, and there was nothing that would stop the Lord from satisfying His holy wrath on those who rebelled against Him.  The reality of the two-fold purpose of the Gospel is important as we segue into the New Testament’s basis for biblical missions.

The transition to the New Covenant through the blood of Jesus Christ ushered in global missions. Traveling to a central location would be deemed unnecessary. Worship of God would no longer be tied to a central locale, but God could be worshiped by His people wherever and whenever as seen in John 4. Those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ are consecrated for the service of God, which would include consecration for worship. The primary qualification for Biblical worship can be found in Hebrews 12:28-29:

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

The children of God would go to the world in accordance with the Great Commission that Jesus ordered in Matthew 28:18-20:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

John Frame, in his systematic theology book, writes, “But the Great Commission must be the focus of everything the church does.  Indeed, it must be the focus of the life of every believer.  All that we do must be done so that the world may be filled with believers and that these believers may be subdued to obey all of God’s commands.”  Malachi 1:11 sums up this desire for the Lord to be declared through the world:

For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering.  For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.

The greatness of God is, as Piper says, is everyone’s greatest need, and true Christian missions seek to fill the need of the greatness of God in the hearts of all people.  The Great Commission is the central foundation of Christian missions for all ages. 

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