Missions in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament often seems ponderous to read and difficult to understand. Its focus is on one relatively small and politically insignificant people - the Hebrews. How can one get inspiration and encouragement from the Old Testament for a New Testament vision for missions?

What is the New Testament vision for missions? Jesus said, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you" (John 20:21, NIV). Where is there anything like that in the Old Testament? Jesus also said, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20,NIV). But where is that in the Old Testament?

My appreciation of the Old Testament's vision for missions came to me slowly, but in the end very powerfully. It started in the oddest of places, the Psalms. "May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples justly and guide the nationsof the earth" (Psalm 67:3-4 NIV).

Then I noticed at least 16 psalms leading up to a key one, Psalms 67, with similar assertions about the "nations." It is as though the closer one gets to God in worship the more one perceives what is really in God's heart, and a major concern is the "nations." Do your prayers, like the prayers of the Psalmist, bring with them burdens for non-Christians and people from other nations?

I began to see that God has power over everything and everybody, so that when the word "God" is used in the Bible, the word "God" means "Lord of Everything and Everyone." The word "Lord" was packed with the meaning: "Lord-Over-Everyone." This is not to say that everyone knows God personally, but that everyone is known by God, and even guided by God in some mysterious way. In other words, God is not just the Lord of the Hebrews, God is also the Lord of all the nations, all the "peoples of the earth."

At Yale University, a visiting missionary and I were walking by Saybrook College, my dorm - about as godless a place on earth as I could imagine - and he shocked me by looking up at the ivy-covered walls and saying, "How wonderful that all this belongs to the Lord." Are there places in your life that you imagine God does not have control over?

A next step for me was reading Leviticus, another very unlikely place for discovering "missions" in the Old Testament. And here it becomes more personal. "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt" (Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV). The obvious parallel in the New Testament is Jesus', "Love your neighbor as yourself." Interesting that the demands of the Mosaic Law should be applied here to "outsiders" in the land of Israel. Can you think of any "outsiders" in your culture, especially the campus culture? Who is the most "outside"?

A final step for me was seeing the whole Old Testament in a new way - as a great open-air amphitheater in which God called his people (Israel) much like actors on a stage (the land of ancient Palestine). Their role was to obey God (through the law), so that the world could see God at work (miracles of deliverance, judgments for disobedience, etc.) and glorify him in their own settings (the nations). Occasionally God would raise up prophets among the nations (Jeremiah, Amos, Nahum) or literally "send out" a prophet as a witness (Jonah, Daniel, Esther), but mostly it was a drawing in of representatives of those nations, much as we "draw in" people to our "witnessing communities" on campus today.

In conclusion, look at Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Hebrews' first Temple in Jerusalem: "As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name - for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm - when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel . . ." (I Kings 8:41-43, NIV). Could there be some foreign seekers like this on your campus? If so, is there anything you can do about it?


This article originally appeared in Internationals on Campus, A Journal of the International Ministries of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

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