The Basis of Missions in the Old Testament

The gathering of over 14,000 students here is an indication to the world of Christian students' concern about evangelism and missions as an expression of their obedience to the Lord's Great Commission. This convention is a tremendous encouragement as well as a challenge to Christians all over the world. You have come here to study evangelism and missions, but more important to find out God's will for your life. I pray that this convention will be an instrument in the hands of Almighty God for the reinforcement of the missionary cause in the whole world.

The theme of my messages is "The Biblical Basis of Missions." I divide this theme into four subtitles: first, the basis of missions in the Old Testament; second, the basis of missions in the Gospels (that is, Christ and missions); third, the basis of missions in Acts (that is, the Holy Spirit and missions); and fourth, the basis of missions in the Epistles (that is, the church and missions). Now we take up the first subtitle: The Basis of Missions in the Old Testament.

God's Calling to Abraham

The Bible is the record of a mission: the divine mission of saving the human race carried out by the Triune God and his commissioned people. The history of the people of Israel is the history of a mission. The record of the corporate mission of the people of Israel began with the fascinating story of a personal mission - the mission of Abraham.

The burden of Abraham's mission is clearly stated in God's calling to him: "I will bless thee ... and thou shalt be a blessing: ... and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:2-3). That was a great mission - the mission of blessing the whole world! Abraham became a great missioner, or missionary. God called Abraham and he responded in faith. He left behind his old way of life and started the pilgrimage of a heavenly errand.

Abraham is called the father of faith, but his faith was a means to an end and that end was a mission. Faith by itself is without content. In the life of Abraham, faith was required of him because the carrying out of his mission was often met with hindrances and difficulties which could be overcome only by faith in God, the originator of the mission.

God's calling to Abraham also applies to his descendants, for God said to Abraham, "in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:18). The word seed has a threefold reference. In the first place, it refers to the people of Israel, for God said to Abraham, "I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore" (Gen. 22:17). God's purpose in raising up the nation of Israel was to show the world through its history his way of salvation and thereby to bring all the nations of the world to enjoy his blessings.

In the second place, the word seed refers to Jesus Christ. All heavenly blessings have come to us through Jesus Christ, as Paul tells us in the opening verses of his Epistle to the Ephesians. In the third place, the word seed refers to Christians, who are called by Paul the spiritual children of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). The apostle Peter has made it very clear to us that we Christians are called by God to the great task of blessing others (1 Pet. 3:9), which is our mission. Christians are missionaries. We cannot be true Christians without being missionaries.

We are here at this convention to realize that we are all commissioned by God for the great mission of taking God's blessings to the whole world. None of us can rightfully excuse himself from this important mission.

So Abraham's mission passed on to his descendants. God's calling to Abraham was also given to his son Isaac:

And the LORD appeared unto him [Isaac], and said ... I will bless thee ... and I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father ... and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.

Genesis 26:2-4

It was also given to Jacob:

And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said [to Jacob], I am the LORD God of Abraham and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

Genesis 28:13-14

This line of thought does not stop here. Through the mouth of Jacob, a great blessing was given to Joseph, who was the next link in the line of this mission: "Joseph is a fruitful bough ... whose branches run over the wall" (Gen. 49:22). What a beautiful metaphor for a vessel of blessing!

We can, therefore, say that the spiritual trademark of the patriarchs, or forefathers, of the Israelites was "Blessed to Bless."

Then this note of mission suddenly disappeared from the time of Moses onward when the people of Israel were engaged in a desperate struggle to survive and to maintain their faith in Jehovah. The general tone of this period naturally and necessarily became one of separation from other nations in order to keep their heads above the water of the influence of heathen corruption and degeneration. They were in great danger of losing their spiritual identities and of being carried away by the flood of conformity to the prevailing lifestyle of their immediate neighbors.

This historical background provides us with the light in which to see the need for both the positive and negative aspects of the Christian life: positive - to be a means of blessing to other people; negative - to be kept from drifting into conformity to the world, which in its principles is opposed to our mission of blessing others. These two aspects make up the divine balance which we must maintain in order to travel on the right path.

The Teaching of the Prophets

Then time came for God to remind his people again of their mission. God did it through the prophets. In the utterances of the prophets we again see the people of Israel in the hand of God as a vessel of blessing for the whole world. Their mission was definitely and clearly to go beyond their national lines and aim at bringing all nations to a true knowledge of God.

The teaching of the prophets tells us at least three things that have to do with missions: first, the universality of God's claim; second, the universality of God's plan of salvation; third, the universality of the Messianic kingdom.

The Universality of God's Claim

The absolute and universal claim of God is most clearly, definitely and fully set forth in one single chapter in the Old Testament - Isaiah 45, one of the most significant chapters of the whole Bible. We find at least eight claims of God in this chapter.

First, Jehovah is the only God. This claim is repeated nine times in Isaiah 45 (see vv. 5-6, 14, 18, 21-22). This God must be proclaimed, acknowledged and worshiped in all the world.

Second, Jehovah is the God of creation: "the LORD that created the heavens ... that formed the earth and made it..." (v. 18). The whole creation declares the glory of its creator. His universal lordship and ownership should be announced everywhere.

Third, Jehovah is the God of the human race: "I have made the earth, and created man upon it" (v. 12). The whole human race belongs to God by virtue of creation. This fact must be made known to all men.

Fourth, Jehovah is the God of moral order, therefore of judgment: "Let the skies pour down righteousness ... I the LORD have created it" (v. 8). There is only one moral order in the world and that is the order established by God. And he is therefore the only judge.

Fifth, Jehovah is the God of history: "Ask me of things to come" (v. 11). "Who hath declared this from ancient time? Have not I the LORD?" (v. 21). God shapes the history of mankind and directs it toward the final fulfillment of his plan. This is the biblical philosophy of history, which lends great support to world evangelization.

Sixth, Jehovah is the God of revelation: "I have not spoken in secret" (v. 19). God has not left the knowledge of him to the secrecy of the subtle reasonings of the wise, but has manifested it through the prophets for all men.

Seventh, Jehovah is the God of salvation for all men: "Look unto me, andbe ye saved, all the ends of the earth" (v. 22).

Eighth, Jehovah is the Lord of all men: "Unto me every knee shall bow" (v. 23).

This is a microscopic presentation of almost the whole of Christian doctrine. All these universal claims of God require
worldwide action in evangelism and missions.

The Universality of God's Plan of Salvation

In the minds of many of the prophets, the scope of God's plan of salvation certainly went beyond Israel and included the Gentiles. The prophet Isaiah said, "Neither let the son of the stranger that hath joined himself to the LORD speak, saying, the LORD hath utterly separated me from his people" (Is. 56:3). The prophet Zephaniah prophesied that all nations will call upon the name of God: "I will give to the people purified lips that all of them may call on the name of the LORD" (Zeph. 3:9).

The concept of purification was no longer exclusive with the people of Israel. The prophet Malachi made it clear that the right of worshiping God was going to be bestowed upon the Gentiles: "From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering ... saith the LORD of hosts" (Mal. 1: 11).

The development of the concept of the universality of God's plan of salvation in the prophecies of the Old Testament can be arranged in the following order of degree:

First, the title of the people of God will be widened in its application to include all nations who were at one time "strangers." The prophet Hosea said, "I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God" (Hos. 2:23).

Second, the once closed house of God will be opened to all nations, who will rejoice with the people of Israel in the praise of God. The house of worship will no longer be the peculiar privilege of the chosen people. It was against this background that the prophet Isaiah said, "His rest [house] shall be glorious" (Is. 11:10).

Third, the Messiah's flag of love and protection will be flung over all nations. He will no longer be a national savior but Savior and King of the whole earth. The prophet Isaiah declared that "there shall be a root of Jesse [Messiah], which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek" (Is. 11:10).

Fourth, nations will be partakers of God's forgiveness of sin. The grace of purification will be granted to the Gentiles as much as to the people of Israel. The prophet Isaiah said, "And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all the people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces. And the rebuke of his people shall be taken away from off all the earth ... for the LORD hath spoken it" (Is. 25:7-8). The redeemed people of all nations will commune with God with clean lips.

Fifth, the Gentiles will turn away from their ways of iniquity and glorify God (Is. 66:19).

Sixth, people of the ends of the earth will be taught of God's truth: "And the isles shall wait for his law" (Is. 42:4).

Seventh, the redeemed of God in the whole world will walk in the light of God: "I will make my judgment to rest for a light of the people [Gentiles]" (Is. 51:4).

Eighth, not only will the Gentiles join the people of God but they also will be found in the leadership of the people of God: They will be priests and Levites. "I will also take of them [Gentiles] for priests and for Levites, saith the LORD" (Is. 66:21). This concept was far too advanced for the average Israelite to understand.

All this was going to be done through the instrumentality of the people of God. It was the prophet Zechariah who used the clearest words to delineate the mission of Israel. He said, "It shall come to pass, that as ye were a curse among the heathen, O house of Judah, and house of Israel; so will I save you, and ye shall be a blessing" (Zech. 8:13).

Zechariah pointed out the failure of Israel: They were a curse. How miserably they failed in their mission! But God did not give them up; he was going to save them and help them carry out their mission - to be a blessing to the whole world.

The Universality of the Messianic Kingdom

The concept of the Messianic kingdom is essential and central in the Old Testament prophecies. Again, the scope of this kingdom far transcends the boundaries of Israel. The idea of mission is intrinsically present in the universality of the Messianic kingdom. I am going to mention three things about the Messianic kingdom: the King, the capital and the dominion.

The Messianic King

There are two different ideas of the Servant of God in Isaiah: the corporate idea and the individual idea. The former refers to the people of Israel and the latter refers to the Messianic King. The latter is hidden in the former, but the two are clearly distinct from each other. The Jews only recognize the former. They emphasize the former at the expense of the latter. That is why they did not recognize Christ when he came to the world. Both are inseparably bound up with the concept of missions.

The Servant of God was entrusted with the mission of bringing the nations to know God and enjoy his blessings. On the other hand, the Messianic King as the servant and missioner is a most significant and profound concept in the sublime prophecies of Isaiah, and it is one of the wonders of God's plan of salvation. The Messianic King had a mission the fulfillment of which involves suffering and sacrifice on his part. As the Servant, the King's "visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men" (Is. 52:14).

The prophet Isaiah also emphatically pointed out that the sufferings of this Servant-King "sprinkle many nations," which means that the efficacy of his sacrifice reaches the whole world. The Messiah is King-Servant-Prophet. His role as prophet is by no means the slightest of his offices:

He shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high ... Kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

Isaiah 52:13-15

To the Gentiles the Messiah will be their light-the light of truth, wisdom and judgment. This light was to be sent to the ends of the earth by the people of God.

The Messiah will be ruler of all nations. His kingdom will cover the whole earth. God said,

Behold, I have given him [the Davidic King] for a witness to the people, a leader and commander to the people. Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest now, and nations that knew not thee shall run unto thee because of the LORD thy God

Isaiah 55:4-5

It is clearly pointed out here that the Messiah will be King of Nations, not merely King of Israel. The lordship of this King should be proclaimed throughout the width and breadth of the globe through evangelism and missions.

The Capital of the Messianic Kingdom

Jerusalem as the capital of the Messianic kingdom will be the center of blessing for the whole world. Psalm 87 presents to us a precious and beautiful picture of the world significance of Jerusalem:

The LORD loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob ... I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; this man was born there [in Jerusalem]. And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her.

Psalms 87:2-5

This means that Zion, or Jerusalem, is the spiritual fatherland of many Gentile peoples. Then the psalmist goes on to describe the joy and blessings of the sons and daughters of Jerusalem: "As well the singers as the players on instruments shall be there [and they shall say]: all my springs [of joy] are in thee [Jerusalem]" (Ps. 87:7). The prophet Isaiah sings of Jerusalem as the center of Messianic blessings: The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising" (Is. 60:3).

The Dominion of the Messianic Kingdom

The prophet Zechariah cries in prophecy,

Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.... His dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.

Zechariah 9:9-10

Evidently this wonderful prophecy has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who entered Jerusalem on a colt and whose spiritual dominion is from sea to sea, even to the ends of the earth. All this has been brought about by God through missions. Even as God has done it in the past, he is doing it at the present time.

The Prophets' Missionary Visions

In the prophetic books of the Old Testament, we find eschatological images of the final fulfillment of God's plan of salvation. These images are wonderful missionary visions: (1) the vision of a sea filled with the water of the knowledge of the glory of God (Hab. 2:14); (2) the vision of tamed wild beasts living together in peace - the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf with the lion (Is. 11:6); (3) the vision of a rich feast on top of the mountain of the Lord (Is. 25:6); (4) the vision of the house of God raised above all mountains with people of all nations flowing to it (Is. 2:2).

These four visions represent four precious ideas: the knowledge of the truth of God spreading to the ends of the earth; the peace and love of God prevailing in the whole world over hatred and war; all nations invited to the feast of the rich grace of God; the presence of God in all races of mankind. This is the inspired ideal of the prophets, which will one day be fulfilled when the King comes back. But before the leading to the coming of the King, you and I have the privilege of carrying out the mission of blessing to the ends of the world.

Crises in the History of Israel Regarding Israel's Mission

The First Crisis: Abraham's Haran

Let us begin with Abraham. Abraham, as great as he was in faith, had his failure. He stopped short of God's calling when he discontinued his journey at Haran, halfway between his native country and the land where God wanted him to go. But, thanks to God, he only stopped there for a limited period of time. God called him again and he rose and pressed on. In regard to Abraham's experience, let us notice two things which are of special importance.

In the first place, God asked him to get out of his own country, and from his kindred, and from his father's house, to a land he would show him (Gen. 12:1). That was an absolute condition which Abraham had to fulfill before he could reach a place where he was blessed and became a blessing to others.

We are reminded here that we must be willing to make a radical departure from our accustomed way of life (which is so natural and so easy on our self-centeredness) and move on to a new path of life which is rightly called "the land of milk and honey" because it is spiritually fruitful.

Abraham was faced with a tremendous choice - a choice on which hung not only his destiny but also the destiny of a nation and, indeed, the destiny of the whole world. It was a most serious crisis. Abraham made the right choice and obeyed the call of God.

The change of his name from Abram to Abraham is a beautiful symbol of the transformation that took place in his life. Abram means "exalted father," but Abraham means "father of nations." This change of name indicates that the center of Abraham's life moved from himself to his relationship with others.

Abraham's offering of his only beloved son as a sacrifice to God was the peak of his life of self-negation. Immediately following this selfless act, God reiterated his great promise to him: "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:16-18). In the second place, there were at least two conditions which Abraham had to fulfill before he could accept the call of God and become a vessel of blessing.

The first condition was that Abraham must understand that his own blessing and the blessing of other people are linked together as one thing. They can never be separated; he could not take the one and leave the other. The two form one organic whole. Abraham did understand this twofold nature of the call of God, and he obeyed. God always hides his blessings for us in our willingness to be a blessing to others. God hides his love in his commandment. God hides his rich rewards in our obedience. God hides his best treasures in a self-denying life. God's ways are higher than our ways. Christ says,

Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, Pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.

Luke 6:38

The second condition was that Abraham must have faith before he could accept the call of God to be a blessing because trial and hardship are involved in such a life. Many times in his life things seemed to go against the promises of God. God's promises to him had to do with three things: his seed, the promised land and the nations. But he was greatly tried in all these three aspects.

God promised to give him the land of Canaan, but he arrived there only to find it already occupied by others; God promised to give him a son, but he had to wait for twenty-five years; God promised that he would be a blessing to nations, but he actually brought trouble to the land of Gerar (Gen. 20:1). In view of all this, he simply had to have faith before he could stand firm in the face of all these trials. Today we, too, must have faith before we can have victory over all the forces that assemble to drive us away from the path of blessing.

The Second Crisis: Wandering in the Wilderness

The second great crisis in the history of Israel rose when the Israelites began their wandering in the wilderness. They had crossed the Red Sea and had been delivered from the land of slavery. But that was only the beginning of their salvation. They were saved, but saved for what? Certainly they were not saved in order to wander in the wilderness. They were wandering away their lives. What a tragedy! Unless they stopped wandering and crossed the River Jordan, their salvation from Egypt would be contentless. They would never inherit the Land of Promise and fulfill God's plan.

They wandered for forty years in the wilderness; they squandered away most of the years of their lives in barrenness of life. What a heartache! The wandering life is a life without goal and purpose. It never gets anywhere. It will end in bitter emptiness.
But the grace of God did not fail. There were Joshua and Caleb and those who followed them in crossing the River Jordan, and they inherited the Land of Promise.

The Third Crisis: The Election of Man as King in Place of God

The third crisis in the history of Israel took place when the people faced the issue of choosing between Jehovah and man as their king. At this most critical hour, they made the tragic decision of enthroning man instead of God. Man taking the place of God always results in self-centeredness, which is the root of all sin and miseries. When man rebels against God, he in fact rebels against his own good. In rejecting the rule of God, man takes the only alternative left for him - the alternative of falling under the tyranny of self.

The situation of man today is essentially the same as 3,000 years ago when the people of Israel made their tragic mistake. Modern man is trying his best to get rid of God, and he has indeed set up his own kings under whose reign he suffers merciless slavery. There is the king of sex, the king of drugs, the king of violence, the king of meaninglessness of life. Man has become a curse and a burden to himself as well as to others, instead of a blessing.

Today, under the cloak of freedom, man is suffering slavery. One of the popular slogans today is that man has come of age and no longer needs God. Yes, God is dead and man is free - free to fall under the yoke of standardless subjectivism and self-centeredness, which promises to become the worst tyranny known yet.

The Fourth Crisis: Fleeing from the Errand of Peace

God in his grace planned to save the people of the Gentile city of Nineveh, and he revealed his mind to Jonah. God commissioned Jonah as a missionary to take the message of reconciliation to Nineveh, but, being preoccupied by a narrow and misled patriotism, Jonah fled away from his mission and went to Tarshish instead of Nineveh. This attitude on the part of Jonah shows how ignorant the people of Israel were about their mission. It seems that by this time in the history of the chosen people, the significance of God's calling to Abraham had more or less completely gone out of their minds. It is a great tragedy that Jonah as a prophet should have lost sight of the main purpose of all God's plan.

Jonah was a man of contradictions: His name Jonah means a dove, which is symbolic of peace, yet he refused to be a messenger of peace; he was a prophet who should understand the will of God, obey it and help others obey it, yet he acted contrary to the explicit commandment of God; he told the people on board the boat that he knew Jehovah, who was the Lord of heaven and earth, yet he would not allow Jehovah to be the Lord of his own life; he said that he knew the love of God, yet he acted as if the love of God were nonexistent.

God graciously intervened, and Jonah learned a great lesson through Suffering. But he did not really learn the lesson well until he saw the heart of God as recorded in the fourth chapter of Jonah. In this light, we can easily see that the book of Jonah is one of the greatest books of the Bible because it picked up the lost thread of Israel's mission.

It seems that suffering is almost indispensable in the hand of God as a corrective measure for his constantly erring people both in the Old Testament and in the New. As we all well remember, the early church began to spread the gospel outside Jerusalem when it was persecuted. Does outreach have to come in that way? Do we have to suffer before we obey the will of God?

The Fifth Crisis: Tower-building instead of Bridge-building

In the minds of David and Solomon the building of the Temple was meant to be a bridge - a bridge for making known the grace and truth of God to the whole world. Solomon, in his dedication prayer for the Temple, definitely included the Gentiles in the recipients of blessings from the house of God (2 Chron. :32-33).

But to the people of Israel this bridge became a tower - the tower of national pride. The Bible tells us that following man's estrangement from God, he began to be interested in tower-building, of which the Tower of Babel was the prototype. Man wants to exalt and glorify himself by building himself towers of fame. As a result, there are so many high towers that the view of Calvary is completely blocked out. There are so many tower-builders and so few bridge-builders that God has a hard time in finding people who are willing to be blessing-bearers. In the history of Israel, the Temple became more of a symbol of national self-centeredness than of blessing to others. Are we tower-builders or bridge-builders?

The Sixth Crisis: Dissociation of Election from Its Purpose

The people of Israel were proud of their election as the chosen people of God, but they forgot they were elected for a purpose, the purpose of blessing the whole world through them. They took the privilege of election and laid aside its purpose. This was a fatal dissociation which hindered the plan of God. As a matter of fact, the people of Israel were laid aside by God because they laid aside their mission.

The apostle Paul has made it clear to us in Romans 11 that the people of Israel lost their privilege exactly because of this failure and that God, in his infinite wisdom, made use of their failure to bless the whole world by putting the church in their place. Shall we commit the same fatal mistake? If we believe that we as Christians are the elect people of God, shall we, too, take the privilege and lay aside the responsibility?

When the apostle Paul talked about predestination, he did so against a background of active evangelism. The biblical doctrine of predestination is not merely the statement that some people are preordained by God to eternal life, but it is that statement plus active evangelism which is its living context. Truth taken out of its living context is no longer truth. The doctrine of election as related to the people of Israel and the doctrine of predestination as related to Christians have one basic thing in common, namely, both of them mean election and mission.

The Seventh Crisis: Esther's Great Decision

The destiny of the Israelite people hinged on Esther's decision - whether she chose to care for her own privilege and pleasure in the Persian palace or preferred risking her life for the good of her people. It was only too easy for her to decide on the former, as we often do, but the strong and resolute voice of one man of God influenced her and guided her thinking, and she made the right decision.

Her soul was shaken by the challenge of Mordecai: "And who knowest whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this" (Esther 4:14)? She began to think of her responsibility in the light of her privileged position as queen of the empire, and that altered the whole fate of the people of Israel.

Yes, it is not exaggerating to say that the average Christian's having a right understanding of the balance between privilege and responsibility and acting thereupon will change the whole course of the church of Christ today. Thank God for having graciously raised up a Mordecian voice of warning and challenge for every generation so that all Christians may be reminded of their mission.

I think I am justified in saying that this convention is a major force in the movings of God along the line of carrying out his worldwide mission. May God raise up many missioners in this convention to further his mission of blessing near and far.