Old Testament Witness to the Church’s Mission
JUNE 4, 2022
By Greg Lanier
If the church of Christ is the end-time fullness of what the historical people of God were designed to be, then it should not surprise us that the New Testament (NT) frames the mission of the church using patterns established with Old Testament (OT) Israel.
Jesus himself states this principle in Luke 24:45–47. Focusing only on how the OT bears witness to the Messiah makes it easy to miss the equally important mission focus, which, in fact, is grammatically balanced with the christological focus. The verses break down as follows:
[Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them,
“Thus it is written,
→ that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,
→ and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:45–47)
According to Jesus, what is written in the Scriptures? Three things that are syntactically parallel (underlined above): (1) that the Christ would suffer, (2) that he would rise, and (3) that repentance/forgiveness should be proclaimed to all nations. Jesus then tells his apostles that they are “witnesses of these things” (24:48), establishing the gameplan for the book of Acts and, indeed, the mission of the church (cf. Matt. 28:19–20; Acts 1:8).
The message of the OT, per this Lukan “Great Commission,” is that the accomplishment of salvation in Christ and the proclamation of that salvation to the ends of the earth go hand-in-hand.
But Jesus does not cite anything specifically. What, then, lies behind his sweeping take on the OT roots of the mission of the church? In Romans 15:8–12, Paul gives us a starting point when he compiles a list of OT passages that illustrate how God’s intent was always that his saving work in Israel would reap a gospel harvest among the nations: Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1; and Isaiah 11:10. This missional “nations” theme is reflected in other key OT passages:
- Gen. 12:3, 17:4–5: All nations will be blessed through Abraham.
- Ps. 2:8: All nations will be the inheritance of the anointed King in Zion.
Ps. 22:27–28: All nations will worship the Lord, who is King over all.
- Isa. 2:1–4; Mic. 4:1–4: All nations will flow to Zion to learn the ways of God.
- Isa. 19:23–25: Israel, Egypt, and Assyria will worship together one day.
- Jer. 3:17–18: All nations will gather to God’s throne.
- Zech. 2:11: Many nations will come to the Lord and be his people.
- Zech. 8:20–23: People from every nation will grasp the robe of Jews to follow them to worship.
- Not all of these are explicitly cited/quoted in the NT, but they collectively lie underneath Jesus’s teaching in Luke 24.
One key passage that does, however, get specifically cited with reference to the church’s global mission is Isaiah 49:6, found in Paul’s speech in Acts 13.
Paul’s application of this servant-to-nations pattern of Isaiah 49:6 to his own ministry can be broadened when we see God call Israel itself the “servant” in Isaiah 49:3. If Israel is also God’s servant to reach the nations (per Isaiah), then we can follow Paul’s lead in extending this mission to the church (as eschatological Israel), who carries on what was begun centuries before. Paul reads Isaiah the same way at the end of Acts, where he cites Isaiah’s call (Isa. 6:9–10) as a pattern for his own mission and, ultimately, that of the church in taking the gospel to the nations (Acts 28:26–27).
From Genesis to Isaiah and beyond, we see God’s heart to extend salvation through Israel to the Gentile nations. This was not ultimately fulfilled by ancient Jews, who ended up defeated by and exiled among the nations, rather than blessing them. But in the church, as eschatological Israel, this mission is accomplished.
Indeed, this helps us connect some dots. Not only is the inclusion of Gentiles a redemptive-historical milestone and part of the church’s identity but it is also essential to the church’s ongoing mission to the whole world!
Content taken from Old Made New by Greg Lanier, ©2022. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, crossway.org.