God’s Missionary Heart in the Old Testament

We often think God’s heart for the nations begins in the New Testament—but it starts from the earliest pages of Genesis.

You don’t have to go far in your life as a Christian before you encounter someone who thinks that the God of the Old Testament is mean, hard, and judgmental compared to Jesus, who is kind, loving, and forgiving in the New Testament.

Most of us familiar with our Bible, apologetics, and evangelism immediately recognize this is a wrong view of God and the Bible. Yet, far too many of us still believe a less severe version of this when we instinctively hold that God isn’t really concerned with the nations, evangelism, and the spread of the gospel until the New Testament.

We often read Scripture as if it is only in the New Testament where God finally becomes a missionary God, suddenly concerned with the whole world. The reality is that the same missionary heart we see in God in the New Testament is the same one that we find in the Old Testament. God is concerned with the spread of his name and his glory into all corners of creation, and the effect of God being proclaimed everywhere is the nations streaming to God.

God has always desired his fame and renown to be spread abroad so that all can come to him and enjoy a covenant relationship with him. Properly conceived, missions is as much a theme in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament. We can see this truth in four respects.

Humanity was always supposed to be God’s representative in the world

Even before humanity’s fall into sin, God’s goal was to spread his glory into all creation. The Garden of Eden was like a temple where God’s glory was heralded, and Adam was a king-priest who was to serve and keep it much like the priests of the tabernacle. Adam was the little king that the Great King, God, established to rule and subdue the creation. The little king makes God’s name great as he fulfills his role as God’s viceroy.

Adam failed to properly bear God’s image, but God’s plan did not stop. In Psalm 8, we find that God’s name is majestic in all the earth, and his glory is above the heavens (8:1, 8). At the very center of the Psalm, we see that God has established humanity (man, the “son of man”) in order to give them dominion over the creation and put all things under his feet. God makes his name great in a rightly ordered creation, with humanity at the apex.

Adam failed to properly bear God’s image, but God’s plan did not stop.

We serve God by representing him and his character to all creation. Human beings are to be a living witness to the living God before a watching world. Of course, the problem since the fall is human beings need redemption to be this witness. And so, according to Hebrews 2, Jesus fulfills Psalm 8. The Son brings many sons to glory (v. 10) and makes God’s glory and renown known through all creation.

Missions is the act of being God’s witness into the world to make his glory and renown known. In a world cursed by sin after humanity’s fall, we make God’s glory known by announcing that our God reigns and that the Lord Jesus has offered salvation to all who would trust in him. We are God’s living witnesses to the One who is bringing all things under him feet (Phil. 2:8-10; Heb. 2:6-9).

Israel was God’s treasured possession

God established the nation of Israel because of his covenant with Abram (Gen. 12:1-3). The goal was always to bless all the families of the earth (v. 3), so God called and established Israel to be his representative people. Consider the lodestone verse concerning Israel’s vocation:

“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Ex. 19:4-6 ESV)

God has made Israel special among the nations, not because of her righteousness (Deut. 9:5-6), but because of his grace. Yet he still called them to be witnesses. They were a kingdom of priests. What the Levites were within the nation of Israel—special and set apart as representatives—so Israel was to all the nations.

Too often we wrongly read this as though God was only concerned with saving Israelites in the Old Testament. But when Israel was living faithfully in covenant communion with God, she was a light to the nations. Priests minister before God on behalf of others. The entire nation of Israel was to be kingly and priestly in her representation. The nation following God’s law would be image-bearers of God, a nation of little kingly Adams, mediating God to the entire world. The whole nation was to be one giant missions organization.

Israel was the firstfruits of the nations

We should not read God’s call of Israel as if it stopped there. Israel was not God’s chosen people to the exclusion of everyone else. As we see, God calls Israel so that the nation might be the vehicle through whom he blesses the nations.

Jeremiah 2:3a says “Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest.” The image of a firstfruits means that there is a larger harvest. Israel was the advance guard coming in as part of God’s redemptive plan to redeem people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Israel is also described as God’s firstborn son (Ex. 4:22). She is God’s chosen possession, a treasured people who would be the heir. But as the other nations would come to God, they would be “sons.”

Consider the Davidic King in the Old Testament. He was the firstborn son within the nation (Ps. 89:27), but the other Israelites were also sons of God. So also, Israel was the kingly son—ruling, as it were, the nations as firstborn. The rest of the harvest meant that other nations would experience the salvific and redemptive benefits from God when Israel was obedient to her call. Paul’s thought in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is first to the Jew and then to the Gentile is not a new thought only for the New Testament.

We should not read God’s call of Israel as if it stopped there. Israel was not God’s chosen people to the exclusion of everyone else.

Today, the Messiah Jesus, the Davidic King, rules over all creation (Eph. 1:20-21; Heb. 1:3-5, 13; 2:6-9). He is the fulfillment of the promises. People from every tongue, tribe, and nation are coming to the living and true God because the King is on his throne (Ps. 2:6-8; Psalm 110:1; Acts 28:28; Rev. 5:9).

When Israel was being Israel, the nations would see who God was

The narrative of the Old Testament is punctuated with stories of Gentiles who come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. These stories serve at least two purposes.

First, they demonstrate God’s missionary heart for the nations; the lost are coming to the living and true God. Second, the fact that they are infrequent reminds us that Israel never truly fulfilled her role; only the true and coming King could take upon himself this mantle of being a light to the nations. The Messiah would not only be the Redeemer but the perfect missionary representative of God.

Moving back to the narrative of the Old Testament, consider briefly just a few of the Gentiles along the way who come to saving faith.

Rahab: She forsakes her city and her gods to turn to the living God. She hears of God’s renown, and she believes: “for the Lord your God, he is the God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:12).

Ruth: She forsakes her land, her biological family, and her gods when she pledges herself not only to Naomi but also to Naomi’s God as she makes a vow of covenant allegiance and saving faith. “But Ruth said, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God my God’” (Ruth 1:16).

The Queen of Sheba: During the height of Solomon’s kingdom, the glory and renown of Israel spreads through the known world. It causes the nations to stream to Zion. The Queen of Sheba comes because she wants to meet Solomon and, in the process, she comes to know God. She comes because she “heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD” (1 Kings 10:1). She exalts the living and true God: “Blessed be the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the LORD loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness” (1 Kings 10:9). If we pay attention to the whole of Scripture, “justice and righteousness” are attributes of God and his kingship, and so to see them in Solomon is to see an image-bearer. The Queen of Sheba has just acknowledged God’s love and covenant faithfulness.

Even in Israel’s darkest days when she is filled with unbelievers, we see that God is still working among the Gentiles from the nations.

  • Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s first husband, had come to serve Israel’s king, and by serving David as the Lord’s anointed he presumably had turned to the living God.
  • During Elisha’s day, the Shunammite woman honors the prophet and his God (2 Kings 4).
  • In Jeremiah’s day, when there was no faith in Israel, we find Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian, as the only one willing to stand up for Jeremiah, the prophet of God (Jer. 38:7-13). At the very least, the narrative punctuates the Ethiopian eunuch as being on the right side of history.

There is much more we could say about God’s missionary heart in the Old Testament. But ask this question: Do you believe that God and the Lord Jesus are the same yesterday, today, and forever? The same God with the same heart for the nations is found in both the Old and the New Testaments of our one Bible.

When was the last time you read your Old Testament? When was the last time you, your pastor, or a missionary speaker opened the Bible and found the adventure of missions written in the pages of the Old Testament? Let’s pick up and read our Bibles with fresh eyes to see what has always been there.

Tim Bertolet

Tim Bertolet serves with ABWE as Director of Instructional Design and Theological Education. He’s served in pastoral ministry for sixteen years and knows the life of an MK firsthand. With a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of Pretoria, and degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Lancaster Bible College, he specializes in Bible and theology and is passionate about applying it to life and ministry. Tim’s also an adjunct professor, research fellow with BibleMesh, and a published author. Tim lives in York, Pa. with his wife and kids. He enjoys reading, writing, science fiction, and gardening roses.