Why Abraham Was the First Missionary

When God promised to bless the nations through Abraham’s offspring, he was commissioning the patriarch as a missionary.

Do you remember in childhood Sunday school singing the song “Father Abraham”?

It is simple, and many of us have sung it while waiving our right arm, left arm, and stomping our feet. But the reality is that while we are singing that song to praise the Lord, there is a rich biblical theology behind it.

Equally, as you sing it, you are recognizing that you have benefited from the missionary task. Unless you have Jewish heritage, Abraham is not your physical father, yet you and I are one of the peoples from many nations that God has promised to bless in Abraham.

God Makes His Promise to Abraham

Let’s a take a look at the Abrahamic promise:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 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. (Gen. 12:1-3)

God comes to Abram and promises to make him a great nation. In Genesis 15, we find out that he still does not have a son to inherit, and he is about to make his most trusted servant an heir. But God reminds him of his promise and assures Abram he will give Abram a son. God will make Abram’s descendants as numerous as the sands of the sea. Hearing the word of promise, Abram believes God and it is counted as righteousness. Abram is declared righteous by faith alone—a core component to the gospel.

Hearing the word of promise, Abram believes God and it is counted as righteousness. Abram is declared righteous by faith alone—a core component to the gospel.

But sometimes, we too quickly read over the narrative, Abram is to become a blessing for the nations. Other people from outside of a physical lineage will be blessed because of Abram. Genesis 12 finishes with Abram in Egypt. Abram foolishly and sinfully lets Pharaoh take his wife into his house. It is an act of unbelief, as he doesn’t completely trust God’s protection and that God would curse the Pharaoh if he dishonors Abram. While Abram is in part to blame, when Pharaoh dishonors Abram by taking Sarai (although not sexually), the Lord afflicts Pharaoh’s house with plagues (Gen. 12:17). God shows he is true to his word. Later, in chapter 14, we have a Gentile king who is a priest of the LORD, Melchizedek, who blesses Abram and Abram’s God (Gen. 14:19-20). Again, it is the outworking of Genesis 12:2-3. Abraham is a blessing to others and blessed by those of other nations.

God Keeps His Promise in the Nation of Israel

Later in the book of Numbers, when Israel is wandering in the wilderness, we have the crucial events of magician Balaam and his donkey. Many of us probably remember the story and some of us can even remember seeing the childhood flannelgraphs from when we first learned it. Yet, we often see this story in isolation from the Old Testament narrative. It connects to Genesis 12:1-3. When someone wants to curse God’s people, they themselves end up with the curse. God’s people get a blessing. Look at what Balak says as he seeks to hire Balaam’s services:

Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (Num. 22:6)

This language clearly echoes what God promises in Genesis 12:3. Even a donkey knows that only God has the true power to curse and bless, and you cannot stand contrary to God’s purposes. Abraham and now Israel are used by God in the world to bless the nations. Balak should have been welcoming them and blessing them. As God tells Balaam “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Num. 22:12). In the four oracles of Balaam, a pagan blesses the living God and blesses God’s people. Consider the following:

Behold, I received a command to bless: he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The LORD their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox. For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, “What has God wrought!” (Num. 23:20–23)

Then in the fourth and final oracle, Balaam makes a promise concerning the Messiah:

[T]he oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities! (Num. 24:16–19)

There are so many details in these few verses. A king, a star and scepter, will come from Israel. He will crust the forehead of Moab, echoing Genesis 3:15 crushing not so much the physical nation but those who spiritually align with the serpent. The nation of Israel is, in her king, exercising dominion, a fulfillment of humanity’s destiny from Genesis 1:26-28 but also the triumph of the Messiah (Ps. 2, 72, 89, 110, etc.). All of these promises are funneled through and fulfilled as an outworking of Genesis 12:1-3. The star from Jacob, the scepter of Israel, is the true blessing to the nations, or a one who enacts judgment curses on those who curse him (Ps. 2, esp. vv. 1-5, 9-12).

God Fulfills His Promise in Christ

This has everything to do with missions. As we know, the gospel is going to the nations right now. The Abrahamic blessing is being poured out around the world. As Paul tells us, the gospel and the Holy Spirit coming to the nation is the fulfillment of Genesis 12:3. Paul is absolutely convinced of it because he has seen the risen Messiah on his throne in glory crowned with dominion over all things.

As we know, the gospel is going to the nations right now. The Abrahamic blessing is being poured out around the world.

Consider Paul’s words in Galatians:

Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? [Gen. 15:6] Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” [Gen. 12:3] So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal. 3:5-9)

…so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:14)

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring [Gen. 12:7]. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Gal. 3:16)

As Paul engages in his missions work and plants churches, he is announcing that Jesus Christ is the Savior Messiah. The Messiah is the Lord who is crowned in resurrected glory (Rom. 1:3-4; 1 Cor. 15:1-4, 20, et al.). Gentiles are believing this message. They are being saved. In their faith, they are justified. The same righteous verdict declared on the Son in his resurrection is now reckoned on to the believer. Thus, salvation is in Christ alone and received by faith alone. These Gentiles are full brothers and sisters in Christ apart from any work of circumcision. They can sing “Father Abraham.” Further proof of their salvation is they have the gift and the sealing of the Holy Spirit. The blessing of Abraham has come to the Gentiles in Jesus Christ.

Genesis 12:1-3 is about the hope of the gospel. The Holy Spirit in God’s people is a sign to all of us that God is fulfilling the Abrahamic Covenant through the Son. The means of fulfilling the Abrahamic Covenant is in the fulfillment of the New Covenant and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:31-33; Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:25-27).

If you are a believer in Christ, you are an heir to the Abrahamic promises. In Christ, both Jew and Gentile become the true sons of Abraham, the spiritual heirs to the promise (Gal. 3:7, 16, 18, 26-29; 4:28). But notice that the promise was never for the Jews alone. Abraham was blessed to be a blessing, through him the nations would come to the Lord. The gospel is to the Jew first and then to the Gentile (Rom. 1:16).

If you are a Sunday school teacher in America teaching your little kids “Father Abraham,” you are taking the gospel to the nations. If you are missionary around the world, you are taking the gospel to the nations. God has blessed you in Christ Jesus so that you can take this blessing to world. In the gospel promise made to Abraham, the nations are being blessed.

Who would have ever thought there was such theological depth behind a simple childhood Sunday School song?

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.