The Value of the Old Testament for Understanding God’s Mission

In the spirit of seeking a deeper understanding of God’s mission to the world, it is important that we not by-pass the Old Testament. We have already introduced many missional ideas from the Old Testament in earlier sections but now we want to expand it and go a little deeper. It further identifies the arena where those who are active in mission to the world are persecuted and martyred. Johannes Blauw believes the Old Testament has much to contribute to an adequate and full understanding of mission, as does Christopher J. H. Wright today. We should see the whole witness of the Old Testament as related to mission. The primary Old Testament contribution to mission Blauw believes is the concept of universality. “This universality” writes Blauw “is the `basis’ for the missionary message of the Old Testament.” It is not limited to that, but this is a major theme that introduces and sets up the geographical context for God’s mission to the world. We will discuss this more fully in the section on themes. It is a comprehensive term that is relevant across all lines of mission, from the sovereignty of God over all nations to mission strategy. 

The Old Testament is the picture of the thrust of God into the world for saving purposes. It points to a God of compassion who has a definite plan and mission and who is intent on pursuing that mission in a manner he has selected and ordained. Johannes Verkuyl, late Professor of Missiology at the University of Amsterdam, has stated that: “The Twentieth Century has produced a steady stream of literature, which regards the Old Testament as an indispensable and irreplaceable base for the church’s missionary task among the nations, and peoples of this world.” It continues in the twenty first. 

Ken R. Gnanakan, Asian theologian from Bangalore, India, reminds us of the importance of the Old Testament for the full understanding of God’s mission: “In recent approaches to a theology of mission it has been heartening to note the emphasis going back to the Old Testament. This is a valuable corrective to the narrow approaches that were restricted to the New Testament and at the most a few references to well-worn passages in the Old Testament.” 

Being faithful to God’s full revelation requires us to carefully consider the great span of God’s revelation given to us in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. We might begin with a discussion of the creation as the starting point of an Old Testament theology of mission but logic requires us to begin one step prior to creation, to the Creator himself. The only real substantial foundation of mission is God himself, the source and primary agent of mission. We must develop a doctrine of God that will, by a study of his nature and intentions, prepare the way to a discussion of his mission to the world.  

G. Ernest Wright, in his essay “The Old Testament Basis for the Christian Mission,” views the doctrine of God as the starting point for an Old Testament theology of mission. Wright observes: “In the Old Testament faith is the gift to a people living amidst the basic idolatries of mankind. Their God reveals Himself as the sole Saviour against the multitude of rival claims….” God reveals himself as Savior, as One who takes it upon himself to rescue people and to bring them safely back into his presence through the restoration of a proper relationship with him, resolving the offense of sin and the barriers to true fellowship and communion. And he seeks to bring about salvation and reconciliation in a concrete way through a relationship with Israel, a relationship which he initiated and defined.  

Wright notes the difference between pagan festivals and Israel’s festivals as descriptive of two understandings of the people’s relationship to their respective gods and God. Pagan festivals and cultic dramas were nature festivals in which they attempted to achieve “primordial security in nature” and “the basic rhythm of nature in which life is dependent was continued…” It was not a particularly joyous occasion but an attempt to coerce and manipulate the forces of nature (the gods) to continue to provide for them in ways beyond which they could provide for themselves. It was a form of slavery because the pagans were locked into a desperate struggle for their existence, assuming that their gods would only help them if they were properly manipulated. There was no relationship of love, compassion, or beneficence. It was mostly fear and obligation. 

But Israel’s festivals were celebrations, recounting of events and occasions where God had greatly blessed them because he chose to do it, out of love and compassion. They recalled the events where God led them out of slavery to other men and where he fed them in the wilderness. There were celebrations commemorating the gracious deeds of God. They resulted in a renewed commitment to the God who loved them and with whom they had a living, vital, uplifting, affirming relationship. The historical remembrance became an essential part of Israel’s faith in a living God. 

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