Genesis 12 and God’s Global Mission

Genesis chapter 12 becomes a very significant chapter both in Genesis and in connection with all the writings that follow. Chapters 1-11 show the extent to which man rebelled and we are left with a sense that all is lost. Man, though properly judged and punished, seems bent on continuing in sin whether united or in dispersion. But God’s purposes have not been defeated. In the bleakest moment, when all seems lost, God begins a process for the rescue and restoration of man. Blauw explains: “The call of Abraham, and the history of Israel which begins at this point, is the beginning of the restoration of the lost unity of mankind and of the broken fellowship with God.” Christopher Wright makes an important observation when he says that while Abraham begins the story of redemption, he is also setting in motion “a process of ethical instruction in the way of the Lord and the doing of righteousness and justice.” It is from this point that we begin to see clearly God’s particular plan and methodology of mission. Blauw reminds us that the difficulties with which Israel has to deal in relation to the nations are a reflection of God’s continuing problem as well. 

George Peters perceptively remarks that “Genesis 12 introduces a new epoch in the history of salvation—a history which is particularistic “in method” but universalistic in promise, design and effect.” He describes the call of Abraham as a “divine counterculture” which would move and develop in opposition to God on behalf of the world nations. It is in the specific call of God to an individual and a particular nation that the worldwide mission of God was initiated. David Bosch, in his book Witness to the World, maintains that a specific and particular plan involving a particular people is what grounds the mission of God in history. This “element of specificity” is necessary otherwise the plan of salvation would have to be historical. God chooses to work through specific persons and, at this point, through a specific nation. Bosch sees Abraham’s call as embarking upon a journey: “The patriarch is snatched from the cyclical stronghold of the…religious world and called to journey with the unknown – an event that symbolizes…a transcending of the predictability of the cyclic thought-world.” 

In reference to the descending and degenerative spiral of mankind into deeper degradation, the call of Abraham becomes the first glimpses of an ascending spiral where the hope that God would lift man from the mire of sin and set him on a new, uplifting, generative path. God has not abandoned the nations. The curse and penalties of Genesis 11 (Tower of Babel) are reversed in the promise to Abraham. Israel’s election is God’s way of making good on his promise to Abraham. The focus of Abraham’s life and mission and, along with him Israel as well, is to the nations. Through them the nations will be blessed, not cursed. 

God’s covenant with Abraham is continued through his people, Israel. The children of Abraham are children of promise and responsibility. They are to be a blessing to the nations. God chose “a segment of all humanity,” to represent all humanity and to become a vehicle to all humanity. “God,” writes Verkuyl, “chose Israel in preparation for the complete unwrapping and disclosure of his universal intentions.” George Peters sees the missionary message (and the missionary intention of God) in the Old Testament as unfolding in a progressive manner in successive stages, reflecting his theological understanding. His insights have some value in thinking about God’s mission to the world through the ages. Peters organizes his insights by various ages, beginning with the Patriarchal Age (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), the Mosaic Age (Israel becomes a nation), the Davidic Age, and the Prophetic Age. We have already talked briefly about the Patriarchal Age, so will move to the Mosaic Age. 

The Mosaic Age is the era which enriched the religion of the Israelites. It also marked the beginning of Israel as a nation, separate from other nations. The enrichment came when Israel received the Decalogue and the covenant. It provided a concrete outline and substantial content for Israel’s understanding of its relationship with God. It also defined Israel as a nation. Exodus 19:4-6 is especially relevant for Israel’s (and our) understanding of its task. Israel is to be a special treasure of God. This particular election is conditioned by the statement “although the whole earth is mine.” They were to reflect the image of God (which in a way explains the purpose of their separation from the nations) yet they are to be the link between God and the nations he seeks to reach through Israel. Peters observes: “The Abrahamic covenant makes Israel the people of God while the Mosaic covenant makes Israel a nation and servant of God.” The uniqueness of Israel is in its call to mission. In every other way it is a nation like every other nation. But God’s special purposes launch Israel into the arena of nations with a responsibility and mandate like no other nation. To become a servant of God rather than just a people of God requires greater commitment, discipline, and obedience. 

Israel’s national and religious life was to be open for the world to see and to participate in, if the nations were so inclined. In fact, the eschatological pictures of the Old Testament see the nations joining Israel in the worship of the true God. The religion of Israel was not a closed religion. Peters remarks: “Old Testament revelation was not a closed national religion; it held its doors wide open. It had its theological, moral and ceremonial restrictions, but it was neither racially or nationally a closed system. The stranger was welcome, and his acceptance on equal status was assured.” 

The Davidic Age is best represented by the message of the Psalms and the prayer at the dedication of the Temple by Solomon. The Psalms are, of course, a record of the worship of Jews and, we might emphasize, a fairly “ancient” record. Two themes emerge: that of the universalistic scope of God’s sovereignty and his hope for and missions to the nations; that of the hope of salvation that is held out for the nations and peoples of the world. Because of 175 references to this universality and the idea of the hope of salvation for the nations, Peters says that “the Psalter is one of the greatest missionary books in the world.” Christopher Wright notes the role of the nations in the eschatological hope found in the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 67). The nations will come together in praise and worship of the true God simply because he is worthy of praise. Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple is another outstanding source for a biblical understanding of God’s universal mission, as well as the understanding of Israel’s role as priest (I Kings 8:53). I Kings 8:41-43 records King Solomon’s prayer with specific reference to the foreigner: 

“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name-for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm – when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.” (NIV)

Peters qualifies our natural desire to read into this passage the full implications of mission theology that seem apparent to us who have been blessed with full revelation. He doubts whether Solomon really understood the full implications of what he prayed. But the Holy Spirit was faithful in directing Solomon to include the foreigner in his prayer and “to point out the missionary significance of the temple.” But the significance of these words cannot be overlooked. “The temple” remarks Peters “was God’s monument of his relationship to the earth and of the accessibility to God by all nations.”

The Prophetic Age also clearly presents “the missionary thrust of divine purpose and salvation.” Three pre-exilic prophets (Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum) direct their messages to non-Israelite nations, toward Edom and Nineveh. Zephaniah speaks almost exclusively to Judah yet, even though this prophet has the least to say about universality, does make reference to God’s sovereignty over the whole earth (1:2-3), of the future universality of the worship of God (2:11), of universal judgment (3:8), and the manner in which God will restore Judah before the eye of God in the midst of “all the peoples of the earth.” (3:20 NIV) 

Habakkuk, says Peters, “lays down three principles of universal significance” which gives us insight into the mind of God regarding his purposes and mission. These principles are: one, a universal principle of justification by faith (2:4); two, a universal knowledge of the glory of the Lord (2:14; three, a universal worship of the Lord (2:20). Throughout Habakkuk there are enough references to the nation especially in relationship to God, to keep the readers aware that what God does and wills has universal significance. Verse 14 of Chapter 2 speaks directly to the missionary mandate in that the whole world will come recognize and know the glory of God even if it through judgment and demonstrations of his power and glory. There will be a day when the whole earth will recognize and even praise God (3:3). God’s people are not alone in fulfilling his mission. God has his own ways of creating the circumstances where the peoples of the earth will know who he is. Such demonstrations fortify and affirm the truth of the message of the prophet—and the missionary. 

Joel puts equal stress upon the judgment of God upon the nation and the blessings that will also flow from the Lord. The nations will also share in receiving the Spirit (2:28). Amos reveals an enlightened understanding of the circumstances of the nations and of the sin that certainly be judged. Amos draws a circle around the nations and declares that God will certainly punish them who are circled. As he moves from the circumference to the center he points directly as Israel. Israel, as one nation among the nations, will be judged as well; it cannot and will not escape. When the Lord “roars” the whole earth better be aware! God is sovereign over the whole earth. 

Isaiah is a rich source for a mission theology in the Old Testament. The second half of Isaiah is “the most messianic segment of Old Testament writings.” It also proclaims, in clear and uncompromising terms, absolute monotheism and the folly of idolatry. And it focuses sharply on servanthood, the clearest in the Old Testament. Christopher Wright also notes that “among the prophets, it is the book of Isaiah that has the most successful interest in the eschatological vision of the nations offering their worship to YHWH.” In Isaiah we find the Servant Songs, songs that seem to be a picture both of Israel as the servant of Yahweh and upon the Messiah who comes forth from the people of God and who completes the task assigned to Israel. Israel (as well as the servant) was to be witnesses for God, testifying that he is truly the very God (43:10,12; 44:8). Christopher Wright explains: 

“The mission of Israel was also bound up with the identity and mission of the Servant, the mysterious figure in Isaiah 40-55 whose identity seems to oscillate between that of Israel and that of an individual yet to come. The mission of the Servant would be one of justice, gentleness, enlightenment, and liberation (Isa. 42:1-9). But it would also involve rejection and apparent failure (Isa. 49:4; 50:6-8) in the task of restoring Israel to God. In response to that, his mission would be extended to include the nations to the ends of the earth (Isa. 49:67). In that way, the mission of the Servant would be the fulfillment of the mission of Israel itself.” 

The Servant will experience “rejection and apparent failure” which becomes the model for His church which will, in many diverse places, be rejected and suffer for their faith in and testimony of the Servant.

There are, according to Peters, three truths that surround the mission of God given to his servants: First, Israel’s mission has been given to her by God; it is a God appointed mission. God is the source, the initiator of the mission. Israel is God’s choice and has been given a divine mission. And there is no release from the responsibility. Second, Israel’s mission has a particular focus; it is to be God-centered. Peters observes: “Israel existed principally in Old Testament times for the purpose of upholding ethical monotheism in opposition to, and in the midst of, a sea of henotheism, polytheism, and philosophical monism. The last-named did not have absolute ethical principles, ethical purpose, or a Godward direction of life. Spiritual complacency and indifference are the main results of their impact.” Third, Israel had a mission to the nations. In fact it is this mission which gives true meaning to Israel’s existence. Israel, in the Old Testament, exists for mission to the nations. Peters notes that Isaiah has many of the finest missionary verses and passages in the Old Testament. Salvation is offered to all nations on equal terms. It is not just for Israel’s exclusive possession but is for all mankind. Israel’s task is to be the mediator for the message to the nations. In that role it most exemplifies the servant of God. 

Even in the last section of Isaiah (particularly chapters 55-66), which deals primarily with Israel’s restoration, there is a strong note of the universality of salvation. “The evangelization of the entire earth” remarks Peters “is here expressed perhaps more emphatically than anywhere else in the Old Testament.” The remaining prophets do not change or alter Isaiah’s vision; they stress Israel’s role as a separate and peculiar people in the midst of the nations. In this section we have become more aware of the solid teachings of the Old Testament regarding the mission of God and Israel, which sets the stage and provides a firm foundation for what is revealed in the New Testament. 

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