Mission in the Old Testament and in the New: similarities and contrasts
In my judgment, failure to read the Old Testament missiologicaly weakens the call to the Church to engage in worldwide mission. Moreover, it hinders to see that God's acts in history are coherent and purposeful. Yet, most importantly entire texts of the Old Testament make no sense if they are not understood missiologicaly. In other words, inevitably some theological and biblical problems arise, if we are to disregard the subject of mission in the Old Testament. How should we understand such passages as Ps 67 or Is 49:6? In the former a psalmist makes supplication that God's ways may be known on earth, his salvation among all nations (Ps 67:2) In the latter God states that his intention regarding his servant is this, "I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth" (Is 49:6). Just from these two passages it is clear that God has more than the nation of Israel in his mind. His purpose is to make his ways known to all the nations of the earth, and bring his salvation to all peoples. God intends to accomplish this through his suffering Servant portrayed by Isaiah. Thus, one must admit that there is a strong link between such passages in the Old Testament and the ones describing mission in the New, for instance, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Mt 24:14).
The space of this paper does not allow me to go into more systematic and detailed consideration of the Old Testament scriptures that entail God's missionary vision. I will refer to some passages when considering similarities and contrasts of mission in the Old Testament and the New. However, hopefully even this terse introduction will testify to the fact that the notion of mission has not risen with the New Testament only. It has its roots in the Old. From the earliest times Christians have seen that the Bible is held together by a narrative that tells a story of God's determination to redeem for himself a people from all the nations for his praise and glory. I am convinced that seeing how God's plan of redemption unfolds throughout two Testaments deepens one's faith and strengthens believer's resolution to be an active part in carrying out God's wonderful plan of salvation.
Now let me point out a few parallels between mission in the OT and the NT. I suggest that the major similarity is found in the instrument through which God wants to make known his ways to the peoples of the earth. In the Old Testament it was Israel; in the New Testament it is the Church. In Ex 19:4-6 God revealed to Israel her national identity. First, Israel was God's treasured possession (in Hebrew the word segulla does not signify property in general, but a valuable property, that which is laid by or put aside); then Israel was kingdom of priests; and finally a holy nation. Israel was to function among other nations in her priestly role. As priest is a mediator between God and man, so Israel was called to be the vehicle of the knowledge of God to the nations of the earth. Apostle Peter refers to the same passage in Exodus, when he affirms the new identity of Gentile believers, "you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Pet 2:9). Not only Peter, but also Paul refers to the Church in Tit 2:14 as "a people that are his very own." He uses the exact Greek phrase that is found in the Septuagint's rendering of Ex 19:5. The correlation is clear: as God has chosen Israel in the Old Testament to be the mediator through which he would reveal his Name and glory to the rest of the nations, so in the NT he has chosen the Church, believers in Christ, to be his witnesses. Thus, in both Testaments the people of God are meant to participate in the priesthood through which God's will and ways may be made known to the rest of the world.
There is a huge debate among scholars whether we can state that Israel failed to fulfill its missionary mandate to other nations. Some say that Israel's failure to engage in missions forced God to come up with a better plan in the gospel. Others are convinced that Israel did not have the commission of God to engage in cross-cultural mission as we understand it today. Although I agree that Israel failed to live up to their calling, I will not go deeper into cons and pros of the debate. Yet, in my opinion, this argument itself highlights another similarity, namely the danger of ethnocentrism. The experience of the particularity of the love of God, and the universality of God's compassion remain a challenge for the Church as it was for Israel. Only by God's grace Peter did not repeat the story of Jonah, the prophet. Had not God explicitly repeated to him three times not to "call anything impure that God has made clean," I wonder whether he would have gone to preach to the household of Cornelius (Ac 11:9-10).
This scripture leads us to the first difference between mission in the OT and the NT, namely that mission in the OT was to function more as an attractive force, whereas it is an expansive force in the NT. Jerusalem in Solomon's time became the richest city, a world centre, to which the kings of the earth came to hear the wisdom of Solomon and to see the grandeur of the temple and the prosperity of the kingdom (1 Kgs 11:23-25). The book of Isaiah depicts a similar eschatological picture, in which "all nations stream" to the temple in Zion and kings bring "the wealth of the nations" to Jerusalem (Is 2:2; 60:11). The four gospels provide enough evidence that the apostles of Jesus were dominated by this centripetal pattern of the Kingdom of God. Even after Jesus' resurrection they still understood their mission as a centripetal force (Ac 1:6). It is exactly at this point that Jesus underscored the change of the pattern, "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Ac 1:7-8). The pattern is no longer "come to the blessing" but "go to the nations" instead. The force of the mission in the NT becomes essentially centrifugal. It has to be mentioned that a centrifugal pattern of mission was at work to some degree in the OT as well, as in the example of Jonah, or in that of a nameless Jewish girl who proclaimed to Naaman, the leprous captain of the Syrian army, the healing power of Israel's God. In the same way the centripetal force is not fully abolished in the NT, and because of it some are attracted to the church. However, Christians cannot rely on it, and must make up their minds to bring the gospel "to the ends of the earth."
Another aspect in which the difference of the mission in the OT and the NT may be seen is a manner in which God's knowledge spreads to the nations. In the OT Israel was to communicate the message primarily through a holy life and worship of the only true God, whereas the mission in the NT first and foremost entails spreading the good news to those who have not heard it. Holy life supports the message, but salvation is offered through the preaching. As far as I can see there was no explicit commission for Israel to go to other nations in order to proclaim the Ten Commandments to them. Moreover, the prophets of Israel, when rebuking the nation for many diverse sins have never convicted people for not proselytizing among other nations. Yet, almost all their prophetic utterances include admonitions to live holy and justly. On the other hand, in the NT God explicitly commands the church to go and make disciples of all nations; and when the church fails in her mission, she is reproved. For instance, apostle Paul admonishes Timothy "to kindle afresh the gift of God...not be ashamed to testify about our Lord" and charges him with the responsibility "to do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim 1:5, 8; 4:5).
There are other important differences, yet the space permits to mention just one more, and probably the most significant one, namely Jesus Christ himself. As David J. Bosch points out that first and foremost the early Christian mission involved the person of Jesus himself. Evidently the OT was promising the coming of the Messiah as well as anticipating his eschatological kingdom. The NT, on the other hand, speaks about the fulfillment of those eschatological promises. Messiah has come, and he is Jesus from Nazareth. Although the full manifestation of his Kingdom is still pending, and the tension between the "already" and "not yet" remains, the redemption from sin is available for all those who believe in Jesus Christ. "In the past, he let all nations go their own way...but now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 14:16; 17:30).
I argued in this paper that the mission in the OT and the NT is somewhat similar and yet different. The major similarity is that the people who are called by God are responsible to make him known to others. Thus, Israel and the Church are entrusted with the mission. Yet, the former was mostly orientated by the centripetal pattern of mission, whereas the latter by centrifugal. Israel testified by a holy life and a monotheistic worship, whereas the Church does that primarily by preaching and leading people to a living Christ.
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Kostenberger, Andreas J. and O'Brien, Peter T. Salvation to the ends of the earth. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press. 2001.
Winter, Ralph D. and Hawthorne, Steven C. ed. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd ed. Pasadena: William Carey Library. 2000.
York, John V. Missions in the Age of the Spirit. ed. Stanley M. Horton. Springfield: Logion Press. 2000.