(This article was originally published in Faith for All Life, a publication of Chalcedon Foundation. The featured map is from Western Conservatory, where you can buy an interactive map of the spread of the Gospel in history.)
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good, who proclaims salvation, who to Zion, “Your God reigns!”.Isaiah 52:7
There is probably no doctrine in the 20th century that has inflicted more theological damage on the Church than the doctrine of “parenthesis.” The Church as a temporary economy in God’s plan: this theological construct has demoted the Church from her position as the Bride of Christ and turned her into a concubine, a temporary comfort for her Master until the “real wife” (the racial Israel, if such a thing ever existed) returns home. Severed thus from her theological, spiritual and historical roots in the Old Testament, the Church has become a bonsai Church – limited, small, ornamental, cute . . . and useless. A Church that was intended to establish the dominion of her Lord and Husband over the earth, she is now concerned with issues that seldom go beyond the limits of her bonsai pot – personal experience, liturgy, pure speculative theology, church discipline, youth groups, etc. The prevalent culture is not addressed by the church’s preaching anymore; the issues of the day are “secular” and not worthy of recognition from the pulpits (besides, mentioning them can threaten your tax-exempt status), and the rulers are left to rule a formerly Christian nation in the ancient pagan and idolatrous ways.
The doctrine of missions is inevitably a corollary of the doctrine of the Church. A missionary proclaims the truth as he knows it. If he knows a militant, culture-challenging, history-changing church back where he comes from, he will bring that same kind of culture-challenging and history-changing church to his mission field. On the other hand, if a missionary knows a concubine church, a temporary, useless, ornamental, defeatist church, that’s the kind of church he is going to preach and plant on his mission field. Inevitably, the rise of the doctrine of the concubine church – a church with no permanent legal status before her Lord and with no roots in His redemptive history – will lead to the rise of a doctrine of missions that limits the foreign missions in their scope and historical roots.
Predictably, theologians trace the roots of foreign missions no farther back than Paul and his missionary journeys, and maybe Philip and his first missionary journey to Samaria. Missions are considered a “New Testament thing,” a “Christian activity” that came about after Pentecost. They weren’t really fully developed before Paul was commissioned to go to the Gentiles, and most certainly they had no roots or precedent whatsoever in the Old Testament. This kind of theological error fails to see the established background in the time of the first Christian missions, and fails to see that Paul’s ministry was not a novelty: It was a renewed fulfillment of the old commandments God gave to Israel in the Old Testament.
The realization of this truth is where we need to begin if we are to restore today’s Christian missions to their real purpose in the kingdom of God.
Israel: God’s Missions International
Modern premillenial and amillenial theologians to the contrary, Israel was not primarily a theocratic church-state. True, it was theocratic, but the “church-state” element was not a necessary element in Israel’s destiny and purpose before God. Israel existed without a political structure for quite a while, and even when it was a state, it had a number of different political arrangements, and none was deemed “the right one” by God. With or without political structure, Israel was still Israel in the eyes of God.
Modern dispensationalist theologians to the contrary, Israel was not a racial stock. With so many prominent Israelites being of foreign descent or having non-Jewish blood (Jesus Himself being the most prominent of them) it is quite impossible to even define such a thing as a racial Israel. And the multiple examples of converts and believers outside of Israel make it impossible to understand how a covenant would work limited only to a racial stock, if faith was all that was required for salvation even before Christ. When God made covenant with individuals in Israel, he did not look at the genes of the person.
Modern liturgical zealots to the contrary, Israel did not exist primarily for the purpose of liturgy and worship. Liturgical patterns changed a few times even in the Old Testament, and besides, God specifically declared He didn’t need and didn’t want the worship of an apostate nation. Israel spent years in captivity with no organized worship, and that did not make the nation less Israel, neither did it annul what its real purpose was. Israel was still Israel, even when she had no Temple and no organized worship.
The church-state was a tool to Israel’s real purpose, the racial core was its seed (and only a seed), and the worship ceremonies were only the symbolic shadow of that real purpose. And the real purpose of Israel was for her to be a missionary society. Israel was not meant to be a society closed within herself, focused exclusively on her own government, race or ceremonies. Israel was supposed to be a missionary outreach to the nations, a herald for God’s Law and God’s salvation to the nations, a city on a hill and light to the world, a mediator between God and the nations, calling the nations to obey God and serve Him only.
The idea of believers being a light to the world was not introduced by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. It was first introduced by God to Abraham, the father of all who believe:
And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.Gen. 12:3
This verse is commonly misinterpreted today by many preachers to mean that a nation is blessed or cursed according to their attitude towards the State of Israel. But in the context of the covenant between Abraham and God, these words meant only that that personal covenant was to be expanded through the ministry of Abraham and his descendants to include all the nations (families) of the earth. God was telling Abraham that he had a mission: To make his personal faith the faith of many nations. This was also the meaning of the promise that Abraham will be the father of many nations: many covenant nations, that is, not many genetic nations. Abraham was called to be a missionary, and that’s how the New Testament authors interpreted Abraham’s ministry and its continuity in the New Testament (Rom. 4).
“Well,” quite a few of the Christians today would say, “you can say this about Abraham, but the Law of Moses was certainly confined to Israel, and missions outreach was not their main concern.” This is not true.
Deuteronomy records that, when renewing the covenant with the children of those who fled from Egypt, Moses told the second generation that the scope of the Law was greater than the tiny nation of Israel:
Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?Deut. 4:5-8
Here is the original commandment of “Ye are a city on a hill.” You are supposed to shine forth, said God to the Hebrews, and let all nations make the comparison between their laws and your laws, between their gods and your God. Your mission is to make that comparison obvious to all nations and to exhibit the superiority of your God and His Law, so that the nations acknowledge it and accept your God as their God, and your people as their people (Ruth 1:16). Israel left Egypt leading a multitude of nations in their Exodus (Ex. 12:38), and the subsequent history shows that this multitude of nations was incorporated in Israel as lawful citizens through faith and circumcision. The Law had provisions for accepting ethnic strangers for citizens; and the Law required that future wars – after the conquest of Canaan – start with an offer for peace and peaceful incorporation into the nation of Israel, and therefore submission to God (Deut. 20:10-12). Not only Israel’s obedience was to be an evangelistic example to the nations, but Israel’s disobedience was to be used by God as a negative evangelistic message to the nations (Deut. 28:37).
Obviously, God’s purpose for Israel was not limited to the nation of Israel. In fact, the history of the nation of Israel as it is recorded in the Bible has a heavy focus on that mandate to evangelize the nations. Some of the most faithful characters in the Old Testament were not ethnic Israelites, as I mentioned above. The Canaanite Rahab and the Moabite Ruth became part of the genealogy of David and through him, of Christ. The Kenezite Caleb was the leader (prince) of the royal tribe of Judah. Obed-edom, a compatriot of Goliath of Gath, was the righteous man whose house God chose to accommodate His Ark of the Covenant for a while; and later we see the same Obed-edom as one of the singers and musicians at the Temple. Uriah the Hittite was prominent enough in Israel to be allowed to live in the Holy City and be the neighbor of King David; and also to be sent to lead the troops in battle.
Some Gentiles were attracted to Israel and the Law of God, as the Law itself promised. Others remained citizens of their own nations but believed in the God of Israel and accepted His sovereign Law. The most prominent examples, of course, are the people of Nineveh in the time of Jonah, and the Queen of Sheba. Their faith was great enough to procure for them the privilege to be God’s appointed judges over the generation of Israel in the time of Christ and the apostles (Matt. 12:41-42). Naaman, the Syrian general, believed in God and was sent away by Elisha with the shalom greeting, ceremonially reserved for brethren in the faith. Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, Gentile kings evangelized by Daniel, accepted the Law of the God of Daniel and made it the law of the land. Cyrus – who most probably is Darius – was called “the anointed one” by God Himself for his commitment to do the will of God (Is. 45:1). We mentioned Jonah earlier; but he wasn’t the only prophet to preach to the nations; every prophetic book in the Old Testament contains passages of admonishments to the nations to obey God and His Law, and promises the same blessings or curses as were promised to Israel in the Exodus.
The New Testament abounds with evidence of Israel’s destiny to be a missionary outreach to the nations. The nations outside of Israel acknowledged Israel’s special place as God’s messenger. The wise men who followed the star were not just an obscure occult group; they were following an age long tradition among the nations to look at Israel as the birthplace of the future Messiah. That same tradition also led the Greeks who wanted to see Jesus (John 12:20), for they “came up to worship at the feast.” Julius Caesar, the political hero of the antiquity, acknowledged the special status of Israel as a missionary society and freed them of taxes on the Sabbatical years; in the non-Sabbatical years the taxes were due not to Rome but to the city of Jerusalem, paid directly to the high priest Hyrcanus, even for those Jews who lived outside of Palestine. (One can say that the whole Jewish nation had a 501(c)3 status in the empire.) When Jesus told the Samaritan woman that “salvation is of the Jews,” she did not argue with Him. And the only two individuals whose faith Jesus commended were Gentiles (Matt. 8:10; 15:28), and their faith was only a consequence of the same belief accepted among all the nations, that “salvation is of the Jews.” (Note that the Caananite woman specifically compared the Jews to children, and all the other nations to dogs under the table.)
The evidence is abundant and many more examples can be cited. Modern theology has declared that God’s purpose for Israel was to be an introvert nation, focused primarily on her own political structure, racial purity, or liturgical ceremonies. The Bible reveals that those were only secondary issues, subject to the greater purpose God had for Israel: To be His missionary society to the nations, a herald of God’s Law and Salvation, a nation of apostles and evangelists. This Old Testament mission is the true historical roots of modern missions, and modern theology of missions will always be inadequate unless this truth is recognized.
The Culture-Bearer for God
Then the question is: What was the message of Old Testament evangelism? The modern evangelical mind is so deeply existentialist that it can hardly relate to any other message but “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” If a message is anything else but “Jesus saves souls,” thinks the modern church-goer, it can’t be a Gospel message; it must be secondary to the Gospel message. The gospel of soul-winning has replaced the culture-transforming message of the Kingdom of God preached by Christ and the apostles. But we know that the Old Testament did not have their eyes on Christ crucified. Then what was the evangelical message of Israel, God’s Missions International?
The passage quoted above from Deuteronomy 4:5-8 reveals that the evangelical message of Israel’s mission to the nations was the Law of God. Yes, that message contained the message of personal salvation – the Law itself was but a revelation of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate (John 5:46). But it had much more. Israel was supposed to bring to the nations God’s commandments for righteous living. Thousands of years before Francis Schaeffer people were asking the question, “How should we then live?” Civilizations were never materialistic, because materialism is never a cause worthy enough to build a civilization around it. (Even modern American culture is not simply materialistic; materialism is only the outcome of an underlying idolatrous faith.) People and cultures created law codes, established religious observances and mythological systems, governments were based on ideas and shared experiences; humanity has always been goaded, not by desire for more material things, but by the quest for righteous living, both individually and collectively. Man is a cultural being encompassing each one in his totality: his individual soul, his relationship to other men, and his relationship to the part of the creation assigned under his power. So when man asked the question, “How should we then live?,” Israel’s mission was to answer, “Here’s how,” and start reading, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one God…”
The message embraced the cultural being, the man in his totality, and therefore in the midst of pagan and idolatrous nations Israel’s mission was to preach culture. “Culture” not in the modern twisted sense of ballet and theatre buildings, TV shows, and etiquette formalities, but CULTURE as legal structure, interpersonal relationships, practical worldview and cosmology, institutional arrangements and ideology, philosophy of being and psychology, business relations and legitimate spheres of government, view of time and future. In short, true culture is everything that pertains to the totality of man. Deuteronomy 4:5-8 portrays the quest for righteous living that the pagan nations inherently have. The comprehensive Law of God was their answer as well, modeled by the chosen nation of Israel.
In this sense Israel was truly foreign to the Gentiles. Foreign not just in the language and the customs the Israelites had, but foreign in bringing to the world a completely different culture that no one else had seen or experienced before. “We fainted,” Rahab told the spies, “when we heard of your God, and there is no courage left in any man,” the same confession that thousands of years later was echoed in the words of Montezuma to that great Christian missionary and warrior, Hernan Cortez. The hearts of hardened veterans don’t usually melt when they hear of another deity; warriors faint only when they realize that there is no hope to save what they have fought for their whole life, when they realize that their whole world is about to die. Israel was commissioned to preach laws and culture to the Gentiles that were foreign to them, and that were – and still are – the very essence of foreign missions. Prophets prophesied to the nations around Israel and condemned them for not obeying the Law of God. Nineveh repented and obeyed the Law of God. Nebuchadnezzar and Darius realized that the blessings of the God of Daniel were a package deal with His Law and obedience to that Law. And that unique institution, the synagogue, paralleled by no other institution in antiquity, was first and foremost a community center for both Jews and proselytes, a cultural beachhead in pagan lands where Jews of the Diaspora settled.
Without understanding this view of the purpose of foreign missionaries as culture-bearers, there is no way to understand why Paul was so forceful in condemning Peter for separating from the Gentiles in the church (Gal. 2:11-14). If personal salvation was all there was in the Gospel message, then there shouldn’t be any problem of separating Jews and Gentiles in the Church. There was a reason for the Jewish believers in the early church. It was also the reason Paul made such an effort to reconcile and keep Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome united. Jewish believers who knew the Law and the culture created by the Law were the “foreign missionaries” to Gentile believers in the church who needed to learn the new culture and conform to it. The Council of Jerusalem recognized this new – in fact, very old – role of the Jewish believers and established that which was to be accommodated by the Gentiles. Jewish teachers and preachers enjoyed very high status in the early Gentile churches, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, as the Epistle to the Galatians testifies. Paul summarized the role of the Jewish believers, “Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law” (Rom. 2:17-20), and then asked, “Do you as a Jew give that practical example to those that you are supposed to teach? Do you bring the civilization to them that you learned from an early age?”
The church was instructed to take the culture it learned from the Jews and teach the nations to adopt it (Matt. 28:18-20). The message of Isaiah’s evangelist, “Your God reigns!” was to be the church’s evangelistic message.
The Failure of Modern Missions
Just like the failure of the church today can be traced to its refusal to accept her status as the only legitimate eternal bride of Christ, the failure of Christian missions to change and influence history in the 20th century can be traced to the refusal to see the mission field as cultural and historical war rather than strictly personal and existentialist “witnessing.” Never before in the history of Christianity have the mission fields seen so many resources committed to spreading the Gospel; and never before have missionaries failed so miserably to produce the desired results. Whereas in previous centuries foreign missions produced Christian societies, foreign missions in the 20th century produced socialist and nationalist revolutionaries (China and Africa), weak peripheral social groups (Eastern Europe) or theologically and psychologically unstable movements. The missionaries have accepted the lie of the enemy that they are not supposed to be social reformers – only save souls. They refuse to preach culture, because they have accepted the twisted definition of “culture” – Wrangler jeans, McDonalds, and Dallas. The real culture of Western civilization: legal codes, the Declaration of Independence, individual liberties and the limited state, Common Law, the Puritan work ethic and the future orientation of economic enterprise – all products of Biblical Law and worldview – are outside the legitimate area of preaching and teaching for the vast majority of missionaries. While Christianity has a superior philosophy and ideology for every area of life – the very point of Deut 4:5-8 – most missionaries have failed to make that superior philosophy known to those to whom they preach.
Failing to see the origins of foreign missions in the Law of God, missionary organizations have crippled the efforts of their missionaries. Too often a mission’s success or failure has been assessed on the basis of number of converts, or even amounts of money spent on tracts or other limited evangelistic activities. However desirable, the number of converts is not indicative for the expansion of the Kingdom of God. It is the nations as entities that we are supposed to bring under the covenant of Christ (Matt. 28:19), and the indicator for an “evangelized nation” is when a whole nation – as a political and legal body, not just an arithmetic sum of individuals – sees and says, “Surely, wise and understanding people are those Christians who have such wise statutes and laws.” The prophetic messages to Edom, Syria, Babylon or Egypt in the Old Testament need to be echoed today in prophetic messages to Europe, United States, the Middle East or India. And Christian missionaries are those who are called to be the prophets to those nations, calling them to submit to God and His Law, and accept the culture and civilization of the Kingdom of God. A missionary whose only work is to plant churches, save souls and preach the “love of God” is a missionary who wastes his time and other people’s money. It is time for a Biblical theology of missions, and a Biblical type of missionary.
The beginning of foreign missions was not laid in the first century AD with Paul’s journeys. Paul’s mission was merely a restoration of the mission God gave to Israel a thousand years before Paul: to be God’s messenger to the nations and teach them the Law of God. Israel’s main purpose was not liturgical, political, or racial; Israel was created as a missionary society, and her task of evangelizing the nations was to be carried whether or not they had any liturgy or political structure. The early church was the prime example of being a “culture-bearer” for God in a world where the culture of the Bible was the most foreign culture a pagan world could know.
Modern missionary organizations have deliberately truncated their theology of missions and the evangelistic message to the level of personal “witnessing” and the existentialist philosophy of experience. The comprehensive evangelistic message of the Law of God has been abandoned, and thus the success of foreign missions has been destroyed. The mission field needs to be redefined according to the concept of foreign missions in Scripture if we are to influence the world again for Christ.