Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

29 Oct 2019

Mission in the Old Testament: Did Israel Have a Missionary Mandate? (Part 1)

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A persistent question concerns whether or not God intended ancient Israel to serve as an emissary proclaiming salvation to the nations. At the recent E3 Conference I considered this debate and surveyed the Old Testament contribution to a biblical theology of mission. Over several posts, I would like to share my conclusions. This first post looks at issues related to whether a so-called missionary mandate exists for Israel in the OT. In the next posts I will assess God’s posture toward the nations in the OT to determine how that posture was supposed to work out in Israel both historically and eschatologically. Here in this post we look first at the question of a missionary mandate for Israel and begin by addressing a few related questions.

(1) Was Israel to be an active or passive witness? This is a question of function.[1] Often this issue is phrased as whether the momentum for the salvation message was to be centrifugal (outward-moving) or centripetal (inward-moving). The idea that the momentum was centrifugal or that Israel was tasked to be an active witness suggests that they were given charge to serve as missionaries propagating truth to the surrounding nations. Walter Kaiser concludes thus that “the prophet Isaiah surely called his nation to function actively as a missionary to the Gentiles and nations at large. . . . Israel was called to be God’s witness to the nations.”[2] Thus Jonah would be the norm rather than the exception. The servant girl who testifies to Naaman of Elisha’s healing power was simply a proactive witness in the way that all Israelites were to be. To say that the momentum, on the other hand, was centripetal or that Israel was a passive witness suggests that the method was attractional rather than preemptive. Israel was not sent to preach to the nations so much as tasked to serve the Lord faithfully as his mediatory covenant-people in the midst of the nations. Thus Craig Ott and Stephen Strauss conclude: “The Old Testament consistently depicts the worship of the Lord as being centralized in Zion. The nations were to abandon idols, submit to God’s reign, and come.”[3] By doing so Israel would manifest God’s character, wisdom, and reign to the surrounding peoples.

(2) Was Israel equal in status to the nations or did she occupy a place of superiority vis-à-vis the nations? This is a question of relationship. A tension exists in many passages as to whether Israel was to be given a status of superiority over the nations or to stand on an equal footing with the nations. This includes a related issue as to whether the promised blessing pertained to Israel alone or to Israel and the nations. Walter Kaiser concludes that “God’s eternal plan was to provide salvation for all peoples; it was never intended to be reserved for one special group, such as the Jews, even as an initial offer!”[4] Yet many passages give Israel priority over the Gentiles. In Isaiah, for example, certain passages affirm that the Lord will confound the nations who battle Israel (41:11–13; 49:25–26; 51:22–23; 54:15–17). Furthermore, the nations are to be given over as a ransom for Israel (43:3–4) and are subjugated to Israel in chains to the point of licking the dust from Israel’s feet (45:14; 49:23). At other times, however, the Lord appears work among the Gentiles more immediately. God calls the nations directly to turn and be saved (45:22–23). He appoints Israel, the servant nation, to serve as a light to the nations (49:6) and announces that his salvation will reach all peoples (42:4; 49:6; 51:4–6). The nations will be astonished at the salvation which the Lord has accomplished for Israel and will hasten to share in it (41:5; 42:10–12; 45:6; 52:10).

In answering these questions as to Israel’s potential missionary status, Kaiser affirms that a missionary mandate indeed existed for Israel. He argues that mission begins not with the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20) or with Acts but with Genesis and continues through the OT. Israel was to be an active witness in going forth with a message of redemption for the nations.[5] Andreas Köstenberger and Peter O’Brien disagree. They conclude that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that in any tangible sense Israel had a mission to serve as cross-cultural or foreign missionaries.[6] Rather, Israel was to be a sign and witness to the nations in an attracting manner, beckoning them to come and join her to participate in the salvific work of God. Eckhard Schnabel concurs from his study of Isaiah 40–66 that the process whereby the nations were to share in the Lord’s salvation was primarily centripetal. The nations would congregate in Jerusalem as a result of God’s presence there and later by means of the redemptive ministry of the Servant of the Lord (40:1–5).[7] Beyond this inward momentum, however, there would be a twofold centrifugal movement originating in Israel during the eschaton. This redemptive movement would be led first by the Servant of the Lord and secondly by the remnant of Israel in the latter days (42:1, 6–7; 49:6; 66:19). Hints, then, of an outward momentum begin in the prophets who foretell of God’s redemptive work at the end of the age.

Which understanding, then, is more consistent with the message and import of the OT? To attain a clearer picture we must establish God’s posture and intention toward the nations in the OT. God’s concern for the nations, in fact, begins and ends the storyline of Scripture. Yet the historical progress of revelation and the discontinuities between Old and New Testaments govern and quantify how that concern works itself out in redemptive history. To these issues we will turn in my next post.


[1] See Michael A. Grisanti, “Israel’s Mission to the Nations in Isaiah 40–55: An Update,” TMSJ 9 (Spring 1998): 41–43

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 63, 74.

[3] Craig Ott and Stephen J. Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 22.

[4] Kaiser, Mission in the Old Testament, xiv.

[5] Kaiser, Mission in the Old Testament, xi, xiv.

[6] Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, NSBT (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 35.

[7] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2 vols. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2004), 1:78–86.