Monday, August 3, 2009

The Missionary God of the Old Testament

Christopher J. H. Wright’s book The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative is one of my favorite theological works because it provides a biblical basis for missionary endeavor by tracing the theme of mission through the whole of Scripture. Many Christians mistakenly think that missions began with the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) or in Jesus’ final words to the apostles before his ascension (Acts 1:8) and fail to see that the Old Testament itself is a missionary book. In fact, Wright describes the Bible itself as a “missional phenomenon” in that it is “the product of and witness to the ultimate mission of God.” Of all the books of the Old Testament, Isaiah more than any other highlights the theme of God’s missionary concern for the nations and the promise of Gentile inclusion in the blessings of salvation. Tying Isaiah into the larger story of the Old Testament, the prophet anticipates the fulfillment of the original promise of the Abrahamic covenant that all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:3).

As with much of the book of Isaiah, this emphasis arises out of Isaiah’s initial vision of Yahweh in Isaiah 6. Isaiah sees that the glory of the Lord fills the earth (6:3), and it thus becomes incumbent that the nations know this God and give him the glory that he is due. The following passages illustrate the recurring theme of Yahweh’s salvation extending to the nations in the book of Isaiah:

Isaiah 2:2-4
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah 25:6-8
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 42:6
"I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations,

Isaiah 49:6

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

Isaiah 52:10
The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

Isaiah 56:3-8
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. "And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant - these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, "I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered."

Isaiah 60:1-3
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

The most amazing of all these Isaianic passages focusing on the inclusion of the nations is Isaiah 19:19-25. Wright describes this passage as “one of the most breathtaking pronouncements of any prophet, and certainly one of the most missiologically significant texts in all of the Old Testament” (p. 491). The passage looks forward to the eschatological kingdom as a time when Israel, Egypt, and Assyria will be the three peoples of God. Isaiah includes Israel’s representative enemy from the past (Egypt) and Israel’s primary enemy from the present (Assyria) among the future people of God. After a terrible time of judgment, Egypt will experience a national conversion, in which they speak Hebrew (“the language of Canaan”) and give their loyalties and worship to Yahweh as the true God (vv. 19-21). After once again striking Egypt with plagues, Yahweh will reverse the exodus story by this time intervening to save Egypt (v. 22). Like Israel, Egypt will become the recipient of the Lord’s mercy and salvation.

After this remarkable promise concerning Egypt’s future, the prophet goes even further in bringing the hated Assyrians into the sphere of the Lord’s salvation and blessing (vv. 23-25). In Isaiah's day, Israel was gripped in the vice of the superpowers Egypt and Assyria, but there will one day be a highway from Egypt to Assyria and through Israel facilitating travelers coming to worship Yahweh. The Assyrian war machine had wreaked havoc on the nations, but in the future kingdom, Assyria will be with Egypt and Israel a source of “blessing” to the whole earth. Wright comments on what this passage ultimately envisions: “The scattering oppressors become the ingathered worshippers. History is inverted in this eschatological transformation. The enemies of God and Israel will be at peace with Israel and with each other.” (p. 492).

Isaiah 19 is in fact pointing to something even greater than the salvation of just Egypt and Assyria. Wright explains that the prophet uses Egypt and Assyria “in a representational way; that is they stand for a wider inclusion of other nations, not just the specifically named nations.” (p. 492). In his Handbook on the Prophets, Robert Chisholm offers a similar explanation of the significance of Egypt and Assyrian in exploring how this prophecy will be fulfilled. The prophecy transcends its era and the vision of two powers from the ancient world of the Old Testament become “archetypes of the powerful, warring kingdoms of the earth that would one day lay down their weapons and acknowledge the Lord as the one true God.” (p. 59). This prophecy in Isaiah 19 is thus anticipating the vision of Revelation 5:9-10 where people from every tribe, tongue, and language group will belong to the throng of worshippers bowing down before the Lamb of God.

We may not be able to hear with modern ears how radical these promises concerning Egypt and Assyria would have sounded to Isaiah’s original audiences. However, Jacob Neusner (“Repentance in Judaism,” 60-61) notes how a statement from the Jewish Talmud (b. Gittin 57b) has effectively captured the extreme nature of God’s love for Israel’s enemies: “Grandsons of Haman [from the story of Esther] studied Torah in Bene Beraq. Grandsons of Sisera [from Judges 4-5] taught children in Jerusalem. Grandsons of Sennacherib [the king of Assyria who attacked Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.] taught Torah in public. And who were they? Shemaiah and Abtalion [who were the teachers of Hillel and Shammai].” Offering a modern equivalent, Neusner states that “to understand the power of this statement, we only have to say, ‘Hitler’s grandson teaches Torah in a yeshiva of Bene Baraq,’ or ‘Eichmann’s grandson sits in a Jerusalem yeshiva, reciting prayers and psalms and learning Talmud.’”

We see a similar expression of God’s radical love for the nations and his enemies in Isaiah 19. Every time I read this passage, I am reminded of the wideness of God’s mercy, his willingness to include all who genuinely turn to him for salvation, particularly those I would want to exclude.

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