The Great Commission in the Old Testament

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When we think of the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20 and related passages typically come to mind.  But how should we understand the Great Commission in relation to the Old Testament?  As Daniel L. Akin, Benjamin L. Merkle, and George G. Robinson explain in their recent volume 40 Questions About the Great Commission, “God’s plan and promises concerning the nations [in the Old Testament]form the basis of the Great Commission in the New Testament.”  In this excerpt from the book, they describe how passages from the Prophets and the Writings lay the groundwork for Christ’s Great Commission to the church. 

The Prophets

The prophets proclaimed both judgment and the offer of salvation for the nations. The prophet Amos, for example, proclaimed that all nations are accountable to God. Amos preached judgment oracles against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, along with Judah and Israel (1:2–2:16). Gary Smith explains the purpose of this section: “Because the Israelites accepted the application of these theological principles to their enemies, Amos was able to use the logic of these concepts when he addressed Israel’s [own]violence. . . . Amos’s sermon came to the shocking conclusion that Israel was no better than the heathen.” Amos’s sermon to Israel was, in part, effective because of the established fact of God’s judgment against the nations. Still, there is hope for the nations who receive God’s light.

The inclusion of the nations into the people of God is an eschatological promise throughout the Bible. Here we will only look at two examples, both from Isaiah. Isaiah 42:6–7 states, “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, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” What role does Israel play in this passage and in the rest of the Old Testament in relation to reaching the nations? . . . These questions are not easily answered . . . Nevertheless, the light for the nations (42:6) is given “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:7). Gary Smith explains that “these phrases [are]metaphors of God’s deliverance of people from the prison of spiritual darkness (blindness) and ignorance (9:2; 42:19–20; 43:8; 44:18–19).” Ultimately, this light is Jesus himself.

Isaiah 49:6, which is alluded to in Acts 1:8, is another similar text: “[H]e says: ‘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.’ ” Elsewhere in Isaiah, the “ends of the earth” is in reference to “coastlands” and “farthest corners” (41:5, 9). It also relates to God as Creator, redeemer of Israel and worthy of praise (40:28; 42:10; 43:6; 48:20). The role of Isaiah 49:6 as quoted in Acts 13:47 also supports the idea that Isaiah 49:6 is a missional text in the Old Testament itself. Howard Marshall explains that the Isaiah citation in Acts “serves to motivate and legitimize the mission to the Gentiles as part of God’s plan foretold in Scripture.”

The Writings

The Psalms are central in regards to a concern for the nations. Here are a few samples from the Psalms:

  • All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. (22:27)
  • Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (46:10)
  • May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. (67:1–2)
  • Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! . . . Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!” (96:3, 10a)
  • Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! (117:1)
  • Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (150:6).

These psalms either refer to God’s glory among the nations or declare his glory among the nations. As Mark Futato powerfully asserts, “The Lord’s glory is so great that it must transcend the boundaries of Israel and encompass the nations (see Ps. 108:5).” Psalm 67 is a prayer for God to bless Israel so that the nations would know God and then praise him. This psalm can also be read alongside Psalm 66 (e.g., 66:1, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth”). In the Psalms there is a deep dependence upon God even for the accomplishing of missions. John Piper helpfully summarizes Psalm 117 and the Great Commission: “Missions is telling the nations to praise God and then giving them evidences that this is good to do and showing them how God has made a way for sinners to do it because of the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. . . . We explain who he is and what he is like and how he has worked in history and spoken to us in the Bible and in his Son.” Praying and singing the Psalms can be an encouragement toward living out this mission.   

Learn more about 40 Questions About the Great Commission or request a faculty examination, media, or blog review copy.

40 Questions about the Great Commission is an indispensable text for any pastor, professor, or student who cares about the Christian mission.  In it, a biblical scholar, missiologist, and seminary professor join forces to answer every question you’ve ever askedor never askedabout our Lord’s parting commission to his disciples.  Substantive, lucid, and compelling.”

Bruce Ashford, Professor of Theology and Culture, Dean of Faculty, and Provost, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

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