The following text was originally intended as a short booklet with which we could communicate to our friends and partnering churches the basic Biblical context for missions that has helped to motivate us to take part in cross-cultural ministry. This is the second of a four part series.
In Part 1 I made the claim that the root of missions is not derived from a few New Testament verses, but is effectively revealed throughout the whole of Scripture, especially in the themes of God’s glory as His motivation and humanity’s combination blessing and purpose. This post picks up with the second theme: God’s combined blessing and purpose for humanity.
God’s Blessing and Purpose
We have seen how God chose at times to interact with the nation of Israel and the world at large in ways that displayed His power and spread His fame among the nations. This was the theme of God’s glory. Now we will look at a parallel theme seen in God’s declared blessing and purpose for His people. I have chosen to treat these as a single theme because the blessing and the purpose are so closely intertwined in the pages of scripture that to consider one apart from the other would be inadequate. Our egocentric cultural tendency is to focus on the blessing without ever seeing the purpose; the goal of this section is to reconnect the purpose with the blessing, and to show how foundational this intertwined concept is to understanding the Bible.
We can start right at the beginning, on day 6 of creation. God made Adam and Eve in His image, then,
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:28, NET).
Notice that God’s pronounced blessing over his newly created couple also revealed the end result of their existence – not only would God presently have perfect fellowship with Adam and Eve in the garden, through their fruitfulness and propensity to multiply He would eventually have an entire globe full of men and women living with and relating to Him in perfect fellowship. The blessing was not so much a gift or promise of prosperity as Western cultures typically think of blessing, this was something more like the Hebrew usage: a familial blessing linked to the conferral of a name and a responsibility to the family as well as the provision of benefits passed from father to son. Adam and Eve were blessed because God was going to complete his purpose in creating the world through them; they would be fruitful and multiply because His blessing was to that end. Their purpose was revealed in the blessing. Our purpose, as descendants of Adam and Eve, is the same.
But then the fall happened. Adam and Eve sinned and death entered the world. Incredibly, the combination of blessing and purpose for humanity was not affected by the fall. So much changed when our ancestors ate that fruit, even the very relationship between man and God – curses were pronounced and life became exponentially more difficult. Mankind embarked down a path of corruption so completely that God eventually judged the world with a flood. But God’s first words to Noah fresh off the ark reiterated the very same blessing and purpose:
“God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1, NET).
The purpose and blessing never changed. The culmination of time will see this globe full of men and women worshiping God and enjoying Him fully. His glory will be known worldwide, even if the path to this conclusion has become a little less straight.
The flood in Noah’s day was a judgment of world-wide sin (Genesis 6-9). Years later, after a quick run through the families descended from Noah (Genesis 10), more sin lead to God’s judgment against those descendants at Babel and the effectual spread of mankind throughout the earth (Genesis 11). But in Genesis 12:1-3 God initiated something new; He called out Abram to be the father of a nation called Israel, a people whose entire existence was rooted in the blessing and purpose of old:
“Now the LORD said to Abram,
‘Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’” (NASB)
Just like with Adam and Noah before him, Abram’s blessing was directly connected to his purpose. God would make him into a great nation, he would be blessed, his name would be made great, and even those he interacted with would be blessed or cursed according to how they treated him. But all of this was so that he would himself be a blessing, that through him and his descendants all the families of the earth would receive God’s blessing. The mere propagation of humanity was no longer sufficient; the redemption of the lost families was added to the purpose. Israel was to be God’s special people, but the world remained in view.
From Abraham the blessing and purpose was passed to Isaac (Genesis 26:3-4), and from Isaac to Jacob (Genesis 28:14), with God confirming to each that He would fulfill His part just as He had promised their fathers before them. From Jacob’s twelve sons grew the twelve tribes of Israel, and Israel, having grown into a nation during a 400 year bondage in Egypt, witnessed God’s power as He miraculously extracted them from slavery and lead them into the wilderness toward the land He had promised Abraham.
In the wilderness at Mount Sinai just before God delivered the ten commandments, the Lord said to Moses:
“Thus you will tell the house of Jacob, and declare to the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I lifted you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. And now, if you will diligently listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you will speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:3-6 NET).
God was promising to Israel a special, privileged place among the nations, but it was at the same time a responsibility to the nations. Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests.” The significance of this is clearly seen when viewed in light of the role of the Levitical priesthood of Israel. At Sinai, God had ordained that the tribe of Levi would not be like the other eleven tribes. They would be the ones that served the nation as priests by performing the ceremonial sacrifices and working in the tabernacle. Instead of receiving their own tract of the Promised Land like the other eleven tribes, they would receive their portion of the inheritance through the tithes and offerings made by the rest of Israel. They would be sanctified, or set apart and consecrated by God, for this role as mediators between the nation and God. It is important to note that only the priesthood were qualified to make the various sacrifices and offerings on behalf of the people (The book of Leviticus goes into great detail about the specifics of each ordinance). And all Israel, even the priests, were were only allowed to complete the sacrifices according to God’s design. Anyone attempting to do it their own way would be rejected, and could even face death. This was serious; apart from the ministry of the priesthood, no Israelite could make a sacrifice for his sins. All Israel would remain at enmity with God. The priests were set apart by God for a specific function – to serve the nation as intermediaries between the Holy God and sinful man. It is not that they were more holy or more spiritually qualified (they needed the sacrifices for their own sins as well), but they were chosen to serve.
It is in this capacity of service that Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests. They were set apart from the other nations of the world as God’s special possession, but that was not the end of it. The nations had rejected God and were at enmity with him. Israel’s position as the special possession of God designated them as servants to those who did not know Him as God. Their obligation was to reveal who God was and what he required. They were to proclaim his glory among the nations. They were blessed to be a blessing to a world with no access to God.
Even looking past the Pentateuch (the five books written by Moses), the remaining books of the Bible are likewise full of scripture that support our thesis: Israel has been blessed with the ultimate goal of that blessing going through them to all the nations of the world. A sufficient example is Psalm 67 below (though David’s song in 1 Chronicles 16:7-36 and Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:22-43 are also excellent examples).
1“May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
2that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations.
3Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!
4Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
5Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!
6The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, shall bless us.
7God shall bless us;
let all the ends of the earth fear him!” (ESV)
These seven verses reveal an understanding of both the blessing and the purpose. The psalm begins and ends with blessing – both a request for it and an expectation of it. For Israel the blessing was evident – God had personally fought their enemies on more than one occasion, and at one time in their history they had been blessed with so much wealth that silver was almost worthless to them. Solomon’s kingdom is purported to be the wealthiest the world has ever known. But there is more: sandwiched between the statements of blessing is a clear statement of purpose. The psalmist knew that Israel was blessed so that the earth would know God’s ways, all nations would know His power, He would be glorified by all peoples, and the nations would know the joy of worshiping the true God. They were blessed to be a blessing.
Functionally speaking, the purpose – from Adam to Israel – is the same. The only difference is the implementation. While God’s glory was revealed through His supernatural interactions among various people at various times, Israel was to engage the world in a parallel vein – as a kingdom of priests, a constant and vocal promoter of the Most High God whom they served. They were blessed, and that blessing would be extended through them into the whole world. These are two parts of one redemptive story.