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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

Missions in the Old Testament

Updated: Mar 18

My life changed a few years ago when I saw my first “spark bird”. Do you know what a spark bird is? It’s the first bird that awakens you to the world of birdwatching. Most people live almost completely unaware of birds—apart from an everyday pigeon or crow. But once you realize hundreds of different birds are there—and that they’re beautiful—you start to see them everywhere

Ok, so maybe you’ve never seen a spark bird, and think birdwatching is lame.

But this article might just be a different kind of spark for you. You see, when it comes to the Bible, most Christians live almost completely unaware of missions—apart from the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. But once you realize the entire Bible points to God’s global mission—and that it’s so beautiful—you start to see it everywhere.

That’s what I hope to spark together as we consider “Missions in the Old Testament”.

Sending God and Sent Ones

Now, the biggest reason why people don’t see missions in the Bible is because, well, it’s not there. I mean, the words “missions” and “missionary” appear nowhere in all of Scripture (of course, the concept and reality is there, just not the terms). These are words that Christians have historically used to describe the work of crossing cultures to make disciples of all nations. And that’s great. 

But there’s another word that actually does appear all throughout Scripture that can help you begin to see missions everywhere. It is the word “send”. It appears so much in fact that we might even call God a “sending God” and his people “sent ones”. Let me explain.

In Psalm 90:2 we read,

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Missions in the Old Testament actually begins long before the creation of the world. Even from eternity past the Triune God had a glorious mission deep in his heart. Not to skip ahead, but the New Testament describes Jesus as “the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the earth” and describes us as “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the earth”. It should totally make sense that God eventually sent his own Son—from everlasting to everlasting he is a sending God.

The next instance in which we see God sending is in Genesis 1. There we read,

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis 1:1, 3

What’s God sending here? His word, to bring a perfect world into being. 

Genesis 1 and 2 goes on to culminate in the creation of the first man and woman—made in God’s image, made to be in perfect relationship with God, one another, and all creation. Therefore God says to them in 1:28,

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

What’s God doing? He’s sending the man and woman with a mission. This is what we call “the Great Mandate”. Essentially he says, “Go little sent ones, and fill the earth with my glory”—which, keep in mind, would only be possible through an ever-growing global family. This would be a whole life, whole world task—wherever they lived, worked, and played. And so begins a beautiful story of love.

Sending God and Sinful Man

Sadly, however, Genesis 1 and 2 is followed by Genesis 3 through 6. There the man and woman—deceived by Satan—disobey the singular command that God had given them to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And immediately their ability to carry out God’s global mission was broken. Here’s what I mean:

  • Chapter 3 shows us that they no longer had a perfect relationship with God. Because of sin the man and woman hid from God as their Judge instead of their Friend. Their destination would be hell

  • Chapter 4 shows us that they no longer had a perfect relationship with each other. Because of sin one of the sons of the man and woman murders his brother. 

  • And Chapters 5-6 show us that they no longer had a perfect relationship with all creation. Because of sin the world becomes so corrupt that God decides to destroy it with a flood. 

And yet the sending God continues to send! He sends a man named Noah on a mission to build an ark that will provide salvation from the coming judgment. God tells him,

“Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation.” Genesis 7:1

This makes a way for there to continue being a relationship with God, one another, and all creation. After the flood Noah and his family and the animals are sent out into the world with a brand new start. But what comes with them? Sin. And so the world repopulates but once again is terribly corrupt. So corrupt that we read that they collectively say in Genesis 11:4,

“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

You might say, “Well that doesn’t seem that bad,” but think about this: what mission had God given to humanity? Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth for my glory. Humanity here is doing the exact opposite.

What does the sending God do? He sends, he disperses the people throughout the earth by dividing their languages. It’s judgment; but it creates cultures. (We’ll come back to that in the next article.)

Chosen People, Sent People

This seemingly worst of moments, the Tower of Babel, is nevertheless the context for the clearest, most significant missions moments in the Old Testament: the sending of a man named Abram. Listen to these words from Genesis 12:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3

Here the Lord chooses a man and woman through whom he will have a chosen people. And we see that God’s intention is to ultimately bless all those dispersed cultures—he wants his mission to flow through an ever-growing global family

So Abram and his wife are sent to bear the seed that will ultimately give birth to Jesus Christ. That seed passes from Abraham to his son Isaac to his son Jacob. These are really messy people, and yet they are God’s sent ones. (This is good news for messy people like us!)

Jacob is renamed Israel and from his sons come the twelve tribes of Israel. With God’s blessing they are fruitful and multiply, but they end up enslaved by Egypt.  What does the sending God do?

He sends a redeemer, a man named Moses. Listen to God’s words in Exodus 3:10:

“Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

Moses then leads the people of Israel out of Egypt, passing through the Red Sea that God parts, and then closes in judgment on the Egyptians. What is this? It’s salvation! And it begins to form how this people will be in relationship with God, one another, and all creation. This is what’s happening in all those chapters about God sending the law and tabernacle and an army to conquer a land and ultimately build a city and a temple. It’s forming a people testifying to the whole world of God’s saving presence in their midst.

The Purpose of a Sent People

Why would God invest himself in a singular chosen people? Well it’s abundantly clear from two different kings that God sends to Israel. The first is King David in Psalm 67:

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.  Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Psalm 67:1-3

God’s blessing of a chosen people was always meant to bless all the families of the earth.

Then when David’s son Solomon becomes King, listen to how he prays at the dedication of God’s temple in 1 Kings 8:

Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name. 1 Kings 8:41-43

This is a people standing before the world testifying to God’s saving presence in their midst.

But what happens? Because of sin Israel’s relationship with God, one another, and all creation crumbles once again. The kingdom splits, false gods are worshiped, the people are exiled. What does the sending God do?

He continues to send! He sends prophets to call people back to the mission. One of them, Isaiah, writes of the promised seed that will take root, a suffering servant whose sacrifice will save God’s people from their sins. Three times he records God saying of his people, “You will be my witnesses” (you are sent!). And Isaiah ultimately describes a great ingathering of nations:

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 25:6-8

And this really shouldn’t be surprising because all throughout the Old Testament are instances of God drawing foreigners, called Gentiles, into his salvation: Melchizedek, Jethro, Tamar, Caleb, Rahab, Ruth, the Queen of Sheba, and the people of Nineveh. 

The End of Sending in the Old Testament

How then does the sending God bring the Old Testament to a close? You guessed it, by sending. Even though the people of Israel clearly cannot live up to their mission because of sin, the prophet Malachi records these words from the Lord:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:1

The sending God is about to send himself. But first he will send a great messenger before him to prepare the way.

And that’s how it ends. 

Now, there is so much more that we didn’t cover. But like I said in the beginning, I hope this overview can be a spark that awakens you to big, beautiful world of missions all throughout the Old Testament. 

Just imagine—what if you began to read the Old Testament with this perspective?

Unto that end, here’s a next step for you to consider. Read through the book of Genesis, paying attention to the themes of sending and sent ones. 

And then stay tuned for the next article: "Missions in the New Testament".

This content was originally scripted for an Intro to Missions video series.

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