by John Metzger
One of the questions that used to come to mind before I was in Jewish ministries was why God only seemed to be interested in the Jewish people while the rest of the ancient world knew nothing of God, and died being eternally separated from God in hell. I just did not understand why God seemed so discriminatory.
What I discovered in the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) was God’s heart for the evangelism of Gentiles. Paul asked the question in Romans 3:29-30: “Is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.”
Great Commission of the Old Testament
Let me begin with the Great Commission of the Old Testament Scriptures. Genesis 12:3 states that Abraham would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.” God chose Abraham as the channel of blessing through his descendants to all the “families” of the earth.
The very heart of God wanted to bless the smallest unit of human society, families. That included Gentile families. After this declaration, God would further reveal to Abraham’s descendants truths leading to maturity in fully understanding and obeying the implications of their call and election.
Salvation of Gentiles
The Scripture can be divided into three divisions in relation to the salvation of Gentiles. In Genesis 1-11, man’s complete rebellion reveals the need for God to reconcile the world. From Genesis 12 through Acts 1, God works through Israel so that other peoples come to know the salvation He offers. Acts 2 through Revelation shows that the first century Church understood and used the Old Testament to justify the move out from the Jewish community to the wider world, fulfilling God’s desire for the nations. Consequently, Paul’s statement, “and also to the Gentile,” is consistent with what God promised throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Most Christians do not realize that Abraham and his descendants, through Isaac and Jacob, existed so that all other peoples might be blessed! Exodus 9:16 states that God raised up Israel to manifest His power, and to declare His name throughout the earth. Upon leaving Egypt for the promised land, they were a “mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:28). In Exodus 19:4-6, God decreed that Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests,” showing God’s ultimate purpose of Israel among the nations. But what does a priest do? First, he serves God. Secondly, he represents people, or nations, before God.
Jehovah or Idols?
God desired to reveal to the nations that He is God over all the earth, in contrast to the limited regional powers of the idols and images of the pagan Gentile nations. So in Exodus 20:4-5, God laid out in the first two commandments that the Israelites were not to have graven images. Why? God wanted to be seen by the nations, not as God of one country (Israel), but as God of the universe who has no equal. These first two commandments add to Genesis 12:3 to protect what has been revealed; God exists, and He reigns universally over his creation.
When Israel served and worshiped idols, God’s purpose for Israel to be a blessing and a kingdom of priests disintegrate. If idolatry had continued, the intended missionary message of the Hebrew Scriptures would surely be lost, thus aborting God’s desire for His people in bringing His salvation to the ends of the earth.
Israel: God’s Witnesses
The people of Israel were to be His witnesses (Isaiah 43:10). God, through His power, wanted to draw Gentiles to Israel to see and learn about Himself, to come to believe and worship Him alone. Some biblical examples of Gentiles coming to Jehovah are recorded for us: Rahab (Joshua 2:9-12), Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17), and Naaman through the testimony of a Jewish slave girl (2 Kings 5). Jonah went to the Ninevites (Jonah); Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4) and Darius the Mede (Daniel 6:16-28). The heart and purpose of God was accomplished through believing Jewish people who reached out to Gentiles.
Evangelistic statements came from the pen of David and Isaiah. David says in 1 Chronicles 16:24; “Declare His glory among the heathen; His marvelous work among all nations.” Isaiah states: “… look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22); “Gentiles shall come to thy light” (Isaiah 60:3); “I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6). Isaiah 49:6 in referencing the Messiah, again lays out God’s heart to evangelize the Gentile world when He says concerning the Messiah, “a light to the Gentiles…salvation to the ends of the earth.” God’s desire to include the nations in His salvation should be interpreted as a missionary command in the Hebrew Scriptures.
However, Israel was largely unfaithful, and God thrust them from the land into Babylonian captivity, curing them of their idolatry. As they traveled and settled in their new world, those committed to the word of God shared the teachings of Scripture with the non-Jewish population. Non-Jews forsook their old religions and converted to belief in the Lord, the God of Israel. Hundreds and thousands of people became proselytes, God-fearers, followers of the Jewish Scriptures from the Babylonian captivity into the first century. Jewish people began to share with Gentiles what God had intended from the beginning.1
By living and teaching daily to the surrounding non-Jewish population, Jews led Gentiles to embrace and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God put Israel among the nations to tell the nations of the God of Israel.
Great Commission of the New Testament
Simeon, in his statement concerning Jesus at His birth, completely understood that Israel was to be a witness and was to evangelize the nations. He declared in Luke 2:28-32, “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” John the Apostle repeated God’s heart for the Gentiles by saying, “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9). In John 8:12, Jesus Himself confirmed God’s heart to Jew and Gentile by saying, “I am the light of the world.”
Israel was finally bringing the light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 60:1-3) as God intended. When we come to the book of Acts, we discover that almost everywhere Paul preached in his missionary travels he encountered proselytes and God-fearers. These embraced the gospel message that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, the God/man who died for the sins of the whole world.
One important thing to remember is that the Apostles did not have the New Testament to use in their missionary travels. They had only the Hebrew Scriptures. It is important for us to understand that the very heart of God in the Scriptures is that Gentiles hear the salvation message. The thrust of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, “Go ye into all the world and make disciples…,” was, all along, the heartbeat of God. Now it was being commanded of the Church.
One in Messiah
Until the time of Messiah, Gentile converts took on the Jewish lifestyle. However, when Gentile believers embrace Messiah in this age, God puts them on equal standing before Him without having to embrace a Jewish lifestyle.
Paul, in Ephesians 2:11-12, clearly lays out that Gentiles are aliens, strangers, without hope, and without God in relationship to the covenants and promises of Israel. But in verses 13, 14 and 16, we are told that Messiah has broken down the middle wall of partition. Jews and Gentiles are now one in the Messiah. Jesus has abolished the Law through His death and resurrection (verse 15). The gospel is now for the Jew, “them that were nigh,” and the Gentile, “you which were afar off ” (vs. 14-15, 17). We are told in verse 18 that both Jew and Gentile come to the Father through Messiah.
A Concluding Thought
Jewish believers of the first century church actively shared Jesus with their Gentile communities (Acts 8:4). God used the Jewish people to reveal His truth and bring us our Savior, so we would not remain lost in our sins. Millions of Gentiles have come to the Savior because of Israel and God’s use of her. It is incumbent on us to be obedient to the Scripture and go to the Jewish people first, God’s order of priority, and then to Gentiles throughout the world. Was it not God’s plan from the beginning to reach Jew and Gentile with the gospel?
1. James Carleton Paget, for one, suggests that there was mission activity among the Jewish people prior to the Christian era. Although evidence is not as conclusive as the history of missions among Christians he presents four reasons for the existence of Jewish missionary activity.
First, the population increased from the Babylonian exile of about 150,000 Jewish people to a first century population of at least six million. Paget suggests there was probably some propagation of the faith to reach these numbers. Second, there was a strong Jewish tradition at the time of Christ of hostility toward idolatrous practices. Third, there is a good amount of evidence within Judaism to support the view that Jews thought it necessary to share their faith with Gentiles. Fourth, there still remains a few pieces of literature that record active missionary efforts among some Jews.
James Carleton, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 62, “Jewish Proselytism at the Time of Christian Origins: Chimera or Reality?”, 1996, pages 65-103.