Two important ideas lie behind the New Testament’s teaching on missions. The first can be seen in the songs recorded in Luke 1. Mary and Zechariah sing about the coming birth of Jesus, but they do so with reference to God’s promises in the covenant with Abraham (Luke 1:54–55, 72–73). In addition to promising Abraham a large family and a land in which to live, God said He was going to bless the nations through him (Gen. 12:3). Salvation was God’s intention—salvation not just of those in Israel who truly believed, but of the Gentile nations as well. Gradually, it became clear that this was going to take place through the Messiah, God’s chosen redeemer.
The beginning of incorporating others outside Israel was seen when Gentiles such as Rahab, Naaman, and Ruth were brought to faith in the living God. These, though only isolated cases, doubtless helped to encourage the expectation of the worldwide proclamation of the good news. The promise to Abraham was also the framework that the prophets and psalmists used to speak of the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s kingdom. Repeatedly, psalmists sang of the coming day when the Gentile nations would praise the Lord (Ps. 67:3–5), while prophets such as Isaiah could call upon all ends of the earth to turn to the Lord and be saved (Isa. 45:22).
The second concept is linked with the first one, and it concerns the restriction that Jesus placed upon His own ministry and that of His disciples. He instructed His disciples not to go to the Gentiles and Samaritans but rather to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10:5–6). A few examples are given in the Gospels of exceptions to this practice (for example, Matt. 15:21–28; John 4:4–30). However, Jesus made it clear to His disciples that He had other sheep who had to be brought into His fold (John 10:16), and that when He was lifted up on the cross He would draw all kinds of people to Himself (John 12:32).
Until the death and resurrection of Jesus, this restricted ministry prevailed. But then there was a shift. His saving work having been completed, He announced to the disciples that His ministry had become enlarged, and that they were to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20). His instructions in Luke 24:47 make this same point. The preaching of the gospel of repentance and forgiveness was going to be “to all nations.” Jesus’ vision for future gospel ministry naturally merged with the concept that what was in the covenant with Abraham was going to be fulfilled through the church’s ministry.
The book of Acts shows how this happened in the early years of the church. The church spread according to Jesus’ instructions to His disciples—they were to be witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Luke records the ever-widening scope of the mission, until at the end of the book Paul is preaching the kingdom of God at the heart of the Roman empire, “boldly and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).
When Paul was teaching the infant churches in Galatia about the gospel, he did so in terms of the Abrahamic covenant. Christ redeemed us “in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:14). As Christians, we have the Spirit because God fulfilled His word spoken long ago to our father Abraham.
Where does this leave us with mission today in the life of the church? We are in the wonderful position of knowing that the gathering in of Jews and Gentiles to the fold of the Lord Jesus is God’s intention. This is what He planned from all eternity, and its fulfillment is sure. Matthew 28:18–20 is not just a commission; it’s also a statement of divine purpose—the nations will be gathered in.
We should be encouraged by the example of the evangelistic ministry of the early church, but the visions in the book of Revelation are also there to instruct and to encourage us. They draw together the central themes of the promises to Abraham—family, land, blessing. The church of God will be from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9). His people will live in the New Jerusalem and be proof that the blessing of the gospel has triumphed over all its foes. Promise will have become reality, and the gathered community from around the globe will sing, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10).