God’s Heart for the Nations: A Biblical Theology of Missions (Part 1)
This is part 1 of a 3-part series from Sam Emadi on God’s Heart for the Nations.
Few passages of Scripture capture God’s heart for all peoples as concisely as the Great Commission. But God’s intention to make himself known in all peoples doesn’t begin at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The Great Commission isn’t the starting blocks of the Bible’s theology of missions. It is instead the climactic achievement of a story of redemption that’s been building since creation itself. God’s desire to see a world filled with worshippers who image him rightly begins as early as the first pages of the Bible.
The Creation Project and a Global People of God
Genesis 1 recites the rhythmic account of the first six days of creation: “God said . . . God made . . . God saw that it was good.” But in Genesis 1:26, something unexpected happens. Breaking from the aforementioned sequence, God steps back to hold counsel with himself to prepare for his greatest work: creating male and female in his image.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “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.” (Gen. 1:28)
These verses record Scripture’s first “Great Commission.” Adam and Eve, as image-bearers, are commissioned by God for two great tasks: (1) Dominion and (2) Multiplication.
These two tasks advance what T. D. Alexander has called God’s “creation project.” First, Adam and Eve must exercise dominion over creation. As his image they must reflect God’s character in the way that they righteously and justly rule over the created order as God’s representative.
Second, God commissions Adam and Eve to multiply. The coupling of the word “image” with “multiplication” is suggestive. In the ancient world, when a king or a suzerain conquered a new land he would set up a statue—an image—of himself in the public square. His image in that land was a sign that he was the rightful ruler of that land and demanded the allegiance of the people. Similarly, God signifies his ultimate reign over the cosmos as his image-bearers spread to every corner of the earth. Every human being draws attention to the fact that God is the true ruler of these lands; he is the Lord of all creation.
Read carefully. Genesis 1:26–28 reveals God’s endgame for the “creation project”: a world filled with people who love him, worship him, and reflect his character and righteous rule. More simply, God’s endgame for creation is a world brimming with people who image him rightly. God has always had a heart to create a global people.
God’s Heart for the Nations in the First Gospel Proclamation
Of course, Adam and Eve don’t make good on the creation project and rebel against God. But when they sinned, God’s purpose for creation didn’t change. The endgame of a world covered with people who reflect his character and image him rightly lived on. The arrival of sin didn’t change where creation was headed, it just rerouted the path to getting there.
God makes that very point in the first proclamation of the gospel in Genesis 3:15: a “Seed of the woman” will vanquish the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to sin by crushing his head. That “Seed of the woman” promise has embedded within it global expectations. Read in the context of Adam’s commission to protect the garden (Gen 2:15), the serpent-crushing hero from Eve’s line will succeed where Adam failed and thus restore what Adam lost.
As a result, the “seed of the woman,” the New Adam, will accomplish God’s creation project. By defeating the serpent he will restore Eden, recover dominion, and by implication multiply image bearers around the world who worship God, reflect his character, and live in his presence.
“All the families of the earth shall be blessed”
God’s commitment to see the creation project through takes a massive leap forward in Genesis 12 when God calls to himself a moon-worshipper named Abram and promises that through him and his seed “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1–3).
God’s intention to bless all peoples through Abram-turned-Abraham begins to come to fruition as descendants of Abraham like Joseph are a great blessing to the nations around them (Gen. 47:25; cf. Gen. 47:7, 10). At the same time, even when God acts for Israel, such as in the Exodus, he does so not just for Israel’s sake but for the sake of all the nations.
For instance, at the foot Mount Sinai Yahweh tells the recently redeemed Israel: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5–6).
Israel is a treasured possession among all peoples but they are also a kingdom of priests among the peoples. Yahweh redeemed them so that they might mediate the blessing of God to the nations. They will do that, Yahweh says, by obeying God’s voice and keeping his covenant. In other words, as they image God rightly like a new Adam, God shows his character and glory to the nations and thus blesses them through Israel.
Israel will be a light to the Gentiles. God’s heart isn’t just for Israel but for all the nations through Israel.
David and Solomon: Kings of Israel, Blessings to the Gentiles
Israel most succeeds at this task during the reigns of David and Solomon. In 2 Samuel 7, God makes clear that the promises given to Abraham will be realized through David and his line. King David will represent Israel and his righteous rule will bless, not just Israel, but all the nations. We see that reality blossom during the reign of Solomon.
And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom. (2 Kings 4:34).
Israel is a light to the nations as they stream to Zion to be enlightened by her king.
Even as Solomon builds the temple in Jerusalem, God’s intention to bless the nations through Israel is never far from view. Solomon says the temple will be a place where foreigners and Gentiles will call on the name of the Lord. In 1 Kings 8:43, Solomon says that the temple exists so that “all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.” And as Solomon dedicates the temple he does so not just for Israel’s sake, but so “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other” (1 Kings 8:60).
The Davidic dynasty didn’t just represent the hope that the nation of Israel would know God, but that through Israel God would bless the whole world. That’s why Israel’s Psalms reflect God’s heart for all peoples, not just the nation of Israel. For instance, consider Psalm 67:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us [Israel] (Ps. 67:1).
And why should God be gracious to Israel?
that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations (Ps. 67:2).
Furthermore, Psalm 72 describes God bringing the nations under his gracious reign through the reign of the Davidic King.
May he [The Davidic King] have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth!
May desert tribes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust!
May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him! (Psalm 72:8–11).
The creation project, it seems, is coming to fruition under Israel’s kings. But darker times lay ahead for Israel. As Israel’s future kings follow the pattern of Adamic rebellion, they too are exiled from the land and Israel ceases to be a blessing to the nations. Nevertheless with one final note of hope, the prophets—to which we’ll turn in the next article—indicate that the creation project isn’t a lost cause. God will make for himself a world brimming with people who image him rightly. But the prophets indicate that he’ll do so in a rather shocking way: by sending a new Adam and new David who will succeed not by grasping at power but by becoming a Suffering Servant.
 T. D. Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008).
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