God’s Heart for the Nations: A Biblical Theology of Missions (Part 2)

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This is part 2 of a 3-part series from Sam Emadi on God’s Heart for the Nations.

Read part 1 here and part 3 here.


From the first pages of Scripture, God has desired to build for himself a global people who worship him and image him rightly. As the first article in this series explained, God’s desire to bring all peoples under his gracious reign is evident throughout the biblical storyline from creation through the Exodus and even up through the reigns of David and Solomon. Israel’s monarchy is good for Israel, but it’s also good for the world.

That is, until Israel’s kings rebel against God. Like Adam, the kings of Israel fail to image God rightly. As a result, they don’t fulfill the Abrahamic promise and bless all the families of the earth.

Not a Light to the Nations, But Just Like the Nations

Solomon’s reign starts off well but by the end, he isn’t drawing the nations into the worship of the one true God. Instead, he is being drawn away by his many gentile wives into worshipping the false gods of the nations. The very purpose of the Davidic kingship has become inverted—it’s a carnival mirror image of what it was designed to be.

By the time the prophet Isaiah emerges, Israel isn’t a light to the gentiles; it’s just like the gentile nations around them. Isaiah even calls the nation of Israel “Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isa. 1:10).

So just like Adam, God sends Israel into the east, into exile. At this point in the biblical storyline, it seems as if God’s creation project has failed. It seems as if there will never be a world brimming with people from all the families of the earth who image him rightly.

Is all hope lost?

Not quite. 

The prophets spoke about a day when God would rescue Israel from exile in a New Exodus from Babylon. This final act of salvation would restore the nation of Israel, reinstate the Davidic King, and usher in the kingdom of God. But even here, God’s heart for all peoples shines from the pages of Scripture. God won’t just redeem the nation of Israel from exile. He’ll include gentiles in this great act of salvation. 

Consider Isaiah 2:

It shall come to pass in the latter days

that the mountain of the house of the LORD

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

and shall be lifted up above the hills;

and all the nations shall flow to it,

and many peoples shall come, and say:

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,

to the house of the God of Jacob,

that he may teach us his ways

and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth the law,

and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

and shall decide disputes for many peoples;

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:2–4)

Or this stunning prophecy from Isaiah 19:23–25

In that day [God’s day of salvation] there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”

The LORD calls Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands! To this point, those terms have applied only to Israel. Yet Isaiah says the New Exodus will incorporate even Assyrians and Egyptians into the people of God. God has not given up on his creation project, even after Israel’s failure. The nations will come to know the Lord.

The Suffering Servant: The Hope of the Nations

But how can these idolatrous, unclean gentile nations be made part of the people of God? By coming under the reign of Israel’s king. God will save the nations through “A Servant of the Lord”—the king of Israel. 

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isa. 42:1–4).

The coastlands (gentiles) will “wait for his law”— that is, they’ll live under his reign.

The story of the Old Testament is that God intends to cover the earth with his glory; he intends to build a global kingdom of image-bearers who worship him. Adam failed at that task. The nation of Israel failed at that task.

But before the Old Testament closes, the prophets rang one last note of hope. God would send a new Adam, a new David, a new Israel who would succeed where they failed. The entire creation project would rest on his shoulders and he will carry it through to the end. 

As the king of Israel, he will be a light to the gentiles. He will mediate the blessing of Abraham to the nations. And in a shocking twist, Isaiah says he will do all this by being stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God himself (Isa 53). 

He’ll rescue the nations from their idolatry by being judged for their idolatry. He’ll save them from sin by suffering for their sin. He’ll give the peoples from every nation a standing before God by standing in their place under the judgment of God.

That’s where the story of the OT ends, on those notes of anticipation, hope, and mystery.

And Israel waited for the resolution of that mystery for 400 years. In silence.

Sam Emadi

Sam Emadi (PhD, Southern Seminary) is senior pastor of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky; editor for 9Marks; cohost of the podcast Bible Talk; and author of What Should I Do Now That I’m a Christian? (Crossway, 2020), Who’s in Charge of the Church? (Crossway, 2022), and From Prisoner to Prince: The Joseph Story in Biblical Theology (IVP Academic, 2022).

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