God’s Heart for the Nations: A Biblical Theology of Missions (Part 3)
This is part 3 of a 3-part series from Sam Emadi on God’s Heart for the Nations.
In the first two parts of this series, I considered how the Old Testament witnesses to God’s desire to create a global people who worship him. And yet the Old Testament concludes with unresolved questions about how God will accomplish those purposes—a mystery the New Testament begins resolving in it’s very first sentence.
Jesus and the Gentiles
God’s commitment to save all peoples doesn’t appear out of nowhere at the end of Matthew’s Gospel in the Great Commission; it’s present in the first verse of the New Testament.
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matt. 1:1)
Jesus is the promised Son of David who, like Psalm 72 promised, will bring all the nations under his reign. He is the Son of Abraham, the promised seed who will bless all the families of the earth.
God’s heart to save people from every tribe, tongue, and nation introduced at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel reverberates on nearly every page all the way to the great commission.
For instance, kings from the east—gentiles from the place of exile—pay homage to Jesus while he is an infant in Matthew 2 (cf. Isa 60. 2–6). In Matthew 8 Jesus heals a Roman Centurion and says, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). In Matthew 15, a Canaanite woman, a gentile of gentiles, expresses bold faith in the king of Israel. In Matthew 14 Jesus feeds five thousand Israelites in a sequence that looks just like the exodus. In chapter 15 he does that same thing, this time for 4,000 Gentiles. These two miraculous feedings show us that Jesus is building a global kingdom; the new exodus includes all the nations—anyone who will bow their knee to the Son of David.
But the way Jesus builds this global kingdom isn’t ultimately by feedings and healings and miracles. Jesus draws the nations under his reign and mediates the blessing of Abraham to all the families of the earth by dying for sinners and taking on himself the wrath of God that should have fallen on them. Jesus himself says this in John 12:32–33:
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
The cross and resurrection of Christ is how God liberates the nations from their idolatry. Christ on the cross endures the curse of God so that all the families of the earth—all who repent and believe—might know his blessing.
The Great Commission then serves as the capstone to thousands of years of anticipation that have now come to realization in Christ:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18–20).
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me: “Dominion.” Now go make disciples: “Multiply.” The Great Commission is the redemptive representation of the original creation project commission. The New Adam has taken dominion and through his bride, the church, he’s populating creation with people who image God rightly.
The Church: God’s Global People
The rest of the New Testament records how the early church began to fulfill the great commission, plans for carrying that commission out through local churches, and a glorious expectation for the culmination of the great commission.
God begins creating for himself a global people as early as Pentecost. Those in Jerusalem who were listening to Peter’s sermon were Jews who gathered there from surrounding nations (Acts 2:9–11). Luke tells us that thousands of these Jews believed and were added to the church.
In the rest of Acts, the gospel, like a giant wave crashing over a shoreline, breaks beyond the boundary of ethnic Jews and goes to the Gentiles as well. As a foretaste of the coming harvest, Acts 8 records the conversion of an Ethiopian Eunuch. In Acts 10 Peter preaches the gospel to Cornelius a Roman centurion, his family, and his associates. They too believe the gospel and the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles just as it had on the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 10:44–48).
Soon the gospel starts outpacing even the ministry of the apostles. In Acts 11, unnamed believers plant a church full of Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:19–26). The rest of Acts records Paul’s missionary journeys to Lystra, Iconium, Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, Syria, Athens, and Rome—just to name a few. Acts 14:27 gives a brief snapshot of how Paul and Barnabas summarized their ministry “they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.”
The book of Acts is a striking testimony of Christ’s success as the New Adam. At the start of the New Testament, God’s people consisted only of a small remnant of genuinely believing Israelites waiting for the Messiah. Now, just a few decades after Christ’s death and resurrection, there are local churches of believing, baptized men and women in cities throughout the Roman Empire who worship God and image him rightly (Col. 3:10).
The New Adam is profoundly good at multiplying image-bearers.
As the gospel goes into the nations it creates a new humanity reconciled to God and to each other.
In Christ Jesus, you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Eph. 2:13–16)
This reconciliation is made visible week by week as people from different nations and ethnicities gather in local churches around the world and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. They commit to love one another, serve one another, care for one another, bear each other’s burdens, and help each other persevere to heaven. The nations assembled into local churches are a preview of the new heavens and new earth.
And when Christ returns he will finish the job that Adam failed to do—he will bring God’s creation project to its intended end.
After this, I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9–10)
The world will be brimming with people who image God rightly and worship him from the heart from every tribe and tongue and nation. The knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the dry lands as the waters cover the sea.
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