“A light to the nations”–The Old Testament roots of our missionary mandate

light to the nations

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work with Christian Challenge in Boulder so far has been the opportunity to connect not only to many students from Colorado and other parts of America, but to also engage with students from around the world. In fact, when I first talked with our director, Bobby Pruett, about the possibility of coming onto staff with the ministry, he mentioned wanting to find someone who had a specific interest in connecting with international students. So when I arrived in Boulder this fall, I eagerly anticipated the chance to build relationships with students coming from a variety of different linguistic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Before sharing some specific details about how our ministry is impacting the nations on the CU campus, I think it would be helpful to first look at the Biblical portrait of God’s heart for all peoples. Now often, the New Testament might be the first place we turn to in order to find Scriptural support for missions. And yet God’s heart for all the peoples of the world is equally evident throughout the Old Testament narrative as well. Far from being the story of Israel alone enjoying a special Divine favor, the Old Testament chronicles how God wishes to use His Chosen people as a witness to bring all other nations to a knowledge of Him.

 
In Deuteronomy 7:6-8, we are told that God choses the Jews not because they are especially deserving of His favor, or are in any way greater or better than other peoples. But rather, the text states “The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” The idea of the Jews as the chosen people then was not to enable them to receive preferential treatment but instead to serve as an example for God’s grace and provision—which was to be extended eventually to all peoples. In fact, the law given to the Israelites as part of the Covenant explains in no uncertain terms that they are to extend fair and equitable treatment not just to fellow Jews but to any and all peoples who are in their midst. Exodus 22:21 reminds them: “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Israel’s own historical experience is thus referenced, not as a point of nationalistic pride, but as a humble reminder that they have survived as a people only thanks to God’s intervention, and should thus be all the more careful not to oppress or mistreat other nations. Then in 1 Kings 8, the passage which recounts Solomon’s wonderful prayer of dedication for the Jerusalem Temple, we again find some remarkable insights into God’s heart for the Gentiles. On this great occasion, when the long-time dream of providing a permanent dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant and God Himself has finally become a reality, one might expect an outpouring of national self-congratulation, and for the Jews to reflect upon how God has uplifted them to become a great nation. But Solomon’s prayer resonates with a deep-seated humility, as He asks God to incline towards the prayers for repentance and forgiveness that may be offered from the Temple. Then in 1 Kings 8:41-43, Solomon turns his thoughts beyond Israel, to the Nations– “Moreover, concerning a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but has come from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your strong hand and Your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this temple, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, that all peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this temple which I have built is called by Your name.” Clearly then we can see that the building of the Temple had a missional component—to serve as an architectural reminder of the greatness of the One True God, and thus hopefully as a witness that might bring other peoples alongside the Jews into a relationship with Him.

Handel-Messiah-Poster
Turning then to the Book of Isaiah, we see how the prophecies of the coming Messiah are intertwined with the idea that Israel must not simply be a righteous nation unto itself, but serve as an example and a witness to other nations and peoples, drawing them closer to God. In Isaiah 42:1, and 7, we find that the coming Messiah will bring Covenant blessings not just to Israel, but to the Nations: “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, my Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles…“I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles.” Isaiah 49:6 suggests that God is much bigger than one nation or people, and that the Messiah has a bigger mission and ministry than simply to restore the Jews—“It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.” Isaiah 2:1-2 then paints a picture of time to come when the Messiah’s message will bring peace to the nations, which are now so often pitted against one another in conflict–“Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say: ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall 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 rebuke many people; 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.” Finally in Isaiah 11:10 we again find the emphasis that the Messiah’s coming will benefit the Gentiles as well as the Jews: “And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, who shall stand as a banner to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious.”

 
Christ of course represents the fulfillment of the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament, and while Jesus respects the Law (Matthew 5:17-18) and perfectly embodies its spirit (Matthew 22:40), He also establishes a New Covenant through His sacrificial death (Luke 22:20). This New Covenant is universal, a grace-based offer of salvation to all peoples. Jesus makes it clear that He has come to save everyone—and that the scope of His mission extends far beyond the Jewish people as John 10:16 reveals—“And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” Knowing that He serves a God whose love pushes past all boundaries of race, creed, and culture, Paul can thus boldly proclaim in Romans 1:16 the universality of the message he preaches—“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.”

 

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Having explored some of the Old Testament evidence for God’s deep-seated heart for the nations, how is our ministry at CU-Boulder specifically endeavoring to reach international students with the Gospel? First and foremost we strive, as Isaiah 42 reminds us, to be as a “light to the nations.” Interestingly enough, as I shared in an earlier post, the motto for the University of Colorado is “let your light shine”, which undoubtedly many at this largely secular school don’t realize is a clear reference to Matthew 5:16. At Christian Challenge, we do our best to constantly model patterns of Christ-honoring fellowship, and I believe that international students in particular take notice of this. Many of them have an “Animal House” vision of what college life in America will be like. Especially in a city like Boulder, with its celebration of recreational drug use, combined with the typical collegiate atmosphere of binge-drinking and a sexually-casual, “hook-up” culture, the fact that our fellowship endorses “clean” fun automatically makes us different, and an object of genuine curiosity for many foreign students. They also respect that unlike some Christian groups, we don’t make a decision of faith a prerequisite to their participation in our fellowships, Bible studies, or worship gatherings. While we are clear and unapologetic about our Christian identity, we also focus heavily on building relationships starting with people where they are. So an international student can come to any of our ministry events and experience genuine friendship and fellowship without feeling pressured to accept Christ before they really know what it means to follow Him.

 

We also take advantage of opportunities outside of our ministry to connect with internationals. For example, each Friday afternoon, the University of Colorado hosts the International Coffee Hour in the University Memorial Center, the main student union building on campus. This is a great chance to meet students from around the globe who are studying at CU, and want to practice their English. Because this event takes place right before our weekly Friday night fellowship at director Bobby Pruett’s house, it provides a perfect opportunity to meet new international students, and then immediately follow up from that initial conversation by inviting them to the fellowship. Then, every Tuesday night, Horizons, a dorm where many international students live, holds a conversational English hour. The setting here is usually a little less crowded, offering the chance for more in-depth, and often one-on-one conversations with internationals.

 

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In all the different ways that we connect to international students through the ministries of Christian Challenge however, the main focus is always to build relationships that could one day yield Gospel fruit. As servants of a God whose heart is for all peoples, we must remember that the burden is never on us to actually be responsible for converting a non-believer, or “leading” them to Christ. The Holy Spirit convicts the hearts of men and women, and instructs them in the Truth (John 16:13-14). We however can have the blessing of showing obedience to God by living as witnesses to His love for the nations. We must never forget that Christianity is not a “western” or “American” set of beliefs, but is Truth which has been proclaimed equally to all the diverse peoples of the world. It is our duty then as a campus ministry to ensure that the universal nature of Jesus’ message is conveyed to people from every possible background whom it may be our privilege to encounter. After all, Scripture teaches that when we reach out to the nations, we are seeing a glimpse of what heaven will one day look like! Revelation 7:9-10—“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

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4 thoughts on ““A light to the nations”–The Old Testament roots of our missionary mandate

  1. Yes, part of my prayer for you each morning is that God’s Light would shine brightly through you into the hearts already prepared by Him to receive His message!!!!

  2. I’ve always wondered why “God’s chosen people” were in fact the group that was chosen – what it was about them, so it was helpful to read that it’s because they would “serve as an example” as you wrote, for all peolpe, of His faithfulness, and for the fulfillment of His promises to the people that came before them that chose to follow God. How cool to be reminded with the scriptures from Isaiah that God’s desire is for ALL people to know Him, and that it’s always been this way…way before the New Testament times. What a place the Lord has positioned you in, Blake, for connecting with and investing in young people from across the world. And how wonderful that you’re current opportunity alligns so well with your heart for international students as far as their experience of this time in their lives as well as their ultimate good and knowledge of/exposure to the Truth.

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