God’s unchanging plans for mission. Part 1: God’s plan for every tribe and nation
Posted on: 29th January 2021
Former CMS missionary Simon Gillham is now vice-principal of Moore College, where he lectures in the Missions department. In this first in a series of four articles* on God’s unchanging plan for mission, he talks about God’s promises and plans beginning with Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel.
It is tough making plans and sticking to them during a pandemic. I have friends planning to get married soon, friends planning birthday parties, friends planning work for the next year—yet our plans are so fragile. Are you finding that, like me, when you do make plans these days you just hold back a bit? If you’re not sure if something is going ahead it’s easier just to invest a little less.
I find myself holding back on getting excited about things coming up, not putting the same effort into preparation that I usually do. I’m just not sure if my plans will go ahead.
In this four-part series we will think about God’s great plan for the world—his great plan of gathering people from every nation and tribe together around the throne of the Lord Jesus. This is the biggest and most significant thing going on in the world right now: God’s great plan for people from every tribe and nation.
To begin, though, can we say that God’s plan has always been as we’ve just described? We know that our plans are fragile. Is God’s plan similarly changeable?
In this series we will consider the big picture of the Bible, drawn from the Old Testament and the New Testament, as we seek to answer this question. I want to say above all that God has not changed his plans. Every Christian is a part of enacting that plan. Yet at the same time, God’s mission does not depend on us. We do have a role to play, but we should serve with humility.
What place do we have in God’s plan to gather people from every tribe and nation?
As we look at the Bible and think about the nations we must recognise that two-thirds of the Bible—the Old Testament—is focused on one nation, Israel. Even in the New Testament, Jesus and all the main characters we meet are from the same nation, namely Israel.
God’s plan is for all nations
You’d be forgiven for thinking that God’s plans started with one nation and only later, when they mucked it up, did it involve people from any other nation. You’d be forgiven for thinking that. But you’d be wrong.
God’s plan for Israel involved the nations right from the very start.
God isn’t just interested in Israel. God created the whole world, and therefore every nation. The idea of different cultures and nations and languages is first introduced in the Bible in Genesis 11 with the Tower of Babel. There, instead of letting the people of the world co-operate to achieve greatness for themselves and their own recognition, God confused their languages and stopped them asserting their greatness over his.
Making a great nation
In Genesis 12 God starts to unfold his plan to bring people from all nations back to himself.
1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1–3; cf. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4)
At Babel, the people of the earth wanted to make themselves great. But here God promises that he will make Abraham great—a great nation no less.
Aren’t you embarrassed for people who try to make a name for themselves, trying to convince you of their greatness and going on about their achievements and victories? It’s one reason I find it hard to watch a Donald Trump press conference. But we can all be tempted to do it from time to time.
Speaking about our own greatness is always self-serving and shows us to be puny and embarrassing, especially when we could be talking about the greatness of God.
At Babel, people wanted to ignore God and to make themselves appear great. Abraham’s greatness was given by God and was for the blessing of others, right from the start.
The nation of Israel
By the time we get to Exodus 19, Abraham’s family has grown into a nation, as promised. They have been freed from slavery in Egypt and they are on the way to the Promised Land.
This is a defining moment for Israel. As the nation gathered at the bottom of Mount Sinai, God spoke to them through Moses. He is about to tell them, who they are, how he will relate to them, and if they obey him, what they will become.
4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:4–6)
God has already saved them and brought them to himself. He offered an amazing position of privilege for them. But only “if you obey me fully and keep my covenant”, the law of God.
If they obeyed this law, kept this covenant then Israel would be described in three unique ways. They would be God’s treasured possession. They would be a kingdom of priests. They would be a holy nation. Let’s consider each in turn.
God’s treasured possession
The whole nation would be God’s treasured possession, as if all the nations of the world were precious stones, but Israel the crown jewel in God’s collection.
A kingdom of priests
The whole nation would be a kingdom of priests. In the Law there is a special role for priests within Israel. The priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the people, prayed on behalf of the people, and were to teach God’s people from his word. So within Israel the priests stood between God and the people.
But, if the whole nation was to be a kingdom of priests then Israel would be interceding for the other nations in the way that the priests intercede for Israel.
Israel was supposed to stand between God and the other nations, mediating God to the world (speaking his word) and the world to God (praying to God on behalf of the nations).
A holy nation
So, Israel would be a treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and thirdly, a holy nation.
Holiness has two aspects. It is about difference and purity. Holy things are different, they stand out, they are set apart and holy things are pure.
The whole of the law goes on to describe just how different Israel was to be from the nations around it. They would dress differently, farm differently and behave differently. Key to this difference would be a commitment to purity, to God alone.
Time and time again God tells the people to do something, “so that they (the nations) might know that I am Yahweh!”
Holiness was part of how Israel would be a witness to the nations, a kingdom of priests. Israel was supposed to be different from the other nations. This difference would attract the nations to God.
But Israel—just like us, if we’re honest—did not want to be different.
Here’s the irony for mission and holiness. We tell ourselves that we want to be like our unbelieving friends to reach out to them. But if we succeed in convincing them that we really are just like them, then why on earth would they join us following Jesus? Holiness is attractive.
Holiness is pure and being different from the world in the ways that the Bible describes.
Each of these three unique descriptions of Israel describe their relationship to the other nations of the world. They are to be treasured above and beyond the other nations. They are to be a kingdom of priests drawing the other nations to God. They are to be holy in comparison to and as a witness to the other nations.
We can’t talk about God’s plans for Israel, without recognising that it was always intended to be a blessing to all the nations.
The sad history of Israel
We know from the Old Testament that Israel never lived up to their part of the bargain. They didn’t obey God fully or keep his covenant and showed very little interest in bringing the nations to God.
On the brightest of days there was this hope that they would live up to their potential. Like the day the Temple was dedicated, and Solomon prayed:
41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—42 for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name. (1 Kings 8:41–43)
But it scarcely ever happened and so the nation was left to hope for the future—for a day when the prophets promised that all the nations would stream to the Temple and the word of the Lord would go out from Jerusalem. Because this nation was holy.
Instead Israel wanted to be like the nations around them.
- They didn’t separate themselves from the other nations
- They followed the gods of the other nations
- They married the followers of other gods
- They rejected God as their king and they wanted a human king – like the other nations had
- They did not live pure, righteous lives
- They did not follow the law
- They were not faithful to God alone
The nations did not hear and were not attracted to Yahweh through Israel.
Does this mean that God’s plans were undone? How would God bless the nations if Israel failed?
Later in this series we are going to think carefully about what this means for our place in God’s plans for the nations. But for now I want to pause for a moment to recognise what this tells us about Jesus.
Unlike you and I, God is still on his plan A. God’s plan A is to bless all nations and to use the descendants of Abraham, the nation of Israel to do that. And even when the whole nation fails, God’s plan does not fail. Because just as he intended, Jesus came not just as an Israelite, but as the new Israel.
- Not just a treasured possession, but God’s one and only son.
- Not so much a kingdom of priests, but the one and only king of the universe, who is also the great high priest forever.
- Holy, yes. Jesus lived the perfect and sinless life in contrast to, and in the place of sinful humanity.
Therefore, we need to just pause here for long enough to realise that God doesn’t need any of us at all.
God’s plan was not limited to Israel’s obedience. God is not somehow dependent on me and my activity. All of us who want to understand and engage with God’s mission to the world need to get this. God’s mission does not depend on you. Not on your activity, not on your passion, not on your faithfulness, not on your money. God’s mission to the nations depends entirely on the Lord Jesus.
Once we get that, we will engage in a completely different way. Mission is not a box you have to tick, a chore you have to do, a task you need to finish, or an obligation you need to meet. Mission depends on Jesus. He is the descendant of Abraham who blesses every nation, God’s treasured Son, the Universal King and eternal High Priest, the Holy One of God, who brings salvation. God sent Jesus. That’s the mission and it cannot fail.
Once we understand that, we will see the mission to the nations as an invitation. It’s an invitation to get on board with what God is doing throughout the world, through Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to get on board the Jesus express and shout and cheer as it makes its way along.
At this moment the gospel is growing and the numbers of Christians around the world are growing. The numbers of atheists in the world are shrinking—they have been since the fall of Communism in the 1990s. We might not see this in Australia, but around the world –-the nations—the gospel is growing and mission is strong.
Communist China now has more Christians than any other country in the world. It’s predicted that India will overtake them by 2050.
The continent of Africa has sustained church growth of an average of 9000 new Christians a day for the last 120 years and is the most Christian continent in the world.
Even in places like Iran, where the numbers of Christian people have been tiny for the last 1200 years with precious little fruit for any gospel work, we have seen the beginnings of something very special over the last 15 years.
God’s Plan A is on track. Israel’s disobedience couldn’t stop it. Nothing the world can throw up now will stop it either. Be confident and be glad. Our place in all of this is not to somehow be good enough or obey well enough or live well enough—but to accept the invitation, jump on board and shout and cheer about Jesus.
It is God’s plan to bring people from every tribe and nation around the throne of the Lord Jesus. He is doing it and it will happen. Will you be part of his plan?