Published on November 9th, 2013 | by Josiah Batten
Biblical Theology Part 1: God’s Promise to Abraham
In my last post, I defined Biblical theology. I pointed out that, among conservative scholars, some believe Scripture itself has an integrative theme, an idea that runs chronologically through the Bible and ties the entire thing together.
Adapting from Walter Kaiser, it is my view that this theme is ultimately the mission of God to redeem a people to Himself and establish them as a kingdom of people dedicated to His rule and reign. Hence, in my view, biblical theology is inherently missional.
The Theme of Scripture
Such a bold claim, that the entire Bible is unified as a coherent whole through the theme of the mission of God, might seem scandalous at first glance. However, there are several reasons to think of Scripture as a unified whole. First, Scripture is a revelation of God. God is a unified and consistent being. To expect that Scripture is also unified and consistent is merely to expect that God reveals Himself in accordance with His own nature. Second, the Bible has a definitive beginning in Genesis and a definitive ending in Revelation. The joy of the initial creation in Genesis 1–2 is restored in the final chapters of Revelation. Thus, it is reasonable to expect the middle portion of the Bible will not be a random compilation of only loosely connected stories. Third, as Kaiser (2008) notes, the authors of the New Testament viewed the “promise” as the “unity and center” both of the Old Testament and their own message (22). It is one thing to surmise that Scripture has a unifying theme. It is another thing entirely for Scripture itself to indicate this theme, Scripture does not err.
Kaiser (2008) specifically views this promise as the “promise-plan of God” which is God’s “word of declaration” of a “redemptive plan” through which all nations “might come to faith and to new life in the Messiah” (19). Similarly, Bruce Waltke (2007) states “the ultimate theological truth that unifies the whole of Scripture is the irruption of the merciful King’s rule to his glory” (61). While Kaiser and Waltke use different terminology, their main points are nearly identical. God has a redemptive plan that entails all the nations of the earth being brought into His reign, and the theme of this plan unifies all of Scripture.
Scripture demonstrates this theme in various individual interacting passages. For instance, in Genesis 22:8 Abraham expresses faith in God’s provision of a sacrifice even as he leads Isaac to burn him as an offering. The burnt offering, according to Leviticus 1:4, atones for the sins of the people. While God provided a substitute and Isaac was not sacrificed, the culmination of God’s provision of a sacrifice is revealed in John 1:29 which states Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Holman Christian Standard Bible).
Because the promise entails the blessing of the entire world, John 1:29’s application of the sacrifice of Christ to the world is significant. In the Old Testament, strong emphasis is placed on Abraham and his literal biological descendants in the nation of Israel. But God’s interest and mission have never been exclusive to Israel. Johannes Verkuyl (2009) states “God chose Israel in preparation for the complete unwrapping and disclosure of his universal intentions” (43). Israel was not chosen for the sake of Israel, Israel was chosen for the sake of the world.
In the New Testament, Christ comes and nearly his entire earthly ministry centers on the nation of Israel. Jesus never visits Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, or Rome. But there are certain hints of a more expansive ministry to come. Jesus does minister to Gentiles when He encounters them, such as the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:5–13. Jesus also spends a brief time in Samaria in John 4. By the time Jesus is resurrected in Matthew 28:18–20, He commands a full-scale mission to the entire world.
In Acts 1:8, before Jesus ascended, He promised the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, in turn, empowered the disciples to fulfill the mission of taking the Gospel to the entire world. This begins in Acts 2 when Jews from diverse regions are gathered in Jerusalem. In Acts 8, Philip takes the Gospel to the Samaritans. In Acts 10 Peter preaches to God-fearing Gentiles. Saul was converted to Paul in Acts 9, so that by Acts 13 the Gentile mission begins in earnest with the ministry of Paul and Barnabas.
Thus, the biblical theology of missions begins in Genesis, is carried on through Israel which as a nation brings forth the Messiah, is taught by Christ Himself to the disciples, and is now a work of the church through the power of the Holy Spirit. While this survey is only a brief one, the broad picture should be clear. The biblical theology of missions states that in Scripture’s historic context the doctrine that God desires to bless all nations of the earth through redemption in the Messiah is the unifying theme of the entire Bible.
The Foundation of Biblical Theology of Missions
The foundational text to the entire biblical theology of missions is God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3. This is true in multiple senses, four of which will now be addressed. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 is a chronological foundation, a foundation for future blessings, a global foundation, and a foundation for the kingdom of God.
To say Genesis 12:1–3 is the chronological foundation to the biblical theology of missions is merely to recognize this passage’s place at the beginning of the Bible itself and near the beginning of salvation history. While Genesis 3:15 does come before this passage and is a true promise of the coming of Christ, it does not contain the detail found in Genesis 12:1–3.
In Genesis 3:15 there is promised a seed of the woman who will deliver a fatal blow to the serpent. This comes as a judgment on the serpent, and so the focus is on the serpent’s defeat. In contrast, in Genesis 12:1–3 Abraham is promised a land, that he will become “a great nation,” that he will be blessed, and that through him the entire world will be blessed. In this passage God makes the human race, through Abraham, a partner in bringing about the fulfillment of His promise-plan. Kaiser (2008) states “In this new era, there is to be a succession of individuals who now serve as God’s appointed means of extending his word of blessing to all humanity” (52). Thus, Genesis 12:1–3 takes the promise of Genesis 3:15 and develops and expands it so that not only is the serpent cursed, but humanity is blessed.
Foundation of Blessing
Genesis 12:1–3 not only stands near the beginning of salvation history, but also serves as the theological foundation for the subsequent development of the framework of salvation history. This is particularly true in regard to the concept of blessing which is found five times in the course of these three verses (Kaiser 2008, 52). Kaiser states “the promise of God is embedded in the “blessing” of God, used in its verbal and nominal form some 88 times in Genesis” (52).
Kaiser’s statement leads one to look to the blessing of Abraham in order to find the fulfillment of the promise. For Abraham, this blessing entails both land and descendants. These elements are essential to the formation of a human nation or kingdom. While this nation will be a geo-political one in the form of Israel, it does not exist solely or even primarily for political purposes. The promise is embedded in the blessing precisely in the sense that the nation of Israel, promised to Abraham, blesses all nations of the earth by bringing the Messiah into the world.
This is the third sense in which Genesis 12:1–3 is foundational to the biblical theology of missions. The mission of God is a global enterprise, and even in the promise to Abraham it is intended to be such. The second half of Genesis 12:3 reads “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
A misunderstanding of Israel’s purpose and duty to all nations is essentially the theme of the book of Jonah. While other prophetic books are about the message of the prophets and the people to whom the message is delivered, Jonah is unique in that it is about the prophet himself. As Verkuyl (2009) states, “Israel has become so preoccupied with herself that she no longer directs her eyes toward the world of the nations” (45). When God directs Jonah’s eyes toward the nations, Jonah flatly refuses to obey God and bring a message of repentance to the people of Nineveh.
In contrast, in the book of Acts the Gentile mission is wildly successful. In Acts 2:17, during his Pentecost sermon, Peter begins quoting a passage from the book of Joel that states God’s Spirit will be poured out “on all humanity.” Yet the Gentile mission in Acts began not at Pentecost, but with God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth in Genesis 12:1–3.
Foundation of the Kingdom
In the Old Testament this promise of blessing began to be fulfilled through the establishment of the kingdom of Israel. Likewise, in the New Testament, the promise of blessing is also fulfilled through the establishment of a kingdom, but not a national or ethnic kingdom. In Jesus’ interrogation with Pilate He states “My kingdom is not of this world.” In passages such as Matthew 4:17 and 10:7 Jesus emphasizes the closeness of the kingdom of heaven even as He refuses to be established as a political king.
If Christ came announcing the kingdom, but it is not a geographic or political kingdom, then Gordon Fee (1991) is correct when he states “The presence of the kingdom in Jesus meant that the kingdom of God was of a radically different order from people’s expectations” (11). In discussing exactly what type of kingdom it is, G.E. Ladd (2009) notes it is a kingdom of God’s reign (84). This reign is primarily accomplished through the transformation of individuals who accept the gospel, not through socio-political processes; though the kingdom does have implications for socio-political processes.
If this kingdom of God is to be built on the foundation of the promise in Genesis 12:1–3 then the blessings of this kingdom must extend to all nations. It is exactly this extension of the blessings of the kingdom through the message of the gospel that the book of Acts emphasizes. Murray Dempster (1991) argues that the church’s reception of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost resulted in the church’s reception of the mission to carry on all “that Jesus began to do and teach” (24). Because “the message of the kingdom of God” (24) was central to Jesus ministry and teaching, it is now the task of the church to carry this on to all nations of the earth. Thus, Genesis 12:1–3 is fulfilled beautifully and in an unexpected manner. The foundation of the promise laid in Genesis 12:1–3 now upholds the superstructure of the global mission of the church.
The biblical theology of missions is grounded in God’s work throughout all of Scripture to redeem a people to Himself and form such a redeemed people into a Kingdom submitted to His rule and reign. This mission began immediately after the fall in Genesis 3, and rests upon the foundation of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. This mission is now carried on by Christ’s church, empowered by the Holy Spirit to bless all nations of the earth through the message of the gospel of the kingdom.
Dempster, Murray A. 1991. Evangelism and Social Concern. In Called and Empowered: Global Mission in Pentecostal Perspective. Eds. Murray A. Dempster, Byron D. Klaus and Douglas Petersen, 22–43. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
Fee, Gordon. 1991. The Church’s Global Mission. In Called and Empowered: Global Mission in Pentecostal Perspective. Eds. Murray A. Dempster, Byron D. Klaus and Douglas Petersen, 7–21. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
Kaiser Jr., Walter C. 2008. The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Ladd, George E. 2009. The Gospel of the Kingdom. In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. 4th ed. Eds. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 83–95. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Lehman, Chester K. 2012. Biblical Theology, Vol. 1, Old Testament. In Biblical Theology of Missions: Reading and Resource Materials. 3rd ed. 121–126. Springfield, MO: Global University.
Verkuyl, Johannes. 2009. The Biblical Foundation for the Worldwide Mission Mandate. In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. 4th ed. Eds. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 42–48. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Waltke, Bruce with Charles Yu. 2007. An Old Testament Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.