God's Unchanging Purpose
My preaching ministry occasionally involves overseas engagements. During the seemingly interminable plane flights, I often study the map of the world in the back of many airlines' monthly magazines. Most of us have a sufficient, if rudimentary, understanding of geography. If asked to draw a map of the world, we would at least get right the general shape of continents, land masses and oceans. But that wasn't always the case. Figure 1 shows several ancient maps. The first was drawn by Ptolemy of Alexandria around 150 A.D. He got Asia more or less correct, but he depicted the Indian ocean as a closed body of water, the continent of Africa running all along the bottom edge and Ceylon much larger than India (which wasn't even shown as a sub-continent here). As for the Americas, they didn't make it to his map at all.
Towards the Middle Ages, rather than becoming more accurate, maps actually degenerated in accuracy as people began to base them on superstition and literalistic interpretations of the Bible. One example, also shown in Figure 1, is a "T in 0" map. These maps were circular, with Jerusalem at the center. The Mediterranean, oriented vertically, formed the vertical part of the T; the land masses formed the horizontal part. The land masses were distributed among the residents of Japheth in Europe, Shem in Asia and Ham in Africa. Finally, the whole arrangement was placed in a circular ocean (hence a "T in 0" map). The one shown in the figure was an actual map found in a castle in Hereford, England, around 1200 A.D.
It wasn't until Mercator's marine maps in the 16th century that maps started faintly resembling reality. But even in his original "Mercator Projection," South America is out of proportion.
It took men and women willing to sail and explore the oceans, often under dangerous conditions, for maps to be modified and corrected. With these new maps, subsequent generations of sailors were able to sail more accurately and quickly. If they hung on to the old maps, however, and tried to sail according to them, they very quickly got off course.
The same principles apply when it comes to how we view the world, its people, resources, and our relationship to those people and resources. All of us have a world map or a "world view." In most cases, however, it's a "T in 0" map, with ourselves right at the very center.
The famous Broadway musical, "The King and I" tells the story of an English school teacher who went all the way to Siam (Thailand) to teach 57 royal sons to speak and read English. In one of her geography classes, she unrolled a map of the world. The king, checking up on her, was chagrined that the map showed Burma as much larger than Siam. To him, Burma was a despicable country. He remonstrated vigorously, to the amusement of the audience. The same distortions occurred in real life as well. In early western maps Scandinavia was three times the size of India and Alaska was much bigger than Mexico.
So it is with our world-view maps. Our own little worlds are right at the center and we don't really care whether our view of the rest of the world is accurate or not. We busily sail our whole life's journey based on these distorted "T in 0" maps. For Christians, that is a tragedy of immense proportions. In this book we're going to correct our maps of the world by bringing them into line with reality.
Our examination of Global Vision will fall into three broad groups. The first group (BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS) will show us how God sees the world, so we can redraw our maps and bring them into line with His world-view. The second group (PRACTICAL RESPONSES) will help us translate the vision into action, to sail according to the new map. The final group (MID COURSE CORRECTIONS) will give us some practical suggestions for maintaining the vision.
This sequence is extremely important. Some may find drawing maps boring; they'd much rather get into a boat, hoist the sails, catch the breeze and feel the spray on their faces. That's great; but if you sail according to the wrong map, all that effort is wasted. You've got to have the maps right in the first place.
There are others (more like me) who like to watch boats being built, to see people sailing, but who don't want to get into a boat themselves. That's not good enough either, because the purpose of redrawing our maps is so we can use them to sail. We have to catch the vision so we can redraw our maps accurately. Then we have to get into the boats and sail.
We must realize at the outset, that, like the King of Siam, we don't want to be told that Burma is a lot bigger than Siam. Redrawing our world view maps is not always going to be an easy or pleasant task. Dr. Scott Peck underlines in the difficulty in his book, The Road Less Traveled. He says:
The biggest problem of map making is not that we have to start from scratch but that, if our maps are to be accurate, we have to continually revise them. We are daily bombarded with new information as to the nature of reality. If we are to incorporate this information, we must continuously revise our maps and, sometimes when enough new information is accumulated, we have to make major revisions to our maps. The process of making revisions, particularly major revisions, is painful, sometimes excruciatingly painful.1
He goes on to say:
The painful effort required to make major revisions in our map is frightening, almost overwhelming, at times. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is to ignore new information. Often this act of ignoring is much more than passive. We may denounce the new information as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil. We may actually crusade against it and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to our view of reality. Rather than try to change the map we try to destroy the new information.2
Disturbing words indeed! As you are exposed to new information over the next chapters, and are challenged on some old views, don't attempt to change reality. Rise to the task of changing your map! The consequences of not doing so are serious. As Peck observes, a person who tries to change reality rather than revise their maps, may wind up expending more energy defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place. It may be difficult and challenging to catch God's Global Vision and to sail accordingly but in the long run it's more painful to reject it and try and sail according to outmoded maps.
With this background, we're ready to take our first step towards catching a vision of God's unchanging purposes for His world.
A few years ago, George Mallone, in his book, Furnace of Renewal, called churches in Canada to renewal. About the centrality of worship, he commented:
If the church can take only a few scattered references as a command for world evangelism and discipleship, how can we possibly ignore the hundreds of exhortations to praise God?3
This statement reflects a popular misconception that there are only a few scattered verses in the Bible that refer to world evangelism and discipleship. Unquestionably, God is looking for worshippers; but He is also looking for more and more worshippers from more and more nations of the world-from every kindred, tribe, tongue and nation. The heartbeat of God for the nations is not an afterthought in the Bible; it's the very backbone of biblical revelation.
A man who helped me to see this more clearly is Don Richardson, through his booklet, "The 4000 year connection."4 Right after the dispersion of the nations by the confusion of tongues at Babel, God called a man and made a covenant with him, saying "Abram, I am going to bless you" (Gen. 12:2). Then He said, "all peoples of the earth are going to be blessed through you." The covenant has two parts: The first part is I will bless you. But the second part gives the reason for this divine favour: so that you in turn can bless all the nations of the world. This is one of the fundamental covenants in Scripture and it is placed at the very beginning of God's redemptive program. The rest of the Scriptures can be considered a working out of this covenant.
The context here is extremely important. The covenant is given to Abraham just after the fiasco at Babel and the resulting confusion of languages. Following this, the Bible takes one whole chapter (Gen. 10) to tell us in detail that various clans dispersed according to their particular languages and settled in specific locations. Have you ever wondered why, in such an incredibly compressed historical account as the first 11 chapters of Genesis, God would devote an entire chapter to explicit names, places, languages and tribes. Perhaps it was to underscore the second part of the Abrahamic covenant (before it was even given to Abraham) that, from the very beginning, the God of Israel was intensely concerned about every language and people group in the world; Abraham was chosen in order to bring all of them back to the God of creation.
In the 18th chapter of Genesis, God changes Abram's name to Abraham. Abram means "exalted father"; Abraham means "father of many nations." Right after this name change, He told Abraham what He was planning to do to Sodom and Gomorrah-destroy their nations because of their wickedness. This disclosure immediately provokes Abraham's intercessory prayer that God will have mercy upon Sodom. Interestingly, not only is this the first intercessory prayer recorded in the Bible, it is (according to Don Richardson), the first cross-cultural intercessory prayer recorded in any literature anywhere. All the prayers of the other nations in the world were "T in 0" prayers. They were concerned only about their own people. This first intercessory prayer recorded in the Bible expresses a concern for a nation other than that of the one doing the praying. It was a prayer for God to have mercy upon a nation doomed to destruction by God. To make sure we don't miss the connection, Genesis 18:18 underlines the second part of the Abrahamic covenant.
Moving from Genesis to Exodus 22:21, God says to His people, "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." God is just as concerned about the foreigner who is living in Israel's midst as He is about the children of Israel-again underscoring the second part of the Abrahamic covenant.
In Exodus 32 we find another intercessory prayer, this time from the mouth of Moses. While up in the mountain receiving the ten commandments from God, Israel, down below in the valley, was already committing idolatry and worshipping the golden calf. Fuming, God said to Moses, "I have seen these people, they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them, that I may destroy them. . . . I will make you [Moses] into a great nation" (Ex. 32:9,10). That's part one of the Abrahamic covenant.
But then Moses says, in effect, "God what about part two? Have you forgotten it? Have you abandoned your plan for the nations?" Hence his prayer in Exodus 34:12: "Why should the Egyptians say it was with evil intent that you brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth? Turn from your fierce anger, relent and do not bring disaster on your people." Here in this second part of the Abrahamic covenant, Moses reminds God that it's not enough for Him to bless Israel; Moses is concerned about what the Egyptians are going to think about God. So he pleads with God, "Save your people; not because they are good but because they are the only channel through which the Egyptians are going to find out about you."
Throughout the rest of Scripture, we find concern for fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in individual peoples' lives, whether Jews or Gentiles. For example, when Moses tells Jethro, a Midianite and Moses' father-in-law, all the great things God has done for Israel, Jethro responds, "Praise be to the Lord who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharoah and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods and He did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly" (Ex. 18). Then Jethro brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with the elders of Israel to eat bread with him. Jethro was in fact the first Gentile convert.
Consider two incidents from the lives of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. When Israel was without rain for three years because of King Ahab's wickedness, God sent Elijah to a widow of Zarephath, who lived outside the land of Israel, and gave her oil for as long as the famine lasted. In the second incident, Elisha was sent by God to cure Naaman, the Syrian, of leprosy. The Lord Jesus Christ, at the beginning of His ministry, referred to these two incidents (Luke 24.25). Speaking to the crowds, Jesus said, "I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land; yet Elijah was not sent to any of them but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. Then there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet yet not one of them was cleansed, only Naaman the Syrian." The context of Jesus' words emphasize the true significance of these selective miracles in Elijah's and Elisha's ministries; they underline part two of the Abrahamic covenant-God's continuing concern for the nations and not just for Israel.
Moving on to the Psalms, the worship manual of Israel, we find exactly the same thing. In a cursory survey, I found about 80 references in the Psalms to "the nations." Perhaps the most beautiful is in Psalm 47: "Clap your hands all you nations. Shout to God with cries of joy. God reigns over the nations. God is seated on His holy throne." This sets the stage for the 9th verse: "The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham." The word translated "assemble" carries essentially the same meaning as the word for "church" in the New Testament. Thus Israel was reminded that one of the reasons for their worship of Jehovah was that He would one day save the Gentiles and join them together with the people of Israel as one single "called out" community-the Church of God.
When we move to the prophets, God's concern for the nations remains unaltered. "I will show the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, the name that you, Israel, have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord when I show myself holy through you before their eyes" (Ezek. 36:20-23). Israel's behaviour was causing God's name to be profaned among the Gentiles. God rebuked them because he was concerned not only for Israel but that Israel be used to demonstrate the glory of His name among the nations.
What's true of a major prophet is also true of a minor prophet. A minor prophet who is absolutely unique in the Bible is Jonah. Every other prophet gives us God's message, but in Jonah we hear God rebuking the prophet. The book ends with God saying, in effect, "Jonah, you're more concerned about the shrubs in your garden than about the eternal destiny of the people of Nineveh. You get all upset because a worm ate a gourd, whereas I have 120,000 people in Ninevah under my holy wrath. Should I not be concerned?" That's how the book ends. It's not, in the first instance, a message to His people. It shows Him rebuking a prophet who forgot that the One who sent him is just as concerned about the nations as He is about His own people, Israel. From Genesis to Exodus, we cannot escape the heartbeat of God for the nations.
But how exactly would the descendants of Abraham bless the nations? The answer: through one particular descendant of Abraham-the Messiah. And so from a consideration of the love of the Father for the nations, we move to the love of Jesus Christ, His Son, for the nations.
The Messiah's "job description" is found in Isaiah 49:5,6: "He who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to himself and gather Israel to himself says, 'It is too small a thing for you to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob. I will also make you a light to the Gentiles that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth:" Thus anybody who appeared in Israel claiming to be Messiah but who was only concerned about Israel, was immediately marked a false Messiah. The true Messiah was to have one dominant characteristic-He was to come for the salvation of the nations of the earth and not just for Israel.
This is inherent in all the accounts of the birth of Jesus. Just as the first book of the Old Testament gave us the foundation covenant, so also does the first book of the New Testament, though it is not as obvious. Matthew 1 is a chapter we usually pass over because of the boring and seemingly purposeless genealogies. Yet Matthew's genealogy contains a very significant truth. Most biblical genealogies mention only the male ancestors and descendants. In Matthew four women are mentioned:
1. "Judas the father of Phares and Zera whose mother was Tamar"
2. "Salmon, the father of Boaz whose mother was Rachab" (v.5).
3. "Boaz the father of Obed whose mother was Ruth" (v.5).
4. "Jesse the father of King David, David was the father of Solomon whose mother had been Uriah's wife," i.e., Bathsheba, (v.6).
None of these four women were Israelites; indeed three of them were from dubious moral backgrounds. Rachab and Tamar were Canaanites. Ruth, although a godly woman, was a Moabite. And Bathsheba was a Hittite. All this we find in the very first book of the New Testament and the whole thing, to quote one author I read, is labeled Good News. Their inclusion drives home the central theme of the Old Testament: Jesus Christ came to save not just Jewish sinners, but Gentile sinners-and even the worst kind.
Even more important, these four Gentile women from dubious moral backgrounds were in the direct line of the Messiah's ancestry. Gordon Aeschliman, in his book, The Hidden Half, comments:
Jesus was of mixed blood. If He had mothers from four different racial groups in His ancestry, if in fact He had Canaanite, Moabite, Hittite and Jewish ancestry, then not only did Jesus get His blood from the world and shed His blood for the world, it was mixed racial blood that was shed on the cross for the sins of the world. In a time of enormous racism around the world, that is, indeed, the best possible news we can get.5
What's true of Matthew's account of Jesus' birth is true of the other gospel authors. In Luke's account of the nativity, Zachariah's prophecy acknowledged that the Christ child would be a light to the Gentiles. Simeon, in dedicating the Baby, said that He would be a light for the Gentiles.
Consider the ministry of the Lord Jesus Himself. Where did He begin? In Jerusalem, in the temple, the center of the "T in 0" world? No! He went to Galilee, in the northern part of Israel, the borderland between Palestine and the Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon, where many Gentiles lived.
Or how about when Jesus cleansed the temple? Why was He so infuriated with those who were changing money and selling animals-both legitimate activities, prescribed by God Himself? Was He upset just because they had changed the court of the temple into a stock exchange floor? No, Jesus was infuriated because they were doing all this marketing in the court of the Gentiles, the only place in the Temple where they could worship! Jews had access into the inner regions of the temple, where they could get away from the crowds. But if a poor Gentile, fed up with his own idol worship, was attracted to the beautiful God of Israel and wanted to come and be quiet before Him, the only part of the temple he could enter was the court of the Gentiles. The money changers had made that very place a noisy marketplace. That's why Jesus was infuriated. Hence His angry words: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for the nations and you have made it into a den of thieves."
Another illustration underscores God's concern for the nations. Have you ever wondered why there are two similar accounts of the feeding of the multitudes? In Matthew's gospel, written primarily for people from a Jewish background, the two feedings are sandwiched around two other incidents which hold the answer. In the first, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for being concerned about outward cleanliness but not inward cleanliness. In the second, the dialogue with the Canaanite woman, Jesus taught the disciples a crucial lesson. The Canaanite woman wanted Jesus to heal her. But He said, "I've only come to the people of Israel! Why are you worrying me?" She replied, "Dogs eat the bread that comes from the table of the masters." This, in turn, elicited Jesus' famous reply, "I've never seen such faith anywhere." After that, He healed her. Together these two incidents suggest that the Pharisees, with their emphasis on ritual cleanliness, would have rejected this poor Canaanite woman. So would the disciples if Jesus hadn't responded to her.
Then Matthew tells us Jesus went up into Decapolis, a Gentile region across the Jordan River from Galilee, where He fed four thousand people. Matthew ends his account by noting that the people praised the God of Israel. The second feeding of the multitudes, then, was a feeding of the Gentiles. The first was a feeding of primarily Jewish people. The two accounts are wrapped around two incidents which underscore that there is no such thing as unclean people. Jesus is bread for the world, not just bread for the Jews.
Time passes; the Lord Jesus is crucified and resurrected. In His final resurrection appearance as recorded by Luke, Jesus opens their minds so they can understand the scriptures and tells them: "This is what was written. The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all the nations beginning at Jerusalem." Have you ever wondered what texts Jesus used when He preached that sermon? We can get an idea by looking at the Old Testament scriptures the apostles used in their preaching. For example, Acts 3:24: "You are the heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham: 'through your offspring all peoples of the earth will be blessed.' " Writing to the Galatians, a totally Gentile audience, in Acts 3:8, Paul wrote, "The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and announced the Gospel in advance to Abraham." What is the gospel He announced to Abraham? That "all nations will be blessed through him." Part two of the Abrahamic covenant almost certainly formed the foundation for Christ's message to His disciples when He gave them the Great Commission to go into all the world and preach the gospel.
We know of course from the Book of Acts how faithful the apostles were to this command. There are about 100 references in Acts to words such as preaching, teaching, proclaiming, and declaring, and only five to worship. There are more than 50 references to prayer and almost all are in the context of evangelism. That strongly suggests what the emphasis ought to be in the time period between the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and His second coming: the proclamation of the gospel to the nations so that the nations can worship God. When Jesus comes again, then evangelism will cease and worship will be pre-eminent (perhaps the only thing). But now is the time for proclamation.
Finally, consider the last book of the Bible. Revelation 5 says, "Before the throne I saw people from every tongue, every tribe, every kindred, every nation saying to Him who sits on the throne 'Holy, Holy, Holy.'
God's unchanging purpose for the nations is clear and unmistakable: God has blessed the Church of Jesus Christ for one reason: that, through the Church, people from every tongue, tribe and nation may be added to the Church. When the last tongue, tribe and nation has heard, then the end will come. In our "global maps," that is the first part we must correct. The missionary mandate to the nations of the world is not contained in a few scattered, isolated references in the Bible. It is the backbone of all of biblical revelation.
Don Richardson tells the story of a man who went to Bahrain on secular business. In his hotel room he switched on his television. There was only one English station, all the rest were Arabic. On this channel, he heard a Muslim scholar preaching from the Bible. Systematically taking verses out of context, he claimed that Jesus never came to preach a world religion, but one geared only to the Jews; but because they rejected Him, a disciple of His, Saul of Tarsus, began to preach the gospel to the Gentiles in order to provoke the Jews to jealousy. Christianity was never intended to be a world religion, he asserted; only Islam could lay claim to that.
One of the saddest things happening today is that the opponents of the gospel of Jesus Christ know the Bible better than many of the children of the kingdom. We will never be truly faithful to the cause of Christ unless we set about reversing that trend and begin to understand the backbone of the Bible. Christ came for the nations.
1. M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc, 1978), p. 45.
2. Ibid. p. 46.
3. George Mallone, Furnace of Renewal (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1981), pp. 47,48.
4. A workbook given by Don Richardson to participants in an all-day seminar conducted at Bethel Baptist Church in Calgary, November 1986.
5. Sam Wilson and Gordon Aeschliman, The Hidden Half (California: MARC, World Vision, International, n.d), p. 49.