As I was preparing for this message, I was reminded of Jesus’ response to a question on divorce:
1 Now when Jesus finished these sayings, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan River. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 3 Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:1-6).
Attitudes toward divorce and remarriage tended toward accommodation in our Lord’s day. This was a prickly problem for anyone, and the Pharisees hoped that His answer would prove to be embarrassing, if not disastrous, to our Lord’s popularity among the people. Jesus responded by going back to the beginning. How was marriage meant to be in the beginning? In effect, our Lord’s answer was, “My teaching on divorce and remarriage is the teaching of the Old Testament, just as we see it revealed in the first marriage of Adam and Eve.”
In the next few lessons, I want to explore the disciple’s relationship to the world. To do so, I will seek to follow the example of our Lord by going back to the beginning. It has always been God’s purpose to save men and women from every nation, and to do this through the witness of His people through word and deed. While we tend to think of people like Rahab and Ruth as exceptions to the rule, I will contend that they should have been the rule and not the exception. In this lesson, I will set out to show that God’s purpose for Israel was not only to draw them from fruitless works to faith in Messiah, but also to draw Gentiles to faith in Him as well. Thus, I have titled this lesson “Israel’s Great Commission.”
The first command in the Old Testament is “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus is introduced as a light shining in the darkness (John 1:4). In Matthew’s Gospel, the public, earthly ministry of Jesus is introduced by a citation from Isaiah, which described the coming of Messiah as the coming of a great light:
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been imprisoned, he went into Galilee. 13 While in Galilee, he moved from Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – 16 the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and on those who sit in the region and shadow of death a light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to preach this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:12-17). 2
In the next chapter of Matthew, when Jesus speaks to His disciples about their relationship to the world, He uses light as an analogy:
14 “You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).
It is my conviction that these words of our Lord which instructed His disciples to be “light” in the world are closely tied to His closing words in this same gospel:
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
This connection between the Great Commission and the command to be a “light” to the world can be seen in the Epistles:
3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, 4 among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:3-5).
7 Therefore do not be partakers with them, 8 for you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light – 9 for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth – 10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For the things they do in secret are shameful even to mention. 13 But all things being exposed by the light are made evident. 14 For everything made evident is light, and for this reason it says: “Awake, O sleeper! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” (Ephesians 5:7-14)
How are we to understand our duty to live as lights in the world? I would suggest we must begin in the Old Testament, for it is here that Israel’s “Great Commission” includes living as a “light to the Gentiles.” In a few instances – very few, unfortunately – we see examples of how this was meant to work. But more often, Israel failed to be a light to the Gentiles; indeed, Israel sometimes refused (as in the case of Jonah) to be a light to the Gentiles. It was because of this that the Messiah came to fulfill what Israel failed to achieve. And so the Old Testament prophets spoke of the coming Messiah as a “light to the Gentiles.” That is how Jesus is presented in the Gospels. Thus, for New Testament Christians to understand what it means to be “light” to a lost world, we must first turn back to the Old Testament to see how Israel was supposed to be a “light” to the Gentiles. Then we must look to the Messiah to see how He was the “Light.” Then we will better understand what our Lord has called us to be, as we see in His teaching and in the New Testament Epistles.
The disciple’s relationship to the world will be the subject of our next three lessons. In this lesson, we will look at Israel’s “Great Commission” as set forth in the Old Testament. Here, we will consider what being a “light to the Gentiles” meant for the Israelites, and we will identify and explore some examples of how this was meant to work. In our next lesson, we will examine Israel’s failure to be the “light” God called them to be to the nations. And we will see how it was necessary for the Lord Jesus (the Messiah) to come to earth and fulfill that calling. We will then consider what being a “light to the Gentiles” looks like in the teaching of the New Testament. It is hoped that as a result we will have a better grasp of how we are to relate to the world in which we are called to live as disciples of our Lord.
1 Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
2 And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
3 And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NASB 95, emphasis mine).
God chose to bless Abraham and his descendants above every other nation,3 but it was not because they were so prominent, powerful, or pious.4 It was certainly not because they would be so faithful after they were chosen.5 God chose to bless Abraham’s seed so that they might be a testimony to His grace and also be a channel of blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). All of God’s blessings were a gift of His grace; none of them were earned. And none of these blessings belonged exclusively to Israel. They were gracious gifts that were to be shared with others. This was a matter of stewardship rather than a matter of ownership.6 For example, God made it clear that the land of Canaan did not belong to Israel but to God:
“The land must not be sold without reclaim because the land belongs to me, for you are foreigners and residents with me” (Leviticus 25:23).
God removed the Canaanites from the land because of their sin, and He would do the same to the Israelites if they defiled the land by committing the same sins.7
God’s blessings were poured out on Abraham and his descendants so that His chosen people could be the instrument through which God blessed the world. How was this blessing to come about? In what ways was the nation Israel to be a blessing to the Gentiles? Let’s take a few moments to explore ways the Israelites were to relate to other nations to be a blessing to them. But before we do, we must set aside a very serious misconception.
The distinction between the Gentiles and the Canaanites is important. When the Israelites were about to possess the land of Canaan, God commanded His people to annihilate the Canaanites:
14 You will be blessed beyond all peoples; there will be no barrenness among you or your livestock. 15 The Lord will protect you from all sickness, and you will not experience any of the terrible diseases that you knew in Egypt; instead he will inflict them on all those who hate you. 16 You must destroy all the people whom the Lord your God is about to deliver over to you; you must not pity them or worship their gods, for that will be a snare to you (Deuteronomy 7:14-16, emphasis mine).
Later in the Book of Deuteronomy, God differentiated between the treatment of Gentiles in general and of the Canaanites in particular. God distinguished Gentiles from Canaanites in His instructions regarding Israel’s confrontation of those peoples and cities in possessing the land of Canaan. The Canaanites lived in nearby cities; the Gentiles lived at a distance:
10 When you approach a city to wage war against it, offer it terms of peace. 11 If it accepts your terms and submits to you, all the people found in it will become your slaves. 12 If it does not accept terms of peace but makes war with you, then you are to lay siege to it. 13 The Lord your God will deliver it over to you and you must kill every single male by the sword. 14 However, the women, little children, cattle, and anything else in the city – all its plunder – you may take for yourselves as spoil. You may take from your enemies the plunder that the Lord your God has given you. 15 This is how you are to deal with all those cities located far from you, those that do not belong to these nearby nations. 16 As for the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is going to give you as an inheritance, you must not allow a single living thing to survive. 17 Instead you must utterly annihilate them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 so that they cannot teach you all the abhorrent ways they worship their gods, causing you to sin against the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 20:10-18, emphasis mine).
God did not order the annihilation of the Canaanites just because they were nearby, but mainly because they were so corrupt. The Canaanites were a people so thoroughly contaminated with sin that they had to be exterminated. They were like a member of the human body riddled with cancer; the only way to deal with it is to cut it out. Such was the case with the Canaanites. Their idolatry and sin had plunged them to the depths of depravity. They were a virtual Sodom and Gomorrah. Even the children and the animals had been contaminated. Thus, they must be completely destroyed.8
The problem was that the Jews became arrogant and self-righteous, despising all Gentiles as though they were Canaanites. They were eager to see all Gentiles perish, just as Jonah wanted the Ninevites destroyed. They opposed the extension of God’s grace to unworthy Gentiles. This same attitude persisted in New Testament times:
“We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners. . .” (Galatians 2:15)
This is not just the attitude of unbelieving Jews. This was deeply embedded in the hearts of the apostles, as we can see from Peter’s resistance to go to a Gentile’s home in Acts 10 and from the reaction of his fellow-apostles when he did go and preached the gospel to them.9
As I read the Old Testament (not to mention the New Testament Gospels and Acts), it appears the Jews made little distinction between the highly corrupt Canaanites and pagan (but less corrupt) Gentiles. The Jews seemed inclined to despise all Gentiles and to think of themselves alone as deserving God’s blessings. In this regard, the Jews had the same self-righteous arrogance as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:
9 Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘ God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 13 The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ 14 I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14, emphasis mine).
Perhaps the most bitter pill any Jew must swallow (to be saved) is to acknowledge he is an unworthy sinner, no more righteous and no more deserving of salvation than the Gentile heathen. Indeed, Paul’s words in Romans 2 declare unbelieving Jews even more deserving of God’s wrath because of their greater knowledge through the Old Testament Scriptures.
How different Paul’s attitude is after his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. No longer is there the pride and arrogance confessed in Philippians 3:1-6. Now, Paul humbly views his conversion as that of an unworthy sinner, saved by grace alone:
12 I am grateful to the one who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me faithful in putting me into ministry, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and our Lord’s grace was abundant, bringing faith and love in Christ Jesus. 15 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them! 16 But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:12-16).
Paul did not see himself as chosen for salvation because he was such a devout Jew, but because he was the example of one who was the “chief of sinners,” completely unworthy of salvation. God saved him to show that even the likes of one like him could be saved. Thus, no one should feel beyond the reach of God’s grace. Paul is a trophy, not of self-righteous works, but of divine grace.
We must therefore be careful to distinguish between the Canaanites, who were to be completely annihilated, and Gentiles in general, to whom Israel was to be a blessing. Having said this, we can now move ahead to explore just how God arranged for Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the whole world.
In the law of Moses, God made provision for foreigners who embraced Israel’s faith to worship with the Israelites. So even before the Israelites left Egypt, God gave instructions for how a foreigner could participate in the observance of the Passover:
48 “When a foreigner lives with you and wants to observe the Passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised, and then he may approach and observe it, and he will be like one who is born in the land – but no uncircumcised person may eat of it. 49 The same law will apply to the person who is native-born and to the foreigner who lives among you” (Exodus 12:48-49, emphasis mine).10
A foreigner who wanted to participate in the celebration of Passover had to be circumcised, indicating that he had entered into a covenant relation with Israel’s God.
It is important to distinguish God’s “inclusiveness” here from the “inclusiveness” of some churches today. Some seek to draw unbelievers to church by inviting them to participate in their worship and ministry. I fear this gives the unbeliever a sense of participation which may give a false assurance of salvation. God provided a way for Gentiles to enter into Israel’s worship, but this participation required Gentiles to fully embrace by faith the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the one true God, the Creator of all things, God alone. One could not participate in Israel’s worship without first having embraced Israel’s faith in God.
It is not surprising that God also permitted foreigners to participate in the celebration of other Jewish holidays, such as the Feast of Booths:
9 Then Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the Levitical priests, who carry the ark of the Lord’s covenant, and to all Israel’s elders. 10 He commanded them: “At the end of seven years, at the appointed time of the cancellation of debts, at the Feast of Temporary Shelters, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place he chooses, you must read this law before them within their hearing. 12 Gather the people – men, women, and children, as well as the resident foreigners in your villages – so they may hear and thus learn about and fear the Lord your God and carefully obey all the words of this law. 13 Then their children, who have not known this law, will also hear about and learn to fear the Lord your God for as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess” (Deuteronomy 31:9-13, emphasis mine).
In this case, foreigners were invited to gather together with the Israelites so they could hear the reading of the law, and thus learn to fear the Lord.
In the giving of the law, God instructed the Israelites concerning their sacrifices. He made it very clear that the sin offering would not only atone (temporarily) for the unintentional sins of the Israelites, but also for the unintentional sins of the foreigners who embraced Him as their God:
22 “‘If you sin unintentionally and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses – 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by the authority of Moses, from the day that the Lord commanded Moses and continuing through your future generations – 24 then if anything is done unintentionally without the knowledge of the community, the whole community must prepare one young bull for a burnt offering – for a pleasing aroma to the Lord – along with its grain offering and its customary drink offering, and one male goat for a purification offering. 25 And the priest is to make atonement for the whole community of the Israelites, and they will be forgiven, because it was unintentional and they have brought their offering, an offering made by fire to the Lord, and their purification offering before the Lord, for their unintentional offense. 26 And the whole community of the Israelites and the resident foreigner who lives among them will be forgiven, since all the people were involved in the unintentional offense’” (Numbers 15:22-26, emphasis mine).
Contact with the people of God resulted in the faith of some Gentiles.11 For example, it would seem that some of the Egyptians believed and entered into God’s blessings with the Israelites. At the time of the exodus, we know some Egyptians feared the word of Moses and saved their cattle, while others did not.12 Some seemed to attach themselves to the Israelites, accompanying them to the Promised Land.13
And so it was that when the Israelites first entered the land of Canaan, we find them (along with the foreigners among them) worshipping God in two groups: half on Mount Gerizim and the other half on Mount Ebal, just as Moses instructed in Deuteronomy 27:1-8:
30 Then Joshua built an altar for the Lord God of Israel on Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the Lord’s servant had commanded the Israelites. As described in the law scroll of Moses, it was made with uncut stones untouched by an iron tool. They offered burnt sacrifices on it and sacrificed tokens of peace. 32 There, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua inscribed on the stones a duplicate of the law written by Moses. 33 All the people, rulers, leaders, and judges were standing on either side of the ark, in front of the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord. Both resident foreigners and native Israelites were there. Half the people stood in front of Mount Gerizim and the other half in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the Lord’s servant had previously instructed to them to do for the formal blessing ceremony. 34 Then Joshua read aloud all the words of the law, including the blessings and the curses, just as they are written in the law scroll. 35 Joshua read aloud every commandment Moses had given before the whole assembly of Israel, including the women, children, and resident foreigners who lived among them (Joshua 8:30-35, emphasis mine).
It is very significant that the temple was built to facilitate the prayers and worship of both Israelites and Gentiles. I find it most interesting to observe the way Solomon dedicated the temple. It was, of course, to be a place that facilitated the prayers and worship of the Israelites. But in addition, it was to be a place of prayer for the Gentiles where they could worship the God of Israel:
41 “ Foreigners, who do not belong to your people Israel, will come from a distant land because of your reputation. 42 When they hear about your great reputation and your ability to accomplish mighty deeds, they will come and direct their prayers toward this temple. 43 Then listen from your heavenly dwelling place and answer all the prayers of the foreigners. Then all the nations of the earth will acknowledge your reputation, obey you like your people Israel do, and recognize that this temple I built belongs to you” (1 Kings 8:41-43, emphasis mine).
The Old Testament prophets spoke of the coming of Messiah as a source of blessing for the world, and not just for Jews alone:
3 No foreigner who becomes a follower of the Lord should say, ‘The Lord will certainly exclude me from his people.’ The eunuch should not say, ‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree.’” 4 For this is what the Lord says: “For the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths and choose what pleases me and are faithful to my covenant, 5 I will set up within my temple and my walls a monument that will be better than sons and daughters. I will set up a permanent monument for them that will remain. 6 As for foreigners who become followers of the Lord and serve him, who love the name of the Lord and want to be his servants – all who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it, and who are faithful to my covenant – 7 I will bring them to my holy mountain; I will make them happy in the temple where people pray to me. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my temple will be known as a temple where all nations may pray” (Isaiah 56:3-7, emphasis mine).
No wonder our Lord was so disturbed by the way the temple was being misused in His time – misused in such a way as to exclude Gentiles:
12 Then Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple courts, and turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. 13 And he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are turning it into a den of robbers!” (Matthew 21:12-13)
Isaiah and the other prophets had much to say about the salvation of Gentiles through the coming of Messiah:
1 “Arise! Shine! For your light arrives!
The splendor of the Lord shines on you!
2 For, look, darkness covers the earth
and deep darkness covers the nations,
but the Lord shines on you;
his splendor appears over you.
3 Nations come to your light,
kings to your bright light (Isaiah 60:1-3).
18 “I hate their deeds and thoughts! So I am coming to gather all the nations and ethnic groups; they will come and witness my splendor. 19 I will perform a mighty act among them and then send some of those who remain to the nations – to Tarshish, Pul, Lud (known for its archers), Tubal, Javan, and to the distant coastlands that have not heard about me or seen my splendor. They will tell the nations of my splendor. 20 They will bring back all your countrymen from all the nations as an offering to the Lord. They will bring them on horses, in chariots, in wagons, on mules, and on camels to my holy hill Jerusalem,” says the Lord, “just as the Israelites bring offerings to the Lord’s temple in ritually pure containers. 21 And I will choose some of them as priests and Levites,” says the Lord. 22 “For just as the new heavens and the new earth I am about to make will remain standing before me,” says the Lord, “so your descendants and your name will remain. 23 From one month to the next and from one Sabbath to the next, all people will come to worship me,” says the Lord (Isaiah 66:18-23, emphasis mine).
21 “This is how you will divide this land for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. 22 You must allot it as an inheritance among yourselves and for the foreigners who reside among you, who have fathered sons among you. You must treat them as native-born among the people of Israel; they will be allotted an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel. 23 In whatever tribe the foreigner resides, there you will give him his inheritance,” declares the sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 47:21-23, emphasis mine).
From the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3) onward, the nation Israel was to be a source of blessing to the Gentiles. Israel was called to be a “light to the Gentiles.” I will not attempt to defend this statement in this lesson. In the next lesson, however, I will show that because Israel failed to accomplish this mission, our Lord came in the flesh to fulfill that mission. My purpose here is to determine just what it meant to be a “light to the Gentiles.” The clearest definition I have found is in Isaiah 58.
6 No, this is the kind of fast I want.
I want you to remove the sinful chains,
to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke,
to set free the oppressed,
and to break every burdensome yoke.
7 I want you to share your food with the hungry
and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people.
When you see someone naked, clothe him!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise;
your restoration will quickly arrive;
your godly behavior will go before you,
and the Lord’s splendor will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call out, and the Lord will respond;
you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’
You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you
and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.
10 You must actively help the hungry
and feed the oppressed.
Then your light will dispel the darkness,
and your darkness will be transformed into noonday.
11 The Lord will continually lead you;
he will feed you even in parched regions.
He will give you renewed strength,
and you will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring that continually produces water.
12 Your perpetual ruins will be rebuilt;
you will reestablish the ancient foundations.
You will be called, ‘The one who repairs broken walls,
the one who makes the streets inhabitable again’” (Isaiah 58:6-12, emphasis mine).14
Israel’s “fasting” was like her other ritualistic observances – an offense to God. This was because the heart of true religion was missing. From the first chapter of Isaiah, we learn that while Israel continued to perform their religious rituals, they also practiced violence and failed to defend the orphans or care for the widows.15 True fasting was not intended to be a temporary period of self-denial (to be quickly replaced by unbridled self-indulgence); true fasting was to be a true manifestation of love for God and love for one’s neighbor. True fasting was to seek the liberation of those in bondage. I believe such “bondage” would include oppression by men as well as bondage to sin.
True fasting was not just denying oneself food for a time; it was going without bread so that it could be given to someone in desperate need of it. It was to deny oneself the purchase of another outfit to cram into a crowded closet so that it could be given to someone whose closet was empty.16 The Sabbath too was a kind of fast. On the Sabbath, one was to set aside the pursuit of personal pleasure to have time to delight in the Lord.17 Caring for the poor and the oppressed is not just an Old Testament obligation:
Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).
One way to distinguish evangelism in the Old Testament from evangelism in the New Testament is this: Old Testament evangelism says, “Come”; New Testament evangelism says, “Go.”
come to your light,
kings to your bright light (Isaiah 60:3, emphasis mine).
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
Granted, this is a gross oversimplification. In the New Testament, Jesus invites sinners to come to Him for salvation.18 And in the Old Testament, Jonah is commanded to go and preach to the Gentiles. But usually in the Old Testament, Gentiles had to join themselves to Israelites (as Rahab and Ruth did), had to come to a prophet in Israel (as Naaman the leper did), or had to come to Jerusalem and the temple (as Solomon assumed they would in 1 Kings 8:41-43). Since we are focusing on the Old Testament in this lesson, the question is this: “How would Gentiles be drawn to the land of Israel, in order to be blessed?” I believe we will find that the Old Testament law facilitated Gentile evangelism by making Israel a haven for foreigners.
First of all, the Old Testament law included foreigners among those to whom the Israelites were to show charity.
“‘When you gather in the harvest of your land, you must not completely harvest the corner of your field, and you must not gather up the gleanings of your harvest. You must leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God’” (Leviticus 23:22, emphasis mine).
In Leviticus 19, the Israelites were instructed to love their fellow-Israelites:
“You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18, emphasis mine).
A little later, in Leviticus 19, we find that the Israelites were commanded to love their “foreign” neighbors as themselves:
33 When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. 34 The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34, emphasis mine).
I must confess that I had never considered the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 in the light of both of these texts. The lawyer seeks to put Jesus to the test by asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded by asking this lawyer what the law required, to which he replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). The lawyer is ill at ease with this and seeks a way out by asking Jesus to define the term “neighbor.” I’m sure this fellow would have preferred the definition of Leviticus 19:18. But Jesus assumed that, and He pressed further, to the definition of Leviticus 19:33-34. His neighbor was one in need, and that may well be a foreigner (as the robbery victim seems to have been to the Samaritan). But there is an added twist to the parable – the one who acts in accordance with the law is not a Jew at all, but a Samaritan. Those who passed by the victim were Jews, and it would appear that they passed by a fellow-Jew who was in great need. They did not act in a neighborly way even to one of their own. And so we see that the Old Testament law not only allowed Israelites to minister to needy Gentiles; it required that they do so.
But wait, there’s more! The foreigner is one of the most vulnerable members of any society, much like the widow and the orphan. The widow does not have a husband to defend and protect her, let alone to provide for her. The same could be said for the orphan, who has no parents, and for the foreigner, who most often has no legal standing or rights. I have traveled abroad enough to have sensed my vulnerability in distant lands, far from American soil (and American rights). But according to Old Testament law, this should not have been the case for a foreigner who lived in Israel. The law assured foreigners the same legal standing as the Israelite:
There will be one regulation for you, whether a foreigner or a native citizen, for I am the Lord your God’” (Leviticus 24:22).19
16 I furthermore admonished your judges at that time that they should pay attention to issues among your fellow citizens and judge fairly, whether between one citizen and another or a citizen and a resident foreigner. 17 They must not discriminate in judgment, but hear the lowly and the great alike. Nor should they be intimidated by human beings, for judgment belongs to God. If the matter being adjudicated is too difficult for them, they should bring it before me for a hearing (Deuteronomy 1:16-17, emphasis mine).
The primary way Gentiles came to faith was by “coming,” in some sense, to Israel. The Old Testament law was intended to draw Gentiles to faith, not to drive them away as unworthy heathens. Think how the law, if obeyed, would have drawn Gentiles to Israel, and perhaps to faith. If the people of God lived in obedience to God’s law, God would have prospered them:
1 “If you indeed obey the Lord your God and are careful to observe all his commandments I am giving you today, the Lord your God will elevate you above all the nations of the earth. 2 All these blessings will come to you in abundance if you obey the Lord your God: 3 You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the field. 4 Your children will be blessed, as well as the produce of your soil, the offspring of your livestock, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks. 5 Your basket and your mixing bowl will be blessed. 6 You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. 7 The Lord will cause your enemies who attack you to be struck down before you; they will attack you from one direction but flee from you in seven different directions. 8 The Lord will decree blessing for you with respect to your barns and in everything you do – yes, he will bless you in the land he is giving you. 9 The Lord will designate you as his holy people just as he promised you, if you keep his commandments and obey him. 10 Then all the peoples of the earth will see that you belong to the Lord, and they will respect you. 11 The Lord will greatly multiply your children, the offspring of your livestock, and the produce of your soil in the land which he promised your ancestors he would give you. 12 The Lord will open for you his good treasure house, the heavens, to give you rain for the land in its season and to bless all you do; you will lend to many nations but you will not borrow from any. 13 The Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always end up at the top and not at the bottom, if you obey his commandments which I am urging you today to be careful to do. 14 But you must not turn away from all the commandments I am giving you today, to either the right or left, nor pursue other gods and worship them” (Deuteronomy 28:1-14, emphasis mine).
If Israel lived in obedience to God’s law, He promised to bless them greatly. An obedient people would mean a prosperous land. In the law, God commanded the Israelites to set aside some of their abundance to minister to the needs of the poor, including the Gentiles (foreigners) who were poor. But would Gentiles be safe and secure in the land of Israel, or would they be oppressed and victimized, as immigrants are all over the world? The law required the Israelites to treat foreigners with respect and as people with the same (civil) rights.
Over the years, I have known of several people with various kinds of handicaps. Some have carefully investigated which states have the most to offer those with disabilities. Since some states are considerably more generous to the disabled than others, it is no wonder the handicapped gravitate in their direction. Who wouldn’t? Israel should have been the place of prosperity, generosity, and safety to which Gentiles gravitated. And so they did.
There are a number of examples of those who “came” to Israel and found salvation. There was Rahab, the harlot, who believed that God was with the Israelites. She joined herself with Israel rather than with her own people and was saved (physically and spiritually).20 Ruth too came to faith in the God of Israel, and thus attached herself to Naomi and her people.21 And then there was Naaman, the leper, who was also the commander of the Syrian army. He came seeking to purchase a cure for his leprosy, and he left as a believer in the God of Israel.22 (It is interesting to note that, because Naaman could not remain in Israel but must return to Syria, he took some Israelite soil with him.)23
There were a number of Gentiles who attached themselves to David. To my knowledge, we are not told the reasons Uriah the Hittite came to Israel, married an Israelite woman, and became one of David’s most competent and trusted warriors.24 There were other Gentiles who attached themselves to David as well.25 One of my favorites is Ittai the Gittite:
19 Then the king said to Ittai the Gittite, “Why should you come with us? Go back and stay with the new king, for you are a foreigner and an exile from your own country. 20 It seems like you arrived just yesterday. Today should I make you wander around by going with us? I go where I must go. But as for you, go back and take your men with you. May genuine loyal love protect you!” 21 But Ittai replied to the king, “As surely as the Lord lives and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king is, whether dead or alive, there I will be as well!” 22 So David said to Ittai, “Come along then.” So Ittai the Gittite went along, accompanied by all his men and all the dependents who were with him (2 Samuel 15:19-22, emphasis mine).
In Ruth-like fashion, Ittai the Gittite remains with David and will not desert him. Later on, David will make Ittai the Gittite the commander of one-third of his forces who go out against Absalom.26
A somewhat different example of a Gentile coming to Israel is that of the queen of Sheba, as recorded in 1 Kings 10. She was not poor and oppressed; rather, she was a woman of great means. What she had heard about Solomon’s wisdom and wealth drew her to Israel (and specifically to Jerusalem):
When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions (1 Kings 10:1, NIV).
Solomon was an exceedingly wise man, whose wisdom came from the Lord.27 When the queen of Sheba presented her difficult questions to Solomon, his wisdom in responding surpassed even the reports that drew her to Jerusalem in the first place, and she acknowledged this as the work of God in his life:
6 She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your wise sayings and insight was true! 7 I did not believe these things until I came and saw them with my own eyes. Indeed, I didn’t hear even half the story! Your wisdom and wealth surpass what was reported to me. 8 Your attendants, who stand before you at all times and hear your wise sayings, are truly happy! 9 May the Lord your God be praised because he favored you by placing you on the throne of Israel! Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he made you king so you could make just and right decisions.” 10 She gave the king 120 talents of gold, a very large quantity of spices, and precious gems. The quantity of spices the queen of Sheba gave King Solomon has never been matched (1 Kings 10:6-10).
The point in this lesson is this: God set Abraham and his offspring (Israel) apart for blessing so that they could be a source of blessing to the nations. God did not set Israel apart merely to save the Jews and send the rest to hell. He set Israel apart to be blessed and in turn to become a channel of blessing to the nations. Thus, the salvation of Gentiles like Rahab, Ruth, Naaman, and a number of other Gentiles was not meant to be viewed as the exception. Drawing Gentiles to Israel and to faith was supposed to be the rule rather than the exception.
God did not call Israel into existence to be a “reservoir”of all God’s blessings, to store up for themselves and then share sparingly with others at their discretion. Israel was to be a “river” whereby God’s blessings would pass through His chosen people to others. No wonder Jesus condemns the man who purposed to build bigger barns in which to hoard God’s blessings; we are to become distribution channels by which the gospel will be conveyed to those who are perishing.
16 He then told them a parable: “The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop, 17 so he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).28
Like Israel of old, we are not the owners of God’s blessings; we are stewards of God’s blessings. We are neither to hoard God’s blessings to us,29 nor bury them,30 nor seek to sell them for a profit.31 We are to give them away freely.32 To do otherwise is to misappropriate that which God has entrusted to us. In addition, we dare not deceive ourselves to suppose that we are blessed because we are better or more deserving than others. God’s blessings are the manifestation of His grace, not of our goodness.
The Christian life is something like a relay race in that you have to pass it (the baton) on in order to win. Can you imagine a runner sprinting ahead of his competitors only to refuse to pass the baton to the next member of his team? The only way to win the race is to pass on the blessings which God has entrusted to us.
The blessings of God are not for the elite, but for those who are in great need and know it. When Jesus was criticized for associating with sinners rather than catering to the elite, His response was simple and direct:
11 When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 13 Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:11-13).
While the queen of Sheba was drawn to Israel to observe the wisdom of Solomon for herself, most who came to Israel came because they were in desperate need, and they knew it. God’s law made special provision for the weakest, neediest, most vulnerable segment of society: widows, orphans, and foreigners. For the moment, I would like to focus on foreigners because the issue of aliens (legal and illegal) has become a matter of heated debate in our country.
Millions and millions of dollars are raised in America and elsewhere to send foreign missionaries to places far away so they can proclaim the gospel. I am not opposed to this. But I would point out that many foreigners are immigrating to America, so that we need not go abroad to reach them. And if they are led to faith in Christ, they can lead many of their fellow-countrymen to faith as well. One example is foreign students. I am personally acquainted with several who came to the U.S. as students and met Jesus Christ as Savior through the witness of faithful Christians who reached out to them during their stay. These students are separated from their homes, their families, and their culture. They are often curious to learn about Americans, their culture, and their religious beliefs. What an open door this is! Several families in our church have volunteered to work with ISI (International Students Incorporated), and there are opportunities for many more to build relationships with foreign students.
Texas, like California, Arizona, and New Mexico, is one of those states bordering Mexico. Especially after the destruction of the twin towers in New York City on 9/11, feelings run strong about the problem of illegal immigrants. I have no simple political or legal solutions for this problem, though I am confident that the vast majority of these visitors are peace-loving people who merely wish to provide a livelihood for themselves and their families. What I do know is that there are many aliens in our country, and among their needs is their greatest need – their need for a savior. I believe foreigners in our country are a field “ripe for harvest,”33 and that the Old Testament law can be instructive as to how we should respond to them and to their needs.
Being a light to our neighbors involves sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. The need for a savior is man’s greatest need. But in addition to meeting this need, we must also address the physical needs of those who are hungry or poorly clothed. Our care for their physical needs may open the door for meeting their greatest need. Jesus not only preached the gospel; He fed the hungry and He healed the sick. We should do no less.
1 Copyright © 2007 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 13 in the Following Jesus in a Me-First World series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 21, 2007. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 See Deuteronomy 7:14. Also note that in Romans 9:6-29, Paul emphasizes the fact that God did not choose to bless all of Abraham’s descendants, but only some – those who are the children of promise.
4 See Deuteronomy 7:6-8; 9:4-6; 26:1-10; Joshua 24:14-15; Amos 5:25-26; 2 Kings 17:40.
5 See Deuteronomy 9:7-29.
6 See this same principle applied in 1 Corinthians 4:6ff.
7 See Genesis 15:12-17; Leviticus 18:24-28; Deuteronomy 9:4-6.
8 This command to annihilate the Canaanites must be kept in perspective. Judgment is God’s unusual work (Isaiah 28:21). God’s delight is to seek and to save lost sinners (Exodus 34:6-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; 2 Peter 3:9). While Jonah eagerly watched to see all of the Ninevites perish, God had compassion on the children and on the animals (Jonah 4:11).
9 See Acts 11:1-3 and note their apparent surprise that God was now “suddenly and unexpectedly” saving Gentile sinners (11:18).
10 See also Numbers 9:14.
11 Rahab, Ruth, and Naaman are some of the most obvious.
12 See Exodus 9:20-21.
13 See Exodus 12:38; Numbers 11:4.
15 See Isaiah 1:10-17.
16 See Isaiah 58:7, 10.
17 See Isaiah 59:13-14.
18 See Matthew 11:28.
19 In the context, this refers to offenses against God or society such as cursing, blasphemy, murder, and personal injury.
20 See Joshua 2; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25.
21 See Ruth 2:15-18.
22 2 Kings 5:1-19; see also Luke 4:27.
23 2 Kings 5:17.
24 2 Samuel 12:9, 10, 15; 2 Samuel 23:39.
25 Zelek the Ammonite, for example; see 2 Samuel 23:37.
26 2 Samuel 18:2.
27 1 Kings 3:5-13; 4:29-34.
28 I believe “being rich toward God” is, in this context, being rich toward those in need.
29 Luke 12:15-21.
30 Luke 25:18, 24-28.
31 Acts 8:14-24.
32 Matthew 10:8.
33 See John 4:35.