Many people think of Christianity as a particularly evangelistic religion based on the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:18-20, for example) or the passion of the Apostle Paul for preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles. This understanding is sufficiently well known that it does not require my attention. Nonetheless, the evangelistic mission of ancient Israel is not as well known, largely because Israel did such a terrible job at it. In fact, Israel failed so spectacularly at preaching the gospel to other nations that it was a mystery by Paul’s times, hidden among a few biblical texts, that Gentiles were supposed to be saved at all, a mystery so profound that even the early apostles needed a lot of prodding to get the hint.
So, therefore, I would like to examine today a particular passage that clearly shows God’s intent for Israel, and Israel’s obedience to the law of the Torah, to serve as a means of evangelism to show Israel’s closeness to God and to promote obedience to God’s law as a way of bringing Gentiles both into salvation as well as into obedience to God’s law as a way of maintaining a personal relationship with God themselves. The fact that Israel completely bungled their evangelistic task does not mean that Israel never had one in the first place, nor does the fact that Israel never remained obedient to God’s laws for any sustained length of time make those commandments somehow irrelevant, even if they do not have the purpose attributed them by those who hate God’s law or deny God’s graciousness.
So, what does Deuteronomy 4:4-9 say about the evangelistic purpose of Israel. It reads: “Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statues and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day? Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren.”
Let’s comment on some of the more worthwhile points of this passage, because Moses is saying a lot in a few words, and a lot that often passes right over our heads because we do not often think of the law of God in the way that Moses writes of it here. The fault lies with us rather than with God, Moses, or the Bible, but regardless this difference of understanding prevents us from seeing the proper purpose of God’s law as a tool for evangelism for the nations. Additionally, we fail to recognize our own responsibilities in teaching God’s ways to our own children and grandchildren so that we can raise godly offspring who can continue the legacy of righteousness that we (hopefully, with God’s help) model in our own lives.
First of all, let us note that the laws of the Bible are not the laws of Moses, as if he created them, but the laws of God that Moses taught to Israel as he was commanded to do so by God. These laws do not reflect the humanistic perspective of Israel at the time of the conquest of Canaan, a perspective that was expected to change rather quickly, but rather reflect the unchanging character of God Himself. The specific language of the law reflects the adaptation of God’s unchanging will and character to the specific circumstances of Israel. As a result, we are always required to interpret God’s law in light of our own (often different) circumstances, recognizing the eternal principles contained within those laws.
Let us also note that the laws of Israel were to apply in the land of Israel after conquest. Nonetheless, contrary to the false belief of supposed friends of the law like Gary North, they were to apply outside of it, because these laws were specifically designed to provoke other nations to copy and adopt God’s laws for themselves when they saw the greatness and prosperity that came to Israel because of their obedience to God’s laws. That was the purpose. Nations copy what is successful. The success of Israel as a result of obedience would have led, had Israel fulfilled their side of the bargain, to Israel being recognized as a leader among the world, and would have led to their laws and ways being copied by the Gentiles. That is exactly what God wanted to happen.
Sadly, instead of that, Israel behaved improperly in at least two ways. First, Israel wanted to be like the nations around them, adopting their heathen customs of rulership for themselves (see 1 Samuel 8:5), as well as worshipping their false gods (see Judges 2:11-23, among many other places). In short, instead of being a light to the world and an example of obedience to God’s ways, Israel wanted to fit in with the corrupt examples around and so totally failed to set a godly example for others in their desire to fit in.
Second, during times when the Israelites (or the Jews, specifically) thought themselves to be obedient to God’s ways, they thought of themselves as superior to the nations around them. They would call Gentiles dogs (see Philippians 3:2) or brag about how special their circumcision made them, not realizing that it was not the circumcision that was special (one reason it was not commanded of Gentile converts in Acts 15, because it had lost its purpose as a sign of humility and instead become a badge of arrogant pride), but in the fact that God was gracious enough to give them a special relationship with Him in order to call the nations of the world to obedience through them, which their snobbery led them not to do.
Indeed, God’s purpose for both ancient Israel and the Church of God is to have a body of people whose obedience to God and whose love for their fellow man provoke those who witness such godliness and love to praise God as well as to consider the people of God to be a people of wisdom and understanding because of the orderly godly ways in which they live, ways that ought to be inspired by God’s own laws in the pages of scripture. Israel (and Judah) totally failed to do that, and so has the Church of God throughout all time. We have done no better than the people of Israel before us, so we have no room to brag about our own obedience to God’s laws.
Indeed, God wanted the nations of the world to see how close Israel was to God and to long for that closeness themselves. It is a subtle technique of God to use intimacy to provoke others to desire it themselves where no such desire existed before. If we remember, in Genesis 2:18-20, God knew that it was not good for man to be alone, so first he made Adam lonely by showing him and allowing him to name the animals of the earth, until he felt lonely by realizing that unlike the animals, he had no partner, allowing God to fulfill that longing by creating Eve out of his rib. In the same way, God wanted the visibility of Israel’s closeness to God to provoke a longing among Gentiles to be close to God as well, a longing that God would have then fulfilled by bringing them at that time into His congregation, subject to His laws.
Additionally, the obedience of Israel to the laws of God, all of them (there are some 615 or so) were to cause the nations around them to reflect on adopting God’s laws for themselves when they saw the benefit of God’s laws on their own social problems–their idolatry, the tyranny of their own rulers, their sexual immorality, the negative social effects of their fraud and greed and theft, the negative results of their own violence and deceit and envy and dishonorable and treacherous behavior. Of course, this first required Israel to set a good example themselves so that other nations could see a contrast between Israel’s godly behavior, and the beneficial results, and their own lamentable consequences for their own ungodly behavior. Sadly, this contrast was never available.
For God’s plan of evangelism to work there had to be generations of lasting obedience to provoke other nations to godly jealousy and sincere longing. There had to be enough time for the stubborn depraved mind to see no doubt that obedience led to blessings over the very long term, and to desire those blessings for themselves, leading them into obedience and a longing for closeness with God. Once this was the case, then the ways of God would no longer have to be thundered from preachers threatening the audience with sin, or rising up early to rant at an unwilling audience, but rather through positive word of mouth endorsements about the success that resulted individually and collectively from living God’s ways. Again, Israel (and later the Church) were called to fulfill this purpose, and both have failed.
As a result, after the coming of Jesus Christ, the evangelistic mission of Israel was transferred to the “Israel of God,” the Church. In doing so, the long-denied “mystery” (see Ephesians 3:1-7) that Gentiles were called to salvation (as they always had been, see Ruth and 2 Kings 5 for a couple of examples of this), as well as the obvious and widespread offer of salvation given to the Gentiles (which had never been seen before), was done in order to provoke the Israelites and Jews into repenting of their sin and their arrogance and into returning to a humble relationship with God (see Romans 11), so that they could be grafted back into the Israel of God just as the “wild” Gentiles had been. This has yet to happen.
Let us note that the evangelistic message of the Church, the Great Commission, was not new in the time of Jesus Christ and the early Apostles. That mission had always been given to Israel, as we see in Deuteronomy 4, and it had been at least implied as long ago as Genesis 12, when God said to Abraham that all the world would be blessed through Abraham’s seed. This purpose has remained part of God’s plan, that a large enough group of obedient believers blessed for their obedience would provoke the world into obedience and into seeking a relationship with a merciful and loving Father. This has yet to happen, because there has never been such a large obedient people in the entire history of humanity. Therefore, there has never been a necessary contrast between the ways of obedience to God and its godly fruits and the obviously negative consequences of ungodly behavior that have been obvious throughout the whole melancholy course of human history.
Therefore, given that there has never been a godly Israel or a godly Chruch of God to provoke the larger world into jealousy, and then obedience, the Bible has also consistently stated that the Messiah (Jesus Christ) would come to earth to do the job Himself, and that those people scattered throughout all time and all over the world who had shown themselves able to model and instruct the world in God’s ways would be kings and priests in His kingdom, a promise stated as early as Exodus 19:5-6 and repeated in 1 Peter 2:9-10. Let us be found willing to be a part of that godly nation to teach the world God’s ways and to show godly love and kindness to those whom God is calling. Are we up for the task?