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The Old Testament Missionary

In early October, the Hembree boys and I headed for the heart of Toronto to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation at Wycliffe College. The conference was chock-full of Reformation scholars; each presentation reinforced one another by underscoring the gapping contrast between the modernized sense of Church theology and the Protestant tradition to its intellectual forefathers: the sixteenth century scholarship of John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, Huldrych Zwingli, Erasmus of Rotterdam, William Tyndale, among others.

Unlike today, in 1517 Europe the Church and State were married, for better or for worse. The Catholic Church had its hand in every back pocket and its face in every bedroom, so the degree of impact the Reformation had on a social, political, ecclesiastical and cultural scale, especially in regards to the Christian mission, was colossal. With the printing press on the outside and the Reformers hoisting the flag of justification by faith alone from the inside, it was a perfect storm. The Church radically shifted from a sacramental system of vantage point dictation, ordinances and observances to a present moment participation of faith and first-person experience of Gospel-centric theology. Now with the Bible in every household and the Gospel in every hand, evangelical propagation became personal rather than institutional.

For those who, perhaps, have not reflected on what the Christian mission actually means or have never been acquainted with the term missiology, the word mission itself comes from the Latin verb missio, which means, “to send.” In laymen, it is known as the Great Commission; in scholarship, it’s referred to as the Missio Dei (“Mission of God”), where the main purpose, mandate and moral duty for each missionary is “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15) and “…make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20). This was not only the mission of the apostles – since the word apostle means the “one who is sent” – it was the mission of Christ Himself (John 17:8, 18) and His subsequent disciples[1].

“And, like most Reformation scholars, temptation to isolate the Epistles in place of the Gospel and favour their theology over the historical narrative is readily available.”

Missiology, then, through the lens of the Reformation’s five solas, particularly sola Scriptura and Martin Luther’s deep-seated conviction of justification by faith alone (sola fides), is concerned with how to contextualize the Gospel to the culture. Aided by social research and applied science today, it is now a multi-disciplinary study and branch of practical theology about how to most effectively evangelize the gospel message and cultivate a growing church in relation to the world around it. Due to new technology over the last hundred years, mission work went from a tireless hands-on grind of travelling, converting and planting new churches (congregation), no matter the cost, to a weekly upload from one’s bedroom, so to speak. It went from a strict focus on local growth to now understanding its global impact and imperative.

As such, the issue today is less about how to get the Word out and more of an apologetic of Scriptural authority. As simple as the Gospel may sound, its scope is so pervasive that people often get their knots tied up on how to do it right, particularly in correlation to God’s Will in the Old Testament. And, like most Reformation scholars, temptation to isolate the Epistles in place of the Gospel and favour their theology over the historical narrative is readily available[2].

Now, with respect to each speaker – their integrity I dare not put to question – there was one blanket statement addressed, in particular, that really snagged my line. Each presentation drew from the Reformer’s determination that there was no basis, evidence or any amount of precedent in the Old Testament to support, let alone theologically substantiate, missiology found in the New Testament. That is to say, the Old Testament is totally absent of missionaries and our missiological duty. This – apparently – causes tremendous difficulties in the intellectual community. How are we to effectively justify our purpose, mandate and mission present in the New Testament with no Old Testament representation (specifically in relation to the Law)? I will address that question in a moment – first, the presupposition that there is no missiological basis in the Old.

Jonah and the Whale by Italian Master, c. 17th century

Is there any basis in the Old Testament for missionary work?

After listening to each presentation, question and answer naturally followed suit. Instinctually, the obvious thought came to mind: “What about Jonah?” The answer to which was less than satisfactory. Like a fish out of water, it was quickly dismissed as irrelevant, “Well, I would hardly consider reluctance, pettiness and casting judgment on people as missionary work” followed by “I am not well versed in the Old Testament, can we stick to the New” (to put it briefly)[3]. It was overly presumptuous of me to have assumed that the academics at large had considered Jonah already. Frankly, in my mind, it was such a blatantly obvious example of Old Testament missions that I was taken back by the very idea that Jonah was not even worth discussing. Jonah was “sent” by God to travel to a foreign nation and preach a message from God against it as a means for repentance (Jonah 4:1-2).

​I will concede that Jonah is far from the ideal candidate of what we would consider a “missionary” today. Plainly, he was a self-righteous, intolerant, prejudice diehard, yet despite his faults, God wanted him (and no one else) to preach at Nineveh, the prominent city and symbol of Assyrian power. In all irony to the scholars at hand, Martin Luther, for all of his strengths, was no saint either – he was an anti-Semitic, anti-cleric, intemperate, over-indulgent son of a gun. And most poignantly, both men stubbornly decided, at one point or another, who should have the right to hear the Word of God: For Jonah, the Assyrians should not; for Luther, the Jews should not. And, from an earthly standpoint, if I were forced to pick sides, Jonah actually had a moral reason to be ‘damned angry’ (Jonah 4:9) with the amoral conduct oozing out of Assyria, like skinning people alive, whereas the Jews contemporary to Luther gave no such horrific violations. Sometimes God calls people right for the task, not necessarily those right by our standards or even, at times, with Him (2 Chronicles 36:22-23) – even if that means they have scales for skin. I think it is fair to say that neither Jonah or Luther are the ideal moral icons to model yourself after for evangelism as opposed to, say, the Apostle Paul.

It ought to be obvious by now that it is not Jonah’s character or his theological sensitivity I intend to highlight – it is the overarching narrative itself and the Author’s intent that bares witness to the pragmatic heart and theological insight we see in the New Testament. For one, consider that Jonah is a rather odd book of prophecy. The actual prophetic content alone is only five Hebrews words deep: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jonah 3:4). Admittedly, it also lacks the traditional characteristics of other historical books in Scripture and has strong ironic undertones. By consequence, whether historical or satirical, it begs to be read from an overarching perspective, to dive deeper into the thematic structure that underpins the story just to scratch the surface of its greater meaning and moral application, which then draws prophetic context and thematic unity from other Scripture.

Irrespective of culture and historicity, the art of storytelling was and still is known to be the best and most widely used method for general learning, especially moral truths and spiritual realities. This fact only intensifies in light of Scripture. For more than millennia the Judeo-Christian worldview, by in large, was principally understood through the scope of narrative, that is historical narrative[4] and traditional narrative of anecdotes, allegories, metaphors, and parables.

Similar to how the Scriptural narrative as a whole is selectively composed, the prophetic allusions, metaphors and symbols that coincide with thematic structure of Jonah is curated in a way to construct a prophetic narrative, whether you consider the story of Jonah to be historical fact or fiction (Jonah the person is referenced as a real person in the historical canon of 2 Kings 14:25). This is especially true in regards to the Missio Dei, which finds sustenance from a New Testament vantage point. Therefore, it is not out of reach to assume the moral of this story has a clear proto-missiological precedent that foreshadows the Great Commission as a pre-Christ form of missions.

At the heart of the mission

The strongest and most prevalent theme of the entire Bible, salvation (or soteriology), begins in the Old and continues into the New with one key antecedent – repentance – whereby a verbal and behavioural affirmation of belief follows suit. This basic Gospel message is not only at the heart of the Great Commission, it thematically aligns with Old Testament prophecy and narrative, which is exemplified in the Book of Jonah. Both the Apostle Peter and Paul affirm this basic Gospel message as clear as water in the Book of Acts, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38-39; see also Acts 3:19; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20).

Jonah’s name, meaning “dove”, is not only soteriological and eschatological symbolism in relation to the Holy Spirit, which represents the new creation motif in the present age (being baptized and “born again” as a “new creation” is the earmark of salvation: 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15) and the age to come (Revelation 21:1-7), it also infers prophetic antediluvian imagery of Noah’s dove that carried a ‘message of salvation’ in the form of an olive branch (which is used for anointing oil and infers a type of new creation). Likewise, Jonah was a prophet called, commanded and sent by God to carry His word: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2)[5].

The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah...”

Matthew 12:41

We all know how the story goes: Jonah flees in anger, is swallowed by a fish, utters a sincere Messianic prayer in its belly, “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), is vomited on dry land and then goes to Nineveh to preach what God instructed. Jonah attempted to flee to Tarshish in the south of Spain because by going to the opposite end of the earth, so to speak, or by being casted into the raging sea, he was hoping God would simply destroy Assyria. He would rather die than betray his people. At the time, the Assyrians posed a massive and immediate threat to Israel. Some scholars even place this account after the Assyrian Exile, which would only fuel Jonah’s bitterness and anger all the more[6]. Either way, upon hearing the Word of God through Jonah, all the citizens of Nineveh begin to repent and so, in mercy, God relents and withholds calamity –– on the surface (whether the people were simply spared or truly saved is a matter of debate – more on this below). Furthermore, Jonah truly understood God’s character (compare Jonah 4:2 to Exodus 34:6-7); he knew God would show ‘grace and mercy in lovingkindness’ on the Assyrians if they repented apart from the Mosaic covenant.

From Jonah to Jesus

The story of Jonah records a clear example of Old Testament missions and God’s impartial love for all people, pagans and heathens alike, “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:11) and it foreshadows what we now call the Mission Dei before the Apostles realized the heart of the Great Commission, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” (Acts 11:18) As Christ, too, expressed early on in His ministry (Matthew 4:17). Having only a mere branch of repentance, Jonah did not carry the fruit of the New Testament – Jesus Christ – the means by which salvation comes. And yet, that did not stop Jesus Christ from stressing these words: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:39-41; see also Luke 11:28-32)

It is no coincidence that Christ compares His crucifixion, death and resurrection (the act of conquering sin) to the prophet Jonah being “in the belly of the great fish” and Jonah likewise compares his experience to the “realm of the dead” who, then, afterwards goes out into the world and preaches God’s word – a transparent precursor to the Great Commission, especially for the Old Testament where the physical acts are a shadow of the spiritual (Colossians 2:16-17, Hebrews 8:4-5; 10:1). In fact, the gist of Jonah’s story is a direct parallel to the symbolic earmarks of water baptism: the old self is voluntarily thrown into water to die as a sign of repentance and the new self comes out alive as a sign of salvation and new creation (Colossians 2:11-15).

What is even more fascinating, eschatologically speaking, is that Christ seems to affirm the historicity and spiritual reality of Jonah when He says the one’s who had sincerely repented in Nineveh will in some way be a part of Israel’s final judgment and “condemn it, because they repented” in concurrence to Jonah being a real historical figure like Himself: “…indeed a greater than Jonah is here”. If we take this passage at face value, especially in comparison to the greater theme of Jonah, it intimates that Nineveh did not repent for their own gain nor did they repent to their gods, it means when Jonah preached the men of Nineveh heard the voice of God speaking through him, and out of conviction and contrition (Psalm 51:17) they humbled themselves and said “Let everyone call urgently on God” (Jonah 3:8; see also Acts 2:21; Joel 2:28-32; Romans 10:10-15), that is they repented and confessed to the one and only God, and turned from their evil ways in what may have very well been faith (or hope) that God would preserve them (Jonah 3:5-10). Jonah brought a special message of repentance that appealed to their general sense of God in spite of their abysmal theology. While it is true that Jonah’s message was extremely harsh, condemningly so, we must keep in mind that it was intended for the hardened hearts of the Assyrians who, contextually, were also terribly harsh.

This view is, in part, central to Martin Luther’s gospel hope: justification by faith through God’s Word alone. And, what is faith for if not to repent? Luther, too, acknowledges that this cornerstone tenet of present-tensed participation through faith is critical to the Gospel and living a Christian life, “Now the mass is part of the gospel; indeed, it is the sum and substance of it. For what is the whole gospel but the good tidings of the forgiveness of sins.”[7]

Although just a minor prophet, Jonah plays a major role in the Scriptural narrative. And at the very least, I think it is safe to say that the Book of Jonah substantiates an overarching missiological basis for God’s global plan of salvation in the Old Testament, and that the generation of Israel at the time was, quite possibly, aware of it[8]. What does that mean for us?

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1633

Going back to the basics

The historical prophetic narrative of Jonah demonstrates a glimpse of what the mission meant to God early on, even during the time of his chosen people[9]. It’s a story of mercy over justice lest iniquity be full (Genesis 15:16). It impresses a footprint for salvation by repentance and through obedience that is for all of humanity, and lays the understated groundwork for all New Testament missionaries: God has and will always love everyone. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.

Jesus Christ vividly practices and unequivocally teaches this agape theology that we see candidly in the story of Jonah. He demonstrates that we ought to love our enemies, and that if we only love those who love us then we’re no different than the world, that is our neighbours who live without or against God (Matthew 5:43-48). Jesus even further illustrates this precept with the thief on the cross who might have “reviled Him [Christ]” for the same reason the chief priests, teacher of the law and elders did (Matthew 27:41-44, Mark 15:32) and that our love of neighbour extends beyond nation, culture, religion and family in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Despite our sentiment, opinion, sense of justice or distaste of the world – and in lack of the worlds as well (Jonah 2:8) – God loves the whole world, and everyone needs to hear the Word of God – they need the Gospel! And that is precisely what we see happen in the Book of Acts and its fruits of labour in the Epistles: Evangelism is not institutional – it’s Personal (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Such is the case in Jonah. God’s message was personalized to the men of Nineveh, albeit brief and pejorative, its biblical proportions nevertheless struck a chord. Jonah the person, however, begins and ends the story as a glowing example of what not to do. – Ha! Perhaps, Jonah’s character best represents the heart of what Israel had become in light of what it could have been. In fact, his reluctance to prophesy only bolsters a basic yet overlooked Gospel truth of message over messenger (Philippians 1:15-18, Galatians 1:8-9). In turn, it demonstrates whom missionaries ought to conform to: Jesus Christ, the Imago Dei.

When the New is not so new.

I think the greater issue at large here is that by affirming there is no antecedent or basis for missions in the Old Testament, it can propagate a way of thinking that divorces the New Testament as independent of the Old, or that theology is impartial to history, or that morality is isolated from story, or that salvation depends on contextualization, or even that the Epistles are a law distinct from the basic Gospel message[10], as if God’s “agape” love is a New Testament concept. In such a forced dichotomy between the two, God’s message of repentance to Nineveh merely floats along the surface as nothing more than biblical theatrics. And due to a lack of holistic theology, the heart of Jonah’s story is thrown overboard to swim with the fishes.

This Old love and the Mission Dei is further expressed through the Great Commission to the Gentiles: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10) The Apostle Peter’s declaration here explicitly unifies a central purpose that was intended for Israel, to make all people priests and disciples: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant… you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Exodus 19:5-6) Amazingly, God’s “kingdom of priests” features the entire congregation of Israel as a complementary whole and does not exclude earthly professions such as farmers, shepherds, and traders. Meaning, the Levites were the predominate keepers of the Law as shadows of things to come, and all people were called to be members of the holy priesthood. A kingdom that William Tyndale, too, famously had in heart, “…If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” Therefore by reading the Bible, praying with God, loving your neighbour, or even watching our Daily Show, you are proactively engaging in God’s global mission for us all. It is a liberty we owe dearly to the Reformation.

 

Matlock Bobechko | First published on December 8, 2017 – 3:29 PM EST. Revised on October 3, 2019 – 2:03 PM EST


 

If we limit our options from Jacob (Israel) to before the time of Israel’s Exile, so just the time of Israel’s nationhood, plausible candidates for a viable OT missionary narrow. Nevertheless, to carry the vein of thought, why is Moses not considered the first missionary? What differentiates the story of Jonah from, say, the story of Moses who likewise hesitantly listens to God’s Will, goes back to Egypt for the Israelites and speaks God’s message?

Well, it would seem prima facie that there is no reason that he ought not to categorically fall under proto-missiology. Albeit, the circumstances of Moses’ life invite quite the melting pot of categories: prophet, scribe, poet (Psalm 90), warrior, shepherd, reformer, political and religious leader, and possibly, even an early type of missionary. The argument here is if a missionary is dependent upon the mission or if the mission is dependent upon a missionary. Respectively, for all of his achievements, Moses does not cut the mustard. Moses was not bringing an explicit message of salvation to a foreign nation; he was tasked to deliver Israel, of like belief, out of Egypt to illustrate the latter means of salvation. So the soteriological implications are more in the overarching symbolism of the Law and its institution than the direct message spoken by Moses. Though, he was given a mission by God, Moses is not a missionary by what we constitute as missions work in the New Testament and today. ​

If we were to break our limitations and go further back down the timeline into Hebrew tradition, there are extra-biblical texts, apocryphal traditions and other peripheral sources like the Book of Jasher or Enoch that pre-date Jesus Christ and Israel with striking similarities to base the missionary tradition found in the New Testament. It is recorded in tradition that both Methuselah and Noah constantly spoke the words of the Lord, day after day, preaching repentance to save the people of the world from destruction as God instructed, “Speak ye, and proclaim to the sons of men, saying, Thus saith the Lord, return from your evil ways and forsake your works, and the Lord will repent of the evil that he declared to do to you, so that it shall not come to pass.”[11] If salvation pre-Christ was possible through repentance followed by obedience, and thus includes the acknowledgement of God’s supreme authority as the Apostle Paul claimed, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:18-21), that is being made in the image of God, perhaps then, Methuselah and Noah are the first true missionaries and their former missiological failures offer incremental precedent for the latter. But alas, this is not Scripture, only tradition and speculation at best. Whether true or false, it may play its role in mutually shared belief in ancient times (2 Peter 2:5), but it does not institute a missiological precedent for the Apostles, or any missionary for that matter, to model themselves after.

[1] Sproul, R.C. “The Biblical Basis for Missions.” August 31, 2015. Ligonier Ministries. Extracted from “The Crucial Questions: What is the Great Commission?” by R.C. Sproul.

[2] Adams, Samuel V. The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright, 24.

[3] A missionary does not mean vacationary. A true blue missionary is not in it for his or her own sake – it is the mission of God and it is the missionary’s duty to abide even if that means preaching unpleasantry. Missionary work is not solely about positivity, optimism, or bringing moments of happiness to others, even with the Good News. While it is true that the Gospel does bring a depth to joy that surfaces as evangelical exuberance (and in my experience, cannot be achieved by or through any other means), for salvation to manifest, repentance is vital and by no means easy – it is often met with resistance. But, the argument at large is that there is no Old Testament basis for missiology, not the means by which missionary approaches his or her mission.

[4] In the Christian sense of the term, historical narrative plainly means the Bible contains history written in the form of story, which is then intertwined with the Biblical narrative as a whole. Therefore, historical narrative is written on real people and actual events that the prophets, through the Holy Spirit, curated it into a unified story.

[5] The parallels between Jonah and Noah do not stop there. Jonah’s name means “dove” and Noah’s name means “comforter”, which are both NT references for the Holy Spirit. In striking contrast, Jonah preaches “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jonah 3:4) while Noah’s Flood did destroy for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:4). Both events revolve around great calamity, which explicitly includes, or would have included, human and animals. In Genesis 7:14, humanity does not repent and the waters flood the earth for 150 days while in Jonah the Assyrians immediately repent and Nineveh is destroyed 150 years later. Noah allows the world to perish while keeping his family safe on the Ark whereas Jonah allows himself to be thrown overboard to die to spare the lives of unfamiliar pagan sailors. Both Noah and Jonah seem to be narratives about God’s call to repentance, but with opposite results. If not for the story of Jesus Christ, these narratives would be loose ends. Instead, the three might form a theological arrow like some sort of chiastic sandwich! For yet another reversal, consider Jonah going to sleep on a ship and then a storm rages over the sea (Jonah 1:4-9) in juxtaposition to Jesus going to sleep on a ship and then the tempest, too, rages over the sea (Matthew 8:23-27), but these accounts yield different outcomes. In Jonah, God enrages the storm and Jonah is humanly powerless, whereas in the Gospels, Jesus Divinely overpowers and calms the storm.

[6] Havazelet, Meir. “Jonah and the Prophetic Experience.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 10, no. 4 (1969): 29.

[7] Starcher, Richard L.; Huber, Philip C.; Jennings, J. Nelson; Hartley, Benjamin; Nussbaum, Stan; and Burrows, William R., “Perspectives on the Missiological Legacy of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation” (2017). Faculty Publications – College of Christian Studies. 228. http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/228

[8] Elliott, Charles. “Jonah.” The Old and New Testament Student 10, no. 3 (1890): 140.

[9] Scott, David Randall. “The Book of Jonah: Foreshadowings of Jesus as the Christ.” BYU Studies Quarterly 53, no. 3 (2014): 175-6.

[10] The Reformation was a pivotal event that turned the tide of Christian theology, socially and intellectually. That being said, with all accessible benefits made by the Reformation, it is not without its faults. It is typical of Reformation scholars to pedestal theology above the historical narrative demonstrated by God. And yet, by extracting the Hebraic history, we neglect (and with it to some extent we reject), the cultural contextual and subtextual meanings and implications that allow us to understand the intent, purpose and variation of the original language. Five hundred years later, we still feel the affects of poor judgment from the Reformation. It seems many Evangelical Pastors tend to disregard the history as impertinent or impotent to the whole Christian experience and, unfortunately, prioritize all things Reformation as God’s honest truth as if the Holy Spirit is impotent or idiosyncratic. Without the clarification of the Old, there can be no certification for the New. Yes, we are in debt to the steadfast strength of the reformers, but we ought to be careful not to pedestal their judgement above all else – that being the Church over the Holy Spirit.

[11] Johnson, Ken. The Ancient Book of Jasher, A New Annotated Edition (also called Sepher HaYasher), 13 (Jasher 5:7). The ancient Book of Jasher is referenced in Joshua 10:13, Samuel 1:18, and 2 Timothy 3:8. It plays a surprisingly considerable role in Jewish tradition. In Jasher, God charges Methuselah and Noah with 120 years to deliver the message of repentance, but “the sons of men would not hearken to them, nor incline their ears to their words….” The phrase translated “repent of the evil”, which is also found in Jonah 3:10, implies that God “temporarily removed the calamity”.

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