The Suffering Messiah: God’s Mission in the Old Testament

Below are four distinct, different ways, in which the missionary message of the Old Testament affects, directs, guides, influences, and or defines the mission work of the Church today. Jesus is the Messiah who suffered for our sins and encourages us to be a light to the world.

The concept of crossing geographical or cultural boundaries to carry the teachings of God goes all the way back to the Old Testament. Missions did not start with the Great Commission, but has been a part of God’s plan since the beginning.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and placed man there in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve willfully broke their relationship with God by disobeying his command. From that time forward, God has been on a mission to restore the relationship which once was. This is his mission; He is establishing His Kingdom. From his promise of the Messiah in Gen. 3:15 to the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the new covenant, God has not wavered from his mission to restore his relationship with fallen man and to establish His Kingdom. There is no Christian mission apart from God’s mission in the Old Testament. The Church exists to participate in the mission of God; to join him in the task of reconciling the nations to himself.
God asked Abraham to uproot his family and move all the way to Canaan. Missiologists have long pointed to the strategic importance of that narrow piece of land which is historical Palestine.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: This is Jerusalem. I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries all around her”
– Ezekiel 5: 5
The Promised Land, Palestine, is only 60 miles wide in places. At its western edge is the Mediterranean Sea. Its location makes it a land bridge between three continents. Africa’s only land link to Europe and to Asia runs through what is today modern Israel. If God wanted to make Himself known throughout the ancient world, this would have been the ideal place to do it from. It is not a coincidence that God placed His people on this bridge between continents. He seems to have done so on purpose so that His name would be proclaimed in “all nations.”
Since the beginning of Abraham’s call to go out and look for the Promised Land, God mentioned that He will bless all the families of the earth through Abraham:
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;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so [b]you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who [c]curses you I will [d]curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” – Genesis 12: 1- 3
The sending of the Church as apostle to the world fulfills the Old Testament calling of Abraham. God said that through a process of blessing, all peoples on the earth would be blessed through Abraham. This grand promise is the focus of much attention in the New Testament. Listen to the way Paul referred to this promise to Abraham in Romans 4:13. There he says, “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith” (Romans 4:13).
When God promised Abraham that he would bless all nations, he promised that this would come about by Abraham taking possession of all nations and spreading the kingdom of God to all the world. Abraham and his offspring were to be heirs of the world, with all the nations under their headship. As Adam and Eve were originally told to subdue the entire earth, God promised that Abraham and his descendants would inherit the entire earth by spreading God’s blessings to all the families of every nation.
Today, this is a great lesson to the New Testament Church. The life of Abraham speaks to Christians in our time and age, and encourages us to trust in the promises of God and have patience in the mission filed.
In addition, as we have seen, the events in the life of Abraham were written in the first place for the nation of Israel who followed Moses. While it is certainly true that the vast majority of the original audience consisted of ethnic Jews, that is Abraham’s physical descendants, it is a mistake to think that the original audience was entirely or purely Jewish. The vast numbers of people who followed Moses were a mixture of Jews and Gentiles who had been adopted into Israel. As a result, on a number of occasions, the Scriptures make it clear that the original audience of Genesis was not exclusively Jewish.
Those who followed Moses are described in Exodus 12:38:
“Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.” (Exodus 12:38).
Therefore, among the Israelites were “other people.” This company consisted of Gentiles who had joined with Israel and left Egypt with them. This group is mentioned on a number of occasions in Scripture. In much the same way, later portions of the Old Testament reveal that well-known Gentiles like Rahab and Ruth were engrafted into Israel in later generations, and the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1–9 include Gentile names among God’s people.
We see that the seed of Abraham to whom Moses originally wrote the stories of Abraham was ethnically mixed. It included Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles who had been adopted into the family of Israel. Both groups learned about their future in the Promised Land through the stories of Abraham.
In much the same way, the Christian church today is ethnically diverse. It consists of Jews who claim Christ as their Lord and Gentiles who have been adopted into the family of Abraham because they too claim Christ as Lord. Now, to be sure, as history has unfolded the New Testament church has grown to have more adopted Gentiles than fulfilled Jews, but the ethnic diversity of Abraham’s seed is still a reality today as it was in the Old Testament. So, just as Abraham’s stories were first given to Jews and Gentiles counted as Abraham’s seed, we must be ready to apply Abraham’s stories to Jews and Gentiles today who are now counted as Abraham’s seed because they are in the church throughout the world.
This is a very important aspect of modern application because so many Christians have endorsed the false teaching that the promises given to Abraham are to be applied only to ethnic Jews today. In this view, God has a program for Gentile believers. Apart from a few spiritual principles here and there, Gentile believers are not the heirs of the promises given to Abraham. Now as popular as this outlook may be, we must always remember that the seed of Abraham was ethnically diverse in Moses’ day, as mentioned above, and that the seed of Abraham today continues to be an ethnically diverse people. What Moses taught the nation following him applies to the continuation of that nation today, the church of Jesus Christ.

Isaiah 53
The Story of God in the world is ancient; it could not have been written by any man. The prophet Isaiah was so powerful that Saint Jerome called him “the Fifth Evangelist.”
I personally use Isaiah 53 to show Muslims whom I minister to the prophecies about Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. I often mention Is. 53 when I meet a Jew. They would be astounded and say that I am quoting the New Testament. The Church today could use Isaiah a lot in witnessing to the nations. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls gives Isaiah both veracity and authority over false religions. Isaiah emphasizes the suffering servant who dies for all nations.
In Acts 8, the Ethiopian was saved after hearing and understanding the words of Isaiah, with Philip’s explanation. The initial verse that Philip preached from was Isaiah 53:7. This was where the Ethiopian was focused on, so Phillip used it to teach the eunuch about Jesus; our silent sacrificed lamb. It is important to note that when Acts 8 occurred there was no New Testament to read or share with others. So the early church had to use only the Old Testament to preach and get people saved.
Isaiah 53 is a big apologetic tool that could be used to defend the validity and veracity of the Bible and the consistency of its message to humanity.
Isaiah describes that God is in the world and offers salvation — through the cross. We follow a crucified Savior. There can be no faith in Christ without following him and believing in Calvary. Christ was born to suffer, die, and to rise again.
Every year, on Good Friday this truth breaks out all over the world. The Passion remains living and active and its presence and power plans out during the remainder of the Church calendar. This solemn truth goes on living in the daily reality that proclaims the gospel of who we are: a servant people that follows a suffering Messiah who offers us, through baptism, the glory he received, as our spiritual birthright, and empowers us to serve our neighbor.
Calvary is the fulfillment of the promise God made thousands of years ago, proclaimed by the prophet-evangelist Isaiah. The Son of God shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses.
God chose to save the world through the cross. Isaiah wrote the truth to those who wanted to know that God is near.

Another passage from Isaiah is 55: 1-11. It could be called “The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Isiah.”
Having detailed the promises of the LORD through His Messiah/ Servant concerning His great redemption and renewal of the covenant in previous chapters, the prophet Isaiah now calls all sinners to repentance and the unbelievers to faith. For those who turn to the LORD’s marvelous and incomparable thoughts and ways, there will be SALVATION based on the Word of truth.
The Jews were in captivity. They were preoccupied with surviving. Concern for spiritual things were waning. So the prophet addressed those who felt spiritual thirst and spiritual hunger. He begged them to accept the food only God could supply, the food that would truly satisfy.
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend your money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good and let your soul delight in the richest of fare. (Isaiah 55:1,2).
God, then, makes two promises to those who respond: (1) He will make an everlasting covenant with them and (2) The awaited Messiah will be a witness to the nations and the Gentiles will have their place in God’s Kingdom.
Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my unfailing kindness promised to David. See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples. Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor, (Isaiah 55:3-5).
Matthew Henry notes: “Christ is a faithful witness, we may take his word—a competent witness, for he lay in the bosom of the Father from eternity, and was perfectly apprised of the whole matter. Christ, as a prophet, testifies the will of God to the world; and to believe is to receive his testimony. To assist us in closing with the invitation, and coming up to the terms of it.”
When I witness to Muslims, I mention John 1: 18 which makes Jesus the best and only witness for God:
“No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”
Isaiah 55: 3- 5 and its direct connection to the Gospel of John and other passages in the New Testament could be used by the Church as an evangelism tool to reach the nations.
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it, Isaiah 55:10,11.
Today, the Church could learn two things learn from Isaiah 55:
First, the “word” will not return empty and the promises of God to bless those who repent of their materialism are real. God stands behind His promises.
2. Evangelism must be audience-oriented, and the people should be thirsty in order to drink the “Living Water.”
Isaiah pictures a God of the nations; he also mandates a ministry that extends to the nations. Talk about God’s mission is sprinkled all over in the book of Isaiah, not only in chapter 55.
“Turn to Me and be saved, all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22)
God is mindful of nations; so also is Israel. And Israel is surrounded by neighbors. Isaiah first calls Israel to be conscious of its God, his justice, his sovereignty, his plan, his redemption. But Israel does not live in a world in which it relates only vertically to God, though that is decisive. Israel had nations as neighbors on every side, and beyond those immediate neighbors there are neighbors that are more distant. God’s purpose in His Word is unstoppable.
So, given the sheer proximity of other peoples, Israel could bear witness by being God’s people; and moving as active agent to proclaim the good news. The Church today, especially in the West, where people are emigrating to from all over the world is in the same situation as Israel then.
Jesus is in synchrony with Isaiah who envisions God’s message brought by human agents to nations.
Among all the voices of psalmists and prophets in the Old Testament, Isaiah has a prominent place. This visionary emphasizes that God’s salvific intention includes the nations, and what’s more, His Servant, and His Church are the agents to carry that message to others; from all nations.

The Book of Jonah
As a missionary who works with Muslims and encourage the unwilling Church in the West to reach them, Jonah is a musicological treasure.
Although Jonah initially refused to answer God’s call (chaps. 1-2), he was given another chance. In chapter 1, the prophet rose to flee; in chapter 3, the prophet rose to obey. Jonah reluctantly obeyed God’s command to warn the people of Nineveh of God’s impending judgment. In response to Jonah’s preaching, all the Ninevites fell on their faces in humble repentance.
The narrative did not end with Jonah’s triumph. Instead, this book ends with a twist: Jonah was angered by the turn of events. In 4:1, Jonah is described as “greatly displeased” and “furious.” Today, some people in the Church have the same attitude towards converts. I, myself, is sometimes suspected to be part of a sleeper terrorist cell in the West, and refuse to give me a listen.
Likewise, Jonah, then, revealed his true intention for running from God’s call. He had not run away because he was afraid the Ninevites would reject his message; he had run away because he was afraid they might accept it! Jonah was angered at the thought that God might actually forgive the wretched people of Nineveh.
We catch a glimpse of the universal human tendency to be tribal, self-centered, and focused on self-preservation. This human propensity for tribalism is contrasted with the gracious and merciful heart of God (v. 2).
In his prayer, Jonah rightly described God as a “merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster.”
This description of God goes back to Yahweh’s revelation of Himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. The children of Israel had sinned by worshipping a golden calf they had fashioned for themselves. Moses interceded on their behalf and begged God for mercy.
Jonah’s prayer demonstrates that it was the grace and mercy of God that was scandalous to him. Because the Ninevites responded to God with repentance, they had been spared the judgment they deserved. Mercy triumphed over judgment, and mercy made Jonah angry.
The Church today should be encouraged. The picture of God stands in stark contrast to the prophet’s bitterness. God breaks down walls and leads His people out into the world with good news: forgiveness is possible through repentance and faith. Tribal attitudes melt away when constantly exposed to the warm embrace of our missionary God.
Walter Kaiser writes, warning the Church today: “Clearly, the attitude of this reluctant prophet of God is sternly rebuked, for both his narrow provincialism and his stinginess with the grace of God to foreigners. There is also an earlier rebuke to the prophet for failing to obey and to go immediately to Nineveh. The text was written to help others [including the Church today] avoid the trap Jonah fell into and to encourage their adoption of Yahweh’s heart for the nations— yes, even love for one’s most brutal enemies!”

Kaiser adds that sending “a messenger to a city so well known in its day, with resources that few if any rivaled, was to grab the attention of others besides those to whom the prophet was sent. Whatever would be done here would not be something that was done in a corner. It would be a public example for all the surrounding nations.”
Ironically, Today, Nineveh is Mosul in Iraq, the largest city that the terrorist Islamic organization had taken, and from there the Caliphate of the (Islamic State, or ISIS) was declared. If Nineveh could repent, Mosul could too. We just need to share the Gospel, and God would call people to faith. Today, the Church should heed this lesson.
Kaiser adds another sobering point, stating that the Lord, through the Book of Jonah “declared that the people of Nineveh would rise up in the judgment to condemn those who had even greater access to the truth and evidence for the gospel but who had not repented as had the people of Nineveh.”
Furthermore, Kaiser said: “The faith of a Gentile people surpassed that found among the so-called people of God. In that case, the kingdom of God would be taken from the children and given instead to a nation that brought forth the fruits of that kingdom. This brings us to one of the principles found in missions: mission is one of the means God uses to provoke those who claim to be his people to jealousy and repentance. The image of thousands of heathens casting off their former way of life and crying out to God in repentance is to shame mediocre believers into repentance and mending of their ways. Such is one of our Lord’s final and loudest calls to repentance. God is no respecter of persons.”
Today, God could punish the Church for her apathy towards difficult mission fields, like the Islamic World, the way He punished Jonah.
The closing chapter is devoted to God’s pastoral ministry to Jonah. Jonah’s priorities need drastic revision. Personal comfort seems more important to him than the salvation of a large community of people. In the concluding verse God eloquently corrects Jonah and encourages the readers through the ages, including the Church today: “Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4: 11).

Hesham Shehab
Kaiser, Jr., Walter C. Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007

Hesham Shehab

Hicham [pronounced HESHAAM] grew up in a world of bitter animosity between Muslims and Christians, which he experienced personally in a physical attack when only about 7. By age 13 he was recruited by an extremist Muslim group and later fought against Christians in the 1975 war in Lebanon. He was preparing to become a Muslim Preacher (Imam) when a car accident laid him up for a year. In 1980, in his first semester in college, his brother was killed by Christian militia. Hicham's response was to study by day, and by night take out his revenge in attacks on Christians. However, hearing the Sermon on the Mount, in a course of cultural studies (in college), brought him to faith. Later, Hicham earned an M.A. in the history of the Arabs and did Ph.D studies in the history of Islam. Hicham finished his pastoral education at Concordia, Fort Wayne, IN, and is currently in the Ph. D program there. Presently, Hicham, and ordained LCMS minister, pastors Salam Christian Fellowship and works as a missionary to the Muslims with the Lutheran Church in Illinois.