Chapter 2 The Choice For Missions: The Life of Abraham
(Note; This is the second installment of a book I’m writing called The Choices God Makes. You can read the first chapter in the July archives of this blog.)
For this chapter, I will lean heavily on John Stott’s sweeping missional narrative, The Living God is a Missionary God. I first heard these amazing ideas at the Urbana missions conference in 1976 where Stott served as the opening speaker. These insights, captured later as a chapter in the book Perspectives, changed the course of my life, and I hope they will prove every bit as meaningful for you. Perhaps the biggest revelation for me when I first heard John Stott’s words was the idea that missions pre-dated the New Testament church. We see evidence of God’s choice for missions as far back as Genesis 10. There we are given a table of nations that came from Noah’s family following the flood. It does not single out the Jewish people, or any people for that matter. All nations are included, demonstrating that ethnic and cultural diversity are part of God’s creative design.
Then, in Genesis 11, we read that human beings made the bold statement, “…let us make a name for ourselves,” and in doing so, declared their independence from God. So, God confused them by giving every people group their own language, and this resulted in their dispersion throughout the world. Although judgment is a very negative thing, we must understand that dispersion is one way in which God works His will in the world: dispersion of the nations at Babel, dispersion of the people of Israel into exile, dispersion of the apostles and other believers after the fall of Jerusalem. In particular, the dispersion at Babel set the stage for God’s declaration of promise concerning all future generations, including ours.
It is in this context that we encounter the first four verses of Genesis chapter 12, the true beginning of missions in the Bible:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. ”
So Abram left, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran.
This is the proclamation of God’s plan to bless the nations. As Stott says, “These are perhaps the most unifying verses in the Bible,” encapsulating God’s entire plan for the world. It was (and is) His intention to bless all the families of the earth through Abram and his spiritual descendents. But still, Abram (soon to be Abraham) had to choose whether or not to take God up on His offer of blessing, to leave his home, to become the first missionary.
We have to be convinced that it is God who knows the beginning from the end, not us. It is God who knows the plans He has for our lives, not us. It is a sign of maturity in our relationship with God when we can ask the question “What’s next?” without fear, but instead with assurance and even excitement. In fact, probably even better than asking the question “What’s next?” is to simply say to God, “show Your glory.” That’s a choice we make. Transitions in our lives then become less about us and our feelings of helplessness and more about anticipating how God’s plan will unfold and how He will demonstrate His love and care for us.
The promise of God to Abram is actually three promises in one. It was first of all a promise of heritage. God states His intention to make from Abram a “great nation.” The name Abram means “exalted father.” Although this is an honorable name, God had something even more significant in mind. He would change Abram’s name to Abraham, a forward-looking name meaning “father of a multitude.” How big is a multitude? Abram wouldn’t have understood it if God merely told him – God had to show him the stars in the sky to help him grasp the idea.
Secondly, it was a promise of land. Abram was to leave his homeland and in return, God would show him another country. Everyone with a missional calling has been required to exchange their present life and goals for God’s promises. Abram graciously allowed his nephew Lot to choose where he wanted to settle, and Lot chose the fertile Jordan valley. This, then, defined the land that God would give Abram – essentially, it was everything else.
Third, it was a promise of blessing. The words “bless,” “blessing,” or “blessed” are mentioned five times in verses 2 and 3 of chapter 12. From the beginning, this blessing was intended for all humankind. At its heart is the covenant that God makes between Himself and Abram. Ultimately, this blessing is the gift of faith and the justification that comes by faith (as Paul says in Romans). Once God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he identified Himself with Abraham and his descendants, saying, “I will be their God.” This is the greatest blessing that any of us can ever receive.
What do these promises have to do with missions and missional calling? There are two parts to every calling: God’s choice and our choice. God chose Abraham, and Abraham chose to go. God also chose to fulfill each of the promises, the rewards for obedience. God reveals Himself as a missional God because He blessed not just Abraham, not just his descendants, but all the nations of the world. God was not just choosing a people to bless, but rather a people through whom He could bless the entire human race. From the beginning, God intended to bring His Kingdom to earth, and He designed missions to be the vehicle for that blessing. The psalmist understood this. Psalm 67:1-2 proclaims:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face shine upon us, Selah
that your ways may be known on earth,
your salvation among all nations.
God says in Exodus 19:6 that the nation of Israel was designed to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and that priestly role was to represent God among the nations. Now, even as I relay the words “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” you may actually be thinking of a different verse, 1 Peter 2:9, which states, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” To whom is Peter referring? Well, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, he is referring to you. Here is the revelation for us today: the promise given to Abraham by God lives on today, in us. Paul puts it this way in Galatians 3:17-18, 22, 26-29:
What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise…But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe…You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed,and heirs according to the promise.
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, believers have a direct connection to Abraham and his promise. Therefore, we have a vested interest in seeing the promise fulfilled in the world. Now, you might say, “Yes, but then what heritage was God talking about? What land? What blessing? What does that mean for me today?” This is where things get exciting for us as believers. First, what about heritage? Listen to the words of the Apostle John in Revelation 7:9:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
This will be the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham about the stars of heaven. It’s us – you and me – standing alongside people from every nation, tribe, and people group. I believe God’s promise of family has never been more significant than today, a time in which families are being torn apart and people, especially young people, are feeling more isolated than ever. Stunningly, those who we never knew in this life will be our family for all eternity.
What about the land that was promised? Hebrews 4:1-3 describes this spiritual land God’s people enter by faith:
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world.
Moses and the Israelites could not enter this “rest,” yet such a rest is opened to us now through faith in Jesus. In this busy world of ours, where we frantically move from one activity to the next, is there anything our spirits crave more than rest? Not simply inactivity, but deep, peaceful abidance in God’s presence. This is not something simply to be anticipated, but we are told we can “enter that rest” right now, through faith in Jesus Christ.
And what about the blessing of Abraham? In a word, it is the blessing of salvation and God’s identification with us. Christ bore our curse that we might inherit Abraham’s blessing, the blessing of justification and the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is the reason we have eternity and our new family to look forward to, and it is the reason we can rest now. God has us, and He won’t let go. This is the starting place for any missional calling.
One final point: these blessings are not just for us – those who are chosen by God – but they are intended for everyone. Jesus makes the connection between the preaching of the Gospel to the nations and His eventual return when He says in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Today, we need to come to a new understanding of our God as the God of “all peoples on earth.” There are no off-limits areas to God, only to our natural way of thinking. There are no walls with God, only with our human way of doing things. No individual, people, or nation exists beyond God’s love, even though our upbringing might lead us to believe otherwise. The God of Abraham is the God of us all, and He intends to bring the blessing of Abraham to all peoples through us, His followers. It is inescapable: We all possess a missional calling. The question is simply whether we will choose to fulfill that calling and walk in the blessing of Abraham.