Learning to Live as God’s Missional People: Missional Insights from Israel’s Story (Genesis–Nehemiah)
Many readers of the Bible struggle integrating the Old Testament into their understanding of the Christian life and mission. Yet Israel’s Scriptures are ripe with insight for understanding God’s mission and role of God’s people in it. In this essay, I will sketch out key takeaways from Israel’s story to help guide us as we follow Jesus today.
(1) Genesis 1–11 set the stage for God’s mission by describing the universe as God intended for it to be and by acknowledging the profound lostness of people and brokenness of Creation due to human rebellion.
Israel’s creation accounts (Genesis 1–2) describe God carefully and deliberately crafting a very good creation. Humanity stands at the pinnacle of God’s creative activity and at the center of God’s missional plans. In God’s original plan, humanity was to fill the earth and serve as the invisible creator God’s visible representatives. Men and women were to live as a community that embodied God’s character and served God’s mission of caring for God’s world.
In Genesis 3–11 human sin ruptures creation. Humanity is lost and creation itself is broken. Paul aptly summarizes Genesis 3–11 in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory….” The iconic narratives of the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Flood, and the Tower of Babel serve as warnings against humanity’s hubris and injustice by demonstrating the costliness of sin.
Genesis 1–11 is crucial for understanding the rest of the Bible. It sets Israel’s story in the context of all nations and as part of God’s answer to the brokenness of the world.
(2) God’s answer to the chaos and tragedy of Genesis 3–11 is to call a new humanity to serve as his missional people to reflect his character to the world.
God calls Abraham and his descendants to be agents of blessing to all people (Genesis 12:3b). After the deliverance from Egypt, this calling becomes embedded into God's vision for his liberated people (Exod 19:4–6): they will serve as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation." God’s actions in saving God’s people are for the purpose of extending blessing to all nations. This gives us a critical perspective for understanding Israel’s story. God is for Israel for the sake of all people rather than against all people for the sake of Israel. God continues to call God’s people to serve as embodiments of grace to the world.
(3) God is faithful to his promises and powerful to save.
This theme reverberates from God’s interactions with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Exodus from Egypt, settlement in Canaan, protection from enemies, and the return from Exile. Israel’s story is one of audacious hope. The future is ultimately secure because the Creator God has a mission to bless the nations and restore creation. This future does not depend on human ingenuity or power, but on God alone. This is good news.
(4) God’s faithfulness and grace is the final word.
God’s people repeatedly act unfaithfully in the Old Testament but this does not negate God’s ability to advance his kingdom in advance of the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. Exile to Babylon was well deserved, but it was a longtime coming as God’s mercy and patience prolonged its arrival. Even when exile came in 587 BC, it lasted only 50 years before God led God’s people a second time to the promised land. Israel’s story testifies to a hope and restoration on the other side of sin and judgment.
(5) Faithful obedience is the proper response to God’s grace and faithfulness to God’s people.
How do God’s people respond to grace? Israel’s story teaches us that it is with faithful living that reflects the character and mission of God. Israel’s obedience is not the precondition of relationship with God, but the result of the experience of salvation. Faithful living is the means by which God’s people witness to the nations the goodness and greatness of God.
(6) Israel’s story demonstrates the potential and snares of living as God’s people among the nations.
The key takeaway is the necessity of faithfulness as God’s people embody a missional holiness for the nations. When we read Scripture’s portrayal of Israel, we are often struck by the repeated failures of Israel to practice faithfulness. This stands in contrast to the mission that God has called Israel to embody for the sake of the world. Israel’s potential and failings serve as a witness to God’s people today.
(7) Idolatry and injustice are the principal impediments to faithfulness. God’s missional people must be vigilant against all practices that negate their witness by obstructing their love for God (idolatry) and love for neighbor including a love for creation (injustice). Israel’s story focuses on the ongoing danger of idolatry and injustice for God’s people. As we seek to live faithfully as God’s witnesses in the world, the temptation to elevate “gods” over the one true Creator and Savior remains as does the human tendency to practice injustice to elevate our own sense of power, influence or importance.
© 2016 Brian D. Russell
For more exploration of missional readings of the Bible, see my books (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2016) and Invitation: A Ten Week Bible Study (Invitation, 2015).