A Light to the Nations

On fulfilling our calling to others:

Christians are of course meant to be evangelists and missionaries in various ways. We are to share the good news of the gospel far and wide. All believers have this responsibly to be ambassadors for Christ. But ancient Israel had a similar calling. It was meant to be a light to the nations, and it was meant to show pagan nations the truths about God.

A number of texts can be examined to show us this truth. The very first book of the Bible makes this clear. Consider Genesis 12:1-3:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And all of Psalm 67 can be mentioned here:

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
that your way may be known on earth,
    your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you!

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth. Selah
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you!

The earth has yielded its increase;
    God, our God, shall bless us.
God shall bless us;
    let all the ends of the earth fear him!

And phrases like ‘that the world may know’ can be discussed. Just four of them can be simply listed as follows:

-Hezekiah: “that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone”
-David: “and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel”
-Solomon: “that all the peoples of the earth may know your name”
-The Psalmist: “that the nations may know”

And there are numerous books that can be mentioned in this regard, but let me list just three of them:

Walter Kaiser, Mission in the Old Testament (Baker, 2000)
Andreas Kostenberger and Peter O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (IVP, 2001)
Christopher Wright, The Mission of God (IVP, 2006)

A few quotes from Kaiser’s book are worth sharing here:

The expression “all peoples” did not mean that every person on earth would universally believe in the Messiah, but that every ethnic group would receive this blessing of God’s grace and the joy of participating in worshiping and serving him. God would do this both by his own sovereignty (for he bound himself by a unilateral oath, as we shall see later) and through the instrumentality of those who had previously experienced the blessing of God….


God’s call to service and his election as instruments of his grace brought with it the obligation and responsibility to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Exodus 19:4-6 describes Abraham’s seed as a “moveable treasure,” “a kingdom of priests,” and “a holy nation” to carry out God’s purposes. Especially significant is the description of Israel as a priesthood of believers. The priesthood was to serve God and to minister to others.


It is at this point that the thesis of this book participates in issues that are hotly debated today: Did this “kingdom of priests” serve Israel alone, or the entire world? Were they to be active or merely passive witnesses? Was Israel’s role as mission with regard to the world centripetal (inward-moving, and therefore the people of that time were said to play a passive role in witnessing and spreading the Good News) or centrifugal (outward-moving, and therefore the Old Testament believers were active in sharing their faith)?


Centrifugal witnessing, it will be argued here, is the role assigned to Israel in actively sharing with others the Man of Promise who was to come. . . . Indeed, the apostle Paul himself maintained that his own call to be an apostle to the Gentiles easily paralleled similar calls of Jeremiah and Isaiah in the Old Testament (cf. Gal. 1:15-16; Isa. 49:1; and Jer. 1:5)….


The fact remains that the goal of the Old Testament was to see both Jews and Gentiles come to a saving knowledge of the Messiah who was to come. Anything less than this goal was a misunderstanding and an attenuation of the plan of God. God’s eternal plan was to provide salvation for all peoples; it was never intended to be reserved for one special group, such as the Jews, even as an initial offer! It is the history of this offer and the way it was carried out in Old Testament times that will form the heart of our study here. (pp. 8-10)

Image of Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations
Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. (Author) Amazon logo

But as we know, Israel so often failed in this regard. Indeed, we do not often think about Israel as being a missionary people. But before Christians get too cocky here, there are plenty of them who also have not been what they are called to be. They have often failed to be – or refused to be – salt and light. As Jesus said of such people in Matthew 5:13-16:

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

So while we might look down on Israel of old for not being that light on a hill that they were meant to be, we believers today often can stand equally condemned. But let me get back to the Old Testament. Sometimes we DO read of the Israelites being a real witness to the surrounding nations.

Here I want to focus on just one instance of this involving King Jehoshaphat. He ruled over Judah, the southern kingdom, for 25 years, and four whole chapters are devoted to him and his reign (2 Chronicles 17-20). Like so many of the other kings there, he was a mixed bag. He was mostly faithful to Yahweh, removing some of the idolatrous high places, but not all, and he compromised with the northern kingdom.

As 2 Chr. 20:32-33 says, “He walked in the way of Asa his father and did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the Lord. The high places, however, were not taken away; the people had not yet set their hearts upon the God of their fathers.”

But it is what we find in chapter 17 that interests me. In this short chapter we read about the reforms he was involved in, how he keenly sought the Lord, and how he sent out officials and the Levites to teach the people the law of God. They did this throughout the cities of Judah, and then we read this amazing thing in verses 10-13:

And the fear of the Lord fell upon all the kingdoms of the lands that were around Judah, and they made no war against Jehoshaphat. Some of the Philistines brought Jehoshaphat presents and silver for tribute, and the Arabians also brought him 7,700 rams and 7,700 goats. And Jehoshaphat grew steadily greater. He built in Judah fortresses and store cities, and he had large supplies in the cities of Judah. He had soldiers, mighty men of valor, in Jerusalem.

Wow, here we find pagan nations fearing God and honouring this king. And that was all a result of his putting Yahweh first and teaching the law of God to the people. This was a real case of the surrounding nations standing up and taking notice of what God was doing in Israel.

The truth is, when we put God first, and when godly leaders take a stand against sin and idolatry, then the Lord can act and do great things – even to others. As we read in Proverbs 16:7, “When a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”

Image of 1 & 2 Chronicles: (A Theological Bible Commentary from Leading Contemporary Theologians - BTC) (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible)
1 & 2 Chronicles: (A Theological Bible Commentary from Leading Contemporary Theologians - BTC) (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) by Peter J. Leithart (Author), Reno, R. R. (Editor), Jenson, Robert (Series Editor), Wilken, Robert (Series Editor), Radner, Ephraim (Series Editor), Root, Michael (Series Editor), Sumner, George (Series Editor) Amazon logo

That is certainly one way to be a light to the nations, and a city on the hill. Some commentary on the 2 Chron. 17 text by Peter Leithart offers a fitting way to close my article. Speaking of the teachers the king had sent throughout the land he writes:

As a result, the “dread of Yahweh” falls on the Gentile peoples nearby. The teachers “surround” (savav) Judah, and the “surrounding” (saviv) nations are too frightened to attack Jehoshaphat, as they were too frightened to attack David (1 Chr. 14:17), Later, Yahweh strikes dread into the nations again when he defeats the combined forces of Moab, Ammon, and Edom through Levites armed with harps, lyres, trumpets, and voices (2 Chr. 20:28-29).


It is a remarkable thing: not horses or chariots or fortifications but teaching and music are key to Judah’s national security. If Judah knows and guards Yahweh’s commandments, he will provide all the security they need. When they lift Yahweh up on their praises, he goes to war with their enemies….


Nations bring tribute to Judah—Philistines from the west and Arabs from the east. The Chronicler describes the tribute in liturgical language (17:11). Gentiles bring gifts of silver as “tribute” (massa), also their flocks and herds, and the Chronicler uses terms that often refer to the Levitical task of bearing the furniture of the tabernacle and, in Chronicles, the “burden” of musico-prophetic ministry (1 Chr. 15:22, 27). The number seven is used four times in 17:11, as the Chronicler enumerates the numbers of rams and male goats brought to honor Jehoshaphat, which gives Jehoshaphat’s reign an aura of “new creation.” It is not evil for Yahweh’s king to receive such praise. Yahweh is high king and deserves all praise and tribute; his prince, the Davidic king, should also be acknowledged by the nations with quasi-liturgical gestures. Jehoshaphat is not guilty of sacrilege, ma‘al. On the contrary, like David and Solomon, he becomes greater and greater, lifted up (ma‘alah). Yahweh becomes great by greatening; he enhances his glory by glorifying his royal son.

We too have a job of glorifying the royal son. We have good news to share to a needy world, and we must not fail to do so. And as we lift up the true King, we may see a very real impact on others, just as Jehoshaphat did with the surrounding nations. That should encourage us to keep on keeping on.

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