In the early 1980s, I was a young tutor at All Nations Christian College in Hertfordshire, England. In a faculty meeting, one of my colleagues said, “These students need to understand that mission is not something we add to the [biblical] text, an afterthought at the end of our exegesis. Mission is in the origin of the text.”
All of our students were preparing for cross-cultural mission. They had to study key passages about Christ, such as Hebrews 1, Colossians 1, and Philippians 2. My colleague was pointing out that such texts arose not as isolated doctrine, but amid missionary church-planting and the controversies surrounding it. The New Testament documents, he urged, are intrinsically missional in how they came to be.
His words struck me. Of course! Why did I not see that before? I wondered if this applied to the Old Testament. I had completed my doctorate five years prior in Old Testament ethics—the aspect of theology that attempts to determine right from wrong conduct. I wanted to understand and communicate the ethical message of the Hebrew Scriptures, and to help Christians know how to apply it.
Now I was forced to think about ethics from a different angle: What if the missional dimension so clear in the New Testament also lay at the heart of the Old? Didn’t the Hebrew Scriptures also come into being as God engaged his people in a world rebelling against him? If Israel had been chosen to bless all nations, wouldn’t their scriptures connect in some way to that mission? Those texts were also filled with questions and issues arising from what it meant to love, worship, trust, and serve the one true living God. So how could I connect my study of Old Testament ethics to Christian mission?
The Reason for Election
These questions were on my mind in 1983, when I went to Pune, India, to teach at Union Biblical Seminary. At an end-of-the-year student show, some students lovingly mocked me. One of them read an obscure text from Chronicles and asked, “What are the ethical and missiological implications of this text?” Everyone laughed, and I was pleased that I had gotten them to ask the very questions I was wrestling with.
Then, while preparing a lecture on Genesis one day, I was arrested by God’s speech in Genesis 18:19, before Abraham pleads for God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. Here, I have laid it out in three lines to show its three main clauses:
For I have chosen him,
so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just,
so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.
Staggering! Here is a single sentence in a single verse that combines election (“I have chosen him”), ethics (“the way of the Lord”—righteousness and justice), and mission (what God had promised). I had finally found a link between ethics and mission in the Old Testament.
The reason God called Israel into existence—before Abraham and Sarah even had Isaac—was to create a community of ethical integrity so that God could fulfill his promise to bless the nations.
In Genesis 18, God, by means of two angels, is on his way to bring judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. The angels stop to share a meal with Abraham, and the promise that Sarah will have a son is renewed (vv. 1–15). It is precisely because God is aware of the world of Sodom that he has stopped to speak with Abraham (vv. 17–21).
Sodom and Gomorrah represent human wickedness, a world rebelling against God. And they serve as an archetype of God’s judgment on sinful humanity. But what exactly was the sin of Sodom? We find several details in various passages.
Genesis 18:20–21 speaks of an “outcry” going up to God from the cities. That Hebrew word, se ‘ āqâ, means “a graphic cry for help.” It is a cry that comes from suffering, cruelty, and oppression—as from the Hebrews in Egypt (Ex. 2:23) or from a raped woman (Deut. 22:23–27). Sodom is a place of such suffering and crying.
Genesis 19 tells the horrific story of the attempted gang rape of Lot’s two angelic visitors by the men of Sodom. It is a place of corrupt, aggressive, hostile lust. Isaiah 1:9–10 compares Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah because
of the injustice and bloodshed that had filled the city. And Ezekiel 16:49 says that Sodom was marked by affluence, arrogance, and callousness: its inhabitants had too much money, were prideful, and continually neglected the poor and needy.
Sodom was cruel, oppressive, sexually immoral, violent, corrupt, arrogant, greedy, and stingy. No wonder there was an outcry. Is our world any different? Surely this is a painfully accurate picture of the world we live in—perhaps especially the Western world.
Yet it was that world into which God had called Abraham. God did not whisk him away up to heaven. No, God directed him to a land characterized by the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. That was the place of his pilgrimage and “mission”—the real world. Similarly, God calls us to remain in the world, for it is our mission field.
The Promise of God’s Mission
Why did God stop to have a meal with Abraham and Sarah en route to Sodom and Gomorrah? His angels don’t get hungry, yet they spend hours eating and chatting with Abraham and Sarah. Verse 18 gives us clues: “Abraham will become the father of a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.”
Here is God, on his way to mete out a spectacular act of judgment, pausing to remember his promise of blessing. And not just his promise to Abraham and Sarah—that they would have a son—but his promise to the world. He is about to judge and destroy two wicked cities, but he recalls his promise to bless all nations of the earth. This moment of judgment morphs into a universal vision of salvation.
God’s promise to Abraham is key to the rest of Scripture. It is the beginning of biblical mission and at the heart of the gospel. Gospel? Yes, that is Paul’s word for God’s promise to Abraham:
Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles [the nations] by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (Gal. 3:8)
Those wild tribal peoples of southern Turkey—the Galatians—who had come to faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, were now part of God’s people. Even though they were not biological descendants of Abraham, they were now spiritual descendants of Abraham. So would be all Gentile believers, because God is keeping his promise to Abraham. That is the biblical theology that drove Paul’s missions and the spread of the gospel throughout the New Testament.
When the gospel went south to Africa, west to Europe, southeast to India, and northeast to Mesopotamia and then China, God was keeping his promise to Abraham. And so on, through all the centuries of Christian mission, up to the present. God will keep his promise until the day comes when “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language” will gather to worship the Lamb on the throne (Rev. 7:9–10). Then God will turn to Abraham and say, “Mission accomplished. All nations I promised. All nations it is.” That is God’s big story. Abraham and Sarah could not have imagined it over lunch, but it was God’s ultimate agenda.
Many texts in the Old Testament pick up this note of universal mission, showing that Israel never lost—though they often neglected—the truth that they existed to bless the nations. We see it in the narratives (1 Kings 8:41–43). We see it in the Psalms (67; 87; 96). We see it in the Prophets (Isa. 19:23–25; 49:6; Amos 9:12; Zech. 2:10–11). As Christians, we have inherited this call. When we, like Israel, forget who we are and why we are here—to participate in the mission of God—then we have lost the plot of Scripture, the story we are living in, the great narrative of God’s salvation, stretching from Genesis to Revelation.
The Pattern for God’s People
Coming back to our key verse, we see “the way of the Lord” contrasted sharply with the way of Sodom (vv. 20–21). Counter to a world walking in the ways of Sodom, God wants his people to walk in righteousness and justice. Abraham is to found a distinct community. And that is something we increasingly recognize as a missional calling in itself.
Scholars are hard-pressed to find two phrases that better summarize Old Testament ethics than “the way of the Lord” and “righteousness and justice.” To walk in the way of Yahweh is a fundamental demand of the Torah. It means not just following his commands, but also reflecting his character. For example, Deuteronomy 10:12–19 calls us to show love and mercy to others, even to our enemies. Why? Because God does. He wants us to be like him.
And righteousness and justice, paired hundreds of times in Scripture, embrace the whole of life—personal, familial, social, economic, political. They call for integrity, fairness, truth, and compassion, modeled after God’s own character. That is what God wants his people to be known for.
But what does ethics have to do with mission?
Our key verse has three clauses, joined by two expressions of purpose: “so that.” The final clause states the ultimate purpose—God’s mission to the nations—and the first clause is the launch pad: God’s choosing Abraham. In the middle is the ethical requirement: Abraham’s people—including all those in Christ—must live according to God’s standards, which are radically different from the world’s. Indeed, for that very purpose God gave Israel the law: to guide and shape them into a people who would model God’s character before the nations (Deut. 4:6–8).
We can look at this verse two ways. First, from back to front: What is God’s great plan? That all nations share in the blessing of Abraham. How will that happen? Through the people God has chosen and called. What kind of people must they be? People who live according to God’s ways.
Or we can start from the beginning: Why did God choose Abraham? To create a community that would live out righteousness and justice. Why should such a community live that way? To be the means through which God brings about his promise: blessing all nations.
Either way, ethics is the hinge between election and mission. Election is meant for ethics. Ethics is meant for mission. Both election and ethics function for the sake of God’s mission. Questions about who we are as God’s people, why we are here, and how we live must be related to God’s ultimate mission for all nations—and for all creation.
Christian obedience, then, is never simply a matter of “me and my conscience and God.” Genesis 18:19 compels us to see that how we conduct ourselves, as individuals and a community, either fosters or hinders God’s promise. When we fail to walk in God’s ways, fail to do what is right and just—according to biblical definitions—or live no differently than the people of “Sodom and Gomorrah,” we deny the very purpose of our election and therefore frustrate God’s mission.
Biblical ethics are that serious, as the prophets emphasized time and again. How we act does not save us, to be sure. But how we live as God’s people is the vital link between our calling and our mission. There is no biblical mission without biblical ethics. God wants to use us to bless the world. And by his grace, we can live according to his standards—and draw others nearer to him.
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