[K:NWTS 24/1 (May 2009) 5-11]

The Biblical Basis for Missions

Geerhardus Vos

In order to establish a biblical basis for missions, we must show that redemption was originally intended for the entire human race. In other words, we must show that it teaches national universalism. By this, we do not mean the salvation of all individuals. This kind of universalism is consistent with the principle of election, e.g., Paul who was the great universalist. Yet he insisted on sovereign election. 

There are three things we must note about this kind of universalism.

  1. First, this universalism is a conscious, intentional universalism. Sometimes people use this word in a weaker sense, i.e., Christianity has a natural tendency to spread and overleap national boundaries. This is simply a statement of observed fact. These people don’t find universalism as a conscious purpose of the divine mind. There were objective disclosures of God before the religion of the Bible began.
  2. Second, this universalism is an absolute universalism because it is in the purpose of God. Other religions have also spread across national boundaries, but these are only matter of fact results that give no guarantee for the future. Inherent tendencies cannot support absolute claims. But if we know that God has promised, we can then speak of absolute universalism.
  3. Third, we must distinguish between the universalistic purpose on the part of God and the missionary call on the part of man. Biblical revelation is universalistic from the outset and became missionary in the fullness of time.

In the Old Covenant, a universalistic religion is clearly announced. There are no missions under the Old Covenant. The aim of the Old Covenant was to make Israel a segregated people. As long as this went on, there was nothing perfect that Israel could have given to the world. Under the New Covenant, there is added to universalism the most strenuous missionary activity.

First Lecture (November 8, 1905)

The Element of Universalism in the Mosaic Revelation

In the biblical account, creation comes first. The books of Moses were national [in focus]. Yet the Pentateuch doesn’t begin with Abraham, but has a wider basis. It begins with the creation of the human race. You cannot explain what God did to Israel until you know God’s relation to the race. This is true in both an historic and in a legislative sense. The ordinances of God before the fall and after the deluge were not imposed on Jews alone, but on all humanity. This can mean that what is done to Israel must be intended for the race. The covenant history of Israel is of a piece with universal history, not national history. The central current of the history of the race is here narrowed down to the channel of Israel. Backwards and forwards, it opens up into the wide sea of God’s dealings with humanity. The narrowing is to keep the waters pure.

Man is descended from a single pair. All men are equal in virtue of their original likeness to God. These are wide-reaching facts. The race originally had one destiny. What is done to reinsure this destiny in redemption has no narrower compass than that to which the original destiny pointed. The probation in paradise was linked to the promise of the redemption of the race. The gospel of paradise speaks in terms of the race. It does not even contain a reference to Israel.

After paradise, history assumes a narrowing process. The line of the covenant runs from Seth through Noah, Shem, Abraham, etc. At each step of the process, we find a declaration of God upholding the universal nature of redemption.[1]  This universalism is more and more insisted upon in revelation as the facts point in the opposite direction, e.g., the case of Noah. Before the separation of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, God concludes his covenant with Noah, his sons, and every living creature. It was a universal covenant. Its meaning is that the present order of the universe will continue indefinitely, and that the plan of salvation may work itself out. Here we have two things to note: (1) redemption is confined to the Shemites; and (2) the natural order of the universe is guaranteed [to continue].[2] The conclusion is that the redemption that had been confined to the Shemites will spread over the whole world. When Shem is distinguished from his brothers, it is not that he may get the benefits of salvation for himself. Japheth is to dwell in the tents of Shem.[3]

After Noah, the rapid increase of Israel made a division of the peoples necessary. Here there is another election—the Abrahamites are separated from the other Shemites. Here also divine revelation counteracts this and guards against a mistaken inference. In Genesis 10, we find the table of nations; although all other peoples are dismissed, yet that dismissal is not final.[4]  The names of all peoples are registered.[5] 

The universalistic elements in Abraham’s history are numerous. “In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). There is a meeting with Melchizedek, who represents the remnant of an old universal knowledge of God. Melchizedek gave tithes and in so doing recognized that his own privileges were subservient to a wider plan. Melchizedek is a type of Christ.[6] 

Next we have the prophetic blessing of Jacob, “Let the peoples serve thee, etc.” (Gen. 27:29). Here we have a reference to the conversion of the Gentiles, which assumes the form of submission to Israel. The attitude of the nations towards Israel will determine their own fate—blessing Israel they shall be blessed. Jacob bestowed blessing on his son, Judah, who is to become the Lion-tribe leader of his brethren. The royal leadership is to have a glorious issue. He will reign until all are subservient—until Israel shall come to Shiloh to put up a tabernacle as a sign of victory over the Canaanites (Gen. 49:8-9).[7]  This contains the primary meaning. The words refer to Canaan. But events prophesied later events. The leadership of Judah in war and enjoyment of peace are types of the kingdom of Christ.[8] David and Solomon received greater obedience than Judah.

The history of David and Solomon was typical of another prince of warlike conquest and peaceful enjoyment.[9] There are two important features here. (1) The idea of the kingdom of God first appears. Judah is a royal tribe. This carries a universalistic idea. It implies the subjection of the nations to Jehovah. (2) The turning point which divines the warlike and peaceful period of Israel is the coming to Shiloh to seek the tabernacle.

In the case of David and Solomon, it is the building of the Temple. Between Christ’s struggle and the everlasting reign of peace is his entering into the heavenly tabernacle, i.e., his ascension (Matt. 28:19).

The last blessing of Balaam doesn’t go much beyond the blessing of Jacob (Num. 24:15-19). “A star will arise out of Jacob” (Num. 15:7).[10] 

Two passages from Deuteronomy, the Song of Moses and the Blessing of Moses, must also be considered here.[11] In the former chapter, we have a description of the punishment (but not the destruction) of Israel. In verse 43, the nations are invited to share in the joy of restored Israel. In the other chapter, we find the separation of the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun. He shall call the peoples unto the mountain of Jehovah’s inheritance. There they shall offer sacrifices (cf. Deut. 34:19).

Second Lecture (November 15, 1905)

The Prophetic Revelation of Universalism

Israel’s history comes into contact with the world. The future of Israel determines the destiny of the Gentiles. The universalistic disclosures attach themselves to great crises into which Israel is brought by contact with the world.

There are four periods that we must consider:

  1. The circumstances under which the kingdom arose.
  2. Israel’s conflict with the Assyrians.
  3. The progress of Babylonian power.
  4. From the exile to the close of revelation.

First, there is a connection between the ideas of the kingdom and universalism, due to the circumstances under which the kingdom arose. The kingdom was not founded to regulate the internal affairs of Israel, but to prepare for the attacks of outside nations. As the idea of the kingdom develops, its worldwide scope appears.

Early universalistic prophecies belong to the time of David. In Psalms 2 and 110, we have the echo of the promise given to David of the eternal duration of his house (2 Sam. 7). In both Psalms, the kingdom involves all the earth (cf. Ps. 18:34-50).[12]  In Psalm 72, we read of the Solomonic response to the prophetic promises (cf. 1 Kings 8:43).[13] On this basis, the prophets subsequently built.

Later, in the reign of Jehoram (9th century, B. C.), when the Philistines conquered Judah and were selling people to the Phoenicians, a group of prophecies refer to this: Obadiah, Joel, and Amos. Here the universalistic idea appears in negative form. The “Day of Jehovah” is a universalistic idea (Obadiah 15, Joel 2:31 [4:1, Heb.]).[14]  The Messianic kingdom in Amos embraces only the Levitical territory. The judgment is connected with the theocracy. The nations are judged for their attitude towards Israel. In Joel, we read that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh. This is a doubtful passage.[15]

Second, the conflict with the Assyrians comes next. Assyria is a world power. At this time, then, the destiny of the whole world in the Kingdom of God becomes a theme of revelation. This appears in Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, and Hosea. “I have removed the bounds of the peoples” (Is. 10:13-14; cf. Is. 36:18; 37:10). Against this is placed the universal kingdom of Jehovah.

This is first done by an unknown prophet. Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2 speak of the “mountain of Jehovah’s house, all nations come unto it, etc.”[16]  Three things can be said about it. First, this is a positive universalism. The nations are not only judged, but also converted. Second, the extension of religion is due to Jehovah rather than to Israel. Third, the imagery of war and subjugation is abandoned. It is replaced by voluntary obedience to the law.

These ideas are repeated by Isaiah and Jeremiah: “The earth is full of the knowledge o the Jehovah” (Is. 11:9-10). The root of Jesse stands as an ensign of the peoples. In Isaiah 19:24, the prophet goes further. There is equality in Jehovah’s service. Isaiah 19:19 speaks of “an altar in the midst of Egypt” (cf. Micah 5:4-5). Isaiah 24-27 is an eschatological prophecy.[17] In Nahum, there is no positive universalism.

Third, there is the progress of power of Babylonian power. Zephaniah stands between the two periods. Jeremiah is in the center. Habbakuk. First, there is a new worship of the Gentiles now cut loose from the temple and from Jerusalem. Zephaniah speaks of the fact that “the gods of the earth shall starve” (2:11; 3:9). Second, in Jeremiah for the first time salvation is traced to the mercy of Jehovah (Jer. 12:15; 16:19). The positive statements are not frequent. Jeremiah does indirect service to universalism. There are two ideas: (1) the spirituality of the true worship of Jehovah; and (2) the individual character of this worship (Hab. 2:14; Is. 11:9).

Fourth, there is the period of the exile to the close of revelation. Large parts of Isaiah belong to this period, as well as Ezekiel, Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi. The heathen will recognize Jehovah’s works in the salvation of Israel. He opens their eyes and they take him as their God. This is to happen in the Messianic era. The second part of Isaiah goes further and grasps the missionary idea itself. Israel has a duty with reference to this. The Servant of Jehovah must preach to the Gentiles. Both the spiritual Israel and the Messiah are mentioned as the servant of Jehovah. Israel must then be a prophet to the nations.

Ezekiel does not go beyond Isaiah. Zechariah advances further after the exile. The King comes to Zion and will speak peace to the nations (Zech. 9:10; 14:9). Haggai connects the conversion of the Gentiles with the glory of the new temple (Mal. 1:11; Hag. 2:7).[18]

Daniel views the development of the kingdom from the point of view of universal history. He gives a philosophy of history. Here we see a most pronounced universalism. The history of the world is explained in terms of the history of Israel. The stone becomes a mountain which fills the earth (Dan. 7). This speaks of the eschatological character of the spread of the kingdom.[19]

Jonah lies all by itself. It records the Hebrew prophet’s message to a heathen city. It is a protest against Jewish particularism. His preaching belongs to the sphere of common grace, not special grace. The Ninevites speak of Elohim, not Jehovah. But common grace has elements of special grace. His experience before arriving at Nineveh perhaps prefigures the entrance of the gospel, etc.

[1]Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (1975), hereafter BT, 76-80.

[2]BT, 51-55.

[3]BT, 56-59.

[4]  Original: “Begin Gen. 11 and in chap[ter] 10 [we] find [the] table of nations, although all other peoples are dismissed, yet dismissal not in final.”

[5]BT, 59-60.

[6]BT, 76-80.

[7]The Eschatology of the Old Testament, ed. by James T. Dennison (2001), hereafter EOT, 89-106.

[8]  The original notes read as follows: “[The] Leadership of Judah in war and enjoyment of peace (types of) --------.”  Though the sentence is incomplete, it appears to be an obvious reference to Christ’s messianic reign.

[9]  EOT, 125-26.

[10]EOT, 107-16.

[11]RHBI, 431. Here Vos discusses the universalistic elements in the Song of Moses.

[12]EOT, 123-30, 138-39.

[13]EOT, 135-36; The Pauline Eschatology (1930/1979),  hereafter PE, 352-54.

[14]EOT, 37-41; BT, 291-92.

[15]  Vos seems to be saying that it is doubtful that the Joel passage has any real universalistic significance in the sense he has been describing in the lecture. Cf. RHBI, 95-96.

[16]RHBI, 284-85; PE, 3-4.

[17]  See his treatment of this passage in “The Modern Hypothesis and Recent Criticism of the Early Prophets,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review (1898) 9:214-238, 411-437, 610-636. Available online at www.biblicaltheology.org.

[18]EOT, 161.

[19]PE, 104-09; RHBI, 38-39.