Fill the Earth 5: Mission Failed

Fill the Earth 1-page-001In our last segment we saw how God organized his mission by rescuing Israel from Egypt and communicating his torah to them. If Israel would exhibit their faith in God by obeying his torah, He would enable them to fulfill the creation mission (e.g., Lev 26:3, 9). By their obedience to God’s kingly word, they would serve as a witness to the nations, who would observe their wisdom and realize the grandeur of their God (Deut 4:5-8). What we will see in this segment, however, is that like Adam, Israel disobeyed God’s word and therefore  failed in their mission as God’s royal representatives, and therefore like Adam they were exiled from God’s special presence.

An Early Hint of Mission Failure

Before Israel entered the Promised Land, we see an early hint of how their disobedience to God’s kingly word would serve as a bad witness to the nations. In Numbers 13, God tells Moses to send 12 spies to survey the Promised Land. When these spies return, they (except Caleb [v. 30]) give a bad report and declare that Israel cannot overtake the people there. Israel believes the spies and thus distrusts God’s ability to give them the land, so God threatens to wipe the nation out and start over with Moses (Num 14:11-12). In response, Moses says this:

15 If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, 16 ‘The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness” (vv. 15-16).

Moses’ reason for why God should not destroy Israel is that other nations would think that He was unable to bring them to the Promised Land. This is an early hint of mission failure: by Israel not treating God as king, the nations would draw false conclusions concerning God and His sovereign rule.

Warnings of Mission Failure

Last time we looked at several passages in the torah that explained how obedience would result in the fulfillment of the mission. Now we’ll survey passages that warn what will happen if Israel disobeys God’s word.

First, whereas obedience would lead to military victory, disobedience would lead to military defeat. According to Lev 26:14-17:

14 But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, 15 and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. 17 I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.”

Second, whereas obedience would lead to fulfillment of the creation mission, disobedience would result in a reversal of the creation mission.

“I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted” (Lev 26:22).

58 If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the Lord your God . . . 62 You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. 63 Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and multiply you, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess” (Deut 28:58-63).

In our study of Genesis 4-11, we saw that humanity’s primeval rebellion against God involved the opposite of the creation mission: murder and centralization. Here we see a different version of this same idea: Israel is warned that rebellion against God will result in God bringing about the opposite of the creation mission as a punishment against them.

A History of Mission Failure

When we get to the historical books of the OT, what we basically see is a history of mission failure. This begins immediately after Israel gets into the Promised Land, right after Joshua’s generation dies.

10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals” (Judg 2:10-11).

When this text says that this generation did not “know” the Lord or what He had done, it doesn’t mean that they had no cognitive awareness of who Yahweh was. It means that they did not acknowledge the Lord or the grace He had shown to Israel, which led to idolatry (i.e., giving their allegiance to false gods).

If we were to read the whole story, we would see that it is essentially a history of rebellion and failure that ends in exile (cf. 2 Kgs 17:7-18). This history as it relates to the creation mission is summarized well in Ps 107:38-39:

“He blessed them, and they multiplied greatly, and he did not let their herds diminish. Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled by oppression, calamity and sorrow.”

This was due to Israel’s rebellion–their failure to treat God as King by obeying His royal decree. Therefore, like Adam, Israel too was ejected from God’s special presence.

This state of affairs was anticipated by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, even before Israel had entered the land:

“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous [lit. ‘multiplied’] than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you. And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today.” (Deut 30:1-10).

As this passage shows, God will exile them, but He also will not leave them there. Looking forward to Israel’s restoration, we see at least four things emphasized in this text.

  1. Repentance will involve obedience (v. 2).
  2. This repentant obedience will result in restoration (vv. 3-4).
  3. This restoration will result in multiplication (v. 5).
  4. God is the one who will enable this repentant obedience that leads to multiplication (vv. 6-8).

Restored for the Sake of Mission

Jeremiah ministered in the years leading up to the exile and into the exile, and he spoke of the time when God would restore Israel from exile using language from the creation mission:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

In this passage we see two things of particular importance. First, God will bring His people back so they can fulfill the creation mission–“they shall be fruitful and multiply” (v. 4). Second, God will “raise up for David a righteous Branch” who will reign as king (v. 5). Israel’s kings (the ‘shepherds’ in this passage) had led them astray, so what they needed was a righteous king to lead them in living out their faith through obedience to God’s word. Therefore, as we begin to expect God to fulfill His mission, we see that He is going to raise up a descendent of David to lead His people in doing so.

Ezekiel also ministered during the exile, and like Jeremiah he too had a lot to say about God’s future restoration and its relation to the mission. Through him God says,

23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land” (Ezek 36:23-24).

Notice here that God will redeem his people so that his holiness be vindicated in the sight of the nations. This reminds us of Numbers 14, where Moses was concerned that if God destroyed Israel, the nations would think He wasn’t powerful enough to give them the Promised Land. Eventually, for the sake of His holiness, God had to exile them, since they were unrepentantly defiling the Promised Land that He gave them. However, by bringing Israel back to the land, God was showing the nations that he wasn’t defeated by any other god, but rather was exacting punishment on His people. God would vindicate himself before the nations by exiling His people and then restoring them.

He goes on to describe how things will be different after this restoration occurs:

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. 32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel”

Here we have at least four things going on.

First, God will perform a heart-cleansing on His people (vv. 25-26); this will soften and enliven their hearts. Second, God will put His Spirit in them to cause them to obey (v. 27). God will ensure that His mission will succeed through His people because He himself will instrumentally enable their obedience. Third, God says that His people will experience repentance (v. 31). Fourth, God reiterates that He will do this restorative work for His own namesake, which is implied in v. 32.

This last point reminds us that redemption is not primarily for us. Rather, we are redeemed for the glory of God’s name to be recognized all over the earth. God’s people are being restored and enabled to keep His commands so that His kingship will be represented to the nations (i.e., to the ends of the earth). In short, God’s people are saved in order to fulfill His mission. A few verses earlier Ezekiel says this very thing:

For behold, I am for you [O mountains of Israel], and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown. 10 And I will multiply people on you, the whole house of Israel, all of it. The cities shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt. 11 And I will multiply on you man and beast, and they shall multiply and be fruitful. And I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you will know that I am the Lord” (Ezek 36:9-11).

Therefore, coming out of exile, we are expecting God to vindicate His name among the nations by restoring His people. According to the prophets, this restoration will involve:

  1. God providing His people with a righteous, Davidic king to lead them (Jeremiah)
  2. God putting His Spirit within His people, enabling them to obey Him (Ezekiel)
  3. God’s people being fruitful and multiplying, thereby fulfilling the original creation mission (both).

This expectation sets the stage for the ultimate Son of David to come, redeem God’s people, pour out His Spirit on them, and unleash them to be fruitful and multiply in a way that will bring about the success of God’s mission.


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