In my experience, people often have a tough time with the Old Testament. It is long, complex, full of antiquated customs, diverse in its genres, and the significance of its parts is not always readily apparent. We believe it is God’s word, so we read it and attempt to apply it, but often this process does not progress beyond using OT figures as examples of what we should or should not do.
Especially difficult, it seems, is answering the question: what was Israel’s mission? Why did the nation of Israel exist? What were they supposed to be doing in the world? A common—and correct—answer to this question is that Israel was called to live in faithful relationship with God by obeying the Torah. But this just pushes the question back one step: why was Israel to live in faithful relationship with God and obey the Torah?
Obedience for Salvation?
It is occasionally suggested that Israel was to obey God’s law in order to receive his salvation. Salvation in the Old Testament was by works, we are told, and salvation in the New Testament is by grace. Israel’s mission, therefore, was essentially to showcase the sad reality that we cannot be saved by works, which prepares us to see the grandeur of salvation by grace in the New Testament.
The problem with this view is that neither the Old or New Testament describes Israel’s mission this way. God called Abram out of Ur and promised to multiply him by grace—before he had done anything good for God. God rescued Israel from Egypt by grace—before they had received His Torah and had opportunity to obey it. In Deut 7:7–8 Moses says that God chose Israel as His people not because of anything good in them but solely because of His “love” for them—by grace.
In line with this, Hebrews 11 summarizes the lives of several Old Testament saints and identifies the common denominator among them as faith, that which the New Testament highlights as the instrument through which we receive God’s gracious salvation. In light of this background, we can hardly conclude that Israel was called to obey God in order to be saved.
Obedience for Mission
In Fill the Earth, I argue that Israel’s faithful adherence to the Torah was not for the purpose of salvation but for mission. God called Israel to be His covenant people in order to advertise to the nations the grand and glorious nature of God’s kingship.
Every aspect of Israel’s national identity was designed to contribute to this endeavor, from the Torah to the temple to the king. And most significantly, according to the Torah, if Israel would faithfully seek after God by keeping His word through repentance and faith, He promises to fulfill the creation mandate through them.
Israel, therefore, was called to carry out the same mission as Adam and Abram before them. They were to represent God’s kingship to the ends of the earth by keeping his word and showcasing His supremacy to the nations.
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