Lessons in Evangelism from Old Testament Israel

Thomas Overmiller

As we learn to be a witness for the gospel, we give a lot of attention to what we say and how we say it. This is important because you cannot be a witness for the gospel without giving people the message of the gospel in a clear and accurate way (Rom 10:17). But in addition to the message that we share, we must also consider the life that we present to the world as the backdrop to the message. Scripture emphasizes this aspect of our role as witnesses. In fact, this is not a NT phenomenon. You can trace it back to the OT nation of Israel.

In addition to the message that we share, we must also consider the life that we present to the world.

When God called Abraham away from his family and place of origin (Ur of the Chaldees), he did so to form a new nation, the Hebrew nation. He stated the purpose for doing so in Genesis 12:1-3, which says:

Now the LORD had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

At the end of this statement, you find the ultimate purpose for God calling Abraham away and promising to bless him. He would bless all the people groups throughout the world. In the most specific way, this refers to the most important blessing of all, the birth of the Messiah.

The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. (Gal 3:8-9)

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal 3:13-14)

But God intended for Israel to be a blessing to the nations in another way which would serve as a backdrop to his ultimate purpose in sending the Messiah. God intended for Israel to be a source of blessing to other nations of the world. Through Israel, he intended to reveal himself to the world as the one, true God. He also intended to draw people from other nations to faith in him. And through Israel, he intended to provide material blessings and assistance to other nations of the world as well.

Through Israel, he intended to reveal himself to the world as the one, true God. He also intended to draw people from other nations to faith in him.

When you study the OT, you will not find a clear command to “go” into the world with a message of salvation. This kind of command is a special feature of our NT responsibility to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations. But this does not mean that Israel was supposed to isolate herself from the world and refuse to influence the world for God.

God intended for Israel to be a source of light that attracted people to the truth, away from their pagan religions. Israel was supposed to provide a visible, attractive alternative to the empty, unsatisfying religions and practices of other nations. This in mind, you can find examples of this taking place throughout the OT.

In the law of Moses, God made a clear provision for allowing foreigners to participate in the Passover and to live in Israel.

And when a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land. For no uncircumcised person shall eat it. One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you.” (Exo 12:48-49)

This shows that God wanted both Israelites and foreigners to share the same covenant relationship with him. You can also see this in God’s instruction for the Feast of Booths, when God encouraged both Israelites and foreigners to hear the law of God and to enter a serious and committed relationship with him.

Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the LORD your God and carefully observe all the words of this law. (Deut 31:12)

When Solomon dedicated the first Temple in Jerusalem, he offered an amazing prayer that helps us to understand God’s purpose for the nation of Israel in the world.

Concerning a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, but has come from a far country for your name’s sake (for they will hear of your great name and your strong hand and your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this temple, hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, that all peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this temple which I have built is called by your name. (1 Kings 8:41-43)

God intended to provide such excellent protection and care for the nation of Israel that foreigners from all over the world would hear the news. The result would be that they would also choose to turn to God for salvation as well. God wanted the Temple (and the city of Jerusalem, and the nation of Israel) to serve as a house of prayer for all people, not just the Israelites.

God wanted the Temple to serve as a house of prayer for all people, not just the Israelites.

In Isaiah 58:6-8, you can see how God wanted Israel to become a light to the nations of the world.

Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

God did not intend for Israel to fast for spiritual and ritual reasons only. He intended them to do so because it would enable them to provide their food to others who were hungry and needed it instead. The point is that God wanted more from Israel than an exclusive, ritualistic relationship. He wanted to bless people in the world through their special relationship with him.

To compare the mission for Israel and the mission for the church, you can use the words “come” and “go” respectively. In this way, the nation of Israel was supposed to serve as a magnet with a wide reach that drew people to God, while the church today is supposed to serve as a radio that sends the signal of the gospel message far and wide. Though this description is overly simple, it is helpful nonetheless. God wanted Israel to become a bright and shining light that would attract people from the spiritual darkness of the world around them.

The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isa 60:3)

Today he desires for the church go out into the world to bring the light of God to people who are lost in darkness.

Go and make disciples of all nations. (Matt 28:19)

It is encouraging to see instances of people from other nations coming to the light that Israel provided for them, including the following notable examples.

  • Out of Egypt, many people learned to follow God (Exo 12:38).
  • Out of Canaan, Rahab the harlot and her family learned to follow God (Josh 6:23; Heb 11:31).
  • Out of Ethiopia, the Queen of Sheba learned to follow God (1 Kings 10:1-13).
  • Out of Moab, Ruth learned to follow God (Ruth 1:16).
  • Out of Syria, Naaman learned to follow God (2 Kings 5:1-19).
  • Out of Assyria, the Ninevites learned to follow God (Jonah 3:5-10).

To become this witness, God instructed the nation of Israel not only to build a Temple and worship him, allowing serious-minded people from other nations to join them. He also instructed them to make plans to meet the needs of people from other nations.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Lev 23:22)

In fact, he instructed the Israelites to provide committed love to foreigners who chose to live among them.

The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

Furthermore, Jesus emphasized this expectation from God in Luke 10 when he reminded a certain religious scholar that essence of the OT law was to love God and to love your neighbor, the man asked Jesus to clarify who he should consider as his neighbor (Luke 10:26-29). To answer this question, Jesus told the remarkable story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-36). In this story, he portrayed the Jewish characters as passing by their Jewish fellow citizen in need. Then he portrayed a non-Jew (the Samaritan) as being the one to go out of his way to meet the Jewish man in his need. By telling this story, he instructed the religious man to follow the example of the kind Samaritan (Luke 10:37).

Like the OT nation of Israel, we should also learn how to show the love of God to the unbelievers in our lives.

Though the mission of Israel to serve as God’s light to the nations of the world does not directly apply to the mission of the church today (because the church has not replaced Israel), we need to understand that the way that Israel was supposed to witness to the world is not obsolete. As such, we should learn some lessons from them. While it is true that God sends believers into the world to spread the news about Jesus in a proactive way, it is also true that he intends for our lives to serve as a witness to the greatness and goodness of God. Like the OT nation of Israel, we should also learn how to show the love of God to the unbelievers in our lives. In this way, we should serve both as a magnet that attracts people to the gospel and a light that carries the gospel into the world (Matt 5:13-16; Luke 16:9; Phil 2:15; Col 4:5-6; 1 Thess 1:5; 4:11-12; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:12).

Thomas Overmiller serves as pastor for Faith Baptist Church in Corona, NY and blogs at Shepherd Thoughts. This article first appeared at Shepherd Thoughts, used here with permission.