The subject I have been asked to speak on is God’s everlasting covenant and missions.
The way I am going to approach this subject is by way of the covenant promises of God. Just as God has made a covenant promise to believers that he will be friend to their children, grandchildren, etc. down the family line (Genesis 17:7), so also, God has a made a covenant promise in connection with the work of missions that he has clearly commissioned his New Testament church to perform (Matthew 28:18ff, Mark 16:15ff). And that covenant promise in connection with missions comes also from Genesis 17, and is from the verses 4 & 5:
As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.
This covenant promise ought to be at the forefront of the minds of every consistory and evangelism committee, indeed every member of a Reformed church. For missions, just like catechism instruction given by the church in support of the parental religious training in the covenant, is a covenantal obligation and duty that God has given to the New Testament church in and through Jesus Christ.
The challenge for the New Testament church in our day is to be rightly concerned with both these covenant promises in Genesis 17, fulfilling its God-given covenantal obligations. The church of Jesus Christ in our day must pay attention to both these covenant promises and exert herself actively in being used as instruments by God to fulfill the obligations connected with both these covenant promises.
In this connection, one difficulty that churches face is that of one-sidedness. On the one hand, Baptist and Baptistic churches focus their attention on evangelism and missions at the expense of a solid catechetical instruction of their children. They err in treating their children as the object of missions instead of regarding them as part of the church and covenant of God (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 27, Q/A 74). Their focus is on the one covenant promise of Genesis 17:4 & 5 but not on the other of Genesis 17:7. We certainly must not take such an approach. But on the other hand, Reformed churches can also take the other extreme approach of focusing only on the one covenant promise of Genesis 17:7 and neglect the other of Genesis 17:4, 5. It is easy for a Reformed church to take a one-track approach to the covenant and be focused only on the covenantal duties and obligations connected with Genesis 17:7: catechism instruction and the covenantal education of our children. This other extreme is also something we do well to avoid.
In seeking a right approach towards both these covenant promises, we need to ask ourselves: what is the relationship between these two covenant promises? The answer, negatively, is that they are not in conflict with each other. And the answer, positively, is that they harmonize with each other. Specifically, the covenant promise of Genesis 17:4 & 5 builds on top of the covenant promise of Genesis 17:7. How do we know that? The Word of God sheds light on this matter.
God shows this to us in the Old Testament as he unfolded his covenant. God shows to us in the Old Testament how he remembered Genesis 17:4-5 in the Old Testament, even as he fulfilled the covenant promise of Genesis 17:7—the gathering of the church in the line of generations.
Clearly with Abraham in Genesis 17, God gave not only the promise of verse 7 to Abraham, but also the 2nd promise that he would be a “father of many nations.” In fact, God did that in an emphatic way. God changed his name from “Abram” to “Abraham,” which means exactly that, “father of many nations.” In doing so, God told Abraham, “You will be an international father. You will be a father of many in many nations. That’s what you will be.”
And that change of name for Abraham was not something that only Abraham remembered. The Old Testament church and all true descendants of Abraham also had and continues to have the meaning of his name and the change of his name by God recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. While Israel would be a peculiar people and holy nation, somehow, some way and at some time in the future, their faithful covenant God would cause the other nations to be gathered into his church.
In fact, so important was this covenant promise to God, he would remind his people of this throughout Israel’s history in many other ways besides the name of Abraham. We take the time to point out a few of them. In the time of the Judges, didn’t God incorporate a non-Israelite—Moabitess Ruth into the nation Israel, in a significant way—so that through her would come king David? Significantly, the ancestral lineage of king David passing through Ruth is recorded in Ruth 4. In the time of king David, didn’t God make a covenant promise to David that through his loins would come forth a mighty king who would sit on his throne forever, a king of an everlasting and international kingdom (cf. 2 Samuel 7)? And what about the wonderful mission promise of Isaiah 66:18-19 later on in the time of Isaiah that Rev. Stewart treated before me? Then, of course, came the age of the New Testament and God showed that he never forgot that covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5, did he? Before Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, he gave that one important mission command and instruction to the New Testament church, now popularly known as the Great Commission, as recorded in Mark 16:15-16:
And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
So, God shows us the way with respect to a right relationship of both these covenant promises. God establishes his covenant by fulfilling his promise of Genesis 17:4-5. He does this by building on his fulfillment of his promise of Genesis 17:7. When the established New Testament church teaches you, its covenant seed, about the work of evangelism and missions and you grow to be a part of that work in your life in the church, the church is not only being obedient in one important aspect of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. She is also following the pattern and way in which God himself establishes his covenant. She is building a consciousness of Genesis 17:4-5 in her covenant seed in the line of generations, who are friends of God by way of Genesis 17:7.
And so, in that way, there is and there must be ongoing fulfillment of this promise in the New Testament Church. By the time we get to the New Testament, both these covenant promises come together in Acts 2:39,
For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
Let us recount the context and setting of this verse. In Acts 1, in obedience to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ, the gospel spread. Then, in Acts 2:1ff, Pentecost came. One important sign that the Holy Spirit gave to the infant New Testament church at Pentecost was that of the gift of tongues. The people of God spoke in the languages of the different nations, and they knew it. God was telling the New Testament church that she would undoubtedly be catholic, international, gathered from many nations. And in Acts 2:14ff, what do we have—but a record—an important record of the first gospel preached in the New Testament by the apostles. Right at the end of the sermon preached by Peter, we have v. 39, a verse which shows that God is faithful and he remembered his international promise to Abraham—continuing to fulfill it with the preaching of the apostle Peter.
How beautifully those two covenant promises were brought together by God through Peter! “The promise is unto you and your children.” God shows in this first phrase that he remembers his covenant promise of Genesis 17:7. And then, he says in this second phrase, “and to all that are afar off.” God shows that he also remembers his covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5. In Romans 4, God tells us that he fulfills this universal covenant promise to Abraham in the way of faith. This faith is through the gospel of grace, the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone (vv. 16-17, 25). Finally, he adds to both phrases of Acts 2:39 – the important limiting clause “even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
The importance of that limiting clause of Acts 2:39 is that God reaffirms that the way in which the New Testament church fulfills the Great Commission and the “mission” covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5 is by going out into the world and preaching the gospel. As in all obligations and duties that God gives to her, she is to exert herself in carrying out the duty and work of evangelism and missions.
And that the infant New Testament church of the book of Acts showed she did. One cannot help but be impressed by the great energy of the early New Testament church in the work of missions: sending forth missionaries, who traveled far and wide to preach the gospel (Romans 10:14-15), and as the church itself was scattered by persecution and spread, members supported that gospel actively by witnessing the gospel. They witnessed that gospel by their lives and also by their speech (cf. Acts 8:1-4, 1 Peter 3:15). By the time the book of Acts concluded, the gospel went far beyond the boundaries of the nation Israel—into Europe and Asia Minor!
But even as God was fulfilling his covenant promise of a church gathered from the nations through the apostolic church, let us also realize that she needed to go through a time of learning and adjustment, even as she was greatly active in missions. The early New Testament church, especially the Jewish Christians, who were so used to seeing the covenant extended primarily down the family line, had now not only that covenant promise of Genesis 17:7 in the foreground, but now also, understandably, needed a broad mission and vision of the international covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5.
In this connection, God himself gave instruction to the New Testament church.
One important instance of this is in Acts 10. Peter was sitting on a housetop and praying there about the sixth hour, when we are told that God gave to him a vision of a great sheet or net that contained inside of it “all manner of 4-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things and fowls of the air” (v. 12). And then, God commands him to rise, kill and eat all these creatures that were in the sheet (v. 13). Then, we read in Acts 10:14-16:
But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.
Peter, and the New Testament church along with him, needed instruction that the sinful Gentiles whom God called into his church, just like the Jewish Christians, were clean. Though they had the Old Testament scriptures and Genesis 17:4-5, they needed to learn and get adjusted to the idea that God was going to bring in elect Gentiles into the church.
A second important instance of God giving instruction in connection with missions is through the apostle Paul. After setting straight the doctrine and gospel of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone in Ephesians 2:1-10, the holy inspired apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:11-17:
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.
The Ephesian church, which likely was having some tension between its Jewish and Gentile members, needed instruction that by dying on the cross of calvary, Jesus had not only purchased forgiveness for those for whom he died, he had also “broken down the middle wall of partition” between them. Nothing ought to divide Christians of different nations and ethnicities any more. For Jesus Christ is the peace of the church, the church gathered from and comprising not only one nation, but many nations.
Just as the early New Testament church went through a time of learning and adjustment as she was active in missions, so also we today in the PRCA need to do the same. Through much pain and tears, God has preserved the precious, biblical and Reformed heritage in our midst. Our churches are blessed with the doctrines and gospel of sovereign particular grace and the wonderful and warm doctrine of God’s covenant as a bond or living relationship of friendship with his people in Jesus Christ. God graciously gives such a heritage to us not to keep for ourselves, but to communicate to the church and world around us. We have this precious, peculiar and pure biblical gospel, well-developed through the controversies of 1924 and 1953 in our church history to bring to the world. Let us, in obedience to the Great Commission and with consciousness of the covenant promise of Genesis 17:4-5, continue to exert ourselves in mission work. And let us, as we continue doing so, also continue to learn and make adjustments in our work of missions. And we are. For example, we are learning the biblical and practical wisdom of doing foreign mission work not singly, but two-and-two—as the apostolic church did in the book of Acts. We are certainly growing in our denomination to have a mind-set for missions.
Do you, young people, have a mind-set and a heart for God in missions? A heart that desires not only that your friends around you at church make public confession of faith, but also to see others do the same? Do you desire to see people who are not presently in the church, people from other nations embrace the same faith in Jesus Christ that you do? There are lots of ways in which we can grow and cultivate that mission heart and mind-set that God gives to you. That begins with local evangelism and missions—in your own sphere of life, in your own town and community. Support the work of your church’s evangelism committee. Get involved with promoting and/or developing your church’s website. Keep up with the mission work of our denomination through the newsletters of our missionaries. Pray for our missionaries. Give financially to their work. The list goes on and on.
In all that activity, besides the benefit of a growing spiritually healthy mind-set and heart for missions, there are also other benefits to being used actively by God in the covenantal work of evangelism and missions. For one thing, the truth of “the catholicity of the church” which we confess every Sunday evening at our church’s worship services becomes less abstract and theoretical and more real to us. As God blesses our mission labors, he brings in people from other nations into our midst, and we grow to appreciate more and more the wonder of God’s grace. We see God’s irresistible grace work in the line of generations, and also to those who are far off, those outside the church, as he promises! He calls and gathers them unto himself through the preaching of the gospel. What a wonder that the power of God’s grace draws people different in so many ways! As you relate to such ones, even as I relate to you, we find, don’t we, that what is precious between us, among all our earthly differences is this: our one common bond of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ? Such relating to one another can only cause us to grow in spiritual-mindedness and love—for our Lord Jesus Christ, and for his one, beautiful, holy, catholic church.
And let us realize that, in this way also, we are being prepared for the glorious end that awaits us at the end of the ages—when we will behold a complete gathering of the international church of Jesus Christ, and the perfection of God’s everlasting covenant. We are reminded of such a wonderful, beautiful, complete vision of the church in the book of Revelation.
There is Revelation 5:9-10:
And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
And there is, of course, the theme verse of this year’s Young People’s Convention, Revelation 7:9-10:
After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
God grant that this glorious end and vision serve to motivate you, young people, and all of us together to being used actively by God in his sovereign, beautiful, covenantal work of gathering and building a church gathered from all nations!