Evangelism… in the Old Testament? For many people today, this phrase sounds like a contradiction in terms. After all, we don’t see the Great Commission until the New Testament, right? (See Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8.) So why (and how) would Old Testament believers want to-—or know how to—share the Good News with others?
It is true that there is no formal “great commission” given to the people of Israel as there is to Christians in the New Testament. But there are numerous places where they are called to tell others about God. Take, for example, Psalm 96:3, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all the peoples.” What are those marvelous deeds? Most certainly this list would have included how God made us and performed miracle after miracle to rescue us from sin and slavery.
We can also see in the way God called prophets that he desired the message of his glory and love to be shared with people who did not know it. Consider Jeremiah, who was told by God, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (1:5).
We can even look to the Israelites in slavery in Egypt for another example of God’s constant desire to save non-believers. As God is preparing to free the Israelites through the sending of various plagues, he states his purpose numerous times: “…so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land” (Exodus 8:22) and “so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth” (9:14). The success of God’s judgment/salvation purpose is shown by the fact that as the Israelites departed Egypt, not only were they given “departing gifts” from many Egyptians (12:36), but there were even some converted locals who joined their faith community (12:38).
So, what did evangelism look like in the Old Testament? Here are a handful of unique Old Testament examples of evangelism:
Evangelism Through Family
At the heart of the Old Testament social structure is the family. God designed it this way. Deuteronomy 6-7 shows the family functioning as a means of evangelism. In everyday family life, they were to speak of God, explaining the stories and core tenets of their faith. More formal avenues of evangelism through the family are demonstrated by the book of Proverbs, which serves as an instruction manual for young children who are crossing over the threshold into adulthood.
Evangelism Through Spiritual Warfare
This topic can make us feel a little uncomfortable, yet it is very much a part of the Old Testament’s history. The enemies of God take physical form in the many nations, rulers, and empires who come against the people of Israel. As the people of Israel engaged in battle with earthly enemies, we are often given a glimpse into the battle that simultaneously raged on in the spiritual realms. One such event is in 2 Kings 6 where Elisha and his servant are surrounded by a host of well-armed Aramean horsemen. Elisha’s servant fears for their lives. But Elisha knows something his servant does not. He says, “Don’t be afraid, …those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (6:16). Then the text says that Elisha prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes. “The Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (6:17). Truly, the battle is the Lord’s.
Evangelism Through Worship
Acts of worship fill the pages of the Old Testament from beginning to end. Worship, carried out in line with God’s instructions and faithful to his Word, served to announce and demonstrate the presence of God for us in the sacrifices and praises of Israel. Even today, Christ-focused worship that is faithful to the gospel is a most powerful means of telling the story of Jesus Christ in a culture tempted by idols at every turn. Worship is one of the most accessible and effective forms of evangelism the Church has. In the Old Testament, God’s character and glory were exemplified and his Word was read so that, through that hearing, faith might be created in all who participated (Romans 10:17). Even though the people of Israel were the main guests in worship, there was also an “open-door policy” to anyone seeking the Lord for his mercy. (See King Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple in 1 Kings 8:22-53.)
Evangelism Through Vocation
What I mean by “vocation” is one’s everyday activities (sometimes seen as common and mundane) through which one provides for self, family, and neighbor. It may seem strange to talk about “vocation as evangelism” in the Old Testament, except that we see numerous examples of it. Most often, the examples we see were set up by unfortunate circumstances. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37:25-28); Nehemiah ended up in Babylon after the exile; Daniel was also brought against his will to a foreign land. As Daniel went about his daily work in the political cabinet of a foreign king, the Lord blessed him (Daniel 1:17). When various adversaries tried to smear Daniel’s reputation, they couldn’t find anything to use against him (6:3-5). When Daniel was underhandedly accused of breaking a law against praying to God, the Lord again protected Daniel. This led to the king (and the whole land) hearing of God’s unique power and glory (6:25-27).
Evangelism—telling the story of God’s love for us, specifically in Jesus Christ—is woven throughout pages of the Bible. From Genesis 3, when sin and death entered the world, the telling and receiving of this message has literally become a life-and-death matter. Because there was no other way of salvation in the Old Testament than through faith in the promised Messiah of God, evangelism was just as central to the Old Testament people of faith as it was to the New Testament people of faith. I pray this brief study of Old Testament evangelism will enlighten and encourage you as you seek to carry on the gospel preached to all nations through all time—until Christ returns!
Dr. Brad Pribbenow Ph.D. serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as dean of Lutheran Brethren Seminary and professor of Old Testament.