Does God depend entirely upon Christians to accomplish his work? This question enters my mind a lot when I think about witnessing. When I was at Harvard, I was reading the Book of Isaiah for my weekly quiet time. Isaiah has a very universalist vision of eschatology–and “universalist” here doesn’t mean that he thinks everyone will be saved. Rather, it describes his conviction that people from many nations will worship the God of Israel after he restores his people to their land.
Isaiah was very inclusivist. So is Psalms. So are other books. When I read the Bible, one image of God that I encounter is one who cares for all of his creation. This God will create a situation in which everyone recognizes that he is God and receives an opportunity to worship him. In the prophets, that situation is usually the restoration of the Israelites to their land. In the days of the Hebrew Bible, people often evaluated the worth of a god according to the experiences of his nation. Within the ancient Near Eastern mindset, if a country lost a war, that could be a sign that its god wasn’t all that powerful. But if a country got restored, that said a lot about its god. Other nations then took notice!
The Bible speaks about numerous people worshipping the one true God, almost in cosmic terms. But so many human beings in God’s creation do not know God, according to the Christian concept of “knowing” him. At the present time, Christians do not make up the majority of the world’s population. This was especially evident to me at Harvard Divinity School, where I encountered Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and atheists and people who didn’t know what they were. And imagine going to a school in which Christians are actually a tiny minority. That’s what Jewish Theological Seminary was like!
There are people who believe that God is accomplishing his universal outreach through the church. Isaiah talks about the nations going to Jerusalem to learn about God (e.g., Isaiah 2). According to many Christians, God is currently fulfilling this vision through Christian missions. And there are proof-texts that back up this claim.
Acts 15:14-18 states: “Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord– even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.'”
James is citing Amos 9:11-12, which (in the Greek) presents the usual prophetic scenario: God politically restores his people, then the nations come to Israel to worship him. But James says that this passage is being fulfilled in his time, despite Israel’s subjugation at the hands of the Romans. God has sent his Messiah, Jesus Christ, which fulfills the part about God rebuilding the dwelling of David. And the Gentiles are coming to God through his Messiah.
That’s how Luke/Acts seems to treat these types of prophecies, period. The Hebrew prophets focus on Jerusalem as an important place in the Gentiles’ reception of God. And, in Luke 24:47, Jesus says the Scriptures predict “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” For Luke’s Jesus, these prophecies are being fulfilled in the mission of the church, which proclaims Christ to all the world.
In Romans 15, Paul is encouraging Jewish and Gentile Christians to get along better. In vv 8-12, he offers a Scriptural basis for this: “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, ‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name’; and again he says, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’; and again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him’; and again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.'”
Paul draws on inclusivist passages in the Psalms and the prophets to argue that the Gentiles’ inclusion in the church fulfills God’s plan. He specifically cites Isaiah 11:10, which occurs in the context of God restoring the Israelites from exile and establishing a reign of peace. For Paul, the part about the Gentiles coming to God was being fulfilled in his day.
My Armstrongite background always applied these prophetic passages to the future, as in after the second coming of Christ. At that time, Armstrongites argue, Christ will set up a worldwide kingdom and give everyone an opportunity to repent, even if they didn’t accept Jesus before their deaths. Right now, a lot of people don’t know which religion is the correct one. In that day, it will be obvious!
Personally, I think that the Armstrongite view is more consistent with the original intent of the Hebrew prophets, even though I don’t think they envisioned a “second resurrection” in which God would offer post-mortem salvation opportunities. In my opinion, they believed that God would tangibly demonstrate that he is the one true God, prompting even the pagan Gentiles to believe in his name. Missouri is the “Show me” state. Well, according to the Hebrew prophets, God would show the Gentiles that he is God.
In some sense, that happened in the first century C.E., for the church did signs and wonders that made the Gentiles open to the Gospel. The church wasn’t doing all of God’s work, for God was acting as well. When the Spirit made the Gentiles speak in tongues, that wasn’t Peter’s doing! Peter was as surprised by it as everyone else! Even in Acts, God is tangibly showing the Gentiles that he is God.
But is that occurring today? I don’t rule it out totally, for God still does miracles. Plus, I acknowledge that many people are turning from the power of darkness to the kingdom of light. But I still have problems asserting that the grand, inclusivist promises of the prophets are being fulfilled today through the mission of the church, especially when most people in the world do not believe in Christ, and Christianity appears to be just one option among many. And, yet, I cannot blow off the New Testament witness that the church is part of the fulfillment of those prophetic expectations.
At the same time, I don’t rule out that God will one day act in a way that brings many people to him. Revelation 11:13 says, “At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.” Revelation 15:4 has, “Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” God’s judgments will shake up a lot of people to recognize God and give him glory. There will come a time when God will rely on more than the church to get his point across!
And, in its own eschatological scenario, Revelation seems to echo the Hebrew prophets in that it envisions a place for the nations in God’s future paradise (21:24-26; 22:2). So can we rule out Isaiah 2 being future, just because the New Testament says that the church is fulfilling it? Perhaps not.
The Bible often presents God acting and the church joining him in what he is doing. That differs somewhat from how many present witnessing–as doing God’s work for him, or, more precisely, as being the sole means by which God does his work. But more on that next time!