by Doug Ward

Sharing the gospel has always been a high priority for Christians, a priority originally set by Jesus himself. Remember that when Jesus initially invited some Galilean fisherman to be his disciples, his intention was to make them "fishers of men" (Mark 1:17). Later, after his resurrection, Jesus charged his followers to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:20), a directive that has come to be known as the Great Commission. The early Christians zealously carried out this directive, and within a generation the good news of the Kingdom of God had spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Today, two thousand years later, there are Christians in every corner of the globe, well over two billion in all.


The apostles were not the only first century Jews to bring the one true God to the attention of non-Israelites. Generally speaking, the Jews of Jesus' day had a high regard for God-fearers (Gentiles who followed the God of Israel) and proselytes (Gentiles who made a full conversion to Judaism). Jesus spoke of scribes and Pharisees who would "travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte" (Matt 23:15). In one famous instance from around 30 AD, the royal family of the Assyrian kingdom of Adiabene became proselytes under the tutelage of two Jews named Ananias and Eleazar.1


Still, the Christian movement's special emphasis on evangelism set it apart from the other "Judaisms" of the first century.2 While Jews welcomed Gentiles who approached them with a sincere interest in the God of Israel, they normally did not actively seek out converts. The followers of Jesus, on the other hand, established an organized missionary outreach to the pagan world. Christians took evangelism to a whole new level, based on a conviction that the coming of Jesus marked an important juncture in salvation history. The Messiah had come, the Holy Spirit was being poured out, and it was time for an ingathering of the nations as proclaimed by the prophets. "I will make you as a light for the nations," God says to his Servant the Messiah in Isaiah 49:6, "that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."


Abram the Evangelist

The roots of the Great Commission, and of Jewish and Christian witness to the one true God, go back two thousand years before Jesus to the calling of Abram and Sarai. When God directed the couple to leave Haran and follow him to an unknown destination, he promised them that "you will be a blessing" and "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12:2,3). The latter promise is restated in Gen 22:18: "and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."


The Hebrew word for "offspring" in Gen 22:18 is a collective singular word, a word like "team" or "church" that is singular but refers to a group of people. It is also masculine in gender. These features of the word for "offspring" suggest that this word could stand simultaneously for Abram's descendants in general and for a special male descendant of Abram in particular. And that is how Jews and Christians have understood the promise in Gen 22:18-as both a promise for all of Abram's descendants and a reference to one special descendant, the Messiah. (See Gal 3:8-16, for example, where Paul discusses the fulfillment of Gen 22:18 in Jesus.)


The Bible gives very few details about the lives of Abram and Sarai before they received these wonderful promises. Based on Joshua 24:2 and Gen 11:26-31, we know that Abram's ancestors "served other gods" in the city of Ur. Then at some point Abram and Sarai traveled from Ur to Haran with others in their extended family. From these data Jewish tradition has inferred that Abram came into a relationship with the true God while living in Ur, then was persecuted for his monotheistic views and forced to leave Ur for Haran. According to this tradition, Abram had already begun to be a witness for God before his calling in Gen 12.3


Abram and Sarai left Haran with a large entourage, including "people that they had acquired in Haran" (Gen 12:5). In Hebrew, the phrase "people that they acquired" is literally "souls that they made." One interpretation identifies these "souls" as followers of God, people introduced to monotheism by Abram and Sarai. David Klinghoffer (The Discovery of God, p. 31) notes, "The Talmud [b. Sanhedrin 99b] says that a man who teaches another man about the Lord is considered as if he personally had `made' him." By this interpretation Abram and Sarai, who would have to wait years for the birth of their son Isaac, were already the parents of some "spiritual children."


Further traditions picture Abram and Sarai continuing to evangelize wherever their travels took them. According to Josephus (Antiquities, Book 1, Chapter 8), one of the reasons that Abram decided to go to Egypt when there was a famine in Canaan (Gen 12:10) was to compare notes with the wise men of Egypt. It turned out, Josephus says, that their wisdom was no match for Abram's, and he impressed them with his knowledge of arithmetic and astronomy as well as theology. Such traditions explain a way in which Abram and Sarai were a blessing to the nations. As they traveled, they spread precious truth about the identity and ways of their Creator.



Since Abram originally came from a pagan background, he is honored in Jewish tradition as a model proselyte. We might also describe Abram and Sarai as "herders of men" two thousand years before the apostles were "fishers of men." In their role as evangelists and a blessing to the nations, they are a worthy role model for us. Today the world needs the knowledge of the true God and his Messiah, just as it did in the time of Abram and Sarai. The challenge of the Great Commission continues in the twenty first century for the sons and daughters of Abram (Gal. 3:7, 29).


1Josephus recounts this story in his Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 20.


2On this point, see for example Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period by Michael F. Bird, Baker Academic, 2010.


3A good source for traditions about Abram is David Klinghoffer's The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, Doubleday, 2003.

Issue 29


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On 19 Oct 2014, 16:49.