“Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”
- St. Francis of Assisi
Modern readers tend to take the above statement as a kind admonition towards acts of charity and service in the name of Jesus. But, they are usually quick to make clear that the primary means of evangelizing is through the preaching of the Word.
Without downplaying either propositional preaching or acts of charity, the following essay explores another approach to evangelism—an approach that seems to be rooted more deeply in the Old and New Testament traditions. I call it the “City on a Hill Approach” to world missions.
In order to set the stage, we must take a trip back through the history of God’s people, through the Old Testament and up until the birth of Christ, when the world sat in darkness awaiting the brightness of a new dawn.
ISRAEL’S MISSIONARY PRESENCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
When God called Abraham and promised to make him a great nation, he and his descendents were to be the instrument through which God would bless all the peoples of the earth (Gen 12:2-3; 17:4, 16; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:4; 28:14). All nations were to come to a knowledge of the one true and living God as they observed the people of God living in relationship with Him and obedience to His decrees. As Moses says,
Observe [God’s decrees and laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him (Deut 4:5-7)?
Furthermore, the people of God were called to be a kingdom of priests, or mediators between the nations and God: “…if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5-6).
It is key to note that the primary posture of the missionary calling of Israel was not one of sending out individual missionaries to teach propositional truths about God, but rather a corporate calling to be a certain kind of people, or community, living a certain quality of life in plain view of the on-looking nations. They are to be a unique, sanctified presence among all the peoples of the earth.
This corporate presence became much more visible during the united kingdom under David and Solomon. Here, royal language of God’s sovereign kingship over all the earth intensifies as the psalmist repeatedly beckons forth praise from all nations:
God be gracious to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us, that Your way may be known on the earth, Your salvation among all nations…Let the nations be glad and sing for joy…Let the peoples praise You, O God; Let all the peoples praise You (Psa 67:1-2, 4-5).
…Sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth…God reigns over the nations, God sits on His holy throne (Psa 47:6-8).
The newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem, serving both as God’s throne and dwelling place, brought new depth to the reality of God’s sovereign lordship and glorious presence among his people. Yet, the blessings that were to flow out from Israel to the nations were not yet forgotten. For example, in the dedication of the Temple, Solomon fully expected that peoples from afar would acknowledge the one true God and come to worship him in his Temple:
Also concerning the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm); when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You…(I Ki 8:41-3).
Yet, there is no place in scripture where Israel’s calling among the nations is more clearly presented than in the oracles of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah uses two powerful images to describe the powerful missionary presence the people of God are to be among the nations. These two missionary metaphors are light and a holy mountain.
A LIGHT TO THE NATIONS
Throughout scripture, light is “a symbol of God’s presence and righteous activity.” By contrast, darkness symbolizes “human ignorance of God’s will.” Isaiah describes the missionary task of Servant Israel to the nations as a light of the knowledge of God shining into the darkness of a lost and spiritually blind world:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I will hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison (Isa 42:6-7).
It is too small a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isa 49:6).
Pay attention to Me, O My people, and give ear to Me, O My nation; for a law will go forth from me, and I will set My justice for a light of the peoples (Isa 51:4).
Thus, when Isaiah speaks of the glorious fulfillment of God’s plan to bring this light, the blessing of his benevolent rule and holy presence, to the nations, he says: “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (Isa 9:2). It is the mammoth responsibility of the people of God to be God’s light in the world!
Yet, N. T. Wright vividly reminds us of the tendency of the God’s covenant people to falter in this very task. Referring to the Jews of Jesus’ day, he writes that “Israel, called to be the lighthouse for the world, has surrounded herself with mirrors to keep the light in, heightening her own sense of purity and exclusiveness while insisting that the nations must remain in darkness.” But when God’s people are faithful to their missionary task and do live in a way that reflects the truth that God is indeed in their midst, then the words of Isaiah ring true:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn (Isaiah 60:1-3).
Again, it is worth highlighting that the missionary activity of Israel thus far is still one of corporately reflecting “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” outwards onto the on-looking peoples, in order that they might see and come toward the light that characterizes the community life of the covenant people. The ‘salvation’ (cf. Isa 49:6 above) that God desires to lavish upon all peoples does not come, it would seem thus far, primarily through the proclamation of truth or the acquisition of a ‘saving knowledge’ of God (e.g. holding to some proto-Nicene creed).
Rather, this ‘salvation’ is accessed through the incorporation into the covenant community of God and experienced as one begins to live a new quality of life—a truly human life—in relationship with God and fellow man. If the missionary metaphor of light is not conclusive enough to provide us with an Old Testament theology of missions, perhaps the image of a city set high on a hill will help solidify it.
A CITY ON A HILL
Now, of course, the reader will quickly recognize that the “city built on a hill” metaphor is not explicitly found in the Old Testament, but comes directly from the lips of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:14). Yet, a brief survey of the Old Testament prophets will immediately reveal that Jesus was simply drawing from popular Old Testament imagery.
Throughout the Bible, mountains carry significant theological meaning. As D. C. Allison, Jr. observes,
…several mountains were the scenes of theophanies and/or played crucial roles in salvation-history, as the names Moriah, Nebo/Pisgah, Carmel and especially Sinai and Zion attest. Around the latter two there gathered relatively well-defined clusters of motifs (Sinai: Moses, wilderness, Law-giving; Zion: kingship, Jerusalem, Temple, inviolability).
Mount Zion, in particular, (which Jesus most likely had in mind in his sermon) seems to have been used by the prophets as a byword for describing the place from which all of the eschatological blessings of God will flow when his kingdom is actualized on earth. For our purposes, I suggest that just as the light imagery provides a picture of the missionary-presence of God’s people, reflecting light of his kingdom into the dark corridors of the earth, so also the image of a glorious city on a hill (i.e. Zion) provides a similar biblical paradigm for world missions.
Let us then survey the biblical evidence. First, Isaiah provides a stunning eschatological vision:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isa 2:2-3).
Here we have a glimpse of all peoples flocking to the mountain of the Lord’s presence in order to “learn his ways” and “walk in his paths.” So irresistible is the presence of God, that, according to Zechariah, “in those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zech 8:13).
Again, the pattern is the same as before: the pagan nations recognize something gloriously magnificent about life under the reign of God, they are attracted to it, and come by their own initiative to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). Or again, Isaiah speaks of the messianic feast to be enjoyed by all nations who come to the mountain:
The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain…and on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations (Isa 25:6).
Here, again, the messianic blessings that God promised to flow out from Abraham and his descendents to all peoples is described. To all who leave their idols behind to come and join the covenant community of God, it will be as if a veil has been removed from their eyes. They will realize, as the apostle Paul did, that “it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
Yet, before we jump ahead to the New Testament, let us review our findings thus far.
First, Israel was called to be a missionary people, bringing God’s blessings to the nations around them. Second, I have argued that the means by which this was to be accomplished was not by sending out individual missionaries to bring a word of knowledge of God, but rather by living and embodying a quality of community life in the midst of the nations that reflects the glory of God and his purposes for humanity. Third, I have set forth two Old Testament missionary metaphors—light to the nations and a city on a hill (i.e. Mount Zion)—as examples of this missionary strategy in action.
I will now attempt to show, by exploring both the ministry of Jesus and the ecclesiologies of Paul and Peter, that this same missionary strategy was largely retained throughout the New Testament era.
JESUS: THE MISSIONARY TO MISSIONARIES
When the modern reader approaches the synoptic gospels, they must first leave behind the notion that Jesus spent most of his ministry wandering about the Galilean countryside attempting to save individual souls from going to hell when they died. Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God (or heaven) did not refer to a place, called ‘heaven,’ where God’s people will go after death; nor was Jesus teaching timeless truths about a timeless system for dealing with individual sins (though his message does address this as well). N. T. Wright poignantly clears up this misunderstanding:
When people downed tools for a while and trudged off up a hillside to hear this Jesus talking, we can be sure they weren’t going to hear someone tell them to be nice to each other; or that if they behaved themselves (or got their minds round the right theological scheme) there would be a rosy future waiting for them when they got to ‘heaven’; or that God had decided at last to do something about forgiving them for their sins. First-century Jews knew that they ought to be nice to each other. In so far as they thought at all about life after death, they believed that their God would look after them, and eventually give them new physical bodies in his renewed world…There is no sign that first-century Jews were walking around gloomily wondering how their sins were ever going to be forgiven. They had the Temple and the sacrificial system, which took care of all of that. If Jesus only said what a lot of Western Christians seem to think he said, he would have been just a big yawn-maker.
Rather, Jesus’ words and actions indicated that he was reconstituting true Israel around himself, reliving their history in his own life, death, resurrection, and exaltation, bringing about the end of Israel’s punishment for their sin (i.e. the return from ‘exile’) and ushering in the long awaited time of national or even cosmic renewal (cf. Isaiah 40-55). The sovereign reign of God was being brought near and all and sundry were being invited to live under the blessings of this rule. Jesus announced the end of the present evil age and the dawning of a new world order—the call to be the renewed people of God, to reflect God’s love and mercy to a lost and hurting world, and to become at last ‘a light to the nations.’
Jesus’ ministry then was paradoxically both a mission to the Gentiles, summoning them into the messianic kingdom, as well as a mission to the missionary people themselves, embodying in his own life their own calling to be Servant Israel and to bless the nations. He was to “restore the tribes of Jacob” in order that they might finally fulfill their missionary calling to be a “light to the nations” in order to “bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa 50:5-6). If there are any doubts that this was the train of thought of the gospel writers, a cursory glance at Matthew’s narrative should put us at ease.
Matthew has taken several steps to typologically identify Jesus as Israel. According to Gundry, “Jesus is the representative Israelite in whose individual history the history of the whole nation, apart from its sin and apostasy, is recapitulated and anticipated.”
Like Israel in the Messianic times he receives the homage of Gentiles (2:11). He is preserved in and comes out of Egypt (2:15). Just as the mourning of the Israelite mothers for the Babylonian exiles preluded a brighter future through divine preservation in a foreign land and restoration to Palestine, so the mourning by the mothers of the Bethlehem innocents is a prelude to the Messianic future through divine preservation of the infant Messiah in a foreign land and his later restoration to Palestine (2:18). In the temptation narrative, the quotation of three Deuteronomic verses having to do with Israel’s probation in the wilderness draws a parallel between Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness and Israel’s temptation in the wilderness (4:4, 7, 10).
Furthermore, at his baptism (3:13-17), Jesus represents all of Israel as he is baptized for the remission of the nations’ sins. In the end, Jesus as the Danielic ‘Son of Man’, will represent the suffering and vindication of the “saints of the most high” (26:64; cf. Dan 7). As the true Servant of YHWH, Jesus in Matthew (as in Mark and Luke) symbolically raises up the twelve tribes of Jacob by reconstituting the renewed Israel around his band of twelve disciples (10:1). It seems no coincidence that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, painted in blatant Sinaitic imagery and meant to be understood as the new Torah—the new community ethic of the restored Israel—comes directly after Jesus’ summoning of the twelve disciples, the firstfruits of his renewed Israel.
Finally, Matthew’s Jesus brings both of our Old Testament missionary metaphors together into one grand admonition (and subtle rebuke) to his renewed people of God:
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).
Jesus’ hearers were being given a brief review of their national history. They were always supposed to be the light of the world. Jerusalem, representing the whole people of God, was to be the city on a hill, easily seen by all the nations surrounding them. The light that Israel possessed and was called to shine forth was not their own moral uprightness, but their knowledge of God, his Law, and his glorious purpose for humanity: to live in a covenant relationship with Him.
Instead of sharing this “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” with the nations around them (i.e. putting it on a stand for everyone in the house), they became absorbed with national pride, kept God and his Law to themselves (i.e. put it under a bowl), and longed only for that day when God would finally obliterate the pagan hoards. The original call of Abraham and his descendents to bless all nations had been replaced by a snobby, nationalistic zeal to crush them instead.
Yet, Jesus was now giving Israel a second chance to be who they truly are—a holy people and a kingdom of priests. Maybe this time the nations will see the light of God manifested in the community life of the disciples, as they live out the Sermon on the Mount, and will thus be drawn to praise the Father in heaven (Matt 5:16).
The Gospel of John provides a slightly different angle on Jesus’ ministry. For John, Jesus not only bears witness to the light; Jesus is the light. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 9:12). All the blessings that were to flow to the nations are now available in Christ. Moreover, Jesus replaces the Mountain of God. Instead of flocking to Zion to worship the giver of life, now the “living water” (4:10-15), “the bread of life” (6:35), “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5), “the resurrection and the life” (11:25-26), “the true vine” (15:1), “the way, the truth and the life” (14:6) are all found in the person of Jesus himself. The presence of God that formerly resided only in the Temple now “became flesh and tabernacled among us” (1:14). Remember the conversation with the woman of Samaria?
The woman said to him… “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (John 4:19-21, 23).
For John, Jesus himself is the city on a hill and the light of the world: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). The mission of the disciples remains the same in John as in the synoptic gospels. Like John the Baptist, they are called to “testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (John 1:7). The type of sanctified presence the disciples are to be in the world is revealed in Jesus’ prayer to the Father:
Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world…I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one…Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
The people of God, as we have seen all along, are called to reflect a certain ‘otherness’ (i.e. sanctity) to the world, as they live in harmony with one another (i.e. “that they may be one as we are one”), and in worshipful obedience to the Father.
PAUL, PETER AND THE PEOPLE OF THE PRESENCE
In Paul, we see Israel’s mission being fulfilled one Gentile at a time. Those who were once “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12) are now in Christ “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Eph 2:19) and are “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:22).
We must not miss the crucial point being made here; especially in light of our readings of the Old Testament mission of Israel and the restored mission of Jesus and his community. Paul’s messianic communities seem to have begun to reflect the light of God into the darkness; and the Gentiles are being welcomed into the common life of the renewed Israel. Even more astoundingly, Paul claims that God’s holy presence that once dwelt in the Temple on Mount Zion, now dwells within the churches of Christ, wherever they might be. They are the people of the presence of the living God.
Can we find in Paul any specific examples of the ‘City on a Hill’ approach, whereby the Christian presence is made known among the nations, in order that they might observe their unique quality of community life, and therefore seek God? One answer to this might be that this is the very definition of ekklesia itself—which means the “called-out” or “set-apart ones”. Yet, there are more specific examples to be found. For instance, Paul exhorts the Philippian community to
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…(Phil 2:14-16).
We hear almost an echo from Jesus here: ‘shining like stars in the universe’ and ‘let your light shine before men.’ Moreover, as we mentioned above, the only thing the Philippians have that is worthy of shining into the darkness around them is ‘the word of life’. The ‘life’ which the people of God are called to imitate was described a few verses earlier in the hymn of Christ’s humility (Phil 2:5-11).
Similar advice is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” Again, ‘outsiders’ are to be drawn towards the community of God as they observe a radically superior quality of living in the context of everyday life.
Peter, perhaps more strongly than Jesus or Paul, draws on Old Testament language to emphasize the national, corporate calling of Israel to be a sanctified presence in the world:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God…(1 Pet 2:9-10).
As a royal priesthood, they are to come between the darkness of the world and the wonderful light of God and “declare the praises” of God. Yet, the following verses spell out exactly how they are to declare the praises of God. And, as before, the way the nations ‘hear’ of the God’s salvation is not primarily through preaching of the Word, but by ‘seeing’ the kind of lives they lead:
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Pet 2:11-12).
Again, Peter likely has the words of Jesus in mind here: “…that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). As they live such lives before the pagans, they bring Mount Zion, the Temple of God, into plain view of the nations:
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house (i.e. the Temple) to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, we have found significant continuity from Genesis well into the New Testament of Israel’s missionary calling: to be a ‘City on a Hill’, shining the light of life in God into the darkness and drawing the nations to worship the one true and living God.
But, one is sure to ask: Did not the Gentile converts come to faith via Paul’s missionary efforts, which definitely utilized a ‘sending-out’ approach? Surely the nations were not streaming to Antioch to hear Paul teach the Law of Christ. Here I must make clear that the preceding argument does not intend to deny that the Great Commission involves an initial “going” process. However, the sending should be primarily for the purpose of establishing a nucleus of believers in that particular locale. Thus, I suggest that church planting should be the primary task of sent-missionaries.
Ultimately, evangelism happens not when people initially hear the gospel preached, but only as they see firsthand what “life in Christ” really looks like when lived out in everyday community. Samuel Escobar puts it this way, “God calls those who become His people to be part of a community. So the new humanity that Christ is creating becomes visible in communities that have a quality of life that reflects Christ’s example.” And, if the church is where the fruits of salvation are to be tasted, then the church is not a means to an end, as is often thought.
Rather, the church is the end for which God’s redemptive purposes are pointing. The words of Howard Snyder then ring true, “ecclesiology is inseparable from soteriology.” As we press forward into a new millennium of missionary outreach, let us seek to become a universal community of love and light, more fit for the task God has given us:
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purposes which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph 3:10-11).
Allison, Jr., D. C. “Mountain and Wilderness.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992: 563.
Escobar, Samuel. “Evangelism and Man’s Search for Freedom, Justice, and Fulfillment.” Quoted by Howard A. Snyder in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd edition. Edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. Pasedena: William Carey, 1999: 139.
Gundry, Robert H. The Use of the Old Testament in Matthew: With Special Reference to the Messianic Hope. Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1967.
Kaiser, Jr., Walter C. “Israel’s Missionary Call.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd edition, Edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. Pasedena: William Carey, 1999: 10-16.
Snyder, Howard A. “The Church in God’s Plan.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd edition. Edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. Pasedena: William Carey, 1999: 137-141.
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.
__________. Who Was Jesus? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.
Youngblood, Ronald F., Editor. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Nelson, 19955
 See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Israel’s Missionary Call” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd edition, Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. (Pasedena: William Carey, 1999): 10-16.
 Ronald F. Youngblood, ed. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Nelson, 1995), 767. Furthermore, “light represents truth, goodness, and God’s redemptive work. Darkness, on the other hand, symbolizes error, evil, and the works of Satan.”
 Ibid., 331.
 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 289.
 D. C. Allison, Jr. “Mountain and Wilderness,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 563.
 N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 97-98.
 Robert H. Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in Matthew: With Special Reference to the Messianic Hope (Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1967), 210.
 Samuel Escobar, “Evangelism and Man’s Search for Freedom, Justice, and Fulfillment”, quoted by Howard A. Snyder in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd edition, Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. (Pasedena: William Carey, 1999): 139.
 See Howard A. Snyder, “The Church in God’s Plan,” in Perspectives: 137-141.