When The End Will Come
"As Jesus was leaving the Temple grounds, his disciples pointed out to him the various Temple buildings. But he responded, “Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!”
Later, Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives. His disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will all this happen? What sign will signal your return and the end of the world? Jesus told them, “Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah.’ They will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. [...] And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come." (Matthew 24:1-6, 14, NLT)
This one line has become a powerful anchor point for many Christians in conversations about the end of the world and it's relationship to outreach. There seems to be a clear implication: Jesus will not come back until the gospel message has been preached in the entire world. This raises a number of theological questions that we will have to address in another blog - questions about what happens to groups of people who never had the chance to hear, or about people who died before their nation was reached with the gospel. (God has a plan for those situations too, but that's beyond what we can cover here.)
The point of Jesus' statement in Matthew 24:14 is that all nations are meant to hear his message. The gospel isn't restricted to Israel or to countries that we would think of today as traditionally "Christian." Jesus wanted all of the world to have a chance to hear about what he had done.
If we think about the gospel message as only being about giving people the chance to "go to heaven when they die," we miss the much larger point. Jesus wants to give the human race a new start, a new way forward to live well in this world and restore our role as responsible caretakers for each other and the planet we live on. Jesus wants not only to save people but to give them a new life - one of abundance, fullness, responsibility, joy, wholeness, and peace. And that life can start now, if we are able and willing to follow Jesus. He wants to come back when every part of the world has had a chance to legitimately get on board with his way of running things - when his followers have begun to bring about the work of restoration that he will bring to completion.
But we still have a long way to go to reach this goal.
According to Global Frontier Missions - approximately 3.15 billion people live in areas with limited access or no access to the gospel of Jesus. There are also people who have heard about Jesus, but have heard about him in a way that makes him seem unattractive or even harmful. In some parts of the world, the way that Christianity was introduced has been destructive and careless, and the witness of the church often suffers for it. And this is not even mentioning the many places where it is not permitted for Christian ideas to be taught.
There are still many places to reach, and some places that have been reached need to be reached again. Even the western world, largely considered “Christian” in its cultural origin, has lost touch with the gospel and grown wary of the followers of Jesus.
The whole world needs to see Jesus again, in a new light.
In Acts chapter 17, we see the Apostle Paul preaching in Athens - one of the central hubs of Greek culture and philosophy. Paul capitalized on his own familiarity with Greek thought and literature and used their own concepts and poetry to help illustrate the teachings of Christianity. He found mutual cultural contact points to bridge contexts and connect with people's actual worldview concerns and questions. Some believed, others did not, but the point was that people were given a legitimate change to understand and judge for themselves if the way of Jesus was something they were interested in.
Jesus is calling us to be culturally educated and sensitive. He is calling us to pay attention to the little details that make up cultures and worldviews, and to notice the vast world full of people who need to understand how Jesus' way works in their own context. He is calling us to care about the issues that affect the people of the world, to care about what other people care about - and he is calling us to care about people who need a fresh revelation of God, whether near or far.
The message of Jesus isn’t just about saving individuals, it’s about changing the world through the power of his Spirit, revealing the character and Kingdom of God to the world.
The early Christians believed that Jesus would come back very quickly, even within their own lifetimes. It eventually became clear that he had something else in mind as the years dragged on. The Apostle Peter put his finger on what was happening:
Most importantly, I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires. They will say, “What happened to the promise that Jesus is coming again? From before the times of our ancestors, everything has remained the same since the world was first created."
[...] But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment.
Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames. But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. (2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-13 NLT)
God's desire is for the whole world to be brought into his way. This is a task that would easily take more than a generation. God isn't delaying or being slow about his promise, but he is being patient with humanity and waiting for us to finish the task of spreading his message.
Each of us can be part of making this happen, even in our immediate surroundings. You can speak the truth of the gospel in the language of the culture and context around you.
- Matthew 24 is a layered passage. Read Matthew 24:1-3. Based on the question the disciples asked, what is Jesus' discourse here primarily about?
- If this is the case - if the scope of the question being addressed has some limits on it - what would it mean to speak of "the whole world" in that context?
- In Matthew 24:34, Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things take place." Within one generation, the city of Jerusalem was, in fact, destroyed (70 AD). But had they successfully evangelized the whole world at that point?
- Read Romans 10 and note especially verse 18. Did Paul think that the church had more or less completed the task of reaching "the ends of the earth?" Note also Romans 15:23-24, and Colossians 1:6, 23.
- Read 2 Peter 3:1-16. What does Peter say that the idea of Jesus' return should motivate Christians to do?
- Some people have noticed that 2 Peter 3:10-13 implies that everything in this world will be destroyed. Does this mean that what we do with this world does not matter? Does trying to make a better world here and now matter if it is going to be destroyed? Why or why not?
- Read Matthew 24:45-51. What does Jesus himself say about the kind of behavior he expects from people who are expecting him to come again? What characterizes them?
- Read Matthew 25:31-46. During the final judgment, what qualities does Jesus say he will be looking for in people? What does that say about how Jesus expects his followers to spread his message?