Abstract:Among the many possible motivations for mission participation, the eschatological motivation for missions has recently grown in prevalence. Many missionaries speak of their work as “hastening” or “causing” the Parousia. Because of a desire to see Christ come back “sooner,” the eschatological motivation has often led to missional malpractice, due to a lack of nuance and humility in biblical exegesis. Particularly, the eschatological motivation frequently leads to pragmatic practices that should be avoided, practices that hurt rather than help the Church’s mission. In this article, I examine Matt 24:14, the verse used most often in defense of the eschatological motivation for missions. Along the way, I offer my modified view, one that frees the missionary to simply proclaim the gospel of Christ with a proper recognition of God’s sovereignty over both salvation and the Parousia; and still—in some mysterious way—we can be sure that our gospel proclamation indeed plays some role in the second coming of Christ.
What happens to someone who dies without ever hearing the gospel? This question has been debated by missiologists, theologians, ministers, and pastors for centuries. The answer to this question has a significant impact on how one views the Church’s mission today and, in particular, the urgency of that mission. If those who have never heard the gospel are dying and going to hell, then the impetus to go and make disciples should be followed all the more greatly.
In the twenty-first century, a resurgence of pioneer missions has taken place. Not only have ministries such as The Joshua Project and Operation World shown how utterly lost the world is, but they have also revealed the sobering fact that many have never even heard of Christ.1 Understandably so, the worth of a human soul has been estimated by many missionaries as a great motivation for missions. In particular, workers should care most for those who have the greatest need: the unreached and unengaged. Others, such as John Piper, have made the extension of God’s glory the motivation for missions. Piper writes, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exist because worship doesn’t.”2 According to Piper, workers should seek to reach the unreached so that God’s glory may spread.
However, an issue that must be dealt with is the eschatological motivation for missions.3 With this motivation, workers seek to make the gospel known amongst all peoples in order to “[hasten] the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet 3:12).4 But is this actually possible? Did Peter believe—and did he mean—that Christians can cause Christ to come on a day other than the one already set? What does it actually mean to “hasten” in the context of this passage, especially considering the entire narrative of Scripture? David Platt, former President of the International Mission Board (IMB), writes, “The end will come when the gospel has been proclaimed as a testimony to all nations. This is why we long to make the gospel known to every people group in the world” (emphasis mine).5 In this statement, Platt explicitly states the reason Christians should focus on reaching the unreached—because, after this, the end will come. This motivation is directly tied to Matthew 24:14, which reads: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (see also Mark 13:10).
In the following article, I will consider this motivation for missions at length, with a focus on mapping out the missiological road ahead. This road will be one that sees the eschatological motivation for missions in a biblical manner, specifically with reference to methodology. In the past few decades, the eschatological motivation for missions has often led to practices that are outright dangerous. Therefore, I will give a modified eschatological motivation for missions as an alternate, but similar option.
1. A Survey of the Eschatological Motivation for Missions
So, what exactly is the eschatological motivation for missions? This motivation has in mind the end of the world and the Christian’s part in hastening that day (i.e. the Parousia, or Christ’s second coming). While many missionaries believe this to be the case, that does not mean they are working with this motivation in mind. Most Christians understand that Matthew 24:14 is a reference to the fact that world evangelization will be completed by the time that Christ comes back, while at the same time admitting they cannot know that time specifically (Matt 24:36; Mark 13:32). On the other hand, proponents of the eschatological motivation not only believe they can quicken the coming of Christ, but they also have this primarily in mind with regard to their work. Therefore, they often do whatever possible to achieve this end, which leads to missional malpractice. Peter Wagner has even stated that “setting goals for world evangelization … requires a degree of pragmatism.”6 He goes on to say that workers need to stop or change what they are doing if people are not substantially coming to Christ. If this were law, pioneer missionaries such as William Carey and Adoniram Judson would have never been given the time needed to see the fruit of their labor.
What’s more, many who hold to this view believe that once they complete the task of world evangelization, Christ will immediately come back, as will be examined in the next section. In other words, all he is waiting on is us. More often than not, they do not consider the other “signs of the times” also required before Christ’s second coming. Lastly, those with this motivation have often been proponents of “countdowns” to the completion of world evangelization, which to this day, have proven unsuccessful. In particular, the countdown itself has led to malpractice; because certain workers want to complete the Great Commission by a certain date, they often do whatever works to maximize the number of converts.
1.1. A Case Study: The Danger of the Eschatological Motivation for Missions
While many have adhered to this view, a case study of one of the more prolific adherents will help with understanding the possible, negative implications of this motivation. Jim Montgomery started DAWN 2000 Ministries with a view of the end times in mind.7 Montgomery believed he was living “in the end times.”8 He had the year 2000 in mind and went well on his way to pragmatism: “Unless [workers] are armed with a vision of multiplying churches, they can easily fall into the trap of using familiar methodologies that produce little or no growth when other methods might produce a great harvest.”9 Montgomery and others like him assume that if a methodology is not producing immediate and quantifiable results, then it should be disregarded. The danger is that missionaries face the possibility of becoming more concerned with numbers than they are with individual souls. A harvest is in the world, but the harvest often takes time since “God … gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). Much more than this, what if the method is simply the proclamation of the gospel, ordained by God as the primary means to salvation (Rom 1:16)? Should this, then, be changed?
Montgomery’s beliefs led him to implement saturation church planting (SCP) as the official model of DAWN Ministries. He writes that “SCP … became the essence of the strategy we suggest for completing the Great Commission, the strategy for the end of the age.”10 The overall goal behind this strategy is sound. Montgomery wanted to “put a church in every neighborhood of every city and town in the world.”11 If Christians were truly able to do this, then Montgomery believed they “[could] almost hear the trumpet sound.”12 He continues, “The primary task the Lord gave his Church is close to completion and the Lord can soon return for his bride.” By SCP, Montgomery wanted “a presence of Christ in every place in the form of a gathered body of believers.”13 The issue is with how quickly this was to be done. Montgomery often notes that his goal was to plant five to seven million churches by the year 2000, so that the Great Commission could be completed, bringing Jesus Christ back in his own lifetime. However, he said this in 1989, giving his ministry and others only eleven years to complete the task. He often claims he did not mean the goal had to be completed by 2000, but it seems apparent that he had this in mind.14
With such a vast planting of churches, one is led to ask many, pertinent questions. Were these churches really healthy? Who pastored them? Were the pastors biblically qualified? How did one become a member? What place did discipleship have? Did these churches prove to be viable later on? The problem is that when one longs to see so many come to Christ in so short an amount of time, he becomes more prone to accepting the minimal qualifications for what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a church. In the long run, this pragmatic way is not helpful for the church’s task of missions. Not to mention, Montgomery may have been misguided by his interpretation of certain passages. Do Montgomery and others truly believe that all God is waiting for is for his people to complete world evangelization by their own standards? No way exists of knowing the specifics of when this task will be completed. All one can know is that it has been completed once Christ comes back.
1.2. Further Evidence of the Prevalence of the Eschatological Motivation for Missions
While Montgomery is a good case study, he is not the only one who has displayed this motivation for missions. Early in the 1900s, the slogan, “the evangelization of the world in this generation,” became the heartbeat of many different mission agencies.15 The attendees of the Lausanne II Congress on World Evangelization, an ecumenical movement for reaching the whole world with the gospel, affirmed the following together: “There is nothing magical about the date , yet should we not do our best to reach this goal? Christ commands us to take the gospel to all peoples.”16 They affirmed this because they believed Christ in the following way: “We have been told to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, and we have been promised that the end of the age will come only when we have done so” (emphasis mine).17 In 1971, Joe Odle wrote this with reference to Matthew 24:14: “It is in this generation that … [the end times] have come to pass.”18 Forty-eight years later, it appears he was wrong. Luis Bush said he was “expectant that Jesus’ commission to his disciples [would] be fulfilled in his time, and perhaps by the year 2000 … [and that he wanted] to give more of [his] energy, effort, and time to see the task of evangelization completed in his time.19
In a Los Angeles Times article from 2006, Louis Sahagun wrote of various local pastors’ belief that they could “shorten the path to Judgment Day.”20 These pastors were planning to plant an “astronomical amount of churches” in hopes that they might “hasten the End Time.” Starting in the 1970s, the “A.D. 2000” movement took root. Barrett and Reapsome note that in the 1970s, seven mission agencies had clear, global plans to finish the task of world evangelization by the year 2000. In the 1980s, they write that this number increased to fifty-seven. By 1999, they expected there to be more than one-hundred-fifty of these types of overall goals.21 They concluded from their research that, “The year A.D. 2000 has long been considered the most likely terminus ad quem of God’s plans for our world.”22 The overall suspicion of the year 2000 proved to be false.23
Some have stated there was no harm in setting that specific goal. David Hesselgrave writes, “The A.D. 2000 slogan already has been relegated to the missiological dustbin, but it produced results that are still positive and hopeful.”24 Not only that, but Hesselgrave also recommended setting similar goals because “at the end of that period the goal may not be reached, but there will be more progress than if no goals had been set.”25 To some extent, he is right. However, this traditional understanding of the eschatological motivation for missions has, again, often led to pragmatic methods that should have been avoided.26
Therefore, a modified eschatological motivation for missions is needed. With this in mind, all missionaries—and every Christian for that matter—needs a right view of Matthew 24:14. Sound methods may be more often practiced if one knows what this verse means and what it does not.27
2. Interpretive Issues in Matthew 24:14
Matthew 24:14 is one of the most debated verses in all of Scripture, so it is unlikely that a sure conclusion will be reached in this article on all matters concerning it. More than anything, missionaries should simply consider the fact that most interpretations of this text are not conclusive, even amongst those who share similar, biblical convictions. In this section, the following questions will be considered: (1) What is the “gospel”? (2) What must “nations” do with the gospel? (3) What does Jesus mean by “nations?” (4) Is this verse actually a reference to Jesus’s second coming? and (5) Can workers evangelize with urgency in such a way to bring Christ back “sooner?”
2.1. The Gospel of the Kingdom or the Gospel of Grace?
Interestingly enough, scholars have actually debated what is meant by the word “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον) in Matthew 24:14. One’s understanding of this word is important because it determines what it is that the worker will “[proclaim] throughout the whole world,” when he seeks to preach this gospel “to all [the] nations.” Generally speaking, εὐαγγέλιον simply means “good news.” It comes from the combination of the adverb εὖ, which means “well,” and the noun ἄγγελος, which means “messenger.”28 In most cases in Scripture, εὐαγγέλιον is understood to be “God’s good news to humans.”29 The NT reveals that this “good news” or “good message” is the simple but profound news that Jesus saves by faith alone through grace alone because of his sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from the dead (Eph 2:1–10). Paul made this message clear by reminding the church in Corinth of the gospel in 1 Cor 15:3–4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” William E. Blackstone says the gospel is the “good news of Christ,” and more specifically, “of the kingdom to come.”30 Here, one can see the issue of this verse. What exactly is the relationship of the gospel to “the kingdom”? Had Jesus simply said “this gospel,” the controversy could likely have been avoided. Yet, he did not, and so, faithful interpreters must deal with this anomaly.
NT writers often employ βασιλεία (“kingdom”) to refer to the reign of the Messiah, in specific, or to the reign of God, in general. God is the ultimate, omnipotent ruler. One might say that the phrase, “the gospel of the kingdom,” then, simply means the good news/message of God’s sovereign rule.31 This phrase, “the gospel of the kingdom,” is only used two other times in the NT: Matthew 4:23 and 9:35. In Matthew 4:23, Jesus is said to have taught “the gospel of the kingdom” throughout “all Galilee.” In Matthew 9:35, Jesus is said to have proclaimed “the gospel of the kingdom” throughout “all the cities and villages.” Whereas in 4:23 and 9:35 Jesus is the one proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, he says in 24:14 that his disciples will be the ones who continue to preach this specific message.32 Is there a difference between the general gospel message already mentioned and this “gospel of the kingdom?” The answer must be no, since there is only one gospel message.33
George Ladd comments that the gospel of the kingdom is “this Good News of Christ’s victory over God’s enemies.”34 He says that it is the “Good News about the Kingdom of God.”35 In similar fashion, Robert Yarbrough notes how the gospel is dependent on kingdom language, specifically in Jesus’s ministry. He writes,
We see [in Matt 4:23] that there is a “gospel” associated with the kingdom. What is the relationship between “gospel” and “kingdom”? First, it is “good news,” a “favorable announcement,” which is the basic meaning of the original…. Jesus sounds this note repeatedly throughout his ministry…. There is a dogged consistency here. And as Jesus’ earthly course nears its end, he looks to the future and states that his gospel/kingdom message will be carried forth until the world as we know it comes to an end…. In the context of Matthew, [there] can be no other “gospel,” no other greater good news, than that of the kingdom.36
In the phrase itself is an understanding that when one is saved by the power of the gospel (Rom 1:16), he is thus saved into the kingdom of God (Matt 19:24). God not only rules this kingdom, but he also lords over those who are a part of his kingdom. Furthermore, a simple search of the word εὐαγγέλιον shows that it is used seventy-six times in the NT, frequently with a genitive modifier. Not only is the gospel referred to as the “gospel of the kingdom,” but it is also referred to as the “gospel of Christ,”37 “the gospel of God,”38 “the gospel of glory,”39 “the gospel of peace,”40 and “my/our gospel”41 The interpreter should not be led to believe that these are different gospel messages.
Some dispensationalists believe that this gospel of the kingdom is somewhat different from the gospel preached today. In his commentary, John MacArthur notes his belief that, ultimately, Matthew 24:14 is a reference to God “supernaturally [presenting] the gospel to every person on earth.”42 The gospel of the kingdom is proclaimed to a great degree because “the Lord himself appears.”43 The evangelization mentioned in this verse, then, is not a reference to the church’s proclamation of the gospel, as much as it is a reference to an “evangelization of the world, miraculously proclaimed from heaven.” Though MacArthur would not say that Christians are not called to preach of God’s kingdom still, he holds that, primarily, it is God’s prerogative to preach the gospel as it is mentioned in Matthew 24:14.44 Others are more clear. While dispensationalists Blaising and Bock still hold a rather dispensational view of the revelation of God’s kingdom, they argue that Jesus was preaching “the good news about the kingdom” in his healing “people from physical infirmities,” and the “ultimate physical healing was [his and others’] bodily resurrection from the dead.”45 Therefore, the gospel of the kingdom eventually included Christ’s death and resurrection, thus showing there is only one gospel message. Any dispensationalist who might argue for variance in gospel type based on the NT’s varied phrasing of the gospel does not rightly deal with the fact that the disciples are told to preach this exact, same gospel after Jesus’s departure.46 There is only one gospel, and Paul even commends believers to beware of anyone who preaches a gospel other than “that [one]” he preached (Gal 1:8). For those after Christ, one message is to be proclaimed, just as there is one gospel message that is proclaimed in the NT: Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection for the salvation of his people.
Another matter worth noting is that of inaugurated eschatology. When Jesus is introduced in the NT, the eschaton is introduced, and the fulfillment (and person) of the kingdom is revealed. The Messianic kingdom is what God’s people had been waiting on up to the point of Christ’s birth. This eschatological doctrine is often referenced in terms of its “already/not yet” nature. Jesus says that the “kingdom of God” is “at hand” in Mark 1:14–15, yet he also speaks of a “future” kingdom in passages like Luke 19:11–12. Jesus likewise says those of the kingdom shall be gathered and separated in the future (Matt 13:30, 41, 49–50) and that the kingdom has yet to grow to its fullest extent (Matt 13:32).47 Jesus, in his bringing the kingdom, puts God’s people in the “end times,” though the “end times” have not yet been fully consummated. Jesus, before his ascension, speaks of the kingdom in Acts 1:3, and throughout the remainder of Acts, his disciples do much of the same (8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23). The kingdom-gospel preaching of Paul would surely be a part of what he asks Timothy to entrust to others (2 Tim 2:1–2), others who will teach of the same kingdom—the same kingdom for which Timothy suffered (2 Tim 1:5) and the same kingdom that believers are brought “safely into” (2 Tim 4:18). Therefore, this gospel of the kingdom is what we continue to preach in this intermediary period.48 Gladd and Harmon write,
Jesus indicates that the full realization of those promises remains for a future day. As they live between the already of what Jesus has done and the not yet of what the Father will do, Jesus explains how he will continue his mission. God will send the Holy Spirit to empower them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth…. That is the task God has given us as his people. As we wait for Jesus’s return, we are priests who mediate God’s presence to the world by proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Through us Jesus is being fruitful and multiplying his people so that the earth will be filled with his glory.49
What’s more, in his writing on the inauguration of the kingdom in Christ, Patrick Schreiner helpfully notes the direct relation between the cross—what some might say is the most essential substance of the gospel—and the kingdom; we cannot understand the gospel without reference to the kingdom. It is the gospel of the kingdom that we, thus, preach. He writes, “The kingdom of heaven has come through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the King.”50 He continues, “The Son of God not only accepts his fate but controls it as the King of the kingdom. He knows that the way to the kingdom is by giving his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). In Jesus’s death, he exhibits his power over Satan.”51 One should have no qualms with stating that what God’s people proclaim now, until Christ comes again, is the good news of God’s kingdom.
2.2. A Gospel Proclaimed or a Gospel Believed in?
The next issue has to do with how the nations respond to the gospel and whether or not it matters that their response is positive or negative. What must the “nations” do with the gospel? Whenever Jesus said this gospel would “be proclaimed throughout the whole world,” what did he have in mind? There are primarily two views: (1) the gospel must simply be preached or shared throughout every nation and (2) the gospel must not only be preached but also believed in throughout every nation.
2.2.1. A Gospel Preached in Every Nation
First, some believe that the responsibility of Christian workers is solely to make the gospel known throughout the world, since Jesus’s actual phrasing in this verse does not stipulate the nations’ response, whether positive or negative. Blackstone says that the responsibility of Christians, then, is to “faithfully … continue proclaiming the glad tidings of the coming kingdom while we watch momentarily for the Bridegroom.”52 If Jesus means in this text that the gospel must be universally proclaimed, not believed, then what he has in mind is the basic extension of the gospel beyond the Jewish community to the Gentiles. Osborne writes that Matthew 24:14 “does not mean that all the nations will be converted before the end can come but rather that the universal proclamation will continue until the end.”53 Still, some theologians believe that the gospel must not only be preached, but also, it must be preached to the extent that a decision might be made on a wide scale. Berkhof writes, “[These words] do require, however, that those nations as nations shall be thoroughly evangelized, so that the gospel becomes a power in the life of the people, a sign that calls for decision.”54 All in all, those who hold to this first position basically believe that the Christian’s responsibility, as seen in Matthew 24:14, is simple: preach the gospel.
This view is admirable for the responsibility it puts on God to call the lost to himself and the responsibility it puts on man to simply share the message and let God work out the visible results. Once the gospel has been faithfully preached to every nation, then Jesus will come back. He is not waiting for a specific number of adherents from each nation, only that they might all hear the gospel message. Yet, one must ask: does this view rightly consider other texts?
2.2.2. A Gospel Preached and Believed in Every Nation
Those who hold to the second view—that the gospel must both be preached and believed in throughout every nation—have a greater devotion to the biblical-theological framework of missions.55 If one were to take Matthew 24:14 in isolation, the first view would be more acceptable. However, readers should not conclude their interpretation of this verse with only Matthew 24:14 in mind. Stephen Neill writes that “Christ died for all men; and therefore, the Gospel must be preached to all men, and disciples must be won from every nation.”56 The reason disciples must be “won” and not solely “preached to” is found in the Great Commission itself. Matthew 28:19–20 reads: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
According to this verse, Jesus will be with his disciples until “the end of the age.” Surely, this is a reference to Christ’s second coming, for he does not abandon his people after his ascension or after the destruction of the temple. During this intermediate period, then, Christ’s disciples are not only to preach and teach, but they are also to “make disciples” from every nation. Jesus does not have in mind only the proclamation of the gospel but belief in it, adherence to it, and a commitment to live out its truth. The command is unmistakable, then. The gospel is shared in order for people to believe in it.
Moreover, Revelation 5:9 points to the universal nature of belief before the return of Christ. Here is the picture of heaven given in that verse: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’”57 Commenting on this verse, Bruce Ashford says, “[It] is not only that the gospel will be proclaimed. It is also that this gospel is powerful to save worshippers from among all people.”58 J. Herbert Kane sums up this second position in the following way:
Before we can decide whether a task is finished or unfinished it is necessary to define both its nature and extent. What is the extent of the Christian mission? It is coterminous with the world. It is a global task. We have been commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ to go into all the world, to preach the gospel to every creature, and to make disciples of all nations. And when we get through we shall have in the church converts “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). This gospel must be preached in all the world. Then, and only then, will the end come (Matt 24:14). This is the extent of the task.59
When considering not only Matthew 24:14 but also texts like Matthew 28:19–20 and Revelation 5:9, it seems apparent that Jesus will not return until lost people have been made into disciples from all nations. However, what Christian workers shall not do is debate about whether or not a nation has been sufficiently discipled, for this is not something God’s people are told of in the Bible. Jeffrey Brawner rightly asks, “[At] what point has one ‘preached’ to a people to fulfill Jesus’s prophecy that ‘This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world?’”60 Brawner speaks here of the 2% threshold currently used on the mission field to determine whether or not a nation is reached.61
Whether the threshold is the 2% mark of today or the 20% mark of two decades ago, workers need to remember that these standards have been set by man and not by God.62 Ladd says Christians need to know one truth in this regard: “Christ has not yet returned; therefore, the task is not yet done. When it is done, Christ will come…. So long as Christ does not return, our work is undone. Let us get busy and complete our mission.”63 Christians have to accept that the task is not known to be finished in any regard until Jesus actually comes back.
2.3. Individuals, Nations, or People Groups?
One of the more contested words of Matthew 24:14 is “nations.” This little word has been the reason some missionaries and mission agencies have moved their focus solely toward people groups, particularly the unreached. This shift happened because their understanding of the Greek word, ἔθνος, is not “geo-political nations” or what is most commonly referred to, today, as a country. Rather, they view ἔθνος as a reference to ethnicities or individual people groups. In BDAG, ἔθνος is broadly defined in two ways: “a body of persons united by kinship, culture, and common traditions … people groups foreign to a specific people group.”64 As well, the word ἔθνος is translated in a variety of ways in the NT: Gentiles, nation, heathen, and people. So, what should readers make of this word?
2.3.1. Gentile Individuals
John Frederick Jansen understands nations to refer to Gentile individuals. He says, “In both verses [Matt 24:14 and 28:19–20], the word rendered ‘nations’ is ethnē, which may be rendered as ‘the Gentiles.’ Not only Israel but ‘all the Gentiles’ (panta ta ethnē) are to receive the good news of the gospel.”65 By individuals, it is most often stated that what Jesus primarily meant was that the gospel was to go out to individuals who were not Jewish. In this sense, not every people group, or nation for that matter, needed to be preached to—just Gentiles, in general. R.T. France, in his own commentary on Matthew, says that the gospel only needed to extend to those outside of the Jewish community: “[The] gospel which Israel has largely rejected will be preached to the Gentiles.”66 So, in essence, the gospel was simply to go to those who were, before, not considered to be God’s people. This movement of mission was so that those who were once not a people of God could become his people.
2.3.2. Geo-Political Nations
There are some who believe ἔθνος refers to actual geo-political nations that were reached during the time of the NT, which leads to some overlap between this belief and the former one. Adherents of this argument believe that the word “nations” Jesus referred to in this verse is not a reference to every nation in the world per se, but rather, the known nations during NT times. Those who argue for this also depend on the word used for “the whole world,” which is οἰκουμένη. R. T. France notes that this word was used “for the whole of the then known world,” and often was generally used for the Roman empire, as well.67 Therefore, when Jesus stated that the gospel would be proclaimed “throughout the whole world … to all nations,” he meant to nations within the known, inhabited world at that time.
Commentators refer to other texts as a major part of their defense for this belief. For example, Colossians 1:23 says that the gospel had been proclaimed “in all creation under heaven.” Romans 10:18 says that the gospel had gone “to the ends of the world.” And Romans 16:26 says that God had been made known “to all the nations.” Therefore, the nations Jesus wanted to be reached in Matthew 24:14 were actually reached during the ministry of Paul. So, there is no need for Christians to attempt to fulfill this verse’s mandate today; it is done. France has even said that this text “does not demand … [that] the British must be included, let alone the Americans and Australians!”68 The only problem with this view is that it does not as readily consider verses like Romans 15:21, where Paul said that it was his ambition “to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (emphasis mine). He also said in 2 Corinthians 10:16 that it was his aim to “preach the gospel in lands beyond [Corinth].” That is, in places where Jesus was not yet known.
2.3.3. People Groups
Jim Montgomery, founder of DAWN 2000 Ministries mentioned earlier, most certainly had a view of people groups in mind. He writes, “We are well aware that the ‘nations’ Jesus refers to in his final command are not the same as the geopolitical entities we call ‘countries’ today.”69 Likewise, Jerry Rankin says, “Jesus was not referring to geopolitical countries; the expression He used, [πάντα τὰ ἔθνη], means the ethnic and linguistic people groups throughout the world.”70 Men such as Ralph Winter, Jason Mandryk, Steven Hawthorne, Jeffrey Brawner, Wayne Grudem, and David Platt71 have also affirmed this understanding of the phrase. The summary of this viewpoint is that Christians should seek not to reach nations at large, but rather, the smallest homogenous units within those nations known as people groups. As this is done, then the nation, at large, will also be reached.
All in all, this issue is not as settled as the ones already mentioned. In most modern missiological contexts, the first option is often ruled out, which is the view that Jesus had only the Gentiles in mind, generally speaking, when he said these words to his disciples.72 A great difficulty persists when it comes to this debate. As already mentioned, ἔθνος can refer to “Gentiles” or “peoples/nations.” In some sense, no matter what view one holds to, elements of both are required in each understanding. If it is “peoples,” then “Gentiles” are included. If it is “Gentiles,” then as those Gentiles are reached, surely the “peoples” would be as well. The significance of the issue lies in how missionaries are to strategize.
How does one make the hermeneutical decision needed here? John Piper makes a good defense when he writes for his own view—“people groups”—in Let the Nations Be Glad. Piper consistently considers mission strategy when trying to settle this debate. While to some degree both Gentiles and people groups are implied in Matthew 24:14, the question must be answered: is the primary task to reach as many individuals as possible or to reach all the people groups of the world? Piper argues for the latter: “[One] would have to go against the flow of the evidence to interpret the phrase [πάντα τὰ ἔθνη] as ‘all Gentile individuals’ (or ‘all countries’). Rather, the focus of the command is the discipling of all the people groups of the world.”73 Piper summarizes his argument with ten points. The following six are most significant:
(1) In the NT, the singular use of [ἔθνος] never means Gentile individuals but always people group or nation.… (3) The phrase [πάντα τὰ ἔθνη] occurs eighteen times in the NT. Only once must it mean Gentile individuals. Nine times it must mean people groups. The other eight times are ambiguous… (4) Virtually all of the nearly one hundred uses of [πάντα τὰ ἔθνη] in the Greek OT refer to nations in distinction from the nation of Israel.… (5) The promise made to Abraham that in him “all the families of the earth” would be blessed and that he would be “the father of many nations” is taken up in the NT and gives the mission of the church a people-group focus because of this OT emphasis.… (7) Paul understood his specifically missionary task in terms of this OT hope and made the promises concerning peoples the foundation of his mission. He was devoted to reaching more and more people groups.… (8) The apostle John envisioned the task of missions as the ingathering of the “children of God” or the “other sheep” out of “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.”74
Furthermore, the basic argument from the original languages also serves as a prime example; that is, it is rather easy to see how ἔθνος would actually be referring to ethnicities.75 However, this issue cannot rightly be settled until one determines what “end” Jesus had in mind when he said that “the end [would] come.”
2.4. The End: To Be or Has Been?
When Jesus refers to “the end” (τὸ τέλος) in Matthew 24:14, does this refer to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 or to his second coming? In Matthew 24:3, the disciples apparently ask Jesus two different questions: (1) When will these things be? (2) What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?76 Most likely, the first question refers to the temple’s destruction, while the second is a reference to the Parousia. Thus, Matthew 24 offers particular challenges to interpreters because of this distinction “between two primary events.”77
First, it is possible that Jesus made no true allusions to the Parousia in Matthew 24. R. C. Sproul states that Jesus “did not have the end of the world in mind” in Matthew 24:14.78 Rather, “He was thinking about the end of the Jewish age, which came when Jerusalem fell. That was the beginning of the times of the Gentiles.”79 Sproul’s primary reason for this view is that the nations most certainly could have been preached to, in full, as the NT seems to make clear at numerous points. Sam Storms agrees with Sproul’s above assessment and also notes the arguments for both geo-political nations and Gentile individuals mentioned in the previous section, as he makes his defense for his view that “Matt 24:14 is not concerned with that task [to proclaim the gospel of God and to make disciples of all nations].”80 He continues,
Often our immediate, knee-jerk interpretation is that the events described with these words [in Matt 24:14] describe global events. Yet we know that they were limited to the Roman Empire of the first century [because of the word οἰκουμένη that is used]. The reference to the “nations” also indicates that the point is not that every geographical area on the globe must be covered but that all the Gentiles must be reached.81
R. T. France argues that to take a position other than this one is “to take this text quite out of context.”82 What Christ had in mind was the “extension of the Christian mission outside Judaism.”83 France directly relates his interpretation of this passage to temple language. Remembering his view that the “end” Christ has in mind is the temple’s destruction, Christ commissions his disciples in this text in this way: “The ‘new temple’ that will replace [the old one] will already be under construction through the universal mission of the church.” In other words, in Matthew 24:14, Jesus—with the destruction of the physical temple in mind—was preparing his people to build the new, spiritual temple, something they would begin well before the old was destroyed. Though Sproul, Storms, France, and others holds to this first view, it does not mean they deny the mission of the Church as making disciples from every people group; they simply do not believe this text speaks of that specific mission.
Others believe Jesus’s reference to “the end” in verse 14 seems to be a direct reference back to the second question of the disciples. John Frame writes that there are “a number of predicted events that clearly did not take place in A.D. 70 [when the temple was destroyed].”84 One of these is precisely world evangelization, or the spread of the gospel among all people groups of the world. Again, one’s interpretation of πάντα τὰ ἔθνη proves most important. In his commentary, Carson writes of “the most common approach to the Olivet Discourse today,” which is that verses 15–21 and 34 “foretell the destruction of Jerusalem,” while the rest of the chapter foretells of the Parousia.85 The two ends are “purposely intertwined, perhaps under some kind of ‘prophetic foreshortening.’” Carson means that the near event, the destruction of the temple, serves as a type of proof that the far event, the Parousia, will actually take place.
What’s more, if the disciples were not clear on what “end” Jesus had in mind here, they most certainly had this question answered when Jesus gave them the Great Commission mandate to make disciples of all nations, as he remained with them to the end. If both Matthew 24:14 and 28:19–20 were fulfilled in AD 70, then why did the disciples who had received the mission teach others to continue in that mission in times beyond the temple’s destruction? They implored generations of Christians to continue to preach the message because until all peoples of the world believed, they knew Jesus would not come back. Therefore, it seems best to hold to the understanding that Jesus had his second coming in mind when referring to the “end.” The great news is that God’s people on earth, in every generation before the second coming of Christ, are commanded to—and get to—be a part of God’s mission for people from all “nations” to hear and believe in the gospel.
2.5. Can Christian Workers Bring Jesus Back Sooner?
With all of these considerations, this question remains: can Christians actually hasten Christ’s second coming with the work of world evangelization? The answer seems to be both yes and no. First, Christian workers do play a part in one of the signs of the times mentioned in Matthew 24, specifically in verse 14. However, this sign is only one of the signs mentioned in that passage. God is not simply waiting on world evangelization to be complete. There are a host of other things to take place as well. We do not know, for certain, the sequence of these events.86 Stephen Neill mentions that the Church serves as “the forerunner to prepare the way for the coming again of its exalted and glorified King.”87 It is better, then, to speak of the church’s mission as one of the necessary causes but not the sole cause of Christ’s return. Moreover, the eternal God is not waiting in the way mankind considers waiting. God knows when he will send his Son back, and he somehow sovereignly uses the work of man to bring that to fruition.
Second, since there is no date revealed to man concerning when Christ will come back, then any talk of quickening or hastening that coming is nonsensical. It is not as if Christ is set to come back on March 6, 2156 as of today, and that by working harder on the Great Commission, Christians can make him come back by March 5, 2156. Some often use 2 Peter 3:12 as a defense for this type of belief, but the word used for “hasten” in that verse, σπεύδω, can simply mean “earnestly desire.”88 Outside of its five uses in Luke-Acts,89 the word only appears as a verb one other time in the NT: 2 Peter 3:12. Silva believes this anomaly to be “remarkable.” In reference to the “day of God,” the text denotes an understanding that one can “speed its coming.” The word παρουσία is used here to refer to the “coming” of God’s day. However, Silva writes, “[But] some believe that here the verb means ‘to seek/desire eagerly.’”90 Silva also says that “in the later writings of the NT,” this word and related words “are used in a somewhat more general way, but … the emphasis is on Christian living. Our whole conduct must be molded by earnestness and diligence, for only so will believers reach the goal set before them.”91 By and large, Silva affirms that σπεύδω is most often used in the sense of earnest desire, especially in other ancient literature, as he writes “The sense [of] ‘haste’ is relatively infrequent in both [Philo and Josephus], whereas ‘earnestness’ is prominent.”92 However, one cannot deny the plausibility of the opposing argument, especially when the verse is considered in isolation from the rest of Scripture. Peter seems to have in mind “causing” an event, namely the Parousia. In BDAG, the word is defined as “to cause something to happen or come into being by exercising special effort” (i.e., “hasten”).93 Yet, more in line with Silva, it is also noted that σπεύδω can be understood as “striving for,” again noting a sense of earnest desire, or “to be very interested in discharging an obligation.”
A thorough exegetical study of 2 Peter 3:12 is beyond the scope of this article, which focuses on Matthew 24:14. While 2 Peter 3:12 is referenced much less frequently than Matthew 24:14, ironically 2 Peter 3 may offer a stronger exegetical support for an eschatological motivation for missions (and holy living). At this point, it shall suffice to say that in light of the whole biblical narrative, the notion that we might “hasten” a day that the Lord is sovereign over is somewhat absurd. God, in his omniscience, knows when the Parousia will be; that day will not change.94 Man cannot surprise God with efforts that supposedly quicken a day that is already set.
As well, man should not believe that he can expect or suspect when this day will come (e.g. the year 2000 or 2025). It will certainly be a surprising day for all of mankind. Moreover, to believe that the Parousia can actually be “hastened” might logically lead to the heresy of open theism (though one could argue that this is the extreme, logical conclusion). Christopher Hays seems to purport this doctrine when he writes, “[Jesus] reveals that the timing of the consummation of the kingdom depends on human actions and obedience. In Protestant evangelical circles, this passage is read within a framework that assumes that the timing of the end is fixed, but the text itself suggests no such thing.”95 Though Hays may or may not affirm it, open theism is still a dangerous doctrine that must be avoided, for it has implications much more far-reaching than missiology. Undoubtedly, God uses his people by way of their evangelism for the salvation of mankind. The Church’s evangelism is the determined means to accomplish God’s determined ends. However, this truth in no ways suggests that God is dependent on humanity for the timing of the Parousia. While this is paradoxical mystery to our finite minds, it does not mean we should make conclusions with no consideration of God’s omnipotence and omniscience.
Is the timing of the Parousia ultimately under God’s control or man’s? Surely, it is the former. Though man plays some concurrent role, he cannot make happen what God has not planned. Again, though one must appeal to mystery in these matters, it does not make it any less true. Christians should most certainly long for the Parousia, and knowing that they play a mysterious part in God’s plan is a reason to work. However, eschatology should not be the Christian’s main motivation. More than anything else, one’s reception of salvation is the primary motivation.96 Those who have been reconciled to God in Christ are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18–21).
3. Conclusion: What Shall the Method Be?
First, countdowns to Jesus’s return or countdowns to the completion of world evangelization should be avoided. When it comes to the particulars of world evangelization, workers do not even know the parameters for when this is to be considered “finished.” As well, no one—even the Son, himself—knows when Jesus is coming back (Matt 24:36; Mark 13:32). Workers should heed the words of France on this matter: “[We have] no warrant for deciding when [the end] must come.”97
Second, in this period where the end times have already been inaugurated but are still not yet, Christians should make sure they are diligent to proclaim the one gospel message revealed in the NT. This command is the one standard Christians also have for success. While setting goals for the amount of churches to be planted is not bad in and of itself, it puts the results of the primary mission in the hands of the missionary rather than God. No missionary can be sure that a certain number of people will believe in the gospel in order for a church to be planted. Therefore, Christians should rather set goals for how many people they share the gospel with, which is all they actually control, and let God take care of the visible results.
Third, there should be a major focus on reaching the people groups of the world, especially the unreached. God has a desire, through the mission given to his people, to have people from every tribe, language, people, and nation in his fold. However, this truth does not mean Christians should neglect reaching those places that have already been regarded as “reached.” There is no way for mankind to know what God considers “reached” and what he considers “unreached.” All people are important, and there is not a person saved who does not have an immediate celebration in his name in the kingdom of heaven (Luke 15:10).
Fourth, missionaries should long for the coming of Christ, but their longing for his coming should not lead them to missional malpractice. Hesselgrave’s words prove helpful in this matter:
[A] larger time perspective helps resolve the tension between wanting to see many coming to the Lord in a hurry and patiently building a self-sustaining, disciple-making church…. We should act as though is he is coming today, but we should plan as though he is not coming for a thousand years. There is a tension there, but, rightly understood, that must be close to what Jesus meant.98
These four conclusions summarize what one may call a modified eschatological motivation for missions. Surely, Christians get to play a mysterious part in the coming of Christ, and this should spur the Christian worker toward urgent evangelistic and missional efforts; his efforts do mean something. However, this longing for Christ’s coming should not lead one to do whatever pragmatic practice possible, neglecting to consider that though God’s plan is to reach the peoples of the world with the gospel, each individual person still matters to God. Though Christians desire for Christ to come quickly, they should not cut corners to “make it happen,” for others’ eternal destinations are at stake. The command is thus: spread the gospel faithfully, and surely, God will take delight in the work of his people, which furthers his glory both now and forevermore; and though unknown, his people’s work will play some significant part in the second coming of his Son.