Do We Need to Evangelize All Peoples Before Christ Returns?
Strategies for global evangelism must be filtered through the Scriptures to determine whether they match with what God has stated as to how He wants the Church to obey the Great Commission. In this article, Dr. Russell provides a biblical basis for targeting people groups that need to hear the gospel message. This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Adopt-A-People "How to" manual and is used by permission. You can read more about it on page 35 and order on page 32.
"And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all peoples, and then the end shall come." (Matt. 24:14) [Walt Russell's translation]
Is Jesus teaching in this verse that His Church must preach the gospel to All the peoples of the world before He returns and the end comes? If so, can we speed up His return by focusing on preaching the gospel to All the peoples of the world? While we cannot know exactly when Jesus will return in Messianic glory, can we nevertheless hasten the coming of that great day by aggressively preaching the gospel to all those peoples who have not yet heard? Can we help bring about the end of this age through a more vibrant emphasis on reaching All those peoples still unreached with the gospel?
Isn't it amazing how one little verse of Scripture can foster so many questions that have such far-reaching impact on the decisions of our missions committees and mission agencies? Matthew 24:14 is one of those verses. It is near the beginning of Jesus' great "Mount of Olives Discourse," in Matthew 24-25, in which He speaks of the events that will precede the end of the age, culminating in His return. Interestingly enough, Jesus' teaching on this mountain opposite the Jerusalem Temple is one of His six great mountain experiences in Matthew's gospel: chapter 4, the tempting on the mountain; chapters 5- 7, the kingdom teaching on the mountain; chapter 15, the feeding on the mountain; chapter 17, the transfiguring on the mountain; chapters 24-25, the end-of-the-age teaching on the mountain; and chapter 28, the commissioning on the mountain.
Some scholars have noted that Matthew seems to have a "Mountain Theology." This is clearly the case, and it is particularly in these six mountain experiences of Jesus that He clarifies two things. He clarifies both His identity and mission as the Messiah, and the identity and mission of the people of God. This means that passages like Matthew 24:14 really are important in clarifying who the Church is and what she should be doing.
Of particular importance in this verse is Jesus' emphasis on All The Peoples being exposed to the witness of the gospel of His kingdom. Most translations use the phrase "the nations" to translate the Greek phrase ta ethne. While this is a possible translation, it is probably not the best one. "Nations" make us think of the artificial political entities that dot the world's landscape. However, the word ethne primarily focuses on the racial and cultural qualities that form "peoples" or "people groups" apart from their political umbrellas. For example, Luke speaks of "the ethnos of the Samaritans" in Acts 8:9. Since the Samaritans had not existed as an independent political "nation" for 150 years, the term ethnos must refer to them as a racial entity.
However, the main reason for translating ta ethne as "the peoples" and not the nations in the New Testament is a theological one. God promised Abraham in Genesis 12:3c that through him all "the families" of the earth would be blessed. The Hebrew word for "the families" in Genesis 12:3c is mispahot, and it means "races of subdivisions of ethnic and national groups" (cf. Genesis 10:5). This means that the Abrahamic blessing will affect all of the "people groups" of the world. This is why the Greek translation of the Hebrew word mispahot is ta ethne when Paul quotes Genesis 12:3c in Galatians 3:8. The gospel is aimed at blessing all the racial and ethnic groups of the world.
Why is this distinction between "the peoples" and "the nations" significant for missions? The example of Nigeria illustrates the necessity of distinction. In the one "nation" of Nigeria, there are over 300 "peoples" or "people groups." While the gospel may have been preached within the nation of Nigeria, it has not necessarily been preached to all the "peoples" of Nigeria. "Nations" are fragile things that come and go (e.g. the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia). However, "people groups" are enduring things that generally transcend changing political entities (e.g. the numerous people groups within the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia). Apparently, it is these hundreds of enduring things called "people groups" that Jesus wanted reached with His gospel.
The ethne of "peoples" play a significant role in Matthew's gospel. They represent paganism in their repetitious prayers (6:7), their materialistic orientation (6:32), and their leadership styles (20:35). Additionally, they persecuted Jesus (20:19), His people (10:18; 24:9), and one another (24:7). Initially, they were to be avoided with the gospel so that Israel could be reached (10:5). However, in the gracious design of God's plan, Jesus spent the majority of His ministry in Galilee of the "Peoples" (Gentiles) (4:15) and came to proclaim justice and hope to the peoples of the world (12:18,21, quoting Isaiah 42:1,4). Jesus Himself proclaimed that the kingdom of God would be taken away from Israel and given to a "people" producing the fruit of it (21:43), some of whom will be judged by Jesus upon His return (25:32). Of course, Matthew ends his gospel with the climactic statement of the resurrected Messiah ringing in our ears: "Go and make disciples of All The Peoples…." (28:19). The peoples of the world are a very significant focus in Jesus' ministry and in Matthew's gospel.
Therefore, Jesus' statement in Matthew 24:14 about the gospel being preached to All The Peoples of the world before the end comes is right in line with both the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 and Jesus' earlier statements about His ultimate focus being upon the peoples of the world (12:18, 21; 21:43). Over thirty years ago, George Eldon Ladd noted this important focus in his helpful book The Gospel of the Kingdom (pp. 123-40). Ladd observed that Matthew 24:14 is extremely important in its teaching about a message, a mission and a motive. The message is the gospel of the kingdom of God and this "good news" is that All The Peoples of the world can receive the blessing promised to Abraham through faith in Jesus the Messiah. In other words, the good news of God's kingdom is that it is for All Peoples!
The mission of Matthew 24:14 flows out of the nature of the message. If the message is one of blessing for all the peoples of the world, then the universal mission is mandated by the essence of that message. As Ladd noted, "This verse is one of the most important in all the Word of God to ascertain the meaning and purpose in human history" (p. 130). Ladd goes on to assert that the heavenly book which will expound the meaning of human history will be entitled The Preparation for and the Extension of the Gospel among the Nations (pp. 133-34). This is both the meaning of history and the mission of the Church. To give ourselves whole-heartedly to anything else is to miss the essence of both!
The motive for preaching the gospel of the kingdom to all peoples also is given in Matthew 24:14: "and then the end shall come." When will Jesus Christ return to complete His kingdom on earth? We do not know the time, nor should we speculate about it. What we do know is that our motive for taking our message and fulfilling our mission is His return. When the Church has finished her task of evangelizing All The Peoples of the world, then Christ will come again. Is He coming soon? He will if we are fully obedient to His command to take the gospel to All The People Groups on the face of the earth.
So, what are the implications for us at this timely juncture in human history? I suggest that there are two very significant applications we could make. The first is that we must continue to undergird all that we have been doing in the modern missionary enterprise for the last two hundred years. We must stay this course and continue to disciple all those peoples who have heard the gospel and who are in various stages of responding in obedient discipleship to Jesus Christ. To be obedient ourselves involves fostering not just converts, but robust followers of Christ--disciples, as the Great Commission mandates.
Secondly, we must additionally support the new emphasis on frontier missions that is focused on those Unreached People Groups that were not being reached by many of our past efforts. These new missions and new initiatives by older missions are helping us take seriously Jesus' desire to preach the gospel to All The Peoples of the world. Without this complementary effort, we may lapse into disobedience to our Lord's command for universal penetration of all the world's people groups. In other words, it is a both/and approach to missions that continues to deepen and enrich our traditional efforts and to underscore enthusiastically our new efforts. Of course, this places greater strain on both our faith and our resources. But do we really have the option of doing otherwise if we are to obey the King's final command and to hasten His return in Messianic glory? We must be fully focused on proclaiming the gospel to ALL PEOPLES!