Signs and Surprises
Can We Really Know When the Job is Finished?
This article is from the forthcoming book, Toward 2000, to be published in early 1988 by Harvest House Publishers. Used by permission.
At a recent meeting of international strategists in Zeist, Holland, I listened with rapt interest as one of the delegates expressed his conviction that the Great Commission could be fulfilled by the year 2000.
No sooner had the words left his mouth, however, than my attention was diverted by an Englishman at my elbow muttering that distinctively British expression of incredulity÷"Rubbish!"
In the days that followed the consultation, this terse reply remained as my most vivid mental aftertaste of the discussions. I could not shake loose of the sense that this brief exchange came closer to touching the heart of our agenda than all the surrounding hours of stimulating dialogue over new evangelistic methodologies, trends, and statistics.
In Matthew 24, Jesus' disciples approached the Master privately with what has perhaps been the single most burning question on the minds of Christians throughout the ages: "Tell us," they asked, "what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?"
While most believers have accepted Jesus' declaration in verse 14 that the end will not come until "this gospel of the kingdom (is) preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations," the exchange in Zeist illustrates the fact that there are profoundly differing perspectives as to how far we as a Church have come in this process.
Of the growing ranks of those looking toward the year 2000 as a possible finish-line, many are advocates of a hot new missiological concept known as "closure." Put simply, this theory suggests that the Great Commission can be completed in a measurable way by planting viable, self-propagating churches in every people group.
The fragility of this intriguing idea is that it assumes our designated measuring devices are the same ones God is Himself using. Matthew 24:14, however, simply declares that the gospel will be preached as a witness to all nations. It does not define any specific response (i.e., a "viable" church, or an arbitrary percentage of practicing Christians ' among the total population.)
Revelation 7:9 does touch on the issue of response when it describes "a great multitude; . . . of all nations, tribes, peoples, and i tongues . . . " standing with Christ in glory. It does not, however, indicate any kind of national quotas, or suggest that these souls all emerged from the same generation.
Other strategists, however, are perhaps too quick to relegate notions of a near-term fulfillment of the Great Commission to the rubbish heap. To listen to them, one would think the job of world evangelization could be completed only in theory. Their statistics seem to get bleaker every year, and rather than stimulating God's people to action, provoke instead a demoralizing, treadmilllike frustration.
Great care must be taken not to mislead (or be misled) with unqualified statistics. Impassioned depictions of billions dying without Christ are counterproductive unless audiences are reminded at the same time of Jesus' statement in Matthew 7:13-14 that the majority of men will take the broad path to destruction.
It should be made equally clear that things do not promise to get better. While many believers may subconsciously envision Christ's Second Coming being ushered in by massive global revival, Matthew 24:37-39 portrays this grand event preceded instead by the kind of widespread wickedness that typified Noah's day.
It is in this context in verse 44 that Jesus admonishes His disciples to be ready, "for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect Him."
This would seem to indicate that, along with all of the signs preparing us for the Second Coming, there will nevertheless be a distinct element of surprise as well. No Christian who is involved in reaching out to a world with a very high ratio of unbelievers at the time of the Lord's return is going to
feel his preparatory work is done. Although the Great Commission will in fact have been fulfilled at that moment, it will surely not seem so to the Christian worker surveying what he interprets as unfinished business.
While many mission leaders agree that we will not see an enchanted generation in which the preponderance of mankind turns to Christ, they are quick to argue that the real issue is one of insuring that all men everywhere are exposed to an adequate presentation of the gospel. The tricky part of all this, however, is in trying to monitor the whole process and define what we think "adequate" means.
While there are certainly beneficial reasons for tracking the progress of our evangelistic efforts, we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that we are not running the whole show. Some individuals have committed themselves so completely to various evangelistic formulas and accounting systems that they offer little room for divine sovereignty.
The question of who has responded to the gospel, and how that sublime message first reached them, must ultimately be God's business. For along with the many scriptural injunctions that we must actively courier the Good News throughout the world, God also makes it clear in his Word that he has not repudiated other channels of communication.
Romans 1:18-21 declares that, as far as the so-called "unreached" are concerned, "that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them." In verse 20, Paul goes on to describe nature as another of God's messengers: "For since the creation of the world. His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead. . . ."
The climactic statement, however, for those believers suffering inordinately over the ignorance of the lost which they have failed to reach÷comes in verse 21 where the Apostle says of the heathen: " . . . They are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God . . . ."
In addition to the revelation of nature and what the late Francis Schaeffer called the "mannishness" of man÷or the built-in eternal longings alluded to in Ecclesiastes 3:11 ÷1 am convinced that our resourceful God is communicating with men every day through dreams, visions, and a myriad of other forms known only to Him.
We do not even possess sure knowledge of those who have silently responded to the hundreds of Christian radio broadcasts that bounce off the earth's ionosphere and into the most remote and repressive societies.
As a consequence of my dual roles as a Senior Associate on restricted access countries for the Lausanne Comittee for World Evangelization, and President of Issachar Frontier Missions Strategies, I have been afforded unique access to some of the Finest missions thinkers and statistics available today.
Having taken a good look at the formulas, computers, and global networks of this intense fraternity, however, I must tell you in all candor that our tallies on evangelistic progress represent nothing more than educated guesses.
There will be surprises on that final day because men have not been endowed with the ability to read human hearts. We simply cannot see all that God sees. It is for this reason that we must, in the end, defer to Him as the more proficient scorekeeper.
Today's hope is that we may indeed be far closer to a fulfillment of the Great Commission than many have considered. The large-scale mobilization and networking of Christian forces that is presently taking place around the world suggests the thrilling possibility that God is readying for a final major assault on the harvest field. The trumpet we hear calls us not to tea, but to battle. The privilege is ours.