Finishing the Task? (Part 2): A Cautionary Analysis of Missionary Language

Has our thinking about the Great Commission and Jesus’ Second Coming as a cause-effect relationship been wrong?

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, technological advances and transportation opportunities have made it conceivable for the first time in history that a single generation of Christians might be able to both access and evangelize all of the world’s peoples.

To this end, missionary agencies have employed mottos such as “Finish the Task” to rally Christians to complete the work of world evangelization. Often such efforts are connected to Matt 24:14 where Jesus promises that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to all nations before the eschaton. Such mottos imply that the missionary task is coterminous with world evangelization. Yet the Great Commission of Matt 28:18–20 will not allow for such a reduced conception of the essential missionary task. While world evangelization is a vital component of the Great Commission, missions strategies must not allow the promise of Jesus to distract from full obedience to his command.

Exegesis: Matthew 24:14 and Matthew 28:18–20

For evangelicals committed to a high view of biblical authority, it is of utmost importance that one looks closely at the texts employed to set one’s missiological strategy. The following exegetical summary will investigate the two pertinent passages in Matthew referenced in this discussion in order to determine what each might have to offer to missions strategy.

The Promise of Matthew 24:14

καὶ κηρυχθήσεται τοῦτο τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς βασιλείας ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ οἰκουμένῃ εἰς μαρτύριον πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν, καὶ τότε ἥξει τὸ τέλος.

This passage is one that rightly evokes excitement and gratitude in a Christian reader. God is not willing that the end might come prior to the gospel of the kingdom being proclaimed throughout the whole world and to its people. In the midst of the dark picture of the future that Jesus paints surrounding this passage, there is yet this ray of hope demonstrating that he is sovereign. For anyone moved with compassion over the plight of those who are without a chance to hear, this message gives solace.

It is no wonder that this passage finds a place in missiological writings and missions text books. However, what is seen here is a promise of what will be, not a command. Likewise, this verse gives one of the larger pericope’s nine necessary conditions that will precede the return of the Lord, but it does not necessarily exhaust the sufficient conditions, nor does it require the immediate return of the Lord upon its completion.25 A brief discussion of the passage will reveal that it is not intended to bear the weight of the missions mandate left to the church by Jesus.

The Promise

In Matt 24:3–14, Matthew records Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matt 24:3b). Jesus proceeds to list nine types of events that will mark the period before Jesus’ return. Eight of these signs are negative, ranging from “wars and rumors of wars” to false teachers and even to individual persecution and martyrdom of believers (Matt 24:4–14). However, ending this list of negative signs, Jesus includes the bright hope that the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world. It is important to note that the word κηρυχθήσεται is a future passive verb meaning “will be proclaimed.”26 As a passive verb, this indicates a condition which will attain while not focusing on the causal agent.

In Matthew, one can see a progression from Jesus’ own preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to the preaching that will occur within the “. . . postresurrection ministry of the disciples.”27 Although this is true, the disciples are not given their commission to preach the gospel to all nations, nor the instructions as to how they are to go about making disciples, until Matt 28:18–20.28 Here in Jesus’ pre-crucifixion answer to his disciples, his answer is given as a foretelling of what will happen, not yet as a command that his disciples obey. In fact, in his commentary on Matt 24:14, John Nolland shows that “the emphasis falls on the place of the preaching in the unfolding of the destined future rather than on the responsibility of the disciples for the preaching (contrast 28:19–20).”29 That responsibility, and the means by which it is to be carried out, is yet to come in Jesus’ final instructions given in the Great Commission.

The Kingdom, the Testimony & the Nations

Another issue for consideration in this passage is the content that will be proclaimed. Jesus says that the gospel of the kingdom (τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς βασιλείας) will be preached as a testimony to/against the whole world (ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ οἰκουμένῃ εἰς μαρτύριον πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν).30 Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to explain what exactly the kingdom is. However, it will suffice to say that the gospel of the kingdom contains much more than evangelism often includes.31

Around the time of Lausanne, the idea of the kingdom was much debated as to whether it was primarily concerned with the spiritual condition of humankind or the physical and social conditions.32 Although much more needs to be said regarding this point, it seems best to recognize that the gospel of the kingdom as demonstrated and proclaimed by Jesus will not permit such a division and requires “a full-orbed gospel of the irrupting reign of God not only in individual lives but also in society.”33

Thus, even if this passage were to be construed as a missions mandate, the content of gospel of the kingdom must be such that it starts with, but goes far beyond, personal salvation. It must also speak to all areas of life, private and public, forming churches that serve as kingdom communities where disciples are made and equipped to be disciple makers and kingdom citizens.34 The proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom is thus all-encompassing. Missions methods and strategies that would strip away non-essential elements in order to increase speed and spread must wrestle with this reality as they seek to discover an irreducible definition of missions.

Amid the trials and tribulations which are to be expected, God’s justice will be upheld and his goodness will be proclaimed throughout the world by way of the gospel of the kingdom.
Matt Bennett

Additionally, Jesus’ promise may not be as wholly positive as it is sometimes portrayed. The construction of the phrase “as a testimony to all nations” (εἰς μαρτύριον πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν) contains a dative preposition (εἰς) which can be rendered “to” or “against.”35 While there is likely a dual sense to this idea of witnessing to and against the nations, it must be noted that Jesus’ promise does not here give any indication as to how the nations will receive the proclamation. This proclamation to the whole inhabited world may be effective in winning the nations over, yet it could be seen to justify the condemnation of the guilty.36

Through all of this analysis, it remains clear that Jesus’ message is one of promise. Amid the trials and tribulations which are to be expected, God’s justice will be upheld and his goodness will be proclaimed throughout the world by way of the gospel of the kingdom. While there will be tasks given to Jesus’ disciples that may play a role in God’s orchestration of these events, they are not given here in Matt 24:14.

And Then the End Will Come

Finally, one may yet wonder if the phrase “and then the end will come” (καὶ τότε ἥξει τὸ τέλος) means that Christ’s return will immediately follow the evangelization of the final people group. Does Matt 24:14, then, give the church a mandate for world evangelization as a way as to “Bring back the King?” Or, as Hesselgrave quips, “If we go in force, will He come in haste?”37

Several commentators claim that it is not necessary to see this statement as indicating an immediate sequence of events following some final evangelistic encounter. As Nolland writes of this phrase, “Clearly there is nothing here that is intended to have predictive power. . . . The concern is rather to assert the Matthean understanding that the significance of the period between the resurrection and the Parousia is a period defined by universal mission.”38 In other words, Jesus is not telling the disciples about a sequence of events that will cause a chain reaction. Much less can he be seen to be instructing them as to how to affect his return. Instead Jesus’ intent is to reveal that the “end of the ages” is to be a time that will be marked both by tribulation and by universal mission: “This 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.”39

Agreeing with this, several authors see the events predicted by Jesus as having already occurred in history. Eckhard Schnabel observes, “The church today is not waiting for these signs to begin to appear. They began in the first century, already observed by Jesus’ disciples.”40 Craig Blomberg states, “All nine of these preliminary events in fact occurred before A.D. 70, though most if not all have recurred many times since then as well.”41 Schnabel sees the evangelism of the known world at the time as the gospel of the kingdom had reached Spain in the west, Scythia in the north, India in the west, and Ethiopia in the south.42 Blomberg cites Paul’s claim in Rom 10:18 that the gospel had already reached the whole inhabited world as being sufficient to meet the criteria of Christ’s promise in Matt 24:14.43 Jesus, then, could return at any time.

If we go in force, will He come in haste?
David Hesselgrave

Ultimately, even if one were to read this verse as a key to “Bringing back the King,” the point remains that Jesus has not here instructed his disciples to pursue or effect his return. Much more clearly, Jesus has spoken of the mysterious timing of the Parousia (cf. Matt 24:36, 44; 25:13). Much more clearly has he spoken of the command and commission he intends for his disciples to obey (Matt 28:18–20). Preaching the gospel to all nations is a part of that which is eventually commanded at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. It is the first stage in the more extensive, ongoing task of making disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commands. As a part of a larger command, then, its completion does not exhaust the task to which the church has been called.

Matthew 24:14 is a promise, not a command. As a promise, it gives strategists and missionaries sure knowledge that disciple-making labor among the nations is not in vain. Yet it behooves the missionary, missiologist, and pastor to consider this passage as it stands and for what it is prior to building strategies thereupon. The command given to the disciples—and the means by which the promise of Matt 24:14 might be realized—comes after Jesus’ resurrection, four chapters later in Matt 28:18– 20. To that command this paper now turns (to be continued).

Editor’s Note: This article is part 2 of the Finishing the Task series.

25. Craig Blomberg, Matthew, NAC 22 (Nashville: B&H, 1992), 356. Blomberg claims that in fact, all nine of the “signs of the times” had occurred by AD 70.

26. Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 855.

27. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 966.

28. In fact, in Matt 10:5–15, as Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, they are explicitly told not to go to the Gentiles/nations (εἰς ὁδὸν ἐθνῶν μὴ ἀπέλθητε).

29. Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 966.

30. Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, Holman New Testament Commentary 1 (Nashville: B&H, 2000), 399. “The testimony served two purposes simultaneously: (1) it could win the listener over, and (2) it could condemn the guilty.”

31. Cf. Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011); N. T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (New York: HarperOne, 2010).

32. Bosch, Transforming Mission, 400.

33. Ibid.

34. Bruce Riley Ashford, “The Church in the Mission of God,” in The Community of Jesus: A Theology of the Church, ed. Kendell H. Easley and Christopher W. Morgan (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 260. Ashford uses the analogy of a wheel wherein the hub of the wheel is evangelism and the rim is social engagement. Both are necessary for the church’s holistic, “gospel of the kingdom” mission.

35. Osborne, Matthew, 877.

36. Weber, Matthew, 399.

37. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict, 279.

38. Nolland, Matthew, 967.

39. Osborne, Matthew, 877.

40. Eckhard J. Schnabel, 40 Questions about the End Times (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 47.

41. Blomberg, Matthew, 356.

42. Schnabel, 40 Questions about the End Times, 38.

43. Blomberg, Matthew, 356. While contemporary understandings of “people groups” would likely consider Paul’s statement to be hyperbole, Blomberg does well to call the reader’s attention to Matt 24:34, where Jesus says that these things will happen before this generation passes away, saying, “It is crucial to observe the fulfillment of all these preliminary events prior to A.D. 70. This fulfillment will explain how 24:34 can be true.”