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A Theology of Missions essay by Howard Culbertson
Eschatology — Derived from Greek and meaning literally "discourse about last things." (1) The branch of theology that is concerned with the end of the world or of humankind. (2) A belief or a doctrine concerning the ultimate or final things, such as death, the destiny of humanity, the Second Coming, or the Last Judgment.
Etymology: Greek eskhatos
Other forms: eschatological — adjective
eschatologically — adverb
eschatologist — noun
Many Christian believers are passionate about linking current events to biblical prophecies. Other Christians are as equally caught up in world evangelism efforts that seek to reach the unreached. Are those two groups of passionate people on separate tracks that will never meet?
Some time ago, Ralph Winter, then-head of the U.S. Center for World Mission, lamented: "For some reason, Christians often make little connection between discussion of prophecy and future events, and discussion of missions" (Winter, 1). Earlier, following the 1966 Congress on the Church's Worldwide Mission held in Wheaton, Illinois, Arthur Glasser had said it even more clearly: "Books galore are being written on being delivered from the Tribulation, but nothing significant on the relation between Christ's return and the church's worldwide mission" (Glasser, 2).
Need confirmation of these two men's complaints? You need look no further than the pages of the classic best-seller The Late, Great Planet Earth. In what became an extremely popular treatment of prophecy and the end times, author Hal Lindsey made no reference to missions or to the global preaching of the gospel.
Is there any connection that can be made between current efforts to make disciples and plant churches in every single people group and the Second Coming of Christ? Yes, there may well be. A dearth of literature on the relationships between End Times and the church's attempts to fulfill the Great Commission does not mean we are going out on a shaky limb if we try to connect the two subjects. The connection between End Times and world evangelism is a very solid (and Biblical) one. The connections are so solid in fact, that Swiss Lutheran theologian Cullman has asserted: "The proclamation of the Gospel as an 'eschatological sign' is not a peripheral phenomenon" (Cullman, 49).
One of the clearest biblical connections between world evangelism and eschatology is Jesus' message on the Mount of Olives that is commonly called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13). Jesus' disciples wanted to know some specific details about the future. They asked Jesus the question: "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Jesus begins His answer by talking about religious and international conditions that will prevail and about natural disasters that will occur: famines, wars, earthquakes, false prophets, and apostasy. Then Jesus moves away from the bad news to a definitive and positive sign: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations" (Matthew 24:14).
What Jesus meant by that phrase has been the subject of debate. What does "preached" mean in this context? How do we measure "in the whole world"? What does "as a testimony to all nations" mean?" What will be the measuring stick of fulfillment for that prophecy?
Well, scholars are not in agreement on the answers. In fact, during the research for this essay, I began to think that Southern Baptist Seminary professor A.T. Robertson was right when he called the Olivet Discourse "the most difficult problem in the Synoptic Gospels" (Robertson, 187). Nazarene evangelist and author William McCumber said that the interpreter's task has, unfortunately, been made even more difficult "by those who are cocksure of its detailed meaning, and in their zeal for a particular interpretation have sometimes made their tradition a test of orthodoxy, and even of fellowship" (McCumber, 183).
It is beyond the scope of this essay to answer every question that can be possibly raised regarding Matthew 24:14. However, I do want to explore the principal schools of interpretation regarding the timing of events and the agents of the prophecy's fulfillment. I want to attempt to answer the question: Does Matthew 24:14 refer to the present mission of the church?
The answers which scholars have given to that question have varied greatly. Still, they can be gathered into three general categories:
Let's look at these three possibilities. As each interpretation is outlined, the possible implications for a theology of mission will be considered.
There is one additional point to be made before launching into our main subject. Biblical scholars are divided over the extent to which the words of Matthew 24:14 are original to Jesus. Tackling that issue is beyond the scope of this essay. Let us simply take the judgment of London Bible college professor Donald Guthrie as a presupposition. Guthrie wrote: "In the absence of any positive evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to conclude for the authenticity of these sayings" (Guthrie, 23). Having said what we're going to assume about the authenticity of the passage, let us look at the meaning of the text itself.
Is it possible that, in Matthew 24:14, Jesus was referring to an event which would take place in a very brief period of time? In his writings, Floyd Filson did not push any particular when interpretation of Matthew 24:14. Still, he made a pertinent observation on what the verse may be saying. He noted: "Such a world mission, which seems long-lasting to us, is here (as in Matthew 28:19) considered the work of a generation" (Filson, 254). Those who would agree that Jesus likely had in mind a time frame limited to one generation or less have two possible schools of interpretation from which to choose:
Each interpretation of Matthew 24:14 centers on a particular word or phrase used by Jesus in that verse. For example, the futuristic and pre-millenialistic view — that the global proclamation occurs following the rapture of the church — places great emphasis on the last phrase of Matthew 24:14: "and then the end will come."
Those who subscribe to a post-Rapture interpretation of Matthew 24:14 do not agree on whether there is any connection between the mission of the church today and this Tribulation period proclamation. There are those who see this phrase as indicating a "finishing up" of world evangelization after the Church is taken away. They see the words of Matthew 24:14 as speaking of a tidying up to make sure "the ends of the earth" spoken of in Matthew 28:19-20 have been reached. Others understand Jesus to have been predicting a distinct kind of gospel preaching effort that will be totally separate from that being done by the Church today.
"Many hold that the evangelization of the world will be completed following the rapture of the church before the great tribulation" (Harold Lindsell, 45).Such a view, of course, has some limited implications for a theology of missions. This point of view does make clear that God's will shall not be thwarted by human beings, that the spread of the gospel is not necessarily subject to whatever limitations today's Christians might have. On the other hand, such a post-rapture interpretation of Matthew 24:14 does not infuse urgency into a theology of missions as do some other interpretations of the passage.
"The witness may not be completed until after the Church is taken away and this other heavenly messenger (Revelation 14:6) proclaims the everlasting gospel" (W.E. Blackstone, 134).
To be sure, any worldwide proclamation of the gospel is a glorious and wonderful thing. If, however, it is to be a Tribulation period phenomenon, then Matthew 24:14 has virtually nothing to say to the missions strategist.
If Jesus was referring to a Tribulation period preaching, then obviously the Church as we know it is not to be involved. So, the question is: Who is going to do this proclamation or preaching? At least three possible agents have been advanced. Homer Kent of Grace Theological Seminary lists two of them. He asserts that Jesus was foretelling that the gospel message "will go into all the world during the Tribulation through the efforts of the two witnesses (Revelation 11:3-12) and the sealed remnant of Israel (Revelation 7)" (Kent, 86).
1. Human beings as the preachers. After the Church has been taken away, there are those who insist that God will continue to use human beings as gospel heralds. Some hold that this world-wide proclamation will be done by the tribulation saints, those people who will be converted by believing in Christ after the Rapture of the Church. Others, basing their arguments on chapters six and seven of Revelation, see this preaching as being done by converted Jews. David Cooper, founder of the Biblical Research Society, is one of the representatives of this latter view. He explains Matthew 24:14 this way:
When the Great Tribulation is upon the earth, according to this prediction, (the gospel) will be proclaimed to the whole world in the short period of those troubled times. Who will do this vast amount of preaching? In the light of God's announced purpose and in the clear light of past history, we must conclude that the Jews will do it (Cooper, 62; cf. Gaebelein, 51).
2. Supernatural messengers. Fuller seminary professor Ladd noted that one contemporary school of interpretation views Matthew 24:14 as meaning "an eschatological proclamation by angels" (Ladd, 114). Such a view would hold that a literal fulfillment of the "angel flying in mid-heaven" of Revelation 14:6 would be what Jesus had prophesied in Matthew 24:14. To be sure, Ladd hastened to say he did not endorse this interpretation. His hesitancy to do that, Ladd said, derives in part from the specific Greek wording used in the parallel passage in Mark 13.
Others have seen the two martyred witnesses of Revelation 11 as being those who will fulfill the worldwide proclamation prophesied in Matthew 24:14. In trying to identify the two witnesses, some have suggested it means Old Testament personages such as Moses and Elijah who come back to earth to preach for the 1,260 days mentioned in Revelation.
There are even writers like Methodist dispensationalist W. E. Blackstone who seem to want to cover all the bases. In his exegesis of Matthew 24:14, Blackstone threw in every possible preaching/proclamation agent, setting up a veritable parade of participants. Here's how Blackstone thought these words of Jesus were going to unfold. First, he saw the Church as the present agent in the fulfillment of Matthew 24:14. Then, following the Rapture, he believed the fulfillment of Matthew 24:14 will continue with the preaching being done by tribulation saints, to be followed by converted Israel. "Lastly," Blackstone said, "it is to be a heavenly messenger" (Blackstone, 233).
A totally different perspective on Matthew 24:14 is that it refers strictly to first century A.D. events. Those holding this view see Matthew 24:14 as being fulfilled by the extraordinarily aggressive evangelistic outreach which characterized the first few years of the Church's history following the Day of Pentecost.
While the previously discussed school of interpretation built its understanding on the last phrase of Matthew 24:14, the proponents of this view have looked to the word oikoumene as being the key to understanding what Jesus meant. Both John Wesley and Adam Clarke, for example, held to the position that the use of this particular word in the original Greek limited Jesus' meaning to the Roman Empire. That would mean, therefore, the task was completed in the first or second century (Wesley, 113; Clarke, 818).
Methodist theologian Milton Terry rephrased Matthew 24:14 in the past tense this way: "After the Gospel of the Messianic Kingdom had been preached in the whole Roman world, for a witness to all the nations of the same, the end of that age came" (Terry, 553). This view would find support in verse 34 ("This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled") and would understand the word telos (end) to be referring to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D.
This view would coincide with the realized eschatology of Oxford and Cambridge professor C.H. Dodd and probably even with the symbolic eschatology of men like Paul Tillich (Harvard University and University of Chicago) and Neibuhr. Albert Schweitzer, who held that Jesus expected the end of the world to come within His own lifetime, undoubtedly could agree with this school of interpretation. Seeing Matthew 24:14 as having already beein fulfilled was the view held by Martin Luther and other early leaders of the Reformation. Those Reformers, said Lutheran missiologist James Scherer, subscribed to "the belief that the apostles had already essentially completed the task of preaching the gospel to all nations" (Scherer, 64).
Alexander Bruce, Scottish Free Church theologian, believed that Jesus was giving the disciples another version of the Great Commission. He explained it this way:
The disciples were not to be mere spectators of the tragedy of the Jewish nation destroying itself. They were to be active the while, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, propagating the new faith, bringing in a new world (Bruce, 290).
In fact, A.W. Argyle — Regent's Park College tutor at Oxford — believed that this was the interpretation put on Jesus' words by the Christians of the first century as they participated in the spread of the Gospel (Argyle, 182). Proponents of this pre-70 A.D. fulfillment quote Paul as writing by A.D. 60 that the gospel "has been preached to every creature under heaven" (Colossians 1:23 RSV). Acts 2:5 and 8:4 are used as support as well as Paul's quotation of Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18 ("Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world").
If Matthew 24 is taken as focused exclusively on the destruction of Jerusalem (and, indeed some of it unquestionably does), then the preaching/proclamation referred to in Matthew 24:14 cannot refer to the present mission of the church. If it was fulfilled in the first century, then the only contribution of this passage to a theology of missions would, at best, be that of a historical illustration of God's people carrying the message.
The biblical interpreter continually faces the danger of divorcing a phrase or a verse or even a passage from its biblical context. Certainly, the question of the disciples itself at the beginning of the chapter plus the way in which Jesus develops His answer could well point to a first-century fulfillment with "earth/world" (oikoumene) being used in its restricted meaning of the Roman Empire and "end" (telos) meaning "end of the age." Some biblical scholars, while accepting this interpretation, have not been content to leave it there.
Among these is German Protestant scholar John Peter Lange. Lange argues that, on the basis of the complete context, Matthew 24:14 "must not be limited to the Roman world". Then he goes on to observe that it is unnecessary to assume an either/or interpretative stance on this verse (Lange, 424). David Aune has picked up on this theme saying that Matthew 24:14 can be understood as containing "two aspects of fulfillment, one of which belonged to the apostolic age, while the other belongs to the imminent future of the church" (Aune, 76).
Such a dual-fulfillment possibility, which is very compatible with both the inaugurated eschatology school of interpretation, has often been applied to many of the Old Testament prophetic passages. Nazarene Theological Seminary professor Ralph Earle noted this and urged the application of this same "telescopic feature" in the interpretation and understanding of Matthew 24. "These predictions of Jesus," he said, "referred first to A.D. 70, but in their final and full significance they reach forward to the end of this age" (Earle, 56).
Almost all of those who would hold to the dual-fulfillment aspect of Matthew 24:14 would see the second fulfillment as occurring in the present missionary outreach of the Church. This would not exclude those who look for a different kind of fulfillment in the Tribulation period, but the research for this essay did not uncover anyone holding that particular dual-fulfillment position.
The implications for a theology of mission on the part of the proponents of a dual-fulfillment would best be understood in the context of the material dealing with the present mission of the Church.
The third major grouping of the understandings of Matthew 24:14 is that which applies Jesus' words to the present world-wide mission of the Church. This is, naturally, the most attractive interpretation for the missiologist. Seen from this point of view, this verse becomes what Grant Swank calls "the challenge of Jesus to the Christians of today" (Swank 1974: 37).
Former missionary to China and Fuller Seminary professor Arthur Glasser represents those holding this position when he comments:
When Jesus was asked for eschatological signs, He gave none. Instead, He pointed to the new thing that would characterize the age from Pentecost onward — the church's preaching of the good news as a witness to all nations (Glasser, 48).
If this was what Jesus meant, then Wilhelm Anderson was right in asserting that the "missionary enterprise is an eschatological entity" (Anderson, 58). Seeing the strong relationship between the advent of Christ and the preaching of the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth has caused Phillip Teng, Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor in Hong Kong, to refer to today's missionaries as the heralds of the Parousia — a clear reference to the substantive "preached/proclaimed" (kêruchthêsetai) (Teng, 201). Note: Parousia, a Greek word that means "presence" is often used to refer to Christ's Second Advent or Second Coming.
One would expect missionaries to be quite happy with this understanding of Matthew 24:14. It would be wrong to conclude, however, that they are the only ones saying we are today seeing the fulfillment of this prophecy. They have plenty of company, and respectable company at that. It is a view quite compatible with both the inaugurated and the teleological schools of eschatological interpretation. It would certainly be the preferred understanding of the post-millennialists (without excluding, on the other hand, any of the other millennial views).
1. The immediate context of Matthew 24. One who holds to the view that Matthew 24:14 refers to a fulfillment through the ongoing missionary outreach of the Church must deal with the fact that, in other verses of Matthew 24, Jesus clearly alludes to historical events which happened in the first century A.D. There is no easy way to break up this chapter into sections as one topic seems to fade into another and then comes back into focus again.
It has been argued that Jesus' purpose in His response to His disciples was not to give them a detailed, sequential chart of events. Rather, He was offering general answers, utilizing the literary style of other apocalyptic literature in which, said A.E. Harvey of Oxford University, "the drama is not made to unfold in an orderly progression, but the description keeps turning back on itself to fill in details belonging to an earlier phase" (Harvey, 93). Thus, just because Jesus does clearly prophesy some first century events in Matthew 24 does not necessarily mean that all the events mentioned in this chapter must take place within that time frame. A. T. Robertson took an illustration from the art world to explain what he believes Jesus is doing: "In a painting, the artist by skillful perspective may give on the same surface the inside of a room, the fields outside the window, and the sky far beyond" (Robertson, 188).
Then, it must be noted that Jesus seems to be telling His followers what they should look for. This would seem to support a pre-Parousia fulfillment rather than one which takes place after the Rapture of the Church (i.e. Jesus' followers). Horace Fenton Jr. of the Latin American Mission and the framers of the Frankfurt Declaration are in agreement that the larger context in which the verse is found clearly has Jesus saying that this prophesied preaching would take place before His return, not after (Fenton, 63; Beyerhaus, 292).
2. Other related biblical passages. What about the other biblical passages which have been quoted in connection with the two other main interpretative points of view? Do any of these offer serious obstacles in interpreting Matthew 24:14 as meaning the present world-wide mission of the Church?
Well, as a matter of fact, proponents of a present-day fulfillment through missionary outreach join the advocates of a Tribulation period fulfillment in making references to the book of Revelation. In his New Testament theology book, University of Nottingham professor Alan Richardson relates Matthew 24:14 to the horsemen of Revelation 6 and 19, asserting that "the missionary activity of the Church itself is one of the signs of the end" (Richardson, 27). Saying it even more clearly was George Eldon Ladd: "The conquering white horse parallels Matthew 24:14, and pictures the victories to be won by the preaching of the gospel in the world" (Ladd, 623).
Cambridge professor H.B. Swete sees a connection between Matthew 24:14 and the two witnesses described in Revelation 11. Then he goes on to affirm that "the witnesses represent the Church in her function of witness-bearing" (Swete, 134; cf. Harvey, 813 and Plummer, 290). Actually, the phrase that the beast "shall make war" against the two witnesses would be strange wording if it only applies to two specific individuals. Groups make war against each other. Conflicts between individuals are described with different terminology.
As for the angel in Revelation 14:6 who preaches "to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people," Henry Halley in his popular Bible handbook argued that this passage could well be a "picture of our modern era of world-wide missions" (Halley, 727). Halley also saw a connection between Revelation 7 and Matthew 24:14. Here, he injected the further possibility of a dual-fulfillment aspect, saying that Revelation 7 refers "to the process of evangelization going on in the Roman Empire before it fell, or in the whole world throughout the whole course of history" (Ibid., 714).
We have already seen that John Wesley opted for a first-century fulfillment of Matthew 24:14. However, he did not assert, as some have, that Paul was announcing such a fulfillment in Colossians 1:23 ("which was preached to every. creature which is under heaven"). In his explanatory notes, Wesley said that Paul here is saying that the gospel "is already begun to be preached to the whole world" (Wesley 1950: 744). And indeed, since the form of kerusso here is the aorist participle, it should not be pushed too hard as far as its tense meaning is concerned. John B. Nielson, former head of European Nazarene College, saw the meaning of the phrase as being "designed for declaration to all mankind" (Nielson, 386), turning global gospel proclamation into a possibility rather than a completed actuality. Free Methodist missionary-turned-seminary-professor Howard Snyder picked up on this line of reasoning and referred to this verse in his discussion of the present "prophetic function" of the Church (Snyder, 107).
It also seems a bit far-fetched to say that Paul's quotation of Psalm 19 in Romans 10:18 is his way of announcing the fulfillment of Matthew 24:14. The passage in Psalms is set in poetic language rather than precise documentary wording. J. Barmby, British scholar writing in the Pulpit Commentary, said of Psalm 19: "The Psalm itself cannot well be understood as intimating the universal proclamation of the gospel. Nor is it necessary to suppose that St. Paul so understood it" (Barmby, 295).
Thus, we may conclude that none of the related biblical passages in the Bible present obstacles to understanding Matthew 24:14 as a reference to the modern missionary movement. To the contrary, many of these passages can be used as strong support of just such an interpretation.
In trying to understand what Jesus meant by this particular sign, H.D. McDonald of the London Bible College took a look at the whole package of indicators given by our Lord in Matthew 24. Then he summarizes:
"In the first age of Christianity the buds of most things in the Church's history appeared: the success of Gospel preaching, anti-Christian tendencies, persecutions, heresies, schisms and the rest. When they reach their legitimate issue, then shall the end be" (McDonald, 119).
It would seem most natural to look at all of these things together. None of the other "signs" in Matthew 24 seems to be a unique phenomenon which will begin to occur only just before the end times. So why try to force this one into a new mold with the interpretation that it is to be a distinct tribulation phenomenon, fulfilled by some special group of messengers?
In trying to understand Matthew 24:14, some have looked to the extremely rapid expansion of the missionary enterprise in the last two hundred years. "Is it not impressively significant," asks Blackstone, "that the missionaries sent forth during this century have seemingly without any human supervision, been impelled to go to every land, island, nation and tribe of the earth?" (Blackstone, 234). [ see missions timeline ] Blackstone and others would see the heightened missionary consciousness of today as the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing to the fulfillment this particular prophecy (see, for example: Earle, 20 and Smith, 20).
For telos is much less specific than sunteleia. It can mean the end of a particular process, a goal that has been reached. That seems to be the most appropriate meaning to apply to Jesus' words here. As The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes, "The context suggests the Parousia" rather than the destruction of Jerusalem or even the end of the whole world (Kittel, vol. VIII, 55). Interestingly enough, it is telos that is used in Revelation 21:6 where Jesus says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end."
Matthew 24:14, it must be noted, is not couched in apocalyptic imagery. Rather, it uses straight forward language exemplified by these three words we've touched on. This factor would tend to mitigate against a Tribulation period fulfillment, strengthening the idea that it is being fulfilled by the on-going present mission of the Church.
If we accept a present-day fulfillment-in-progress (which may be the most probable interpretation), the question must be asked: Is the missionary outreach of the Church just a sign of the coming Parousia or it is a sign of the final consummation of time? Is Christ's second advent some kind of sign that the Church has fulfilled its mission? If it is, can we therefore conclude that the timing of the Lord's return does depend in some way on what His followers do?
This essay has majored on the when? (timing) and the who? (agent) of the fulfillment of Matthew 24:14. It has only briefly treated the where? (target). Lots of questions remain to be explored, including: How extensive and how intensive is this proclamation to be? What exactly is meant by "for a witness"?
It is, of course, clear from this one verse in Matthew's gospel that the apocalyptic event is not something for spectators. There is to be active involvement, and active involvement in an enterprise which will reach its goal. At this point, one can raise the question as to how much of an imperative Matthew 24:14 is. Is it only a simple foretelling? Or, does it also contain elements of an imperative?
These are all questions which merit additional exploration as the Church seeks to understand this ray of hope shining in the middle of a message that otherwise seems filled with gloom.
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