Today we have an important missions question from a listener named Zach. “Hello, Pastor John! A friend and I have been reading your book Let the Nations Be Glad. It has been a blessing to both of us as we each pursue our roles in missions. Thank you. I’ve been wondering if Christians will have to reach every unreached people group, or at least every unengaged unreached people group, before Jesus returns. It seems to me that the disciples lived as though they believed Jesus would return any day. And the Bible certainly speaks of Jesus coming at any moment. Also, looking at Revelation 14:6, I wonder if that passage is saying that if Jesus returns before we as Christians have accomplished the task to reach all the unreached, the angel will take care of the rest, so to speak. What do you think?”
Let me preface what I’m going to say with the statement that I am so willing to be corrected on this. I’ll say more about that maybe as we go along, so please don’t hear me having the level of forcefulness in this as I might with other teachings that I find to be clearer. But I do have convictions, and I’ll tell you what they are.
‘Then the End Will Come’
The way I would express my understanding of the Bible is that Jesus clearly commanded us to make disciples of all the peoples, tribes, languages of the world (Matthew 28:19; Revelation 5:9). He gave us his Holy Spirit and power to that end (Acts 1:8). He promised to be with us “to the end of the age” for that purpose (Matthew 28:20). And he said that the end would come — that is, he would come — when this task of witnessing to all the nations is complete (Matthew 24:14). Yes, I did say that in the book, and I’m saying it now.
“The people who will be taken off guard and ruined at the coming of the Lord are those who cease to be vigilant.”
I don’t want to claim that I can define precisely the work of world evangelization so down to the detail that I will know the day and the hour when it is complete. I’m not even close. So, there is significant ambiguity. Hear me: there’s significant ambiguity. It may sound like, “Oh, when the nations are reached, he’s coming.” Well, the nations’ being reached is not defined in the Bible with any clarity, so there’s ambiguity in saying the end will come when the work is complete, though I am saying that. One of the main passages in the Bible for believing this is Matthew 24:14: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Any Day Now?
So, the main sentence in Zach’s question that I need to respond to is this: he says, “It seems to me that the disciples lived as though they believed Jesus would return at any day, and the Bible certainly speaks of Jesus coming at any moment.” Now, I disagree with both of those statements, as widely accepted as they are. I think the apostles and Jesus both taught and lived as though they expected a significant delay in Jesus’s coming, not as though he might come at any moment. I don’t think the Bible speaks clearly of Jesus coming at any moment.
Now, whole books have been written to argue both sides of this issue, and I’ve got less than ten minutes now. Let it be said loud and clear that disagreements about the timing of the coming of the Lord — and may it be soon — not the fact of it, but the timing of it, are not the kind of disagreements that separate me from fellowship with other Christians. So, let me just give a few biblical pointers. I’m going to call them that — pointers — for why I think the way I do.
Jesus said this, in Matthew 24:5–8, about the time after he would leave the earth:
Many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Now, that simply does not sound like Jesus is saying, “As soon as I leave, I could come back at any minute,” because he’s got all this happening before he comes. In fact, it seems to me that Jesus went out of his way to discourage people in his day from thinking that the end would come immediately or any minute after he left.
For example, in Luke 19:11–12, it says, “As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” So, he’s correcting a timing issue. Then he says this: “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.” So, what’s the point in that? The point is: Jesus’s departure, his going to heaven, is like a nobleman going to a far country and then returning. He tells it to keep them from thinking it would be immediate. He said far country precisely to discourage them from thinking that he’d come right away.
Or let’s take Paul, for example. When Paul faced a similar misunderstanding in Thessalonica about how soon the second coming would happen, here’s how he responded:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him . . . that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed. . . . And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. . . . The lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. (2 Thessalonians 2:1, 3, 6, 8)
I don’t see how Paul could say that and expect the Thessalonians to believe that Jesus could come that afternoon. He’s telling them things that are not yet in place — this man of lawlessness — before the Lord will come.
Stay Spiritually Vigilant
So, what do I make of Jesus’s words when he says, for example, in Matthew 25:13, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” or in Luke 12:40, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect”? Now, I take these statements to mean that every believer in every generation should be spiritually vigilant, watchful, never allowing themselves to become drunk with worldliness and indifference to the Lord’s coming, because it is possible that, in any generation, people may become so besotted spiritually that they are utterly oblivious to how suddenly things may develop to issue in the second coming.
Here’s the way Jesus says it in Luke 12:45–46: “If that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know.” In other words, the people who will be taken off guard and ruined at the coming of the Lord are those who cease to be vigilant. So, always stay awake spiritually. Be vigilant. Be ready. Be alert. Be doing your Lord’s business, so that he can find you so occupied when he comes.
“Be vigilant. Be ready. Be alert. Be doing your Lord’s business.”
Now, when the New Testament says things like “the coming of the Lord is at hand” or “behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:8–9), the point is not that he will open the gates immediately, but that we better not presume upon his delay, as though we could do what we jolly well please. We don’t control his coming. He is at the gates. He can open them as he pleases. He controls the timing.
Seek the Holy Spirit’s Power
I think the most crucial word for us maybe to all agree on here, whatever eschatology you have — and I’ve got some really good friends who disagree with me on this. My father didn’t see things the way I’m describing them right now. I love my father to death, and I think he’s in heaven now and cheering me on. I don’t know if he agrees with me now or not. I hope he does.
The most important thing that all of us who love Christ, love his mission, love the cross, love the gospel, and love his second coming can agree on is Acts 1:7–8:
It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
So, let’s seek that power now, and let’s finish that mission.