Why Foreign Missions?
8. Proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom Throughout the World (Mt. 24.14)
In Matthew 24.14 (cf. Mk. 13.10) Jesus says, ‘And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.’ This passage has been interpreted in several ways.
Some have understood these words to mean that only once the Gospel is proclaimed throughout the world will Jesus return. In the early twentieth century the following saying was coined: ‘Evangelize to a finish to bring back the King.’ This notion reappeared at the end of the twentieth century with the AD 2000 movement. Ralph Winter sought to identify unevangelised people groups so that the task of Mt. 24.14 could be completed.
Richard France offered a different interpretation of Mt. 24.14. First, ‘all nations’ does not mean every people group but simply those outside Jerusalem. Second, evangelism is simply stated to be preliminary to the end of the age, not the single outstanding requirement for the end to come. Third, by the ‘end’ Jesus did not mean the end of this age or world or the second coming of Christ. Rather, the ‘end’ in Mt. 24.14 means the destruction of the temple, which is the initial subject Jesus and his disciples are discussing at the beginning of Mt. 24. Fourth, the Greek word for ‘world’ in this verse is not the typical word ‘kosmos’ but the word ‘oikoumenē.’ This word means the inhabited world, specifically the inhabited, civilized world of the Mediterranean (cf. Acts 11.28; 19.27). Fifth, this task was accomplished by the time Matthew wrote in the second half of the first century and prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Col. 1.5b-6a; Rom. 16.26 and 15.18-24 envision the Gospel already bearing fruit in the whole world.
– Colossians 1:5b-6a You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it….
– Romans 16:26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—
– Romans 15:18-24 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ. 20 Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else's foundation, 21 but as it is written, "Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand." 22 This is the reason that I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24 when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.
Thus, on France’s view, the worldwide church is established as God’s new Temple before the old Temple is destroyed in AD 70. This France also argues for Mt. 12.6 and 41f, where Jesus says that some ‘thing’ (neuter) greater than the Temple is here. What does this neuter imply? France believes that it implies Jesus’ role, the new principle (or worship) that Jesus brings, and the Church—all three.
Related to this understanding of Mt. 24.14, France argues that the Temple’s destruction and the Son of Man’s authority and vindication are related ideas in Mt. 24.3-34. Mt. 24.3-34 is not about Jesus’ second coming but the Son of Man’s coming to receive power from God. Matthew 24.30 says, ‘Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see 'the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven' with power and great glory.’ This verse is similar in meaning to Mt. 16.28 and 26.64:
– Matthew 16:28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
– Matthew 26:64 Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven."
France, then, sees the tribulation of the Church and the destruction of the Temple as occurring at the same time as Jesus’ receiving authority and power as the Son of Man. The early Church understood Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God to be His assuming heavenly authority. The generation that sees the suffering, persecution, and destruction foretold in Mt. 24.3-34 will see the coming of the Son of Man’s reign and judgement. This was already said in Matthew 24:13 (‘But the one who endures to the end will be saved’). The whole message up to 24.34 is a message to ‘this generation’ going through the tribulation: they should stay the course for the Son of Man is coming. He is the one with authority from heaven to render judgement.
My assessment of France’s argument will focus only on its relevance for missions. His limitation of ‘nations’ to those outside Jerusalem seems too narrow. The far-flung regions of the world are in view, as has been argued on the grounds that Mt. 28.16-20 (v. 19 compares to Mt. 24.14) alludes to Is. 66.18-23. Second, I would agree that Jesus sees the moment of his leaving Jerusalem and the present time of his own crucifixion to be the beginning of the tribulation of the end times. This tribulation time is equated with the time of mission. Both Mt. 10 and Mt. 24 focus on the tribulation that the disciples will experience in their kingdom mission. The emphasis in Mt. 24.14, then, seems to be on the task of world evangelism as the task to accomplish before the end comes. This point can be qualified somewhat, though, with reference to Mt. 28.19-20: the task is not merely proclamation but also disciple-making through baptism and teaching Jesus’ commandments. Third, just as the tribulation was thought in apocalyptic Judaism to come at the end of this age and to precede the beginning of the age to come, so too the tribulation and the Church’s mission are what must now take place before the end comes. In this, I do not think France is correct in identifying the ‘end’ with the destruction of the Temple. It really does refer to the end of this age, at which time Jesus will return. Fourth, we gain nothing by identifying oukoumenē with the inhabited world. This cannot be limited to the Roman Empire—all those in the Roman Empire knew that there were civilizations beyond their borders, many people from which lived as slaves in the Roman world and were among the early Christians.
France is correct to cast doubt on taking Mt. 24.14 as a plan for the Church to complete in order to bring Christ back. He is correct to doubt that evangelism is the only task to accomplish before the end. He is correct to intertwine the present tribulation of the Church with its missionary task, just as Jesus’ mission was accomplished on the cross (that is, by his tribulation).
Yet, while I would agree that much of Mt. 24 relates to the historical events of the past, that is, to the time leading up to the Temple’s destruction, I do not think that what we find there can fully be so associated with the past. The ultimate end of this age is telescoped onto the events of the first century, but they are not equated with them. This fact makes it difficult to sort out what verse belongs to the past for us and what verse belongs to the future—or whether the same verse belongs to both. This is only problematic if we are trying to determine when things will take place. Yet Jesus’ message in Mt. 24-25 is largely about not knowing when. Indeed, because we do not know when these things will take place, we should be ready at any time. Being ready, according to the three parables of Mt. 25, has to do with keeping awake and burning our lights in the darkness (Mt. 25.1-13), busily accomplishing what the Lord has left to our care (Mt. 25.14-30), and receiving the mission of the disciples among the nations (Mt. 25.31-46). This last point will be the focus of the next study. What we see from Mt. 24.14, though, is that the reason for the present time before the end of this age is the mission of the Church, a mission of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom throughout the world as a testimony to all nations.