The statement of Jesus in Matthew 24 about the destruction of the temple shocked the disciples. They then asked a three-part question, ‘Tell us, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered all three in his long response, but we find it difficult to tease out to which portion of the question he was referring to in each of his sentences! Were the three events – the temple destruction, his return in glory and the end of the age – connected?
It seems that in the mind of Jesus, the local event of the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70AD was a terrible prophetic illustration of the latter two global events of Jesus returning at the end of the age. Much of Jesus’ words here is a recounting of the cataclysmic events that would accompany both times. He wanted to shock his disciples into living for that which counts for eternity. Jesus answers the disciples’ query about ‘the close of the age’ in an extraordinarily positive statement in verse 14: ‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world, as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.’ To me, there is plainly an intimate link between the return of Jesus and the completion of evangelising the world. Jesus confirmed this in Matthew 28:20. After giving that last commandment (and one of the most disobeyed by the church), he promised to be with those who go ‘to the close of the age’.
Can this help us to determine when the end of the age might be? Matthew 24:14 emphasises the proclamation of the gospel – preaching and testifying (implying an understanding of the message). Matthew 28:19 emphasises the discipling of the nations – lives and cultures being transformed by the gospel. When will the proclamation and discipling process reach that tipping point and the church be complete as the bride of the Lamb? We can never determine when that moment in the counsels of God will be. But we have indications that we are nearing that completion.
Much of my ministry has been spent gathering information to mobilise God’s people to pray and work for the evangelisation of the world. Millions of copies of Operation World have been printed in over sixteen languages, and thousands of Christians have gone in obedience over these years to evangelise and disciple the nations which the successive editions have highlighted. The global changes in the church have been staggering, but under-reported by an increasingly secularising western media. In the church in the West, we have become pessimistic and moved to survival mode, not realising that for most of the rest of the world the church is growing.
Consider the following:
- In the 1960s, Africa’s great turning to God took off with many indigenous movements that have grown massively. Today, the Redeemed Church in Nigeria is expanding the ‘campsite’ at their annual conference to be able to accommodate five million people.
- The 1970s saw millions of nominally Catholic Latin Americans begin to turn to the gospel. There are now more active evangelicals than Catholics in South America.
- In the 1980s, many parts of East and Southeast Asia began turning to God. South Korea’s mission movement exploded across the world, and in China, evangelicals grew from half a million in 1949 to maybe near 100 million today.
- In the 1990s the Communist states of Europe rejected that ideology and new areas of Central Asia were opened up for the gospel.
- In the 2000s, with the advent of violent jihadist Islam, the great turning to God out of Islam began, especially in Indonesia, Iran and Algeria. I recently researched the possible number of believers from Islam who have believed in Christ. In 1960 there may have been globally 60,000, but this had grown to about ten million by 2010, and some estimate this to be over 20 million today.
- There is hardly a nation on earth where there is not a known group of evangelical believers.
- Probably about 20 to 30 million people on earth have no access to a part of God’s Word. But these speak about 3,000 languages, many of which will be extinct by the end of this century.
It really looks as if that Great Commission has been largely accomplished, but how will God define the key moment when it is complete and cause that final trumpet call to be sounded? It could be any day soon! Can that day be hastened? Yes, according to Peter – he wrote of ‘waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God’ (2 Peter 3:12).
How then can we hasten that day?
We can hasten that day by our preaching and testifying – in other words, by our obedience to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. Any church which loses that vision for the world and its salvation has lost the kingdom plot and is no longer a biblical church. The task is not yet accomplished.
We can also hasten that day by our prayers. Jesus prepared a place for us and revealed it in John 14 – not for heavenly rest (though that is also true) but for authority and co-reigning with him now. That is the whole weight of Jesus’ words in the rest of that discourse to comfort his disciples to survive and thrive in his physical absence. Then think of the greater works he promised would be accomplished (John14:13-14). These verses reveal that the greater works are connected to prayer. So, our prayers cause things to happen which otherwise would not have happened. God is restrained by our prayerlessness. How can this be so with a sovereign God? Yet the promises about prayer being answered also have to be part of our theology. Andrew Murray indicated (in my paraphrase): ‘When we pray, our prayers enter into eternity and work together with God in the formulation of his eternal decrees.’ Let us therefore obey and pray that his coming be hastened!