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It’s a question discussed in seminary classes and missiological circles. Profs and students exchange views and opinions. Mission committees and sending agencies share their stances. The question? “Is Christ’s return contingent upon the completion of the Great Commission?”
My short answer: Yes, it was.
Let me explain.
Ultimately, not Immediately
Jesus’ actual words were that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). A key word in this promise is the word “then,” and the point it makes is this: The gospel being preached to all nations was one of the initiating events of the end, not the culminating event of the end. Frankly, a factual reading of Matthew 24:14, as well as Mark 13:10, where Jesus said the gospel must “first be proclaimed to all nations,” would provide even a casual student with the understanding that the end, whatever that may be, isn’t said to follow immediately, simply ultimately. Pentecost, and the remainder of Acts, fits this perfectly.
More so, this is cemented to me by Luke’s observations that present at Pentecost were Jews and proselytes “from every nation under heaven” (2:5-11), as well as the words of Jesus to his disciples, namely that the “gospel would be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Why would Jesus promise a proclamation to all nations and connect it to Jerusalem? I believe it is because he knew that in just a few weeks that very thing was going to occur/begin—Pentecost.
This is why I contend and believe the Great Commission is both a command to be obeyed and a promise that has been fulfilled.
An obvious question is, “Why obey it if it has been fulfilled?” I believe the command of the Great Commission relates to its theological effect, and the promise of the Great Commission relates to its eschatological effect. And our obedience is connected to both. Let me expand on this starting with the latter first.
The Eschatological Effect of the Promise
Several biblical texts indicate Jesus’ return (i.e., a final aspect of the end) is predicated upon the gospel being preached to all nations. Yet, throughout the letters to the churches of the first century, Christ’s return was considered imminent, or as one author said, “impending.” Frankly, it is hard to read any of the epistles and not sense that the apostles were expecting Christ to return soon, even within their lifetime. Some see a shift in Paul’s emphasis in his later letters, but the fact remains that, with rare exception, the early church’s leaders lived in anticipation of this next event on God’s agenda.
So we must ask ourselves—why would they live with such eager anticipation if there was doubt about the one thing Jesus himself said would be the initiating event? It’s because they knew it had occurred. They were confident that, eschatologically, nothing needed to happen for Jesus to return. He had ascended, the Spirit had descended, the gospel had been preached to all nations, and the end (or last days) were now initiated. So longing and looking for their Lord’s return was their natural response as they were going about making disciples. So the assurance of his soon return, based on the fulfilled promise of the Great Commission, enabled hope-filled obedience to Jesus’ words in their difficult days.
Essentially, the Great Commission as a promise was fulfilled in order to assure them—and us—that nothing else needs to happen in order for Jesus to return. This is not to say there aren’t signs of his return, but rather that there aren’t stop signs. However hard their circumstances, they could take joy in this fact: Jesus was coming back. His return was— and is—next!
The Theological Effect of the Command
As a command, however, the Great Commission calls for obedience. Why? Because of its theological effect, namely, that God actually still does now what he did then—saves sinners from every ethnicity through the preaching of the gospel. He does this through the ordained means of disciple making, that process of a person believing the gospel, being baptized, then instructed how to obey what Jesus said (which, in turn, means they, too, will make disciples). It is because God is who he says he is and does what he says he will do that we continue in the pattern of the first disciples and obey the command of spiritual reproduction without ethnic distinction. We do this, not to bring about the end, but precisely because it is the end. Remember, this fulfilled promise does not mean we don’t continue to obey Jesus’ final instructions with the globe fully in view. It simply means we don’t do so with the pressure to complete it so that he can return. This is, essentially, the theological effect of the Great Commission: joyful obedience to our great God who saves without distinction.
This promise and command—the Great Commission—is the overarching task of the church and perfectly blends her eschatology, theology, and missiology. It is the church’s all-encompassing focus, not because we have to finish it, but because we desire to be faithful to it. We don’t make disciples to leverage Christ’s return, but because we long for Christ’s return. This is fundamental to what we believe about the mission of the church and missions in the church.
It is here that perhaps we should pause and say a word about the view that Jesus’ return actually does hinge on us finishing the task. This view typically leads to the conclusion that certain ethnicities matter more, at least from an eschatological perspective. The subsequent call is to then target the least reached first in order to make way for his return. Admittedly, this is a broad generalization of that perspective and its usual end result, but I don’t think it is an unfair generalization.
While I am appreciative of the sense of urgency this view engenders, as well as some of the man-made terms that at times seem to help the church mobilize around the mandate, I am also leery of adding human qualifiers and conditions to what Jesus said. It seems to me that some of the language surrounding the Great Commission is aimed at a target Jesus never set. I tend to think that establishing percentages, inventing terms, and/or using “windows” to distinguish who is reached, unreached, engaged or unengaged, may actually, albeit unintentionally, detract from the core mandate—to see the globe as the target, not just sections of it. I would rather let Jesus’ words stand in their fullest power and meaning—every single ethnicity, without regard to any factor or distinction, is the arena where spiritual reproduction is to occur.
This does not mean there are no unreached peoples today. Sure there are! Nations forget God; new language groups and indigenous cultures develop over time from earlier ethnicities, tribes, and clans. And among them lostness still exists. Yet, the fulfillment of the Great Commission to “all nations” at a given point in time, I believe, actually occurred, and consequently means that there is nothing still waiting to be fulfilled before Jesus returns. I believe this is an important distinction that needs to be made in order to avoid faulty motivation and improper leadership.
So in his final instructions, Jesus is simply continuing to verbalize his Father’s promise and mobilize his Father’s children to make his Father’s glory known among the nations. It should not be surprising that Jesus would remind them to be about that very task by saying, and I paraphrase, “Everywhere you are going, reproduce yourself without distinction to any and all ethnicities so that there are followers of me in every ethnicity.” And just as all of what God promised was fulfilled in Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20), so, too, was the Great Commission, so that as we continue to spread God’s glory among the nations, we do so longing and looking for his return.
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