The spirit of America is much different today than a century or so ago. We cannot assume that people today will engage in cross- cultural witness with the same motives of their predecessors. To avoid the crippling effects of generationalism, motivation for missions and service should be evaluated and challenged by each generation in light of scripture. Whether mission theology is based on exegesis of key texts or on popular phrases used out of context could significantly influence both motive and message in missions. At a regional EMS meeting in March of this year, David Hesselgrave proposed several tasks for missiologists, the first of which was to continually define the missiological task from a biblical point of view. In response to that challenge, this paper will examine the eschatological motive for missions with the assumption that biblical theology informs practice.
The second discourse known as the "Olivet Discourse" (Mt. 24- 25, Mk.13) began in response to an observation on the beauty of the temple and is the focal point of this paper. I will not presume to unravel the complexities of one of the most difficult and debated text in the Gospels. But I would like to investigate the phrases that have significantly influenced mission motives since the nineteenth century: especially "first preached to all nations" (Mk. 13:10) and "then the end will come" (Mt. 24:14).
Chapter 13 has the longest continuous discussion of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Mark. As Jesus left the temple courtyard in Jerusalem, a disciple called his attention to the size and beauty of the temple. Jesus responded with a pronouncement of its destruction. Apparently stunned by what sounded like a curse on the temple, the disciples said nothing until they had completed the half-hour walk to the slopes of the Mount of Olives. As they sat down, overlooking the temple, their burning questions were when would this destruction take place and what signs would precede this event. He told them that persecution, false prophets, and wars would not be signs of the end (v. 7). They would be taken before rulers and persecuted, but the end of time would not come then because the gospel must first be preached to all nations" (13:10).
Figure 1 Parallel Accounts of the Olivet Discourse Mt. 10:17-18 Mk. 13:9-10 Lk. 21:12-13 "Beware of men, for "But take heed to "But before all they will deliver yourselves for this they will you up to councils, they will deliver lay their hands and flog you in you up to councils; on you and perse- their synagogues and you will be cute you, deliver- and you will be beaten in syna- ing you up to dragged before gogues; and you the synagogues governors and will stand before and prisons, and kings for my sake, governors and kings you will be to bear testimony for my sake, to brought before before them and bear testimony be- kings and govern- the Gentiles." fore them. And ors for my name's the gospel must sake. This will first be preached be a time for you to all nations." to bear testimony." Mt. 24:9,14 Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake . . . And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come."The popular interpretation of this discourse concludes that before Christ returns, every nation or people group will be evangelized. Contemporary examples abound in 2000 AD strategies that either hint or claim that a resident church in every people group "might be one of the basis for the return of Christ;" that "We are nearing the end of history," that there is something we can do to bring that day nearer;" or, that "the most definite indicator of the nearness of this age's end is the measure of the gospel witness to the nations." As the essay by Robert Coote in the thirteenth edition of Mission Handbook pointed out, many factors challenge the appropriateness of quantitative "targets" such as: accessibility of the unreached, nominalism in the West, urbanization and missionary attrition. Before evaluating the practicality of an eschatological motivation for missions, further attention could be given to the exegetical assumptions for targeting 2000 AD to complete the global task.
A careful study of the text in Mark and the parallel will immediately confront us with the fact that "all nations," "must," and "first" have more than one possible meaning. If one reads "horizontally" in the parallels, "all nations" in Mark means nothing more than the "Gentiles" or the Gentile mission. That is, Jesus challenged their expectation of the ingathering of the Jews in the Diaspora at the end of the Age because it did not include Gentiles. Their exclusion of the Gentiles from the temple courtyard reflected an ethnocentric eschatology which Jesus did not hold. In this context, his use of ta ethne refers to the fact of Gentile inclusion into the kingdom rather than the extent of their inclusion.
The imperative dei ("must") is also open to misunderstanding. A casual (and popular) reading would assume that every nation must be evangelized before the Lord could come again. However, it could also mean that preaching to Gentiles is the thing that must be on their agenda. The second interpretation keeps the task within God's sovereign will rather than limiting it to human efforts to globalize. It would mean that Jesus did not answer their questions of "when?" or "how many?" but taught them that the Gentiles would be included in the kingdom. Thus, the Gentile mission was an eschatological necessity regardless of how, where, or when the Lord would return. So, the parousia is more dependent on the fact of preaching than the extent or success of it.
The apocalyptic interpretation of this text assumes that "first" implies a historical contingency. There are other possibilities. In his commentary on Mark 13, Beasley-Murray convincingly argues that proton ("first" 13:10) gives no indication of what would follow the sequence. It is ambiguous and just as well means "above all." That is, the chief duty of the apostles is to preach to all nations, because the "end is not yet" (13:7).
References to "all nations," "whole world," and "times of Gentiles fulfilled" seem to imply a quantitative expectation that leads to all kinds of speculations for signs of the end. But these phrases could also be understood in contrast to an ethnocentric eschatology which would prefer to think in terms of "none of" these nations, "a part of" the world and "no divine plan for" the Gentiles. Thus, "first preached to all nations may not address the extent of evangelization nor the time involved to complete the task, but simply state the fact of a Gentile mission.
Figure 2 Inclusive - Exclusive Language Antithesis in Popular Text Jewish Context Interpretation All nations None of the nations Every single ethnic except Israel group in the world Whole world A part of the world - Every single ethnic Israel group in the world Times of Gentiles No plan for inclusion Every single Gentile fulfilled of any Gentiles at least hear the GospelSince we do not share the disciples' immediate concern for the destruction of the temple (the starting point of the Olivet discourse), we may miss the point Jesus made and engage in unnecessary speculation regarding the Gentile mission. While their big question was WHEN the destruction would take place, the popularization of expectations around 2000 A.D. make the big question to what EXTENT will the Gentile mission be a sign of the end. The Lord's response to this could be the same as he gave the disciples--namely, redirecting attention to the work at hand. Jesus pointed them to an eschatological hope rather than satisfying their apocalyptic curiosity. Jesus simply spoke of an end time for Jerusalem and humankind along with a clear hope for all humankind, even the Gentiles.
According to Barrett, 97 percent of all Christians are out of contact with non-Christians and 23 percent of the world's population have no contact with Christians. When 99 percent of the Christian world's income is spent on itself, we need not concern ourselves with the extent of evangelization or the time left. Western strategies have not motivated more Christians to greater involvement in missions. Third world missionaries increased 248 percent between 1980--1990 compared to 48 percent per decade in the West.
To interpret "first" and "all nations" in a way that renders missions a historical contingency for the Second Coming is an attempt to answer the disciples' questions of "when?" rather than heed Jesus' admonition of the necessity of a Gentile mission. That mission is dependent on God's sovereign will and not on the fear of running out of time or the desire to speed the divine process along.
Part of the confusion, as Ladd explains, is in the different signals we get in the same chapter of Mark regarding a delay in the return of Christ ("the end is not yet," 13:7), an imminent and immediate return ("this generation will not pass away," 13:30), and an uncertainty of the return ("of that day or that hour no one knows," 13:32). Jesus gives a prophecy regarding the fall of Jerusalem and the end of time, but the reference for each specific phrase given above is not always clear. Beasley-Murray resolves the confusion by concluding that the imminence refers to the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. and the "end is not yet" refers to the Age. D. A. Carson explains how the disciples thought of the fall of Jerusalem and the eschatological end as a single event but Jesus warns them that there will be a delay before the End. Could the same mistake be made today in assuming that conversion of all nations will precipitate the parousia?
Although the disciples wanted to know when this would all take place, all we can conclude is that Jesus was certain of a Gentile mission before the "close of the Age." Jesus stressed the fact of it and the suddenness of the end more than its immediacy.
Paul's mission activity fulfilled this eschatological hope. In a study on Paul's travel plans in Novum Testamentum, Roger Aus developed the thesis that the "full number of Gentiles" (Rom. 11:25) and Paul's desire to go to Spain suggest a primary eschatological motivation for Paul's missionary activity. Using Isaiah 60:9 and 66:19 as support for Tarshish being Spain, he explains why Paul set his sights on Spain rather than Alexandria, Ethiopia, or the East. In Jonah 1:3 and Psalms 72:8-11, Tarshish was thought of as the "end of the earth."
If we assume that the mission of the church is a historical contingency, we are tempted to motivate churches to evangelize the world because the Lord is waiting on us to go to all nations. The exegetical support for such an assumption is far from conclusive. Even if it were, this generation may not respond well to it. If we take the Baby Boomers seriously, motivation and organizations for missions may change radically in the 1990s. This large cohort between twenty-seven and forty-five represents a third of our population. Although a body of theory regarding this generation has emerged in recent years, specific research of this impact on religious organization is rare. Further study of macro-level trends in American religion could better inform our efforts to motivate a significant segment of the church today who seem to be giving less money than previous generations; are not motivated by guilt, prefer local ministries and medical missions to traditional missions; and prefer supporting individuals rather than mission organizations. An appeal to support megaplans before time runs out (or to bring on the End) may not increase mission efforts in quality or quantity in the 1990s. Annette Elder may be closer to the truth in suggesting that the value of relationships will motivate a generation to teach the unreached. "This is a generation that will more readily join a cause if they understand the rationale and strategy, vision, significance and their contribution to it."
If we assume that the mission of the church is an eschatological necessity, we motivate churches to evangelize because people-- "Gentiles"--all over the world are included in God's divine will. Biblical theology undergirds this assumption. It is an urgent matter because the Lord could return at any time, as a thief in the night. "It is more relational and compatible with other spiritual motives of faithfulness, love, and honor."
Jesus expected a continuous and faithful proclamation among all nations until his return. It appears to me that the purpose of Jesus' long discourse with the disciples was to prepare them for an expanded and ongoing mission. They were to "take heed" or "pay attention" (blepete) to what would happen. Jesus was warning his disciples so they would not give up when the beautiful temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed but to persevere and be faithful until the Lord returns. All three Gospel accounts make the point that they were to "endure to the end" (Mt. 24:13; Mk. 13:13, Lk 21:19).
Figure 3 Endure to the End Mt. 24:13-14 Mk. 13:13b Lk 21:19 "But he who endures "But he who endures "By your endurance to the end will be to the end will be you will gain your saved." saved." lives."Consequently, Jesus might challenge a false sense of imminence which historical boundaries like 1900 A.D. and 2000 A.D. tend to do. We need contemporary prophets to "puncture religious complacency." In the context of economic and social injustices and corruption in the priesthood, Amos confronted an eighth-century Israel who assumed their God was so tamed that the "day of the Lord" would be a welcomed sight. Amos cried: "Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light . . . I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies" (5:18,21). Jesus may have read the same delight in the disciples' observation of the beauty and splendor of the temple. Thus he responds with news of its destruction. Priorities had been lost.
The message is not without contemporary application. Apathetic and bored church members taking delight in their "solemn assemblies" need to be shaken to the realization that the day of the Lord could come at any time and they will be judged for faithfulness in service. God holds his church accountable every day for the task of preparing for his return by including Hispanics in Austin, Arabs in Detroit, and Somalians in Nairobi into his kingdom.
The Lord only called the church to endurance and faithfulness in their ministry of reconciliation to Jews and Gentiles. The extent of that growth and the time of the end are solely within the power of a sovereign Lord.
The primary motive for missions is found in honoring and glorifying God. Jesus did not share the disciples preoccupation with the time of the end, where it would take place, or the extent of evangelization. He kept coming back to the FACT of the end and the need for faithful service. In his own life he modeled this priority. He was sent to do the will of God and in so doing bring honor to God. He did nothing on his own accord, but sought honor for the Father (Jn. 5:19, 23, 30), who alone knew when the end would come.
Other motivation could negatively impact the message and mission. For example, urgency to evangelize in one generation presses missionaries into converting as many as possible without taking time to mature disciples and establish churches. Criteria for effectiveness takes on a 911 dimension and is measured in terms of "decisions for Christ" or baptisms. Efforts to hasten the return can place more stress on human effort than warranted in our partnership with God. If the Lord tarries beyond 2000 A.D., will he be seen as powerless as we roll into the year 2002 or 2025?
On the other hand, where there is not expectation of the return, judgment moves into the distant future and urgency is lost. Jesus maintained a sense of urgency in his instructions on judgment in phrases like "the hour is coming" (Jn. 4:25, 28). Urgency can be viable motivation without stepping beyond the proclamation of the FACT of that hour which has created obstacles in evangelizing some nations. Ironically, those most affected by the historical contingency approach are the descendants of Abraham--Jews and Arabs. Indigenous Jewish believers are fearful of, or even offended by, activities of the International Christian Embassy and other such groups whose efforts neutralize the evangelism of Jews in Israel. In my experience among the Arabs in northern Israel, I have witnessed the often disastrous effects of attempts to find every event in Israel as a fulfillment of some prophecy. God cannot be glorified if we favor one nation or people group above another no matter when the End will come. We are called to give witness to all people. To those who go to other nations, the Lord only promises, "I am with you always, to the close of the age."