17. Evangelism is not a mechanism to hasten the return of Christ, as some suggest.
The problem with this position is that it goes directly against the Lord’s own word on the timing of His return. The disciples asked Jesus, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming and of the consummation of the age?” After giving some general indicators, Jesus says:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole inhabited earth for a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. –Matt. 24:14
This seems clear enough that evangelism factors into when Christ will return. The Reformation Study Bible agrees:
The “when” that Jesus gives is task oriented: it is after the gospel has been preached to the nations. —The Reformation Study Bible, note on Matt. 24:4-14
Bosch describes the missionary fervor this verse incited in the 19th century. The Regions Beyond Missionary Union founded by H. Grattan Guinness, the Christian and Missionary Alliance founded by A. B. Simpson, The Evangelical Alliance Mission founded by Fredrik Franson, and the China Inland Mission founded by Hudson Taylor all appealed to Matthew 24:14 as their major missionary text. “Christ’s return was now understood as being dependent upon the successful completion of the missionary task” (p. 316). The title of John Mott’s book in 1900, The Evangelization of the World in this Generation, embodies the optimism and confidence that was in the air.
However, Bosch points out that there have been 788 “global plans” to evangelize the world and indicates, rather smugly, that they have almost all fizzled out and that the whole enterprise is somewhat misguided. Thus Bosch concludes that evangelism is not a mechanism to hasten the return of Christ.
Historical deductions based on less-than-successful attempts at evangelization can’t substitute for exegesis of the infallible text.
Since Jesus Himself linked the gospel and “the end”, there must be some sense that these two interface organically.
I think one important connection has to do with the relationship between the gospel and the kingdom. The gospel that triggers off “the end” is the gospel of the kingdom. Typical discussions with Matthew 24:14 in view involve numbers and places of unreached people groups. While the unreached DO need to be reached, focusing on the “all the nations” part may cause us to overlook the “gospel of the kingdom” part. The gospel of the kingdom advances the realm of God’s authority and ruling presence. The gospel relates to the coming of Christ in terms of quantity AND quality. It’s a matter not only of where but also of what. For more on the gospel of the kingdom read here.
Within this period of time, the kingdom of God is more a matter of geography than a matter of history.
–Watchman Nee, The Prayer Ministry of the Church, p. 34
Expecting and Hastening
While Matthew establishes a spatial relationship between evangelism and the return of Christ, Peter makes a temporal one:
Expecting and hastening the coming of the day of God… –2 Pet. 3:12
This is a shocking verse. I remember the first time I read it and understood the implications. It says that we can speed up when Christ returns. This changes our Christian life from passively waiting around to direct involvement. Everyone is expecting the Lord’s coming, but who is hastening it? With regard to the kingdom, God does not act unilaterally. He incorporates us into His move.
The time of Christ’s coming is determined by the sovereign counsel of God, but it does not take place without reference to other events. That God’s delay is merciful indicates that the evangelization of the elect is one relevant factor. Other factors include prayer and obedience. Such a teaching should profoundly encourage Christians. Our actions do matter. —The Reformation Study Bible, note on 2 Pet. 3:12
Hastening the coming of the day of God suggests that, by living holy lives, Christians can actually affect the time of the Lord’s return. —ESV Study Bible, note on 2 Pet. 3:12
Preaching and Building
The picture of Noah and the ark shows us that we need more than just the gospel if we want to speed up the Lord’s return.
Noah had three prominent characteristics:
Related to Christ’s return, the building of the ark is the pinnacle of our usefulness to God, although these all work in conjunction. All of our labor is initiated, sustained, and characterized by grace. In fact, Paul said that “grace labored” (1 Cor. 15:10).
Enoch named his son Methuselah, which means, “when he dies, it will be sent.” Methuselah’s grandson was Noah. Noah was building the ark under the realization that at any time Methuselah could die and the flood would come. However, Methuselah ended up being the oldest person to ever live. If you do the math, you’ll see that Methuselah died the very year that Noah finished the ark. Methuselah’s 969th year was Noah’s 600th year.
…The long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared… –1 Pet. 3:20
Peter shows us that God waited for the ark to be built before He sent the flood. This means that to God it was all about Noah finishing the ark, not an arbitrary age for Methuselah to reach. Methuselah was merely an outward sign and reminder for Noah to build. God’s sovereign grace didn’t allow Methuselah to die any earlier, as evidenced by him becoming the oldest person to ever live.
In the same way, God is waiting for the building of the church. To hasten Christ’s return, we must preach the gospel and build the church. The gospel, the church, and the Lord’s coming are all intrinsically related to the kingdom.