Must the Church Complete the Great Commission?
In my recent post at Endtimes.com I made the case that the completion of the Great Commission is the last great milestone to be passed before Jesus’ return. As Jesus said, in Matthew 24:14,
This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world, as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
I explained that the word translated “nations” is ethnos; that ethnos describes ethno-linguistic people groups; that according to Finishing the Task there are about 12,000 ethnos in the world; and that only a few hundred ethnosremain to be reached with the gospel. My conclusion was that, just as Jesus said, the church must (and will) preach the gospel to each of these people groups before Jesus comes back.
But is it necessary for the gospel to be preached to every nation before the rapture? Or is it possible that the task will be completed by God after the rapture, during the tribulation? In this post I want to consider the Biblical evidence for both points of view and explain why I think it is the church’s responsibility to complete the Great Commission before we are taken up by our Lord.
Those who feel that the Great Commission will be finished after the rapture point to the amazing evangelistic work that God has promised to accomplish during the tribulation. First, Revelation 11 tells us about the two witnesses who will prophesy from Jerusalem for the first 3 ½ years of the tribulation. Thanks to modern technology, the testimony of the witnesses will be available everywhere on the planet. When they are finally killed, we’re told, “men from every people, tribe, language, and nation will gaze upon their bodies” (Rev. 11:9).
In addition, Revelation 7 speaks of the 144,000 Jewish servants of God. Many think that these servants will travel the world during the tribulation preaching the good news.
And if that wasn’t enough, Revelation 14:6 tells us that God will dispatch an angelic evangelist who will proclaim the good news to every person on the planet: “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language, and people.”
So there is no doubt that the good news will be preached “in the whole world, as a testimony to all nations” during the great tribulation. And since the church will have been raptured before these things take place, we will not have a role in that work.
But does that relieve the church of the responsibility to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19)? I don’t think so. First, Jesus gave this command to the apostles, and through them to the church. While they had no idea how big the task was, or how long it would take to finish it, it is evident from the way they responded that they took the command seriously. What’s more, I think Jesus expected them to complete it. It’s possible that this command was aspirational—like the instruction to “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”—but my conviction is that Jesus meant what he said: that he wants us to be the ones to “make disciples of all nations.”
That conviction is strengthened by the fact that we seem to be so close to completing the work. Generations of faithful believers have labored to take the gospel to “the whole world” with no hope of seeing it finished. Today, though, we’re within a few years of seeing it accomplished, and the gospel is spreading like wildfire in places where Jesus’ name has never been heard. I think that by God’s grace we’ll be able to start in all the rest of the world’s ethnos within the next year or two. Surely he isn’t going to deprive us of the exhilaration of the sprint to the finish by coming to get us just before we finish the race?
What’s more, Revelation 7 describes a great crowd from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” surrounding the throne of the Lamb. The angel tells John that these are “these are those who have come out of the great tribulation.” Many think that this crowd is made up of tribulation martyrs—that “taken out of” describes their death during the tribulation. But the phrase probably describes at least as well those who are “taken out” of the world before the beginning of the tribulation—in other words, the raptured church, comprised of people from every ethnos. Certainly the description of that crowd as being “a great multitude that no one could count” seems to fit better the entire church than even the large number who will be martyred in the tribulation.
And isn’t it necessary that God’s church include people from every ethnos? Ephesians 2 describes the process by which Christ is reversing Babel, reuniting the nations God separated there into “one new man”—his body, the church—and “in that one body” reconciling “them to God through the cross. . .” Is it possible that God will rapture his church BEFORE that reversal is completed and the body of Christ is whole? I can’t imagine it.
It’s important to understand exactly what the Great Commission requires of the church: not that we preach the gospel to every person but that we make disciples “of all nations.” I think it is likely that not every person will hear the gospel before the rapture—although we’re getting closer to that goal as well—and that God, in his incredible grace, will complete that task after the church has been raptured, demonstrating the truth of 2 Peter 3:9 that God does not want “anyone to perish. . . “ At the same time, though, I believe that Christ will not come for his church until we have completed the task he gave us: to make disciples in every ethnos.
But what about the doctrine of imminence, which says that the rapture could take place at any time? This doctrine is based on numerous Biblical passages about the unpredictability of Jesus’ return, such as Matthew 24:36, “No one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” and Matthew 24:42, “Therefore keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Imminence teaches that there is nothing that must occur before the rapture takes place—that there are no preconditions to it. So how can I argue that the rapture must wait until after the Great Commission has been completed?
My answer would be that while the Bible does say that Christ “will come at an hour when you do not expect him. . .” (Matt 24:44) and warns us to be ready for his return at any time, it also describes several things that apparently must take place before the rapture. For example, was it possible for the rapture to occur and the church be removed from the world before Israel was regathered? I can’t image how, unless the period between the rapture and the beginning of the Great Tribulation was decades or centuries long—something I don’t think the prophecy of the 70 weeks in Daniel 9 permits. To go back even further, would it have been possible for the rapture to take place before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD? Or is it possible that the rapture could happen before the prophecies of apostasy in the church in the last days (Matthew 24:10-12 and others) have been realized? (This one seems particularly problematic—after all, how could the church apostatize after it has been raptured?) These and other Biblical clues suggest that while the rapture may be “imminent” today, until recently it was not. I see the completion of the Great Commission as another thing the Bible says must take place before the rapture occurs.
Fortunately, we don’t have long to wait. By God’s grace, one day very soon a missionary will enter the village of the last people group on earth to hear the gospel. The Holy Spirit will lead him to a person of peace in that place, he will give him the good news, and that man and his family will receive Christ and be baptized. When that happens, for the first time in history, it will be literally true that there are disciples in every nation, and the door will at last be open for the return of Christ for his church. May it be soon! Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!