The following is a recent email exchange with a friend. We were discussing the relationship between America, Israel, and the perception that modern political Israel plays a crucial role in God’s redemptive activity.
Me: Also, I came across something else about Israel in another book. It argues rightly I think that all the conditions for Christ’s return were fulfilled within the first generation of Christians (i.e., Pentecost, the scattering of the church from Jerusalem, and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD).
We see Christians in the NT period, anxiously waiting and thinking it could happen any day. Many Christians throughout history have agreed. No one I know of ever mentioned the necessity of a literal temple being rebuilt and the Jews literally holding the Promised Land until roughly 100 years ago.
Friend: My question is: Are we not supposed to complete the Great Commission before Jesus comes back? Like reaching all peoples? Or is that just more of our interpretation?
Me: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure and I’ll have to do some more thinking on it, but here are a few thoughts off hand.
The main defense for 70 AD fulfillment reasons from Jesus’ words in Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Basically the temple’s destruction begins the “times of the Gentiles” which have to be “fulfilled” as a prelude to the end.
What constitutes fulfillment? Doesn’t say. Finishing the Great Commission seems logical, but an exact definition is tricky. It depends how you define “all nations” and “reached?” We know from a number of passages the final kingdom will be a diverse one, but exactly who, how many, and from where is harder to say.
Mark 13 is especially interesting.
It says the gospel must be preached to all nations. However, Jesus then says these signs will happen before this (the disciples) generation passes away. So that’s why many believe everything was completed by 70 AD.
Now we’re just waiting for the “times of the Gentiles” mentioned in Luke to finish.
The obvious question is of course how could all nations have heard the Gospel in the First Century?
It’s my opinion, Jesus meant the ball would get rolling with the preaching to all the nations in his time. Remember it was a novel idea that Gentiles were going to be primary recipients of God’s blessings. So maybe Jesus is saying once the preaching to all nations begins and the church spreads, that will be a sign of the end. Israel’s ancient mission, to be a blessing to all people groups, will at last be realized.
This is the pattern the early church took.
It was largely Jewish until the scattering from Jerusalem and later when Paul came along. Furthermore, that seems to be the point of the book of Acts. It describes the gospel spreading from culture to culture until it reaches Rome where the book ends. There’s a good chance the reader is supposed to infer that from there, the capital of the world, the gospel will reach everywhere, all nations.
Friend: Interesting. I’m just trying to see how it might fit in. I can see how Matthew and Mark could be read more symbolically (especially if that’s what you want to see in it),with the talk of the Abomination of Desolation, and the sun burning out and what not. But Luke can seem a lot more literal. He says that Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies and sacked, and that no one should stay there if they can help it. Sounds like good advice to avoid a Roman army putting down an active rebellion. Most of the other talk about Christians being tried and persecuted and hated for his name could apply to both that generation and a futuristic “end-times” generation, if you wanted it to. But in a literal sense, it was completed in that time. So I can buy that.
Me: It may be symbolic language, but it doesn’t have to be. These passages are all describing the end of the world and the “coming of the Son of Man.” There is no doubt this will be a dramatic, worldwide event of some sort. What I’m saying is everything that has to happen before the end happened by 70 AD.
In other words, we are now in the last phase of God’s redemptive plan and have been since 70 AD. The next great work God will do is bring it all to a close.
The New American commentary breaks down the Matthew passage down like this:
Matthew 24:4-14 preliminary events
15-20 temple destruction
21-28 an interim period of persecution and great distress
29-31 Christ’s return
32-35 everything will be ready for christ’s return in the apostle’s generation
The other parallel passages follow a similar pattern. The question for me is is the time of “great distress” a one time event just before Christ’s return, or is it a picture of what will always be happening to the church?
There are some indications from other passages things will not be going well for the church as the end approaches. However, even if it is still a future event there is nothing keeping it from happening right now and ushering in Christ.
In a sense I think we are always supposed to think it could be “soon.” However you look at it there is no next phase to come. No reestablished Israel, temple, etc.
The only next phase is Jesus taking names.
So while we wait and work for the kingdom, caution needs attention when discerning the times. We are far better off putting away the rapture charts and diligently sowing and reaping in faith and love, letting the geopolitical chips fall where they may.