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FIRST-PERSON: Gospel urgency or eschatological fad?

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–In the last half of this decade there appears to be a discovery like that of a lost pearl, a nugget of truth hidden but now revealed in these latter days. The discovery is a renewed application of Matthew 24:14, “This good news of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come” (HCSB).

Seems the news of this discovery was heard first in Richmond, then in Nashville and throughout the Southern Baptist Convention. Announce it far and wide that once every nation (ethno-linguistic group) hears the Gospel message, then all the signs are fulfilled and the Lord Jesus will return, the Day of the Lord will appear.

This theme has been repeated in many sectors of Southern Baptist life. For example, in September, the SBC Executive Committee heard SBC President Bryant Wright appeal to the Southern Baptist Convention and state conventions to “re-prioritize” their outreach to the nations.

“What Christ is concerned about is that we preach the Gospel to every people group on earth. That means that we’re to get the Gospel out to the tough places. That means that we’re willing to be sacrificed, to go cross-cultural, to go wherever God leads, to do whatever it takes to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission,” Wright accurately challenged Executive Committee members.

Up to this point, the urgency of sharing the Gospel message to the peoples of the world is clear to everyone in the house. However, to amplify his point, Wright picked up the eschatological trend floating around the SBC, saying, “Because we’re to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to every ethnos, every people group … and then Jesus says He will come. Now folks, listen, are you listening? … He ain’t comin’ until we take the Gospel to every ethnos.”

Wright continued, “I don’t know how Jesus could be any more clear to us. I know all of you are going to have a very interesting mindset about eschatology and the Parousia and all the events around the end times, but the fact is, Jesus is as clear as he can be. He’s not coming until the Gospel of the Kingdom is preached to every people group on earth.”

Why is this a problem? The landscape of Christian history is littered with efforts to motivate a particular generation using an eschatological fad such as a particular war or the devastation of multiple earthquakes or a popular proof-text. These efforts have led some people to unnecessarily make dangerous and imprudent choices that eventually precipitated into personal disillusionment, fractured families and crippled Gospel outreach to generations.

It was obvious that the SBC president’s primary purpose was to emphasize the urgency of the hour, the need for Southern Baptists to sacrificially invest their lives and resources in reaching the nations with the Gospel. It is a challenge Southern Baptists need desperately to hear so they can push back the allure of the American dream. However, to state in eschatological terms “He ain’t comin’ until we get the Gospel to every ethnos” is a step too far.

If this statement is taken to its logical conclusion, one of the dangers is that people are tempted to invest the whole of their energy and resources in an immediate, direct action that leaves future generations with minimal resources. This kind of eschatological teaching is at the expense of mission endeavors that demand people invest their lives and assets in self-sacrificing, long-term, relational strategies that not only evangelize but also transform a culture with the power of the Gospel pronounced in the Scriptures.

The context of Matthew 24 is that Jesus gives us important signs that the end is near but the Father still holds the timetable (verse 36). We can neither delay nor advance the return of the Lord Jesus. Using Matthew 24:14 to say that sharing the Gospel message with the last people group will cause the Lord to return is at the very least questionable.

Most evangelical scholars who hold impeccable credentials including Craig Blomberg (New American Commentary, Matthew, pages 351-365) believe all the signs to a certain extent were fulfilled by the end of the first century. Consequently, every generation has the sense of urgency that they could be the last one. After all, didn’t Jesus teach (Matthew 24:34-36), “Truly, I say to you, this generation shall not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not the Son, but the Father alone.”

For the 21st-century believer, verse 14 does create tension in that we know which tribes have heard and which ones have not. Globalization and technology have caused the earth to shrink. The capacity exists to see things scholars writing before 1960 could not begin to fathom. We know now through demographic research who the last remaining ethno-linguistic groups are and missiologists are designing strategies to present the Gospel to those people groups.

For the faithful believer, a sense of urgency to share the Gospel message is part of our spiritual DNA. However, there is a question that has large consequences: Is our motivation for sharing the Gospel to the nations so we can fulfill the signs of the Lord’s return or because Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations….”?

We must be watchful. Every generation must live with urgency to reach the people in their generation with the Gospel and balance that with a strategy that reaches future generations. It is important for an individual follower of Christ to both witness now and invest time in building relationships for future witnessing opportunities. For example, to reach the nations of Islam, in-your-face confrontational evangelism techniques are ineffective. Evangelism strategists tell us it takes years, sometimes decades to lead your first Muslim convert to Christ.

A cooperative, generational approach for global witness is obviously out of vogue in Southern Baptist life. If you listen to the rhetoric, the value of state and national cooperative institutions for the purpose of evangelizing and discipling generations sounds passé. The ecclesiastical fashion statement of the day is to jettison long-term partnerships in favor of the “silver-bullet, point of the spear” measures that invest in a church planting strategy more aligned with consumerism than a people-oriented, biblical partnership model that develops strategies for both now and future generations.

Every generation must examine the effectiveness and efficiencies of cooperative ministries to determine if they are maximizing Kingdom resources. For over a century, Southern Baptists have opted for cooperative methodologies that underpin multi-generational strategies. That’s one reason why the SBC has six seminaries instead of one. Or why several state conventions continue their support for undergraduate education. Or why, until recent decisions, partner conventions in various jurisdictions were better suited for strategic church planting and evangelism than a “suit” in Alpharetta or Richmond or Nashville.

In our zeal will we embrace an eschatological fad based on a proof-text that has the potential to collapse our powerful cooperative multi-generational ministries? Or is the imperative command of Jesus in Acts 1:8 sufficient to create urgency in our hearts for building the comprehensive strategies necessary for reaching all the nations both now and the future?

There is urgency. There must be urgency to share the Gospel now and to train others for future evangelistic ministries. The souls of lost men and women in the rain forests of Southeast Asia, in the Louisiana bayou, in the housing projects of Detroit, in the sub-Sahara, or in the halls of a legislature are waiting for us to share the Good News. The Lord’s commission in Acts 1:8 is explicit. It is the marching order for every believer to deploy to every place in a simultaneous strategy that requires cooperation to reach people “in all the world.” Therefore, let’s be bold and strategic about doing the Lord’s command.
John L. Yeats is recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention and director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. His blog site is www.JohnYeats.net.

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  • John L. Yeats