There has been discussion for many years about the relationship between the evangelization of the world and the return of Christ. Completing the Great Commission, it is often said, paves the way for the second coming of Jesus.
Where does the idea of this connection come from?
It has its roots in Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus, particularly the claims of King Jesus and his mission-defining mandate to his disciples. But to get to the heart of this definitive and vocation-creating call, we must take a closer look at what Matthew is actually doing and saying. (As always, the key to understanding short statements in the Bible is bigger and better reading of the context.)
The Great Commission: Jesus Is Building Something New
The ending of Matthew’s Gospel brings to a head and then resolves the narrative tension that’s been growing throughout his story. Jesus has burst onto the national scene as a rabbi and prophet, bringing a renewal movement to Israel. But Israel’s leaders want none of it—they have their own narrative about how Israel’s story is supposed to go. The heart of the confrontation has to do with authority: who is authorized to speak for God? who can see clearly where Israel’s God is taking their story?
This conflict reaches its breaking point when Jesus enters Jerusalem as a king, the blessed Son of David, to the adulation of the crowds. From this point on, every day Jesus is becoming more and more open with his challenge to Israel’s current regime:
Did you never read what the Bible says?” said Jesus to them:
“ ‘The stone the builders threw away
Is now atop the corner;
It’s from the Lord, all this, they say
And we looked on in wonder.’
“So then let me tell you this: God’s kingdom is going to be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the goods. Anyone who falls on this stone will be smashed to pieces, and anyone it falls on will be crushed.”*
Standing in the Temple courtyards, Jesus announces that he himself is the cornerstone of God’s new building. The challenge is to see and recognize what God is doing, or face the crushing consequences. Now Jesus gets specific and direct, predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple within a single generation:
Jesus left the Temple and went away. As he did so, his disciples came and pointed out the Temple buildings to him. “Yes,” he said, “and you see all these things? I’m telling you the truth: not one stone will be left standing upon another. All of them will be thrown down.”
As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately.
“Tell us,” they said, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that you are going to appear as king, and that the end of the age is upon us?”
“Watch out,” replied Jesus. “Don’t let anyone deceive you. You see, there will be several who will come along, using my name, telling you ‘I’m the Messiah!’ They will fool lots of people. You’re going to hear about wars, actual wars and rumored ones; make sure you don’t get alarmed. This has got to happen, but it doesn’t mean the end is coming yet. Nations will rise against one another, and kingdoms against each other. There will be famines and earthquakes here and there. All of this is just the start of the birth pangs.
Then they will hand you over to be tortured, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will find the going too hard, and they will betray each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will arise, and they will deceive plenty of people. And because lawlessness will be on the increase, many will find their love growing cold. But the one who lasts out to the end will be delivered. And this gospel of the kingdom must be announced to the whole world, as a witness to all the nations. Then the end will come.”
The next steps in the story are clear enough: Jesus tells his disciples there will be turmoil and trouble, both for them and for the world. Something new is struggling to be born, and there is pain in this, as in any birth.
But God’s new world is surely coming! A stone building in Jerusalem can no longer contain God’s intentions.
Jesus tells his disciples that the announcement of God’s reign is not just good news for Israel, it is the gospel of the kingdom for all people. The biblical story is making a massive turn, telling us how God is reclaiming the world—the turn that God had in mind all along. The strange and surprising victory of Jesus (he went out, alone, to die? and this was winning?) has laid the foundation for a whole new building project.
The disciples are to persevere through suffering, misunderstanding, and persecution to tell everyone that Jesus is not merely Israel’s Messiah, but the world’s true Lord and Ruler. The turning of the ages—from the present evil age to the promised new time of God’s life and light—is happening now, so the disciples have to be ready for a fresh assignment.
The ending of Matthew’s Gospel clearly confirms that the gospel announcement is precisely news to the nations about a new king:
So the eleven disciples went off to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had instructed them to go. There they saw him and worshipped him, though some hesitated.
Jesus came toward them and addressed them.
“All authority in heaven and on earth,” he said, “has been given to me! So you must go and make all the nations into disciples. Baptize them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. And look: I am with you, every single day, to the very end of the age.”
Making disciples is all about teaching allegiance to the new Lord of the cosmos, instructing them to do what he said. These followers of Jesus from all the nations, who live by their loyalty to King Jesus, together constitute God’s new global structure, the place he is taking up residence.
Knowing and Living the Bible Is the Doorway to Discipleship
For those involved in ministry with the Bible, the implications of all this are clear. Jesus said disciples must be taught—the peoples of the world are called to know and understand and live the story of the Bible. To follow Jesus one must know the story of which he is a part. To know that story is to be immersed in the Scriptures.
It is not enough to translate and distribute the Bible globally, as crucial as that is. Disciple-making on the model Jesus instructed requires big reading and deep engagement with God’s word. Having a Bible in my language does not automatically make me an effective follower of the Lord of the world. Having it on my shelf or my phone does not automatically transform me into a disciple. The research into Bible reading and literacy reveals that Christ’s church has to be more intentional about helping people actually read and understand the Scriptures they already own.
Reading, knowing, understanding, and living—this is what a fully formed follower of Jesus does with the Bible. Making more followers like this is what the church is called to.
Jesus said disciples are made.
Jesus said disciples are taught.
There is no gospel of the kingdom without deep Bible engagement. This is the task we all must embrace. Then the age that Jesus said is coming will indeed fully come, and God will return and make his home with us.
* All Scripture quotes are from The Kingdom New Testament, HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.