The Great Commission
As 2018 begins, I feel like an outlier. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines an outlier as “any person or thing that lies, dwells, exists, etc., away from the main body or expected place.” In statistics, it represents an observation that significantly differs from all others.
This feeling of being an outlier comes from the fact that so many in the church today who regard anyone who is watching for Jesus’ return as being out of the mainstream. Even pastors who say they believe in the rapture, rarely, if ever, mention it in their sermons. Several popular Christian authors and teachers today do not even believe that Jesus is coming anytime soon for His church or that there will even be a time of great tribulation on the earth, as described in the book of Revelation.
What we hear instead of watchfulness for Jesus’ return is that the church must be about fulfilling the Great Commission, as though that excludes teaching about the rapture, the coming tribulation, the Second Coming, and the millennial kingdom.
I believe Jesus regarded His command to preach the Gospel as being inseparably intertwined with watchfulness for His return.
What Does the Great Commission Tell Us to Do?
Let me be clear; I absolutely agree that the church should be about fulfilling the Great Commission. It’s of utmost importance that we use our gifts and resources to take the Gospel to those who have not heard the good news of salvation. As followers of Jesus, we all have different roles to play in this, according to how the Lord has gifted and called us.
As Jesus stated in Matthew 28:20, “teaching” is a key aspect of the Great Commission. Specifically, He said that we should instruct new disciples “to observe all that I have commanded you.” We also fulfill the Great Commission when we help build others up in the faith through teaching them to obey Jesus and His words. Teaching and building up other believers is thus an essential element of this, as is going to other cultures or nations.
This is where I begin to sense that I am an outlier. I so often get the sense that, while it’s okay for me to teach and write about future things, this has nothing to do with fulfilling Jesus’ commission to His church — that eschatology is something reserved for the seasoned believers, aka old ones, and pertains little to what is truly important in following Jesus. I could not disagree more!
What Did Jesus Command Us to Do?
Does Jesus’ instruction for us to teach all that He “commanded” exclude watchfulness for His return, or should it be an essential part of what we teach? I believe it is the latter.
In Matthew 24:44 Jesus said, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” A little later He added this, “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13). In Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus not only commanded His disciples to be watchful and ready for His return, but told two parables to emphasize His point. This was not something extraneous or unimportant to Him. Jesus spent considerable time telling His disciples to watch for His return.
Many assume that Jesus is talking about the Second Coming here, but that event does not fit with His commands for readiness and watchfulness. The Second Coming occurs after the tribulation, and more specifically, three and one-half years after the antichrist defiles the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Why would Jesus encourage watchfulness for an event that could not happen until several other things took place?
Jesus’ emphasis on watchfulness and readiness in Matthew 24 suggests that His return could happen at any moment, which coincides with the rapture, but not with the Second Coming, which cannot happen until after the antichrist defiles the temple in Jerusalem.
What Did Jesus Teach?
The Lord modeled an emphasis on eternity in His teaching. He repeatedly stressed our hope of eternal life and promised to “raise up” those who believed in “the last day” (John 6:40). Martha, in her conversation with Jesus regarding the death of her brother Lazarus, displayed a certainly in a future resurrection that came from listening to Jesus teach (John 11:24).
The “kingdom” of which Jesus proclaimed consisted of both spiritual and future physical components.
In Matthew 19:28-29 the Lord said this about His kingdom, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”
Central to Jesus’ teaching was a physical kingdom where His followers would receive physical rewards for their faithfulness. His kingdom signified a time of renewal “of all things,” which certainly includes the physical world around us and the time when we as His followers will “inherit eternal life.” The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed throughout His time on earth included a physical “renewal of all things” such as what the apostle Paul talked about in Romans 8:18-25.
This hope carried over into the rest of the New Testament, as the apostles repeatedly described believers as eagerly awaiting the appearing of the Lord (see Phil. 3:20-21; Titus 2:11-13; 1 Cor. 1:7; 1 John 3:2-3; and James 5:8-9). The New Testament church took seriously Jesus’ command to watch for His return, as did the early church.
Jesus’ last recorded words to His church are, “Surely I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:20). The word translated “soon” depicts quickness of motion in the original Greek. In other words, Jesus is saying that when He returns He will come quickly. In other words, we need to be watching for His appearing, just as He told us to do in Matthew 24.
What About the Early Church?
We have insight into the watchfulness of the early church through a brief document entitled The Didache, which originates from the earliest years of the church. The Didache opens with these words, “The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.” This document summed up the teaching of the apostles at a time when copies of the New Testament were not available or scarce at best. It represents a brief summary of what the apostles taught.
Chapter 16 says this about the nearness of the coming of the Lord, “Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come.” These words indicate an imminency regarding the Lord’s appearing, such as would be the case for someone expecting Jesus’ return to occur at any moment.
The Didache shows that the early church watched for Jesus’ return as something that could happen at any time. The document reflects the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:13 and demonstrates the seriousness to which the church took His instructions in this passage to be ready and watch for His coming.
Several Christian writers and leaders today regard me as far out of step with the Great Commission because of my emphasis on the rapture and other specifics of Bible prophecy. However, as I look at what Jesus proclaimed and commanded as well as at what the apostles wrote, I do not feel like an outlier.
I rather see myself as someone who is fulfilling the Great Commission in the way God has gifted and called me.
Jonathan C. Brentner