By Pastor Glenn Pease
It was reported in the mid 80's that shoes coming to America from Italy had a Common Market stamp on them. It was a circle with a line drawn through the middle, and in the top half was a lamb's head with two horns, and on the bottom half was the number 666. Joe Esses said he saw it himself in his book, The Next Visitor To Planet Earth. When Edgar C. Carlisle, an evangelist, read that he got all excited and incorporated it into his message, and he showed it on a screen as he traveled from church to church.
No doubt many pastors and evangelists used this startling information. But Carlisle was more fanatical than most. He started looking in shoe stores to find that circle, and he excited others to do the same. He even had people traveling to Rome to find a pair of those shoes, but none could be found. He wrote to the U. S. Emigration authorities, and the British Embassy, and they knew of no such stamp. He wrote and called Mrs. Esses, but he could make no contact. Finally in embarrassment he stopped telling the story, he hated to do it, for it was his best thriller, and Christians ate it up, but he had to stop because he realized he had been deceived by another prophetic hoax.
There is no way he could go back to the many people he told this story to, and so he became a tool of the great deceiver, and no doubt, many Christians are still spreading this false story along with dozens of others that come from the master deceiver. At least pastor Carlisle learned his lesson, and now he checks out his stories before he proclaims them. He saw in this travels across the country a tract that declared the vultures in Israel are increasing as a fulfillment of prophecy. He wrote to the authorities in Israel and soon heard back that 30 others had made the same inquiry. The answer was no, they are decreasing, and there were only 60 mating pair in all of Israel.
Christians all across the land were being deceived by false information. We could go on for hours looking at this sort of thing. Maybe, just maybe there is a reason why Jesus in this sermon on prophecy warns His disciples about deception 4 times. Jesus knew that in the area of prophecy and its fulfillment Christians would be susceptible to deception. Pastors and evangelists are very eager to have startling illustrations, and the result is they are the first to be suckered by a good story. Seldom does a pastor ever check out a story, and so if one tells it, it spreads like wildfire, each one quoting the other with none of them having any basis in fact.
Dr. Paul Reese, one of the greatest preachers in America. Wrote these words of criticism: "I shall go to my grave believing that, side by side with my ardent expectation of the Second Advent, most of our 'signs of the times' sermons and books are based on opportunism and a mistaken understanding of what the apocalyptic portions of Scripture are meant to teach us. These hot sermonic and literary outpourings tend, in the cases of many Christians, to distract from the 'occupy until I come' mandate for missions and social responsibility."
Spiros Zodehiates, the Greek scholar and author, writes, "I believe that the insistence on signs, or the craving for any form of the religion of signs or the religion of superstitious wonder, is an element of disease in the Church. It is analogous to the spirit that helped to bring Christ Jesus to His death." I agree with these men completely. If you are a sign seeker, there is a high likelihood that you will be a tool of one prophecy hoax after another. A wise Christian will doubt and question every sign he hears about, for the vast majority are fiction, and the more that Christians get excited about fiction, the more the world concludes that all that Christians believe is fiction.
In spite of all this negative warning about sign watching I want to focus on the key sign of the end of history. Remember, the abuse of a thing is never an argument against its proper use. In Washington D. C. the police dropped the charges against a man named Stanley for driving through 8 stop signs. How could anyone miss 8 stop signs and not be guilty? He proved that he was going the wrong way on a one way street, and so he could not see the signs. Here was a case where ignorance was an excuse, but we have no excuse for missing the key sign of this sermon on the signs.
The disciples wanted to know about the end of the age, and Jesus says there is to be a history of terrible things, but they are not the end. There will be wars and terrible persecution. There will be apostasy and wickedness, but hang in there to the end he urges. Then in verse 14 Jesus finally answers their question. All the rest is background, but here is the answer to their question: "And this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come."
The only clear sign that Jesus gave of the end of the world is the sign of world wide spread of the Gospel. Jesus says that when the Great Commission is fulfilled, then the end will come. It makes sense that if the purpose of Christ for the church is to take the Gospel into all the world, that when that purpose is fulfilled, the end should come. When the goal is reached, you move on to another goal, and this is God's goal for history, that the whole world have a chance to hear the Gospel. It makes sense also that Jesus would not come again and end history before His church finishes His purpose for coming in the first place. This goal must be reached before the plan is over.
This is the only clear sign that Jesus states, and yet the human mind is so stubborn in its lust for the sensational that this is the least of the signs you will read about in books on prophecy. It is not even mentioned by Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth, and many other popular end time books. Why? Because it doesn't sell. The sign of Jesus is boresville. How can you get excited about the Gospel reaching the remote regions of the world? Sure it means people in heaven who otherwise would never be there, but there is no impact on our lives like a super earthquake or terrible war. We want news, and news is basically bad, and so give us the terrors of famine, the horrors of major disasters, and then you have our attention. Christians buy this stuff like crazy, and they support the sensationalists. That is why there is so many of them. You would think that Jesus taught us to keep records on the wars and earthquakes, and when they are high, then we will know it is near the end.
We don't pay any attention to Jesus because He is a kill-joy. He says that all of this sort of thing that we like in the way of signs are, in fact, not signs at all, but just part of the history of a fallen world. The sensational things will be in every generation, and false prophets will take advantage of them in every generation. But those who listen to Jesus will not be deceived by spectacular news of this or that disaster. If we listen to Jesus, we will be looking instead at the statistics of how many more peoples we have to reach before the Gospel is in every language on earth. This ignored sign, on the back burner of most prophetic stoves, is the really hot one for those who are interested in being right rather than popular.
There is no other sign that Jesus connects with the end but this one. All the others He states clearly are not the end, or at best, they are the beginning of the end, but this one is the sign of the end. Our business as Christians is not to study wars and rumors of wars, and famines, earthquakes, and all sorts of spectacular events, but to be about the business of getting the testimony of the Gospel to all the world. Let's face up to the implications of this verse. If the end will not come until the Gospel is taken to all nations, then Jesus did not expect to come anytime soon. He knew, and so did the disciples, that reaching the whole world would take some time. The known world was fairly well united under Roman rule, and so it was conceivable that it could be done in their life time, but still, it was going to be a long hard job to accomplish.
Pentecost helped a great deal, for there were people from all over the world there to hear the Gospel, and take it back to their land. A good many received Christ at that time, but Jesus would not be content until people of every language tribe and nation in the world were part of His family. It was a life time job, and not a task that could be finished quickly.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (1982). By A. D. 100 there were about 1 million Christians in the world out of a population of 181 million in the Roman Empire. That was just over one half per cent. By the year 1000 Christians were 18 per cent of the world's population. By 1900 it was 34.4 per cent of the world. But by 1980 it had slipped to 32.8 per cent. Christianity lost ground in that century largely because of the massive defection due to communism in Easter Europe, and secularism in Western Europe. That would lead to pessimism except for the fact of what has happened in the third world.
Christianity has grown in the third world from 83 million in 1900 to 643 million by 1980. That is a growth of nearly 800 per cent. In Africa in the same period Christianity grew from 9.9 million to 203 million, which is a 2000 per cent growth. In South Asia and Latin America the church is growing like wildfire. The point is, Christianity does not have to grow in the Western countries. The Gospel is there, and the task is achieved, even if Christianity does not grow. The issue is not the West, but the rest of the world where the Gospel is not being preached. That is what matters to fulfill the Great Commission, and that can be achieved in any one generation. It is not global conversion, but global proclamation that fulfills this sign.
The task is enormous, and so it could take many years to achieve, but the fact that it is even possible makes us to be living at a very unique time in history. No one has ever lived so close to the end as we are now living. Our century has seen some radical changes. In 1900, 85 per cent of the Christians were in the Western World. By 1980 only 32.8 per cent were in the Western World. 44.1 per cent were in third world, and 17.7 per cent in the communism world. In 1900, 81 per cent of Christians were white. In 1980 only 48 per cent, and non whites were the majority with 52 per cent. In the 20th century Christianity has become a universal religion with people in almost every country in the world. 96 per cent of the world's population has part of the Bible in their language.
The major sign of the church's task is being completed, and now more than ever the sign seekers are looking at this sign seriously. Anthony Hoekema in his book The Bible And The Future says, "The missionary preaching of the Gospel to all nations is, in fact, the outstanding and most characteristic sign of the times. It gives to the present age its primary meaning and purpose." G. C. Berkouwer in The Return Of Christ says, "In the last days the preaching of the Gospel is the focal point of all the signs. In it all the signs can and must be understood."
The focus of Jesus is just the opposite of what most end time messages stress. They stress the bad news of war, earthquake and lawlessness in man and nature. Jesus says that in the midst of all this world chaos, false prophets, increase of wickedness, and the love of many growing cold, the Gospel will be preached in the whole world. Don't look at the negative for a sign. That stuff is always present, but look for the positive, for that will be a once in a history sign that the end is near.
No matter how rotten the world, and no matter how corrupt the church, the mission goes forward until every nation has a chance to hear the Gospel. The great sign is the Great Commission being fulfilled. This means we should be concerned about reaching the unreached peoples of the world, for that is the only route Jesus left us to go in to make a difference in history. Bernard Ramm said, "Motivation for foreign missions is not exhausted by the love of God in the cross of Christ, nor the darkness of pagan hearts, but it is also eschatologically motivated. Our world-wide missionary work brings ever closer the parousia of our blessed Lord, and so we spread the Gospel far and wide to hasten His appearing."
The focus is on the unreached peoples now, for when they are reached, and people of every nation and language have a chance to be saved, and to be a part of God's family, the end will come. And not before this, for Revelation gives us a glimpse of heaven, and there will be people in heaven from every nation, tribe and tongue. Jesus could not come and end history before His goal was achieved, and cut out of the scene of heaven people not reached. Peter said that the second coming is delayed because Jesus is not willing that any should perish. He refuses to come until at least someone from every nation and tongue is saved. When the whole world can say that the word is out, and we know of Jesus, then the end will come. Nothing can hold Jesus back then, but nothing can bring Him until then.
This optimism about the whole world being reached is what motivates the Christians who call themselves Post-millennialists. They say this verse guarantees that the church will be successful, and will achieve her goal of reaching this world. They realize the world is a mess, and there is a lot of negative reality, but it is in the midst of all this negative that Jesus comes forth with the positive verse of success. There will be bad times, and there will be persecution, apostasy, and false prophets, and all the rest with the wars, famines, and earthquakes, but none of it will stop the church from reaching the whole world with the Gospel. Many focus on all the bad things that are a reality, but Jesus says the church will still fulfill His purpose, and this should be our focus.
I am not a post-mill, but I do accept their optimism as biblical, and recognize that they are only listening to Jesus when they believe He will become Lord of some lives in every nation on earth, and thereby have the only universal kingdom in history before He comes again. Jesus will not scrap His plan and cut short His agenda just because the going gets tough. Christians who are pessimistic about the future are listening to somebody besides their Lord. Christians who listen to Jesus won't give up, let up, or shut up until the job is done.
Jesus ended His Great Commission by saying, "Surely I will be with you to the very end of the age." In other words, there is no quitting. We will work together to the end, and never give up until we reach the whole world. Jesus is committed to this plan. It is the only plan there is, and the only truly obedient attitude is to support the fulfilling of this Great Commission.
There was a minor fulfillment of this prophecy in New Testament times, so that it was possible for Jesus to come in 70 A. D., or anytime after, but Jesus did not go for the short plan. He could have, for at Pentecost it says in Acts 2:5, "There were God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven." The first sermon of Peter bore witness to people from every nation. Later on after Paul traveled all over the Roman Empire he wrote in Col. 1:23 that the Gospel had been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. Jesus could have come in the lifetime of the Apostles, for they had already touched the known world for Christ. They, of course, had a limited view of the world. There were whole continents of people they did not know even existed, and so they had achieved the goal as far as they knew, but Jesus did not return for He knew of a vast world yet to be reached. The minor fulfillment was not enough for Jesus, for He is going for the maxi-fulfillment which will cover the whole world.
The year 1000 was thought to be a good time for history to end. It was a great round number, and the world was reached as far as they could tell. They had no idea about the Americas or Australia, or other parts of the world. As we approach 2000 we are the first Christians to ever live who know there is no part of the world yet unknown, and who also have the technology to reach the whole world. We have the best choice of any Christians to play a major role in bringing history to a conclusion.
This does not contradict the statement in verse 44 that Jesus will come at a time when we don't expect Him. We have an authentic sign to watch, but the fact is, we have no idea when it will be fulfilled. It could be some time this afternoon, or a hundred years from now. Only God can know when all peoples are reached. There could be people from the unreached nations coming to a Western nation and hearing the Gospel that could represent the last people needing to be reached. We just have no idea when God will be satisfied that all people have been reached. That is why we can both have a great sign to watch, and yet still not know when Christ will come, for only He can know when the goal is achieved.
He is the Alpha and Omega. He started things, and only He can end it, and He will do so when He has accomplished His goal of making sure there are saved people to sing forever in heaven out of every tribe, tongue, and nation. The only sign we can even guess at is this one, and even that is a guess, for only Christ can know when it is fulfilled. More important than guessing, however, is getting in on the plan, and millions of Christians are doing so in their support of the effort to reach all of the yet unreached peoples of the world. Evangelism is the key theme, for in the next decade we could fulfill the purpose of Jesus for His church. We should all be excited about reaching the unreached people groups, for this is a key sign that the end is near.