Archive for November 30th, 2011
“And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come.” Matthew 24:14 NASB (1963 edition)
Whole world – I would be surprised if you haven’t heard this verse as support for world-wide evangelism. Evangelical Christian groups sometimes seem to suggest that if we can just preach the gospel to everyone in the world, then we will make the end happen. Of course, that would mean that our efforts can bring about the return of the Christ and that becomes all the more reason to evangelize.
The only problem is that is it quite unlikely that this verse has anything to do with spreading the good news around the globe.
The Greek term translated “world” is oikoumene, not cosmos (John 3:16) or ge (“earth” Matthew 13:31). It means “the inhabited world,” as it is used in Acts 11:28 to describe the extent of a famine. In the first century, this word meant the civilization that surrounds the Mediterranean. There was no concept of an inhabited world beyond that boundary. Certainly no one thought that Yeshua meant the entire globe with its millions of people. To read the text as a universal declaration of global evangelism is to lift it completely out of context.
Now that we realize the statement is about the “inhabited” world of the first century, we see that the “end” cannot be about the second coming of the Christ. The end that Yeshua has in mind is the end of the temple brought about by the Romans. By 70 AD the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire knew the good news. Obviously, not every person knew the story, but the disciples and subsequent followers were active throughout the Empire, so the prophecy was fulfilled. Global evangelism is not in the picture.
This has some interesting implications. One of the tenets of Islam is the ability of its adherents to usher in the last days by preparing the earth for the last Imam. In this cataclysmic event, the last Imam will come in power to destroy all the infidels and establish one great world of Islam. On this basis, Ahmadinejad believes that instigating a nuclear war that eliminates Israel is a necessary step before the arrival of the last Imam. In other words, human efforts can cause Allah’s timetable to be escalated. This insanity sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? How many times have you heard evangelists proclaim that we can bring about the end if we just reach all the people of the earth? Of course, they don’t have a nuclear holocaust in mind, but they have adopted the same methodology. It is another case of hubris. Do we actually believe that we can make God do what we want Him to do?
Look what happens when we stop reading the text in its own time and culture. Maybe it’s time to back up and ask once more, “What would this mean to the audience that first heard it?” Maybe taking the good news to the whole world is just a good thing to do.
Topical Index: evangelism, whole world, oikoumene, inhabited world, Matthew 24:14