The "Signs of the Times" (2): Preaching the Gospel to the Nations
One evidence that many Christian believers have an unbiblical view of the "signs of the times" is the common failure to note the significance of the preaching of the gospel of Christ to the nations as a sign of the period between Christ's first and second coming. So much of the literature and common opinion about the "signs of the times" focuses, upon the unusual and catastrophic events that will mark the period of redemptive history as it draws closer to the great day of Christ's return at the end of the age. Earthquakes, rumors of war, famine, the anti-Christ, tribulation — these are the things that so often fill the minds of believers when they reflect upon the signs of the times.
However, this reflects an unbiblical and distorted view of the signs of the times. It fails to do justice to the note of triumph that rings throughout the New Testament, a note of triumph that also characterizes its understanding of the signs of the times. Christ is King and He has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:1820). Nothing can stand in the way of the forward march of the gospel and the gathering and preservation of Christ's church. Not even the "gates of hell" can prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18). Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and so the consummation of God's kingdom will bring present history to a close. This note of triumph belongs prominently to the New Testament conception of those events that characterize and distinguish this period of history as the "last days."
Therefore, in the biblical and hope-filled view of history and the future of Christ's work, it should not surprise us that one of the great signs of the times is the preaching of the gospel to the nations. This sign confirms the gospel promise that Christ has been exalted to the Father's right hand, and has been given a name which is above every name (Philippians 2:9; Ephesians 1:21).
There are two aspects of the biblical understanding of this sign that merit our attention as we begin our consideration of the most important signs of the times. The first is the preaching of the gospel to all the nations. The second is the preaching of the gospel and the salvation of "all Israel." In what follows we will consider only the first.
The Old Testament Promise
In order to appreciate the importance of preaching as a sign of the times, it is critical that we go back to the Old Testament promise concerning the coming of the Messiah or Savior. This promise included as one of its features the anticipation of an age when the gospel would go forth to all the nations.
Already at the beginning of the Lord's dealings with His peculiar covenant people, the promise of salvation through the seed that the Lord would give Abraham included blessing for all the families and nations of the earth. Hearkening back to the Lord's original promise to Eve that her seed would crush the head of the serpent, the Lord declares to Abraham, the father of all believers, that he would be given an heir through whom the blessings of the covenant would extend to every family and nation. In Genesis 12:3, a passage commonly understood to describe the formal establishment of the covenant of grace, the Lord declares to Abraham that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). Later in Genesis 15 and 17 Abraham is promised a "great reward" (15:1), an heir through whom the Lord's grace would extend to all peoples. When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and promised:
I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly... And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations.
This great promise constitutes a starting point1 for understanding the Old Testament anticipation of the day when the salvation of the Lord would extend through Israel to all the nations. The Lord's gracious dealings with Israel set the stage in the history of redemption for the eventual extension of gospel blessings to all nations or families of the earth. However much this broad and comprehensive scope of God's saving purpose may have been sinfully suppressed or forgotten among the Old Testament people of God, this theme of covenant salvation for all the peoples through the seed of promise and God's chosen nation, Israel, is basic to an understanding of the entirety of redemptive history leading up to the sending of the Messiah or Savior in the fullness of time.2 Not only is the promise of salvation for all the peoples through Abraham's seed repeated subsequently in the book of Genesis (compare Genesis 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Galatians 3:8), but it is also illustrated by the "grafting in" of non-Israelites into the number of the people of God throughout the Old Testament epoch (e.g. Rahab, Ruth, household servants, provisions for the inclusion of aliens).
It is remarkable in this connection to see how the inclusion of the nations within the saving purpose of God is celebrated and declared throughout the Psalter, the songbook for the worship of the Old Testament (and the New Testament) people of God.
In the Psalms the universal presence and rule of the Lord over all the nations is frequently announced and celebrated. For example, Psalm 24:1 sings that "[t]he earth is the Lord's, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it" (compare Psalms 8; 19:1-4; 67:4; 103:19). The rule of the promised king in the line of David will, accordingly, be a rule over all the earth (Psalm 72:19). The worship of the Lord included frequent rejoicing in the Lord's certain triumph over all His enemies (compare Psalms 47:2: 77:13; 136:2), the call to make Him known among the nations (Psalms 9:11; 108:3) and the invitation to the nations to join in the worship of the Lord (Psalms 50:4; 87; 98:4; 113:3; 117). Among the invitations to the nations to join in the worship of the Lord, none is more powerful than Psalm 96:7: "Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength." The language of the Psalter throughout echoes and reechoes the promise that the Lord, who is the Creator of heaven and earth and all the nations, intends to make Himself known among all the nations and extend the blessings of His covenant favor to every people.
In the prophets of the Old Testament there also emerges clearly the announcement of the coming of the Lord in salvation and judgment, a coming that will be the occasion for the blessings of salvation to be extended far beyond the borders of Israel. Though there are many different facets to this announcement, central to them all is the conviction that the Lord Himself will come to judge the nations in righteousness and grant salvation (compare Psalms 59:5; 82:1, 8; 96:13). The "day of the Lord," though variously described and understood, promises the outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord "upon all flesh" (Joel 2:28). Isaiah eloquently announces that "in the last days, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains ... and all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come..." (Isaiah 2:1-4; compare Isaiah 44:8; 66:19; Zechariah 8:18-23). There is promised a new day in which all the nations will see the glory of the Lord and enter into the enjoyment of full salvation.
Though these kinds of Old Testament themes and motifs could be multiplied, and though each one of them deserves further development, this should be sufficient to illustrate the pervasiveness of the Old Testament promise of a future age of salvation and blessing for all the nations. The Lord's purposes do not terminate upon Israel, but include, through Israel, the extension of His saving power and kingdom to the ends of the earth. The mother promise will be fulfilled; the seed of the woman, the son of Abraham, will come, and in Him the blessings of the covenant will be imparted to every family and people.
The New Testament Fulfillment
Only within the setting of this Old Testament promise and anticipation is it possible to appreciate the significance of the New Testament fulfillment. The preaching of the gospel to the nations, mandated by Christ Himself (Matthew 28:18-20), is clearly to be understood as an end time fulfillment of what the Lord had earlier promised.
Though this is not often adequately appreciated, perhaps because it has become such an ordinary part of the ministry of the church of Christ in the world, it is a striking development in the history of redemption that now the gospel is being preached and the blessings of the covenant are being imparted to every people. The gospel which is the "power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16), is one of the clearest signs that we live in the last days of redemptive history, days in which God's promises of old are being fulfilled and the triumph of His covenant grace in Christ is being manifested.
That such gospel preaching is a "sign of the times" is explicitly taught in the New Testament gospels. In Matthew 24, that important New Testament passage concerning the signs of the times, we are told that the disciples came to Jesus and addressed Him with the question, "Tell us, when will these things be (the destruction and rebuilding of the temple), and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (v.3). In response to this question, Jesus mentions a number of "signs of the times," among them "wars and rumors of wars" (v. 6), "famines and earthquakes" (v. 7), "tribulation" and "apostasy" (vv. 9-10). However, prominent among these signs will be the preaching of the gospel: "And this gospel of the kingdom," Christ announces, "shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to the nations, and then the end shall come" (v. 14; compare Mark 13:10). In this passage, Jesus makes it very clear that the preaching of the gospel is a sign of the times that must precede the end of the age and the coming again of the Son of Man.
But it is not only this explicit identification of preaching as a sign of the times that should attract our attention. It is also the way in which the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom is linked in the New Testament with the Old Testament promises of blessing for all the nations in the end times.
It is not difficult, for example, to notice how the so-called "Great Commission" of Matthew 28 breaths the spirit of the Lord's original covenant promise and purpose with Abraham. When Christ speaks of the disciples "going and making disciples of all the nations," within the context of His being granted all authority in heaven and on earth, this is certainly to be seen as a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. These last words of Matthew form a kind of fitting conclusion to the gospel which begins with the "genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1). Mark 16:15-16 and Luke 24:46-49 express the same confidence as Matthew 1:1 that the preaching of the gospel to all the nations is a fulfillment of the earlier promise of salvation and light for the nations.
That the preaching of the gospel as a "testimony to the nations" marks off this period of redemptive history as the last days, the days of fulfillment and blessing, is also evident in the book of Acts which records Christ's ministry through the apostles in the establishment of the New Testament church. At Pentecost the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh occurs, and this outpouring is especially expressed in the triumphant and powerful preaching of the gospel of Christ (Acts 2). The book of Acts as a whole traces the marvelous way in which the gospel advances, in the power and presence of the Spirit, beginning at Jerusalem but extending to the "uttermost parts of the earth" (Acts 1:8). One of the great themes of this book's tracing of the gospel of the kingdom's advance is that this gospel is being preached to Jews and Gentiles, "for the promise is for you," says Peter at Pentecost, "and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself " (Acts 2:39).
Similarly, in the New Testament epistles it is evident that the apostles understood their preaching of the gospel to the nations to be a realization of God's original covenant purpose to bring blessing to all the families and peoples through the seed of Abraham (compare 1 Peter 2:6-10). Frequently, the preaching of the gospel, though to the world a thing of foolishness and weakness, is regarded as a demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 2:4-5). Consequently, the apostles in their preaching exhibited, not a spirit of fear and timidity, but a "Spirit of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20; compare 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Corinthians 4:7). The "mystery" of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, hidden through the centuries but now revealed in the fullness of time, includes God's sovereign and invincible purpose to save an elect people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Ephesians 1:3-14). This purpose will be fulfilled through the ministry of the gospel of reconciliation in Christ.
A great deal more could be said to illustrate this theme of the preaching of the gospel to the nations as an end-time sign of the coming of Christ and the nearness of His kingdom. However, these aspects of the witness of the New Testament, understood within the context of their Old Testament background and promise, should be enough to show that perhaps the single most important sign of the times is the preaching of the gospel to the nations. This sign is an evidence of the triumph of God's gracious purposes in history, preparing the way (much as did John the Baptist for His first coming) for the coming again of the Lord of glory.
An Implication for the Church
By way of concluding this sketch of the preaching of the gospel as a sign of the times, I would like to make a comment on its implication for the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ.
There is among many churches today an observable decline of respect for and emphasis upon the preaching of the gospel. This is sometimes evidenced in declining enrollments at seminaries which prepare men for the ministry of the Word. It is evidenced in the trend to disparage the place and importance of preaching in Christian worship. It is evidenced in the argument sometimes heard even among Reformed people that, because there are a variety of legitimate "kingdom callings," the preaching of the gospel is only one among many and ought not to be given any special emphasis. It is evidenced in the way many Christian parents are unwilling to encourage their sons to consider the gospel ministry as a high and holy calling.
Though there may be several different explanations for this decline in esteem for the office and calling of preaching the gospel, I am convinced that it expresses primarily a loss of biblical insight and understanding about preaching. Many believers, even Reformed ones, have lost the biblical view of the central place of preaching in the history of redemption and the coming of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. They simply do not believe that it is a true sign of the times, marking out this period of redemptive history as one which exists for the sake of the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to the nations.
Because this understanding has been lost, there has been a corresponding loss of confidence in the power of the Word preached to bring salvation and advance the interests of Christ's kingdom. Various means of spreading the gospel are regarded as equal to or more useful than preaching. And sometimes it is even thought that the kingdom of Christ can be better advanced through political means and strategies.
However, those who have a biblical view of the power of preaching as a sign of the triumph of Christ's grace and cause in this present age, may not fall prey to any spirit that diminishes the preaching of the gospel. It is by means of preaching that Christ's kingdom advances, His name is proclaimed and His people are discipled. Nothing should serve to restore the confidence of God's people in preaching more than the realization that it is such a sign of the times, a sign that we live in the last days, days of opportunity and salvation. Soon the end will come, the gospel will no longer be preached, God's patience will have run its course.
Meanwhile, says Jesus Christ, the Lord of history and Head of His church, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations ..." (Matthew 28:18-19).