“…and then the end will come”: How looking forward to our ultimate future brings encouragement in confusing times.
As he walked with his disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus used their amazement at the vast scale of Herod’s temple building to teach them about the puniness of human endeavour in comparison with the power of God in control of a world which seems out of control. He gave them a concise summary of what would happen during the next 2000+ years: wars, natural disasters, false religion and persecution of God’s people, but also, salvation, and his return:
“Nation will rise against nation…there will be famines and earthquakes…many will turn away from the faith and hate each other…many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who holds firm to the end will be saved. 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.”
Some key things to learn, or remind ourselves of, as we reflect on this in the context of a turbulent world and uncertain short-term future:
Firstly, the world won’t keep going forever. Scripture is very clear: planet earth as we know it is finite. And there is no sense that humanity will somehow evolve out of suffering and conflict which have characterised our history, bringing some kind of utopia before the end. The exact time of the end will be unexpected (v44). But we’re told that ultimately, this is not a disaster, but good news. The build up will be traumatic, especially for those used to material comforts, but “the end” will not mean the end of human existence - instead it will pave the way for a new heaven and earth, where a redeemed humanity will live without the constant struggle against sin, and suffering , death and decay.
So the slogan “there is no planet B”, as if existence on this world is all there is, is not true. Certainly we should care for our environment as responsible stewards of the world God has given us for now, but not because this is our only home. The certainty that “the end will come” means that Christians are not caught up in panic about climate change; nor do they selfishly and unsustainably consume resources and pollute the environment. Rather we look after our temporary home with care and respect, and look forward to being welcomed into our permanent one.
Secondly, God is ultimately in control of what happens to the world, for the sake of the people in it whom he loves. A regular refrain of godly people down the ages has been “how long O Lord”.
If God has the power to bring human history to a close, end the suffering in the world (most recently visible in and around Afghanistan) and failures in the church (for example, see first news item below), and establish his permanent kingdom of justice and peace, why hasn’t he done it already? Why doesn’t he do it now? Jesus says “the gospel…will be preached in the whole world…and then the end will come”. So, the reason for the apparent delay is so that people in every nation have the chance to hear “the gospel”.
For the writers of the bible, a nation is not necessarily a geo-political entity. God is more interested in peoples and languages, as in “every tribe and tongue” (Revelation 5:9). Within most ‘nations’ (by the UN definition), there are several ‘nations’ by the biblical definition. Although amazing progress has been made in translating the bible and planting churches among thousands of people groups, particularly in the last couple of centuries and increasingly by means of “south to south” mission initiatives, there are still some “nations” who have not heard the testimony of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ. But, “nearer and nearer draws the time…”!
Thirdly, again Jesus’ words contain good news amid the realism of the challenge. As John Piper says:
“Not: This gospel should be preached…But: This gospel will be preached. This is not a great commission, nor a great commandment. It is a great certainty, a great confidence.”
God is sovereign. He will ensure that the task of testifying to all nations is completed, that the full number have been gathered in to the church. But also, we have a responsibility. In his teaching on the Mount of Olives, Jesus warned that as “the end” approaches, wickedness increases, and joining in with it becomes a temptation even to believers, some of whose love towards God will grow cold. “The one who stands firm to the end will be saved”, says Jesus, and that is a key element of “this gospel” - the good news that by repentance and ongoing faith in Jesus anyone, whatever their background, can participate in the kingdom project, and view “the end” with confidence rather than fear and despair.
For some Anglicans, the gospel seems to be “save the planet”; for others it is “save the parish”. For Jesus what matters most is people and their eternal destiny. In a recent communication, Archbishop Ben Kwashi, Gafcon General Secretary, wrote:
Gafcon has a clear mission in these times in which we find ourselves: to ensure the Word of God is proclaimed faithfully to the nations. Your Gafcon movement is committed to faithfully proclaiming the one true gospel, and, in doing so, helping to reform the Anglican Church back to its roots.
It is exciting and inspiring to know we are part of a movement which identifies and calls out the deception of “false prophets” and seeks to proclaim the true gospel message; which recognises its dependence on God to ensure our love does not grow cold, where members from across the nations encourage one another to “stand firm to the end”.