13 But the one having endured to the end will be saved.
14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed in the whole empire as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
Although apocalyptic enthusiasm has abated somewhat in recent years as the church has looked for ways to shore up its earthly credibility and relevance, you still occasionally hear the argument put forward that once the gospel of salvation through personal faith in Jesus has been preached to all the nations, the end will come – that is, Jesus will return, the kingdom of God will be instated, the world will end, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and so on. In fact, I heard it put forward with passion in church this week.
I have no objection to proclaiming the ‘gospel’ to the nations (though exactly what we mean by ‘gospel’ is another matter); and I fully understand the motivational force of the end-times argument. But as a matter of biblical interpretation I think it is mistaken.
In this difficult passage Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the events leading up to the destruction of the temple, which will coincide with his ‘coming’ and the ‘close of the age’ of Second Temple Judaism (Matt. 24:3). He has just lamented over the impending fate of Jerusalem and the temple, warning that this ‘house’ will be left desolate and that its stones will be thrown down (23:37-24:2). In this painful transitional period, as the old age gives way to the new, the disciples can expect to be delivered up to affliction, put to death, hated by the nations; false prophets will create confusion and dissension; many followers will fall away because of disillusionment or fear.
The suffering and turmoil is inevitable: it is part of the ‘birth pains’ of an entirely new order of things. It will culminate in the desolation of the temple and the immense suffering of war, when people will look in vain for a divine saviour. But immediately after the catastrophe the ‘sign of the Son of Man’ will appear in the heavens. This will be the moment of Jesus’ vindication, when the one who has received the kingdom from the throne of the Ancient of Days will ‘come’ to deliver his suffering followers from their enemies. So they are to have hope that in Israel’s darkest moment, at a time of ‘great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now’, their saviour ‘is near, at the very gates’. All this will happen within a generation (24:4-35).
The ‘end’ (telos), however, will not come before ‘this gospel of the kingdom’ has been ‘proclaimed in the whole oikoumenē as a witness to all the nations’ (24:14). In the context of Jesus’ prophetic exhortation to his disciples regarding the severity of the suffering that they will face for his sake and for the sake of the gospel, the ‘end’ in view is the end of the oppression: it is the ‘close of the age’ of Second Temple Judaism, it is the climax to the narrative of Israel’s destruction, it is the vindication of Jesus before the nations, and it is the restoration of a people scattered by the outworking of divine judgment.
Those who do not succumb to fear, who are not led astray by false prophets and counterfeit messiahs, who do not lose their love for the community of Jesus’ disciples, who endure to the ‘end’, will be saved (24:9-13); and along the way they will have proclaimed to the nations of the oikoumenē, the empire (only a slightly tendentious translation), from Jerusalem to Illyricum, to Rome, and on to Spain and the farthest reaches of Greek-Roman civilization (cf. Rom. 15:19, 24), that God acted sovereignly to overturn the status of his people in the ancient world by raising Jesus from the dead and making him Lord, the one through whom, moreover, he will eventually judge the pagan world. This is the ‘gospel of the kingdom’ (not some abstract, a-historical, non-political, privatized gospel of personal salvation) that his disciples, his apostles, will proclaim in the synagogues, before council, before governors and kings for Jesus’ sake before the ‘birth pains’ of the new age will come to an end (cf. Mk. 13:9-10).
So what is our ‘good news’ for the nations today? It must in some way include the story of this extraordinary transition, this transformation of the people of God, the vindication and exaltation of Jesus, the overthrow of the pagan world. It must include the potential for all people to be reconciled with the Creator, to abandon unrighteousness, and be incorporated into his ‘holy’ people. But it must also encompass the present fact, the current circumstances, of the church’s existence in the world, after Christendom, in transition, struggling to articulate a renewed righteousness, relevance, vocation, and identity. The question we have to ask ourselves, with some courage, is: In what way really does the church today constitute ‘good news’ for the nations and cultures of the world?