Preaching the End of the World
The “end times” are rarely thought of in close connection to preaching. Preaching, one might imagine, concerns the announcement of what has already occurred in the narrative of salvation. At its best, preaching is the application of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross to sinners in the present day, especially as His work is set forth or illuminated in a particular passage of Holy Scripture. But preaching is rarely associated with the last things.
Prophecy, however, can be linked somewhat more closely to the end times. Where preaching is about the past and its contemporary relevance, the Bible’s prophetic content deals with things that are to come. Many astute biblical scholars will, of course, point out how prophecy functions to reveal as much about the present as it does the future, yet the end of all things is rarely associated with the church’s ongoing proclamation.
Even so, in an important section of teaching recorded in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, Jesus does precisely this. He closely connects the preaching task entrusted to the apostles with the end of the world. Matthew renders the words of Jesus in this way: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (24:14). (See Luke’s somewhat different account in 21:5-19).
Jesus warns that His witnesses will be delivered to councils, beaten in synagogues, and called to account before governors and kings (Mark 13:9). Yet Christ will make the apostles His witnesses anyway. The preaching of the Gospel will be the form taken by this act of bearing witness before the world. Such preaching will elicit only the world’s rejection and condemnation. Nonetheless, the Gospel must be preached––for through this Gospel, the world ends. A little further on, Jesus promises that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35; Mark 13:31).
Not all of us, of course, will suffer the same fate Jesus lays out for the apostles. Many Christians have and will, to be sure. The suffering of the last things can take many different forms as well. Famine, disease, natural disaster, terrorism, war, political upheaval, abuse of all kinds, premature death, fatal accidents, and the unavoidable reality of ubiquitous suffering and eventual death all animate life in this world. The death and resurrection of our Lord has indeed removed the power of all these things. But they remain for now, even so.
What then are we to say? How do we hasten the world’s end? Maranatha, “come quickly,” Christians have prayed for millennia. Our petition unto God for the return of Christ does not go unheard. Amidst the “rupture between ages,” as Oswald Bayer aptly describes our present anticipatory situation, the Gospel must be preached. All nations must hear this word of the kingdom of God.
We shouldn’t be surprised when this word is met with rejection. The first advent of Jesus Christ was hardly received with acceptance and approbation. Nothing less than the death of the Father’s only Son was the end result. Yet Jesus insists that the Gospel must be preached. Jesus’ own preaching of the forgiveness of sins brought about His death on behalf of the sinners He so closely identified with. Now, the church that preaches this accursed man to the rest of the world will suffer the same fate––perhaps before governors and kings, and perhaps in other ways. The Gospel must be preached all the same.
Amidst the circumstance of trial and tribulation, witnesses to Christ will announce the good news of the kingdom. In the moment of their witness, Christians shouldn’t fear what they will have to say for themselves. Jesus says, “Do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).
The Christian life is marked by all kinds of such trial. The struggle of this “rupture between ages” will take many different forms for those who belong to Christ, but His witnesses will never be at a loss for what to say. The Holy Spirit will supply the words necessary to enable this witness. Believers surely already know what these words are: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”; “I forgive you”; “This is my body, given for you.” Through one creature to another, these are the words the Holy Spirit wants to say.
The greatest blessing for the Christian is not only having the right words to say in the moment of witness, but to hear them as well. In these words, the end of the world has already come–that is the good news they announce. The prophecy-obsessed will scour the Scriptures to discern the signs of the times, just like the disciples interrogated Jesus for the “sign when all these things are about to be accomplished” (Mark 13:4; see also Matt. 24:3). But the signs of the times are no comfort compared to the words which create and sustain faith itself. Unto such faith, the world has already come to an end.
All that is left now is to keep preaching this Gospel to the nations. The good news will continue to be proclaimed until the reality of the kingdom of God will be held not only in faith but also in sight and feeling.