November 19, 2013

Cliff’s Edge

Again and again Scripture authenticates itself, giving us more reasons to trust it, even the parts that present a reality so much grander than the narrow parameters a rationalistic twenty-first-century worldview easily allow.

The text in question is so familiar that we often overlook the powerful validation of faith it presents. Speaking with His disciples a few days before the cross, Jesus opens to them world events leading to the Second Coming. Amid it all He says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14).

Reading the text now—with Christianity having more adherents than any other faith, and a presence in most every country—we can easily forget what a bold, even daring prediction this was when spoken, or decades later when recorded.

For starters, when Jesus made that prediction, what was the status of the “this gospel,” not in terms of being spread into “all the world” but in terms of simply being understood? At that point, who but the Godhead knew the plan of salvation? Even those who might have had an inkling about what the sacrifices pointed to surely didn’t expect a crucified and risen Messiah. One powerful argument in favor of the resurrection of Jesus is that no one would have concocted the story of the resurrection, because no one expected a crucified and risen Messiah, especially one dying as atonement for the world’s sins. Then, even after Jesus gave His followers 40 more days of instruction, some would ask before His ascension, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), which shows that “this gospel” wasn’t fully understood by those He called to spread it.

Also, how many were believers in Jesus when He first spoke those words? Perhaps a few thousand Jews throughout the Jewish nation and some scattered Gentiles, an insignificant number in contrast to the world’s millions. When Jesus made that prediction, Judas hadn’t yet turned Him in, nor did He yet face the reaction of His followers at His arrest: “Then everyone deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).Hardly an auspicious beginning of a movement whose message was to be heralded worldwide.

Besides the wrath and opposition from other Judeans, the early church would soon be hated, hunted, and persecuted by Rome, the greatest power the world had seen to that time. In the ensuing centuries the empire tried to eradicate this Jewish sect arising from the troublesome province of Judea. When Rome couldn’t eradicate Christianity, it co-opted it instead, and “this gospel,” with scattered exceptions, all but vanished for more than a millennium. And unless you call the Crusades or the attempted forced conversion of the Jews (often under the threat of death) “evangelism,” the gospel hadn’t made a whole lot of progress outside the European continent in the sense of fulfilling Jesus’ bold first-century prediction about it.

Then, of course, with the Protestant Reformation “this gospel” was rediscovered. But it took a few more centuries before the great missionary movements began to spread it worldwide. Today Christianity in one form or another is the world’s largest religion, and its adherents can be found in most every country. Seventh-day Adventists have established work in 209 of 233 countries recognized by the United Nations, making the church perhaps the most widespread Protestant denomination in the world. And though many areas that need mission work remain, with today’s technology it’s not hard to imagine “this gospel” being proclaimed everywhere.

Again, think back almost 2,000 years ago with Jesus, surrounded by a handful of followers in a world that not only had never heard of Him, but was often hostile when it did. Nevertheless, He made an exceedingly implausible prediction that, though taking long centuries, is coming true. We have been privileged in seeing a prediction all but fulfilled, which earlier generations of Christians would have had to take only as a great leap of faith.

Thus with all the other solid reasons for belief in Jesus, we can add Matthew 24:14, powerful evidence for rational, twenty-first-century minds regarding truths that go far beyond rationality itself.