George Lansbury was a grand old Christian statesman living contemporary with Lenin. Visiting Moscow in the hopes of promoting friendly relationships between Russia and Europeans, he met with Lenin. In his book, My Quest for Peace, he tells how the Russian leader once listened sympathetically while he spoke of Jesus Christ and his saving power. Lenin was told that no nation that rejected God could hope to be truly prosperous. Lenin listened quietly, and when Lansbury was finished the ruler said, “Go back to England and convert your own people to Christianity–then come back and talk to me again!” Lansbury never returned to Russia.
In January 1953 five African chiefs from Nyassaland came to England in protest against being forcibly included in the then new political amalgamation of East African territories. This is what their spokesman said: “The British won Nyassaland at the first, not by military weapons, but by the Bible. Now the British have abandoned the Bible–but you will not hold Nyassaland with guns and bayonets.”
We cite these dated stories intentionally. They are but examples of the damning indictment against Christianity which has arisen in recent years. In the early part of the twentieth century Christian missionaries were penetrating almost every part of the non-white world with their Bibles in hand and the love of God in their heart. Danger seemed irrelevant to them. Nature and man’s own ferocity could not deter them from their pursuit of hearts receptive to the Christian Gospel. They planted their seed in myriad dark places where it sprouted and blossomed, bringing forth its fruitage of light.
In those same lands today, the tide of Christian faith is receding–indeed, it is receding around the world. Those like Lenin and the African chiefs have multiplied far faster than Christianity’s converts. It is no use closing one’s eyes to that fact. “Christianity” is failing. The hardiest mission societies withdrew from many world areas in the second half of this century and their retrenched lines are still not stable. Christian broadcasters will tell you much about their mission affiliations–but they cannot compare favorably with the degree and success of missionaries just a quarter century ago.
What Has Happened?
One rising influence is the tendency towards national churches, churches which reflect state policy. These nations severely restrict foreign influence in their churches and often ban foreign missionaries altogether. Perhaps the most famous missionary society is the China Inland Mission, and its withdrawal from China is a case in point. The expropriation of Christian missions in India by the state is another. This does not mean that Christianity is endangered in such lands because in most cases the national churches are healthy and vigorous. They conduct much of their own work without molestation and often with considerable help from the state. Two characteristics of Christian society have gone, however. The fellowship of Christians which transcends national distinctions is interrupted, and missionaries, aflame with zeal to win more hearts to Christ, no longer cross the frontiers. (Note: Although we speak about the national churches not being endangered we recognize that this is not universally true. Among other influences, the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism poses very real threats in many parts of the world. In various Indian states it is a literal death sentence to a person to be converted to Christian belief. Missionaries there often serve not only to bring people to Christ but also to provide safe escape to those who are converted.)
Entering the last decade of the century we have watched as each generation produces a smaller percentage of convinced Christians than the previous generation.
The religious background which was a normal part of life one hundred years ago does not exist today. Some time ago we overhead a conversation between a young soldier and his girlfriend as they gazed into a shop window. The girl’s eyes halted on a crucifix. “Look at that little man on a cross,” she exclaimed! “I’ve seen it before. There must be some story behind it. I wonder what it is?” “Something to do with the Bible, I think,” the soldier replied vaguely, and the pair walked on to another window. A poll of high school students shows that 20 percent did not know what Good Friday commemorates.
Despite all the revivals, all the evangelical campaigns, and all the Christian educational tools, a constantly shrinking minority are making Jesus the focus and guiding principle of their life. Believers are increasingly found among the elderly–as though it were a religion only for those who have nothing better to do. Those bands of young Christians who are battling admirably against increasing odds surely need all of their youthful enthusiasm lest they find themselves wondering, “Where is all of this heading?”
That is a great question today. Is world conversion an ideal that will be reached? Apathy and disinterest seem to suggest not. Is world conversion an impossible dream, a hope that will never be fulfilled? Will materialism, philosophy, and scientific achievement continue to supplant Christianity in daily life? If they do, then Jesus Christ and his apostles will disappear into history as insubstantial shadows. They will become as irrelevant to the daily life of future generations as King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table are to our lives.
Such a tragic end will not come to the great events which began in the Roman province of Judea two thousand years ago. World conversion will come; this earth with its teeming billions will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. All people, everywhere, will share in the triumph of righteousness over evil and no one will find that they have tried to live a godly life in vain. The world will be converted–but it may not come in the way that many people expect it to come.
Incentives to Christian Living
What is the incentive to Christian living and missionary work? Jesus’ own words frame our commission. After his resurrection, as he was about to ascend to God, he said this: “Go into all the world . . . and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . . and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8). What a comprehensive mandate!
Today we might rephrase that mandate, saying, “The sky’s the limit.” That is how this command must have seemed to those simple, untravelled Galilean peasants and fisherman. Jesus’ commission encompassed the whole earth.
There seems to be a paradox here. Jesus commissioned his followers to evangelize the world, but he did not promise the followers that they would accomplish that work before his return. In fact, he indicated just the opposite! “When the son of man cometh, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8). Judging from the catalog of disasters, wickedness, apostasy, and love waxed cold which are represented in his latter day prophecy (Matthew 24), it is obvious that he did not expect us to accomplish his commission.
The Gospel Age opened at Pentecost. At its close it will not see the world converted, but a world facing catastrophe. The promises of a peaceful life and of the glorious liberty of the sons of God do not fully apply in this age. No, when this present age closes, the world will be more vigorously in bondage to sin than ever before.
Does the Lord Jesus Christ return to this earth because his church will have saved the world without him? No. He returns because his personal presence is essential to the world’s salvation.
This is the secret behind Christianity’s apparent failure. It was not expected that Christians should convert the world in this age, before Jesus’ return. It was intended that they would prepare the world for his return and preach the Gospel to all the world for a witness. The disciples of Christ are being trained for a more extensive missionary work in the “Millennial” or Kingdom Age. James the Just, first elder of the Jerusalem Church, summed up the matter at the council recorded in Acts (chapter 15). He said that God first visited the nations to take out of them a people for his name… “After this” (now quoting the prophet Amos) “I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David which has fallen” (the habitation of Israel) “that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the nations…”
James outlined a three pronged plan. First, God will select from among all nations those who are peculiarly called by his name. These will be devoted Christians of all nations and generations. They will have lived sometime during the years that intervene between Jesus’ first and second advents. Second, the restoration of Israel’s national existence (land, faith, and sovereignty) will precede God’s new world government because it is a key part in the coming kingdom. Finally, all men everywhere will he called to repent and accept the Lord. This last detail of God’s plan is the time when the world is converted.
History agrees with James’ description. For the first two centuries of the Christian church no one expected Christians to convert the world and present a “finished work” (as it were) to God at the end. Rather, there was a fervent belief in the early dissolution of the institutions and powers of this “world,” anticipating the coming and appearing of the Lord himself in power and glory. This was the anticipated “Second Advent.”
Why was the Millennial kingdom such an important part of their belief? Because the age of Christ’s reign upon earth symbolized the completion of all of their hopes. Wars would end as a result of his rulership, and evil would no longer control man’s heart. In the end, Christ’s reign would even destroy death itself (Revelation 21:3,4). What a marvelous expectation–is it any wonder that it proved such a powerful hope in the world?
Not until the second and third centuries did heretical sects grossly misinterpret Millennial prophecies. They put sensuous, material interpretations in place of the spiritual ones accepted by the brethren of that time. These heresies clouded and obscured the apostolic teachings from popular understanding, and soon they were banished from “official” theology.
St. Augustine lived in the fourth century, and he paved the way for what became the generally accepted belief of Christians for hundreds of years. He conceived that the thousand-year reign of Christ in which Jesus vanquishes all his enemies (1 Corinthians 15:24-28) takes place in this age (before he comes) rather than in a future age (after he has come).
This theory sounded all right at the time. Paganism was rapidly giving way to Christianity. In both the political and religious arenas it looked as though the church was destined to sweep on from triumph to triumph until it conquered the world.
The scenario is not nearly so convincing today. With Christianity retreating around the world, it is questionable whether it can even regain lost ground, much less go on to new heights of missionary effectiveness. The prospects are bleak indeed!
It looks, increasingly, as though the church of the first two centuries was correct! Maybe our calling is to continue the missionary work with as much ardor and fervency as we can muster!
We recognize, in the light of history, that we cannot expect to convert the world. The commission to preach–as a witness–means that we are sowing seeds for the kingdom. As a result, while our message remains the same, our means and purpose is entirely different. In God’s own time those seeds will result in world conversion when they sprout at Jesus’ Second Advent.
You will recall that the disciples questioned Jesus about the time of his return (Matthew 24).While answering the question, Jesus said something significant about our world conversion expectations. You will recall that he spoke first about the events which would occur prior to his return–during the long course of the Gospel Age. Then he turned his attention to the consummation of this age. He told the disciples that they would see a sequence of wars, rumors of war, famines, disasters, and persecutions. These, he said would characterize the successive centuries of this age. Then we read this statement: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come” (vs. 14).
Everything which follows this statement relates to the End itself. We find that there was to be a transition during which “the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 15:11). An interconnected chain of events is set in motion. The gospel of the kingdom must first be preached to the whole world. But that message would not convert all men. Instead, it is a preliminary work for the Millennial Age. After being preached “for a witness” or “for a testimony to all nations”–then the end can come.
In other words, the understanding of Salvation is locked deep within the “determinate wisdom and foreknowledge of God.” It must stay, thus locked away, until the world has been prepared for its own conversion. How is the world prepared? By the testimony to be preached to the “uttermost parts of the earth.”
If we understand what this means, we should have greater incentive than ever to witness to our faith. We need no undue despondency because God’s creation was planned so that it will work right the first time. Present day evangelism’s purpose is to introduce the gospel to places where it has never been before.
If we fail to convert everyone we know, God’s purpose has not been thwarted, any more than the failure to reach every single human being who ever lived in the past is a failure of God’s purpose. The Gospel has been preached, the testimony has been given. A few have retained the seed in their heart. Even if the doors of opportunity close upon them in this life before they have acted upon that seed, we still have confidence that those same doors will swing open again (nevermore to shut) at “his appearing and his kingdom.”
Sure, faith is at a low ebb in this country as in many countries. Signs are that it will sink lower. Our country has had the testimony given to it, and a few remain faithful witnesses to the saving power of God in life, but the tide will turn again. That is the great hope and expectation to sustain faith and zeal while as yet our missionary work goes on. He promised to return–and under the administration of his kingdom Christian evangelism will soar to heights previously undreamed.
In a geographical sense, the Matthew 24 statement has been fulfilled. The disciples set out from Jerusalem and speedily carried the name and the message of Christ throughout the Mediterranean world. Successive generations of evangelists pushed on, but it was not until the phenomenal increase of missionary work in the 19th and 20th centuries that the uttermost limits of the world were reached. It is a fact that the Gospel has now been preached “in all the world” “to all nations” “for a testimony.”
That being so, we may be nearer to a tremendous change for the better in earth’s affairs than is generally thought or hoped. No one will dispute that the world needs help. Man’s prospects are appalling. Even if worldwide war can be avoided in the atmosphere of Perestroika andGlasnost, we don’t have much to look forward to. The deforestation of earth threatens our ability to sustain life upon the planet as we know it. The insidious pollution of our environment threatens, according to the world’s best scientific estimates, to destroy life on the planet in as little as 50 to 70 years. Even a complete cessation of pollution may not be able to reverse that danger. (And the likelihood of that, we know, is nil.) The hole in the ozone layer is only one of many catastrophes just waiting to reach irreversible proportions.
Were we not assured that God shall intervene in man’s life, hope would be nonexistent. Because he has promised to intervene, the future is as rosy as the smile upon a new-born baby’s face. God is determined to save men from the worst consequences of their own folly. This will be an immeasurably greater change in the world than has ever been enjoyed before. Few will he found to criticize it–except those whose interests lie in maintaining and perpetuating evil and evil things.
Paul spoke to the philosophers of Athens in this way, declaring that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Jesus Christ is that person. The time spoken about is clearly that of Jesus’ Second Advent, and “the day” must consequently be the day he referred to saying: “Truly I say to you, in the new world, when the son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).
Such a statement cannot refer to this present age. The last thing a Christian disciple expects today is to occupy a throne, or the prerogative of judging anything or anybody. The Apostle Paul expressly relegates the time of ruling and the work of judgment to the future. “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Corinthians 6:2).
The Apostle Peter’s Pentecostal message relates the start of the “last days” with a great opportunity for salvation (Acts chapters 2 and 3). This is to be the time of the world’s conversion. “In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh . . . and it shall be that whosoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:17-21). This declaration does not stand alone. There is a corresponding call to repentance which alone can prepare the individual heart for the coming day of grace.
“Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Acts 3:19-21).
These passages presuppose a time at the end of the age (the Return of Christ) when there will be a great outpouring of the Gospel upon earth’s masses–and a correspondingly great response. There is definite basis for this belief in the Old Testament. Zephaniah says this: “Therefore wait for me, says the Lord, for the day when I arise as a witness . . . to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation; for in the fire of my jealous wrath all the earth shall be consumed. Yea, at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:8,9).
God intends that a successful day of grace shall succeed the day of judgment which closes this “present evil world.” The Book of Isaiah speaks eloquently on this subject. The great Hebrew statesman saw the nature of that day. Then all missionary and evangelical work will converge into one work of reclamation and reconciliation among all men.
Messiah predominates all of Isaiah’s pen pictures. He is the King reigning in righteousness of the thirty-second chapter. It is Messiah who feeds his flock like a shepherd in chapter forty. The servant bringing forth justice in chapter forty-two and the one bringing liberty and healing to the captives of chapter sixty-one are both alike references to Messiah. “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isaiah 25:9). “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust for ever” (Isaiah 32:17). “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). “Behold my servant, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations . . . he will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:1-4). “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:13).
This is a fraction of the vast store of biblical evidence that a glorious future lies ahead in Christian evangelical work. God’s program will reconcile every member of the human race who has strayed away from him or never known him. Today’s apparent failure is onlyapparent. The Advent of the king will change the entire situation and set the stage for worldwide conversion.
(Scripture quotations were taken from the Revised Standard Version.)
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