Friday, December 28, 2012

The End Back Then, Part 2: Worldwide Witness

While in Jerusalem, Jesus' disciples marveled at the grandeur of the Temple, but Jesus then told them that it would be completely destroyed. This enticed them to ask Jesus when the Temple would be destroyed, when He would return, and when the end of the world would be. Jesus began His reply by warning them of upcoming false Messiahs, wars, and disasters.

This is Part 2 of a five part series entitled "The End Back Then." The series entries are:

The End Back Then, Part 2: Worldwide Witness
Just how big is the world? That is a relatively easy question for us to answer today, but 2000 years ago that was not so easy to know accurately. Frankly speaking, there was far less reason to know or care about how big the world really was 2000 years ago, and that would be especially true if you believed that God had given your people a select plot of land. We will see some of that geographical bias while we work through this study, as we continue on in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21:5-37 (plus Luke 17:22-37) to review the several signs provided by Jesus which harken the end of the world.

Matthew 24:9, Mark 13:9, and Luke 21:12 are in a little bit of disagreement on the precise timing on the next given signs. Mark, the likely original source for Matthew and Luke, simply tells us that the disciples will be handed over to the authorities and will witness to them. Both Matthew and Luke felt the need to clarify exactly when the witnessing to the authorities would happen, but unfortunately they disagree. Did I say unfortunately? I meant hilariously. Matthew says that this handing over will happen "then," as in after of the wars, rumors of wars, and natural disasters. Luke, on the other hand, claims that the handing over will happen "before all this." We will see why Luke chose the early path in a moment.

The Gospel of Mark was likely the source material for this section for both Matthew and Luke, but Matthew significantly reconfiguring Mark's content. For example, if you compare this episode's text in Mark 13:9-13 with the sending out of the Twelve Apostles on their first mission in Matthew 10:17-21, you will see very similar verses in similar order. But when we get to the "contemporaneous" recording of Matthew 24:9-14, the order has changed, and the words regarding family members betraying each other and how the Holy Spirit will speak through the disciples are absent.

What about Luke? While there is some extensive rewording, Luke 21:12-19 has essentially the same content as Mark 13:9-13, with one exception. But before we get to the exception, there is one particularly interesting elaboration in the rewording we find in Luke 21:15
"For I [Jesus/God] will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict." NIV
Now that would be a really powerful sign of the presence of God! To have God provide wording which could neither be resisted nor contradicted by your adversaries would be amazing. And with that kind of power, the whole world would quickly be converted to believing in Jesus. Of course, that is not the case. There is a lot of resistance to Christian evangelism, and contradictions to known facts and Scriptures are some of the reasons for the resistance. Through God's power, we could not even get the Scriptures themselves free of contradictions, so what does that tell you?

Now, about that exception in Luke; for perspective, let us take a quick look at Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10, giving Mark's Gospel the proper primacy:

Mark 13:10 (NIV) Matthew 24:14 (NIV)
And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 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.

We see that Mark's words are a little ambiguous. What exactly does he mean that the Gospel "must first" be preached? Does that mean that it will be preached before the wars and tribulations previously prophesied, or does it mean before the end of the world? The answer to that question depends on which other Synoptic Gospel you consult. As we can see here, Matthew clarified what Mark had originally intended. Luke, on the other hand, dropped the explicit reference here to preaching to all nations, but preserved his perceived early timing of event. That is why we found the contradiction noted above, where Luke said that this witnessing would occur "before all of this," as in before the wars and tribulations.

Now what exactly does it mean to preach the Gospel to all nations, or to the whole world? If it means to preach the Gospel to each and every person in the entire world, that will never happen, so perhaps we should focus on the "all nations" aspect. Some amount of preaching must reach each nation. Has that already happened? Yes, but in the sense of how the Jews understood the world at that time, it happened much sooner than what we, today, would have thought possible, because their world was much smaller.

There are several references in the Old Testament portraying a very small world, and a much flatter world at that. Just search for the phrase "ends of the earth" for example. The phase itself is nonsense taken literally. It is like being in a round room and being told to sit in the corner. There is no "end" to this sphere we live on, unless you consider the earth's crust as its end, in which case all of the land masses count as the ends the earth. This is a vestigial relic in our vernacular which is based on a primitive understanding. We can only understand it today when taken to metaphorically mean "the most remote places" or geo-egocentrically to mean the places far away from us. But the "ends of the earth" of the Bible had a much more literal meaning, a meaning made clear in the following four representative quotes:
Deuteronomy 28:64
Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. NIV

Ezra 1:2
“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. NIV

Psalm 74:17
It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter. NIV

Isaiah 41:9
I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. NIV
It is difficult to scatter people from one end to the other of a sphere. Cyrus the Great allegedly claimed to be given all the kingdoms of the earth by God, but his empire never stretched beyond the Greece in the west or India in the east. God set boundaries for the earth, which is not logical for a sphere. And in the final quote, it is referring to to return of the Jews from exile; the event alluded to in the alleged quote from Cyrus. Obviously, the Jews had not been sent to the farthest corners of the earth relative to Jerusalem.

Just in case you think this problem is limited to the Old Testament; think again. You find references to the "ends of the earth" in Matthew 12:42, Mark 13:27, Luke 11:31, Acts 1:8, Acts 13:47, Romans 10:18, Revelation 7:1, and Revelation 20:8. Revelation actually one-ups the simple "ends of the earth" by referring to the four corners of the earth, as if it was a square or rectangle. But most significant are the words from Jesus Himself, because He, of all people and deities, should know better. Check out these Jesus quotes:
Matthew 12:42
"The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here." NIV

Acts 1:8
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." NIV
The first verse is a reference to the Queen of Sheba visiting the Israelite King Solomon. She came from the "ends of the earth," or which was likely Ethiopia or northwestern Yemen. That is not even the "end" of the African continent, let alone the end of the earth.

The second verse is a reference to Pentecost, when the Disciples received the Holy Spirit and so they spoke in tongues. Per Jesus' own words, it was precisely these Disciples who would be the witnesses to the ends of the earth, which is laughable given that they never made it to the Americas, or even Australia. Not only that, it seems that Saul/Paul was the main evangelist for the Gentiles, not these Disciples. Yet Jesus thought that these guys would be the witnesses to cover the world. Fail!

Considering this perspective, we can ultimately see how relatively little effort and time would be required to spread to all the nations of the world, at least as far as the Gospel writers understood it. They thought the goal of spreading the Gospel to the whole world was achievable, and achieved, within their lifetimes.


  1. I suppose Christians might argue that even though the authors thought they were talking about a small area, since it was divinely inspired God had them writing stuff they didn't fully understand. The result could be that it really does mean the whole earth.

  2. That is true, and some probably do just that, Hausdorff. Another argument could be made that because they spoke in the tongues of other nations, they were witnesses to those other nations (who happened to have nearby representatives traveling through to hear this tongue-speaking) without actually having to travel out to the other nations.

    Maybe I am being too literal, but I think there is a an inherent association in the words used for these eleven (plus one replacement) Disciples who received the Holy Spirit. You can see their scope laid out in the selfsame verse: Jerusalem, then all of Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the world. They were to be the witnesses, according to the verse anyway. It would have been easy enough to say that the Gospel would spread throughout the world because of them as opposed to them being the actual witnesses.

  3. You are right, those verses really do seem to be saying that those guys specifically will spread it to the ends of the earth. With that in mind, the explanation I provided does seem pretty flimsy. Good stuff

  4. Thanks Hausdorff. That is certainly the way it seems to me, but text is tricky to figure out without the tone and body language to give the rest of the meaning. :-)