We are the first generation in human history with the possibility of finishing the preaching of the gospel to every people group. Because we are beginning to see the end of the mission, we need to understand everything that is a part of the gospel mission and what the Bible says must happen before the age comes to a close.
The subject of the Great Commission and missions is not just about evangelism. Evangelism is only one aspect of missions. Missions is ultimately about discipling the nations and the core of discipleship is teaching the nations to observe all that Jesus commanded.
19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19–20 ESV)
Missions is ultimately intended to prepare the earth for the return of Jesus, and the mission is not complete until everything is accomplished that must happen before Jesus comes. For this reason, we must understand the redemptive story and what must be fulfilled before Jesus returns because missions is ultimately about preparing the earth for the return of Jesus.
When we look at the Scriptures, there are two key signs that occur in the earth before the return of Jesus:
- The salvation of a remnant in every tribe and tongue (Matthew 24:14; 28:19; Acts 1:6-8; Revelation 5:9; 7:9).
- A global controversy that erupts over the city of Jerusalem (Isaiah 34; Joel 3; Zechariah 14; Matthew 24:15; Revelation 11) and the salvation of all Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:27-36; Zechariah 12:10-12; Matthew 23:39; 24:30; Acts 1:6-7; Romans 11:26; Revelation 1:7).
We are now in the first generation in human history where these two signs could potentially be fulfilled. First, we are the first generation in human history that even knows where every unreached people group is. For centuries the church has engaged in missions, but only recently have we even been able to identify the scope of the mission. Second, we are also the first generation in over 2,000 years to have a sovereign state of Israel and an escalating crisis in Jerusalem. We are the first generation in history with a global controversy over the city of Jerusalem.
Either of these signs would be very significant, but the fact that both are accelerating for the first time in human history at the same time is incredibly significant. That means we need to understand how these two things are interrelated and how the Bible says God’s mission will come to a completion in this age. Understanding this is imperative to understanding all that is implicated in the Great Commission.
People tend to focus on Israel in the Old Testament and the nations in the New Testament, but a careful study of the Scripture reveals that Israel and the nations are woven together in the plan of God by the Great Commission. The Great Commission does not shift the storyline away from Israel. It actually brings together God’s promises to Israel and the nations. From the beginning in the Old Testament the Bible makes promises both to Israel and the nations, however the Old Testament never explains completely how all these promises will be fulfilled.
The Great Commission is not just a command to go to the nations, it is the glue that binds together the promises to Israel and the promises to the nations. The Great commission is the way God is going to fulfill these promises.
For too long the church has treated Israel and the Great Commission as two unrelated subjects when in fact they are part of a single mission in God’s heart. This error essentially comes from two issues:
- A lack of understanding, or in some cases a rejection, of Israel’s ongoing election and covenant promises.
- A failure to apply the Great Commission to Israel with the same zeal that we apply it to the nations.
In order to understand the confusion that currently exists related to the Great Commission – specifically the lack of understanding of Israel’s ongoing election – we need to understand some of the history of the church that has profoundly affected how we view Israel and the Great Commission.
The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 profoundly affected the church’s understanding of Israel. Within a few centuries the church became predominantly gentile and the church began to assume that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the subsequent diaspora of the Jewish people from the land was part of a final divine judgment on Israel. As the centuries unfolded, it seemed increasingly impossible that Israel would ever exist again and therefore the assumption that God was finished with Israel became the view of most in the church. The reemergence of a modern state of Israel in 1948 has been a profound challenge to this theology and is one of the primary reasons why the church is being forced to reexamine how it views the church and Israel.
Another issue the profoundly affected the church’s view of Israel is the prominence of Dispensationalism over the last 100 years. Dispensationalism was a theological system that emerged in the 19th It emphasized that God had a future purpose for Israel but also separated God’s plan for the church from God’s plan for Israel. When it first emerged, Dispensationalism effectively proposed two peoples of God with two different plans of redemption. One was the church and the other was Israel. This theology profoundly affected the western church and was also spread throughout the world. This created a context where people would support Israel but see it as separate from the gentile church and therefore separate from the Great Commission. Over time Dispensational theologians have proposed ways of correcting the error of two different people of God, but the effects of Dispensationalism are still being felt.
Dispensationalism has been so prominent that many people assume that if you support Israel you must be a Dispensationalist. This is why it is important that we understand the subject of Israel and teach it in the context of the Great Commission and the glorious plan of God to produce one people of God – both Jew and gentile – brought together under Jesus.
Due in part to Dispensationalism and other factors, the approach to Israel particularly in western nations has been far more political than missional. To many Christians the question of “supporting Israel” is primarily a political question (i.e. do you support Israel’s government) when it should be primarily a missional question (do we recognize their role in the plan of God and therefore cooperate with God’s plan to bring the gospel to them). In the New Testament the subject of Israel is primarily a missional one and we need to restore that emphasis (Romans 1:16; 9:1-3). This does not make political issues unimportant, but the missional issues must be the priority.
Israel and Unreached People Groups
The church’s pursuit of the Great Commission has caused the church to track the progress of the gospel among unreached people groups in the earth. Unreached people groups are those people groups either with no indigenous believers or a believing community that is so small they are in need of outside help from the global church to spread the gospel among their people group. A people group is considered “reached” when the church in that people group is large enough to be self-sustaining and self-expanding among that people group.
The commission to the church to labor for the gospel among unreached people groups has profound implications for how we view Israel. While there is a vibrant church in Israel, the nation, both in terms of its Jewish and Arab inhabitants, is statistically an unreached nation. It should be part of our global missions strategy on that basis alone, but there is a shocking lack of emphasis on this. No one talks about reaching Israel as a significant part of the global strategy to reach unreached people groups and yet both the Jewish and Arab community in the nation is statistically unreached.
What makes this even more shocking is that most unreached people groups are in places that are difficult to reach with very little access to the gospel. Israel, on the other hand, hosts millions of Christians visitors and tourists each year however it remains an unreached nation. Obedience to the Great Commission means the global church should prioritize the nation of Israel as an unreached nation and support the expansion of the gospel in that nation.
Israel is Deeply Connected to the Great Commission
Over time, the church developed an understanding of the Great Commission that virtually ignores Israel. The church tends to over look what the Bible says about Israel’s covenantal position and Israel’s unique election. The church also tends to overlook the basic fact that Israel is an unreached nation and, on that basis alone, should be a gospel priority.
A proper understanding of the Great Commission is that the Great Commission is God’s divine means for fulfilling His promises to Israel and the nations. In the subsequent sessions we will look more closely at how God predicts this will happen.
 While there is an acceleration in the preaching of the gospel we must recognize that an enormous number of people have not yet heard the gospel and that many of the remaining people groups will be the most difficult to reach. The number of unreached people groups is decreasing, but the total number of people who still need a gospel witness numbers in the billions.