Finishing the Great Commission

This post is part of the Series "Israel and the Great Commission"

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The Great Commission is often reduced to evangelism, but when we look at the Scripture in context it is far more than evangelism. It requires discipling the nations to obey 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)

We are to disciple the nations in all of Jesus’ teaching and until we have done that we have not done the Great Commission. Part of this is looking at what Jesus said was required to complete the Great Commission. One of the key passages to understanding what is required to complete the Great Commission is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24-25. This passage – known as the “Olivet Discourse” – contains Jesus’ overview of what is required to complete the Great Commission. The teaching is an answer to the disciples’ question about what we required for the age to end.

3As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3 ESV)

In His answer, Jesus takes the mission to the nations and puts it in context to all that is required to end the age. This is important because the mission to the nations is designed to prepare the nations for the dynamics that accompany the end of the age. The Great Commission is not primarily a call to evangelism. Evangelism is a key part of the Great Commission but simply evangelizing the nations is not enough to complete the Great Commission. Completing the Great Commission requires discipleship. We are to disciple the nations into Jesus’ teaching. Part of discipling the nations is preparing them for the end of the age and the return of the Lord. This is a component of what is required to bring the church to maturity.

In Matthew 24-25 Jesus gives key information about what is required for the age to end and what the church’s role is related to the end of the age. The church will be prepared for her great role in the end of the age by the Great Commission. Because we live in a generation where people are beginning to discuss the possibility of completing the Great Commission it is imperative that we look closely at this commission and all that is actually required to finish it.

Evangelism is a good start, but there is far more that is required to bring the mission to a close. The starting point for understanding all that is necessary is to examine what the Bible says about the church related to the end of the age and then work backwards from that. The end-time church is the mature church the Great Commission is intended to produce so it gives us the ultimate picture of what God wants produced. Matthew 24-25 is an excellent starting point for understanding the mature church and what is required to complete the Great Commission.

Finishing the Great Commission

Matthew 24:14 is a passage that is closely connected to the Great Commission. In a sense Matthew 24:14 describes what is necessary to complete the Great Commission and when Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28, He expected His audience to understand it in light of Matthew 24:14 which predicts a witness must go to all the nations before Jesus will return.

14And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14 ESV)

It is important for us to understand the context of the verse so that we are aware of all that is required to fulfill it. Jesus says that the “end” will not come until this mission is finished. The “end” here refers to the events of the end-times which conclude in the return of Jesus. We are called to disciple the nations to prepare them for these events and for the return of the Lord so this is a key component of the Great Commission.

The Background of Matthew 24:14

According to Matthew 24:14, the “gospel of the kingdom” must be proclaimed to every tribe and tongue. As we labor to send messengers to every tribe and tongue, it is more critical than ever that we understand the gospel of the kingdom so that messengers carry the message that is required to fulfill Matthew 24:14. It is also important that we understand the affect this message will have on the church and the nations of the earth.

By understanding the context of Matthew 24:14, we can better understand what is meant in this verse by “gospel of the kingdom.” Matthew 24:14 is set in the middle of a narrative that begins in Matthew 21 when Matthew presents Jesus as the King who will be welcomed into Zion and will bring Israel into the fulfillment of its national promises.

5“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ ”…9And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:5, 9 ESV)

Matthew sets the context for the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24-25 by describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21. This entry is filled with symbolism about Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem at the end of the age. This is why Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophets to emphasize Jesus as the King who will, in the future, enter Jerusalem and establish the kingdom of Israel (Zechariah 9:9).

The songs that Matthew records are meant to highlight the fact that Jesus is Israel’s promised King who will one day enter the city to restore its fortunes and rule and reign. Matthew recorded this because Jesus’ coming is connected to global singing both in the nations and in Israel (Isaiah 24:14-16; 42:10-13; Malachi 1:11; Matthew 23:39). Jesus is called the “Son of David” to establish Him as the long promised Davidic king. Matthew’s gospel was written to the Jews so He referred to Jesus as the Davidic heir multiple times (Matthew 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42).

Jesus does something shocking after He enters the city – He does not depose Rome. Instead He cleanses the temple, rebukes and religious leaders and warns that He will only rule over Israel as King once Israel is ready to receive Him as King. He concludes His rebukes with a simple promise that the nation will see Him enter Jerusalem again, as Israel’s eschatological King, only when they turn to Him.

39For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:39 ESV)

Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23:39 makes the salvation of Israel a Great Commission issue because the ultimate goal of the Great commission is to fulfill what is necessary for the return of Jesus. Jesus makes it very plain that Israel’s salvation should become one of the primary objectives of the church.

This background is required to fully understand the Olivet Discourse. Jesus entered the city prototypically as its King, but was thoroughly rejected. Jesus’ answer to Israel’s rejection was to prophesy that He would rule and reign over Jerusalem and Israel when they welcomed Him as their King. This is a prophecy of their future salvation and a deep commitment to it. Jesus will not rule over the earth until it has come to pass.

Matthew 24 opens with the painful questions of disillusioned disciples (Matthew 24:3) who were hoping that they were observing the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom and instead heard Jesus prophesy judgment (Matthew 23:36). It is difficult to imagine how difficult this is for the disciples. They thought they were at the beginning of the kingdom and now they are confused and in pain.

3As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3 ESV)

They had just seen His entry into Jerusalem in the exact manner the prophet had prophesied the King would enter (Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:5) and yet Jesus is warning that it is not time for His rule to begin in Jerusalem. Confused and shattered, they turned to Jesus to ask when He would inaugurate His Kingdom in Israel. If this prophesied entry into Jerusalem is not the inauguration of Jesus’ rule on the earth – His Millennial kingdom – then what is required for His rule to begin? This question sets up Jesus’ answer in Matthew 24-25. The disciples did not yet understand that Jesus was leaving and would return. When they asked about His coming, they were asking about His coming as King of Israel.

Matthew 24 is in the context of the expectation of the promised kingdom of Israel. Jesus is giving assurance that the kingdom promised by the prophets will come just as it was prophesied, after events take place that must precede the beginning of Jesus’ rule from Jerusalem. Jesus does not correct the disciples’ expectation of a national kingdom; instead He corrects their timing by giving specific indicators that help the disciples understand when they should expect to see the kingdom restored to Israel. This is similar to what He does in Acts 1:6-8.

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6–8 ESV)

The Gospel of the Kingdom

14And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14 ESV)

It is important to understand what “this gospel of the kingdom” refers to. There are many aspects of the kingdom that are all good news, but Jesus had one specific message in mind. The events of Matthew 21-23 set the focus on when and how Jesus will establish His kingdom in Jerusalem. The good news Jesus refers to in Matthew 24:14 is that Jesus would rule over the nations from Jerusalem. This is the message we must carry to the nations to fulfill the Great Commission.

The “good news” proclaimed by all the prophets is that a day is coming when Israel will be brought into fullness as the head of the nations under the leadership of the Messiah. This good news of Israel’s salvation and glorious future must go to all the nations because it is directly connected with the rule and reign of Messiah.

Every tribe and tongue has to hear the good news that all the promises the prophets made regarding Israel’s King will come to pass, and Jerusalem will be made a praise in all the earth (Isaiah 62:7). These promises are central to the gospel – the “good news” – that we are to carry to the nations. This is why we must understand these promises and be familiar with them.

When we preach the gospel, we give people hope, but what kind of hope are we giving? We must give them the biblical hope. The biblical gospel is more than the gospel of personal salvation. It is the hope of a coming King who will save Israel and the nations. It is not enough to carry a message of individual salvation. We are called to declare Jesus to the nations as a King just as the apostles did.

7and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” (Acts 17:7 ESV)

Central to the subject of Jesus the King is Jesus as the King of Israel. This is especially apparent in the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ crucifixion is one of the holiest moments in all of history. Every detail is incredibly significant. It is an ultimate demonstration of the nature of God. The question of Jesus as the “King of Israel” is one of the primary themes of the crucifixion (Matthew 27:11, 29, 37, 42; Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32, Luke 23:2, 3, 37, 38; John 18:33, 37, 39; 19:3, 14, 15, 19, 21), and His identity as King of Israel is central in the crucifixion narratives.

11Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” (Matthew 27:11 ESV)

29and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:29 ESV)

37And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (Matthew 27:37 ESV)

3And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” (Luke 23:3 ESV)

14Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” (John 19:14 ESV)

Jesus died under a sign that said “King of the Jews.”

19Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19 ESV)

37And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (Matthew 27:37 ESV)

26And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” (Mark 15:26 ESV)

38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:38 ESV)

Every detail of the crucifixion was carefully prepared by God. Jesus could have died under any sign, but this is what the Father chose for Him. God wanted Jesus identified as King of Israel. This means His identity as the King of Israel is not a secondary issue; it is central to Jesus’ identity as a man. This also means it is central in the proclamation of the gospel.

The good news is more than personal redemption, it is God’s commitment to fulfill all that He has prophesied and, in so doing, end this age and usher in a glorious age where the King of Israel rules over all the nations from Jerusalem. The end of the Great commission is a gentile people in the nations of the earth who are rejoicing not only at the news of a Savior from sin, but at the news of a Savior for Israel who will fulfill all the biblical promises.

Before He appears to crush all His enemies, He will offer every nation the chance to turn from their sin and embrace Him as Lord. This is the Lord’s mercy. He will not judge the nations until they have a chance to hear both the offer of mercy and the warning of judgment. Because He has chosen to return as Israel’s King, part of gentile repentance is receiving Him as Israel’s King. When the nations fail to receive Him that way, whether through ignorance or neglect, they have believed an incomplete gospel because they have not fully accepted Him as He has revealed Himself to be.

To fulfill Matthew 24:14, this kingdom must be proclaimed to the nations. The message of individual salvation is glorious and necessary, but it is not enough to fulfill all that is included in Matthew 24:14 and all that is required by the Great Commission.

The Gospel Must be Preached

14And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14 ESV)

The gospel of the coming King must be “proclaimed” throughout the world. The word “proclaimed” is an important world. It typically referred to the activity of a “herald.” Heralds were necessary in the ancient world to proclaim the message of the king. Because there was no amplification and no media in the ancient world, a herald with a loud voice was used to carry and proclaim messages from the king that needed to be given to the people. Heralds were people who carried a leader’s message and proclaimed it loudly so that the people could hear it and respond. Matthew 24:14 tells us that, even in a generation of mass media, God still wants flesh and blood messengers. He wants people to encounter believers who are living demonstrations of the power of God carrying the message of God.

Before Jesus emerged in public ministry, God sent a man named John to prepare the people to meet Jesus. In the same way, God will prepare the nations for the return of Jesus. The ministry of the church in the earth is God’s method of preparing the nations for the return of Jesus. This is why the church is commissioned to declare the nature of Jesus, offer the nations mercy, and warn the nations of judgment.

The result of the Great Commission will be that the nations are prepared for the return of Jesus. This is an aspect of the Great Commission that is often overlooked. By discipling the nations into all that Jesus taught we are essentially preparing the nations for the moment when Jesus returns. When we engage in the Great Commission we are ultimately preparing individuals and nations to receive Him.

Just as John called Israel to come into agreement with who God is before Jesus began His ministry, we also are calling the nations to come into agreement with Jesus before He returns and releases His judgments. In order to understand the end of the Great Commission we have to understand that this is its primary goal. When it is finished the nations are prepared for the return of Jesus. This has significant implications for how we understand the Great Commission and for all that is required by the Great Commission.

Just as John the Baptist was sent in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, messengers in that same spirit of John the Baptist will go throughout the nations to prepare the way of the Lord by warning the nations to repent before the coming of the King. John’s own ministry demonstrated that He was a foreshadowing of a ministry to come. He is a prototype that we should understand. God carefully prepared Israel for Jesus’ first coming and He will carefully prepare the nations for Jesus’ second coming. This is why Jesus said that Elijah had come in the person of John the Baptist, but also that he would come in the future (Matthew 17:10-12).

These church will define the final crisis of this age for the nations before the final crisis begins. They will warn the nations that God is going to fulfill His covenant with Israel and the nations and send His Son to rule from Jerusalem. The nations will be warned to be in agreement with God’s plans and purposes.

When the time for the Exodus came, Pharaoh was not confused as to who was troubling Egypt nor about what God wanted. God does not release His judgments in the earth until the nations are warned. We have the same mission – we are to warn the nations about God’s desires and intentions concerning Israel and the nations. Jesus has been clear about His zeal and plan for Israel and the nations and we are called to speak to the nations about this because the Great Commission requires speaking about all that Jesus commanded.

The Great Commission is a Testimony to all Nations Before the End Will Come

14And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14 ESV)

The preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to all the nations is not just a mercy strategy for the nations, it is also a warning to the nations.

The word “testimony” in Matthew 24:14 is the Greek word μαρτύριον (marytrion). This word is used to refer to a witness given by an individual who has first-hand evidence of a matter and can be a legal witness to the truth. The idea of this word is a person that could be put on the stand in a court as a witness. This means the messengers who fulfills Matthew 24:14 must have first-hand knowledge of the message as a witness does of an event. This will require an intimate relationship with Jesus. It requires an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures. They must know Him and what He has said if they are going to prepare the nations for Him.

When God judges the nations, they will be without excuse because they heard the proclamation of these messengers. These messengers are God’s mercy ministry to the nations. Imagine what it will be like when the nations stand before God for judgment with these messengers standing in condemnation of the nations as God’s evidence that the nations being judged had a witness.

The phrase “the end will come” can also be translated as “God will finish everything.” In other words, God will not finish everything until the witness of Matthew 24:14 is preached in the nations. What does it mean to “finish everything?” It means for the final events of the end of the age to occur. This is why we must join Matthew 24:14 to Matthew 24:15 to understand all that is required to give a testimony to the nations.

Matthew 24:14 and Matthew 24:15

15“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), (Matthew 24:15 ESV)

In the same way that what comes before Matthew 24:14 is key to understanding the passage, what comes after Matthew 24:14 is also key to understanding the mission of Matthew 24:14. Matthew 24:15 begins with the word “so” or “therefore” (NKJV, NASB) which is a connecting word. In other words, it means that verse 15 is a result of verse 14. They are directly connected.

15“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), (Matthew 24:15 ESV)

Verse 15 does not happen without verse 14. This means verse 14 is intended by God to prepare the earth for verse 15. The mission of Matthew 24:14 must prepare the nations for the events of Matthew 24:15 and the verses that follow. To say it another way, until the nations are prepared for verse 15 and following by the witness that verse 14 predicts, those events will not happen. God is far too kind to allow the final hour of crisis to come on the earth before the nations are prepared.

To fulfill Matthew 24:14, there must be a message carried into the nations that prepares the nations for everything that is implicated in the abomination that Jesus refers to in verse 15. For example, this means we must understand the abomination and the book of Daniel. We cannot prepare the nations for it if we do not understand it. The nations must be warned not only to personally repent of their sin, but also to not join a wicked man when he goes down to Jerusalem and leads the nations in a rage against Jesus by opposing God’s plans for the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish people

This is why we cannot understand the mission to go to every last tribe and tongue without understanding the eschatological landscape in which the mission is completed. Our missiology must be the gospel of the kingdom, and it must prepare the earth for the abomination and the final siege of Jerusalem.

If our labor in the nations does not prepare the nations for what Jesus predicts in Matthew 24:15 and the verses following, then it does fulfill Matthew 24:14 no matter how many geographic regions we reach. Only the full gospel of the kingdom in agreement with God’s end-time purposes can fulfill the ultimate mission of the Great Commission. The Great Commission is not finished until the church is prepared for all of this and the nations have a witness to prepare them for what is coming. This understanding gives focus to our missions work. It begins with evangelism and church planting, but then must move to discipleship and that discipleship must ultimately bear this fruit. If our missions work does not achieve this objective, it is not the fulfillment of Matthew 24:14 because we have not prepared the nations for Gods agenda at the end of the age.

Matthew 24:14 should be a primary objective for the church. However, it cannot be oversimplified to mean that evangelization of the gentiles will automatically result in Jesus’ return. Instead we must see that the salvation of the nations is directly connected to Israel’s storyline and the time when God will suddenly and dramatically bring to conclusion His plan for Israel and the nations. In His mercy, He will not allow the end to come until the nations are ready to cooperate with His purposes for Jerusalem and for Israel.

In light of Matthew 24:14, we can summarize the Great Commission as a three-fold task:

  1. Expand the church by evangelism.
  2. Prepare the church for the return of Jesus and all that it entails through understanding of God’s plan.
  3. Warn the nations to cooperate with God’s end-time agenda.

Preparing the Nations for Jesus’ Judgment

Matthew 24:15 begins Jesus’ description of what the Great Commission must prepare the nations for. Jesus’ teaching on this subject extends all the way to the end of Matthew 25. Matthew 24-25 tend to be divided up and studied as separate passages but the two chapters are one sermon by Jesus. The first part of Matthew 24 is Jesus’ introduction and the end of Matthew 25 is Jesus’ conclusion. We can summarize the sermon as follows:

  • Matthew 24:3-31 – Jesus predicts themes, trends, and events before and during the end times.
  • Matthew 24:32-25:30 – Jesus gives pastoral instructions on how to understand and respond to the end times along with several parables teaching how we should live in light of end time events.
  • Matthew 25:31-46 – Jesus concludes His teaching with His dramatic judgment of the nations. This is the climax of His entire teaching. The previous two sections build towards this conclusion.

Matthew 25:31-46 in particular tends to be treated as a separate passage, but it is intimately connected to the rest of the message. In this section Jesus predicts His judgment of the nations.

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:31–32 ESV)

This judgment is the conclusion of the entire discourse. It is not an isolated event, nor a parable. It is a literal event and we must understand it because the Great Commission is intended to prepare the nations for this judgment. As we have said before, we must disciple nations into all that Jesus taught and Jesus’ teaching on the judgment of the nations is a key part of that.

In His kindness, Jesus is giving us the details of His judgment ahead of time so we can prepare the nations for what they will face when Jesus returns. He is warning us ahead of time how He will judge so that we can prepare the nations to receive reward rather than punishment at His judgment. He is like a professor giving away the final exam ahead of time. What’s especially shocking about this passage is how little attention it is given and how often it is disconnected from the rest of Jesus’ teaching in this passage.

Often Jesus’ prophecy of judgment is shrouded in mystery because we do not consider the part that it plays in the entire discourse. It also is sometimes regulated to an “end times” event that may be more parabolic than literal. However, Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 25 is completely literal. He is going to judge the nations and this passage describes that event. To properly understand Jesus’ method of judgment we must correctly understand the phrase “My brethren” that Jesus uses in verse 40 and 45 because Jesus’ judgment of the nations is in context to how the nations have treated His brethren. Jesus makes the nations’ treatment of “His brethren” equivalent to the nation’s treatment of Himself.

40And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’…45Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40, 45 ESV)

In light of the magnitude of Jesus’ judgment of the nations, it is critical that we understand who He is referring to and what is serving as the basis for His judgment of the nations. Many people treat this passages as if understanding it is not essential, but understanding it is incredibly important. Jesus never intended that we would be confused about He will judge and therefore unable to prepare the nations for His judgments.

Who Are “My Brethren?”

Throughout history, commentators have interpreted the phrase “My brethren[1]” in multiple ways. Some have argued that Jesus was speaking directly of the Jews, the ones that are physically His brethren, while others have seen the phrase as a reference to the apostles, all those who follow Jesus, or the poor and the suffering in general.

While ministry to believers and to the poor in general are certainly important secondary interpretations that are supported by other passages in Scripture, this passage has a very specific application at the return of Jesus. When we see the passage in its full context, it becomes very clear whom Jesus is referring to. These brethren are not Jesus’ brethren because they are suffering; instead they are suffering because they are Jesus’ brethren. That is an important distinction that takes us back to the beginning of the Olivet Discourse and Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24:21 of a time of unequaled trouble.

We find the warning of a time of unequaled trouble prophesied in a Jerusalem-centric context where Jesus has reaffirmed the abomination in the temple prophesied by Daniel and given very specific warnings to those in Jerusalem at the end of the age. Jesus’ teaching puts Jerusalem and the Jewish people front and center through the entire discourse as He gazes upon the city full of emotion (Matthew 23:37-38).

This context helps us begin to understanding who “My brethren” along with other factors that affect the interpretation of the passage. We cannot examine every factor in detail, but we should be familiar with some of the factors to understand what Jesus is saying to that we can properly apply it to the Great Commission.

This group Jesus calls His brethren are separate and distinct from the righteous and the unrighteous that He gathers out of the nations (Matthew 25:32). In addition, Jesus is gazing towards Jerusalem while sitting on the Mount of Olives, He intentionally says “these My brethren” and not “you My brethren.” If Jesus had wanted to focus in on the apostles, He could have used a word such as ὑμᾶς to indicate “you” but instead He used the word τούτων to indicate “these.” The Jerusalem-centric context of the discourse and Jesus’ use of the word “these” make is clear that Jesus has in mind His Jewish brethren when He speaks of His brethren.

Genesis 12 is important because it gives us the foundation for God’s judgment. God was very clear that His blessing would remain on those that blessed Abraham and His curse would be on those that cursed Abraham. His promise and warning form the basis of His judgment of the nations. This is the first hint in Scripture that this age is going to conclude in such a way that God can judge on how the nations respond to God’s plan for Abraham’s descendants.

3I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3 ESV)

Matthew 25:31-46 is a very clear prophecy, but it is also not a new prophecy. Jesus was enforcing and giving definition to an event that had already been prophesied in the Old Testament. The primary thing that Jesus adds to what had already been prophesied is the clear insertion of Himself as the Judge. By putting Matthew 25 in the context of what had been previously prophesied, the judgment becomes even clearer. Jesus would have expected His audience to read into His teaching all that the prophets had already prophesied about the event.

Joel 3 is one of the clearest Old Testament prophesies about this event and that prophesy makes it completely clear who Jesus’ brethren are.

1“For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, 2I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, 3and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it…12Let the nations stir themselves up and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations…14Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision…16The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But the Lord is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel. (Joel 3:1-3, 12, 14, 16 ESV)

Both Jesus’ prophesy and the way He delivered it caused the apostles to interpret all of it as a reference to the judgment of Joel 3. The location of Jesus’ prophecy sets it in the context of Joel 3 because when He gave the Olivet Discourse, Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Valley of Jehoshaphat facing Jerusalem.

When He said he would gather the goats at His left hand, His left hand was pointing toward the valley of Gehenna which was Jesus’ consistent reference place for the fire of eternal punishment. The disciples understood the symbolism and the seriousness of what Jesus was saying. Jesus was acting out Joel’s prophesied day of judgment in front of them and acting as the one who was the Judge. The apostles did not miss the symbolism.

Joel’s prediction that the “captives” of Judah and Jerusalem are regathered at the end of the age reveals Israel’s condition at the end of the age. It is obvious that they have just undergone a trial at the hands of the nations. This fact alone connects the phrase “My brethren” to Jesus, just as Isaiah prophesied:

9In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9 ESV)

Joel 3 is not an isolated Scripture related to how the Lord will judge the nations. For example, Isaiah referred to God’s day of judgment as the day of recompense, or repayment, for the cause of Zion. In other words, God will repay the nations according to His purpose for Zion and how they responded to those purposes. This is not an isolated prediction. Throughout the Scripture, we are told a day is coming when God judges the nations related to Israel (Isaiah 63:1-8; Ezekiel 36:2-3, 5-7; Micah 4:6-12; Zephaniah 2:4–11; Zechariah 1:14-17; 14:2-3, 12-13)

2For the Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter. 3Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood…5For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction…8For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion. (Isaiah 34:2-3, 5, 8 ESV)

In the Old Testament the term “brethren” was an understood term used to refer to the Jewish people. Jesus was using familiar language when He used that term and the apostles would have clearly understood it to refer to the Jews.

3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. (Micah 5:3 ESV)

When Matthew 25:31-46 is examined in its entire context, it becomes very clear that Jesus set His judgment of the nations in context to the Day of the Lord and His salvation of Israel. Israel will face its most fierce trial at the end of the age and that will be following quickly by a fierce judgment of the nations.

The Earth Will be Judged on One Question

When we look at Matthew 25:31-46 in context to the rest of Scripture, it gives us a staggering prediction: the dynamics on the earth are going to shift in such a way that Jesus can judge all the nations on one question, “how did you respond to my brethren?” This means we must prepare the church and the nations to answer this question successfully as part of the Great Commission. If our discipling of nations is not preparing the nations to survive the Lord’s judgment, then it is incomplete.

Jesus’ question also gives us tremendous insight into what is coming on the earth. It means the church is going to face an unimaginable conflict over Israel’s salvation. The fact that Jesus can evaluate the nations on one question means that this will become the most difficult issue in the earth. It means a day is coming when the issues that seem so difficult to stand for will be eclipsed by this issue. A day is coming when being faithful to God’s purposes for Israel will become so difficult those who stand with Him will keep the rest of His commands and those who do not stand with Him will not keep the rest of His commandments. Preparing the church and warning the nations about this conflict is a key part of the Great Commission.

The ultimate conflict in the nations is over Jesus, but the nations will release their rage against the salvation of Israel because it is associated with the rule of Jesus and the release of His judgments on the nations. We have to understand that, in resisting God’s plan to save Israel, the nations will be resisting Him.

1Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?…6“As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psalm 2:1, 6 ESV)

39For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” (Matthew 23:39 ESV)

The Old Testament predicts that God judges the nations based on how they have treated Israel (Psalm 68; 102:12-17; Isaiah 34; 49:25-26; 51:21-23; 63:1-8; 66:5-6; Jeremiah 46:27-28; 48; 49:1-6; Ezekiel 25-26; 28:20-26; 34; 36; 38-39; Joel 3; Amos 1:2-3:3; Micah 4:6-13; Zechariah 14:1-15). Paul taught us that God’s plan ends with Israel’s salvation (Romans 11:25-26), so this will be a time when the nations will strongly resist the salvation of Israel. We have been warned ahead of time so that we will understand the unique dynamics of Israel’s salvation and its relationship to the salvation of the nations.

The Great Commission – More than Evangelism

Part of understanding God’s plan for Israel and the nations is understanding how the Great Commission prepares the nations for the conclusion of God’s plan. We must give the nations understanding of God’s plan to bring Israel to salvation, the rage that will come against Israel’s salvation, and the role that the nations plan in that salvation. It is important to understand what Jesus says about the end of the age because this is what we are building the church towards. The purpose of the Great Commission ultimately is to prepare the nations for Jesus. One way we do this is by understanding what Jesus says will come and preparing the church for that.

The is why Matthew 24-25, the Olivet Discourse, is a critical passage for understanding the Great Commission. Matthew 24:14 gives us quite a bit of insight into the Great Commission and what is necessary to fulfill it. The judgement of Matthew 25 also tells us what we must prepare the nations for.

We are used to thinking of the Great Commission only as evangelism and only as something that affects the nations. In reality evangelism is the beginning of the Great Commission but it goes much deeper than that. We are preparing the nations for a glorious plan in which the salvation of Israel and the salvation of the nations are inseparably joined. The Great Commission sets the context for that to happen and therefore we must engage in it with understanding and with all our strength.

[1] The word “brethren” here is a generic Greek word for actual brothers (ἀδελφός) that can also include “brothers and sisters.” In the New Testament it is sometimes also used of the relationship of believers to each other as “brothers and sisters.”

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