[Note: Our guest contributor, Doug Cobb, is a trained financial consultant who has turned his talents toward supporting the spread of the Gospel around the world through The Finishing Fund. He’s the author of the Great Commission-themed book, And Then the End Will Come, which was featured on a recent episode of Christ in Prophecy. He and his wife Gena live in Louisville, Kentucky.]
What is the most important sign that we are living in the season of the Lord’s return? Some might say the re-establishment of the nation of Israel (Matthew 24:32-33). Others might point to the declining condition of our culture (Luke 17:26-29), or the growing apostasy in the Church (1 Timothy 4:1-3). But, to me, the clearest and most definitive sign is the promise Jesus gave His disciples in Matthew 24:14.
The disciples had been admiring the Temple and its courts, when Jesus surprised them by saying, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left on another; which will not be torn down.” Shocked, they replied, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:2-3).
In response, Jesus delivered what we today call the Olivet Discourse, listing several events and circumstances that would occur before “His coming” and “the end of the age.” But then, in verse 14, He said,
This Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.
In other words, when the disciples asked Jesus, “When are You coming back?”, He answered, “Only after the Gospel has been preached to all nations.”
What Does That Mean?
To understand Jesus’ answer and how it points to His imminent return, we need to consider the concept of “the nations” in Scripture. How close are we to seeing His command — to preach the Gospel to all the nations — fulfilled?
When we think of the word “nation” we think of a country, like France or India or China. But the word has a different meaning in the Bible. In the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, the word translated “nations” is the Greek word ethnos, from which we get the English words ethnic, ethnicity, and so on. An ethnos is a group of people who share a common ethnicity, ancestry, heritage, culture, geography and/or language —an ethnolinguistic people group.
According to “Finishing the Task,” there are more than 12,000 of these biblical nations scattered around the world. Some modern countries have only a few people groups, but some have many. Nigeria has over 450 “nations” within its borders. India has a similar number. China has hundreds as well.
In Genesis 11, God divided the nations at Babel. The Lord saw the tower the people were building to “make a name for themselves” (v. 4). Knowing they were acting in disobedience to His command to “fill the earth,” the Lord “confuse[d] their language so they [would] not understand each other” and “scattered them over the face of the whole earth” (vv. 4–8). Genesis 11:1 tells us that before this time, “the whole world had one language and a common speech.” There were no ethnos. All the peoples of the earth were unified with a common language. But after this, they were divided and scattered.
The Great Commission
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands His apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Today we call this command the Great Commission.
It’s important to understand that when Jesus gave this command to His followers, He wasn’t just making up a challenging task for them to accomplish while He was away. Instead, He was commanding them to fulfill the promise God had made throughout His Word — that the blessings of the Gospel were not just for the Jews, but for every nation.
From beginning to end — from Genesis to Revelation — God’s Word proclaims His heart for the nations. In Genesis 22:17, just after Abraham has presented Isaac for sacrifice, God promises to bless him and to multiply and prosper his descendants. And then He promises, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed Me” (v. 18).
When God says “your offspring” here, He is speaking of the coming Messiah, who humanly would be a distant descendant of Abraham. And when He says that “all nations” will be blessed through Him, He’s promising that His gift of salvation would apply to every one of them.
That same promise is repeated over and over in Scripture. For example, in Psalm 72:17 we read, “All nations will be blessed through Him, and they will call Him blessed.” Psalm 86:9 promises, “All the nations You have made will come and worship before You, O Lord…” Psalm 117:1 says, “Praise the LORD, all nations; sing His praises, all peoples.”
This same theme recurs in the Prophets. In Isaiah 49:6 (ESV), God promises that the coming Messiah will be “a light for the nations, that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In Isaiah 66:18, God says that He will “gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see My glory.” Daniel sees “one like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven… all nations and peoples of every language worshiped Him” (7:13–14, NIV). The prophet Malachi declared, “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets” (1:11, NIV).
We also see the idea in the New Testament. When Peter saw God pour out the Holy Spirit on the gentile Cornelius and his household, he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears Him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34–35, NIV). And of course, in Revelation 7:9, John has a vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
Did you notice the words “all” and “every” repeated in these verses? Over and over again, God declares that His Gospel promises apply to all nations. Every nation — all of them — will be included in His kingdom. At the Great Wedding Feast of the Lamb, when Jesus and His church are united forever, the multitude will contain men and women from every nation on earth. Not one will be left out.
Where Do We Stand?
The Church has been working for 2,000 years to fulfill the Great Commission, and much has been accomplished. But exactly where do we stand in the effort to make disciples of “all nations?”
Amazingly, today there are believers in all but about 200 of the world’s 12,000 people groups. About 6,000 groups would be classified as “reached,” meaning that they have a significant Christian population. Nearly that many would be considered “unreached,” meaning that while they have some Christian presence, it is small — less than 2% of the population. But a couple hundred groups remain that are called “unengaged,” meaning that no one has ever shared the Gospel with them and there has never been a single Christian among them.
As you might expect, these remaining unengaged groups are mostly very small, typically just a few thousand people. They are found in remote, difficult, dangerous places: in vast deserts, high mountains, and deep jungles. Many are Muslim groups. Some are aggressively hostile to outsiders. Most are illiterate. They are the last groups for a reason!
But over the last few years, the number of unengaged groups has fallen dramatically. In 2005, there were more than 3,500 unengaged people groups. Even as recently as 2017, there were still more than 1,400 groups with no known Christians. But today, there are only a few hundred unengaged groups remaining.
One group that has recently come into God’s kingdom are the Gorose, an animist group found in western Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia has a Christian heritage that traces back to Bible times, no one had ever gone to the Gorose to tell them about Jesus. As far as anyone knows, there had never been even one Gorose believer. However, early in 2022, a team of missionaries led by an Ethiopian believer named Amasaganalu climbed the mountain to the Gorose villages. There they met the parents of a boy named Getenet, who had been paralyzed and mute for five years. His parents had taken him to the hospital and the witch doctors, but nothing had worked. Desperate, they asked the missionaries to pray for their boy, and as they prayed in Jesus’ name, God miraculously healed him, enabling him to speak and walk. The parents began to praise God and quickly gave their lives to Jesus! As word of the healing spread, hundreds of Gorose received the Gospel. Entirely on their own, many of the new believers brought their charms and fetishes to be burned as a sign of their commitment to Christ.
That same story is being repeated hundreds of times each year around the world. The Holy Spirit is working with urgency, in places where until recently the name of Jesus had never been heard, to gather in a great end times harvest. By God’s grace, I believe the church will reach all the remaining groups by the end of 2023. We are very close to the finish line!
And Then the End Will Come
This brings us back to Matthew 24:14 and Jesus’ promise that “this Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” When will the end come? Jesus said, only after the Gospel has been preached to “all nations.”
If we are only a few years away from crossing this finish line, could we also be only a few years away from the return of Christ? I believe we could!
In fairness, we can’t be sure exactly where the Great Commission finish line lies. Peter tells us that “the Lord… is patient… not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9, NIV). Even after the Gospel has been preached to every people group, Jesus may tarry so that every person has the chance to hear.
But once we’ve crossed that finish line — there are disciples in every one of the earth’s people groups — the return of Christ will be even more imminent than it has been in 2,000 years. Jesus said that the Gospel would be preached to all nations “and then the end will come.” We can’t know for certain if that will be immediate, but based on Jesus’ promise, the clock is ticking for His return, and He could come at any time. I think it will be soon!