A friend from India recently shared with me that he and his family were “Saint Thomas Christians”. At the time I had not known that Saint Thomas had evangelized the nation of India. I had assumed (wrongfully) that all Indians followed the Hindu religion or were perhaps Muslims. The Saint Thomas Christians refer to themselves in this way because their tradition holds that their ancestors, who all came from the high castes of Hindu society, were converted by the Saint Thomas (the Apostle), who landed in India around 52 AD. History tells us that Saint Thomas died a martyr’s death in India. Pilgrimages to his tomb have always been an important element in the religious life of the St Thomas Christian community. So in the first century A.D., from its’ origin in Jerusalem, the gospel had reached the people living in far away India! Saint Thomas was doing his part to spread the gospel of the kingdom throughout the world of his day. Saint Thomas was fulfilling Jesus’ call to preach the gospel of the kingdom “in all the world for a witness unto all nations.”
Matthew 24:14 (KJV) – And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
This verse in Matthew chapter 24 is often used to encourage Christians to help spread the gospel around the world so that Jesus can return. Isn’t that what the Bible says? Well yes, it is what the Bible says. The Bible does say that in several ways and a number of places. But what I’d like to show is that there is another way to understand this scripture. In Matthew 24:34 Jesus said that all of the events of which He spoke would happen in that generation, including the gospel being preached to the entire world. That is the generation that Jesus was addressing in the 24th chapter of Matthew.
When studying scripture, we must apply the foundational principles of biblical study. One aspect is to look for other Bible passages that address the same subject. In this way we allow the Bible to interpret itself. Hopefully, this will remove or at least minimize our biases and cultural influences. For example, to understand Matthew 24:14 let’s find out if there are other Bible verses that talk about the gospel being preached to the whole world. Guess what? You will find five passages that address this subject. What’s amazing is that all five passages reveal that the gospel was preached to all nations within the generation of the apostles. Here are the five passages:
Romans 1:8 (KJV) – First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.
In this verse, Paul is proclaiming that in his lifetime, their faith was being proclaimed throughout the whole world. Paul used the Greek word kosmos in this verse. The word kosmos can be translated as “world” or “earth”. The book of Romans was written around 56 A.D. Then Paul makes it even clearer in Romans 10:18:
Romans 10:18 (KJV) – But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.
Here again, we see Paul writing to the Christians that lived in the city of Rome. It was “their” sound that went into all the earth – in the first century A.D. It was “their words” that went unto “the ends of the world”. Which world was Paul referring to? The “world” of Paul’s day was the Roman Empire. It was the civilized world of the first century A.D. Paul was not addressing some generation 2,000 plus years in the future.
Paul says this again in Romans 16:25-26:
Romans 16:25-26 (KJV) – Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:
The Greek word for “nations” is ethnos. Ethnos can mean a race, people, a tribe (specially a foreign or non-Jewish one) or nations. Notice that the language here is past tense. This gospel of Jesus Christ was “made” known to all nations at the time that Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans.
Then if we look in Colossians you’ll find Paul making the same point:
Colossians 1:5-6 (KJV) – For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; Which is come unto you, as it is in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth:
There you have it again! The gospel was bringing forth fruit in all the world – in Paul’s lifetime. Finally, Paul makes his point even clearer to Colossians 1:23:
Colossians 1:23 (KJV) – If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; (underlining added!)
What could be clearer? Paul emphatically states that the “the gospel“ “was preached to every creature which is under heaven.” Paul declares that the gospel “was preached” – past tense. This reality of preaching the gospel to every creature was not some future promise. It was a reality in Paul’s day. This is why original audience relevance is important. Try putting yourself in the sandals of Jesus’ disciples – in the first century, A.D. Imagine that YOU are the audience and Jesus is addressing you directly. Imagine that Jesus is standing right in front of you. When you do this, you’ll understand why all the New Testament writers said the Last Days were back THEN. One must define the terms. What did the term Last Days mean to these 1st century A.D. disciples? They weren’t talking about the last days of history or the world. Would that make any sense? They were talking about the Last Days of the Old Covenant age, which ended with the destruction of the Temple and the old city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515
I can understand how confusing this may seem to some people. As we read these passages, some might wonder are the words “whole world,” “all the world,” “every creature which is under heaven,” “all nations” and “ends of the world” really mean the whole world in the way we understand today. Do these words mean the “world” as far as the disciples knew it or just the Roman Empire?
From Greek to English
Let’s dig into the Greek a little shall we? In all of these passages, there are two different Greek words that have been translated into the English word “world“. Paul used the Greek word kosmos in Romans 1:8 and in Colossians 1:6. The Greek word kosmos can be translated as “world” or “earth”. It includes the entire world. The other Greek word for world is oikoumene which can be translated “inhabited earth” or “civilized earth”. This was the Greek word that Paul used in Romans 10:18 when he declared that the “word” had gone out to “the ends of the world.” Jesus used the Greek word oikoumene in Matthew 24:14. Now as we search the scriptures we see that the disciples would indeed have time to preach the gospel of the kingdom to the civilized world of their day. It’s clear that the words of Jesus were fulfilled within the generation of the first disciples. They really did turn the then known world upside down with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When we carefully study the five passages above we can conclude that Jesus’ words regarding preaching the gospel to the whole world and the end coming have been scripturally met. While this fundamental truth has been lost to many today, it wasn’t lost to the early Church fathers. Early Church father Eusebius clearly understood the significance of Matthew 24:14. He confirmed that the worldwide preaching of the gospel and the end of biblical Judaism were fulfilled:
Eusebius – Moses had foretold this very thing and in due course, Christ sojourned in this life, and the teaching of the new covenant was borne to all nations, and at once the Romans besieged Jerusalem and destroyed it and the Temple there. At once, the whole of the Mosaic law was abolished, with all that remained of the Old Covenant. (Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel, Bk. I, Ch. 6, 34-35)
John Chrysostom, another early Church father was the Archbishop of Constantinople between 349 – 407 A.D. This is what Bishop Chrysostom had to say:
John Chrysostom – The Ancient Christian Commentary: You will preach everywhere…..Then he added, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and the end will come.” The sign of this final end time will be the downfall of Jerusalem. (The Ancient Christian Commentary, 2002, Ib:191).
Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D) was an early Christian apologist who wrote extensively on the subject of the logos.
Justin Martyr – From Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number….by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God. (The Anti-Nicene Fathers, 1989, First Apology, XXXIX).
How do more modern sources view the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:14? Here’s what famous biblical commentator Adam Clarke has to say:
Adam Clarke’s Commentary: And this Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world—But, notwithstanding these persecutions, there should be a universal publication of the glad tidings of the kingdom, for a testimony to all nations. God would have the iniquity of the Jews published every where, before the heavy stroke of his judgments should fall upon them; that all mankind, as it were, might be brought as witnesses against their cruelty and obstinacy in crucifying and rejecting the Lord Jesus.
Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary – The Troubles Before the Destruction of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:4-28): The disciples had asked concerning the times, When these things should be? …………What shall be the sign? This question he answers fully. The prophecy first respects events near at hand, the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of the Jewish church and state, the calling of the Gentiles, and the setting up of Christ’s kingdom in the world; but it also looks to the general judgment; and toward the close, points more particularly to the latter……. From the time that the Jews rejected Christ, and he left their house desolate, the sword never departed from them. See what comes of refusing the gospel…….. Our Lord foretells the preaching of the gospel in all the world. The end of the world shall not be till the gospel has done its work. Christ foretells the ruin coming upon the people of the Jews; and what he said here, would be of use to his disciples, for their conduct, and for their comfort………. Christ foretells the rapid spreading of the gospel in the world. It is plainly seen as the lightning. Christ preached his gospel openly. The Romans were like an eagle, and the ensign of their armies was an eagle. When a people, by their sin, make themselves as loathsome carcasses, nothing can be expected but that God should send enemies to destroy them.
Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament: And this gospel-shall be preached in all the world. The evidence that this was done is to be chiefly derived from the New Testament, and there it is clear. Thus Paul declares that it was preached to every creature under heaven, Colossians 1:6,23 that the faith of the Romans was spoken of throughout the whole world, Romans 1:8 that he preached in Arabia, Galatians 1:17 and at Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, Romans 15:19. We know also that he travelled through Asia Minor, Greece, and Crete; that he was in Italy, and probably in Spain and Gaul, Romans 15:24-28. At the same time, the other apostles were not idle; and there is full proof that within thirty years after this prophecy was spoken, churches were established in all these regions.
What the scriptures reveal is that the gospel of the kingdom was preached in the whole world just as Jesus had declared in Matthew 24:14. The preaching of the gospel to the then known world was a necessary part of God’s plan. Since the Jews had been scattered over the world (James 1:1), they all had the opportunity to accept the gospel or reject it. Once the gospel of the kingdom was preached in the whole world, the “end” would then come. And it did come! The “end” that Jesus was referring to was the “end” of the Old Covenant, biblical Judaic system and NOT the physical creation. It was a Covenantal end. Jesus referred to that time as the “End of the Age”. What Jesus meant was the “End of the Old Covenant Age” that THEY were in. This Old Covenant Age included keeping the Mosaic Law, animal sacrifices, circumcision, dietary laws and incomplete atonement.
Preaching of the Gospel Continues
A fulfilled view of the prophecy in Matthew 24:14 should not diminish one’s desire to share the Gospel with the world today. Nothing in this article should be interpreted as implying that the Gospel work is over. The Gospel is and should be proclaimed throughout our world in this present day. The point of this article is that Matthew 24:14 was fulfilled in the first century A.D. just as Jesus had promised in Matthew 24:34. The generation that Jesus addressed in Matthew 24 was the same generation that would witness the gospel of the kingdom being preached in the whole world – the world of their day. It happened just as Jesus said it would. Then “the end” would come. “The end” did come for the Old Covenant Israel. “The end” did come for the Temple and the old city of Jerusalem. “The end” did come for animal sacrifices. When Jesus hung on the cross and said “It is finished” He meant it!