Monday, April 05, 2010

Missions in the Very Last Days

I was recently asked to give a talk to the board of a little mission agency on the topic, "Missions in the Last Days." Preparing for this was discouraging; it was one of the most painful Bible studies I've done, but the study was well received and I was encouraged to disseminate it more broadly, so I turned it from speaking notes into an article, and this is it.

To get started, three clarifications:

1. I am not saying that the last days are nearly upon us, though they may be.

2. I'd like to be clear by what I mean when I say "last days."

Hebrews 1:2 says that "in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by his Son... ." So the author of Hebrews says that the days when he wrote were already "last days."

Also, in Acts 2:16-17 Peter was preaching in Jerusalem and said that what people were experiencing was a fulfillment of the prophet Joel's words: "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people." So Peter said that it was already the "last days" in the earliest days of the church.

In one sense, then, we can understand the term "last days" to mean any time since Jesus walked on earth, but when I say the "last days" in this article, what I mean is more what you might call the "very last days," meaning what we think of when we read Matthew 24 or the Book of Revelation.

3. I'm not discussing whether the church will be taken from the earth before the last days, or somewhere in the middle, or whenever. If the church is taken from the earth before things become terrible, then I believe other people will become believers and the church will continue, so there will be a church even in the midst of the worst of it.

So, Point One:

If the Bible passages about the last days tell us anything, they absolutely tell us that these will be times of very great trouble for everybody, and that the church will endure both the trials that everyone else will face, and severe governmental persecution, including the martyrdom of many believers.

A sampling from Matthew 24 and Revelation 6-9:

Wars; earthquakes; famine; wild animals; environmental disaster as shown by a darkened sun, a bloody moon, a third of the earth being burned, a third of the seas turned to blood, a third of the fish dying, a third of the water turned bitter; and - Rev. 9:15 - a third of mankind killed.

In addition, the church will face persecution. "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me" (Matthew 24:9). And, "I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus" (Revelation 17:6).

The picture is of huge, worldwide suffering and destruction, which suggests that the ministry of the church in this time will largely be providing food, medical services and relief. But because of the active opposition of government to Christ, I suspect overt Christian organizations will be shut down and their ministries will need to be carried out underground. And because of governmental opposition and the damage to the world infrastructure I think most ministry will be local.

Therefore, even if the general destruction of transportation did not prevent it, I doubt the government would knowingly allow Christians to do anything - especially anything that might draw others to Christ. So, for example, I don't think we could openly charter airplanes to provide relief for an earthquake in Haiti. Long-distance aid would generally not occur and when it did occur it would be because of governmental inefficiency caused - at least in part - by the general ruin and confusion.

So mostly, I think relief will be local-church-to-neighbor based. And I think this means that to prepare for the last days, we should try to make sure that the church exists in every geographic area of the world so that believers are physically near to those to whom they will need to minister. And I think it would be wise to train churches in disaster relief and encourage them to maintain stockpiles of food and basic medicine to share. Even if the last days are far off, having food and medicine banks would be wise just in case of normal emergencies.

I can think of one possible exception to ministry being local. It may be possible to reach beyond local areas using various media. Today those would include the Internet, radio and television, though perhaps there will be new technologies when the last days arrive. But those media would probably be badly damaged in the general destruction and any Christian use of those media would be curtailed by government, so the church would probably only be able to use such media in a surreptitious way and only if a badly-damaged government is incapable of preventing it.

I think the model for the last-days church will be the church in those times of history when it has had to operate illicitly, such as in Communist Russia, China and Eastern Europe and during periods of persecution during the Roman Empire. I think that now, before the curtain of darkness falls upon the world, that it would be wise to study how the church survived and grew during earlier persecutions.

Point Two:

Because the last days will be chaotic and confused, with the familiar patterns of life upset, government in turmoil, the economy in a shambles, and suffering at every hand, it seems reasonable to believe that people's normal beliefs and attitudes will be upset as well, and that they will be searching for somewhere to turn.

Because of this I think some people will want to hear the gospel, but others - being incited - will become extremely angry, hating Christians in part for the very thing we are studying right now - the "last days" passages in the New Testament.

I think people will point to these passages and say, "Look at those Christians. They're rejoicing in this! They WANT this suffering. They look at the fairy tales in their so-called holy book and say all this pain is caused by their sadistic god and is a sign that their precious Jesus is coming back. I refuse to worship a god of such cruelty! And if they like suffering so much, let's make them suffer!"

Even though we wouldn't be rejoicing in it and even though God is not cruel, I think last-days believers would find that portrayal of Christianity to be very discouraging, and I'm sure non-Christians would be tempted to vent their fury on any Christians within reach.

So, on the one hand, there would be the pressure of persecution from the outside, but most painful, I think, is that there will be betrayal and suspicion inside the church.

Matthew 27:10 says, "At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other."

How sad! Some will turn from following Christ. There will be betrayers and hatred in the church. It will be hard to trust one another and difficult to work together.

There can actually be a strange sweetness in going through shared hard times shoulder-to-shoulder with trustworthy friends, and I'm certain that some believers in the last days will experience this, but sadly, this would appear to be the exception.

And also, Matthew 24:12 says that, "Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold."

When well-meaning Christians are murdered in trying to help their neighbors, I can see why their love would grow cold, but as love grows cold our witness will tend to fade.

Also, while feelings of lostness may lead many to Christ, that same sense of lostness will also make many others open to false prophets.

Matthew 24:24 says, "For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect - if that were possible." And Revelation 13:13 speaks of the second beast, saying, "And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men."

So people's searching, which should lead many of them to Christ, will be opposed by very persuasive alternative religious figures, some performing miraculous signs, and many people will turn to them rather than to Christ.

Fortunately, not all the miraculous signs will be on the side of the false prophets. The church will have powerful heavenly assistance, and there will be a contest of miraculous signs, something like that between Moses and the magicians of Egypt before Pharaoh.

Revelation 14:6 says, "Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth - to every nation, tribe, language and people." And there will be the two witness (Revelation 11:3-12) in Jerusalem, who despite all efforts against them will testify about Jesus and perform miraculous signs, even being resurrected after they are killed.

So, with God's help, but in the midst of chaos and hatred and false prophets and internal mistrust and betrayal, I think the witness of believers who by God's grace are able to keep loving will be very potent as they demonstrate kindness and are able to point seeking neighbors to the Bible and show that the current troubles were predicted and that there is an ultimate hope.


So, what can we do to prepare for the last days? Here are a few suggestions:

- Direct our hearts to know God as intimately as we can, knowing our Bibles and having our convictions based on it and not on a particular preacher or teacher or trend or tradition.

- Keep sending missionaries to every corner of the world so that when the last days come there will be churches physically near to those we need to help.

- Prepare to do local disaster relief right now by setting up food and medicine banks and training church members in first aid and disaster recovery.

- Be as close-knit and healthy a community as we can be right now. Perhaps that can help counteract the suspicion and betrayal that will arise in the last days.

- Study how the church survived before in times of persecution. We may very well need to know.

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