Many of our readers know that my wife and I were missionaries based in Ukraine until shortly before the war broke out in that country. In another post, I have written about how I realized that we were in fact refugees. Since then, I have been praying daily for the war to end and for the restoration of peace in this country. Although a few expatriate missionaries remain in the country, most like us, have returned to their home countries or relocated to another country, often to work with Ukrainian refugees.
We think it would be better for the work of missions if the country was free from the suffering, destruction and loss of life that war brings. If the war would only end, we could once more focus on the work of the kingdom. Before the war, my mission organization focused on equipping and sending Ukrainians out as cross-cultural workers. That work has now been put on hold. Some say it will take 10 years to recapture lost momentum.
But recently as I was reading the Gospel of Mark, I noticed what surrounds that great promise that Jesus gives to his disciples in Mark 13.
And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.Mark 13:10, NIV.
We find this promise in all 3 Synoptic Gospel although Luke leaves it for the final chapter (Luke 24:47). But how Jesus frames these particular words in the Gospel of Mark caught my attention.
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.Mark 13:7-13, NIV.
The promise of the spread of the gospel to all nations looks out of place in this discussion about wars, earthquakes, famines, persecution and hatred toward followers of Jesus. In my thinking, those things need to stop before the gospel can be preached to all nations. At least they should become less frequent. Apparently Jesus saw things differently.
“Despite” or “because”?
According to our Lord, his gospel will spread in the context of great suffering and the ongoing persecution of witnesses. I find it noteworthy that Mark 13:10 begins with “and” (the Greek word καί). Jesus does not say, “However, the gospel must still be preached to all nations, even though it will be very difficult to do so.” No, he talks about the gospel’s advance without any indication that the wars, persecution, and other hardships will hinder it. Is it not possible that Jesus meant that the proclamation was going to continue not despite these difficult circumstances but because of them? At the very least, Jesus is confident that military conflicts, natural disasters and persecution would not interrupt or cripple his work in any way.
There is no hint that these troubles need to be resolved before the gospel can be fully proclaimed. There is also no hint that the gospel is going to miraculously end all the troubles and conflict on earth. The gospel brings shalom to his people, but does not eliminate war. This is again a witness to the already/not yet nature of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is already here, but we are still awaiting its full culmination. See my previous blog post on this subject.
The fastest growing church in the world
As counter-intuitive as Jesus’ statement is, we see supporting evidence in our world today. Recently a friend of mine reminded me that we have heard reports that the church is growing most quickly in Iran and Afghanistan. Persecution of Christ-followers in these places continues unabated. Conflict and war have torn apart these countries, particularly Afghanistan. But here is a sample of what you can find when searching for “the fastest growing church in the world”.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 established a hard-line Islamic regime. Over the next two decades, Christians faced increasing opposition and persecution: all missionaries were kicked out, evangelism was outlawed, Bibles in Persian were banned and soon became scarce, and several pastors were killed. The church came under tremendous pressure, and many feared it would soon wither away and die. But the exact opposite has happened.
In the last 20 years, more Iranians have become Christians than in the previous 13 centuries—since Islam came to Iran. In 1979, there were an estimated 500 Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. Today, there are hundreds of thousands—some estimate more than 1 million. According to the research organization Operation World, Iran has the fastest-growing evangelical movement in the world. The second-fastest-growing church is in Afghanistan—where Afghans are being reached in large part by Iranians.Day 2: The Fastest-Growing Church in the World
Similarly, we have seen the positive impact that natural disasters can have on the spread of the gospel. Our mission organization saw significant advances in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
The same thing is happening in Ukraine, as much as we long for the war to end. There has been a significant reduction of expatriate missionaries in Ukraine in the past year. Many evangelical churches lost the majority of their members and many of their pastors when they evacuated to safer places. Nevertheless, we have heard amazing reports from Ukraine of churches holding multiple baptisms and doubling in size. As these churches have reached out to their communities with humanitarian aid, they have been proclaiming the gospel. New people come to the church to get help, stay to hear the gospel and decide to follow Jesus. A recent article in Christianity Today talks about significant church growth in Slavic churches in the USA, due to the influx of refugees. Many of these new church members were not church goers before the war.
Signs of authenticity
So if the wars, natural disasters and persecution do not hinder the spread of the gospel, why does Jesus mention all these things while assuring the disciples that all nations (all cultures and ethnic groups) will hear the gospel before he returns? On the one hand, he is preparing his followers for what is to come. They should not be surprised or dismayed. They are not to assume that they can delay obedience to the Great Commission until the world is a more peaceful place. In other words, he is helping the disciples recognize that these difficult circumstances will accompany their preaching and actually testify to its authenticity and effectiveness. The gospel has disrupted the world and the prince of this world does not like it at all.
James Edwards in his commentary on Mark, makes the following insightful observation:
the persecution of believers (v. 9) provides the context for the proclamation of the gospel to all nations (v. 10). Once again the sufferings and persecutions of believers are not signs of the end, but signs that attend authentic preaching of the gospel!James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2002, 393.
The call for perseverance
The gospel spreads in the context of opposition to the gospel. Wars, natural disasters and famines do not stop it. But there is one thing that can stop the spread of the gospel. It is a lack of faithful perseverance. So Jesus concludes this section with these sobering words. “But the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). The Gospel of Matthew expands this promise or warning somewhat.
At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.Matthew 24:10-14, NIV
As much as we want to avoid persecution, long for wars to end, and grieve at the suffering caused by natural disasters, we need to admit that they serve an important purpose. They help us identify what is most important. These things sharpen, not distract our focus on the coming kingdom of God. We hear the call to love God and our neighbor more clearly in times of crisis. The story of the church since Pentecost is ample witness to the endurance of God’s people in times of persecution and war. More often that we expect, it is also witness to the spread of the Gospel in times like these.