What progress can the church expect to make in history? What are the prospects of the church before Christ returns?
There are several places in Scripture that indicate a progressive growth in the kingdom of God before Christ’s return. For example, Jesus compares the kingdom to a mustard seed: “Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches” (Mt. 13:32).
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel envisions a kingdom that breaks all other kingdoms. It “became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (2:35).
I believe that it is very hazardous to predict the future, even with the images that the Bible gives us of the future. Most who have tried to do it in any detail have been totally wrong. It is not for us to know the times and the seasons.
That being said, I predict that Jesus will return on October 25, 2134. Just kidding. Not going to make that sort of prediction.
However, I do think that history has shown us enough for us to believe that these images of progressive progress do tell us something about the direction of history. The movement of history seems also to teach that the kingdom will continue to make progress throughout history before the consummation.
Consider the early church. It grew from a small group in Jerusalem to a multitude of congregations throughout the world.
From there, the church continued to grow until it overran the Roman Empire and displaced the pagan religions there.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian missionaries went out and brought the Gospel to those who had overran the Empire. The conversion of “barbarian” tribes continued throughout the Middle Ages.
Once Europe became free of the Arab monopoly on Eastern trade by using the sea, Christianity began to spread throughout the globe.
Finally, in our own day, Christianity has grown dramatically as the seeds planted by Western missionaries have begun to flower. Even in places like China that became completely closed to Christianity, the Gospel has gone forth.
This progress ought to give us significant hope as we endeavor to minister to our communities and make Christ known to the nations.
When we look at micro-trends that look bad for the church, we need to keep our eyes on the macro-trends so that we do not despair. A bigger picture should encourage us.
It is amazing how Western Christians despair about the prospects of the church at a time when the church is growing like never before. Richard Lovelace was so astonished by this phenomenon that he suggested that it is a “satanically re-enforced ignorance of the church’s vigor abroad” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life [Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979], 150).
There is an important qualification to this positive perspective. This age is an age of the progress of the church, but it is also an age of persecution. “[E]everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). There will be progress, but we should not expect it to come easy.
But we should be encouraged. The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power (1 Cor. 4:20). When we have a vision for doing something significant for the kingdom of God, we can have good hopes that we will see success and blessing on the work.
What we need is a vision for what God wants us to do. The power of the Holy Spirit is certainly available.
This brings us to the question, how far will the kingdom progress before the Second Coming? I will try to give some direction on this in my next post.