Great Size of the Church
Jesus' influence was not limited to His own nation and time. He changed the course of history. His most visible mark upon all succeeding generations has been the continuing undaunted witness of the church.
Jesus told us something about the future of the church in His Parable of the Mustard Seed.
31 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:
32 Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.
The parable teaches that the church would be like a mustard plant that starts from the smallest seed in the garden and grows to be a tree overshadowing the other herbs (1). Against all probability, the prophecy has come true. Only 120 people gathered in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:15). But within two hundred years, the movement springing from this seminal group mushroomed to embrace multitudes throughout the Roman Empire. Today, the visible church is the largest plant in the garden. That is, Christianity has more adherents worldwide than any other religion. Although the organized church has split into many denominations, the number of people connected with churches that call themselves Christian comes to about one third of the world's population. There are about as many Christians as there are Muslims and Hindus combined, these being the adherents of the next two largest religions (2).
Most commentators on the Parable of the Mustard Seed agree that the full-grown plant is a figure for the visible church during the latter days of its existence, and that the birds roosting in it represent something evil. In the first parable of the same series—the Parable of the Sower—birds represent the minions of Satan (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23). Indeed, many evil birds have alighted on contemporary Christianity. The very next parable of the series—the Parable of the Leaven—confirms that the church will eventually succumb to forces of corruption.
Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
In the Bible, leaven always symbolizes sin. Jesus warns us that sin and apostasy will spread through the lump—that is, the church—until the whole is permeated by it. The prediction has certainly come true, for today most professing Christians have abandoned a truly Biblical Christianity.
Worldwide Scope of the Church
Despite its present sorry state, the church is a work of God. The church displays God's hand not only in the numerosity of its adherents, but also in their diversity. No other religion has won a large, indigenous following in every corner of the world. Christianity is truly transethnic and transcultural.
Elsewhere in His teaching, Jesus explained how the professing church would become so large and widespread. The dominance of Christianity over other religions would come about through worldwide evangelism.
18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
A literal translation of verse 19 starts, "Going therefore teach [or, disciple] all the nations." The verb "teach" is imperative (3). So, here in the Great Commission, Jesus uses the imperative mood when He speaks of the church carrying the gospel to the whole world. He views this work as something we are commanded to do. But in another last instruction to the disciples, He views it as something that we will actually accomplish.
7 And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.
8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
In the words, "Ye shall be witnesses," He uses the future tense in the indicative mood, treating the evangelization of the uttermost part of the earth as a fact eventually coming to pass (4). Thus, He is stating a remarkable prophecy that has been fulfilled within recent history.
The modern era since 1800 has been the age of great missionary enterprise. The gospel has indeed gone to every nation and tribe under the sun. Statistics compiled in 2001 show that the church's goal of reaching the whole world has been substantially attained.
- At that time, 94% of the world's population had a New Testament in their own language, and Wycliffe Bible Translators planned to initiate translation work in all remaining languages by 2020.
- Radio with evangelical programming reached 99% of the world's population in a language they could understand.
- About 94% of the world's population lived in a culture with an indigenous witnessing church, and another 4% had a resident witness provided by outsiders.
- In the 1990s, a broad-based initiative by American evangelicals to reach groups who had not yet heard the gospel was dramatically successful. This initiative, called The Joshua Project I, put church-planting teams in a thousand unreached cultures, about two thirds of those identified, and started churches of at least one hundred members in about half of the cultures where the teams had penetrated (5).
We should not overstate the progress. Although the gospel today is available to nearly everyone in the world, personal evangelism has confronted only a small minority, and perhaps 15-25% of the world's population has never heard the gospel (6).
Yet what has been accomplished so far seems in itself a fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy that the gospel would go to the uttermost part. Within my lifetime, virtually all the last places deprived of the gospel have finally heard it. The rapid spread of a global culture held together by mass communications has probably absorbed or will soon absorb any remote tribes overlooked by missionaries.
Yet many Americans are ignorant that the church spans the whole world. It is a common misconception, for example, that Christianity was a failure in China. The truth is that the church planted by early missionaries has flourished under Communist rule. Estimates in 1984 put the number of Chinese Protestants and independents at over thirty million (7). By 2001, the comparable number was over ninety million, a reflection of explosive growth (8).
Salutary Influence of the Church
As further proof of its divine origin, Christianity has no equal among other religions in its beneficial effects upon society. For centuries, the culture of America and Europe rested on a Christian heritage. All classes of society held the Bible in high esteem, and Biblical values and beliefs became the cornerstone of all thinking. The Christian work ethic gave rise to an industrious middle class that generated more wealth per capita than the world had ever seen. The singing within Christian communities laid the foundations of polyphonic classical music, one of the highest intellectual achievements of human civilization. The Christian valuation of man as a creature made in the image of God prompted the development of humane laws and republican institutions. The Christian view that the universe is constructed on orderly principles spurred tremendous advances in art and science.
The so-called Christian nations have not been unflawed, of course. One reason is that true believers have never constituted more than a minority of any nation. Another is that even the most wonderfully sanctified believers are still human, disposed to many peculiar ideas and practices. Yet it would be a strange person who chose to live and rear children in a totally pagan society—in a society unblessed by a Christian heritage upholding respect for human life. Think of imperial China with its squalor and filth and cruelty. Sentimental veils of forgetfulness have fallen over that bygone world, but anyone who looks behind them discovers slavery, debauchery, polygamy, maltreatment of women, routine infanticide, oppressive superstition, and rigid class structure. Ancient Rome was probably even worse. Besides indulging many of these same evils, Rome provided its depraved populace with sadistic public "games," featuring combat to the death, or the brutal slaughter of defenseless men and women.
The great size, worldwide scope, and salutary influence of the church that Jesus founded are threefold testimony that He is indeed the Christ, and that His church is indeed God's chosen instrument for revealing Himself to the whole world.