Sign/ Christianity Becoming the Leading World Religion
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
The third Parable of the Kingdom is a vignette from gardening.
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.
Jesus predicts that in the historical period preceding His return, something exceedingly small, like a mustard seed, will grow to be exceedingly large, like a mustard plant towering above the other herbs of the garden.
What is this organism of phenomenal growth if not the church? For the church indeed began exceedingly small, as only 120 in the Upper Room (Acts 1:15). Yet the church—or, more precisely, nominal Christianity—has become the largest religion in the world. More people in the world today identify themselves with Christianity than with 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 (1).
Thus, the Parable of the Mustard Seed is a remarkable prophecy. Two thousand years ago, before the church even existed, Jesus knew that He was founding a religious movement that would continue and prosper until it overshadowed all rivals.
Sign/ Christianity Becoming Worldwide
The Great Commission
Elsewhere in His teaching, Jesus explained how the professing church would become so large. 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 (2). 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.
The commission in Acts
But in another last instruction to the disciples, Jesus views the same work 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 certain future achievement (3). Thus, He is clearly saying that before He returns, the gospel will in fact reach the uttermost part of the earth.
The prediction can be understood in two ways, as a broad prediction that the church would expand to every place or as a narrow prediction that it would go to one certain place. Where was Jesus standing when He spoke? He was on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. In relation to that specific point on the globe, where is the uttermost part of the earth? It is the point on the globe directly opposite the first point. The nearest populated land is Hawaii, which was first evangelized in 1820 by Congregational missionaries from New England. Thus, the prediction that the gospel would go to the one place that could be described as the uttermost part has been fulfilled.
Likewise the broad prediction has been fulfilled. The modern era since 1800 has been the age of great missionary enterprise. Statistics compiled two centuries later, in 2001, show that the church's goal of taking the gospel to 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 (4).
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 (5).
Yet what has been accomplished so far seems in itself a fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy that the gospel would go to the uttermost part before He returned. 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. Thus, no uncompleted task prevents Christ from returning now.
Jesus' last commissions to the church were therefore singularly important not only for the early church, but also for the church in our day. First, they give us remarkable prophecies that have been fulfilled within recent history. Second, they give us another major sign that the end is near. That sign is the worldwide span of the church.