Regardless of our theological leanings or methodological commitments, we missionaries are those who see needs and then work to make those needs disappear.
We want to see Bibles where there aren’t Bibles, so we give ourselves to translation and publishing. We want to see Christians where there aren’t Christians, so we give ourselves to learning a language in order to evangelize the lost in a particular language group. We want to see churches where there aren’t churches, so we work to gather genuine believers around the preaching of God’s Word and the ordinances and train local pastors. Spurred on by our love for God and the power of the Spirit, missionaries love to pursue and accomplish goals.
Where do we find motivation to pursue these goals? I could point to lots of verses, but Matthew 24:14 stands out, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
What a glorious promise from our King! It’s no wonder this passage has been a motivation for missionaries and mission agencies for centuries. Unfortunately, some God-honoring, goal-pursuing missionaries read this passage and arrive at wrong conclusions. Rather than seeing this as a great promise, they understand it as a command. In other words, in Matthew 24:14 Jesus is offering his disciples a task to be accomplished rather than a promise to be trusted.
Let’s remember the context: Jesus is responding to his disciples’ questions about the end of the age. The picture he paints in Matthew 24:4–12 is bleak. The end of the age, he says, is full of wars, famines, hatred, lawlessness, and even martyrdom. And yet, this evil and suffering provides the backdrop for Jesus’ two stunning promises. First, despite the opposition, those who remain faithful will be saved (v. 13). Second, before the end, the gospel will be heralded throughout the world (v. 14). Again, these are promises about future realities—not commands, not instructions, not even advice.
Unfortunately, a variety of missions-minded Christians throughout history—from the Student Volunteer Movement to Rick Warren—have adopted phrases based on misunderstandings of this passage. For example: “The evangelization of the world in this generation” and “Finishing the Task”. With good intentions, these movements unhelpfully shift the focus of the Great Commission from faithfulness to finishing.
Matt Bennett has written a thoughtful and clear series of articles titled “Finishing the Task: A Cautionary Analysis of Missionary Language”. The heart of his argument is worth quoting at length:
Matthew 24:14 is a promise, not a command. As a promise, it gives strategists and missionaries sure knowledge that disciple-making labor among the nations is not in vain. . . . The command given to the disciples—and the means by which the promise of Matthew 24:14 might be realized—comes after Jesus’ resurrection, four chapters later in Matthew 28:18–20.
Matthew 24:14 is a promise intended to stir hope and strengthen confidence as we seek to faithfully obey the command of our King to make disciples and form churches throughout the world (Matthew 28:18–20).
As we pursue obedience to the Great Commission, let me suggest one helpful way to apply the wonderful promise of Matthew 24:14: Allow Matthew 24:14 to remind you of the church’s sure and victorious future, especially when your days look like Matthew 24:9–11.
I recently heard a speaker at a missions conference testify to the “unstoppableness” of God by sharing one extraordinary statistic after another. He described thousands of people coming to Christ and hundreds of churches being planted in places that I have only heard about in National Geographic. I hope these statistics are true. And yet, as he spoke, I couldn’t help but think of the hundreds I have shared with who have never given Jesus a second thought, those men and women how openly reject Jesus. I couldn’t help but think of the dear brother-in-Christ who is right now sitting in a cell because of his faith, separated from his wife and kids.
When we see little fruit, when we feel the weight of persecution pressing down on us, when it seems like no one is coming to Christ, what will be our hope? In those days, when present-day statistics seem like a fantasy, when life on the mission field is hard and lonely, what will comfort us? What will we rely on in order to believe that the Great Commission is worth suffering for? I hope the answer to that question is obvious: the sure victory of King Jesus.
As one theologian wrote, “Jesus has foretold grievous troubles for his followers in the days ahead. But he does not let them forget the certainty of final triumph.” Brothers and sisters, Matthew 24:14 should strengthen our resolve to daily put our hand to the evangelistic plow. Whether the visible harvest is plentiful or sparse, we cling to the promise that the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world. We cling to the promise that our King will return.
But until that day, let’s remember that our days will be measured by our faithfulness, not by our fruitfulness, and certainly not by our finishing.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 602.