In his final segment of extended teaching to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus outlined their mission beyond the cross and urges them to be faithful to the end. In response to his prophesy that the temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed, his disciples asked “When will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming and end of the age?” (24:3). What follows in the remainder of Matthew 24-25 is Jesus’ response to their questions.
Matthew 24:14 in some sense contains the answer to their second question about “the end of the age” as Jesus declares “and then the end will come.” Until the kingdom mission is completed, i.e. “this Gospel of the kingdom shall be proclaimed …for a witness to all the ethnesin (nations? or people groups? or Gentiles?)”, the end will not come. Jesus assures his followers that the forces of evil cannot derail or cut short God’s program. Until all the diverse, non-Jewish1 peoples observe the Gospel proclaimed, the end will not occur. Of course, we strive to discern what this proclaiming activity entails and because of this prophesy some urge the church forward in the Great Commission program as a means of hastening the return of the Lord Jesus. However, Jesus probably was not placing in human hands a mechanism to bring about the second coming.
In this context Matthew uses the term oikomenos to represent another limitation that Jesus provides in this answer. The Gospel will be proclaimed “en holēi tēi oikoumenēi”, usually translated “in the whole world”. This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where this word occurs. Mark does not record it in the parallel passage (Mark 13:10). Even though Luke uses this term eight times in Luke-Acts, he does not use it in the parallel passage (Luke 21:13). So Matthew seems to use this expression for some emphasis within Jesus’ teaching.
Before we explore this question, however, we should note that apart from its occurrence in Luke-Acts, this term also is used in Revelation (3:10; 12:9; 16:14), Hebrew (1:6; 2:5) and in a quote from the Old Testament (Psalm 19:5) by Paul in Romans (10:18). It generally refers to the ‘inhabited world’. For example, in Luke 4:5 Satan shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the inhabited world (tēs oikoumenēs).” In Athens Paul proclaimed that God had appointed a day when He would “judge the inhabited world (tēn oikoumenēn)” (Acts 17:31). In Revelation 3:10 John reports that he saw in his vision Jesus promising the church in Philadelphia that he would preserve them “from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole inhabited world (epi tēs oikoumenēs holēs).” It can also have a more limited sense and refer to the Roman Empire. We probably find this sense in Luke 2:1 where the writer reports Caesar’s command that “a census should be taken of the entire Roman world (pasan tēn oikoumenēn).” Perhaps this is also the sense in Acts 24:5 where Paul is accused of being a troublemaker, “stirring up riots among the Jews all over the Roman world (tois kata tēn oikoumenēn).”
When we come to Matthew 24:14, we have to ask whether Jesus meant that the Gospel would be proclaimed “in all the Roman world” or “in all the inhabited world.” Jesus also said in this verse that this Gospel would be “for a witness to all the Gentiles.” Many presume he was referring therefore to the entire inhabited world and not just to those people who lived within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. But it is also possible to interpret Jesus as indicating that “this Gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed in the whole Roman empire” and as this Gospel proclamation penetrates the length and breadth of the Roman Empire, it becomes thereby “a witness to all the Gentiles.” Consider the way that Philo uses these terms. He can define the oikoumenēs as the geography that extends from the Rhine River to the Euphrates River, i.e. the borders of the Roman Empire. Beyond these boundaries exist “the brutish nations (ethnē).”2
But how would the proclamation of the Gospel in the entire Roman Empire serve as a sign or testimony to the Gentiles? Perhaps Matthew by this phrase in Matthew 24:14 indicated that the Roman Empire will not be able to halt the progress of this Gospel. Just as “the gates of hell will not prevail against Jesus’ assembly” (16:18) neither will Rome be able to restrain the Messiah’s program from reaching its goals. The very fact that the Gospel flourishes in the context of the Roman Empire establishes its power. This very fact then bears testimony among all the Gentiles inside and outside borders of this mighty domain that the Gospel is God’s power unto salvation. The mission Jesus is giving to his followers will extend far beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community and have universal reach.
After several verses of bad news – famine, wars, persecution, betrayal, martyrdom – Jesus promises that ‘good news’ will be heralded, presumably by God’s agency, “in the entire Roman Empire.” Mission becomes the primary task of the time between the Messiah’s resurrection and his return. His followers are “to disciple all the Gentiles (ethnē)” (Matthew 28:20) and they are encouraged in their task by Jesus’ prophesy that not even the opposition of the Roman Empire can hinder the accomplishment of this mission.
In three places Matthew used the phrase “for a witness” (8:4; 10:18; 24;14). Some have argued that this should be taken negatively, i.e. as something that leads to their judgment. Others consider this to be a positive action to present the Good News and allow diverse people to have opportunity to respond in obedience to Jesus. Its use in 8:4 describes Jesus’ instructions to the healed leper. He must secure the ‘all clean’ judgment from the priests as Moses had commanded. As they proceed with their examination and discern the leper now to be clean, this becomes “a witness to them.” Jesus does not define the nature of the witness, but presumably it has to do with him, his authority, and his role, as the one who has made this leper clean. The priests have the opportunity then either to move forward and seek further understanding about Jesus, or refuse to believe it could have happened as the Leper recounted. In Matthew 24:14 both elements are probably intended so that the heralding of the Gospel within the scope of the Roman Empire serves as a witness to the Gentiles, i.e. confirming the truth of the Gospel and presenting an opportunity to accept the Gospel as God’s word of salvation or to reject it.
In the twenty-first century we find ourselves still in this era, waiting for the end. If Matthew 24:14 refers primarily to the heralding of the Kingdom Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, this was accomplished centuries ago and demonstrated the Gospel’s power clearly for all to see. The success of the Gospel in the face of the powerful forces represented by the Roman Empire serves for us too as a sign of Jesus’ promise and the power of his Gospel. If this Gospel could prove so powerful in the context of the Roman Empire, what might it do today? Is the growth of the Christian church in China, for example, a contemporary example of the Gospel’s power? Perhaps in Jesus’ words as Matthew records them we might find today courage and renewed hope that this Gospel could be powerful in Canada.
- The New Testament talks about the principalities and powers that Satan uses to keep people in bondage to evil. Jesus presents the Gospel as the source of light and liberation. He promises that his mission will be accomplished. How will this shape your prayers and your actions for Jesus today?
- Perhaps you look out at your social context and despair that the goodness of the Gospel can make a difference. The forces opposed to the Gospel seem so powerful. Let us take Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 24:14 and pray them today.
- Many today desire the church to recover its missional focus. Reflecting on Jesus’ teaching and actions challenges us to embrace afresh his kingdom mission. What will you do today to take a new step in serving God for kingdom fulfillment?