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Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

It would be proper for anyone making a study of the last things as we are doing to begin with the preaching of the gospel in all the world. Instead of treating it after war, heresy, and lawlessness, we could have treated it first. Jesus Himself made plain in Matthew 24 that the preaching of the gospel has the place of primary importance as far as the end of the world is concerned. He taught this in verse 14: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”

In answer to His disciples’ question, Jesus instructed them—and us—as to what must be expected to happen on earth prior to His coming again. He gave various signs of the end of the world. Here He tells us what the main thing is that must take place, and what the primary sign of the end is: the preaching of the gospel in all the world.

Jesus makes a truly astounding claim for the activity of preaching. He maintains that the end of the world and His coming again wait on the preaching. Until the gospel has been preached everywhere, the end cannot come. As soon as this has happened, then will the end come. God who alone knows the day and the hour of the end, and who knows it because He has determined it in His eternal counsel, fixed the time of the end with a view to the preaching’s running its course through the world. All of the other things that happen in the last days, all of the other signs of the end, are secondary to the preaching of the gospel and stand in the service of the, preaching of the gospel. These other events are tremendous, world-shaking events, but they are all subordinate to the preaching, like satellites about a great planet.

Take the Antichrist, for example. The Scriptures teach that in the days ahead, the whole world will unite under one, mighty ruler, who will oppose God, His Christ, and His church. But II Thessalonians 2 teaches that there is something which hinders the coming of Antichrist, so that he does not arise until his time. The Antichrist will put a stop to the preaching of the gospel, and the sovereign God sees to it that he does not come until the gospel has been preached in all the world. What is true of the Antichrist is true of everything that happens in history between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ; everything is subservient to the preaching of the gospel. Men try to characterize certain periods of history by their outstanding feature. We speak of a scientific age, an atomic age, and the like. A notable historian has written a series on the history of civilization, the volumes of which are entitledThe Age of Faith, The Age of Reason, The Age of Revolution, and the like. But God has revealed that the time from Jesus’ ascension to the end, our age, is “the age of the preaching of the gospel.”

In light of this, it is pathetic, almost incredible, not to say wicked, that there is a powerful and even respectable movement within the churches today to downgrade, and even dispense with, preaching. Churches that trace their ancestry back to the Reformation which restored the preaching of the Word to its proper place at the center of the church’s worship and which viewed preaching as the church’s one, main task are now replacing preaching with dialogues, movies, song-fests, love-ins, activities for social reform, and demonstrations.

But there is another attack on preaching today. This consists of preaching something other than the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus says in Matthew 24:14 that it is this gospel of the kingdom” that shall be preached. The gospel of the kingdom is simply the good news of God’s grace towards us sinners in His Son Jesus Christ. It is the good news of salvation from sin and death and hell in the blood of the cross of Jesus Christ. The message of this gospel is the entire content of the Bible, including the doctrine of the Bible on the last things, but centering always on Jesus Christ, who by His death and resurrection is Savior and Lord.

Yet, Jesus here and elsewhere calls the gospel the gospel of the kingdom. It is the good news about the kingdom. The kingdom is the kingdom of God, not of man. It is the kingdom of heaven, not of this world. It is spiritual, not earthly. The foundation of this kingdom is the righteousness of the cross. The kingdom is the rule of Jesus Christ by His Holy Spirit and His Word of grace. We enter this kingdom, no, we are translatedinto it, by faith in Christ. Throughout this age, the kingdom is established in the heart of the regenerated elect; there is the throne and scepter of Christ the King. The peace of a citizen of this heavenly kingdom is the forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God. The prosperity of this kingdom is the riches of salvation. This is the kingdom that must, and will, be preached worldwide before the end comes. But what do we hear in the preaching, more and more today? About another kingdom, a kingdom that is earthly—earthly power, earthly peace, and earthly riches—a kingdom of man and of this world. The preaching of the heavenly kingdom is sneered at as something foolish, weak, and ineffective.

And so it is—in the judgment of the natural man. The preaching of the cross is always foolishness to those who perish. But God has chosen the foolish things to confound the wise, and the weak things to confound the mighty. In reality, God’s foolishness is wiser than men, and God’s weakness is stronger than men. Insignificant and ridiculous as it may seem to men, the preaching of the gospel of the heavenly kingdom is God’s work and God’s Word in the world. It is not an activity and a word of mere man. If it were nothing more than this, such great things as the coming of Antichrist and the end of the world could not depend on it. But God speaks His mighty Word, through the preaching of the church. He speaks! And that which is spoken is His Word! This makes the preaching of the gospel uniquely important, and this is the reason why the preaching has power to accomplish great and wonderful things.

That which the preaching accomplishes is the coming and extension of the kingdom of God. Preaching is called the preaching of the kingdom, not only because it is about the kingdom, but also because the kingdom comes and grows through the preaching. The preaching of the gospel realizes God’s kingdom in the world. Throughout the new dispensation, the risen and exalted Jesus, having laid the foundation of the kingdom in the blood of the cross, builds His kingdom and extends His kingdom by means of the preaching of the gospel. This is why it is almost laughable that men and women who profess to love the kingdom of God, whose apparent zeal for the kingdom is nearly a frenzy, and who dedicate themselves to creating the kingdom, first of all renounce the preaching of the gospel. It is as if a man who intends to build a house throws away his hammer, or as if a man who desires to give an eloquent speech begins by cutting off his tongue. In the time between His advents, Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, establishes, maintains, and enlarges His kingdom by the preaching of the gospel, the sharp sword that goes out of His mouth.

This also is misunderstood. There is a view of the last things that supposes that the preaching will have such an effect, before Jesus comes again, that almost the whole world will be converted by it and be saved. Because of this conversion of almost all of mankind, earthly life will become Christian. There will be a Christian politics, a Christian legal system, Christian art, indeed a Christian society. The kingdom of God will have come. Thus will be ushered in the millennium, “the golden age” of earthly peace and prosperity.

This notion likes to appeal to the vision of the little stone of Daniel 2, which rolls down the mountain, destroys the godless kingdoms of man, and grows until finally it fills the whole earth. It is fond of quoting the Old Testament prophecy of the coming Messianic age when nations beat swords into ploughshares and the knowledge of God covers the earth. It points us toRevelation 6:9, the vision of the white horse and its rider who has a bow and a crown and who goes forth conquering and to conquer, a vision correctly interpreted as referring to Christ and the victorious progress of the gospel in the new dispensation.

But this dream has no substance. All the Scriptures plainly and loudly testify against it. Jesus’ teaching about the end in Matthew 24 is conclusive. The time before the second coming is a time of raging sin, of false prophets and false Christs, of great apostasy, of terrible tribulation for God’s people, of the necessity of the shortening of the days for the sake of the elect.

Still, we must not react to the various presentations of the kingdom as earthly by denying, or minimizing, that the preaching of the gospel runs a triumphant course through the world. It is not so that the preaching suffers one defeat after another now, but will be victorious when Jesus returns. Jesus Christ is sitting on God’s right hand—today! The white horse and its rider go forth conquering and to conquer—today! The little stone of Daniel 2 is growing and filling all the earth—today! The preaching of the gospel is carrying out the victory of the cross and the open tomb over the kingdom of Satan—today! “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds; Casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God…” (II Cor. 10:4, 5).

But the nature of the triumph of the gospel, the nature of the overthrow of the enemy-kingdom and the building of the kingdom of God, is different from that suggested by the view that makes it all earthly, visible, and tangible. Jesus showed the spiritual nature of the effect of the gospel when He added in Matthew 24: “for a witness unto all nations.” The gospel of the kingdom shall be preached for a witness. God’s purpose with the preaching is not that all of mankind be saved. Who they are whom God wills to save by the preaching is shown in Matthew 24 by Jesus’ repeated reference to “the elect.” Nor is it God’s purpose that the preaching turn earthly society into the kingdom of God. But the preaching must give a witness to all nations.

All of the nations of the world have been deceived by Satan, the god of this world, so that they deny God and hold the truth of Him which is revealed in the creation under in unrighteousness. They all seek their own kingdoms, which are essentially the kingdom of man, the kingdom which man builds, the kingdom in which man’s will reigns, and the kingdom in which man is glorified. In the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom, God witnesses to them of Himself and of His kingdom. This is an effective witness also. The result is that the nations know that God is God, that they are guilty sinners, and that the kingdom which He has purposed in Christ and established in the cross and resurrection of Christ is the true and everlasting kingdom. The Word never returns to God void.

However, this witness is twofold in its effect, according to the twofold purpose of God. First, the preaching is a witness that renders many people in every nation inexcusable. They hear the good news, but they reject it. Therefore, God will be just when He judges them. In fact, the effect of the preaching is to harden them, so that they fill the measure of the cup of iniquity and are prepared for the final judgment. That this is one result of the worldwide preaching is evident from verse 9,: where Jesus forewarns the apostles, and in them the church: “Ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.” There is a witness unto condemnation.

The second and main effect of the preaching is that it saves the elect in every nation, bringing them to repentance and faith. By the witness of the gospel, God’s elect are delivered from the power of darkness and are translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son, as Colossians 1:13 says. They become citizens of the heavenly kingdom already in this life. Christ rules them by His Word and Spirit. They confess Him to be Lord. They enjoy the peace of that Kingdom, the forgiveness of sins. They possess its treasures, not meat and drink, not earthly powers and success, for, as Romans 14:16 says, “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”

This is the primary purpose of God with the worldwide preaching of the gospel. This is the main reason why the end of the world cannot come until the gospel has been preached in all the world: the end cannot come until all those chosen in Christ out of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, whites and blacks, as God’s kingdom people, the Israel of God, have been gathered by the Son of God through the preaching of the gospel. In these elect out of all nations, all nations are saved.

This, therefore, is the coming and extension of the kingdom of God and of Christ in the present age: God’s people are brought to faith and, having been brought to faith, are enabled to live as citizens of the heavenly kingdom in all their earthly life. In the realm of government, they obey the king. In the realm of labor, they submit to the employer, if an employee, or they treat the employees justly and kindly, if an employer. In the realm of marriage, they are faithful to their mate by loving their wife and by submitting to their husband. This is the kingdom and its life now. Another vision of it than this is the ancient, carnal, Jewish delusion.

When the end comes at Jesus’ return on the clouds, He will renew the creation and perfect the kingdom of God in it.

We must learn from this how important and mighty the preaching of the gospel is. The church must preach it in season and out of season. We believers and our children must listen to it. Only let church and believer alike take heed that it is the gospel of the kingdom that is preached and heard, “this gospel of the kingdom,” and no other.

From the fact that by this time the gospel has been preached in almost all the world, we know that the end is near. After Pentecost, the gospel went out to the ends of the earth. It began in Jerusalem and Judea, progressed to Samaria, and then spread to all the world. By now, almost all nations have received the witness.

Today, that witness comes to us. You are hearing it! You—what is your response to the witness of the gospel?