One cannot understand the period of the Gospel Narratives apart from considering the Intertestamentary Period. This is that period of history of some four hundred years which runs from the death of Malachi to the birth of our Savior. Much of Jesus’ teaching remains unintelligible apart from an understanding of this period and the phenomena which characterize it. In addition there are several of these characteristics which have direct bearing on the whole subject of missions.
It ought to be noted at the outset that the number of Jews in Palestine was considerably reduced during this period. Only a few cared to return from the Babylonian Captivity, while the vast majority remained in Babylon. This means that remnants of Judaism were preserved in that Eastern part of the world.
That remnant which returned to Palestine did not have a very easy time of it. They were constantly harassed by the nations surrounding them. So much was this the case that it can be said that Palestine became the battleground of the nations. The Jews suffered terribly, especially under Antiochus Epiphanes, the terrible old dispensational manifestation of Antichrist. Nevertheless, what God did in this period is bring the entire world under the rule of Rome. Thus the spread of the Gospel throughout the united world (Pax Romana) which understood a common language (Greek) was greatly enhanced. There also appeared during this period the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek.
This period saw as well the emergence of two infamous sects against which the Savior directed so much of His preaching and teaching. There was the sect of the Sadducees, which denied the resurrection and the realm of the spiritual. These Sadducees were rationalists, as is obvious from their mocking question to Jesus concerning the woman who had seven husbands. (Cf. Matthew 22:23ff.) There were also the Pharisees. One might call them the “formalistic” Pharisees. These emphasized the external observance of the law and really taught that salvation must be earned by doing the works of the law. The Pharisees were condemned by Jesus in the strongest of terms. (Cf. Matthew 23)
By far, however, the greatest single factor affecting Missions has to be the Dispersion. We have already noted that many Jews remained in the East. They were also dispersed in the West. During the four hundred years, Jews migrated to Egypt, Greece, Macedonia, Italy, and Galatia. The dispersion saw the rise of the synagogues, where the dispersed Jews gathered to hear the law and the prophets read and expounded. It is noteworthy in this connection to observe that the Apostle Paul in his missionary journeys often began his preaching in the synagogues. These dispersed Jews also engaged in a sort of mission work of their own, for many proselytes and “God fearers” were gained to the Jewish religion. All of this served to enhance the spread of the Gospel, which is to the Jew first but also to the Gentile.
This brings us to the period of the earthly life of Jesus, A.D. 1-33. This is in a certain respect a unique period in the history of the realization of the promise of God. It is unique because Christ has come, but He has not yet come in the full manifestation of His Kingdom of glory, the parousia. The prophets as we noted did not distinguish between the first and second advents. They saw only one coming of Christ and could not see, therefore, the history of the New Dispensation which lay between the advents of our Lord. Similarly, in this thirty-three year period Christ has come but not yet.
The period is unique too because apparently the appearance of the Lord has no effect. Jesus appears for a little while and then He disappears. He comes and He goes and nothing is changed, or so it seems. There is no apparent effect, as least not immediately. The only begotten Son of God is born of the virgin. He comes in the likeness of sinful flesh. He preaches for some three and a half years, performs some miracles. Then Jesus is brought to trial before the Church and the world and sentenced to death. He suffers and dies the cruel death of the cross. He is raised from the dead and forty days later ascends to glory. And there is no visible effect.
During this period the Kingdom is not yet come, but it has come near. This is the message of the forerunner, John the Baptist, who preached in the desert: “Repent ye for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (literally, “has come near,” Matthew 3:2). Likewise we read of Jesus: “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:14, 15) Then when Jesus sent the disciples to lost sheep of the house of Israel He instructed them: “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of Man be come.” (Matthew 10:23) That “till the Son of Man be come” means essentially the same as “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” This refers to the imminence of the coming of Christ in all the glory of His Kingdom.
Still more, Jesus often refers to the period between His first and second advents. We may remark in this connection that Bavinck refers to this as the “interim.” (Cf. J.H. Bavinck, Introduction To The Science Of Missions) We prefer not to use this terminology, for “interim” can imply something meaningless or insignificant. This certainly is not true of the new dispensation. Some of the instances in which Jesus speaks of this period may be found in the following passages: Luke 14:15; Matthew 22:8; Matthew 21:33-44; Luke 19:11-27;Matthew 25:14-30. During this time while the Feast is being prepared or while the nobleman (Christ) is in a far country, the guests must be called to the Feast and the talents must be developed in the service of the Lord. All of this is accomplished chiefly by the preaching of the gospel. This period, as we shall see in clearer light later, is preoccupied with missions.
Closely related to the foregoing is the fact that during the period of Jesus’ earthly ministry the gospel is still limited to the Jews. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well: “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. (John 4:22, 23) The disciples were sent to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5, 6) Other passages which indicate the same are Matthew 15:24 and John 12:20-22.
Nevertheless the universality of the gospel is anticipated. In his song the aged Simeon speaks of Christ as “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” (Luke 2:32) There was the visit of the wisemen from the east shortly after the birth of Jesus. (Matthew 2:1-12) This is an example of the Gentiles’ coming to Mount Zion as foretold by the prophets. Jesus told Nicodemus in that very familiar but often misinterpreted text: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The world in this verse is the cosmos. In response to the faith manifested by the centurion, Christ speaks of the “many who shall come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham . . .” (Matthew 8:11 ff)
Again, closely related to this is the fact that the preaching of the gospel is connected with the end of all things, the final judgment of the world. When Jesus spoke of the signs which herald His return at the end of the ages He said: “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.” (Matthew 24:14) In a very real sense, preaching effects the judgment of God and brings the consumation of all things. This becomes the great incentive and encouragement for the church in its mission work.
All of this becomes much clearer after the resurrection. When the disciples are discouraged and inclined to go back to their former occupation of fishing, Jesus appears to them and through a miraculous draught of fish reminds them of their calling to cast the net of the gospel into the sea of the world in order to gather the fish (elect) into the kingdom. (John 21:1-14) Just before His ascension Jesus charged the disciples (and thus the entire New Dispensational Church) in the words of what has come to be called, the Great Commission: “. . . Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mark 16:15, 16; cf. also Matthew 28:19, 20; Luke 24:47; John 20:21) The Apostles (and thus the Church) are promised the Holy Spirit Who will enable and empower them to carry out the task. (Cf. Matthew 28:18; Luke 24:49; Mark 16:17ff.)
From all of this we may draw the following conclusions regarding the gospel narratives and missions. The Kingdom has come near at this time. It comes in full in the cross, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Through the preaching of the gospel by the church the elect are gathered and the Kingdom will come in its final manifestation at the end of the ages. Christ speaks of the gathering of His elect out of all nations. Christ commissions the Church (through the apostles who together with the prophets and with Christ as the chief cornerstone formed the foundation of the church) to preach the gospel everywhere and to baptize all nations. Hence, Christ is the Sender, the One Who gathers the Church by means of the preaching of the gospel. Christ through His Spirit is also the power which makes the preaching effective. Finally, by that preaching the end of all things is affected. The Kingdom comes through judgment.
Let the Church, also as represented in our Protestant Reformed Churches, be on with the great task: of preaching the gospel to the nations. That must be done for a witness. And then shall the end come!