Jack M. Lane
Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God, taught for many years that, as part of the Great Commission, he and his Church were to preach the gospel to the world for a witness, and then the end would come. Some claim he completed this preaching mission. But the end has not yet come. Is something wrong?
Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA), the late founder and chancellor of Ambassador College, pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) and, in many people's opinion, the most famous Sabbath-keeping minister of this century, was absolutely convinced of one thing: God had selected him to head up a worldwide expansion of the church during this era. There is no doubt that he was very successful at doing exactly that!
Armstrong strongly believed that Christ would be returning in power and glory during the lifetime of the people who heard HWA preach. He said on a number of occasions that he believed he would be alive at Christ's coming, and indicated that he thought he would be leading the church into a place of safety just before the Great Tribulation began. Unfortunately, HWA appears to have been wrong regarding this aspect of his ministry.
Year after year, Armstrong reminded us of the Great Commission Christ gave to the disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20, NKJV throughout).
When Armstrong was first converted, and gave himself over to God, he felt the need to put his skills to work for God's church. Since he was convinced that Christ would be returning soon, and his assignment from Christ seemed to be to preach the gospel to the world, HWA also lumped into the Great Commission something Christ said on another occasion: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14).
It was Armstrong's firmly held conviction that Matthew 24:14 was a part of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, and his own assignment as God's minister. Was it? If it was, then we have to admit that he utterly failed to fulfill his calling, and Christ has let us down. We'd better examine this issue a little more closely, to be sure we have the facts!
THE GREAT COMMISSION
After Christ was crucified and resurrected, He spent more time with His disciples, giving them further, in-depth training for their mission as His apostles, or emissaries. They would be going out to all parts of the known world, recounting the wonderful message of the Kingdom of God, and teaching their converts to observe the things Christ commanded the disciples.
There are many historical studies attempting to show where the apostles went in their travels. The apostle Paul made several well-documented trips throughout the Roman Empire. Peter wrote from Babylon (although scholars aren't sure whether it was actually the city of that name, or if Peter was using a code name for Rome). History and legend indicate where others of the disciples might have gone.
Wherever the apostles went, God called people to respond to their teaching, and the church of God grew. The apostles fulfilled their commission, and the true church continued to grow, at the rate of growth God desired, through the ages.
In the early twentieth century, Armstrong saw his personal commission to be accomplishing much the same thing, on a much larger scale. He made good use of the various means available to take his message of the Wonderful World Tomorrow into all the world, by means of radio, the printing press, television, personal appearances, and finally by visiting heads of state in far-flung countries and establishing outreach projects in those countries.
Although some have been critical of Armstrong's message to world leaders, complaining that he didn't really preach Christ, and that his living standard was too high, the fact remains that Herbert Armstrong did a remarkable job of spreading the gospel (as he understood it) throughout the world.
Every effort was being pursued to fulfill Matthew 24:14: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come." Armstrong preached repeatedly that the end was fast approaching, and the sooner he carried the gospel message to the entire world, the sooner Christ would return. No one could fault him for his whole-hearted effort to bring Christ back as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, that scenario did not play out as planned. Armstrong died in early 1986. The Worldwide Church of God was taken over by people with a different set of goals. The entire membership drifted aimlessly for a few years, lulled to sleep, unaware of the plot taking place. The Church as we knew it changed dramatically, fractured, split, divided, and became weak. It seemed, to those who followed Armstrong, as if "the power of the holy people has been completely shattered" (Daniel 12:7).
THE GOSPEL TO THE WORLD
What happened? Didn't Matthew 24:14 say that the Church would spread the gospel into all nations, and then Christ would come? Isn't that the Great Commission, to grow large and powerful in the earth just in time for Christ's return? Doesn't Matthew 24:14 say that?
No. It doesn't.
Armstrong preached throughout his entire ministry that Matthew 24:14 was part of the Great Commission, and that he was the one commissioned by God to preach the gospel to the world for a witness, just before the end comes. After hearing and accepting this idea for so many years, it may be difficult for some to come to grips with the truth. Let this serve as the dividing between these two passages of scripture: Matthew 28:19-20 is the Great Commission to the church. Matthew 24:14 is not the Great Commission; it's a prophecy.
Consider where this prophecy is located: Matthew chapter 24. This chapter has been the launching pad for more sermons, Bible studies, articles, radio and television broadcasts, and informal discussions that anyone could imagine. Matthew 24 gives us an outline to help us understand end-time events. It's a key to the book of Revelation. It ties together many Old Testament prophecies. It's a compressed view of many historical and prophectic events leading up to the Second Coming of Christ. Let's review this chapter briefly.
LOOKING AT MATTHEW 24
"Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, 'Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?'" (Matthew 24:3)
The Teacher then began a long list of warnings to His disciples: Don't be deceived by false christs. Don't be troubled by war. Famines, pestilences and earthquakes are only the beginning of sorrows. Tribulation and martyrdom, offenses and hatred, false prophets, and loss of love are also coming. We must endure to the end to be saved (verses 3-13).
Then comes verse 14: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come." Jesus then went on to describe some of the other end-time events more fully.
Notice that the prophecy uses the passive form of sentence structure. If Christ had used the active form, He might have said something like, "And My church [or 'the end-time apostle' or 'the Elijah to come'] will preach this gospel of the kingdom in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then, once the church/apostle/Elijah has accomplished that, the end will come." This is how many have read it and understood it in the past. That's not how Christ phrased it. Notice the passive form: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached ...." It doesn't say who will do it, just that it will be done.
If Matthew 24:14 is not part of the Great Commission, and if Herbert Armstrong was not the one to fulfill this prophecy, where do the members and clergy of the Worldwide Church of God fit into this prophecy? Are the church members supposed to proclaimthe gospel? Some ex-WCG clergy are attempting to preach and proclaim with power, as if they were the successors to HWA. But if the mention of this world-alerting gospel preaching is actually a prophecy, and not truly part of Christ's commission, then whose commission is it?
The problem with our former understanding of this verse is that we were looking at it backward! Many in the WCG thought we could bring Christ sooner by preaching the gospel to the world! We thought that as soon as we finished our job, the Father would tell Christ to return.
We were looking eagerly toward "the day of the Lord [which] will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat.... Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God..." (2 Peter 3:10-12)!
That was the problem. The Church thought it could bring Christ sooner! Many clergy at WCG headquarters thought that if they managed to get their program on every radio and television station on earth, Christ would return shortly thereafter. If that was the case -- and remember, it was taught for decades that this was the case! -- who could fault Armstrong and his followers for pursuing that goal with all determination?
Unfortunately, in their haste and zeal, they forgot some very important scriptures:
"... 'Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven?"' (that is, to bring Christ down from above)" (Romans 10:6).
"But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.... Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect Him" (Matthew 24:36, 42-44).
Then, what was meant in 2 Peter 3:12 about hastening the day of God? Can we have an effect on when it will come, or can't we? Although many translations render that verse with the same meaning as already stated, there are several translations which hold to a different interpretation. Note these examples: "waiting for and hastening [Footnote: Or earnestly desiring] the coming of the day of God" (NRSV), "waiting for and hasting to the presence of the day of God" (Young's Literal Translation of the Holy Bible), "As you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming [Footnote: Or as you wait eagerly for the day of God to come]" (NIV), "while you wait and long for the Day of God to come" (Jerusalem Bible). This should indicate that there are two possible ways of understanding that verse. The old way of understanding was apparently in error.
WHO WILL WITNESS?
The WCG came to look at Matthew 24:14 with a reversed perspective. However, preaching the gospel to the world will not bring Christ any sooner! We can't force Christ to come, nor can we hasten His actual coming. The truth is, Christ is going to come right when the Father sends Him, and that event will be preceded by the gospel going to the world as a witness.
If Herbert Armstrong was not to fulfill the prophecy of Matthew 24:14, who will fulfill it? Is someone else supposed to come along and carry on the work Amrstrong was doing? Should someone try to do it, by their own power and might?
As mentioned earlier, Matthew 24 is one of the keys to understanding the prophecies of the book of Revelation. The reverse is also true: Revelation can aid in understanding the prophecies of Matthew 24! Could it help us here?
The prophetic sequence we're trying to unravel is that the gospel will be preached to the world for a witness, and then the end will come. When Christ said "the end," He meant the conclusion of this age, at the time He will return to set up His rulership on earth.
Can we find this scenario in Revelation, about the gospel going to the world at the time of the end? Yes, we can! Not in the return of Christ pictured in Revelation chapter 19, but a little earlier in the story, in chapter 11. Let's read the story.
"And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophecy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth" (Revelation 11:3).
Who would be better suited to bring the gospel to the world for a witness than two witnesses?
"Now when they finish their testimony, the beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit will make war against them, overcome them, and kill them. And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city ... where also our Lord was crucified. Then those from the peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations will see their dead bodies three and a half days, and not allow their dead bodies to be put into graves" (verses 7-9).
These two witnesses will be supernaturally protected by God during the period of their assignment. During that time, they will be fearlessly proclaiming the gospel and working miracles, thoroughly annoying the merchants, mercenaries and political leaders of the world, who will be unable to stop them (verses 5-6). When the witnesses' assignment is over, God will allow them to be killed, which will trigger great celebrations throughout the political/economic system.
"And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them, make merry, and send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth" (verse 10).
It would seem that a great many people around the world will be aware of these two witnesses, and will be able to see their dead bodies lying in the street. Whether this will be done via television or some other means is not clear yet. But at their deaths there will be worldwide rejoicing among those of Babylon the Great. Their joy will be short-lived, however. God has a surprise in store for them!
"Now after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. And they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, 'Come up here.' And they ascended to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies saw them" (verses 11-12).
If there will be two literal witnesses, prophesying in Jerusalem for 1,260 literal days, who are literally killed, and literally lie in the streets, and who are literally resurrected from the dead, who hear a shout and ascend in the clouds, this can mean only one thing: Christ is returning, the dead in Christ are instantly resurrected (including the two witnesses), and then the resurrected saints all rise to meet Christ in the air, at the same moment the world is watching the two revived witnesses ascend!
"For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep [margin: dead]. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ [including the two witnesses] will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4: 15-17).
When will this take place? "But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night [that is, unexpectedly]. For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' [following the death of the two witnesses] then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman [see Jeremiah 30:6]. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober" (1 Thessalonians 5:1-6).
We don't know when the Day of the Lord will come. We do know, however, that the two witnesses will preach the gospel to the world, as a witness, immediately prior to the Second Coming of Christ.
From this, we can clearly see that the prophecy of Matthew 24:14 will be fulfilled, not by Herbert Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God, or by any other organized Church of God which followed, but by God's two witnesses, who have yet to appear on the scene.
The prophecy is yet future. We can't know when it will take place. In God's good time, He will bring it to pass. He has not asked us to do this. It's safe to say that this is not our assignment.
It may also come as a surprise to many that, following the death of the two witnesses, there will be yet another voice announcing the gospel message to the world. Who might that be?
Also, in the light of what this article has covered, we may want to re-evaluate the church's assignment. What does God want His church to be doing today? Should we continue preaching the gospel to the world via the print and broadcast media?
Look for the answers to these questions in the article entitled, What IS 'The Great Commission'?.tW