In proclaiming the gospel, should we be focusing only on our own generation? Certainly, we have primary responsibility to reach the people of our own generation with the gospel and to win them to Christ. We have been exhorted to complete the task of reaching all peoples in our generation. However, if we plant one church in every people group in the world in our generation, have we completed the task we were called to do? If we present the gospel to every person who is living today, have we completed our task. Do we not have a responsibility to future generations as well?
We need to have a broader view of the gospel and its proclamation in the world. Jesus gave us the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations and to teach them to obey the commandments of the Lord. Now, was Jesus talking only about the nations of that generation or for future nations and peoples as well? It is most probable that He had the whole age in mind. Not only were the apostles to make disciples of the nations of their generation but to lay a foundation that future generations of peoples and nations could be reached as well. The Great Commission would be for the whole age. Jesus even promises that He would be with His church in carrying out this commission to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20) The emphasis in the Greek is that He would be with us to the very last day of the age. The apostles then were to be concerned for their own generation but they also knew that there were future generations to come and they were establishing a church that would last and would reach out to those future peoples and nations.
This can be seen even clearer when we look at Acts 2:39 which says, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Not only were the apostles concerned for that generation of Jews that was immediately before them but also for their children and for all that were far off. This would include the Gentiles who would come to know Christ in the far distant future. John Calvin in commenting on this verse writes, “So he (Peter) uses the word call, as though to say: ‘As God formerly called you together by His voice to be one people, so that same voice shall sound forth everywhere so that those who are afar off shall join themselves to you when they are called by a fresh proclamation of God.’” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries – The Acts of the Apostles, Volume 1, p. 83) Peter looked forward to future generations who would hear the gospel and believe. He looked forward to other peoples and nations of the future besides the Jews who would gladly receive the gospel and be saved. F. F. Bruce in commenting on the same verse writes, “The promise of the gospel was extended not only to those present on that occasion, not only to the contemporary generation, but to their descendants as well.” (The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Acts, p. 78) The apostles saw their responsibility beyond the present generation and foresaw future generations who would embrace their message. That is why they wrote the New Testament so that future generations could hear the gospel and know Christ and be a part of His Kingdom. John wrote in the closing chapters of his gospel these words addressing them not only to his present generation but to all those who would read his gospel in the future. He wrote, “Then Jesus told him (Thomas), ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:29-31) John wrote for the benefit of all who would read those words even for peoples and nations yet to come.
Jesus envisioned the gospel reaching not only the people of the generation that witnessed His earthly ministry but for peoples and nations that would hear that same gospel in the future. In John 10:16, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They, too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” This one verse has influenced more than one missionary to give his life to missions. Iain Murray in his book A Scottish Christian Heritage writes, “When metal gates, to the memory of John G. Paton, were erected at the peaceful cemetery at Torthorwald, Dumfriesshire, they bore the text: ‘Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring’ (John 10:16). These words of Christ are at the heart of the missionary movement. Peter Cameron Scott, and his brother John, went as missionaries to the Congo from Glasgow in 1890. Very soon John died and Peter, alone in the jungle, with his own health broken, gave up in discouragement. He returned to Britain where, in London, he visited the grave of David Livingstone in Westminster Abbey. There he read the same words as are on the gates at Torthorwald: ‘Other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring.’ The promise was enough for him to spend the remainder of his life in Africa.” (p. 223-224)
There are sheep yet to be reached in this generation and in generations to come. We need to have a comprehensive vision for the spread of the gospel in the world that encompasses not only this generation but those generations that are yet to be. We need to be laying a foundation that will help the future generations to hear the gospel and become a part of God’s kingdom. This was the kind of vision that our Christian forefathers who came to America had. William Bradford wrote concerning the Pilgrims – “Last and not least, they cherished a great hope and inward zeal of laying good foundations, or at least making some ways toward it, for the propagation and advance of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the world, even though they should be but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work.” (America’s God and Country p. 67) John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote concerning the foundation they were coming to America to lay – “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and glory, that men of succeeding plantations shall say, ‘The Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us….” (America’s God and Country p. 700) They were laying a foundation for future generations who would come to America and would be setting an example for them to follow.
In more recent years and especially during the 20th Century, evangelicals have focused in on the soon coming of Christ as they perceived that probably they would be the last generation before Christ comes back. They did not give that much thought to future generations for after all we are probably the last generation and the Lord will soon come. We are awaiting the rapture and what happens after that is not our concern. So, we have the Left Behind series and many other books that proclaimed that the Lord was certainly coming soon and the rapture is almost upon us. Why should Christians with this kind of outlook be concerned for future generations? Many predicted that Christ would appear surely by the end of the millennium but He has not as yet come back. Could we be wrong in thinking that Christ was coming so soon? Have we not lost sight of the fact that we have a responsibility to those who will live after us. The escapism mentality of so much of evangelical Christianity today has greatly weakened the church.
The Puritan leaders who in the 1600’s wrote the Westminster Larger Catechism had in mind a church that would confront Satan’s kingdom all over the world and promote and spread the Kingdom of Christ. Question 191 asks, “What do we pray for in the second petition (of the Lord’s Prayer)?” Answer: “In the second petition (which is, Thy kingdom come,) acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in…that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him for ever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.” These Christian leaders of the 17th century saw the church’s mission to carry the gospel into all the world to invade the kingdom of Satan and bring it to destruction. They saw a future conversion of the Jews and greater spiritual blessing for the Gentiles yet to come. Yet, they looked forward to the Second Coming of Christ and the eternal state. In contrast to the escapism teaching of so much of today’s evangelical church, they saw Christ’s kingdom marching forth in power in all the world. They were not looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming as a means of escape from this present world but rather as a culmination of the victory of His kingdom in this world.
Today, we need to recapture this vision of our Christian forefathers and lay a foundation for future generations. We need to promote the Kingdom of Christ in this world and look forward to His Second Coming so that when He does come He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless indicated otherwise.
Bruce, F. F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament - The Book of Acts. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids. 1954.
Calvin, John. Calvin's New Testament Commentaries - The Acts of the Apostles Vol.1. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids. Translated 1965.
Federer, William J. America's God and Country. Fame Publishing, Inc. 1996.
Murray, Iain H. A Scottish Christian Heritage. The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 2006.