From my book The Cross in the End-Times
In the debate over the timing and sequence of end-times events, this tension between the hope of an imminent rapture at any time in the church age, and the on-going work of salvation on the earth to draw in each and every lost sheep destined for eternal life in heaven, often takes a backseat in recent times to the more high-profile argument of the timing of the rapture in relation to the seven-year tribulation period. Yet this issue of the end-of-the-ages worldwide evangelism is paramount. Matthew 24:14 reads: “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.” The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) takes precedence over the timing of the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Millennium. The work of salvation, the sharing of the good news of the gospel, stands front and center above all other considerations.
The eternal salvation of even one person is so important to God it can hold in abeyance the second coming of Jesus Christ to earth. If Christians cannot agree on this point, regarding the overriding importance of worldwide evangelism coming first and foremost within the scheme of end-time events, then the basis for our end-times theology may be out of balance. People can argue for a pretribulation rapture of the Christian church, or conversely for a return of Christ after the millennium, because these differing scenarios fit smoothly into systematically constructed viewpoints. But the emphasis in the mind and heart of God has always been the harvest of lost souls right up to and including the very last person pre-destined for salvation. This reality is strongly evidenced today by the explosion of Christian evangelism and salvation in many parts of the world, alongside the parallel fact that we are still looking for the rapture and the second coming of Christ. As time marches relentlessly on, the Holy Spirit is convicting lost sinners and saving souls around the world.
Only God knows who these last final converts are, when they will exercise salvation quality faith in Jesus Christ, and what will be needed in terms of external situations and circumstances to bring them to the point where they recognize their need for God. And only God knows how many Spirit-led Christians will be needed on hand to speak the words of Life to match the number of people who will respond to God’s final call at the end of the ages.
That is why the times and the seasons must belong to God alone. If Christians knew in advance who the last few people were to be saved at the end of human history, we might rush out ahead of the Spirit with our own program, and attempt to convert them before the Holy Spirit had the opportunity to generate the external circumstances to correctly prepare them to receive Jesus Christ through genuine repentance and faith. The same process of internal conviction over our sin, which brought us to salvation quality faith, must actualize for the last-days convert as well.
There is a finite list of people, compiled through God’s eternal foreknowledge (Romans 8:29), who will come to salvation faith throughout the long span of Old and New Testament history. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Mark, Luke, Stephen the martyr, Paul, Phoebe, Priscilla and Aquila, Timothy, Barnabas, and Titus, to name only a few first century Christians, were on that list. The Old Testament men and women of faith, the early church fathers, the reformers, the missionaries and their converts in previous centuries were on that list. Those of us who are born-again Christians today are on that list. We have not reached the bottom of this list yet. Each generation of Christians in past centuries, within its own unique historical context has worked on completing the Great Shepherd’s list of lost sheep to be found and saved, not knowing how close they were to the bottom of this list.
Every person named on this list had to work through their lives within the time-frame and context of their own personal situations and circumstances, to reach the point of choosing through their own free-will volition to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts. The Holy Spirit is capable of reaching all of the people who are called to salvation faith in every generation. But events must follow their proper course.
From our limited viewpoint, we simply do not know when this list of people will finally be exhausted. This is how the watchfulness and expectation of Christian disciples for the second coming of Jesus on the one hand, and the evangelical outreach through the Holy Spirit to the lost sheep on the other hand, can appear to be contradictory yet in fact proceed down through the ages in harmonious tension. From the time of that important question to Jesus by the disciples regarding the setting up of the final Messianic kingdom in Acts 1:6, down to our present time, the work of salvation takes precedence over the rapture or the second coming of Christ. The rapture and the second coming of Christ are held in suspension in time until the work of evangelism reaches a point somewhere down the list, where those people called to salvation make their decision to accept Jesus Christ, at the correct appointed times in their lives.
Then at some point in God’s divine time-line, in coordination with the Holy Spirit empowered work of evangelism, the colossal end-times events definitely begin to occur. This ushers in an intensified period of chaos and upheaval that will set up for the last final group, at the bottom of the list of people called to salvation within the due course of time, to be motivated by end-times catastrophes to reject this world and to make their decision for Christ. The long history of human salvation, and the promised momentous end-times prophetic events, both running along parallel tracks, finally converge at their appointed time. Somewhere along this time-line, the last “great” push for the most stubborn converts intensifies to a final crescendo, the tribulation kicks into a higher gear, most if not all of the evangelical work is complete, and in my opinion the promised rapture then occurs.