Many Christians think so. The Gospel Coalition (whose council members include John Piper, D.A. Carson, Tim Keller and Al Mohler) boldly cites George Eldon Ladd's 1959 book The Gospel of the Kingdom to make that claim. "When the Church has finished its task of evangelizing the world, Christ will come again. The Word of God says it." The Issachar Initiative backed by some of the largest financial gatekeepers in evangelical America (National Christian Foundation, Maclellan Foundation, Green Family, etc.) use the same logic to encourage reaching the unreached. As their Tweet below indicates, "We can choose to speed up Jesus's return."
But why do so many Christians think Matthew 24:14 explains the prerequisite for Jesus' return when the verse doesn't even talk about him? We have to explore the context to discover why, and to discover why they are all wrong.
We should be careful not to quickly assume what Jesus means when he says: "and then the end will come." Our first question should be: the end of what? To answer that question we have to go back to the beginning of Jesus' discourse in Matthew 24 where he first uses the term "the end." In Matthew 24:1-3, the context for Jesus' entire teaching in the chapter is established.
1 Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. 2 And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.” 3 As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?”
The important phrase in Matthew 24:3 that defines Jesus' language in Matthew 24:14 is "the end of the age." Matthew is the only Gospel to add the expression "end of the age" to the disciples' question so we would be wise to define the phrase by Matthew's use of it elsewhere in his Gospel. The phrase “end of the age” occurs in Matthew five times (Matt 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20) and in no other Gospel. In Matthew’s theology it refers to the end of a time period that witnesses the growth of the kingdom (as seen in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet in Matthew 13) through the missionary work of Jesus and his followers. In the context of Matthew 24:1-3, the "end of the age" happens simultaneously with the destruction of Temple buildings. Jesus and his disciples are going to spread the Gospel throughout Israel and beyond before foreign invaders conquer Jerusalem and crush the Temple. It is a profoundly significant shift in what God has been doing on earth that we better not overlook.
So what "age" ends when the Temple that Jesus and his disciples were looking at gets torn down? Put simply, the Old Covenant age. The era marked by the Tabernacle and the Temple comes to a close. The period of relating to God through priests and prayers and sacrifices on the Temple mount ceases. The requirement to uphold the Mosaic Law that commanded Temple worship is relinquished. Jesus' prediction of "the end of the age" points to the monumental shift in history from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant--the very Covenant Jesus inaugurated at the Passover meal a few days after he spoke the words in Matthew 24. The Church birthed through the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world is the lasting legacy of the great transition Jesus predicted in Matthew 24.
The reason why we still think Jesus returns after the "Great Commission" is completed, despite "the End" referring to the Old Covenant crumbling with the Temple, is rooted in two tough-to-interpret statements Jesus makes: (1) Matthew 24:30 talks about the "Son of Man coming on the clouds" and (2) Matthew 24:14 says the Gospel must be preached to all nations first. But neither one of those statements in Matthew 24 means what you think it does.
Coming on the Clouds. When Matthew 24:30 says the Son of Man will be "coming on the clouds of the air with great power and glory," the assumption we immediately make is that the Son of Man is coming down from heaven to earth. However, Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7:14. The direction of the coming Son of Man in Daniel 7:14 is the exact opposite. The Son of Man is not coming "down" to earth but rather "up" to the throne of the Ancient of Days to be crowned king of a new kingdom.
I have written at length elsewhere about which direction the Son of Man is coming, but the simple conclusion is: The Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory is the moment when Jesus goes up to God's throne to begin his uncontested reign over the kingdom of the new covenant. It is describing the heavenly events correlated to the earthly destruction of the temple and the end of the old covenant age. The apocalyptic language of Matthew 24 blends seen and unseen realities, heavenly and earthly events, just like we find in the book of Revelation and all other Apocalypses. Understanding how the language in this genre blends heavenly and earthly realities and what the meaning actually is in Jesus's use of Daniel 7:14 removes any idea that the end in Matthew 24:14 involves Jesus's return to earth.
Gospel Preached to the Whole World. The second bit of confusion in our interpretation of Matthew 24:14 is the timeline. First, Jesus says people from every nation will hear the Gospel. Then, the end will come. Certainly that Great Commission to preach the Gospel throughout the whole world could not have been completed before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Right?
Prepare yourself to get another faulty assumption fact-checked. Reaching every nation in the world is not a mathematical or geo-political claim to reach a defined number of distinct people groups. That's not how language worked in the pre-modern theological claims of the New Testament.
Acts 2:5 claims that Jews "from every nation under heaven" gathered in Jerusalem and heard the disciples proclaim the Gospel in their native languages. That's quite a universal claim--Jews from every nation under heaven heard the Gospel. But no one who reads that claim would think Jews had come from China or from the Aztec nation or from the aboriginal peoples of what would become Australia. It is simply a figure of speech that means Jews had come from all over the known world. It has the same meaning as Jesus had in Matthew 24:14. The disciples were first to preach the Gospel to people from a lot of places before the Temple's destruction signaled the full transition to the New Covenant era. What the disciples started at Pentecost with Jews and preached throughout the known world afterwards fulfilled Jesus' prediction of the Gospel going into the whole world in Matthew 24:14. Expecting a more precise evangelistic measure for how many people in how many places speaking how many languages had to hear first would be placing modern expectations on ancient expressions which carried no such precision.
Paul confirms the fulfillment of the Great Commission in Colossians 1:23 by claiming the Gospel "has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven." That's a surprising claim for modern readers who mistakenly think Paul is saying every individual got a one-on-one Gospel presentation. But we must integrate it into our theology. The Apostle Paul believed that the Gospel had been heard all around the world.
How could he believe the Great Commission had been completed when we know the Mayan civilization, native Americans, and Eskimos hadn't gotten the message? Because Jesus and Paul didn't think in Western logical categories like we do. Proclaiming the Gospel to the whole world was not a scientifically precise mathematical or geopolitical claim. It simply meant "people from all over the place" had heard. The known world back then wasn't mapped with all the continents and people groups we know today. And Jesus and Paul come from a corporate culture not an individualistic mindset. If people from lots of different places had heard at Pentecost or through the ongoing preaching of Paul and the other apostles, then the whole world had heard. We need to adopt this biblical perspective rather than read modern assumptions back into the text.
Arbitrary Calculation of People Groups
The common error of forcing Western scientific precision upon phenomenological statements in Scripture leads to arbitrary calculations of when the Great Commission will be fulfilled. The good work of sharing the Gospel becomes a misconstrued math game to hasten the return of Jesus.
To play that game, people have to make up rules because the language in Scripture is more general than modern thinkers would like it to be. Specifically, the concept of a "nation" has to be defined before you can decide if the Gospel has been preached there. But that is harder than it first sounds. Is a nation defined by genetics (your "ethnicity"), language, geography, size, or all of the above: a distinct ethno-linguistic geo-numerical people group?
If you can pick a preferred definition for "nation," which ends up with more modern precision than the Greek word ethnos ever intended in the New Testament, then you must decide what it means for a nation to "hear" the Gospel. It forces an arbitrary distinction between a "Reached" and "Unreached" people group. To be "reached," does only one person need to hear the Gospel, does one church need to be established, or does 2% of the population need to become Christian?
Since the answers to these questions are arbitrarily produced by each person's opinion, the calculations of unreached people groups vary. Mission Possible 2013 concluded, "Today there are 476 Un-engaged, Unreached People Groups with populations more than 40,000 who are still beyond the reach of the gospel of Jesus Christ." In a briefing paper for CapeTown 2010, Paul Eshleman reported, "2,365 people groups with over 5,000 population still have no missionary." Southern Baptists believe 3,216 people groups remain unreached as of April 2017, meaning about 220 million people are in distinct ethno-linguistic groups where less than 2% of the population is Christian.
So what is the right number of unreached people groups? That's an impossible question to answer because the definitions are subjective. And it is the wrong question to even ask. Jesus' claim that "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come" is a general prediction of what happened between Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. The Gospels record Jesus' prediction, Acts records how the Gospel was then preached throughout the known world, and Paul's epistles confirm that the Great Commission was completed. Counting unreached people groups is missing the meaning of Jesus's words in Matthew 24:14.
Finishing the Task and completing the Great Commission so Jesus will return is not a biblical paradigm. However, a wealth of Christian institutions propagate this hermeneutical mistake. For example, SermonCentral misleads users to teach that reaching the unreached people groups of the world is a pre-condition for Christ's return. It encourages us to ask the question: "Is the gospel being preached to all the nations, and if so, where are we on God’s time table for Christ’s return?" Entire denominations like the Christian and Missionary Alliance wrongly connect reaching the world with Jesus' return to earth. "The Alliance is committed to doing its part to complete Jesus’ Great Commission before His glorious return." Founder of The Alliance, A.B. Simpson, believed the Great Commission's completion would cause the return of Christ because of his interpretation of Matthew 24:14. But Matthew 24:14 does not speak about Jesus' return to earth. That idea is being read into the text.
After the disciples proclaimed the Gospel to Jews "from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5), the task of worldwide evangelism was not over and Jesus did not come down to earth from heaven. Paul and the other Apostles continued to proclaim the Gospel: Jesus is king over a new kingdom marked by a new covenant. They took that message throughout the known world, essentially the inhabited Roman Empire referred to specifically by Jesus in Matthew 24:14 using the Greek word oikumene. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem confirmed their announcement of the great transition of the ages from the Old Covenant centered on the Temple to the New Covenant led by a heavenly Messiah. Their broad announcement of this new kingdom went throughout the world, and historical events in the Empire confirmed its veracity.
Paul confirms that everyone had heard the message in Romans 10:18. After stating that preachers must be sent to deliver God's message so Jews can believe, he asks rhetorically, "Is it true that they did not hear the message? Of course they did—for as the scripture says: 'The sound of their voice went out to all the world. Their words reached the ends of the earth.' " However, that fact did not stop Paul's ministry. Colossians 1:23 says the Gospel had been preached to everybody in the world, yet Colossians 1:6 says the Gospel was spreading around the world. Those two affirmations go hand in hand for Paul. He explains the apparent contradiction in a description of how own ministry in Colossians 1:25, "I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit so that I might complete the preaching of the word of God." All nations had heard, but the work was not finished. More people could be reached.
It may be hard for our modern minds to avoid imposing mathematical precision on the meaning of Jesus' words. Yet, we must respect what he meant. We are not on a mission to get the end to come but to continue announcing the new kingdom Jesus started. Folks from all around the world heard the Gospel before the Old Covenant age ended in 70AD. But the end of the Great Commission was just the beginning. Let's make sure more individuals get to hear the significance of what started it all.