By In Theology

Does God Care About Numbers?

church attendanceYes, he does.

Here is the prophecy he gave to Isaiah (chapter 49):

Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The LORD called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”

And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

It is “too light a thing,” too small a thing” (NASB) for God to save a tiny remnant. After all, he didn’t call Abram/Abraham for the sake of a tiny remnant:

Now the Lord said to Abram,

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3, ESV)

Thus, from the first time God spoke to Abram, he identified himself as the god who justifies the ungodly–who saves the entire world.

How do Christians avoid acknowledging this plan for the spread of the Gospel and the conversion of the human race? They find quotations like:

And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ (Luke 13:23-25, ESV)

But this is not a reasonable application of what Jesus says. Jesus does not say that only few will be saved in all world history. He says that salvation is going to spread to the nations but that his own generation of fellow Israelites are in danger of being, uh, left behind.

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:22-30, ESV)

People will be gathered at the Table of the Lord from all points of the compass, but many who witnessed Jesus during his ministry are rejecting his message.

I submit that all remnant passages are of this nature. The majority rejects but the ones who repent and believe are the seed of a great multitude. Worldwide salvation follows from the crisis and judgment. Jesus’ own parables about seed and mustard seed and leaven teach this expectation.

Many people think it is shallow and superficial to “worry about numbers.” But obviously God is not shallow and superficial. Yet he would not tell us of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7.9) if he had no concern for quantity.

Of course, they probably get the idea because some Christians who worry about numbers seem shallow and superficial. I agree–for many contexts in the Christian life but not all. Furthermore, identifying oneself with the “few who are chosen” can be just as shallow and superficial. People who act as it if is a matter of piety to be satisfied with a world going to hell because their small group is elect of God are not people who are obedient to the Great Commission. The Great Commission, I submit, cannot be obeyed by people who don’t believe it is possible:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and disciple of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The real reason I think some Christians are shallow in their numbers-fixation is because they have self-glorification goals corrupting their desire for the kingdom and/or they don’t really believe the Great Commission is about discipling all nations and training them to obey Jesus. Instead they believe the Great Commission is about getting professions of faith and then training them to get other professions of faith. That, while better than nothing, will tend to produce shallow Christians.

But the fact that God wants a countless number of trained disciples rather than a countless number of ignorant professing believers doesn’t give us any reason to think God doesn’t care about numbers. Concern for quality does not eliminate concern about quantity.

Accepting this basic Biblical mission probably won’t change as much as I would like it to change. God’s providence and timing are still a mystery. Once you believe in what God wants for history, you may, in fact, find you are now frustrated by the lack of results you see in your own place and time.

But it is good to be frustrated. That is the Spirit praying for you to God to end the discrepancy between how things are and how they should be (8.26). Anyone who reads the promises of God and is not frustrated when he looks around at his life and world is not reading carefully. Better to be frustrated than satisfied with a situation so far from what God has revealed he intends to bring about.

Sometimes we are sent to plant and sometimes to harvest (John 4.35-38). If you are sent to a time of planting, you might not see the fruit you long for. But that doesn’t mean it is not coming.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12, ESV)

One implication of this is you never have a right to consider your work for the Great Commission a failure. God does not promise a great rescue–Jesus has already done that part of the story. God promises to use your labors. He promises to accept your works just as he accepts you in Christ. He promises to say, “Well done.” So nothing was ever wasted. The seed vanishes and is forgotten and then later the tree grows. Most people will not notice the cause for the effect. Their eyes will be on the cause and effect relationships that are in close enough proximity to notice. But God never forgets. And he promises that nothing is without effect.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:53-58, ESV)

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