There is no question that the New Testament has plenty to say about "the end" or the "last days." There is no question that the topic was of great importance to the early Church. Our difficulty is in recognizing what "end" was in view in any given passage. All too often the modern reader makes an assumption: "the end" or "the last days" refer to a still future coming of Christ. Yet, do we arrive at this conclusion because the Bible leads us to do so, or do we allow our extra?biblical presuppositions to lead us to that belief? The writers of the New Testament plainly say again and again that they were living in the last days, that the time was at hand, and they were living at the end of the ages and so on (Matt. 24:3, 34, Acts 2:16?17, Rom. 13:11, 1 Cor 7:26, 29:30, 10:11, Heb. 1:2, 8:13, 10:25, James 1:1, 5:3, 5:7?9, 1 Peter 1:20 4:7, 1 John 2:17?18 and so on). And, in the Revelation, we read that the prophecy is about things "which must shortly take place" and that "the time is near" (Rev. 1:1, 3). Moreover, the first century church in Ephesus is told to repent or Christ "will come to you quickly" (2:5) as is the church in Pergomos (2:16). The early church in Smyrna is warned that they were about to suffer tribulation and that "the devil is about to throw some of you into prison" (2:10). To the primitive church in Philadelphia Jesus said, "I am coming quickly!" (3:10).
© June 2006 By D. Eric Williams
The book of Revelation ends in much the same way. In rapid fire succession we are told that the things written in the book "must shortly take place (22:7), and that the "time is at hand" (22:10), while Jesus says, "I am coming quickly" no less than three times in the closing lines of the prophecy (22:7, 12, 20).
Upon examination of the passages we immediately see that each displays a belief that the people then living were in the last days and that for them the end was near at hand. At first glance this may not seem to pose a problem. However, it does force us to make a decision: did the writers of the New testament believe that a physical second coming was going to take place (or was possible), in their lifetime (or soon after); did they use language that seemed to say one thing but really meant something else; or did the "last days" language refer to something other than a physical second coming of Jesus Christ, some event that truly was close at hand?
There are those who claim that the writers of the New Testament were simply mistaken in their beliefs about the timing of the second coming and so told their original readers that the end was close at hand.1 After all, Paul does say that "the ends of the ages" had come upon him and his first century readers. However, we must reject such a notion out of hand if we hope to maintain the authority of the Bible. After all, if Paul was wrong on one issue, how are we to know when he is right?
Now then, is there anything in the text, or in the historical and cultural background of the writers to indicate that they meant "2000 years or more" when they said "soon," "near at hand," "quickly" and so on? The answer of course is no: and there is really no need for such semantic gymnastics.2 The Bible itself tells us how these "near at hand last days" passages should be interpreted.
In the Old Testament we find several instances where the writers used end
time or last day type language. In other words, there are passages in the Old Testament where God declared that an end, of sorts, was about to take place. In most of these passages the meaning is quite clear and so they are useful to us in our effort to see how God uses end time language.
For instance, In Isaiah 13, the prophet declared in a prophecy against
Babylon that "the day of the Lord is at hand ...the day of the Lord comes" (13:1, 6, 9). Jeremiah proclaimed concerning Judah that: "Our end was near, our days were over, for our end had come" (Lam. 4:18).
The prophet Ezekiel says:
And you son of man, thus says that Lord God to the land of Israel, 'An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end has come upon you, and I will send My anger against you: I will judge you according to your ways, and I will repay you for all your abominations. ...An end has come, the end has come; it has dawned for you; behold it has come! Doom has come to you, you who dwell in the land; the time has come, a day of trouble is near, and not of rejoicing in the mountains. Now upon you I will soon pour out My fury, and spend My anger upon you: I will judge you according to your ways, and I will repay you for all your abominations. ...Behold the day! Behold it has come! Doom has gone out; the rod has blossomed, pride has budded. ...The time has come, the day draws near. Let not the buyer rejoice nor the seller mourn; for wrath is on their whole multitude (Ezk. 7:2?3, 6?8, 10, 12, cf. 30:2-4).
In Amos 5:18?20 we read a declaration of woe for those who desired the
"day of the Lord" because of the judgment it meant for Israel. In 8:1?2 the prophet described the basket of summer fruit that the Lord showed him and announced that: "The end has come upon My people Israel. I will not pass by them anymore."
In Obadiah 1a and 15 we read: "the vision of Obadiah. Thus says the Lord
God concerning Edom... for the day of the Lord upon all the nations is near."
And finally, the last selection we will look at is from Zephaniah 1:7, 14: Here we read: "Be silent in the presence of the Lord God for the day of the Lord is at hand" and "the great day of the Lord is near; it is near and hastens quickly."
This is not an exhaustive list of last day or end time type passages from the
Old Testament: it does, however, give us adequate material to work with in
reaching a conclusion concerning the same sort of language in the New Testament.
In our selections above, it is clear that the prophets were talking about
judgment that took place during the course of normal human history. Isaiah spoke about judgment upon Babylon at the hand of the Medes and Persians. Jeremiah was speaking of the overthrow of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Ezekiel prophesied about the Babylonian overthrow of Judah and Egypt (elsewhere he prophecies about Edom, and Ammon as well, again using "end time" language). Obadiah spoke of Edom falling at the hand of Babylon and Zephaniah of Judah suffering the same fate.
Each prophet is speaking about events that took place within decades of the
original pronouncement. Isaiah is the only one who prophesied about an event that took place more than a generation after he spoke (concerning the overthrow of Babylon by the Medes and Persians about 150 years later). Ezekiel prophesied about an end that came to pass within 10 years of his announcement. Obadiah spoke of an event that may have taken place 80 years later, but the other prophecies are about "last days" that were accomplished within a generation of the original audience.3
Clearly, when the prophets said that the end was near, they did not mean the end of human history. They meant that God was bringing an end to the (then) current state of affairs through temporal judgment. Moreover, the judgment came in the form of conquering armies. So then, in the Old Testament end time passages we have examined, God said that He was bringing judgment quickly and in each case that is exactly what He did. Thus there are two points that we must keep in mind as we apply what we have learned to our New Testament Passages: one, "the end" and similar language does not always mean the end of human history, and two, when God says that the end is "near," He means exactly that.
Since a physical second coming of Jesus did not take place in the first century and since it is not normal biblical language to say that an event that will take place thousands of years in the future is near, we are best served to allow the Bible to speak for itself. The language used in the Old Testament passages listed above is like the language used in the New Testament passages listed earlier. The Old Testament passages we examined refer to an end, of sorts, that took place within a generation of the actual utterance of the prophecies. Jesus said that an end, of sorts, would take place within a generation of His Olivet Discourse. The Old Testament prophets used no special language to "tag" their predictions as being near at hand as they plainly said they were. Conversely, the New Testament writers we looked at used no special language to "tag" their words as having a meaning much different than what would be expected. And using Scripture to interpret Scripture, we see no reason not to understand the New Testament "near end" passages in the same way that we understand similar Old Testament passages. In other words, the New Testament writers said that an end of some sort was soon to take place and that is exactly what they meant.
The word "end" has a certain meaning. It does not mean "a two thousand
year span of time." If we decide that terms like "ends of the ages has come", "the last hour", "must shortly take place" and "the time is near" refer to a span of thousands of years, then we have made those phrases devoid of meaning. Nor can those phrases carry some sort of dual or elastic meaning that had one sense in the first century and another meaning now.4 To insist on either of these positions is symptomatic of a self centered human "wisdom."
If the writers of the New Testament were willing to ignore the common rules
of grammar without explanation in their use of last days language, where else do they do so? If, without any scriptural model to work from, they chose to discard the normal meanings of certain words and phrases ? without leaving any clue that they had done so ? how are we to be sure that they did not do the same elsewhere, in other seemingly obvious statements? If this were so, it would render the message of the Bible virtually lost to human understanding; a puzzle without a key to unlock its meaning. In short, both the Old and New Testament passages considered above should be understood as meaning exactly what they say. An "end" of some sort came upon the original audience not long after they were warned about its close proximity.5
Seeing that we cannot attribute error to the writers of the New Testament, or any sort of disregard for accepted (historically, culturally and biblically provided), rules of communication we are left with this question: what did the writers of the New Testament mean when they said the end was at hand?
To begin with it should be clear to anyone who has read the New Testament that "Jesus and His disciples were conscious of standing at the threshold of a new age - a new age which was about to be ushered in, or had been ushered in" by the death and resurrection of Jesus.6 And, the beginning of this new age signaled the end of an old age. As the writers of the New Testament put it, "...whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. ... (F)or the form of this world is passing away" (Heb. 8:13, 1 Cor. 7:31). The old that was passing away was the old covenant age. The end that was upon the first century Church was the end of the old covenant age.
We have seen in our examination of selected Old Testament end time
passages, that such language was used to refer to the overthrow of the existing order (the "Church" and the society that had grown up around it). Again, Isaiah prophesied that Babylon would be over?thrown by the Medes and Persians. Jeremiah wrote of the complete overthrow of Jerusalem by the Babylonians as did Ezekiel and Zephaniah. Obadiah said that Edom would meet its fate at the hands of a conquering army ? probably Babylon. Amos foretold the destruction of Israel (northern kingdom), by the Assyrians. It is interesting to note that the most powerful language is used to foretell the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, especially by Ezekiel and Jeremiah. In the years preceding the time that Jerusalem and the temple were razed by the Babylonians, the "City of David" and its temple had become the symbol of God's favor and presence. From the days of Hezekiah Judah had been in decline. Yet even as the fortunes of the nation tumbled, the Jews held to the belief that as long as the temple remained, the covenant was intact and they remained the people of God (Is. 48:1-2, Jer. 7:1-8). Nonetheless, God showed them ? in a very forceful and dramatic fashion ? that simply was not the case. In the first place, the existence of the temple did not guarantee that they retained God's favor. Secondly, they came to realize during the years of captivity that God's favor could be poured out upon them even though Jerusalem had been taken and burned and the temple made a ruin.
This same point was made hundreds of years later when Jesus came and
fulfilled the types of the old covenant. The Jews believed that the temple and the continuation of the cultic ritual were proofs of God's favor. However, Jesus said that something greater than the temple had arrived on the scene (Matt. 12:6), and therefore the type would have to be removed. This removal of the type by the Roman legions would be the last act of the old covenant age.
In the mind of the Jews Jerusalem was the literal center of the universe. What they believed to be "Isaac's Rock" on the temple mount (Moriah), they considered the foundation stone of the world.7 Their "mental and spiritual horizon was bounded by Palestine."8 Indeed, it was not only the Jews who regarded Jerusalem and the temple as the spiritual center of the inhabited earth: God fearing Gentiles and pagans alike sought favor from God (or the gods), within its walls or from its people.9 Hence the importance of bringing the old covenant age to a thundering close; a close that would not, could not be mistaken for anything other than the proof that Jesus promised to produce concerning His claims to the "Messiahship" and His divine "Sonship," the one who would reign at God's right hand (Matt. 24:30, 26:64). This is what happened with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. This event signaled the end that the writers of the New Testament were most concerned with.10 In short the writers of the New Testament said that the end was near because it was. The last days which the Bible emphasizes took place during the first century. They were the last days of the old covenant age, not the last days of human history directly preceding the second coming of Christ. The writers of the New Testament where not mistaken nor were they using language that said one thing but meant another. The end of the age was at hand and took place within a generation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This closure of one age and the fullness of another were signaled by the overthrow of the Jewish nation by the Romans and their allied armies.
To the Jewish mind of that time - whether a follower of The Way or not - the end of Jerusalem and the temple was like the end of the world. (Imagine your feelings if the U.S.A. was brought to total and sudden ruin by foreign armies. It is very likely that you would describe it as the end of the world: as the end of your world at least.) Ezekiel's almost frenzied prophesies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians are a case in point. Jeremiah's expressions of deep pain recorded in the book of Lamentations are also typical. Yes, the "end of the world" had come in times past and it was about to take place again in the later part of the first century. This end was to be the final end of the old covenant way (Heb. 8:13). The world was in the last days of the old covenant age: Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed and the tie to the Christian church would be severed. "It was particularly after the fall of Jerusalem that the Church (was) freed from its bondage to Judaism. This (was) so that it (would) become a truly universal Church."11 As one author put it:
There is reason to believe that the true significance and grandeur of that great event are very little appreciated by many. The destruction of Jerusalem was not a mere thrilling incident in the drama of history, like the siege of Troy or the downfall of Cathage, closing a chapter in the annals of a state or people. It was an event that has no parallel in history. It was the outward and visible sign of a great epoch in the divine government of the world. It was the close of one dispensation and the commencement of another. It marked the inauguration of a new order of things. The Mosaic economy - which had been ushered in by the miracles of Egypt, the lightenings and thunderings of Sinai, and the glorious manifestations of Jehovah to Israel - after subsisting for more than fifteen centuries, was now abolished. The peculiar relation between the Most High and the covenant nation was dissolved. The Messianic kingdom ...(t)he kingdom so long predicted, hoped for, prayed for, was now fully come.12
Without a doubt, the end of the age ? the old covenant age ? had come upon the world. It was that end that was occupying the minds of the New Testament writers because it was that end which was at hand. It was the end that took place within a generation of Christ's death and resurrection. It was the end that for ever changed the world. Is it any wonder that they lived in constant expectation of that event? It was near at hand. Moreover it spelled the beginning of a "new heaven and a new earth" in Christ Jesus. There is no biblical evidence whatsoever to support the idea that the New Testament writers lived in expectation of the immanent physical second coming of Christ and the end of human history. They understood that the second coming of Christ at the end of human history was in the distant future. The coming they looked forward to was the "coming" of Christ the King to judge apostate Israel.
The "ends" that the prophets spoke of in the Old Testament serve as
patterns for our understanding of "the end" in the New Testament. Like the "ends" experienced by the Old Testament prophets and their audiences, the end of the old covenant age was a time of great distress and upheaval. The Church was persecuted, first, by the apostate Jews (the texts for this are too numerous to list: read Acts and Paul's epistles), then later by the Roman government under Nero13 - a persecution that according to the Bible was not limited geographically to the city of Rome. However, this persecution shifted as God "came to the rescue" of His people. The anger and might of the Roman Empire was turned from the Church and brought to bear on the apostate Jews instead. The result was the death or enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.14
It was in the work of Christ during the first Advent that the redemptive plan of God found its completion. The effects of that completed work will be progressively manifest in the history of the world until the end of time. Accordingly, the commanding event in time?space history was the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return in judgment against apostate Israel of Jesus Christ.
In summary: Jesus declared that the generation in existence at the close of His earthly ministry would see the fulfillment of His prophecy as recorded in Matthew chapter twenty-four (Matt. 24:34). Therefore we should not be surprised to find that the events that took place ca AD 66 to AD 70 perfectly correspond to Christ's prophecy and the majority of The Revelation. Moreover, the writer of the book of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus accomplished His work during the last days of the old covenant (Heb 1:1, 9:26) and Paul indicates that he and his contemporaries where living in the last days of the old covenant (Rom. 13:12, 1 Cor. 10:11). In addition, we see from the Old Testament examples (Ps. 18:7-15, Is. 13:1-ff, Jer. 4:23-26, Ezek. 32, Joel 2:10, and etc.), that the predictions of cosmic phenomena coinciding with the last days are prophetic language describing the dissolution of the strictly Jewish "church" and the ingrafting of the Gentiles, resulting in a new order of things in the universe (Matt. 24:29, Rev. Chapter 6 and so on). In short I agree with R. C. Sproul when he says;
I am convinced that the substance of the Olivet discourse was fulfilled in A.D. 70 and that the bulk of Revelation was likewise fulfilled in that time frame ...the coming of Christ in AD 70 was a coming in judgment on the Jewish nation, indicating the end of the Jewish age and the fulfillment of a day of the Lord. Jesus really did come in judgment at that time, fulfilling His prophecy in the Olivet Discourse.15
There is however a day in the future when Christ will physically return and bring an end to this present age. He will defeat Satan once and for all (Rev. 20:7-10), and we (those who have placed faith in Jesus for salvation), will live forever together with Him in the new heaven and the new earth. Those who have rejected Him will spend eternity in Hell,