WHEN DOES CHRIST RETURN? PART NINE
WHEN ARE THE “LAST DAYS”?
In previous parts of these essays, we have discussed phrases such as “the end of all things” and “the time of the end.” Many Christians believe that such phrases pertain to what the Scriptures call the last days. A reading of Acts 2:14-21, 1 Peter 1:20, and Hebrews 1:1-2, show the apostles Peter and Paul were teaching that the last days were upon those they were speaking to at the time. Some who teach that the last days are our days, contend that the last days have been going on for the past two-thousand years and will continue to go on right up to a yet future return of Christ. Is this a Scripturally supportable position? Let’s set the stage for this discussion by first looking at what Peter and Paul said about the last days.
Acts 2:14-20: Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions; your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.’
1 Peter 1:20: He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
Hebrews 1:1-2: In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
Let’s continue by reviewing Paul’s first letter to Timothy. In this letter, He warns Timothy about false teachers bringing in false doctrines to the Christians at Ephesus. Paul then instructs Timothy about matters relative to worship and the qualifications for elders and deacons. In chapter 4:1 Paul says, “The Spirit clearly says that in latter times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” Paul then goes on to define what some of these teachings are and instructs Timothy to point these things out to the brothers (verse 6). Therefore, Paul ties the latter times to problems that were occurring at the time he was writing this letter. There is nothing here to suggest that Paul was looking down the corridor of time and saying these problems would continue for 2,000 years and counting and the “later times” were to continue thousands of years into the future.
While the problems that Paul speaks of are still problems in the church today, to conclude that the “later times” is also a present and a continuing phenomenon does not logically follow. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he begins by encouraging Timothy to be faithful and again warns against false teachers.
2 Timothy 3:1-5: But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.
Paul is addressing Timothy and saying that in the “last days” all these things will be going on and Paul admonishes Timothy to have nothing to do with those who behave in this way. Again we find Paul addressing a situation current to him and he is advising Timothy how best to handle the situation. As always, context is the overriding dynamic that must be considered when examining an issue in Scripture.
The last days are shown in the context of Paul’s letter to be a time frame that Timothy was living in. Paul is not addressing us; he is addressing the man Timothy who lived 2,000 years ago. To stretch these “last days” thousands of years beyond the life of Timothy is totally without justification.
As I have mentioned several times, the last days spoken of in the New Testament are the last days of the Old Covenant system, not the last days of time or planet earth. It is these Old Covenant last days that Paul is dealing with in his letter to Timothy. Both Scriptural and secular histories attest to the spiritual corruption of those living in Israel just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. While it is true the kind of behavior Paul describes has been extant in human culture for the past 2,000 years, it is also true that this kind of behavior has also been extant to one degree or another throughout all of human history. The kind of behavior Paul is reciting was not some new kind of behavior. What Paul was telling Timothy was that this type of behavior was a condition of the last days time frame they were living in.
Paul is dealing with a specific time frame of behavior referred to throughout the New Testament as the last time or the last days. Paul is saying that during this time frame these spiritual conditions will be extant. Paul is simply identifying what conditions would exist in this specific time frame called the last days. This time frame is associated with the transition from the Old Covenant system to the New Covenant system. It encompasses the spiritual and sometimes physical battle that was being waged between the adherents to the old system and the proponents of the new system. While the behavior described for this time frame has continued to one degree or another for the past 2,000 years, it is a real stretch to postulate that the last days time frame itself has been ongoing for 2,000 years. The apostle James speaks of the last days:
James 5:1-8: Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near.
Notice how James ties in the last days to the fact that the coming of the Lord is near. Here we have the time frame of the last days tied into the time statement of when the return of Christ was to take place. The brothers that James was addressing are not still alive exercising patience and standing firm waiting for the Lord’s coming. The Scriptural use of the word near in the New Testament is discussed elsewhere in this book. Peter addressed the issue of last things as well.
1 Peter 1:3-5: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade-kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” Peter goes on to say in verse 13, “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Peter is showing how salvation was not yet fully available at his writing of this letter but that it would be revealed in the last time and that grace would be given when Jesus Christ is revealed. Think about this! If the last time is still future and Christ has not yet been revealed, then grace and salvation have not yet been revealed and we are still waiting for them to be revealed. This, however, is not the case.
Hebrews 9:24-28: For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
We see here that Christ was sacrificed once to take away sins and would appear a second time to bring salvation. As this passage shows, this was a fulfillment of what the High Priest did yearly to facilitate atonement for the sins of the people. Like the passage in 1 Peter, the writer is saying Christ will appear to bring salvation to those waiting for Him. This statement is directed to first-century Christians. These Christians are not still waiting for Christ to bring salvation. Neither are present day Christians waiting for Christ to bring salvation.
The granting of salvation was tied to the transition of the Old Covenant system of death to the New Covenant system of life. This transition was not complete until Christ returned in A.D. 70 to wipe out the old system by facilitating the destruction of the temple and its sacrificial system. The transition to the New Covenant system was a gradual process that began with the ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. This transition was completed through development of the New Testament Church, and the return of Christ to rescue that Church from the Jewish/Roman persecution. The return of Christ also brought salvation to the saints. The physically living saints were resurrected from spiritual death unto spiritual life. The dead saints were given spiritual residence and eternal life in the heavenly realm. The whole focus of the New Testament narrative is on this transition and the dynamics that surrounded it.
In addition to what Peter writes about salvation being revealed at a yet future to them coming of Christ, other New Testament writers speak in the same manner. In Romans 13:11, Paul says this: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” Paul is looking at salvation as a yet-to-arrive event, but an event more near than when they first believed.
In his letter to the Philippian Church, Paul says the following: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Here Paul is saying salvation is something they need to continue to work out, which would indicate it was not yet there for the taking. As shown above, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews makes this profound statement: “So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). Are the Jewish Christians that the writer is addressing still waiting for this to happen? Here we see a very direct statement about Christ bringing salvation with him at His second appearing. This appearing was eagerly being anticipated by first-century Christians as other Scriptures clearly show.
If Christ’s second coming is still future, then we are still waiting for salvation to be revealed. I don’t think any Christian would accept that idea. Yet most Christians believe Christ’s second appearing is future. The New Testament writers show clearly that the full availability of salvation was tied to the full implementation of the New Covenant, and the New Covenant was not fully established until the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. This was God’s judgment on Israel brought through the spiritual return of Christ, which resulted in the full availability of salvation for both Jew and Gentile. This salvation is what the New Testament Church was looking forward to. It was this salvation that facilitated their passing from spiritual death unto spiritual life. Before the return of Christ, Christians had the “down payment” of salvation. Paul wrote of this to the Ephesian Church:
Ephesians 1:13-14: And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession.
At the return of Christ in A.D. 70 this down payment became full payment as eternal life now became resident within them. This is when the full redemption of those who were God’s possession took place. For those who had died in Christ, this was the time when they received their eternal residence with Christ. For those that remained alive, they now knew, because of the events of A.D. 70, that Christ had appeared and they had received full salvation, which translates to resurrection from death unto life. Those who remained alive also knew that when they died, they would continue living in the heavenly realm with Christ.
Anticipating the coming of salvation and the coming of the resurrection amounted to the same thing. It involved a spiritual change. It involved the physically dead in Christ receiving salvation and consequent resurrection to eternal life. For the Christians alive at the return of Christ, it involved a spiritual change, a change in status before God. A passing from death unto life. A change from mortality to immortality. A spiritual entrance into the Kingdom of God. That is the overview that Paul is essentially providing in his letter to the Corinthian brethren. Paul’s treatment of resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians will be treated in detail in a later chapter.
For the first-century pre- A.D. 70 Christian, the hope of eternal life was just that, a hope. This hope did not materialize until the return of Christ. These Christians did not completely enter the Kingdom until the return of Christ. Paul clearly said flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. Mortality had to put on immortality. The perishable had to become imperishable. A change had to take place. For the physically dead, this was a resurrection to eternal life in the heavenly realm. For the physically alive, this was a change of spiritual status before God. This was a change to inherent eternal life, which allowed for spiritual entrance into the Kingdom of God.
Therefore, our present day paradigm should be different from that of the pre- A.D. 70 Christian. We don’t have to hope for eternal life. The blessed hope that Paul speaks of is already a reality for us. We don’t have to experience the same kind of struggles and uncertainties about entering eternal life as we find the pre- A.D. 70 Christians dealing with. Our focus has to be on pleasing the one who has given us eternal life, by responding to His grace and helping to grow the Kingdom that He has given us. Our focus needs to be on living the law of love and reflecting the love of Christ in our behavior toward others.
The conclusion to this matter is that the last days are past. The New Testament last days were a specific time frame relating to the transition from the Old to the New Covenant. This transition facilitated the movement from death unto life. This transition facilitated the establishment of the spiritual Kingdom and our ability to be reconciled to God and to be given eternal life. As Paul said, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Paul said that the sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. The death and resurrection of Christ provide for the forgiveness of sin and thus facilitate the removal of death. The victory over death has been accomplished through the death, resurrection and return of Christ. The return of Christ is as critical to this process as His death and resurrection. The Scriptures clearly show that the victory over death was not complete until the complete removal of the Old Covenant system. This didn’t happen until the destruction of the temple and the judgment upon Israel. In the Roman-Jewish War Christ completed the salvation process by restoring His covenantal presence. Complete salvation has been available to mankind ever since and will be for as long as God allows humanity to continue.
In Acts the third chapter, we see Peter telling the Jews to repent and turn to God, so that their sins could be wiped out when “times of refreshing” would come from the Lord at His return. Peter speaks of God sending “the Christ who had been appointed for you.” Peter goes on to say Christ “must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through His holy prophets.” Peter then explains that Christ is the prophet that Moses prophesied would come and it is He that they are to listen to or be cut off (Acts 3:17-23). Here again we see Christ being shown as the replacement for Moses. Once again we see the old system being replaced by the new system. Are these Jew’s who Peter was addressing still waiting for “times of refreshing” to come? Are they still waiting for their sins to be wiped out? Peter said Christ “must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything.” Are these first-century Jews still waiting for God to send the Christ that had been appointed for them? It should be obvious that the return of Christ was an anticipated event to occur in the lifetime of those being addressed by the apostle Peter. As Peter had shown in his sermon recorded in the second chapter of Acts, these were truly the last days when all that had been spoken by the prophets would come to fulfillment.