Chapter 13: The Last Days
Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion
Topics: Doctrinal Studies, Eschatology, Theology
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When did people begin to abandon the worship of idols, unless it were since the very Word of God came among men? When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Saviour has revealed Himself on earth? When did those whom the poets call gods and heroes begin to be adjudged as mere mortals, except when the Lord took the spoils of death and preserved incorruptible the body He had taken, raising it from among the dead? Or when did the deceitfulness and madness of daemons fall under contempt, save when the Word, the Power of God, the Master of all these as well, condescended on account of the weakness of mankind and appeared on earth? When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men? In a word, when did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish, save when the true Wisdom of God revealed Himself on earth? In old times the whole world and every place in it was led astray by the worship of idols, and men thought the idols were the only gods that were. But now all over the world men are forsaking the fear of idols and taking refuge with Christ; and by worshipping Him as God, they come through Him to know the Father also, Whom formerly they did not know.
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
THE LAST DAYS
As we began to see in the preceding chapter, the period spoken of in the Bible as “the last days” (or “last times” or “last hour”) is the period between Christ’s birth and the destruction of Jerusalem. The early church was living at the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. This whole period must be considered as the time of Christ’s First Advent. In both the Old and New Testament, the promised destruction of Jerusalem is considered to be an aspect of the work of Christ, intimately connected to His work of redemption. His life, death, resurrection, ascension, outpouring of the Spirit, and judgment on Jerusalem are all parts of His one work of bringing in His Kingdom and creating His new Temple (see, for example, how Daniel 9:24-27 connects the atonement with the destruction of the Temple).
Let’s consider how the Bible itself uses these expressions about the end of the age. In 1 Timothy 4:1-3, Paul warned:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
Was Paul talking about “latter times” which would happen thousands of years later? Why should he warn Timothy of events which Timothy, and Timothy’s great-great-grandchildren, and fifty or more generations of descendants, would never live to see? In fact, Paul tells Timothy, “If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 4:6). The members of Timothy’s congregation needed to know about what would take place in the “latter days,” because they would be personally affected by those events. In particular, they needed the assurance that the coming apostasy was part of the overall pattern of events leading up to the end of the old order and the full establishing of Christ’s Kingdom. As we can see from passages such as Colossians 2:18-23, the “doctrines of demons” Paul warned of were current during the first century. The “latter times” were already taking place. This is quite clear in Paul’s later statement to Timothy:
But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come; for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so also do these resist the truth; men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith.
–2 Tim. 3:1-8
The very things Paul said would happen in “the last days” were happening as he wrote, and he was simply warning Timothy about what to expect as the age wore on to its climax. Antichrist was beginning to rear its head.
Other New Testament writers shared this perspective with Paul. The letter to the Hebrews begins by saying that God “has in these last days spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:2); the writer goes on to show that “now once at the end of the ages He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26). Peter wrote that Christ “was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for you who through Him are believers in God” (1 Pet. 1:20-21). Apostolic testimony is unmistakably clear: when Christ came, the “last days” arrived with Him. He came to bring in the new age of the Kingdom of God. The old age was winding down, and would be thoroughly abolished when God destroyed the Temple.
From Pentecost to Holocaust
On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit had been poured out and the Christian community spoke with other tongues, Peter declared the Biblical interpretation of the event:
This is that which was spoken of through the prophet Joel: “And it shall be in the last days,” God says, “that I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy. I will show wonders in heaven above and signs in the earth beneath: blood and fire and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and glorious Day of the Lord. And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
We have already seen how the “blood and fire and vapor of smoke” and the signs in the sun and the moon were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem (see pp. 100f.). What is crucial to notice at this point is Peter’s precise statement that the last days had arrived. Contrary to some modern expositions of this text, Peter did not say that the miracles of Pentecost were like what Joel prophesied, or that they were some sort of “proto-fulfillments” of Joel’s prophecy; he said that this was the fulfillment: “This is that which was spoken of through the prophet Joel.” The last days were here: the Spirit had been poured out, God’s people were prophesying and speaking in tongues, and Jerusalem would be destroyed with fire. The ancient prophecies were unfolding, and this generation would not pass until “all these things” were fulfilled. Therefore, Peter urged his listeners, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:40).
In this connection, we should note the eschatological significance of the gift of tongues. 81. Paul showed, in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22, that the miracle of tongues was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy against rebellious Israel. Because the covenant people were rejecting His clear revelation, God warned that His prophets would speak to them with foreign tongues, for the express purpose of rendering a final witness to unbelieving Israel during the last days preceding her judgment:
Indeed, He will speak to this people
Through stammering lips and a foreign tongue….
That they may go and stumble backward, and be broken
And snared and taken captive.
Therefore, hear the Word of the LORD, O scoffers,
Who rule this people who are in Jerusalem,
Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
And with Sheol we have made a pact.
When the overwhelming scourge passes through,
It will not reach us,
For we have made falsehood our refuge
And we have concealed ourselves with deception.”
Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone,
A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed;
He who believes in it will not be in a hurry.
And I will make justice the measuring line,
And righteousness the level;
Then hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies,
And the waters shall overflow the secret place.
And your covenant with death shall be canceled,
And your pact with Sheol shall not stand;
When the overwhelming scourge passes through,
Then you become its trampling place.
As often as it passes through, it will seize you.
For morning after morning it will pass through,
And by day and by night.
And it will be sheer terror to understand what it means.”
The miracle of Pentecost was a shocking message to Israel. They knew what this meant. It was the sign from God that the Chief Cornerstone had come, and that Israel had rejected Him to its own damnation (Matt. 21:42-44; 1 Pet. 2:6-8). It was the sign of judgment and reprobation, the signal that the apostates of Jerusalem were about to “stumble backward, be broken, snared, and taken captive.” The Last Days of Israel had come: the old age was at an end, and Jerusalem would be swept away in a new flood, to make way for God’s New Creation. As Paul said, tongues was “for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14:22) – a sign to the unbelieving Jews of their approaching doom.
The early Church looked forward to the coming of the new age. They knew that, with the visible end of the Old Covenant system, the Church would be revealed as the new, true Temple; and the work Christ came to perform would be accomplished. This was an important aspect of redemption, and the first-generation Christians looked forward to this event in their own lifetime. During this period of waiting and severe trial, the Apostle Peter assured them that they were “protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). They were on the very threshold of the new world.
Expecting the End
The Apostles and first-generation Christians knew they were living in the last days of the Old Covenant age. They looked forward anxiously to its consummation and the full ushering in of the new era. As the age progressed and the “signs of the end” increased and intensified, the Church could see that the Day of Judgment was fast approaching; a crisis was looming in the near future, when Christ would deliver them “from this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). The statements of the apostles are full of this expectant attitude, the certain knowledge that this momentous event was upon them. The sword of God’s wrath was poised over Jerusalem, ready to strike at any time. But the Christians were not to be afraid, for the coming wrath was not aimed at them, but at the enemies of the Gospel. Paul urged the Thessalonians to “wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). Echoing Jesus’ words in Matthew 23-24, Paul emphasized that the imminent judgment would be poured out upon “the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2:14-16). The Christians had been forewarned and were therefore prepared, but unbelieving Israel would be caught off-guard:
Now as to the times and epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day…. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
–1 Thess. 5:1-5, 9
Paul expanded upon this in his second letter to the same church:
For after all it is a righteous thing for God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give relief to you who are troubled and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire dealing out vengeance to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.
–2 Thess. 1:6-10
Clearly, Paul is not talking about Christ’s final coming at the end of the world, for the coming “tribulation” and “vengeance” were specifically aimed at those who were persecuting the Thessalonian Christians of the first generation. The coming day of judgment was not something thousands of years away. It was near – so near that they could see it coming. Most of the “signs of the end” were in existence already, and the inspired apostles encouraged the Church to expect the End at any moment. Paul urged the Christians in Rome to persevere in godly living, “knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:11-12). As the old age had been characterized by sin, despair, and bondage to Satan, the new age would be increasingly characterized by righteousness and the universal reign of the Kingdom. For the period of the “last days” was also the time when the Kingdom of heaven was inaugurated on earth, when the “Holy Mountain” began its dynamic growth and all nations began to flow into the Christian faith, as the prophets foretold (see Isa. 2:2-4; Mic. 4:1-4). Obviously, there is still a great deal of ungodliness in the world today. But Christianity has been gradually and steadily winning battles since the days of the early church; and as Christians continue to make war on the enemy, the time will come when the saints possess the Kingdom (Dan. 7:22, 27).
This is why Paul could comfort believers by assuring them that “the Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:5). Indeed, the watchword of the early Church (1 Cor. 16:22) was Maranatha! The Lord comes! Looking forward to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, the writer to the Hebrews warned those tempted to “draw back” to apostate Judaism that apostasy would only bring them “a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10:27).
For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God…. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: “For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.
–Heb. 10:30-31, 36-39
The other New Testament authors wrote in similar terms. After James warned the wealthy unbelievers who oppressed the Christians of the miseries about to descend upon them, charging that they had fraudulently “heaped up treasure in the last days” (James 5:1-6), he encouraged the suffering Christians:
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!
The Apostle Peter, too, warned the Church that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7), and encouraged them to live in the daily expectation of the judgment that would come in their generation:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy…. For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?
–1 Pet. 4:12-13, 17
The early Christians had to endure both severe persecution at the hands of apostate Israel, and betrayal by antichrists from their own midst who sought to steer the Church into the Judaistic cult. But this time of fiery tribulation and suffering was working for the Christians’ own blessing and sanctification (Rom. 8:28-39); and in the meantime God’s wrath against the persecutors was building up. Finally, the End came, and God’s anger was unleashed. Those who had brought tribulation upon the Church were cast into the greatest Tribulation of all time. The Church’s greatest enemy was destroyed, and would never again pose a threat to her ultimate victory.