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15 July 2019

Last Days in the Book of Hebrews

Synopsis:  The “last days” began with the death, resurrection, and the exaltation of the Son of God, according to the book of Hebrews - Hebrews 1:1-3. 

Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash
Paul Gilmore on Unsplash
Interpretations often go awry when they ignore or misunderstand New Testament statements about the “last days.”  This designation involves not just end-time prophecy but key subjects such as the gift of the Spirit and its significance in the redemptive plan of God.

When we hear “last days” we assume it to be a reference to a final short period of history prior to the return of Jesus; however, the New Testament presents this period as an era of fulfillment that began with the death, resurrection, and the exaltation of Jesus.

(Hebrews 1:1-3) – “Whereas, in many parts and in many ways of old, God spake unto the fathers in the prophets, At the end of these days, He hath spoken unto us in his Son,—whom he hath appointed heir of all things, through whom also he hath made the ages; Who, being an eradiated brightness of his glory, and an exact representation of his very being, also bearing up all things by the utterance of his power, purification of sins having achieved, sat down on the right hand of the majesty in high places” – (The Emphasized Bible).

The book of Hebrews begins with a declaration of how God, “in these last days, has spoken to us in a Son.” Elsewhere, the Author describes how Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). 

Likewise, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “The appointed time has been shortened…For the forms of this world are in the process of passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29). The last verb is in the Greek present tense (i.e., “passing away”), which signifies continuing action; that is, the forms and institutions of this age have been in the process of passing away since the victory of Jesus over sin and death (see, 'Paul and the Last Days').

A few passages later, Paul described how the Hebrew scriptures were written for the instruction of Christians at Corinth, the ones “upon whom the end of the ages has come.” He made a similar point to the Galatians by declaring, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (1 Corinthians 10:11, Galatians 4:4).

Peter, in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, changed the opening word from Joel 2:28 from “afterward” to “in the last days…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” He linked the initial outpouring of the Spirit to the “last days”; the gift of the Spirit demonstrated that the era predicted by Joel had begun. Likewise, Peter declared that Jesus was destined “before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake” (Acts 2:17, 1 Peter 1:20).

John, in his first epistle, warned his congregations:  “It is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore, we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).

Such New Testament statements often cause confusion for some and provide fodder for critics of the Bible.  For example, some critics argue that the first Christians, including Jesus, believed the second coming would occur in their day.  Obviously, they were mistaken. But their criticism stems from the failure to understand the Bible’s concept of the “last days.”

The Hebrew Bible sees history divided into two ages; the present evil age and the “age to come,” with the latter term used several times in the New Testament.  The coming age, the promised messianic era, would be ushered in when the Messiah arrived.  Beliefs about the details may have varied within Israelite society, but the basic outline remained the same.

By the first century, some Jewish leaders looked for a royal and militaristic messiah who would destroy their nation’s enemies and free Israel from foreign domination; others waited for a priestly messiah.

Two scriptural promises became key messianic expectations:  the expected outpouring of God’s Spirit and the resurrection of the dead. Related were the promises of the establishment of God’s kingdom. Such expectations were in mind when faithful Israelites spoke of the “last days” (Joel 2:28, Ezekiel 37:26-27).

Those expectations came to fruition in the life, death, and in the resurrection of Jesus; however, not in the ways expected by his Jewish contemporaries.  In his ministry, he inaugurated the kingdom of God. No term is found more often on his lips in the gospel accounts than the “kingdom of God.” In his exorcisms and healings, Jesus was reclaiming “territory” for God and, also, he was “Binding the Strong Man” - the Devil. Such miracles demonstrated that the kingdom had commenced along with the activity of the promised Spirit.
The task of gospel proclamation is to herald the arrival of God’s kingdom and, thus, summon all who will heed to respond accordingly. In Jesus, God inaugurated His reign on the earth, a realm that will continue to move forward until its final consummation at the return of Jesus in glory. 

The resurrection of Jesus marked the commencement of the general resurrection of the dead in the last days, which is why his resurrection is called the “firstfruits” of our own, and the “firstfruits” is of the same kind as the final harvest.  The gift of the Spirit is also called the “firstfruits” of the future redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23, 1 Corinthians 15:20).

The Spirit is linked with bodily resurrection because resurrection is an act of new creation.  From the beginning, God’s Spirit has been the agent of creation and the source of all life (Genesis1:1-2). 

The gift of the Spirit is our “earnest” (arrabōn) or “down payment” on the future bodily resurrection and the New Creation, the rock-solid “guarantee” that God will complete what He began in the resurrection of His Son (2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14).
The “last days” have been underway since the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit on the church.  The Cross was far more than the execution of Jesus or a model for selfless martyrdom.  On it, God defeated all the “powers and principalities” opposed to Him that had enslaved mankind.  The final victory has been won and it is cosmic in scope.

With Calvary, history has entered its final phase. The existing order has been winding down to its final destruction ever since, as it undergoes its final death throes. Jesus, through his church, is now engaged in a “mopping-up operation,” primarily, through the proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom.

The “last days” is NOT a chronological marker but a theological concept; it refers to the era that has been underway since the death and resurrection of the Son of God.  Satan has been defeated and, to a large extent, bound.

Salvation is now available to all who will receive it.  God is establishing His final rule over the earth.  He has constituted his people, Jew and Gentile, a “kingdom of priests” to mediate His presence to a darkened world. In Jesus, the future age has irrupted into the old one until the consummation of all things at the return of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the New Creation.

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