15 July 2019

The Last Days in the New Testament

Interpretations go awry when they ignore or misunderstand New Testament statements about “the last days.”  This includes end-time prophecy and other topics as well; for example, the gift of the Spirit and its significance in the redemptive plan of God.
       When we hear “last days” we assume it is a reference to a final short period just before Jesus returns. But the New Testament presents the “last days” as an era of fulfillment that began with the death, resurrection and the exaltation of Jesus.

       The book of Hebrews begins with a declaration concerning how God “in these last days spoke to us by a Son.”  Hebrews 9:26 describes how Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Such passages place Jesus at the start of this period or, more correctly, as its starting point.
(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 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, which signifies continuing action; the forms and institutions of this age have been passing away ever since the death and resurrection of Jesus.
     A few passages later, Paul described how the Hebrew scriptures were written down for the instruction of Christians at Corinth, the ones “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). The Apostle made a similar point to the Galatians when he declared that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Galatians 4:4).
     Peter, in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, changed the opening word of Joel 2:28 from “afterward” to “in the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” (Acts 2:17). He linked the outpouring of the Spirit to the last days; the gift of the Spirit demonstrated that the era predicted by Joel had begun. Similarly, 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” (1 Peter 1:20).
      John in his first epistle warned his congregations that “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 references about the “last days” have caused confusion for some and provided fodder for critics.  For example, some voices argue that the first Christians, including Jesus, believed the second coming would occur in their day.  They, obviously, were quite mistaken. But this misunderstands the Bible’s concept of the “last days.”
     The Hebrew scriptures see history divided into two ages; the present evil age and the “age to come,” the latter a term found several times in the New Testament.  The coming age would be ushered in when the Messiah came.  Beliefs about the details may have varied within Israelite society but the basic outline remained the same.
      By the first century AD, some Jewish leaders were looking for a royal and militaristic messiah who would destroy the nation’s enemies and free Israel from foreign domination. Others waited for a priestly messiah.
Two scriptural promises became key to messianic expectations:  the expected outpouring of God’s Spirit and the resurrection of the dead (Joel 2:28, Ezek. 37:26-27). Such expectations were in mind when faithful Israelites spoke of the “last days.”
     These expectations came to fruition in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, only not in the ways expected by his Jewish contemporaries.  In his ministry, Jesus inaugurated the "kingdom of God"; no term is found more often on his lips in the gospel accounts. In his exorcisms and healings, Jesus was reclaiming “territory” for God and “binding the Strong Man,” Satan. Such miracles demonstrated the arrival of God’s kingdom and the activity of His Spirit. The "last days" had arrived.
      The task of gospel proclamation that Jesus assigned to his church is to herald the arrival of God’s kingdom and to call all who will heed to act accordingly. In Jesus, God has inaugurated His reign on the earth and it will continue to move forward to its final consummation when Jesus returns.
     The resurrection of Jesus marked the start of the general resurrection expected in the last days. This is why the New Testament calls his resurrection the “firstfruits” of our own (1 Corinthians 15:20).  The gift of the Spirit is also the “firstfruits” of the future redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).  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 (Genesis 1:1-2). 
The gift of the Spirit is our “earnest” (arrabōn), God’s “down payment” on the future bodily resurrection and the New Creation, His rock-solid “guarantee” that He will complete what He started in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (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.  The Cross was far more than the execution of Jesus or a model for selfless living.  On it, God defeated all the “powers and principalities” that were opposed to Him and had enslaved mankind.  The final victory has already 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; it is in its final death throes. Jesus through his church is engaged in a “mopping up operation,” especially as his people proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom to all the nations. 
The “last days” is NOT a chronological marker but a theological concept; it refers to the state of affairs that has been in existence since the death and resurrection of Jesus.
     Salvation is now available to all who willingly 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 and light to a darkened world. The church is God’s people and now lives “between the times.” She belongs to the coming age but still lives in the old one in unredeemed bodies.
      In Jesus, and subsequently, in his church, the future age has irrupted into the middle of the old order.  The early church did not have an otherworldly outlook but a future-oriented one. It looked for salvation in the coming age.
     Jesus will usher in the final consummation when he arrives in glory to resurrect the dead and bring in the New Creation. The final result will not be the destruction of the material universe but a New Heaven and Earth.

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