STUDIES IN BIBLICAL ESCHATOLOGY No. 6
“The Last Days” (And “Imminence”)
June 8, 2003
We are discussing these Lord’s Day evenings the various themes or motifs by which and in which the Bible casts its vision of the future, both the inaugurated future – that part of the Bible’s prediction of the future that has already come to pass – and the still unconsummated future. We have so far considered the seed, the land, the Day of the Lord, and the salvation of the nations. In regard to the many prophecies of the day of the triumph of the gospel in the world we considered last Lord’s Day evening, for the first but not the last time, the question of “the golden age” and the various views of the millennium that have been taught in Christendom through the ages. We are noting week after week the effect of the characteristic idiom in which biblical predictions of the future are cast, especially what scholars call the prophetic perspective according to which the future is set before us in its wholeness, as if it were a single event, a single moment. In this way – a way of speaking about the past and future that we often employ ourselves – the emphasis falls on the meaning of that future, on the divine purpose, on the certainty of an outcome and not instead on a detailed sequence of the events that make up that future. The main thing is placed before us, not the details.
Now, however, there is a motif that we might well think would be unusual in just that way, in the way in which it focuses our attention on chronological order. I am speaking of the phrase often used in the Bible to predict the future, viz. “the last days.” However, we are going to see that this nomenclature, this way of speaking has precisely the same characteristics as do the other motifs we have so far considered. And, as we are now incorporating into our discussion of the various motifs some of the “issues” or “controversies” in evangelical eschatology, tonight, in connection with our examination of the use of the phrase “the last days” we will take up the question of the “imminence” of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. If something is “imminent” it means that it is “ready to take place” or “near at hand,” or “impending.” And there is a debate about whether we should think of the Second Coming as imminent or not.
I. “The last days” in the Old Testament
In its use in the Old Testament, the phrase “the last days” may mean different things. For example, in Genesis 49:1, as Jacob gathers his sons to give them his final blessing, we read him say to them: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” The NIV’s “days to come” is a translation of the Hebrew phrase that literally means “the end of days.” The KJV rendered it “the last days.” Now, included in Jacob’s prophesies about his sons is the messianic reign of Jesus Christ – in the blessing of Judah in vv. 8-12, including its account of the consummation of that reign when the obedience of the nations will be his and when unprecedented blessing and prosperity is granted to the world on account of him – but, along the way are a good many more pedestrian prophecies concerning the life of the Israelite tribes in times future to Jacob and his sons. For example we read of Gad’s military prowess in v. 19, a prowess confirmed later in 1 Chronicles 5:18 and 12:8. So, taking the chapter as a whole, the NIV is probably correct in rendering “the end of days” or “the last days” in 49:1 with “in days to come.” In such a context “the last days” means simply “the future.” The particular time in the future is indeterminate.
In Deuteronomy, the phrase is used conventionally in several places to refer to experiences that Israel will have in the future. For example, we read in Deut. 4:30:
“When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then
in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him.”
That “in later days” is our “end of days” or “last days.” Or, in Deut. 31:29 we read:
“For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall upon you because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord…”
That “in days to come” is also our “end of days” or “last days.” The NASB, a very literal translation, gives the rendering, “evil will befall you in the latter days.” Obviously, the context is, to some important degree, determining the reference of the phrase. And that is important to note.
Then we come to a text like Daniel 10:14 where the archangel Michael tells Daniel,
“Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”
The NIV’s “in the future” is our “end of days” or “last days.” The NASB renders Daniel 10:14:
“Now I have come to give you an understanding of what will happen to your
people in the latter days, for the vision pertains to the days yet future.”
Now what is interesting is that the prophecy that follows concerns the kings of Persia, Alexander the Great and his successors, and continues up to what seems to be without question the day of resurrection and the last judgment in chapter 12. Therefore, “the last days” in Daniel 10 encompasses a period that stretches from Daniel’s own day to the end of the world. In chapter 2, the same phrase is used similarly to mean the future days, the days to follow. For example, in 2:28 Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that in the dreams the Lord had given him, “He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come…” That “in days to come” is our “end of days” or “last days.” And the dream, if you remember, concerned the empires that would follow Babylon up to the empire of Rome and, during that time, the arrival of the King of Kings whose kingdom would be established, which would crush all those other kingdoms, and would itself endure forever.” There “last days” again stretches from Daniel’s time to the end of history and includes within itself the long unfolding of history.
But, then, there are other texts, in which the phrase “the last days” seems definitely to refer to what we might call “the messianic age,” or the time of the fulfillment of the great prophecies of gospel triumph. For example:
Isa. 2:2: “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be
established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills and
all nations will stream to it.”
Mic. 4:1: “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be
established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills
and peoples will stream to it.” (Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries!)
Hos. 3:5: “Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their
God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his
blessings in the last days.”
You get the point. “The last days” can refer to the indeterminate future, or it can refer as a kind of technical term to “the final period of history…the ideal or Messianic future.”
Now, when we come to the NT we find a use of the phrase that clearly is built upon the use of the phrase in the prophecies of the messianic future that we find in Isaiah and Micah.
1. In Acts 2:16ff. Peter says in his sermon that what had just happened in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the disciples speaking in tongues, and the gospel being heard in many languages was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32.
“In these last days, God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people….” Now, what is interesting is that Joel doesn’t use the phrase “in these last days.” Joel simply says, “And afterward I will pour out my Spirit…” “In the last days” is Peter’s interpretative addition to the Joel prophecy. It seems incontestable that Peter is combining the language of Joel and Isaiah and Micah and telling us that the descent of the Holy Spirit demonstrates that we are now in that period of time long ago prophesied by the prophets, the period designated by them as “the last days.” We would have to say that, according to Peter’s insertion of that phrase in the Joel prophecy he quoted in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, “the last days” seems to refer to an epoch that had just then or very soon before been inaugurated. That interpretation seems to be confirmed by other uses of the phrase. For example, in James 5:2-3 we read: “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.” In other words, their sin of worldliness is compounded by the fact that they are hoarding in the last days, in the final period of human history when, more than ever, they should be putting their wealth to righteous use. Or, take Hebrews 1:1-2 where we read that “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…” Those uses of the phrase approximate the use of other terminology, such as Paul’s phrase in 1 Cor. 10:11. Speaking of Israel in the wilderness, he writes, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” The NIV’s fulfillment of the ages is literally “the end of the ages,” more like the Hebrew idiom “the end of days.” The NT clearly conveys the sense that we live “in the last days” and that this fact is the fulfillment of the expectation of the OT prophets of a time, called the last days, in which the messianic ministry would take place and find its fulfillment.
But, of course, if we say that, by a rigorous necessity, we must also be saying that “the last days” is a period that has so far lasted some 2,000 years and has been characterized by advance and retreat, long periods of spiritual doldrums punctuated by revival, by apostasy as well as by spiritual faithfulness on the part of God’s people. The last days, in other words, is not a time of triumph only!
2. That too is confirmed in the NT usage. In 2 Tim. 3:1 we have this:
“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…”
In 2 Peter 3:3 we have this:
“First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
There we have evidence from the NT itself that the epoch called “the last days” would last long enough to tempt people to doubt that Jesus would ever come again.
In Jude 18 we have:
“But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, ‘In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.”
Similar nomenclature is found in 1 John 2:18:
“Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.”
Now, if you take all of this data together, it appears that “the last days,” especially in its most technical, eschatological use, means the epoch of fulfillment which began with the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Once again, the OT prophecies of this time, the age is compressed in the vision of the future and we are given to see only the triumph of the Messiah, when the mountain of the Lord’s temple rises above all the other mountains. In the prophetic perspective we are not given to see ahead of time either the number of years that “the last days” would encompass or the complicated history of the development of the Messiah’s kingdom as it made its way out into the Gentile world. We have seen part of “the last days,” but not yet all of it, we have witnessed the beginnings of that fulfillment but not, by any means, the consummation of the vision of Isaiah or Micah. In all of this, of course, “the last days” ends up being very like the other motifs employed in biblical prophecy to forecast the future of the kingdom of God.
Now, we are ready to take up the question of “imminence.” Imminence can mean different things in the eschatological debate. For dispensationalists, with their doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture of the church, the sudden, unannounced disappearance of the church from the world, seven years before the Second Coming – the removal of the church so that it would not pass through the Great Tribulation – “imminence” meant that there is no biblically predicted event that needs to occur before the Second Coming. That is, there is nothing that we should look for, nothing that has to happen first, before the rapture. The rapture will be the next thing that happens. In that sense the second coming (for the rapture is the first of Christ’s second comings, the secret coming seven years before the public Second Coming) is imminent, it is at hand, it is impending, it is ready to occur. Dispensational preachers used to ring the changes on this. “Not one tick of the clock of biblical prophecy has been heard since the days of the New Testament and not one tick will be heard until, in a moment, the church disappears from the world.”
Now, we find fatal problems with the entire notion of such a “rapture,” or the idea that Christ’s Second Coming occurs in two stages separated by seven years, and we will consider those problems at another time. But, that kind of imminence I do not find in the Bible. In fact, the disciples at one point and the Apostle Paul at others actually take up the questions regarding the signs of the Lord’s coming and there are answers given. And the answer is not, is most definitely not, “there will be no such signs.”
Interestingly, however, dispensational interpreters were however inconsistent at this point. They generally took the view that events that seemed to set the stage for the unfolding of the biblical scenario of the end of time, as they understood that scenario, could be harbingers of the end. When they used the term “last days” as in the sentence, “We are now in the last days!” they meant not “last days” as the final full epoch of world history, but the end of that epoch, the final, culminating events of that period of human history. When I was growing up there was a lot of talk of our being “in the last days.” People thought that events in the world could be matched to biblical prophecies concerning the end of all things. Also they took a view, quite common in biblical interpretation, that the characteristic features of the epoch of the “the last days” would be intensified in the final period of that epoch. So if wars and rumors of wars, if earthquakes are characteristic of the last days, as an epoch, they would be even more characteristic of the end of that epoch. So people told us that there were more earthquakes today than ever before and more wars too. Whether that was true we had no way of knowing, but it sounded plausible and impressive.
It was this idea that one could see the stage being set for the final apocalypse that explains why so many of them made the mistake of identifying some contemporary figure as the Anti-Christ. Believe me, almost every major figure was thought by someone to be the anti-Christ. From Nero, to Napoleon, from Mussolini to Saddam Hussein, such men were thought to be the Anti-Christ of biblical prophecy. Even Ronald Wilson Reagan was thought by some to be a candidate, because each of his three names had six letters. A professor of mine [J. Barton Payne] had to eat a lot of crow for having published a book in which he proposed Nikita Khrushchev as the likely candidate for that dubious honor.
And many remember the speculations of Hal Lindsey about how this or that political development presaged developments in Europe and the Middle East that had been long ago prophesied in Ezekiel and Daniel. In his hugely popular book, The Late Great Planet Earth, Lindsey wrote, “[The Hebrew prophets] predicted that as man neared the end of history as we know it there would be a precise pattern of events which would loom up in history.” [ii, cited in Hoekema, 132] I remember my late sister, as a teenager, coming back from a Campus Crusade training seminary at which Hal Lindsey had been the primary speaker, and how exciting she made it seem, and how plausible, that events were unfolding at that very moment that were setting the stage for the end of time. And, we all heard, in those days, that the bricks had been ordered by the Israeli government for the rebuilding of the temple! It was being kept secret, but it was a poorly kept secret. You still can find this kind of teaching about the Bible and the future – it is called “newspaper exegesis” by those who aren’t impressed with it – in some books and Christian TV and these sorts of scenarios, and the fact that we can predict them, lies beneath the phenomenal success of the Left Behind series of books that have sold many millions of copies and that you can see piled up by the hundreds on the book table at Costco. The fact that such predictions have been made for nearly 200 years now, and in some ways have been made all through Christian history, and that not a one of them has come true, does not seem to worry those in the prediction business or to raise doubts among those who read their books or listen to their sermons. The fact that none of this has the support of mainstream evangelical biblical scholarship doesn’t matter either. Years ago, as a youthfully exuberant evangelist, Billy Graham told a large Los Angeles rally, “Two years and it’s all going to be over.” Since then, to his credit, he has been more cautious! The popularity of ideas is a phenomenon that often must be accounted for in other ways than by the credibility of the ideas themselves.
But, we can consider the imminence of the Second Coming in other respects. As you may know, some biblical scholarship has argued that NT Christians all thought that the Second Coming would happen very soon, in their own lifetimes, and that, when they were disappointed in that hope, they reshaped the message of Christianity for the long haul. In other words, the NT has within itself two quite different ideas of the future.
Well, I have no problem with the idea that Paul himself may well, at one time, have thought he would live to see the return of Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, in one of his earliest letters, Paul says, “we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” He seems to be including himself among those who will not die before the Lord’s return. In Philippians, written later, he seems very clearly to expect his own death before the Second Coming and in 2 Timothy, at the end of his life, he knows he will die and be among those who are in their graves when Jesus comes again. Paul wasn’t omniscient. And if Jesus himself admitted that he, as a man, did not know the date of the Second Coming, then surely Paul didn’t either and would have been subject to impressions just like anyone else.
However, that is no proof that people altered their view of the faith because of some disappointment regarding what was supposed to be an imminent Second Coming. In the Gospels, in the teaching of Jesus himself, and in the rest of the NT we get various impressions. In a number of places we read something like what we read in Hebrews 10:37: “For in just a very little while, ‘He who is coming will come and will not delay.’” Or what we read in Romans 13:11: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” Or, James 5:8: “You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” Or, 1 Peter 4:7: “The end of all things is near.” Or, Revelation 22:12: “Behold I am coming soon.” And again in 22:20: “Yes, I am coming soon.”
On the other hand, in speaking about his coming again in Matthew 24, the Lord speaks of a number of things that must transpire before he comes again, including some things that will take time – such as the preaching of the gospel through all the world – and even tells a parable about a Master who leaves on a journey and entrusts his work to a servant, but then stays away a long time…” A great point is made there of the uncertainty of the time of the Lord’s return. In 25:5, in another parable, he says, “The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep,” and in v. 19 of that 25th chapter, in still another parable, he says, “After a long time…the master returned…” I already read to you some texts that suggested that the great delay in the Lord’s return would prompt many to doubt he ever would. “Everything goes on as it has from the beginning,” they will say. And in a number of places we are told, either by the Lord himself or by one of his apostles, that we must keep watch precisely because we do not know when the Lord will return.
Taking the biblical data together it is probably too much to say that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is imminent in a chronological sense. We simply don’t know when the Lord will return to earth. It is certainly impending however. It is coming, it looms over human life and defines its meaning. We are living in the “last days” in the sense that some biblical prophecy has already been gloriously fulfilled and only some of it remains to come to pass. That is a great advantage that we enjoy over those who lived before the first coming of the Lord Christ. However, we find ourselves waiting and waiting long as they did. Our faith will be tested by how willingly and confidently we wait in expectation for the fulfillment of the promises Christ has made to us.
You do not have to believe that Jesus Christ will return tomorrow or that he will return in your lifetime to be a faithful Christian. Many have believed that and were wrong. There is no holiness in being mistaken about Christ’s coming again. But, you must believe he has come once and will very definitely come again to be a faithful Christian, and you must not only believe it, but live accordingly. The great significance of the phrase “the last days” is that it so plainly indicates that there are a definite number of days to be lived by the human race, that those days are heading to a goal, to an end, to a decisive consummation, and that the meaning of life is found in knowing what that end will be and what it will mean. If there are last days, then there is a last day.
It is striking and important to me to know, as I do know, that many people, including some with whom I am acquainted, came to Christ as Savior and Lord reading Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth. I don’t agree with that book at all. I think its understanding of the Bible is insupportable and, frankly, a bit juvenile. It teaches a system of biblical prophecy that is wrong root and branch. I think Hal Lindsey should have know already by the time he wrote that book that he was a very unreliable prognosticator. But, there it is, that book made many Christians. I have had some of them say that they don’t agree with the book’s teaching any longer, but it was that book that broke up the concrete around their unbelief and led them to Christ. Why? Not, I think, because of the details, most of which are completely wrong in my judgment. No, I think the reason it made so many Christians is because it was used by the Lord to penetrate their secularist mind and to force them to realize that time and history are going somewhere and that the world will end according to a plan and a divine purpose. They were reading that book and it occurred to them that they had no real understanding of that plan or purpose and did not know how to be at peace with the God whose plan and purpose it was. It was the reality of a certain future unfolding as God determined that made them Christians. It was the knowledge that Jesus Christ’s return to earth determined the meaning of everything that made them Christians. It was realizing that our place in the future was going to be determined by what we did regarding Jesus Christ in the present that made them Christians. Precisely what it means to be in the last days we may argue over. That there are such things as “last days” means, incontestably, that the meaning of this life and this world and our life in this world are determined by the living God and not by us ourselves. And all the words in all the worlds cannot tell how significant it is to know that!