Are We Living in the “Last Days”?
In this blog’s last survey about Peter’s Pentecost sermon, a big majority, 72 percent, voted for that first Pentecost Sunday as the start of the “last days.” A few others believe that our generation is the generation that lives in the “last days.”
Every Generation the “Terminal Generation”?
The belief that we are the “terminal generation” is tied to the return of Jews to Israel in 1948. Twenty percent of responders believe the last days started on that year. This is the view of the majority of dispensational premillennialists such as Tim LaHaye (Understanding the Last Days), Hal Lindsey (The Terminal Generation; Israel and the Last Days), Greg Laurie (Are We Living in the Last Days?), John Hagee (Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem, and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days), and Robert Lightner (Last Days Handbook). “We are the generation that will see the end times… and the return of Jesus,” Lindsey wrote in The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon. Like all false prophets dating back 2,000 years ago, from Montanus (150) to Melchior Hoffman (1533) to William Miller (1843-4), all of the current false prophets believe that ours is the “terminal generation.”
But let us look at the text in Acts 2:14-21 and elsewhere (all emphasis added, English Standard Version) and see what they really say about the last days.
The Last Days: Between Christmas and the Second Advent
When God poured out his Spirit on the disciples on that first Pentecost Sunday, the Jews who were gathered in Jerusalem for that Feast of Pentecost were amazed and perplexed because they heard the disciples telling them in their own tongues the mighty works of God. Some of the people mocked them saying, â€œThey are filled with new wine.â€ But Peter spoke to them, saying that it was too early in the day to be drunk, and instead, what was happening was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy:
16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 17 “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
Going back to Joel 2:28-32, there is a slight difference in the opening words. Joel begins his prophecy with, “And it shall come to pass afterward” (meta tauta, LXX), while Peter starts with, “And in the last days (en tais eschatais hemerais) it shall be.”
What Peter wanted to convey to the Jews is that the events on that Pentecost mark the inauguration of the last days, a new age in God’s redemptive plan. Where the Jews saw “all flesh” in Joel’s prophecy as a referent only to Israel, Peter saw it later as an expansion of the new covenant to Jews and Gentiles (Acts 2:39). Where Joel saw God pouring his Spirit even on literal servants, Peter saw Spirit-filled men and women who declare God’s mighty works as the Lord’s servants. Paul also understood that the coming of Christ was at the “fullness of time” (pleroma tou chronou, Gal 4:4; see Eph 1:10) when the old covenant was giving ground to the new.
Peter called his time as the last times (eschatou chronon, 1 Pet 1:20-21), but he was not the only apostle who saw Pentecost as the beginning of the last days of redemptive history. Paul also called his days as the “later times” (en husterois kairois)Â in 1 Timothy 4:1, where he warns believers that there will be people “devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,” so they are to have “nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths” (1 Tim 4:7).
In 2 Timothy 3:1, he calls his time theÂ “last days” (en eschatais hemerais), when already, there was wickedness. But he encourages them, “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (2 Tim 3:14).
As well, John wrote that his days was already “the last hour” (eschate hora, 1 John 2:18), and Jude said his time was part of the “last time” (eschatou chronou, Jude 18).
For the New Testament writers, the first coming of Christ was the midpoint of human history – the end of the old era ushering in the new era – and they were at the very heart of this center. The writer of Hebrews says that in the old covenant, God spoke through the prophets; but “in these last days” (eschatou hemeron), God spoke to them – the apostles – through Jesus (Heb 1:2). When Christ first came, he “appeared once for all at the end of the ages (sunteleia ton aionon) to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26), the same “end of the ages” (tele ton aionon) that has already come upon the Corinthian believers in the first century (1 Cor 10:11). And again, Peter says that Jesus was “made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God” (1 Pet 1:20-21).
The “Signs” of the Last Days
If the last days have been with us since the first century, then whenever the New Testament talks about the characteristics of the last days, we should expect these same characteristics to be present today as they were present in the first century.
Thus, Jesus’ answers to the disciples’ question in Matthew 24 are a guide to the events and nature of the last days. The disciples had a threefold question: (1) “when will these things be,” (2) “and what will be the sign of your coming” (3) “and of the close of the age (sunteleias tou aionos)?â€ The first question refers back to his prophecy about the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 in verses 1 and 2. The second question deals with his Second Coming and the third with the end of the world. Jesus’ answer is in three parts: (1) verses 4-14 deals with the last two questions; (2) verses 15-28 answers the first question; (3) verses 29-31 answers the question about his Second Coming.
As he was describing the fearsome events and turmoil of the close of the age, Jesus qualified them, saying, “for this must take place, but the end (telos) is not yet… All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (6b, 8). The destruction of the Temple is not the end, but just the beginning of birth pangs. If these signs are likened to birth pangs, they are to continue until the end of the world’s “labor,” intensifying with the progress of the “birth” process. False christs, wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, persecution, martyrdom, apostasy, false prophets and lawlessness (anomia) will be present throughout the age in increasing severity. Even the preaching of the gospel will increase, such that it “will be proclaimed throughout the whole world… and then the end (telos) will come” (verse 14).
The signs pointing towards the destruction of the Temple are a miniature of the birth pains pointing to the end of the age. The appearance of the “desolation of abomination spoken of by the prophet Daniel” is a foreshadow of the “man of lawlessness” (anthropos tes anomias), the Antichrist, who would proclaim himself as God, control the world, persecute and martyr believers, which will result in falling away (2 Thess 2:3; see Rev 13:5, 6). A great tribulation, false christs and false prophets – signs which precede the Temple destruction – also precede the close of the age.
This is why the New Testament writers warned first century believers about the nature of the last days. Paul warned that false teachers will seduce some to “depart (apostesontai, “fall away”) from the faith” in “later times” (husterois kairois, 1 Tim 4:1); ungodliness and unrighteous will be pervasive in the difficult “last days” (eschatais hemerais, 2 Tim 3:1). John says that his days is “the last hour” (eschate hora) marked by many antichrists (1 John 2:18). Scoffers will mock the faithful in the “last time” (eschatou chronou, Jude 18). All throughout history since the first coming of Christ, we know that all of these tribulations were present like birth pangs, and will be with us until the last day of the present last days.
But these signs do not tell us that the return of Jesus is “imminent” or can happen any moment now. Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, “For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed.” Two unmistakable events that must first take place before the last day comes: (1) a great apostasy, and (2) the appearing of the Antichrist.
The Last Day of the Last Days
Thus, at Christ’s first coming to sacrifice himself, the last days (later times, last hour, end of the ages) was inaugurated, but the consummation (sunteleia) at his second coming – the last day of the last days – still awaits. Christ warns all his disciples – from the first to the present century – not to speculate when that day [hemera] or hour [hora] will be, but that we are to keep watch because no one knows (Matt 24:36, 42), and “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope” (Tit 2:12-13).
The Old Testament writers prophesied of “the day of the Lord” (yom Yahweh) mostly as a day of judgment (Isa 2:12; Joel 2:1, 31; Amos 5:18; Zeph 1:7, 14; Mal 4:5), destruction and restoration.
The apostles referred to Christ’s return in various ways: “the day of the Lord” (te hemera tou kuriou, 1 Cor 5:5); “the day of our Lord Jesus” (2 Cor 1:14); “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8); “the day of Christ” (Phil 1:6, 2:16); “the day of God” (2 Pet 3:12″); “the day of eternity” (2 Pet 3:18); “day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:12; see Isa 10:3); “that day” (Matt 7:22; 1 Thess 5:4; 2 Tim 4:8).
The day of Christ will mark the end of this age and the beginning of the age to come.
In my next post, I will discuss the relationship between the last day and the resurrection. But first, please answer the new anonymous survey: “In the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, when are the two separated?”
My Favorite Eschatology Books
Beale, G. K. 1-2 Thessalonians. IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: IVPress, 2003.
_________. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Demar, Gary. Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church. Atlanta: American Vision, 1999.
Hendriksen, William. More Than Conquerors. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967.
Hoekema, Anthony. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001.
Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
Mathison, Keith. From Age to Age: The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009.
Poythress, Vern S. The Returning King. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000. (This book is published online by permission of publisher.)
Riddlebarger, Kim. The Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth About the Antichrist. Grand Rapids: Baker, June 2006.
Venema, Cornelis. The Promise of the Future. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2000.
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