The Biblical Last Days - Part I

by Charles S. Meek

     Years ago, when I began studying the Bible seriously, I decided to "test all things" to see if what I was being taught about Christian doctrine was  correct, as the Bible itself instructs us to do in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. I wanted to know and to teach the truth, even if the truth was contrary to my previous assumptions. I did extensive studies of all the popular doctrines of classical Christianity, including: the evidence for God, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the atonement, the resurrection, the inspiration and reliability of Scripture, the sinful nature of mankind, salvation through faith, special creation of the universe, etc. I found all of these doctrines to be biblical and true. 

Then I got to eschatology, that is, Bible prophecy about the so-called "last things" or "end times." On this subject, I realized more and more that what I was hearing in the pulpit and in the popular Christian media did not match what the Bible actually teaches. It seemed that Christians were less interested in what the Bible actually teaches and more in defending their presuppositions.

I discovered that there are 19 mentions of the last days, end times (or end of the age) in the New Testament, and taken as a group, the setting and fulfillment is clearly in the first century! So I dug further. I'd like to share what I have learned, hoping that you too are interested in what the Bible really says about this. Here are the 19 passages: Matthew 13:38-42; 24:2-3; 13-16 (ref. Matthew 24:34); Acts 2:14-20; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 7:29-31; 10:11; 15:24; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; Hebrews 1:1-2; 3:14; 9:26; James 5:1-6; 1 Peter 1:5-7, 20; 4:7; 1 John 2:18; Jude 17-23. We will examine this carefully in this series.

There is extraordinary disagreement among Christians about eschatology. Fortunately, this is an area on which Christians can debate without dividing over. But, the end of time seems to hold a particular fascination for American Evangelicals who are wrapped up in rapture theology. They curiously find hope in an expected destruction of the planet and its replacement with a utopia in which even carnivorous animals will take up vegetarianism. It is simply taken for granted that the Bible predicts and explains an end of time, and that there is no number of elapsed centuries spent waiting for it that cannot be called the "end times." 

In this two-part series I will show conclusively, examining the New Testament texts on the "last days/end times," that the biblical end times era was the period between Christ's first advent and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. The last days are not about the end of the physical universe, but rather, are about the end of the age, that is the Old Covenant Age culminating in the dramatic events of AD 70. This was the view of the New Testament writers, and has been the view of many Christians down through the ages. While this is a minority view today, more and more Christians are gravitating to this view, commonly called "preterism."

To understand Bible prophecy, one must first grasp what happened in the year AD 70. This year marked the culmination of the Jewish-Roman War in which the Roman army decimated Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. Over a million Jews were killed, Israel ceased to exist as a nation, and the marvelous temple was leveled. This is theologically significant because this is when the age-old Judaistic system of sacrifices for sin ended forever. Jesus replaced the temple as the object of our faith (John 2:18-21; Revelation 21:22) as Jesus was the final sacrifice for the sins of the world (Hebrews 10). Just as God used opposing armies in the Old Testament as instruments of his judgment against nations, He used the Roman army to judge Old Covenant Israel for her sins, for her failure to accept Jesus as Messiah, and for her participation with Rome in the crucifxion of Jesus (Matthew 23:29-24:3; 27:25; Luke 21:20-28). Biblical Judaism ended in AD 70.

While Jesus’ First Advent marked the beginning of the New Covenant Age, the Old Covenant Age was swept away in finality in AD 70. There was a period of about 40 years in which the two systems existed side-by-side, in a sense (Acts 15). There is a remarkable parallel to the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness. The Hebrew children escaped the worldly bondage of slavery in Egypt at the Exodus, but they did not reach their new home for 40 years, after much trial and tribulation. In the first century, believers received their promised escape from spiritual bondage at the cross, but would enter their new spiritual dwelling place--the New Jerusalem/New Heaven and Earth--about 40 years later, after much trial and tribulation (Acts 14:22).

It is also significant because Jesus predicted this. Indeed, Jesus had a hand in this judgment against Old Covenant Israel. You might want to take the time to read all three versions of the “Olivet Discourse,” a prophecy Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives. This contains the largest body of prophecy in the New Testament outside of the book of Revelation. Here is where it is found: Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Notice, for example, in Matthew 24, Jesus dialogued with his disciples:

"Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and his disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, 'Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.' Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, 'Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming [i.e. presence, Greek parousia], and of the end of the age?'” (Matthew 24:1-3)

Then Jesus gave eight “signs” to expect before the end of the age. Contrary to popular belief, various scholars have conclusively demonstrated that all eight signs were fulfilled in the first century. For example, in Matthew 24:14 Jesus said that the "end" would come after the gospel had been preached throughout the "world," which in New Testament lingo meant the Roman world (Luke 2:1). The Apostle Paul, in numerous places, declared that this had been fulfilled by the time he was writing a number of years later (Romans 1:8; 16:26; Colossians 1:6, 23). In Luke’s version especially, we find several very specific time-constraints when those things would happen. Notice that Jesus was speaking to his disciples:

"When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. . . . Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. . . . Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to [Greek mello] happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:20-22, 32, 36, NIV)

In Luke 21:24 we see that those who were to perish would fall by the sword. (This is not about nuclear weapons, as many think. This is about ancient warfare!) Elsewhere, Jesus made it perfectly clear that these things would happen while some of those living in the first century were still alive (cf. Matthew 10:23; Matthew 16:27-28; Matthew 26:64). These were not events thousands of years in the future, nor were they world-wide events as is clear by Jesus’ statement that the disciples could avoid them by fleeing to the mountains. 

In the Olivet Discourse, we find several clear time restrictions: (1) At least seven times Jesus restricted the events to those to whom He was speaking, by such phrases as “When YOU see. . . .” Consider: Matthew 24:6, 9, 15, 33, 34, 44; Luke 21:20. (2) Just in case they were too dense to get it, He emphasized, “Truly I tell you, THIS GENERATION will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Luke 21:32 (3) And, if it there was any lingering doubt about when it would happen, He said, “Pray that you may be able to escape all that is ABOUT TO happen.” (Luke 21:36, see the NIV or literal translations such as the YLT)

There can be no doubt how the disciples understood Jesus’ prophecy. They understood that they themselves—and not some future generation—would experience these things. This understanding is confirmed by over 100 passages in the New Testament emphasizing the disciples’ expectation of the imminent fulfillment of the prophesied events. The writers of the New Testament spoke with one voice confirming their expectation that the last days events would be completed in their lifetimes. 

Unless Jesus and the writers of the New Testament were false prophets, these things unambiguously determine that the “end of the age” was a reference to the Old Covenant Age, and that it would culminate in the generation in which Jesus’ disciples were living. It would be coincident with the destruction of the temple.

Now let’s consider other key passages that speak of the “last days” or “end times” to see how they match the Olivet Discourse.


Old Testament 

Moses, in Deuteronomy 28-32, predicted that there would come a time in the "last days" (Deuteronomy 32:29) when Israel would become so unfaithful that God would take the blessings of the covenant away from the Israelites, taking VENGEANCE upon them (Deuteronomy 32:35, 41, 43; cf. Isaiah 61:2; Matthew 21:43).

This prophecy of Deuteronomy was echoed by the Old Testament prophets. For example, In Daniel chapter 12 there are multiple mentions of the “time of the end” (verses 4, 9, etc.). In fact, in many Bibles this chapter is titled “The Time of the End.” Daniel makes it absolutely clear that the time of the end would be when the “burnt offerings” would cease:

"When the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, all these things shall be finished. . . . And from the time that the regular burnt offering/daily sacrifice is taken away, and the abomination of desolation is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred and ninety days." (Daniel 12:7, 11)

That happened in AD 70. Many Christians think Daniel is speaking of the “end of time,” but that is not what it is about. Rather, it is about the time of the end. Well, the end of what? It was not to be the end of the physical universe, but rather the end of the Old Covenant System, “when the power of the holy people” was finished. Interestingly, for further confirmation of the time line, Jesus specifically referenced Daniel 9:27 and Daniel 12:11 in the Olivet Discourse and quoted “the abomination of desolation” (Matthew 24:15), which clearly ties this with the destruction of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:2). Jesus, speaking to his contemporaries said, "So, when YOU see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel. . . ."


New Testament 

In Luke 21:22 Jesus proclaimed that the "days of VENGEANCE" (Deuteronomy 32:35, 43; Isaiah 61:2) had arrived. In addition to the teaching of Jesus himself, there are several mentions of the “last days,” or its equivalent “last times” or “last hour” or “the end” in the New Testament by the apostles. Fulfillment of none of these can be placed outside of the first century. Here is an analysis of these passages.

The Apostle Paul taught that he and his contemporaries were living at the “end of the age”:

"These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age(s)." (1 Corinthians 10:11, NLT)

Paul also instructed Timothy to avoid certain people in the last days. If the last days were thousands of years in the future, Timothy would have to be alive today:

"Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. . . . to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!" (1 Timothy 4:1, 6:14; 2 Timothy 3:1-5, NLT)

The apostle Peter proclaimed that they themselves were living in the last days predicted by Joel:

"But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, 'Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words. For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams.’” (Acts 2:14-17)

Peter was expecting an imminent last-days’ consummation. His statement above is further confirmed by his statement in the very next chapter of Acts:

"Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days." (Acts 3:24)

Peter did not teach that the "last days" merely began in the first century and would continue indefinitely into the future, as some people think. He believed that the last days would be fully consummated very soon:

"The end of all things is at hand. . . .For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God." (1 Peter 4:7, 17)

Again speaking of the last days, the salvation of which Peter spoke in the passage below is consistent with the similar statements about the imminent coming redemption spoken of by Jesus in Luke 21:28 (the Olivet Discourse) and by Paul in Romans 13:11. This salvation/redemption was guaranteed at the cross, but would be completed when the visible structure of the old covenant world had been swept away in AD 70:

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. . . . He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you." (1 Peter 1:3-5, 20)

The writer of Hebrews proclaimed that he was in the last days as he wrote:

"God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by his Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things. . . . but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." (Hebrews 1:1-2, 9:26)

Hebrews 8:13 confirms that this was all about the change from Old Covenant to the New Covenant:

"In that He says, 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away."

James, speaking specifically to his contemporaries, said that THEY had heaped up treasure in the last days. If the last days were thousands of years later, this would have been nonsense to his readers:

"Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabbath. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you." (James 5:3-6)

The apostle John as well taught the imminence of the consummation of the last days of the Old Covenant Age. If that consummation did not happen as John expected, it is 17 million hours late:

"The world is passing away. . . . Little children, it is the last hour." (1 John 2:17, 18)

And, finally, Jude said that they were living in the time of mockers in the last days. Audience relevance is critical to understanding the Bible. We remember that the Bible was written FOR us, but not TO us. The readers of this letter from Jude would have unmistakably understood that they themselves were in the last time. The last time was not something thousands of years in the future:

"These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage. But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life." (Jude 16-20)

The preterist view of eschatology holds that most, if not all, prophetic events in the Bible were fulfilled in the past. An objection that is sometimes raised against preterism is this: “Well, yes. I see that the Bible teaches that these events were fulfilled in the past, but they will be fulfilled again in the future.” But we find nary a hint in the New Testament of such a dual fulfillment idea. Jesus and the writers had one time frame in mind, and they stated it as clearly as words will allow. Now go to part II of this series:

The Biblical Last Days -- Part II