Question: Are we in the last days?
You may have noticed, as I have, an uptick of interest in the subject of the last days recently, especially with the uncertainty of the pandemic and the election. These seem like strange days indeed.
So what I would like to do is explore this question in three parts: when do the last days begin, what, based on this, is the meaning of the last days, and, lastly, how we are to live in the last days.
When do the last days begin?
Now if you study the New Testament a clear answer emerges, although it is one we may not expect.
The first mention of the phrase, the last days, is in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, 50 days after the crucifixion.
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
This is interesting. Peter takes the prophecy about the last days in the Old Testament book of Joel and says it is being fulfilled right now, at Pentecost. He is rather clearly stating that the last days have already begun.
When we come to the letters Peter wrote, about 60-64 A.D., we read
1 Peter 1:20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
So again, the emphasis is on the fact that the present readers of his letter, in 65 A.D. were already in the last days.
One more verse from the pen of Peter about this comes in his second epistle:
2 Peter 3:
Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking….
3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
Now, does he mean that the scoffers will come at some time 2000 or 3000 years after his readers receive this? Or does he mean that one of the marks of the last age is false teaching and scoffing, which is already among you?
Well, the latter. First, because he has already stated both at Pentecost and his first letter that the last days are already here. Second, he wants his readers in the first century to use these things to help their own “wholesome thinking”. And third, because the book of James and Jude, which carry many of the same themes as Peter’s letters, are quite definitive: the last days are already here in the first century.
17 But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. 18 They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” 19 These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.
So Jude, writing to people just a few years later than Peter, perhaps 75 AD, echoes the same theme about scoffers and says these ARE the people who divide you.
What does James say about the last days? Well, in chapter 5 he warns the rich people who have piled up wealth:
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.
So, Acts and the letters of Peter, James and Jude all agree the last days have already begun in the first century.
Let’s see what the book of Hebrews has to say. There are two verses which, while not using the exact same terminology, talk about the same idea:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.
Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. 26 Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.
So the author of Hebrews also viewed the last days as having started with the first coming of Christ, and, in particular, the cross of Christ.
What about the apostle John?
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.
Again, different terminology, but same idea: we are already, in the first century, in the last hour.
Okay, one more NT writer: Paul.
4 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
6 If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.
Okay, does he mean that at some future time thousands of years in the future these teachers will teach these things? Or in his present, in the first century? Well, he wants Timothy to teach his congregation to be wary of these teachers, so it seems like Paul is on the same page as the other NT writers. But if there were any doubt, his words in 2 Timothy remove it.
2 Timothy 3
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
That last command is, of course, written originally to Christians in the first century.
One more passage from Paul:
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11)
This is every occurrence in the New Testament of the phrase, the last days, the last hours, the culmination of the ages. They make clear to us that the last days do not begin at some point in our future, but in our past.
So, we are living in the last days. And have been for almost 2,000 years now.
That brings us to the second question: What does the phrase, “the last days” actually mean? Because we have seen it may mean something different that we have understood before.
Well, remember that God does not operate or define things by a human calendar. We are told that “a day with the Lord is like a thousand years to us” and this means at least that we cannot interpret the ideas of “days” “years” or “times” in simply calendar terms.
Here is the key idea: God’s calendar is about the meaning of events, not the measurement of time between events.
So what is the meaning of “the last days”?
First, it is the in-between time. In between what? In between the first and second coming of Jesus our Lord. He did not reveal this (except in hints) to the saints of the Old Testament, but the coming of the Messiah would come in two parts, or two stages. First, God Himself would take on human flesh, become the God-man, and, in that role, serve as the bridge, the mediator between God and man, not only by uniting God and man in Himself, but also in that role giving of himself to death for our sins. This allows us to come near to God, to become this new humanity that will rule with him over a redeemed and perfected earth.
But the number of that new humanity is not full; Peter reminds us not to get impatient waiting for the second coming, because delay means more people are brought into the family of God, this new humanity.
But there will be a day when Christ returns, not only bringing salvation, but also judgment, purification and the renewal of all things.
The last days are the years (and only God knows how many) between the cross and the crown, between the first and second comings.
Second, this is the overlap time, the time when the kingdom of Heaven has begun, but lives in tandem and tension with the kingdom of this world, which the new testament says is also the kingdom of Satan (Luke 4:5-6, Matt. 12:25-2, John12:31, 2 Cor.4:4, Eph.2:2)
Therefore, it is a time where our loyalty is continually tested: are we going to live in line with the values and ways of the coming kingdom…or the passing one? Each possibility is open to us.
Last, the last days are also the now-and-not yet time. Jesus has come. But not fully in His power. We are saved. But not yet changed. Creation itself has received the seed of the redemption and perfection to come. But not yet the harvest.
This is why the primary picture or metaphor that the New Testament uses to describe the state of the last days is of a pregnant woman. Both Jesus and Paul use this metaphor of pregnancy, labor and birth.
Why? Because while a woman is pregnant she is living in the in-between, the now and not yet. She is NOT like she was a year earlier; she feels the new life grow and move within her. But she is not yet living as a mother (holding and nurturing and seeing her child).
Say she comes to church on mother’s day at the mid-point of her pregnancy and the pastor asks all the mothers to stand up. She may be the only woman in the church that does not know whether to stand or sit. Is she a mother? Yes and no. She must live with that tension.
More, she must live with that expectation. In biblical usage, she lives with the hope. Hope in the bible is not a wish that may or may not come true; It is something that will happen, but we do not experience it yet. We long for it and live in light of it. This is why the second coming is called, “the blessed hope”.
So the last days are when we still live in the Old Kingdom, but in hope of the new Kingdom of God, that is both here and not here, as a pregnant woman is both a mother and not yet a mother.
Finally, how are we to live in the last days? We live between the cross and the crown, we live in the now and not yet, in the overlap of the old kingdom that is passing away and the new kingdom that is eternal but not fully here yet.
How do the NT writers who talk about the last days advise us to LIVE in these last days?
In one sentence, it would be this: Let the coming reality, not the passing reality, determine our treasure, our choices, our influences, and our fears. Or more simply: we are to live as sojourners.
A sojourner is someone who lives in a land that is not their true home, and in which they do not have citizenship. Hebrews 11 develops this theme, but 1 Peter does also.
1 Peter 1
13 Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
Be holy, because He is Holy. Holiness is not conformity to a set of rules or religious rituals. It is becoming like a person. A person whom we will someday meet, and whose Kingdom we will, by grace, share.
A person who has given everything to make that happen.
So, yes, we are living in the last days. But our call is not to figure out chronology of the last days. Our call is to embrace the tension of living in the last days, letting our future hope change our present thoughts, words and ways.