Opinion

What Does the Bible Mean by the ‘Last Days’ and Jesus’ Coming?

The following is Part 2 of my response to “Jesus’ Failed Prophecy About His Return” (JFPAHR). Go here for Part 1:Eschatology and Biblical Apologetics.”

Let’s continue with how the author of “JFPAHR” deals with passages about “the end.” In fact, it’s in these passages that we understand that the end of the world as we know it is not in view, and Jesus and the New Testament writers were not predicting a distant end-time event, either the so-called “rapture” of the Church or the Second Coming. The author begins with the following verses:

Hebrews 1:1-2: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world [lit., ages].”

The last days of what? The last days of the Old Covenant. “Now these things happened to them [Old Covenant Israel] as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). The early church was living in the in-between time of Jesus’ finished redemptive work and the winding down of the Old Covenant that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem (predicted by Jesus) in AD 70 before their generation passed away. The book of Hebrews is a 13-chapter discussion of the end of the Old Covenant Age and the inauguration of the New Covenant. That day was “drawing near” (Heb. 10:25) for them. Earlier in the book of Hebrews, we are told, “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready [lit., near] to disappear” (8:13). It would fully disappear when the temple was destroyed because with the temple the animal sacrifices would also end. This is what Jesus predicted would happen before their generation passed away (Matt. 24:1-3, 34). The Old Covenant was temporary, and now that Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Old Covenant, it’s “obsolete.”

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Without this covenantal context, it’s easy to misrepresent the New Testament time indicators. Let’s look at a few more that the author mentions. Peter writes, “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7). Again, the end of what things? Earlier in his letter, he wrote, “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials” (1:6). The “all things” is mostly like the coming persecution that was about to end from the Jews and the coming Great Tribulation that Jesus spoke of (Matt. 24:21). After AD 70, the New Covenant was fully inaugurated.

John supports this interpretation when he says that the rise of antichrists was an indication that it was “the last hour” (1 John 2:18). The antichrists were unbelieving Jews who persecuted Christians (2:22). John wrote that the “spirit of the antichrist … now … is already in the world” (4:3). The “now” is then. They “say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). This would all end when Jerusalem was “trampled underfoot by the nations” (Luke 21:24). The Roman Empire was an empire of conquered nations.

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COMING OF WHOM FOR WHAT?

The use of words like “soon” or “shortly” (Rev. 1:1; 22:7, 12) and “near” (1:3; 22:10) speak of the same events, the coming destruction of Jerusalem that took place before that generation passed away. Note the use of the word “coming” is not always about a physical end-time coming but a coming in judgment (Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:3). None of these comings are the Second Coming. They are local judgment comings to individual churches that existed in Asia Minor before the temple was destroyed (11:1-2) like we see in Isaiah 19:1 and Micah 1:3-5.

We know these passages from the New Testament refer to judgment from what we read in the letter of James:

Therefore, be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door (5:7-9).

Let’s see how well the author does with Matthew 16:27-28:

For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.

The author is correct that modern-day prophecy writers try to get around the clear statement that Jesus would return before the last person in His audience died.

I’ve only found one modern author who even suggests that John might still be alive. David Dolan’s Israel in Crisis is a perfect example of forcing the Bible to fit an already developed prophetic system. Dolan tries to explain Jesus’ comments in John 21:18–23 in which Jesus says to Peter about John, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me” (21:22). Because Dolan holds to a futuristic eschatology, he must force Jesus’ words into his dispensational mold: “In further nonbiblical research, I discovered that many early church authorities believed that John had never died. This was based on the Lord’s mysterious words in John 21 and also on the fact that, unlike the other apostles, no credible account exists about his death. I suspect that may be because John did not die.”1

Dolan speculates that John could have been living on a Greek island for two millennia, wandering around the world hiding his true identity disguised, or caught up into heaven like Elijah where he has been supernaturally preserved until he is needed. John 21:23 refutes this notion: “yet Jesus did not say to [Peter] that [John] would not die, but only, ‘If I want to remain until I come, what is that to you.’”

So, what is the meaning of Jesus’ words? John Gill offers the best explanation. The “coming” referred to by Jesus in John 21 refers, “not till his second coming to judge the quick and the dead at the last day” but the coming “in his power … on the Jewish nation, in the destruction of their city and temple by the Romans [in AD 70].” As John Gill points out, “till which time John did live, and many years after; and was the only one of the disciples that lived till that time, and who did not die a violent death.”

Some have tried to find the fulfillment in the transfiguration (mentioned in “JFPAHR”), an event that took place within a week or so of the prophecy. This is impossible since no one had died by then. Others claim that Jesus was predicting events in the distant future. This, too, is impossible since everyone in Jesus’ audience has died.

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The best argument is to take Jesus at His word. He would return in judgment before that generation passed away. Jesus said as much numerous times in the gospels. Jesus is borrowing language from the Old Testament. Numerous times God came in judgment, and yet He never appeared physically. For example, consider Isaiah 19:1:

The oracle concerning Egypt.
Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and is about to come to Egypt;
The idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence,
And the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
So I will incite Egyptians against Egyptians;
And they will each fight against his brother and each against his neighbor,
City against city and kingdom against kingdom.

Something similar took place when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. God used Rome as the instrument of His judgment similar to the way He used Babylon to judge the kingdom of Judah (Dan. 1:1-2).

Then there’s this from the Prophet Micah:

For behold, the LORD is coming forth from His place.
He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth.
The mountains will melt under Him
And the valleys will be split,
Like wax before the fire,
Like water poured down a steep place (1:3-4).

Notice that Micah is not describing the end of the cosmos. The judgment is because of the “rebellion of Jacob” and “the house of Israel” (1:5)

Decreation language is common in the Bible. Check out the first chapter in Zephaniah. It’s a judgment “against Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (1:4), a judgment that was said to be “near” (1:7, 14), near for Judah and Jerusalem more than two millennia ago.

  1. David Dolan, Israel in Crisis: What Lies Ahead? (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 2001), 143. []
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