The word “end” has a certain meaning. It does not mean “a two thousand year span of time.” If we decide terms like “ends of the ages has come”, “the last hour”, “must shortly take place” and “the time is near” refer to a span of thousands of years, we have made those phrases devoid of meaning. Nor can those phrases carry some sort of dual or elastic meaning that had one sense in the first century and another meaning now.1 To insist on either of these positions is symptomatic of a self centered human “wisdom.”
If the writers of the New Testament were willing to ignore the common rules of grammar without explanation in their use of last days language, where else do they do so? If, without any scriptural model to work from, they chose to discard the normal meanings of certain words and phrases – without leaving any clue they had done so – how are we to be sure they did not do the same elsewhere, in other seemingly obvious statements? If this were so, it would render the message of the Bible virtually lost to human understanding; a puzzle without a key to unlock its meaning. In short, both the Old and New Testament passages considered above should be understood as meaning exactly what they say. An “end” of some sort came upon the original audience not long after they were warned about its close proximity.2
Seeing we cannot attribute error to the writers of the New Testament, or any sort of disregard for accepted (historically, culturally and biblically provided), rules of communication we are left with this question: what did the writers of the New Testament mean when they said the end was at hand?
To begin with it should be clear to anyone who has read the New Testament that “Jesus and His disciples were conscious of standing at the threshold of a new age – a new age which was about to be ushered in, or had been ushered in” by the death and resurrection of Jesus.3 And, the beginning of this new age signaled the end of an old age. As the writers of the New Testament put it, “…whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. … (F)or the form of this world is passing away” (Heb. 8:13, 1 Cor. 7:31). The old that was passing away was the old covenant age. The end that was upon the first century Church was the end of the old covenant age.
We have seen in our examination of selected Old Testament end time passages, that such language was used to refer to the overthrow of the existing order (the “Church” and the society that had grown up around it). Again, Isaiah prophesied Babylon would be over-thrown by the Medes and Persians. Jeremiah wrote of the complete overthrow of Jerusalem by the Babylonians as did Ezekiel and Zephaniah. Obadiah said Edom would meet its fate at the hands of a conquering army, probably Babylon. Amos foretold the destruction of Israel (northern kingdom), by the Assyrians. It is interesting to note the most powerful language is used to foretell the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, especially by Ezekiel and Jeremiah. In the years preceding the time Jerusalem and the temple were razed by the Babylonians, the “City of David” and its temple had become the symbol of God’s favor and presence. From the days of Hezekiah, Judah had been in decline. Yet even as the fortunes of the nation tumbled, the Jews held to the belief that as long as the temple remained, the covenant was intact and they remained the people of God (Is. 48:1-2, Jer. 7:1-8). Nonetheless, God showed them – in a forceful and dramatic fashion – that simply was not the case. In the first place, the existence of the temple did not guarantee they retained God’s favor. Secondly, they came to realize during the years of captivity, God’s favor could be poured out upon them even though Jerusalem had been taken and burned and the temple made a ruin.
This same point was made hundreds of years later when Jesus came and fulfilled the types of the old covenant. The Jews believed the temple and the continuation of the cultic ritual were proofs of God’s favor. However, Jesus said something greater than the temple had arrived on the scene (Matt. 12:6), and therefore the type would have to be removed. This removal of the type by the Roman legions would be the last act of the old covenant age.
1. William Ames, The Marrow Of Theology, trans., John Dykstra Eusden, (1968; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1968, 1997, trans. from the 1629 Latin edition), 188.
2. Yet , does not 2 Peter 3:8 at least open the door to the possibility that “soon” may some-times mean “not soon”? After all, in this passage Peter says that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day.” Does this mean that the word “day” may refer to a long undetermined amount of time – as in “last days” that stretch on for centuries? Actually this passage in Peter is not concerned with defining time. It has to do with the fact that God is not constrained by time. In other words, time is not relevant to God as it is to us. To God, one day may as well be a thousand years because He is always in the present and His plans unfold before Him in the “now.” He does not wait, in the sense that we do, for events to take place, thus a thousand years is as a day. God deals with us in the created dimension of time, but He is beyond and above time.
If in fact 2 Peter 3:8 (and the Psalm 90 passage it is referencing), is meant to define “day” and “thousand years”, then we should expect the thousand year reign of Christ to last only one day. After all, if these passages are the operative verses concerning chronology, then we cannot think otherwise. Instead, Peter means to supply us with information concerning the character of God. He does not attempt to define “day”, nor “last day”, “close at hand” and so on.
3. J. Gresham Machen, God Transcendent, ed. Ned Bernard Stonehouse, (1949; Edinburgh: The Banner Of Truth Trust, 1982), 54.