There are those who claim the writers of the New Testament were simply mistaken in their beliefs about the timing of the second coming and so told their original readers the end was close at hand.1 After all, Paul does say “the ends of the ages” had come upon him and his first century readers. However, we must reject such a notion out of hand if we hope to maintain the authority of the Bible. After all, if Paul was wrong on one issue, how are we to know when he is right?
Now then, is there anything in the text, or in the historical and cultural background of the writers to indicate they meant “2000 years or more” when they said “soon,” “near at hand,” “quickly” and so on? The answer of course is no: and there is really no need for such semantic gymnastics.2 The Bible itself tells us how these “near at hand last days” passages should be interpreted.
In the Old Testament we find several instances where the writers used end time or last day type language. In other words, there are passages in the Old Testament where God declared an end, of sorts, was about to take place. In most of these passages the meaning is quite clear and so they are useful to us in our effort to see how God uses end time language.
For instance, In Isaiah 13, the prophet declared in a prophecy against Babylon that “the day of the Lord is at hand …the day of the Lord comes” (13:1, 6, 9). Jeremiah proclaimed concerning Judah that: “Our end was near, our days were over, for our end had come” (Lam. 4:18).
The prophet Ezekiel says:
And you son of man, thus says that Lord God to the land of Israel, ‘An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end has come upon you, and I will send My anger against you: I will judge you according to your ways, and I will repay you for all your abominations. …An end has come, the end has come; it has dawned for you; behold it has come! Doom has come to you, you who dwell in the land; the time has come, a day of trouble is near, and not of rejoicing in the mountains. Now upon you I will soon pour out My fury, and spend My anger upon you: I will judge you according to your ways, and I will repay you for all your abominations. …Behold the day! Behold it has come! Doom has gone out; the rod has blossomed, pride has budded. …The time has come, the day draws near. Let not the buyer rejoice nor the seller mourn; for wrath is on their whole multitude (Ezk. 7:2-3, 6-8, 10, 12, cf. 30:2-4).
In Amos 5:18-20 we read a declaration of woe for those who desired the “day of the Lord” because of the judgment it meant for Israel. In 8:1-2 the prophet described the basket of summer fruit that the Lord showed him and announced that: “The end has come upon My people Israel. I will not pass by them anymore.”
In Obadiah 1a and 15 we read: “the vision of Obadiah. Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom… for the day of the Lord upon all the nations is near.”
And finally, the last selection we will look at is from Zephaniah 1:7, 14: Here we read: “Be silent in the presence of the Lord God for the day of the Lord is at hand” and “the great day of the Lord is near; it is near and hastens quickly.”
This is not an exhaustive list of last day or end time type passages from the Old Testament: it does, however, give us adequate material to work with in reaching a conclusion concerning the same sort of language in the New Testament.
1. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and other essays on religion and related subjects, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 16,17. Russell seemed to take great pleasure in pointing out the foolishness that he believed Jesus Christ exhibited in supposedly thinking that the second coming was imminent. But who should we blame the more; Russell, or the churches and “Parsons” he was familiar with who taught that the Bible proclaims the imminent return of Jesus?
2. Joseph A. Alexander, A Commentary On The Acts Of The Apostles, (1857; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1963), 62.