Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
Hebrews 1:1-2 (ESV)
In the previous post, I discussed what I believe to be of great practical importance for interpreting the book of Hebrews correctly, namely that the author is specifically addressing all of his concerns to Christian Jews in the days of the early Church, and not simply Christians in general (although the letter is a blessing for Christians in general). I also discussed my belief that this letter was addressed to that particular Christian audience living before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.. With these two underlying principles in mind, there is yet one more great and practical theological principle contained within this opening statement that supports the interpretive method I’ve proposed thus far. This third principle will finish laying the foundation for the remainder of the letter.
The author begins this letter with a peculiar phrase familiar to the writings of the Hebrew scriptures; a phrase indicating a certain limited time-frame in which his audience could listen and respond favorably to God’s pronounced judgments. Operating on the basis that this audience is primarily Hebrew, the limited time frame which is about to be discussed would likely be from the time of Jesus’ crucifixion to the time of Christ’s final judgment upon Israel for crucifying “the Lord of Glory.” The peculiar phrase of which I am referring is "these last days," or more literally, “at the end of these days” (ep eschatou ton hemeron touton). What exactly is meant by this phrase?
Far too often (and not without reason) it is assumed that “these last days” refers to a very long and very broad time-period between Jesus’ first coming (i.e. his incarnation) and his second coming (the consummation of the entire cosmos). This assumption follows another one, namely that the Old Covenant administration and the people who worshipped God that according to it were cut off from union with Christ because of his incarnation, even though a brief survey of the book of Acts and the decisions of the apostles certainly show otherwise (especially Paul’s decisions in Acts 18:18 and 21:18-25). After a second, closer glance at the lives and teaching of Christ’s apostles it appears as though there was an overlap of administrations, one of which was to end shortly after the foundation of God’s Covenant with the Gentiles had been laid down by His apostles. These overlapping administrations would provide time for Jewish Christians to learn more about Christ and embrace him in faith, while the Old Covenant administration was “becoming obsolete and growing old,” as it approached the time appointed by God to completely vanish away (Heb. 8:13).
As far as phrases that indicate certain time-frames are concerned, “at the end of these days” is only one of many to be found in the Scriptures:
In Matthew 3:2 Jesus said "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" which was another common time-indicator of nearness.
James, who was writing to a Jewish audience, also said "You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand" (James 5:8).
John also, in his first epistle, writes to his Jewish brethren, saying: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. They went out of us, but they were not of us. For if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” (I John 2:18-19) Contrary to much of popular evangelical belief, John is clearly describing people within his own day, not some future apocalyptic “Antichrist” that would come to earth and chop people’s heads off thousands of years after he wrote those words.
Jesus had spoken to his Hebrew brethreninside the Temple of Jerusalem, warning them, saying “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes…so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth…Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate.” (Matt. 23:36-38).
Also, as Jesus was carrying his cross to Golgotha, some women met him along the way weeping over his condition, but in response to their weeping, Jesus turns to them and says: “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for me! Rather, weep for yourselves and for your children! For behold, the days are comingwhen they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed!’”
There are many more phrases like these which testify to a soon-coming visitation of the Lord upon apostate Israel and the accompanying growth of Christ’s kingdom on earth after that visitation. Perhaps this time period, between the crucifixion of the Son of God and His final judgment upon Israel’s apostasy in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is what the author of Hebrews is referring to as "these last days." If this is true, then "these last days," or more properly, “at the end of these days,” would then be referring to a limited time period of grace (approximately 40 years) prophesied against those who crucified their Messiah and rejected His everlasting Covenant; a time period that was nearing its end in the days of the apostles.
If this idea is what the author intended his audience to pick up on, being a prophecy from Jesus’ own mouth and also from parables and phrases like that being re-iterated to them throughout the apostolic ministry, then during this limited time-period of grace we should expect Israelite brethren who rejected Jesus’ warnings of Israel’s kingdom being “cut off” in the near future (i.e. Judaizers), to repent and believe in the name of Jesus. For all practical purposes, the idea of "nearness" and "coming judgment" upon Israel does indeed agree with the phraseology of the Old Covenant which speaks of God cutting off all those who refuse to hear His Son (Deut. 18:15-19; Acts 3:22-23; 7:37; John 5:45-47).
In the list of time-sensitive phrases mentioned above, one citation is of Jesus’ warnings to brethren inside the Temple of Jerusalem in Matthew 23:36-38. Interestingly, in the following chapter (although continuing the same story line in Matthew 24) Jesus prophecies outside the Temple of Jerusalem about all the stones of the Temple being torn down in a physical destruction (Matt. 24:1-2), and after that, a terrifying description of objective prophetic signs are pronounced in sequence, followed by the same phrase he preached to his Hebrew brethren inside the Temple. Again, Jesus makes abundantly clear to his audience that "When you seeall these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place" (Matthew 24:33-34).
The world-renowned Greek grammarian and historian, A. T. Robertson, comments on this statement by Jesus in Matthew 24:33-34 according to this entire story line of Luke’s gospel:
This generation (he genea haute). The problem is whether Jesus is here referring to the destruction of Jerusalem or to the second coming and the end of the world. If to the destruction of Jerusalem, there was a literal fulfillment. In the Old Testament a generation was reckoned as forty years. This is the natural way to take Matt. 24:34 as of Matt. 24:33 (Bruce), “all things” meaning the same in both verses.
-- A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, [Baker Book House; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1930] Volume 1, pp. 193-194.
If Matthew 24 is referring to the soon-coming visitation of the Lord in the destruction of Jerusalem which would cause the Old Covenant administration to vanish away completely, then modern evangelical projections about this prophecy referring to the end of the entire physical cosmos at the end of all human history is mistaken. Just compare Matthew’s Jewish account of Jesus’ prophecy (Matthew 24:14-16) with Luke’s Gentile interpretation of that very same prophecy in Luke 21:20-22. The “abomination of desolation…standing in the holy place” is described as “Jerusalem surrounded by armies” so that the Israelites could know that it’s “desolation has come near.”
This language of a "soon-coming" visitation from the Lord and a limited time-period of temptation for the early Christian church is not an uncommon theme taught by Jesus' apostles or the prophets through whom God spoke to Israel in the past (e.g. Jer. 31:31-37). In I Peter 4:7, which is addressed primarily to the Christian Jews who were "scattered abroad" throughout the gentile nations, says "The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers."
The end of all things is at hand? The “end of all things” is near? This kind of phrase makes perfect sense if Jesus’ prophecy of the Old-Creation order was soon coming to an end. Elsewhere in the same book, Peter reminds his audience that "Christ, a lamb without spot; He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in the last timesfor the sake of you" (I Pet. 1:19-20). The phrase in Greek here (ep eschatou ton chronon) is almost identical with the phrase used in Hebrews 1:2 (ep eschatou ton hemeron touton), only the word for “days” is replaced with “times” and it lacks the relative pronoun.
As was mentioned earlier, the apostle John spoke of the time-frame in which he lived as “the last hour" (I John 2:18). First John 2:18-22 also fits in to the unique context of early Christian history when Christian Jews were persecuted by their anti-Christian brethren that deny "the Father and the Son" together as one-and-the-same God and "that Jesus is the Christ" (i.e. the promised Messiah). Likewise, Jude warned the Christian brethren of his own day (who were mainly Jews), saying: “But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, ‘In the last timethere will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.’ It is these who cause divisions….But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:17-22).
Paul, in both of his pastoral letters to Timothy, also seems to be referring to this narrow time-sensitive age. In the close context of First Timothy 3:14 through 4:6 Paul reminds Timothy that "the Spirit expressly says that in the later times some will depart from the faith" (I Tim. 4:1; The definite article is my emphasis because the Greek text contains it); and he follows this comment with a description of idolatrous practices familiar to the scriptural history of Israel’s prophetic literature. In other words, the context of First Timothy 4 may very well refer to forms of apostasy typical of descriptions given to Israel in her past history. If this is so (which, for the moment I will argue as though it is), early Christian Church leaders like Timothy were warned by Paul to be especially watchful for seducing, devilish "brethren" who are already in a covenant relationship with God, i.e. those described loosely as already being in "the faith." (I Tim. 4:1). Timothy is warned to guard against such false brethren not just because Paul says so, but because the Scriptures expressly talk about “the later times." This may very well refer to “the later times” in which Israel’s kingdom would be cut off by God. Instead of presuming the impossibility of this interpretation, consider the profound implications of the integrity of God’s written testimony if this were true. A. T. Robertson comments on this passage of First Timothy 4:1, saying that these "later times" refer to a “relative time from the prediction, now coming true (a present danger).”
Again, in the close context of Second Timothy 2:15 through 3:10, which describes the internal schism of the Christian body by false-brethren, Paul assures Timothy that "in the last days grievous times will be at hand" (II Tim. 3:1, MKJV), and therefore he (Timothy) is to be comforted by this information during his own life time. Interestingly enough, not only is the context of Second Timothy 2:15 through 3:10 clearly referring to problems which Timothy could see unfolding with his own eyes, but in verses 3 through 9 as well, Paul explicitly narrows the time frame about which he is speaking, lest Timothy would doubt the time frame about which he is speaking. After summarizing the underlying devilish and deceptive character of these false-brethren “in the last days” who “have the appearance of godliness, but deny its power,” Paul then compares them to Janes and Jambres (which, according to the Jewish Targum of Jonathan, is a description of the two men that opposed Moses in Genesis 7:11). He tells Timothy that “they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men [Janes and Jambres]. You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith,” etc…. (II Tim. 3:9-10). Paul is clearly relating the pious frauds of “the last days” with the pious frauds of Janes and Jambres; and Paul notifies Timothy to follow him, not their foolishness. Although it is true that pious frauds can be found throughout the history of Christian civilization, "the last days" according to Paul were only used to explain the prophesies about the days in which he and Timothy lived.
As I mentioned earlier (and I want to make this point as obvious as possible), not every Christian scholar interprets "these last days" as a reference to God's covenant faithfulness upon Israel and the abolition of the Old Covenant administration. Many faithful, God-fearing Christians over the centuries have interpreted "these last days" mentioned in Hebrews 1:2 as something far different, usually as a very broad and very general time period before Christ's first coming and the literal end of the cosmos when Jesus returns bodily a second time. Although I don’t agree with that interpretation, I do want to state that I recognize it as being a popular interpretation, and a reasonable one within a certain framework of interpretation. But as we go through this letter to the Hebrews, we'll explore that option whenever it appears to be viable, and over time, each one of us must consider (and re-consider if need be) which interpretation about “these last days” helps the case the author of Hebrews appears to be settling once and for all. Do “these last days” refer to the thousands of years following Christ’s first coming, or to a closer period of time in which the ages of the old creation would soon end in 70 A.D., leaving the growth of Christ’s new creation in the earth to follow? Consider for one last moment the words of Jesus, His apostle Paul, and a statement by the author of Hebrews together, and decide for yourself whether all three of them relate to events within the same time-frame:
Matthew 24:1-3 says: “And Jesus went out from the temple, and was going on his way; and his disciples came to him to show him the buildings of the temple. But he answered and said unto them, ‘See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.’ And as he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world (aionos)?”
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian church says: “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed…Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages (aionon) has come” (I Cor. 10:11).
Hebrews 9:26 says: “Now, once in the end of the world (aionon), He [Christ] has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (MKJV).