Last Days or Kingdom Age?
Within evangelical Christian circles these days I often hear the statement that “time is short – we are in the last days you know!” Some Christians spend a great deal of time studying “end time prophecy” and looking for “signs of the end” in current events and international politics. I would like to present a refreshing, Biblical alternative to all of that.
My proposal is that the term “last days” as it was used by the New Testament writers referred to the last days of the Old Covenant age, and that age ended in 70 AD with the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Roman legions. If this is true then we do not need to worry about the great tribulation, the anti-christ, the “mark of the beast”, etc. because all of those prophetic elements were fulfilled nearly 2000 years ago.
One of the favorite “end-times” passages for many Christians is Matthew 24 in which Jesus responds to some questions from his disciples about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. In order to understand Jesus’ response we must understand clearly the questions that the disciples asked him. Verses one and two of the chapter set the context: “Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’” (Matthew 24:1-2). Then comes the questions from the disciples in verse three: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”
So to summarize this, the disciples ask Jesus three questions:
1. When will the Jerusalem temple be destroyed?
2. What will be the sign of your coming? (Note that “coming” is the Greek word parousia, best translated “royal appearing.”)
3. What will be the sign of the close of the age?
As I have thought about this some questions have come to my mind. First of all, why would the disciples ask Jesus what the sign of his coming would be? He had not gone away so why would they be asking him about “coming again?” Maybe the term “parousia” did not mean “second coming” at all in their minds. Perhaps the thought was more along the lines of “when will you reveal yourself as Messiah and King to the people of Israel?” This is more in line with the 1st century usage of the Greek term parousia. This term literally means “presence” and was associated in ancient literature with the royal appearing of a king.
This was sort of the question they asked him after his resurrection as recorded by Luke in the Book of Acts 1:6: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” The disciples were expecting a Messiah like King David, who would be a military leader. They expected this leader to free them from Roman oppression and to restore the independent kingdom of Israel that had existed under King David’s rule some 900 years earlier. This is why even after his resurrection they were still expecting Jesus to restore the Davidic Kingdom. Jesus was proclaiming a different sort of Kingdom – a spiritual kingdom, and that idea was not yet clear to the disciples.
The second question I have is when the disciples wondered about timing of the “close of the age”, what age did they have in mind? Studies of Jewish eschatology (beliefs about the end of time) in first century Palestine show that Jewish people believed that time was divided into two ages: the present age and the age to come. We see Jesus speaking of this belief in passages such as Matthew 12:32, Mark 10:30, Luke 18:30, and Luke 20:35. There were different schools of thought in what is called Second Temple Judaism regarding the “end times,” but the general thinking seems to be that their present age would end when God broke into human history in a supernatural way, bringing judgment on the wicked, resurrection life for the righteous dead and a new society marked by justice and peace. We see this belief expressed by Jesus in John’s gospel chapter 5 where Jesus remarks that the time is soon coming when “…everyone in the tombs will hear his voice [the voice of God’s Son]. They will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
Timeframe Given by Jesus
When we study Jesus’ answer in the following verses of Matthew 24 (parallel passages are found in Mark 13 and Luke 21) we see that he predicted several things but they are all restricted by a very specific timeframe which Jesus gives us in verse 34: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Jesus had also spoken of judgment coming on the present generation one chapter earlier in Matthew 23 verses 35 and 36:
“…so that on you [the scribes and Pharisees he was speaking to] may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”
Notice the phrase “this generation.”
The substance of Matthew 24:4-34 describes the events that would come upon this generation of Jewish people living in Palestine in the years from approximately 30 to 70 AD, culminating in the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Roman armies. When we try to apply these verses to some time in our future in the 21st century or beyond we are violating the clear time condition given by Jesus. Jesus clearly said that these things would all happen during the lifetime of his listeners. Therefore we know that everything in that passage (Matthew 24:4-34) has already taken place. We will see that Scripture and history verify that each element in the prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled by 70 AD.
Eight Elements of Jesus' Prophecy
The first element is false messiahs (Matthew 24:5). The Jewish historian Josephus records that there were several false messiahs who rose up during the time from 30 AD to 70 AD. One of these, named Theudas, is mentioned by Josephus in his Antiquities (book XX, chapter 5) and in the book of Acts (Acts 5:36). Another one, an Egyptian, gathered 4,000 followers and threatened the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. He was defeated by the Roman forces. He is mentioned by Josephus in Antiquities (book XX, chapter 8) as well as in Acts 21:38.
The second element is wars and rumors of wars. Josephus records that the Jewish wars began in 66 AD and continued until the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. In other parts of the Mediterranean world the Roman Empire was fighting wars of conquest and consolidation.
The third element is famines and earthquakes and these certainly occurred in the region of Palestine during the 40 years from 30 AD to 70 AD. . According to the book of Acts, the prophet Agabus predicted a famine throughout the “inhabited earth” (Acts 11:27-28). Luke tells us that this famine occurred during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius. That would have placed it sometime during the years 41-54 AD. Historians tell us of a large earthquake that devastated the Asia Minor city of Colossae in 61 AD. Most likely there were other earthquakes in the region during the 40 years from 30 to 70 AD.
The fourth element is the persecution of the followers of Jesus and the great “falling away”. This element is seen in the New Testament, especially in the life of Paul as recorded in Acts. We see him being persecuted from city to city by Jewish people who were enraged at his presentation of the gospel. In addition we find out that at the end of his life many of the faithful had departed from the faith (see 2 Timothy 4:9-11). Church tradition tells us that Paul was executed by Rome around 62 AD, so this falling away would have happened by that time.
The fifth element is the preaching of the gospel throughout the known world. Again this is confirmed by the New Testament itself. Paul wrote to the Colossians that “the gospel has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing” (Colossians 1:5-6). In addition he tells them not to depart “from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). When the writers of the New Testament made universal statements like this they were referring to the known world – the populated areas around the Mediterranean. So Jesus’ prediction that the gospel of the kingdom would be preached to the known world as a witness before the end of the age would come (Matthew 24:14) was fulfilled by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians (probably around 60 AD).
The sixth element in the prophecy is the “abomination of desolation” standing in the holy place. Jesus tells his followers that when they see this event take place those who are in Judea should flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24: 15-16). What does this mean? By studying the parallel account in Luke 21:20 we see this has to do with the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem. “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies…Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it; for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written."
The Christian historian Eusebius tells us that Christians were aware of this prophecy and that when Jerusalem was surrounded by Roman armies they fled to the region of Pella (History of the Church, 3:5:3). It is worthwhile to read this quotation:
“The whole body, however, of the church at Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, removed from the city, and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella. Here those that believed in Christ, having removed from Jerusalem, as if holy men had entirely abandoned the royal city itself, and the whole land of Judea; the divine justice, for their crimes against Christ and his apostles finally overtook them, totally destroying the whole generation of these evildoers form the earth.”
The seventh element in the prophecy is the signs in the sun, moon and stars. This is symbolic language which echoes the language used in the prophetic books of the Old Testament to indicate a time of God’s judgment (see Isaiah 13:9-11 which is an oracle against the nation of Babylon, also Joel 2:28-32 speaking of judgment on Israel itself). So Jesus was using this language not to predict actual events in the heavens but to predict a time of God’s judgment on Jerusalem.
The eighth and final element that I want to look at is the parousia itself – the royal appearing of the son of man. Here is the quote from Jesus in Matthew 24:30, “they will see the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Here Jesus is answering the disciples question about the sign of his appearing by quoting a verse from the Old Testament prophetic book of Daniel. This verse would have been very familiar to his first century Jewish audience. We find that verse in Daniel 7:13:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
Ascension Not Coming
This scene in Daniel takes place in heaven, not on the earth. The son of man figure is brought before God and given dominion over all the earth. This is essentially a coronation scene. God’s King is being crowned king over all the earth. This brings to mind one of Jesus’ favorite passages from the Psalms: “The LORD (YHWH) said to my Lord (Adonai), ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1).
So the event that Jesus refers to here is not his coming again to earth – it is his ascension to heaven and his crowning by God as King over the earth. Jesus is saying that his crowning as King will be one of the signs of the end of the Old Covenant age. Jesus was crowned King in heaven at his ascension which occurred on the same day as his resurrection. In addition I think Jesus is suggesting in Matthew 24 that when the disciples see the destruction of the Jerusalem temple they will know that he has been seated at God’s right hand in heaven as King and he is in the process of subduing his enemies.
Going back to where we started from in this article, we see the term “last days” used many times in the book of Acts and in the epistles. These were all written after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. I believe the term refers to the last days of the Old Covenant age, which was completed with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD. This happened exactly the way Jesus predicted it would in Matthew 24. The great tribulation was completed at that time and we don’t need to look for it in the future. The resurrection/ascension of the Lord and the judgment poured out on the apostate Jewish religious system in Jerusalem ushered in the kingdom age. We are now living in what was for the first century believers “the age to come” – the age of God’s kingdom on earth administered through Jesus the King, who is presently reigning at the right hand of God in heaven.