I was reading II Timothy recently, and came to chapter 3. It opens with the words “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” The question I immediately asked was “When are the last days? What does Paul mean by that phrase?” So I investigated.
The first clue is found in the passage. I read on.
“For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”
Those words told me two things.
First, the reason that these times in the last days will be difficult is because of the sort of people that will be found in them. Strangely enough, they sound pretty much like the kind of people one would meet at any time in history. Nothing unusual about them. In fact, someone could be all those things and not really attract attention. As bad qualities go, these failings are pretty common.
Second, Paul tells Timothy to avoid such people. In other words, Timothy is going to meet these people who are going to be found in the difficult times in the last days. And that suggests that Paul expects Timothy to be around in these difficult times – and in the last days.
Other New Testament passages
I did a bit more digging. I discovered that the phrase “last days” is used five times in the New Testament.
The first is in Acts 2, when Peter explains to the crowds how it is that the Christians are able to speak in other tongues, as enabled by the Holy Spirit:
“”Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy about what will happen in the last days, and says, in effect: “That is what is happening now, before your eyes.” In other words, as far as Peter was concerned, he was living in the last days.
The second is in the opening of the letter to the Hebrews:
“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.”
It’s a slightly different phrase – it says “these last days” rather than “the last days”, so it is possible that it could simply be a way of saying “In the last few days” or “in recent days”. Equally, it could be saying “in these days which we are living in, which are the last days”. But either way, it is talking about New Testament times.
The third is in the 5th chapter of the letter of James:
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.”
Again, James when James uses the phrase “last days”, he is, again, speaking about his own day.
The final one is II Peter, chapter 3:
“This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”“
Here, there is not much evidence to suggest whether or not Peter sees his own time as being part of the last days. But there is certainly nothing here to suggest that he definitely doesn’t.
In short, in four of the five uses of the phrase “last days” in the New Testament, it is clear that the writers believe that New Testament times were part of the last days, and the fifth does nothing to say otherwise.
What do the scholars say?
I also had a look at what a few commentators had to say on the subject.
Gordon Fee says
“For the term ‘the last days’ as referring especially to the beginning of the Christian era, see Acts 2:16-21 and Hebrews 1:2″ and adds that Paul believes “that the last days are already upon us.”
George Knight says
“‘. . . last days’ is used here as elsewhere in the NT … to refer to the time of the Messiah, that last period of days before the final messianic action takes place. Here, as in I John 2:18 [Children, it is the last hour,] the phrase does not designate some yet-to-come period of days. Rather Paul is reminding Timothy that the Christian community is living in the ‘last days’, and, because that is true, he must come to grips with what characterizes those ‘days.'”
John Stott says
“Next, Paul refers to ‘the last days’. It may seem natural to apply this term to a future epoch, to the days immediately preceding the end when Christ returns. But biblical usage will not allow us to do this. For it is the conviction of the New Testament authors that the new age (promised in the Old Testament) arrived with Jesus Christ, and that therefore with his coming, the old age had begun to pass away and the last days had dawned.”
So – total unanimity there. None of them treats this as a controversial matter. It isn’t something about which there is disagreement or scholarly debate. When the first Christians used the phrase ‘the last days’, they meant the time that began with the coming of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.
Which raises a question . . .
This raises a question in my mind. It seems to me that when the Christians I meet speak of “the last days”, they mean something quite different from what the first Christians meant. I get the impression that when I hear people in the church talking about the last days, they mean a period of history that probably has not yet arrived. In other words, Christians today almost never use the phrase the way the Bible uses it. Why?
If this is indeed the case, it should concern us. Do Christians realise that what they mean when they use the phrase is very different from what the first Christians meant – and what the Bible means – by it? If not, that is a problem. And if so, why do they insist on using a phrase (in conversations about the Bible) to mean something very different from what the Bible means by it? That can only confuse people. Either way, this isn’t exactly healthy.
Surely, when Christians discuss matters of faith and the teaching of the Bible, we should, as much as possible, use words and phrases the way the Bible uses them. Shouldn’t we?