A few days ago I wrote a post entitled “Are we living in the last days? (What the New Testament actually says.)”
The answer to the question is “Yes – because when the New Testament uses the phrase ‘the last days’, it means the time that began with the coming of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.
The question came up because I was reading II Timothy, where Paul writes
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 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.”
However, the opening words of that passage raises another question. If “the last days” means “the time that began with the coming of Jesus Christ”, then why does Paul bother putting in the words “in the last days”? Why didn’t he just write “But understand this, there will come times of difficulty“?
Now, obviously we cannot read his mind. And nothing else that he writes in this passage tells us the answer. So at this point we just indulging in guess-work. Why does he say (effectively) “In these days we live in there will come times of difficulty“, rather than “there will come times of difficulty“?
What people will be – or what people are?
It seems to me that part of the answer is probably because Paul believed that Timothy was underestimating how bad things would be. After all, why say “There will be times of difficulty” unless you think that the person you are speaking to may not realise this? Since Timothy will know (he had spent years in Paul’s company) that these are the last days that he is living in, the implication is, therefore, that he does not realise how bad the last days will be. But when we read Paul’s description of what people are going to be like – and if we pause and think about each of the things he says about people – we will see that none of them are particularly shocking. They are very ordinary failings – the sort of failings that one could expect to find in respectable people.
In fact, as I looked at the list, and considered these failings, another question occurred to me. Surely these failings are things are not unique to the last days. People have not just been like this for the last 2,000 years. They have always been like this. Read the Old Testament, and look at the history of the people of Israel. The characteristics that Paul describes in this passage (“lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, etc. etc.“) were found in Old Testament times as much as in New Testament times.
So – if people have always been like this – why would Timothy expect anything else? And this is where the guess-work comes in. My guess is that Timothy thought, or at least hoped, that the last days would be better than the former days.
A new day dawning?
Why would he think that? Because these were the days of the Messiah. The Messiah had come, he had conquered death, he had ascended into heaven, and was now seated at the right hand of God. In other words, he was reigning as king. He had sent the apostles into all the world to preach the gospel to the nations, and promised that he would be with them. Paul and Timothy knew that they were living in great days – because they knew that the last days were great days. And so Timothy needed to be reminded that even though he lived at a great time, human nature had not really changed – and difficulties would still have to be faced.
And the gospels paint the same picture: the coming of Jesus was something to be excited about. It marked a new dawn. This is how the beginning of the ministry of Jesus is described in Matthew’s gospel (4:13-16): “And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.“” Similarly, John’s gospel (1:9) describes the arrival of Jesus with the words “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”
In other words, I suspect that when Paul wrote “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty,” what he was really meant was “Timothy – you need to understand that even in the last days there will be difficult times – even though we have the great privilege of living in the age of the Messiah, it is not always going to be easy.”
After church last Sunday, a lady told me that she had been reading my post on the last days – and commented on how helpful it was – because it made clear that the last days were not all about doom and gloom. She was exactly right. Most people in our time think of doom and gloom when they hear the phrase “the last days”. Among New Testament Christians, the opposite was the case: when they heard the phrase “the last days” – they thought of the light dawning, the end of the reign of darkness, and the coming of a glorious new age.
We live in great days. And the Bible tells us that even greater days are ahead, after Jesus returns in power, and brings in his kingdom in all its fullness. In that kingdom, human nature will have been transformed, because the former things really will have passed away. In the meantime, life in this world will have plenty of difficult times. And we do have to live in this world at present. But we also need to look to the future, and have our eyes firmly focused on it.