There are problems with the terminology of "the latter days" in that, for example, the King James Version quite often refers to "the latter days, " an expression not found in modern translations. Further, it is not always clear whether "the latter days" means a somewhat later period than that of the writer or the latest times of all, the end of the world. There are also expressions that locate the day being discussed in the time of the speaker. Care is needed as we approach the passages that use these terms.
There is another problem in that in modern times we find it difficult to think that the New Testament writers were living in "the last times." Centuries have gone by; how could their times be the last times? We should be clear that the scriptural writers did not always use the terms in the same way as we would naturally do. For them the supremely great event had taken place in the coming of Jesus Christ into the world to effect the salvation of all believers. This was not just an event in history; it was the event. Because of what Christ had done everything was altered. From then on, however long it would be until God intervened and set up the new heaven and the new earth, people were living in "the last times." The days in which it is possible for people to put their trust in Jesus Christ and to enter into the fullness of the salvation he has brought about differ from all the days that went before. They are days of opportunity, days when people can put their trust in the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord and enter into the salvation he won for sinners.
Present Happenings. The writer to the Hebrews tells his readers that "in these last days he (God) has spoken to us by his Son" ( Heb 1:2 ), and Peter says that Christ "was revealed in these last times for your sake" ( 1 Peter 1:20 ). In such passages the meaning clearly is that something has happened in recent times that is in sharp contrast to what occurred in earlier ages. Or in similar expression may look to the future of the recipients of the message, as when we read, "in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him" ( Deut 4:30 ), or in the reminder to the hearers that God gave them manna in the wilderness "to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you" ( Deut 8:16 ).
The point of such passages is to make it clear that God is at work in the passage of time here and now. His people are to bear in mind that in what happens in their lives and in the world around them God is working out his purposes. In this spirit the psalmist prays, "Show me, O Lord, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life" ( Psalm 39:4 ), and in Proverbs we find that receiving instruction is the path to being wise in "the latter end" ( 19:20 ). Contrariwise Babylon is blamed for not remembering "the latter end" ( Isa 47:7 ). By taking heed of what God is doing, his people will be strengthened in their faith and better able to appreciate the significance of the times in which they live. It is important that God's people are never alone and that they will discern the outworking of the divine purposes if only they have eyes to see.
Future Happenings. Quite often "last" or "latter" is used of times other than the end of all things. The prophets could speak of a "day" when the Lord would act, sometimes in punishment of evil, sometimes in bringing blessing. Especially important are passages that speak of "the last day(s), " which point to the future but without being specific. In such passages it may mean "later in the present scheme of things, " that is, later in the life of a person or, more often, later in the history of the world. For the former use we might notice the warning in Proverbs that a misspent life means that you will groan "at your latter end" ( Prov 5:11 ). For the other use Jacob summoned his sons to tell them what would happen to them "in the latter days" ( Gen 49:1 ). This clearly refers to the distant future, but not to the end of the world. So with Moses' prophecy that after his death Israel would turn away from the right with the result that evil would befall them "in the latter days" ( Deut 31:29 ). We might say something similar about Daniel's prophecy of things that would happen "in the latter time of wrath" ( Dan 8:19 ; the references to the kings of Media, Persia, and Greece show that there is a reference to what we would call antiquity, not the end of the world ). Hosea looks forward to the Israelites coming trembling to the Lord "in the latter days" ( 3:5 ).
So also Jeremiah looks forward to people understanding the working of the divine wrath "in the latter days" ( Jer 23:20 ; 30:24 ). He also looks for blessing in those days, for the Lord will restore Moab ( 48:47 ) and Elam ( 49:39 ). We usually look for blessing on Israel, and it is interesting that Jeremiah sees the divine blessing as coming also on these Gentile nations. Similarly Daniel says that God has shown Nebuchadnezzar what is to happen in "the latter days" ( 2:28 ; for other examples of his use of the expression, see 8:23 ; 10:14 ; 11:29 ).
In the New Testament it is not so much a question of what will happen to nations, as of the way God will work out his purpose in the affairs of the church and of individual believers. Peter says that the coming of the Holy Spirit on the infant church fulfilled a prophecy of what would happen "in the last days" ( Acts 2:17 ). In the same spirit we notice a statement in Hebrews: Christ "has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself" ( 9:26 ). The great events concerning the coming of the Savior and the establishment of salvation are linked with "the last days." So also is the opposition of evil to all that is good. In those days "The Spirit clearly says that some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons" ( 1 Tim 4:1 ). There is a sense in which the church has always lived in "the last days."
The Final Situation. The major topic in Jesus' teaching was "the kingdom of God." Sometimes this appeared as a present reality, sometimes as a future happening. The most significant feature is that it is intimately connected with Jesus himself; he could tell his hearers that the kingdom was there, among them, in his coming ( Luke 17:21 ). In one sense the kingdom awaited the distant future; in another the coming of Jesus meant that it was already there. The appearance of Jesus was the decisive happening; it changed everything.
The New Testament makes it clear that the coming of Jesus Christ was the critical event. His atoning death was God's final answer to the problem of human sin and once that had been accomplished nothing could be the same again. For our present purpose the important thing is that Jesus ushered in a new state of affairs. He wrought the atonement that made it possible for sinners to be forgiven and to enter God's kingdom and to be fitted to take their part in God's final kingdom. That gives a different quality to all time after the coming of Jesus, and the scriptural writers bring this out by referring to all that is subsequent to the coming of Jesus as "the last times" or the like.
Sometimes the New Testament speaks of the end of all things as though it were very near and sometimes there seems to be a long interval. We must bear in mind that "with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day" ( 2 Peter 3:8 ). It is not always easy to be sure whether a passage is speaking of the end of this world and its affairs or of something that will happen prior to that. We should exercise due caution as we approach difficult passages. But what is abundantly clear is that God is working his purpose out and that this involves a final state of affairs in which his will will be perfectly done.
Sometimes the scriptural writers look beyond the present system to the final state of affairs when they use the "latter days" terminology. This happens in a wonderful passage in both Isaiah and Micah in which these prophets look forward to the Lord's house as being established above the hills and of many nations as coming to it to find God's teaching so that they may walk in his ways ( Isa 2:2-4 ; Micah 4:1-5 ). A very different picture is given in Ezekiel's prophecy that in "the latter days" Gog, the chief prince of the forces of evil, will come against Israel and be defeated (chaps. 38-39). This is not to be thought of as a contradiction of the former passages. There are other references both to final bliss and to the final rebellion of the forces of evil. It means that in the end all evil will be decisively overthrown and God's kingdom established forever.
That there will be an upsurge of evil in the last days is made clear by a number of passages. Sometimes this relates to the daily life of the believer, as when Jesus says, "All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved" ( Matt 10:22 ). But evil will be more widespread than that, for "There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud" ( 2 Tim 3:1 ). "In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires" ( 2 Peter 3:3 ). In the Olivet discourse there is difficulty in being sure whether some of the items refer to the life of the believer set in the midst of the ungodly or whether they refer to the endtime, but there is surely a reference to the end when Jesus says, "All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved" ( Mark 13:13 ). This will be the point also of his explanation of a parable, "The harvest is the end of the age" ( Matt 13:39 ). Similarly Peter speaks of salvation as "ready to be revealed in the last time" ( 1 Peter 1:5 ). We should notice here the references to "the seven last plagues" ( Rev 15:1 ; 21:9 ) which point to troubles in the last times.
In John's Gospel there is also the thought that God will take care of his own in those troubled times. Jesus repeatedly said concerning those the Father "has given" him that he will "raise them up at the last day" ( John 6:39 John 6:40 John 6:43 John 6:54 ). John is the only New Testament writer to use the expression "the last day, " an expression that points to Jesus' activity right to the end of time. It also makes it clear that Jesus' care for his own extends right through time to the ushering in of the final state of affairs. On the negative side, the person who rejects Jesus and his teaching will find that that teaching "will condemn him at the last day" ( John 12:48 ).
That evil will continue to the end is clear, as many passages testify. There are problems, such as the difficulty of being sure what parts of Jesus' discourse on the Mount of Olives toward the end of his earthly life refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and what to the end of the world. But he makes it clear that, while his followers will hear of "wars and revolutions" which must happen, "the end will not come right away" ( Luke 21:9 ). Believers will encounter troubles throughout this world's history and this will persist right to the very end. Peter can speak of "the end of all things" as "near" ( 1 Peter 4:7 ). The coming of Christ means that salvation is now made available and this transforms all things. But the New Testament writers were clear that this was but the prelude to God's final state of affairs and that, in the perspective of eternity, that final state was not far off. Then believers will enter into the fullness of "eternal life" ( Rom 6:22-23 ).
Very important is the fact that the final, great day will see the triumph of God. This is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, for example, in the great passage in which Job says, "I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God" ( Job 19:25-26 ). There are problems in this passage but plainly there is the clear expectation of God's final triumph. Before Jesus was born the angel told Mary that the child she was to bear "will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" ( Luke 1:33 ). And in his great passage on the resurrection Paul says that Christ will come with "those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power" ( 1 Cor 15:24 ). The apostle goes on to speak of the raising of the dead in a different form, one in which they will be "imperishable" (v. 52). Again and again the New Testament brings out the truth that when Jesus returns all evil will be defeated and the redeemed will know the fullness of everlasting life.
For the New Testament writers the coming of Jesus Christ into the world to bring about our salvation was the decisive happening in the entire history of the world. That set in motion the train of events that would bring about the salvation of sinners and eventually see the setting up of God's kingdom, as Revelation makes so clear. This did not mean that all evil would immediately disappear; both the New Testament writings and Christian experience make it plain that evil continues. But the important thing from the Christian point of view is that the saving work of Christ has altered everything. Sin has been decisively defeated and believers have already entered into salvation. However long or short a time it will be before the end of this world as we measure time, we are living in the last times as the New Testament writers understand it. Leon Morris
Bibliography. O. Cullmann, Christ and Time.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Last Day(s), Latter Days, Last Times'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".