The writer to the Hebrews makes a mention of the last days, pointing out that Jesus was around for the first days as well:
Hebrews 1:1-2 – “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”
Reinforcing a “once and for all” theme throughout the epistles, the Hebrews writer repeats the pattern “creation,” “end of the ages” and “a second time.” This is also as close as we get to the phrase “second coming” in scripture.
Hebrews 9:26-28 – “Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
Can there be any mistake about the plainness of the expression “… man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”? Can there be any exceptions? When Paul writes of “those who remain (alive)” being raptured away, hasn’t the end of this life come for them? Is that why they will not precede the dead, who will be taken first – yet all will (timelessly?) meet Christ together?
Have you ever noticed that New Testament writers chronicling events after Christ’s resurrection rarely use the words “die” or “death” with regard to a believer? They use what may seem like euphemisms instead – “fallen asleep,” for instance (taking a cue from Jesus’ diagnosis of Jairus’ daughter?). Were they trying to express the truth that when Jesus claims a believer, death cannot take him or her away?
James, the Lord’s half-brother, was very pragmatic – and not surprisingly, very reminiscent of Jesus – in his general letter, and also uses the term “last days.” If he wasn’t speaking specifically to people of his time and their particular sins in those “last days,” to whom was he speaking? He echoes Jesus’ description of moth and rust corrupting clothes and metal coinage. And he compares their gluttony and greed to “fattening” themselves – not a calf – “in the day of slaughter.”
James 5:1-9 – “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
“Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!”
His warning is also a lot like Jesus’ warning: Stand firm! Be patient! Wait for it! Or you will be judged.
Peter declares the same timeless nature of Jesus Christ, using the same term “creation” compared with “these last times” to illustrate it:
I Peter 1:20 – “He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”
And now the fisherman-turned-fisher-of-men speaks plainly. The end is imminent:
I Peter 4:7-11 – “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
But his advice is timeless: Love deeply. Serve willingly. Speak wisely. Praise God through Christ.
He continues with the term “last days” and “day of the Lord” in his second letter, predicting (as Paul did to the Thessalonians) skepticism and confusion about Jesus’ parousia. His answer, once again, cites the timeless, eternal nature of the Lord, from creation to judgment. He might even be citing Paul’s letters to Thessalonica; we can’t know for sure.
II Peter 3:1-18 – “Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.
“First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this coming he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
“So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
“Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.”
Peter confirms a cosmic dimension to the day of the Lord; those who will be skeptical about its occurrence are correct in thinking of it in those terms. They’re just wrong to conclude that it won’t come because it hasn’t yet come.
Trying to make the some occurrences of the words “heaven” and “earth” and “elements” take on new meanings (in order to conclude that Christ’s presence was revealed by the destruction of the temple as He prophesied and no further “coming” can take place) is a difficult task. Many have tried their hand at it, and skilfully. But I’m not convinced.
To me, the simple interpretation is that “parousia” means both “coming” and “presence.” He is present in the believer’s life through His Spirit. He is also coming for each of his beloved at the time that death would otherwise claim them. There will come a time when – through cosmic catastrophe, divine intervention, possibly even the simple fact of entropy – the earth and all that’s in it will be destroyed. It wasn’t made to last forever in this form.
In this way of thinking, Jesus’ parousia is both an event and a process. The event may have been the destruction of the temple in AD 70; it may have set into action a chain of consequence reaching forward and backward in time throughout eternity. It may well be that this day of the Lord is not just a thousand years – or a thousand millennia – but much, much, much longer. And we could still be connected with it, by God’s patient grace … through Christ’s loving sacrifice ….
What all of these writers, over and over again, realize is that the HOW and WHAT and WHEN of our reunion with Christ is not nearly so important as the HOW we live now and WHAT we’re willing to give and WHEN we are ready for that reunion.
Because that determines whether He meets us in joy, or in judgment.