Paul's Description of the Last Days
In our attempt to prove that the church must go into spiritual decline before Christ returns, we may call as witnesses both Paul and Peter. Both state clearly that the church in its final stages would be riddled with corruption.
Consider what Paul says in Second Timothy.
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.
2 Timothy 3:1
The majority view fifty years ago was that Paul is referring especially to our own time. But the popular interpretation today is that the intended compass of the phrase "last days" takes in the whole Church Age, from Pentecost to the return of Christ. What Paul supposedly means is that the Church Age, which had recently begun, would bring times of great peril for believers.
Indeed, because the Church Age is the final period of history before the Second Advent of Christ, the Apostle John uses an expression similar to "last days" to identify the Church Age.
18 Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.
1 John 2:18
In the effort to prove that the phrase "last days" also refers to the whole Church Age, those who deny it special fulfillment in our time point to a text in Hebrews.
1 God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.
The wording here is unique. Whereas Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1 speaks of "in last days ['en eschatais emerais']" (1), the comparable phrase in Hebrews 1:2 is "upon these last days ['ep eschaten ton emeron touton']" (2), the "these" indicating that the days in question are the last days recently. This phrase, in verse 2 of the latter passage, stands in contrast to the phrase "in time past" (literally, "of old") in verse 1. The meaning is that whereas in time past God spoke through the prophets, lately (or, in recent time) He has spoken through His Son. So, the phrase does not speak of the whole Church Age. It just means "recently."
We find a similar expression in another place:
Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.
1 Peter 1:20
To signify the recent past, Peter calls it "these last times." But earlier in the same epistle he mentions "the last time."
Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
1 Peter 1:5
The expression refers to the time when the dead in Christ will rise. It is evident that the meaning of the "last time" and similar expressions shifts according to the author's intention.
So, the question remains, what does Paul mean by the phrase "last days" in 2 Timothy 3:1? Paul himself lived in the Church Age. Yet, in referring to the Last Days, he uses a verb in the future tense. "Perilous times shall come." And he maintains the same tense throughout his discussion of the Last Days. He obviously thought that the Last Days had not yet arrived, but would arrive in the future.
The context leaves no doubt that Paul placed the Last Days at the end of the Church Age. A few verses later, he says,
But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.
2 Timothy 3:13
Paul evidently believed that conditions during church history would slide ever deeper into corruption, as more and more people came under the influence of unscrupulous deceivers. Such men, called "evil men and seducers [literally, 'impostors']," would "wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived." A more exact translation clarifies the prediction. Paul in fact says that such men would "advance to the worst, deceiving and being deceived." He foresaw a day when the very worst self-deceivers and deceivers of others would control multitudes in the church. Publicly, such men would be convincing replicas of real Bible Christians, but privately, they would wallow in the depths of abomination. Paul gives no hint that better leaders would follow the worst. The only trend he foresaw was downward. Thus, the worst must emerge at the very end of church history. We infer that Paul views the end of church history as the "last days" of special peril.
In the next chapter of 2 Timothy, Paul gives an expanded picture of the time when the very worst deceivers would arise.
3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
2 Timothy 4:3-4
In this graphic description of the poisonous teaching that would plague the church of the Last Days, Paul places the blame where it belongs. False teachers would succeed in becoming influential only because the church would warmly embrace them. Churchgoers would "heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears."
Those who would be intolerant of sound doctrine are compared to dogs. Like dogs, they would follow anyone, regardless of his character, who stoops to scratch them behind the ears. And like dogs, they would turn their ears to hear whatever is pleasant. We can carry the analogy a bit further. They would be doglike also in not being fussy about what they eat. They would chew with pleasure on any teaching that gratifies carnal appetites.
After warning of perilous times in the Last Days, Paul provides a list of traits that would then be characteristic of religious people.
2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
3 Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,
4 Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;
5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
2 Timothy 3:2-5
We find no reference here to murder, rape, or any other high felony, because Paul is speaking about people in general. He is describing not the criminal minority, but the respectable majority—not the atypical, but the average. Ordinary people in ordinary churches would be egotistical ("lovers of their own selves," "boasters," "proud," "heady," "highminded"), irreverent ("blasphemers"), materialistic ("covetous" is, literally, "lovers of money"), and hedonistic ("unholy," "incontinent," "lovers of pleasures"). They would enjoy few loving relationships, for they would be "disobedient to parents" and "without natural affection." Yet they would readily make enemies, for they would be "unthankful," "trucebreakers," and "traitors." And they would treat their enemies ruthlessly, for they would be "fierce" and "false accusers." Being "despisers of those that are good," they would persecute the righteous.
Despite this load of wickedness weighing on their souls, they would pretend to be Christians ("having a form of godliness"). But, as Paul observes, they would know nothing of real Christianity. They would be guilty of "denying the power thereof." The true sense of the word translated "denying" is closer to "rejecting." That is, they would reject the power of God to change their lives. Instead of aspiring to holiness through divine grace, they would prefer to remain in their filthiness.
The admonition to the sincere believer in the Last Days is, "From such turn away." Comfort, reputation, and every other human consideration might urge him to continue in fellowship with hypocrites, but to maintain fellowship with God, and to defend his family from attacks that would spoil their faith, he must make the break. He must turn away. But where should he go? He must attach himself to a band of genuine believers, however small it may be. Having placed himself in a good church, he must work diligently to keep it a good church. He must do his part to weed out corruption and compromise as soon as they appear.
Peter's Description of the Last Days
The passage we have just discussed mentions in passing that the most popular teachers in the church of the Last Days would tell fables rather than the truth. Some of these fables are described in the book of 2 Peter.
1 This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in [both] which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance:
2 That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour:
3 Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts,
4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
5 For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water:
6 Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished:
7 But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
2 Peter 3:1-7
Here, Peter warns us that in the Last Days, scoffers would arise in the church who would aggressively challenge the doctrine of the Second Coming as well as the Biblical account of origins.
Like Paul, Peter sets the time of apostasy in the future. He says, "There shall come [future tense] scoffers" (v. 3). More precisely, this time would arrive when "the fathers" have long since departed. Who are these fathers? In context, they must be the prophets and apostles who originally announced and disseminated the promise of Christ's coming. It is evident that the scoffers would not appear until a time in the distant future.
Notice that the scoffers regard the founders of the church as their own spiritual fathers. It is evident that in the Last Days a profound disbelief in the teachings of the Bible would be prevalent even among those who consider themselves to be Christians. Although they will belong to organized Christianity, they will reject everything the Bible says about origins and about things to come.
A passage similar to Peter's discussion of the future apostasy occurs in the Book of Jude.
17 But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ;
18 How that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts.
Again, verb tense illuminates the author's meaning. By saying, "There should be [literally, 'will be'] mockers in the last time," Jude demonstrates that his understanding of the last time agrees with Peter's. He conceives of it as a time in the future when there would be a plague of false teachers and false believers, serving their own lusts rather than God.
The many warnings in the New Testament that the final state of the church would be inglorious, as it sank ever deeper into corruption, are intended to strengthen the few believers who would remain in the Last Days. An understanding of their discouraging circumstances eases their sense of isolation. It assures them that God's program for the Church Age has not collapsed in failure, but has unfolded exactly as He said it would. It helps them to guard their own integrity against the many threats which have overthrown the integrity of others. And, finally, it encourages them to rejoice that the Church Age will soon be over, when Christ comes to assert Himself as King of the world.
The question of great importance to us is whether we ourselves live in the Last Days. That question will be addressed in later lessons.
Jesus' Description of the End Time
Scripture uses another phrase similar to "Last Days." Five times the book of Daniel mentions the "time of the end." Could this possibly refer to the whole Church Age? The meaning of the phrase rests upon earlier revelation in the same book. The first view that the book furnishes of the future is Nebuchadnezzar's dream, which associates the final period of world history with the fifth in a succession of great kingdoms. The fifth kingdom is pictured as the feet and toes of a colossal human image. No doubt this final period is what Daniel intends when he speaks of the time of the end.
If we search out the events that Daniel sets in the time of the end, we find that all of them still lie in the future. None have occurred already. In Daniel 11, the time of the end is when the Antichrist will appear and conquer the Middle East. In chapter 12, it is when the Jews will come to an understanding of the book of Daniel. In chapter 8, it is when the Antichrist will desecrate the Temple in Jerusalem.
If the time of the end reaches into the future, does it also reach into the past, and if so, how far? In our discussion of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, we argued that the dream sees only that portion of the future when Israel exists as a nation. Thus, since the legs of the image show Israel under Roman rule until Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, the feet and toes cannot predate the refounding of Israel in 1948. Therefore, the starting point for the time of the end must fall within recent history. We conclude that the time of the end, also commonly known as the end time, is a brief interval at the end of the Church Age.
Does Scripture give us any signs that would announce the arrival of the end time? For the answer, we must turn to Jesus' extended sermon on prophecy, the Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew 24 and 25. The sermon was given in response to questions that certain disciples brought Him concerning the future. They asked Jesus for "the sign of thy coming and of the end of the world" (Matt. 24:3). The phrase "the end of the world" (better translated "end of the age") is one Jesus had often used in His teaching. It was the expression He substituted for Daniel's "time of the end." The only Gospel writer who records Jesus' references to the end of the age is Matthew, who wrote his Gospel for the Jews. He no doubt expected them to be familiar with the prophecies of Daniel. Jesus Himself taught that the Book of Daniel is the key to understanding the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:15).
When the disciples asked Jesus for the sign of the end of the age, He understood them to mean the time of the end, and He responded with a lengthy preview of this future time. He divided it into three consecutive periods, concluding His survey of each with a brief statement concerning "all" or "all these" or "all these things" that He had just described.
First would come the opening period.
4 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.
5 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
6 And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
Then would come the beginning of sorrows.
7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.
Last would come the remainder of sorrows.
9 Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake.
10 And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.
11 And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
12 And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.
13 But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
15 When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
16 Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:
17 Let him which is on the house top not come down to take any thing out of his house:
18 Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes.
19 And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!
20 But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day:
21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.
23 Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
25 Behold, I have told you before.
26 Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not.
27 For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
28 For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.
29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
Jesus told His disciples that the opening period would be characterized, first, by the coming of many religious deceivers and, second, by wars and rumors of wars (vv. 5-6). Three details in His description of these deceivers considerably narrow the possible reference.
- They would "come in my name" (v. 5). That is, they would not be Hindus, theosophists, New Age gurus, or even cult leaders like Sun Myung Moon. Rather, they would claim to be Christians and would be so regarded by the generality of mankind.
- They would be "many" in number and would "deceive many" (v. 5). Jesus was evidently not talking about madmen or cult leaders. People like Charles Manson and David Koresh are always few in number, and they have limited influence. Rather, Jesus was foreseeing developments in regular organized Christianity.
- They would say, "I am Christ."
The emergence of all these false Christs during the time of the end suggests that apostasy would then be rampant. No doubt it is the same apostasy that Paul and Peter anticipated when they wrote about the Last Days. As Jesus pointed far ahead to this final apostasy, He wanted His disciples to observe one contributing factor to the general decline of the church at that time. Indeed, He expanded upon the Parable of the Mustard Seed by revealing more about the birds that would roost in the branches after the plant had come to full growth. The disciples should have known already that the birds symbolize the demonic forces that would someday undermine a pure religion. Now Jesus showed them that these forces would work especially through men who arrogantly set themselves forward as the equal or remanifestation of Christ.