by Karl Edwards
Whenever I hear the words ‘the end is nigh’, it conjures up in my mind images of cartoons I’ve seen over the years which show bearded street preachers holding placards bearing the slogan, usually with a witty remark added by the cartoonist.
Many people in the world today genuinely believe that the end is near; but most of them don’t stand on street corners with placards. Instead, they write articles and books, make movies and use the internet to promote their particular brand of the coming doom and gloom. Whether it’s due to climate change, the year 2012 on the Mayan calendar or the current situation in the Middle East, there is no end to the modern day prophets of disaster. It also seems that, now more than ever, the proponents of such views are Christians attempting to interpret current world affairs and events in the light of Biblical prophecy. Every earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, war and other extraordinary event is attributed to Matthew 24:7: ‘For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.’ (References are from the NKJV.)
This is done despite the fact that nations have been rising up against nations, and famines and pestilences have been permanent fixtures in the two thousand years since Christ uttered these words. It is also worth mentioning that there are not enough worldwide meteorological records from the past 2000 years that would make it possible to compare the frequency of earthquakes or other such disasters since that time. So, using the criteria of Matthew 24:7 as a guide, it could be argued that end has always been nigh.
Although many Christians take these modern end-time prophets with a grain of salt, it often comes as news to them that there was a time in history when ‘the end was nigh’ and there did exist a group of people who would have been justified in carrying placards. But, of course, they didn’t do that. Instead, they went around proclaiming that the kingdom of God was nigh and demonstrated its nearness with illustrations of the power that would be typical of the kingdom age that was to come. See Hebrews 6:5.
John the Baptist was the first to proclaim that ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’, Matthew 3:1,2, closely followed by the Lord Himself. He also instructed His disciples to do the same, and they went about Judea declaring the nearness of the kingdom. This declaration anticipated the end of the world as they knew it, or more accurately the end of the age, as this would give way to a new age of government under God. That the kingdom of God would come on earth had been the hope of Israel throughout the Old Testament, and as far as the disciples were concerned – with the confirmation of the King Himself – that kingdom was imminent.
Although it may be the accepted worldwide Christian view that Christ came into the world to live His life as an example for all to follow and thus start a new church, this is not how these disciples saw it. For example, the writer of Hebrews quite clearly states that Christ’s physical appearance on the earth came at the end of the ages: ‘He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the END OF THE AGES, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself’, Hebrews 9:26.
So, far from being the beginning of something new, the Lord’s life and ministry was the fulfilment of something old. Christ came to offer Himself as the sacrifice for sin, a work that had started as far back as Genesis 3:15. An examination of the actions and writings of the disciples during the time of the book of Acts, shows that they clearly expected the proclaimed Kingdom to be restored soon. Acts 1:6–8: ‘Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”.’
Contrary to common belief, the Lord did not tell them to forget about the Kingdom and concentrate on a new work. This is evident from the rest of the chapter, where, in anticipation of the coming Kingdom, the first task they get busy with is appointing the twelfth apostle who, in line with the promise made in Matthew 19:28, must be present to sit on the throne forfeited by Judas. Twelve thrones are promised, twelve apostles are required to occupy them, and their appointment of Matthias shows that, at the very least, they were expecting that regeneration to take place within their own lifetimes and, more than likely, in their very near future.
The same sentiment is seen in all the Acts period epistles. In fact, it is quite astounding to see how many times the imminent return of Christ is referred to, leaving no doubt about the level of heightened expectancy amongst the disciples. Every one of the writers of the Acts period – Peter, James, John, Jude and Paul – held the common belief that the end was nigh.
Here are a few verses from these writers that clearly illustrate just how deeply rooted was the belief that they were living in the last days and that the hope of Israel would soon be a reality.
Hebrews 1:1,2: ‘God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.’
Hebrews 10:35–37: ‘Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: for yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry.’
Here in Hebrews chapter one, we see a comparison between how God spoke in time past and how He had spoken in these last days by his Son, and in chapter ten, He exhorts them to endure yet a little while as Christ will come soon. Surely, neither the writer nor the readers at the time of writing, would consider the phrases, ‘these last days’ and ‘will come and will not tarry’, to mean sometime in the next two thousand years, especially remembering that the Son had not long before been in their presence speaking with them.
James, the Lord’s half-brother, was also convinced that the coming of the Lord was imminent: ‘You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door’, James 5:8–9.
Then, the apostle John writes in 1 John 2:18: ‘Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour.’
Also, in Revelation, John describes events that must shortly come to pass. See Revelation 1:1 and 1:3.
Even the little epistle of Jude, when talking about ungodly men who had crept in unawares, reminded the believers that this was to be expected in the last time, Jude 1:18.
Peter, speaking about Christ’s sacrifice for sin, writes in 1 Peter 1:19,20: ‘…but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times…’
In Acts 2:30-31 Peter was certain that Christ was raised from the dead to sit on David’s throne. This can only mean that he expected that throne to be occupied soon and this is exactly what he said would happen if the house of Israel would repent, Acts 3:19–21.
Nor is Paul slack to proclaim the same nearness, mentioning it in most of his early epistles. In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, one of the earliest epistles written, he praises the Thessalonians because they turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15 it is evident that he expects both himself and some of the Thessalonian believers to be alive at the coming of the Lord.
Similar is his exhortation to the Corinthian believers. In 1 Corinthians 1:4–8 he thanks God that they were enriched in everything and lacked no spiritual gifts while they eagerly awaited the revelation (apocalypse or revealing) of the Lord. These confirming gifts would remain until the end. 1 Corinthians 10:11 is even clearer, where he uses the judgement of God on the Israelites in the wilderness as an example: ‘Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.’
As far as Paul was concerned at the time of writing to the Corinthians, the end of the ages had come upon them. This is further clarified in the epistle to the Romans, which is his last epistle before being imprisoned in Rome, where he writes in Romans 16:20 that Satan will be crushed under their feet shortly.
It is also interesting to compare what Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers concerning marriage, with that which he wrote much later to Timothy. In 1 Corinthians 7:28, he suggests ‘because of the present distress’ it is better not to get married, as ‘such will have trouble in the flesh’. What could that mean? He goes even further, giving suggestions as to how they should live their lives, not being caught up in the things of the world, and quite emphatically states the reason for his advice in 1 Corinthians 7:31, for the form of this world, is passing away.
Now consider Paul’s advice to the Corinthians in the light of Matthew 24:7 and onwards, where the Lord describes some of the dreadful events of the last days and the things that will befall the faithful. After speaking about false Christs, wars, pestilences, earthquakes, tribulation, martyrdom, betrayal, false prophets, deception of many, lawlessness and the ‘abomination of desolation’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, He says in verse 15, ‘Whoever reads, let him understand’. He then tells them how difficult it is going to be for them, especially pregnant and nursing women, verse 19, also read Matthew 24:16–20.
Paul’s exhortation is consistent with the belief that it was the end times, and he was dispensing the same advice that Christ gave to his disciples in preparation for the coming tribulation. Getting married now would lead to children, making it more difficult for those who would have to flee Judea, just as Christ had said a few years earlier. Whosoever reads let him understand indeed!
Now compare this with the advice given in 1 Timothy 5:14: ‘Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house…’ This is the opposite of what he wrote to the Corinthians. These verses have been a puzzle to believers for years, but when Corinthians is fitted into the context of the imminent return of Christ, they make perfect sense.
It is obvious that Christ did not return to sit on David’s throne or establish the kingdom in Israel back in the first century AD, and the only logical conclusion is that something changed between 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, (a period of approximately twenty years), which served to postpone the return of Christ and the establishment of the kingdom in Israel. That something was the setting aside of Israel as the favoured nation at Acts 28:28.
The subsequent revelation given to Paul, concerning the ‘Church which is His Body’, does not contain the same urgency or exhortations in relation to the last days as is evident in the Acts period. The post-Acts epistles – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon – have nothing about the imminent return of the Lord, nor the hope of Israel, which was the main focus of Paul’s ministry, even as late as Acts 28:20.
With Israel now being no different to any other nation in God’s eyes (Ephesians 3:6) we live in a very different age to that of the believers of the Acts period. However, God will remain faithful to His promises of establishing the Kingdom in Israel and there will be a time again in the future, when the prophecies uttered by Christ in Matthew 24 will be in progress. At that time, there will be believers on the earth who will truly be able to say, ‘the End is Nigh’.