Eschatology: The Last Days Have Begun!
I want to start this little essay by asking a somewhat provocative question: “When does eschatology begin?” Eschatology is a fancy little theological word that means the doctrine of the last things. Another way of putting the question to you is: “When do the last days begin?”
In evangelicalism, options of the end times abound. On the millennium, you can be pre-millennial, a-millennial or post-millennial. If you are pre-millennial, you can be pre-trib, post-trib, mid-trib, pre-wrath rapture and maybe some yet undiscovered combination. As one cartoonist portrayed it, Jesus himself might well look at the complex eschatological landscape with all its charts and quip “I’d come back just as soon as I can figure out when.”
So we return to our question: “when do the last days begin?” The Biblical answer is surprisingly and, given today’s climate, controversially but nonetheless resoundingly: the last days began already with the work of Jesus Christ in his death, resurrection and ascension. If we are going to follow Scripture, we should not look to the future and say “when do they start” but instead we should be looking to the past and saying, “How did they already start?”
When discussing eschatology, we should start with Jesus’ message. Jesus began his preaching with the proclamation that “the Kingdom of God/heaven is at hand.” His driving out of demons showed us the kingdom of God had come (Matt. 12:28). The kingdom of God/heaven can be defined as the ‘reign of God.’ This reign of God is the promise of the Old Testament manifest in the Son of David. This reign will triumph over the whole world, defeat evil and be an imminent administration of eternal sovereign rule that God has always exercised. In this respect, the ‘kingdom of God’ is an eschatological event--a climax of the end time promises of God wherein God draws near.
The Old Testament saints believed that history moved in straight line. It was not cyclical based on crop cycles, calendars or repeated patterns like pagans and Greeks thought. While the calendar of the Old Testament repeated feast and sacrifices, these were anticipatory of the once for all climax at the end of the age. They expected history to have an end or goal. Specifically “this present evil age” would give way to “the age to come.” Evil would be undone and God’s reign would be present. But Jesus starts his ministry by telling us “the kingdom of God has come” meaning the age to come is dawning or breaking into history with his work. History is on the cusp of its intended climax. His work ushers this in bringing to fulfillment.
When later New Testament writers look at what has happened in Jesus, they show us that the promised last days have dawned. Peter tells us by quoting Joel 2 that in the events of Pentecost the last days have dawned (Acts 2:17). Hebrews begins by recounting how the climax of God’s revelation is in the Son: “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” It is the New Covenant which is the covenant of the last days (Heb. 8:8,10; 10:15-18). Christ’s sacrifice on the cross comes now “once at the consummation of the ages” (Heb. 9:26). Paul records that Jesus was born of the woman “in the fullness of time,” language that denotes the eschatological climax of God’s historical program. 1 Corinthians 10:11 tells present day believers that the Old Testament is for “our instruction on whom the end of the ages has come.”
The writers of the New Testament proclaimed that in the work of Jesus at his death, resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand Scripture has been fulfilled. The death and resurrection of Christ marked an eschatological event in advance of the end of all things. So, for the New Testament it is not as if the kingdom was offered only to be postponed. A postponed kingdom or eschatology is false according to Scripture. Quite the opposite, the kingdom has begun. In fact, central to Old Testament eschatological predictions is the restoration of the throne of David from where the Messiah would reign. (cf. Acts 15:16-17 and Amos 9:11-12). With so many Gentiles seeking the Lord, and the apostles needing to defend Gentiles turning to God, the apostles look at the Old Testament and say in effect, “this is what we were supposed to expect when God’s last days had began and David’s house was rebuilt.” What has been said specifically of Paul’s preaching can summarize the content of all the apostle’s gospel preaching: “The whole content of this preaching can be summarized as the proclamation and explication of the eschatological time of salvation inaugurated with Christ’s advent, death and resurrection.”
The end of the age and last days have been inaugurated. They have started but they are not yet finished. The mystery of the coming of the kingdom is that the present evil age still exists (Gal. 1:4). In fact, the two overlap and operate side by side. But the death of Christ was an in-breaking of the day of the Lord where God judged the sins of his people on His Son. The resurrection of Jesus was his vindication. He has walked through the day of judgment in advance of the final day. His vindication fits him to be exalted in his human kingship over all things from now until that final judgment (Acts 2:33-36; 17:31; Rom. 1:3-4; 1 Cor. 15:20-27; Eph. 1:20-22; Heb. 2:6-9). With his vindication he begins the “new creation” expected in Isaiah’s last days (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17). This is why Christ’s resurrection is a firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20). It is the first part of the harvest in advance of the rest but guaranteeing the rest. The resurrection was expected in the last days and with Jesus’ resurrection, the last days have begun.
I still believe that the issues of pre-millennial, post-millennial and a-millennial are important. To say that eschatology has been inaugurated and the promised last days have begun with Jesus’ first Advent is never to deny nor minimize his Second Advent. But despite all of that, it is even more important that we begin with eschatology where Scripture begins. This eschatology (the last days) begins with the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. If we do not start, where Scripture starts all subsequent escapades in and explorations of the topic will ring hollow. That is sadly the state of much popular evangelical eschatology.
 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1966) 44.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.
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