The Last Days in Theology

Why do some theologians refer to the entire time from the first coming of Christ to his return as "the last days?"

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One of the ways to think about the time that Christians find ourselves now living in, that is to say, the interval of unknown length between the first coming of Christ and his second coming, is to refer to that as, the entire period, as the last days. Now, the primary reason we do this is St. Peter does it in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:14. He quotes the prophet Joel, and most people don't notice this. St. Peter actually adds a phrase which is not in the text of Joel 2. So, St. Peter says, "And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh." That little phrase "in the last days" is actually not in the text of Joel, but St. Peter adds it because he knows it's true and because he's Christ's chosen apostle. So, these latter days is this… to us it seems strange. Why didn't God just accomplish salvation all at once, completely renew the earth in every way at Christ's first coming? The answer is, we don't know. We're not God. He gets to decide. But as we wait for Christ's return in glory and power, new things have started. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all Christians in a newer and more powerful way. God is doing new things in Jesus, sending the mission of his good news more energetically to all the nations than ever he had before. So again, God is doing new things. So, even though we await the fullness of what God will do in Jesus for his whole world and for the human race and for all who trust in him, even now, there's the paradox of the end has begun, but it hasn't yet fully been completed. And that understanding is foundational to a lot of what we do as Christians.

The reason why the Christian life is characterized by paradox, that is, in God's sight I'm already perfect, but my life is far from perfect. I sin, I stumble every day. All Christians do. The fact that, on the one hand, Paul can say that according to his great mercy he saved us — Titus 3 — and yet in Romans 5, how much more will be we saved from the coming wrath. The fact that the world even today is at the same time a beautiful testimony to the goodness of God its creator, and yet, at the same time testifies to death and decay and ruin and Satan and destruction; the fact that the Christian life is characterized by these things that are true at the same time and that fight against each other, this is all explained by this one profound fact, that the last days have begun, but the last days have not yet been consummated. And so, this is of immense importance for Christian living and for Christian encouragement, because it's really easy for Christians to think that they should have this sin thing licked by now, right? Or if God is really God, why isn't he taking care of evil both inside of me and in the world around me? And the answer is simply that God has decided to do it in a way that seems sometimes strange to us. The parables of Jesus are all about this. The reign of God is like a sower who sows seed all over the place, and you know, most of it never comes up. And I were God, I wouldn't have done it that way. But the good news is that I'm not God. He is God, Christ is Lord, and he just decides to do things in these ways that strike us as odd and as — and I hope this doesn't sound funny — as inefficient, but that's the mystery of the reign of God in Jesus, and that's the paradox of the last days beginning and the Spirit of God being poured out, and the last days not being fully consummated and the Spirit of God not yet fully renewing the face of the earth.

Answer by Dr. Jeffrey A. Gibbs

Dr. Jeffrey A. Gibbs is Professor Emeritus at Concordia Seminary.