Athanasius: Constantine Augustus and his sons wrote letters to St. Anthony seeking divine wisdom. Anthony told his disciples:
“Do not be astonished if an emperor writes to us, for he is a man. Wonder rather that God wrote the law for man and has spoken to us through his own Son.”
The first coming of Jesus was the climax of redemptive history and his second coming marks its culmination.
This hybrid sermon-letter opens with a comparison between Christ and the prophets. Hebrews skips the preliminaries of the letter to highlight the main point: God has spoken by His Son!
• Author: Holy Spirit through someone closely acquainted with apostolic ministry.
• Audience: Jewish Christians in Rome living under increasingly intense persecution.
God repeatedly sent prophets who were rejected by a rebellious community. Hebrews 11 highlights their astonishing perseverance and faith. The result of this divine revelation, to every generation, was a remnant of believers.
Natural man is incapable of rightly receiving God’s word regardless of the messenger.
We would expect this audience of Jewish believers to be under tremendous familial pressure to return to the practices of the old covenant. But, according to Hebrews, any Jew who rejects the Christian faith never rightly understood the Jewish faith.
In the midst of heightened temptation to compromise, the author of Hebrews is calling his readers to a deeper and lasting response of faith.
Read Heb 1:1-4.
“Last days” is an idiomatic expression found in several OT passages in the LXX (Num 24:14; Jer 23:20; 49:39; Dan 10:14). This phrase had become an expression of eschatological anticipation. “Last days” refer to this new covenant age (Christ’s resurrection > return 1 Cor 10:11; Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10; Heb 9:26).
Dispensationalists have the tendency to read this language as a reference solely to a short period of time just prior to the Christ’s return. However, John MacArthur acknowledges that is not what the author of Hebrews is referring to here. Rather, he writes, “In the last days promises would stop and fulfillments begin. The Old Testament age of promise ended when Jesus arrived.”
I would argue that the normal scriptural usage of the phrase “the last days” speaks to the gospel age. Christ’s first coming inaugurated the age, and his second coming concludes it. OT prophesies about the coming Messiah were partially fulfilled in Christ’s earthly life, death, and resurrection. They will culminate upon his return.
This leads to a challenge for those on the opposite end of the eschatological spectrum. John Owen held to a common view of partial-preterism, which essentially sees the vast majority of eschatological references in both the Old and New Testaments as finding their fulfillment in AD 70 (praeter = past in Latin). They still acknowledge that Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead as future events, but almost everything else has already taken place.
Instead of reserving the bulk of the end times events for a period just prior to Christ’s Return, they see those same events as having already taken place just prior to the destruction of the Jewish temple (Mt 24:1-34).
According to Owen, and most partial-preterists, “these last days” specifically refer to the end of the Judaic church and state. He says the same regarding terms found elsewhere “the latter days,” or “the last hour” (2 Pt 3:3; 1 Jn 2:18; Jude 18). Owen actually understands the last days of this age to be identical to the New Heaven and New Earth (which is apparent from his interpretation of 2 Pt 3:13).
“On this foundation I affirm, that the heavens and earth intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state; …”
Ultimately, much like Dispensationalism, this implies that the second coming of Christ is broken up into several segments with long gaps between them (Mt 24:3, 27, 42). According to Owen, and partial-preterism generally, the events attached to the second coming were mostly fulfilled in AD 70 and will be finally consummated at the end of the age. For dispensationalists, the second coming is partially fulfilled at the rapture and finally consummated with his return in judgment.
Sam Waldron, “Here we come to the distinguishing feature of Postmillennialism. To maintain its millennial hope for a golden age, of necessity, it must conceive of the golden age—the period between Christ’s First and Second Advents—as divided into two distinct periods. The first period is the humiliation of the church. The second period is the triumph of the church. There is the time of the persecuted church and the time of the triumphant church. These are successive periods which characterize the gospel age.
Instead of two distinct eras within the gospel age, the bible consistently speaks of this age and that age (Lk 20:34-36; Mt 12:32; Eph 1:21). This present age is marked by evil (Lk 16:8; 2 Cor 4:4; Gal 1:4; Eph 2:2; 2 Tim 3:13) and that future age is marked by righteousness (2 Pt 3:13; 2 Thes. 2:1-9; Tit 2:12-13). Thispresent age involves death and that future age begins with resurrection (Mt 13:37-43; 1 Cor 15:23). This present age has an expiration date, while that future age is eternal (Lk 18:30). The bible contains encouragement for the church to persevere through the persecution of this present age because when Christ returns he will usher us into that future age where sin and death are eliminated (Mt 24:3; 28:20; Mk 10:30; 1 Thes 4:13-18; Jam 5:7-8).
This is at odds with the view that there will be a golden age on earth prior to Christ’s return. An optimistic amillennialist is optimistic about the church, whereas a postmillennialist is optimistic about the world. It seems clear to me which one is more consistent with the testimony of Scripture.
Many modern postmillennialists argue that the gospel age is not divided into two distinct eras, but one long slow progression (often likened to our personal sanctification). Regardless, nothing like a “golden age” has come into fruition since Christ’s first coming, but the assumption is that it would if a majority of the world population were converted to Christianity. However, if that were to take place, in what sense could we speak of any genuine ongoing persecution?
Yes, there is always an “already not yet” component to the fulfillment of prophecy—which means we will taste some of that future age in the present (Heb 6:5)—but it is fundamentally and primarily an eternal enjoyment.
The Church will experience remarkable growth despite the ongoing presence of evil and persecution (Mt 13:31-33; 16:16-19; Mk 4:26-31; Lk 13:19-21). The wheat are growing up alongside the tares. Both the wheat and the tares will continue to grow until the harvest, when Christ will fully and finally purify his field. This means that the warning passages in Hebrews are genuine concerns for the covenant community. They are not merely hypothetical concerns for people not actually in the covenant community. But neither are the warnings merely relevant to a first century community of Jewish believers (Owen limits “us” in Heb 1:2 to Jewish Christians, cf. Heb 2:3).
The Church is to Always Be Ready
The implications of this passage struck the original audience in the same way that it should strike us. We remain in the same period of redemptive history between Christ’s first and second coming. When Scripture refers to 2,000+ years as “the last days,” it should not diminish our expectation of his return, rather it should maximize our appreciation of the possibility of that future event in every age.
Let us learn from Christ’s urgency, and serve him with wisdom and faithfulness. We do not know when he will return, but we must always be ready (Mt 24:44).
If indeed, God has spoken to us by his Son, then we ought to listen! That means we pray for ears to hear the truth he proclaimed and for hearts softened to respond appropriately to everything that we hear. This is only possible when we join the hearing of God’s word with a genuine faith. The result is not a panic-filled service, but a restful enjoyment to be seated at the feet of Christ.
If indeed, these are the last days in which the full gospel message is being proclaimed, then we ought to take advantage of the privilege we have to share in the work of the ministry (Mt 28:16-20). The reason we have confidence in the fulfillment of the Great Commission is because we know that Christ is always with us—to the end of the age! Until the Lord of the Harvest returns, he will continue to provide the growth.
2 Corinthians 9:10 ESV
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.