A Study of Last Things
The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, the common language of the Mediterranean world. It was a tongue spoken in Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, etc., just as it was in Athens. That Providence chose this language for the composition of the New Testament is beyond doubt to any serious investigator. It is the most colorful, expressive form of communication ever known to man.
A study of the original words, even by the novice, can be one of the most thrilling endeavors of the Bible student. This procedure depends, of course, upon the student’s recognition that the very words of Scripture are sacred, and thus intended to convey a divine message (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Let us consider the word eschatos. It is the basis of our English word “eschatology,” a term theologians use of Bible teaching about last things, e.g., the return of Christ and the end of the world.
Eschatos is found fifty-two times in the Greek Testament. Mostly it is rendered as “last,” with but a few minor variations, e.g., “uttermost.” The New Testament writers employed the word in a variety of ways and there are some very interesting lessons derived from a study of this term.
The word could be used in a territorial sense. The gospel was to be spread to the “uttermost” part of the earth (Acts 1:8; 13:47), or as one might express it colloquially, to the “last place of the earth.”
Occasionally eschatos referred to the final portion of a quantity. When Jesus spoke of a man being thrown in prison and not being released until he had paid the “last” penny he owed, the Lord was suggesting an eternal punishment for the wicked (Matthew 5:26; cf. 18:34).
The most common use of the term has to do with the final thing of a preceding sequence. For example, it was on the “last day” of the Feast of Tabernacles (a seven-day celebration) that Christ extended the invitation for men to come and quench their spiritual thirst with the “water” he could provide (John 7:37).
In this article, I would like to illustrate how this New Testament word teaches some wonderful truths that instruct the serious soul.
Several centuries before the birth of Christ, the prophet Joel foretold that the Spirit of God would be “poured forth” in the “last days” (2:28-29; cf. Isaiah 2:2-4). There is no question about when this prophecy commenced its fulfillment. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, quoted the text and announced, “[T]his is that which has been spoken through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). He was, of course, referring to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles on that occasion.
Many people labor under the illusion that the expression “last days” is a special signal indicating a time period just before the return of Christ. Would-be modern prophets point to certain “signs” they think they identify within the Scriptures and frantically declare, “The end is near; we are in the last days.” Of course we are in the last days. This era has already spanned two thousand years.
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he spoke of certain “grievous times” that would characterize the “last days.” And then, to his young co-worker, he urged: “[F]rom these also turn away.” The verb is a present tense, middle voice, imperative form—a command to this effect, “Be turning yourself away from,” thus demonstrating that Timothy himself was living in the last days (cf. Hebrews 1:1; 1 Peter 1:20).
The truth of the matter is, the expression “last days” refers to the final dispensation of history—in contrast to the Patriarchal period (from Adam to Moses) and the Mosaic age (from Moses to Christ). If the world continues yet for thousands of years, it still will be the last days. Incidentally, if we are now in the last days, that leaves no room for a millennial period.
The First and the Last One
In an Old Testament context in which the Lord asserted his everlasting nature in contrast to the passing use of idols, Isaiah exclaimed: “Thus says Jehovah, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, Jehovah of hosts: I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God” (44:6). Note the two persons referred to as “Jehovah” in this text.
In his appearance to the apostle John on the island of Patmos, Christ lifted a phrase from that text and made application to himself: “I am the first and the last, and the Living one” (Revelation 1:17-18; cf. 2:8; 22:13).
What is the significance of the expression “first and the last”? “It is the well-known attribute of God, the Eternal” (Alford n.d., 1790; cf. Thayer 1958, 253). The utterance is a firm affirmation of deity on the part of the Lord Jesus Christ. Compare the similar expression applied to the Father in Revelation 1:8: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God.” Compare that with the description Christ in Revelation 22:13: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last.” The same expression is used of both the God and Jesus.
The Last Offer
In the week prior to his crucifixion, Christ gave several warnings of doom to those who were on the verge of killing him. In a parable commonly known as that of the wicked husbandmen, a man planted a vineyard, furnished it lavishly, and rented it out to husbandmen—or, as we might style it, sharecroppers. When harvest drew near, he sent a series of servants to collect his fruits. These were treated shamefully, some even killed. Finally, the landlord sent a “beloved son,” who was to be the “last” (eschatos) offer (Mark 12:6).
That is a significant announcement. The beloved son, of course, represents Jesus, and the clear implication is that Christ “is the last and crowning effort of divine mercy” (Trench 1877, 209). And if he is rejected, as the writer of Hebrews later observes, “there remains no more a sacrifice for sins” (10:26). There is no hope of salvation apart from Jesus Christ (cf. John 14:6).
The Last Shall Be First
Several times in his teaching, Jesus employed the statement, “The last shall be first, and the first last,” or some equivalent.
The rich young ruler, because of his unwillingness to follow Christ, had gone away sorrowfully (Matthew 19:16-30). Subsequently Peter, perhaps somewhat boastfully, said, “Lo, we have left all.” Then, in an almost bargaining disposition, he asked, “What then shall we have?” (v. 27). The Lord promised ample blessings; however he cautioned, “But many shall be last that are first; and first that are last” (v. 30).
The Savior then told the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). A man hired workers for his vineyard. They were employed, however, at different hours of the day—from early morning all the way to the eleventh hour (note the twelve-hour work day). When time for payment came, amazingly those who had worked the least were paid the same wages! The other laborers complained that such was unfair. But the lord of the vineyard explained that the grumbling was inappropriate; as lord, he had the authority to do as he pleased, and such was entirely “lawful” (v. 15).
Jesus thus concluded with the statement, “The last shall be first, and the first last” (v. 16). Several important truths are implied. As sovereign, God may do as he pleases, and it always will be right (Genesis 18:25). Human assessments of his operations are far from perfect. The disciples were constantly making poor judgments and they needed to be taught better. They quarreled about who would be the greatest (Luke 22:24), and some petitioned for places of prominence (Mark 10:37). They down played Mary’s generous gift bestowed upon her Lord not long before his death (Matthew 26:8). They needed to learn the principle that God will exalt the humble (Matthew 26:13; cf. Mark 12:42; 1 Peter 5:5-6), and humble the exalted (cf. Daniel 4:28-37). There is much for all of us to learn from the last-first principle.
The Last Adam
In one of his Corinthian letters Paul characterized Jesus as the “last Adam.”
So also it is written, The first man Adam became a living soul. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but that which is natural; then that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is of heaven. As was the earthy, such also are they who are of the earth: and as is the heavenly, such also are they that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly (1 Corinthians 15:45-49).
What is the significance of this declaration? It is a rather complicated statement. But briefly: As man’s earthly life was derived from Adam (whose origin was out of the earth), we partake of the nature of the earth (Genesis 2:7). However, for those who yield to him as Savior, Christ becomes a giver of life.
First, there is the life that results from his incarnate role as an offering for sin, which brings a living fellowship with God. Ultimately though, in view of this context pertaining to the bodily resurrection, by virtue of his own resurrection (as “firstfruits” [vv. 20, 23]) Christ will bestow upon his people a new, living body in the final resurrection of the dead (Clandish 1989, 238ff). As the apostle wrote elsewhere, the Lord Jesus “shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able even to subject all things unto himself” (Philippians 3:20-21).
The Last State
Three times the expression “last state” (or an equivalent) is found in the New Testament. Each of these has an interesting application.
The Pending Fate of Judaism
In an unusual illustration, Christ told of a man who was possessed of a demon. The unclean spirit left the unfortunate man but presently returned with seven other spirits, more evil than itself. The “last state” of the man was worse than the first.
What was the Lord’s application? “Even so shall it be also with this evil generation” (Matthew 12:45), i.e., the generation alive when Christ spoke these words. Clearly the reference is to those events that led to the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the nation (cf. Matthew 23:36; 24:1-34). The tribulation suffered at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70 was worse than anything the Hebrew nation had ever known (cf. Matthew 24:21). More than a million Jews were slaughtered and thousands were taken captive.
Some have suggested that this could not possibly refer to the destruction of Jerusalem. But Carson responds:
There have been greater numbers of deaths—six million in the Nazi death camps, mostly Jews, and an estimated twenty million under Stalin—but never so high a percentage of a great city’s population so thoroughly and painfully exterminated and enslaved as during the Fall of Jerusalem (1984, 501).
The Impact of Jesus’ Resurrection
Immediately after Christ died and was buried, the chief priests approached Pilate and informed him that Jesus had foretold his own resurrection—“after three days” he would rise from the dead (Matthew 27:63). They urged the governor to secure the tomb, lest the disciples come, steal the body, and proclaim a resurrection. Should that occur, they frantically exclaimed, the “last error” (deception) would be worse than the first (v. 64). The Jews were mortified at the thought that the body might disappear. And it did! And for twenty centuries they have struggled with trying to explain what happened; but neither they, nor anyone else, has been able to provide a logical explanation for the empty tomb—other than the resurrection.
The Horror of Apostasy
Peter wrote regarding certain Christians who had escaped the defilements of the world through their knowledge of the Lord Jesus. But he warned that should any apostatize, the “last state” for them would be worse than the former. It would be far better never to have known the gospel than, having embraced it, to then turn away (2 Peter 2:20ff). This text reveals that: (a) a child of God can fall from grace and ultimately be lost, and (b) there will be a greater level of culpability at the judgment for apostates than for those who never obeyed the truth (cf. Matthew 11:20ff; Luke 12:47-48; Hebrews 10:28-29).
The Last Enemy
In Paul’s marvelous chapter in defense of the bodily resurrection of the dead, the apostle proclaims, “The last enemy that shall be abolished is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Several truths may be extracted from this compact text.
Death is personified as an enemy. In Greek, the terms “hate” and “enemy” derive from the same root. Death is the result of Satan’s malicious hatred of both God and man (cf. Matthew 13:39). This enemy is the “murderer” of the human family (John 8:44).
Death is an enemy that ravages our mortal bodies. It robs of beauty, strength, and dignity. It immerses humanity in suffering. It steals our loved ones from us. It saps the strength of nations. It takes but never gives. Its monstrous appetite is never satiated.
The verb rendered “shall be abolished” (katargeitai) is present, passive form—literally, is being destroyed. This generally is regarded as a form that expresses “certain futurity,” conveying a tone of confidence; it does not merely predict—it affirms (Lenski 1963, 679). Some suggest it may also hint of a “process now being conducted” (Green 1907, 298). Death is “swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54), and Christ is the Victor! And his people share in the fruits of that victory.
The Last Day
Five times in the Gospel of John there is a record of Jesus speaking of the last day of human history (see John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 12:48), together with an additional reference to the last day by Martha (11:24). Some important truths can be extracted from this collection of texts.
Both the resurrected righteous (John 6:39-40) and the resurrected wicked (John 12:48) will be brought forth on the last day. Accordingly, the dogma of premillennialism is false, for it asserts that there is one resurrection for the righteous and another (one thousand years later) for the wicked. Logically, there cannot be two last days. This theory is also contradicted by Jesus’ affirmation that all of the dead will be raised in the same “hour” (John 5:28-29). Likewise there is Paul’s declaration that there is but a “resurrection” (singular) for both the just and the unjust (Acts 24:15).
Since both the resurrection of the body and the day of judgment are to occur on the last day (John 11:24; 12:48), and as the last day has not yet occurred, the doctrine of radical preterism is demonstrated to be false. (This is the idea, alleged by a few misguided souls, that the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the judgment day, and the end of the world all occurred in A.D. 70 at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. The proponents of this view, of course, redefine these events to conform to their own theological agenda.)
A simple study of the term “last” is rewarding indeed, and this is but a sampling of the treasures that lie beneath the surface of the English Testament.
For further information see our books, The A.D. 70 Theory – A Review of the Max King Doctrine, and Treasures from the Greek New Testament. Both are available from Christian Courier Publications. Call toll free: 1-888-818-2463.
- Alford, Henry. n.d.. The New Testament for English Readers. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Carson, D. A. 1984. Matthew. The Expositorâ€™s Bible Commentary. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Clandish, Robert S. 1989. Studies in First Corinthians 15. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.
- Green, Samuel. 1907. Handbook to the Grammar of the Greek Testament. London, England: Religious Tract Society.
- Lenski, R. C. H. 1963. The Interpretation of First and Second Corinthians. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
- Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
- Trench, R. C. 1877. Notes on the Parables of Our Lord. London, England: Macmillan.