08
Jun
12

In These Last Days–Chapter Two

CHAPTER TWO
THE NEW AGE HAS COME

“In These Last Days”

The reader of The Epistle to the Hebrews needs to read no further than the first two verses of the first chapter before he is struck by the fact that the writer intends to draw a contrast. He distinguishes what he refers to as former times–”in the past”–from a period that he calls “these last days,” lit. the last of these days. He writes,

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . . .”

It is impossible to interpret this epistle properly apart from understanding the significance of this contrast. First, it is important to understand what the writer means by the phrase “formerly” or “of old time.” Commentators generally agree that this phrase denotes that period during which God revealed Himself to the covenant nation of Israel. The writer clearly expected his readers to regard this as an inferior revelation because of its fragmentary nature.

Though it is plain, since it is the same God who spoke in both Testaments, that there is continuity between them, it is equally obvious that there is a great deal of discontinuity. Consider the contrasts that the writer draws in these two verses.

GOD SPOKE

In the Past

to our forefathers

by the prophets

in many parts and many ways

 

In These Last Days

to us

by one who is a Son as to his essence

in a full and final revelation

 

 

The other phrase, “in these last days,” seems to have been the subject of a bit more disagreement. For example, John Owen interpreted this phrase as a reference to the very end of the period that our author calls “the past.” He wrote, “It is the last days of the Judaical church and state, which were then drawing to their period and abolition, that are here and elsewhere called “the last days,” or the latter days,” or the last hour,” 2 Pet. iii.3; 1 John ii.18; Jude 18.” Now, it is true that it was in the last days of the period when the old covenant was still in force that the Messiah appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. He fulfilled the old covenant so that He might establish the new. He took the curse of the old creation on Himself that He might establish, enter and become the head of the new creation. But, if Owen is right, then the period the writer describes as “these last days” has already ended. This is true even if we consider the end of Judaism to have occurred when the sacrificial offerings finally ceased in 70 A.D. Yet, this is an epistle of sharp contrasts between the respective situations under the old and new covenants. For that reason, it makes more sense to understand the phrase as a reference to the entire period that began with the advent of Christ and will continue until the eternal state begins. It is a phrase that in Rabbinic literature is consistently called “the age of the Messiah.” If we understand the phrase this way, the contrast is not between the former times and the last of these former times. This would not be much of a contrast at all. The contrast that the writer intends, is a contrast between two distinctive ages, governed by two distinct covenants. Consider Philip Hughes” excellent comment on this contrast. He writes,

The contrast is further emphasized by the assertion that it was in former times that God spoke through the prophets, whereas it is in this final age that he has spoken through his Son. That quite distinct ages or dispensations are involved–the one marked by incompleteness and anticipation, the other by completeness and fulfillment, the one preliminary, the other ultimate–shows how fundamental the contrast is. This contrast, too, plays a prominent part in the structure of the epistle as our author demonstrates that the old order of patriarchal expectation, prophetic utterance, Mosaic covenant, and levitical priesthood has given way to the new order of messianic reality which, unlike the old, is final and permanent because its leadership, its priesthood, and its kingdom belong uniquely to him who is the eternal Son.

C.K. Barrett has argued that “. . .the eschatological is the determining element” in the epistle to the Hebrews. He wrote,

The characteristically Christian conviction, however, that eschatological events have already taken place . . .is found as clearly in Hebrews as in any part of the N.T. The first coming of Jesus was of course such an event, and indeed the primary eschatological event. . .The days in which the Church lived were the last days, ushered in by the incarnation, death, and ascension of Jesus and shortly to be consummated by his return, when all his enemies should have been subjugated to him (ii.8f.,x.12f.). Indeed, the consummation of the ages has already been reached, and the present moment is that on which the meaning of the Old Testament turns (xi 39 f).

The writer labors throughout this epistle to show that the age of the Messiah has come. The new creation has been inaugurated. God has established the new covenant order, and its blessings now flow to those who are in Christ. How foolish it would be to return to the weakness and unprofitableness of the old covenant order which made nothing perfect.

“The World to Come”

A second phrase that parallels the one we have just considered occurs twice (2:5;6:5) in the KJV translation of The Epistle to the Hebrews. It is the phrase, “the world to come.” Though the Greek word translated “world” is not the same in both these verses, the phrase has essentially the same significance in both cases. In Heb 2:5 the word translated world is oikoumenen–inhabited earth. In Heb 6:5 the word is aionos–age. In both cases, the reference is to the age of the Messiah.

Hebrews 2:5-13

The World to Come Has Come

The translation of Heb 2:5 in the New English Bible is particularly interesting. It reads, “For it is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, which is our theme.” Our author does not use the phrase “world to come” or “coming age” as a reference to some future period in contrast to the age in which we now live. He uses it as a reference to the new, Messianic age, the new creation that Christ inaugurated at His resurrection, in contrast to the old creation. This becomes clear when the writer begins to expound the eighth Psalm. He writes,

5It is not unto angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
7You made him a little lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor
8and put everything under his feet.”

In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. 9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

There are many questions that surround the use of Psalm eight in this epistle that, when properly answered, shed significant light on a plethora of theological issues.

Clearly, the writer of The Epistle to the Hebrews, in citing Psalm Eight, intends to bring to his reader’s minds that great day in which redeemed man will again be crowned with glory and honor and given dominion over the works of God’s hands. It is the Messianic age of fulfillment he has in mind. It is that period which, from the perspective of the OT prophets, was yet future, i.e., “the world to come.” Yet, from the perspective of our author, the world to come was a present reality. Nevertheless, the full realization of God’s purposed blessings continues to await the return of the Messiah.

Already/Not Yet

The passage under consideration provides an excellent example of the already/not yet tension that exists not only in this epistle but throughout the New Testament Scriptures. There is an important question we need to answer in the exposition of this passage: Who is it to whom God will subject all things? Is this a reference to Christ in particular, or is it a reference to redeemed man? To whomever it refers, the text clearly tells us that all things are not yet put under him, v.8. Perhaps it would help us discover to whom all things are to be subjected, if we should ask whether it is really accurate to say that all things are not yet subject to Christ? Philip Hughes, among others, has taken the position that the writer is referring to Christ when he says that we do not yet see all things put under him. He writes, “But the transition is given more, not less, point when we understand our author to mean that we do not yet see everything in subjection to Christ;”. His interpretation seems to turn on the phrase, “we do not yet see . . . ,” i.e., Though Christ’s dominion over all things is a reality, it is only the eye of faith that can discern that all things are under His control. This view appears to rest on the distinctively Messianic interpretation of Psalm 8. It is better to interpret this Psalm, as we have done, as referring to the dominion of redeemed man over the renewed creation (See also Westcott, Moffatt, Bruce, and Delitzsch). There seems little question, considering other New Testament passages, that all things have already been subjected to Christ (see Matt 28:18; 1 Cor 15:27; Eph 1:22; 1Pet 3:22).

Though it is certain, because of the redeeming work of Christ, that God will again give man dominion over all things, He has not yet put all things under him. Yet, clearly, the age of the Messiah in which this subjection is to occur has already begun. Though it is true that God has not yet crowned redeemed man with glory and honor as he will when Christ returns, it is, nonetheless, true that he has already crowned and exalted him to the throne in Christ, his representative. C.K. Barrett wrote,

It is simply not true, he says, that all things are now in a state of subjection to man; but we do see Jesus the Man crowned after his humiliation with glory and honor. Not man but the Son of man, not man but Man, reigns already with God, awaiting the entire subjugation of his foes (x.13)

The Son of man, the quintessential man, has, as a reward for His death sufferings, already been exalted to the throne and crowned with glory and honor. Our author writes,

“But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for every one, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (2:9).

Though God has not yet consummated the new age, He has already inaugurated it in Christ. It is this new age, this new creation, about which the author of this epistle is writing.

Once we understand that the author is writing about the new creation, of which believers are a part, it is easier to answer the question, who is the “everyone” for whom Christ tasted death? Is it every member of Adam’s race (the old creation) for whom He tasted death? Did He intend, by His redeeming work, to restore the right of dominion to every member of the [Adam’s] race, believers and unbelievers? Will God crown all men with glory and honor? Of course not! The “every one” for whom He tasted death clearly refers to the members of the new creation (all in Christ, not all in Adam) whom God will certainly raise to glory and give dominion over the works of His hands. They are the “many sons” whom God will bring to glory (v.10), “those who are sanctified,” and called “brethren” (v.11), and “the children which God hath given me [Christ]” (v.13).

Hebrews 6:4-6

Our purpose in this section is not to concern ourselves with all the problems connected with the exegesis of this controversial passage. For a more detailed treatment of Hebrews 5:11-6:6, see Chapter 6 of this work. At this point, we only want to point out the use, in Heb 6:5, of the phrase “age to come,” a reference to the age of the Messiah. This paragraph describes the experience of those whom God had blessed to witness the establishment of the new covenant. It is not difficult to discern that the blessings the writer lists here are those belonging to the new covenant era. This is especially true concerning the references to the Holy Spirit’s blessings and influence (see Ezek 36:24-27; Joel 2:28-30). Those described here have heard the announcement that God has fulfilled the promises made to the fathers. They no longer live under the old covenant, which the writer describes as “weak and unprofitable.” They have now experienced the powers of the Messianic age. The danger against which the writer warns them is the folly of trading the new and better covenant and its administration under Christ, for the inferior and old (antiquated, outworn) covenant. If they should do so, they would fall away and forfeit all the blessings of that new covenant. If they should turn their backs on Christ and the new covenant that He mediates, they would show that they had never belonged to Him.

“Good Things to Come”

The phrase, “good things to come” occurs twice in this epistle; once in 9:11 and once in 10:1. In both instances, the phrase refers to those blessings that God grants to His new covenant people. This He does in fulfillment of those promises that He made during the old covenant period. In these verses, the author draws a sharp contrast between the shadow and the substance. He wants his readers to understand that they are now enjoying the reality to which the types and promises of the Old Testament Scriptures pointed.

Hebrews 9:11

Due to a textual variant in 9:11, it is difficult to be certain whether the autograph read, “coming good things” or “good things that have come.” In either case, it is likely that the meaning would be the same. If the text read “coming good things,” we should understand it from the perspective of those who were looking forward to the establishment of the new order. The “coming good things,” viewed from their perspective, would be, from the perspective of our author, “the good things that have come” with the establishment of the new order. This is clearly the sense in which we are to understand these words in 10:1. It is possible, of course, to understand these words as referring to those good things that are yet to come at the second advent of the Messiah.Yet, this seems unlikely considering the contrast that our author draws in verses 10-13. Clearly, he is contrasting the state of things under the law with the situation that now exists because of Christ’s redemptive work. He writes,

10They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order. 11When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not part of this creation. 12He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

If we follow the other reading of the text, “the good things that have come,” the reference would be to those long expected blessings that God has finally granted with the establishment of the new order. In either case, the author is referring to blessings that God has already granted, not to blessings that He is yet to bestow. By this, we are not saying God’s new covenant people already enjoy all the blessings that Christ died to win for them. Nor do we mean that God has already fulfilled everything prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures. What we are saying is that the age of fulfillment, in contrast to the age of type and promise, has begun.

God could not grant any real, lasting, spiritual blessing based on the old covenant (apart from the work of Christ), because “the law works wrath.” God could not justify anyone by the law because no one would or could obey it. The old covenant promised real blessings to the Israelites, but it could not grant the spiritual realities that corresponded to them. Those realities now flow to the heirs of the new covenant based on Christ’s obedient life and death under the old covenant. Our author is teaching that it is foolish to look back longingly to the old covenant system. The old covenant could never do for sinners what Christ alone has accomplished by His obedience.

Hebrews 10:1

The other occurrence of the phrase “good things to come” is in Hebrews 10:1. The author writes, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves.” Clearly he is drawing a contrast between the shadowy character of the old covenant and the reality that has dawned with the advent of Christ. The law is a shadow of coming good things in contrast to the realities themselves. It is not difficult to see that these “good things to come” are the realities that the law foreshadowed.

If we should argue that the “good things to come” are yet future, we would then have to concede that we are still living in the shadows, under the Mosaic covenant. If that were the case, we would still be living in an age characterized by the types and shadows of a fragmentary revelation. Of course, such argumentation is clearly contrary to the author’s entire line of reasoning in this epistle. The “coming good things” are those blessings that believers have already begun to enjoy as a fulfillment of the promises of the new covenant.

The Time of the New Order

In Heb 9:10, the writer refers to a period that he calls “kairou diorthosis” (“time of the new order”). The Greek word diorthosis may be used of a setting straight, a restoration of that which is out of line, an improvement, a reformation, and a new order.

There can be little question that the period this phrase describes has already begun. Otherwise, those weak and external regulations imposed by the old Mosaic order would still be in force. The significance of such conclusion would be absolutely devastating. If such were the case, the way into the presence of God would not yet have been disclosed (9:8). A human high priest of the tribe of Levi would have to continue to offer the same sacrifices that could never take sins away; even sins committed in ignorance (9:8). It would be impossible to approach and worship God with a clear conscience (9:9).

The contrast that the writer draws is a contrast between “the time then present” and “the time of the new order.” The “time then present,” during which the earthly tabernacle (signifying the worship of the Mosaic covenant) was still standing, was characterized by weakness, externality, ceremonialism, and inaccessibility in worship. It was not merely the priestly system or the arrangement of the tabernacle that made God unapproachable. The absolute holiness of Jehovah, revealed in the old covenant, was more than enough to keep sinners at a distance. Once the covenant of Sinai had convinced sinners of their guiltiness before God, there was no need for a thick linen veil to prevent their intrusion into the Holy of Holies. The arrangement of the tent in the wilderness was only a symbol of the sinner’s inability to see the face of God in peace. The sinner’s guilty conscience formed a sufficiently formidable barrier to prevent his bold approach into the presence of Him who dwells in unapproachable light. As long as the Mosaic covenant was in force, the Levitical system continued to give bold testimony to the truth that we cannot approach God apart from a perfect priest, who has offered a perfect sacrifice, that He presents in a perfect sanctuary. The messengers of the new covenant gladly proclaim the good news that such a priest has appeared to put away sin by sacrificing Himself. He has come to restore and set straight all that is out of line. The establishment of the covenant of Sinai was attended with lightening and thunder but, as John Newton has written,

He has hushed the law’s loud thunder,
He has quenched Mt. Sinai’s flame;

The Mosaic covenant, with its external ceremonies, gave eloquent testimony to the truth that guilty sinners, who seek access into His presence apart from a mediator, cannot approach God. Through Christ, our great high priest, we may now approach the eternal throne with boldness, because He has cancelled our guilt and cleansed our consciences.

The time of the new order has come. Jehovah has fully disclosed the way into His holy presence. He has replaced the external ceremonies of the old covenant with the reality of the all-sufficient sacrifice of our great high priest. The types and symbols of the old covenant have given way to the reality and fulfillment of the new order. Jesus, our great high priest, has done what the law could never do. He has turned us, who by nature were self-centered rebels, into worshippers of God.

At The End of the Ages

There is one final phrase in this epistle that we want to consider concerning this idea. It is the phrase, “at the end of the ages,” sunteleia ton aionon (Heb 9:26). The word sunteleia is characteristic of Jewish apocalyptic literature. We should understand it in a teleological rather than a temporal sense. It refers not so much to the end of a period as it does to the realization of what has been anticipated. By using this phrase, the author has designated the time of Christ’s redemptive activity as the time of fulfillment. It stands in contrast to the times of promise and expectation that preceded it. It corresponds to the Pauline idea that is expressed in the words “the fullness of the time” (Gal 4:4). This is “the time in which the ages of history have found their fulfillment.” Philip Hughes concurs with this view when he writes,

All that preceded the advent of Christ was leading up to this climactic event which is the focal point for the true perspective of all human history. With his coming the long years of desire and expectation are ended and the last, the eschatological, era of the present world is inaugurated (cf. Heb. 1:2). Consequently, we who live since his coming are those “upon whom the end of the age has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).

Once this idea is firmly entrenched in our minds we will have no trouble understanding that God never intended the old covenant and its administration to be a permanent arrangement. Instead, He intended it to be prophetic, promissory, and preparatory. When the ends for which God gave it had been realized, it had out lived its usefulness and was ready to pass away.

Conclusion

This brief survey of the phrases our author uses to designate this time of fulfillment shows that one of his major thematic concerns in this epistle is to contrast “the former times of promise and expectation with “these last days” of fulfillment and realization. Yet, we also need to be alert to the fact that, though we live in the age of fulfillment, we have not yet experienced the fullness of God’s promised blessings. We, too, live in a time of expectation and hope that requires our perseverance in clinging tenaciously and confidently to the promises of God.

The age of the Messiah has dawned, but the best is yet to be. He who has come to put away sin by sacrificing Himself will come again to grant salvation to those who eagerly but patiently wait for Him (Heb 9:28). Then, He will make all His and our enemies a footstool for His feet (10:13) and restore His redeemed ones to the place of dominion for which man was created.

O Day, for which creation
And all its tribes were made;
O joy, for all its former woes
A thousand fold repaid!

Henry Alford

“Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”

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