What does the Bible tell us about the future? Part 1 - The last days of the Church on earth
Stephen Baker, Manchester
A very high percentage of the Bible is about the future. Some people estimate that over a quarter of the Bible deals with future events. Having said that, we need to bear in mind that the truth of the church was hidden in the Old Testament and not revealed until New Testament days. Therefore, we should not expect to find predictions about the conditions in the world during the last days of the church on earth in the Old Testament. On this basis, this article will be based on New Testament references.
Before I continue I need to clarify two things:
- What I mean by the word ‘church’, and;
- That I believe that the church will not always be on earth and so there will be a day when it is taken from earth to heaven.
These two issues will provide a framework for us to work within when considering our question.
What the word ‘church’ means?
The word ‘church’ in some ways is an unfortunate translation of the Greek word ekklesia. Most dictionaries explain the word as meaning ‘the called people’. Tyndale is famous for translating the word as ‘congregation’, reminding us that the word is describing people who meet together for a specific reason. It has been used mainly in a religious context, but the word is also used for civic/public meetings, Acts 19. 39, 41.
The first two references to the church in the New Testament are found in Matthew chapters 16 and 18. These two references explain the two aspects of the church that are taught in the New Testament.
Matthew chapter 16 describes what I am going to call ‘the dispensational church’. It is made up of every believer from the commencement of the church on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2, to its completion at the coming of Christ, 1 Thess. 4. It is called ‘his body’ in Ephesians chapter 1 verse 23. In the same chapter, verse 22, we learn that the Lord Jesus Christ is ‘head over all things to the church’.
In summary, based on Matthew chapter 16 verses 18 and 19, the dispensational church (and therefore all local churches):
- Is built on Christ who is the foundation;
- Is owned by the Lord Jesus – ‘my church’;
- Is growing and will grow until the Lord Jesus returns;
- Is the focus of the devil’s destructive activity;
- Will never be destroyed by Satan’s power;
- Represents the authority of Christ on earth.
The word when used in Matthew chapter 18 verses 15 to 20, clearly refers to a situation where a person, while trying to sort out a personal dispute, comes to the ‘church’ to request a decision. In this section there is a reference made to decisions that are made on earth being corroborated in heaven. This is similar to what is said in Matthew 16, but the point seems to be that of the authority vested in a local church as opposed to the authority that was vested in Peter as is seen fulfilled in Acts chapters 2, 8, 10 and 11.
One day, the church will be taken from earth to heaven.
This subject will be dealt with later in this series, so I will not elaborate save to say that the church will one day be taken from earth to heaven. Not all of the church is on earth, as many of the saints have died, Eph. 3. 15, 1 Thess. 4. 15, 17. The Lord Jesus promised that He would come again for His own in John chapter 14 verse 3 and many other passages either hint at or teach this truth. For example, John chapter 17 verse 24 and 1 Thessalonians chapter 4.
So, what will the world look like in the last days of the church on earth?
The key passages to look at for this detail are 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, 2 Timothy chapter 3, 2 Peter chapter 2, and Revelation chapters 2 and 3.
The expression ‘last days’ is a significant one when we are looking at this subject. Whilst we cannot be dogmatic as to when the last days are, we can see from these passages the characteristics and moral features of ‘last days’.
2 Thessalonians 2
In this passage, the Apostle Paul is explaining the conditions that will be in place when the ‘man of sin’ will be revealed. By comparing numerous passages, we conclude that this will not happen until the church has been translated to heaven. However, the characteristics of this period are clearly seen in this passage.
Verse 3 – there will be a major rebellion against God; the scripture calls it ‘a falling away’.
Verse 10 – there will have been a refusal to love the truth, that is the truth of God as revealed in scripture. This refusal reflects the aggressive denial of the need of salvation by human beings.
Verse 12 – the refusal to believe the truth is a result of, and also the means by which, that generation will delight and have pleasure in unrighteousness. Like Noah’s generation and Lot’s generation, the people get their thrills from wicked pursuits.
2 Timothy 3
This passage specifically claims to be describing last days.
In verse 1, Paul says that these are terrible days of difficulty – unpleasant, evil days. The following list makes for very unpleasant reading. The people of that day, which sounds very much like ours, are selfish, egotistical, materialistic, super-assertive, arrogant and proud, abusive, ungrateful, unforgiving and focused on pleasure.
I have not gone down the list and quoted each description, you can do that on your own, but you can see for yourself that the conditions that are described as ‘last days’ are indeed ‘terrible times’, v. 1.
We must be careful in case we see this list as just describing the lower end of a selfish and violent society. This is a list that covers all of society. The rich and the poor, the powerful and the down-trodden; all strata of society are included. The key is found in verse 5, ‘having a form of godliness but denying its power’. In a society where ‘evil is called good, and good is called evil’, morals are severely messed up and what might appear moral, is actually done in denial of all that pleases God.
2 Peter 2
Peter adds his voice to the description of conditions in the last days.
In verse 1, we learn that there will be those who teach error. The false teaching is so bad that it is described as ‘destructive heresies’. It is off-the-wall error that destroys the truth of God and destroys those who fall under its evil spell. The main error relates to the person of Christ and the work of salvation, v. 2. These false teachers will attract a great following, v. 3. This is similar to the warning that Paul gave to the Ephesian elders in Acts chapter 20.
The false teachers of the last days will exploit the people of God with ‘made up stories’, v. 3. In other words, they are fully aware that they are deceiving people and doing it for personal profit. The judgement that is pronounced reflects the severity of the sin of false teaching and false teachers.
Revelation 2 and 3
These chapters can be used as a template to describe conditions in the church, as well as in the world, before the Lord Jesus returns to the air. The seven churches of Asia Minor can be looked at prophetically – as a timeline from Pentecost to the rapture or morally – conditions that could exist at any one point in time in church history.
Prophetically – from this standpoint the church in Laodicea describes the church in the period of time just before the Lord comes. Look at the low moral state and spiritual character of this local church. Sadly, the moral/spiritual state of the world is often reflected in the state of the church.
This is a church that is lukewarm. There is little reality or conviction. The Lord finds it spurious and distasteful. This church sees itself as rich and in need of nothing, but the Lord describes their real condition as ‘wretched, and miserable, and poor and blind and naked’. It would appear that recovery in these days will be on an individual basis, as the Lord appeals for individuals to ‘open the door’ for Him to come in.
Morally – this view of the seven churches reminds us to be aware of the low spiritual condition that could exist in any local church. Every generation, potentially, faces the same problems and can demonstrate ‘last day’ characteristics in their behaviour.
Here are some key examples: the increase of satanic activity in some locations will have devastating effect on church testimony, Rev. 2. 13. The changing role of women and the seduction of false religion will bring divine judgement, v. 20.
The constant theme of overcoming and the rewards that relate to the future reign of Christ on earth, would remind us that these conditions will exist right up until the coming of the Lord. 1
As I conclude this article may I add this comment. Many passages of scripture describe conditions that will exist in the world after the church has been taken to be with the Lord. While I cannot be dogmatic about this suggestion, I do not think that these evil conditions will suddenly commence when the church goes. From 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, we know that lawlessness is already working in the world, but that there will come a point when its progress will no longer be impeded. I judge that in verse 7 the Spirit of God is hindering the full advancement of evil while the church is still in the world. At the point of the church’s removal, the Spirit of God will also go. Just as the Spirit came at the commencement of the church in Acts 2, so the removal of the Spirit will coincide with its removal. At that point the actors and the actions of unrestricted evil will be revealed.
This being the case, the descriptions of society after the rapture are relevant for us to consider. 2
They describe a world where there will be:
- Increased levels of evil activity
- Aggression and persecution
- False prophets and teachers
- Claims to political unity
- A united form of world religion
- Streamlined economic and financial world systems
- Increased wars producing apparent peace.
Last day conditions may be upon us, or at least we can see signs that the world is fast moving towards the way things are described in scripture. May the Lord give us grace to live for His glory as individuals and assemblies of His people until that day when He shall come.