AUDIENCE TIME IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Part 2 (The Audience of the New Testament Writers)
By Ward Fenley

THE AUDIENCE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT WRITERS

In Acts 2, Peter, in his famous sermon on the Day of Pentecost, informed his hearers that the prophecy in Joel was being fulfilled before their eyes:

Acts 2:16-21 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; ĎAnd it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: And I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come: And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.í The phrase "last days" is used several times in the N.T. to convey to the readers the nearness of the coming of the Lord and the end of the Jewish age ("the end of the age"). The "last days" in the N.T. are the same as the "last days" used by the O.T. prophets.

Those who were present at the Pentecostal sermon could hardly think that there would be two thousand years of last days before the "great and notable Day of the Lord" would come. When proponents of the modern-day "last days" affirm that we are living in them (the last days), I usually ask them, "When did the Ďlast days begin?" Many times, they will answer, "At the resurrection of Christ," or sometimes, "At Pentecost." The latter answer is correct, for the text in Acts proves this. This does not, however, explain the futuristís obvious distortion of time in comparison to Peterís presentation of prophetic fulfillment. It is important to understand that Peterís hearers were familiar (as were most first-century Jews) with the popular prophecy of Joel regarding the coming of the Lord. Peterís audience could only understand that if these things were being fulfilled in their lifetime, then the Day of the Lord and all the events mentioned in Joel would soon take place. This is confirmed by the two texts in Joel and Acts as they proclaimed that the events would transpire "before that great and notable day of the Lord come." (cf. Malachi 4:5). Peter said, "But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel." Would his confirmation not put his audience into a state of radical urgency, especially knowing the pending terror of the Lord? Peter was persuading his audience to quickly believe lest Godís wrath would soon come upon them. They understood Peterís words perfectly well. Any first-century Jew would infer from Peterís statement that Jesus Christ was coming soon (1 Peter 4:7). This was proven by the fulfillment of signs and wonders (verses 17-20). Many modern evangelicals would argue that the miraculous gifts of the spirit ceased during the apostolic era, yet they affirm that we are in the "the last days." This is clearly incongruous with the present text. The text declares that the execution of these signs and wonders take place in the last days. When these last days were completed, then the dreams, visions, etc. would cease (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-13).

The "last days" are also mentioned in the first chapter of the book of Hebrews. The author of the Book of Hebrews intended to show the superiority of Jesus, the New Covenant kingdom in comparison to the law, and the Old Covenant and its kingdom. It is also to be observed that the transition from the inferior covenant to a "better" covenant has a direct interchange with the transition from the Jewish age to the eternal age (cf. Hebrews 1:2; 6:5; 9:26; 11:3). This fact will help us appreciate the context in which the phrase "last days" is used. In comprehending that the writer of Hebrews specifically had Jews in mind, and that he was appealing to their frame of understanding pertaining to the covenantal change, the use of "last days" in the prelude of chapter one would undoubtedly give them a sense of urgency:

Hebrews 1:1-2 God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; How would such a statement strike the minds of professing Christian Jews who were in danger of drawing back to the Jewish sacrifices and rituals? These Hebrews were obviously aware of the Olivet discourse in which Jesus said He would not leave one stone upon another. The consequence of awaking these self-proclaimed believers to the fact that they were in the "last days" inevitably would cause them to see the nearness of the "great and notable Day." "These last days" would obviously be the precursors to the "Last Day" of the Gospel of John. It is referring to none other than the Day of the Lord. This is precisely why the writer of Hebrews warned his hearers of the necessity of encouraging one another lest they would be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. Hebrews 10:25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as YE see the day approaching. The writer not only told the Hebrews they were in the last days, he also warned them that the "Day" was approaching. How could the writer tell them the Day was approaching if it was not to come for two thousand years? How would this statement even apply in such a case? For the writer to deliver such an urgent message just to keep them living godly lives would be deception and sin. It would also negate the inspired authority of Hebrews. Even puritan John Owen in his monumental commentary on Hebrews writes of this Day, "It is not such a day, such a motive, as is always common to all, but only unto those who are in some measure in the same circumstances with them....Wherefore this day was no other but that fearful and tremendous day, a season for the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, city, and nation of the Jews, which our Saviour had forewarned His disciples of, and which they had in continual expectation." Dr. Owen, however, was inconsistent in that he held to a separated future judgment which is destructive to the redemptive outworking of Godís plan, especially as it pertains to the passing away of the Old Covenant. Reformer John Brown also writes of the significance of the phrase, "the Day approaching." "ĎThe dayí here referred to seems plainly the day of the destruction of the Jewish State and Church. That day had been foretold by many of the prophets, and with peculiar minuteness by our Lord Himself: (Luke 21:8-12)..."These events were now very near; and the harbingers of their coming were well fitted to quicken to holy diligence the Hebrew Christians, that they might escape the coming desolation." Heretically, inconsistently, and with no scriptural support, Mr. Brown adds, "But the apostle, to impress on their minds still more strongly the infinite importance of perseverance in the faith and profession of the Gospel, lays before them a peculiarly impressive view of the complete and "everlasting destruction" which awaits the final apostate in a future state." John Brown-Commentary on Hebrews pg.22 Banner of Truth Pub. It is true that all apostates who exit their flesh without Jesus will experience everlasting destruction. This does not, however, justify Mr. Brownís defacement of the considered text and prophetic truth.

Mr. Brown, in the first chapter of his commentary, sees the significance of "these last days" in verse 2 of the first chapter of Hebrews: "...the meaning is, towards the conclusion of the Jewish dispensation. It seems equivalent to the expressions used by the apostle, 1 Cor, 10:11, Ďthe ends of the world (age) are comeí-the conclusion of the Mosaic economy; Gal. 4:4, Ďthe fulness, or the fulfillment of timeí-the accomplishment or termination of the period assigned for the duration of the Mosaic economy; Eph. 1:10, Ďthe dispensation of the fulness of timesí-the economy which was to be introduced when the times of the Mosaic economy were fulfilled; Heb. 9:26, Ďthe end of the world,í literally Ďof the agesí-the period of the termination of the Mosaic economy-the time when the present age or world was about to be changed into the coming age-the world to come. The Christian revelation was begun to be made in the conclusion of the Jewish age. It was before the conclusion of that age that God spake to the Jews by His Son, who, according to our Lordís parabolical representation, was sent last of all to the husband men: ĎHe sent forth His Son made under the law.í His personal ministry, and for some time that of His apostles, was confined to them; and though by His death the Mosaic economy was virtually abrogated, yet it was not in fact dissolved till forty years afterwards, in the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, and the consequent final cessation of its services." John Brown-Commentary on Hebrews pg.22 Banner of Truth Pub. It is a shame that the proper observation of Hebrews 1:2 by Mr. Brown should be so tainted by his deficient view of what actually took place during the destruction of the Temple.

The "last days" of chapter one and the "Day" of chapter ten in the book of Hebrews are irrefutable, as the two passages defend the imminence of the coming of the Lord. The application of the predictive warnings could have no greater pertinence than to first-century Jews whose religious system was about to be destroyed forever.

Paul, in Acts 17, preached mightily to the Athenians who were "wholly given to idolatry." After examining the inscription to the unknown God, Paul preached a message that exalted God as the creator and sovereign controller of all things. Within the context of the sermon, he emphasized that God is not to be likened to idols and the creation of menís hands. It is with this in mind that Paul then proceeded to speak of the coming spiritual judgment that would extend to the entire world:

Acts 17:29-31 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. In verse 30, we see the long-suffering of God toward the idolatrous Gentiles. Paul utilizes a way of communicating that plainly gives implication of a universal pending judgment that would affect these Athenians. In the past, God restrained His rage against the sinful Gentiles. Within the same verse, however, Paul exclaims that God "now commandeth all men every where to repent." The word "now" is especially important in this passage. Strongsís identifies the Greek word nun. He defines the word as meaning exactly what is translated-"at the present time; immediately". Even more importantly is the way in which Paul uses the same word to qualify the following phrase. "Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world (Gk.-oikumene) in righteousness." Why would God use the word now in commanding all men everywhere to repent? "Because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness." If the judgment was not to occur for two thousand years, why would Paul even bring up the fact that God winked at the ignorance of the Gentiles in the past? Even an unregenerate Gentile would at least comprehend Paulís message as implying that the judgment of God was an "appointed" judgment that was going to come upon them. Why were they to repent immediately? Because the appointed judgment day was going to fall upon their generation. "Now" was the command. Before, God winked at their ignorance, but the time had finally come when He would unleash His terror in everlasting judgment. Therefore, as the same command was given to the church at Ephesus, Paul commanded, "Repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly." Revelation 2:5. Since God sovereignly ordained whatsoever comes to pass (Ephesians 1:11), then the Day of His judgment was also ordained. Also, because all the decrees of God are immutable, this judgment Day would come to pass. In light of this, we must take into consideration O.T. history. For example, if this Day was appointed before the world began, then certainly it was appointed at the time of the kings of Israel. Gentiles have existed throughout O.T. history, and we see the continual struggles Israel had with Gentiles, especially during the times of the kings. Considering the abundance of prophets at the time of the kings, why did God not command all men everywhere to repent then? The Day of judgment was as much appointed during the time of the kings as during the time of Paul. If (as the futurist says) the judgment was not to take place for another two thousand years after the generation of Paul, why would Paul suddenly make the plea for universal repentance? It was because the appointed day was about to happen!

1 Corinthians 15 contains the well-known resurrection passage. (At this juncture we will not divert our attention to the nature of the resurrection.) Paul, in defending the fact that there would be a resurrection of the dead, consoles those who had been taken back by the heresy that there would be no resurrection. In his consolation, timeframe plays an indispensable part in the uplifting of their souls. This is especially clear when considering the fact that he made reference to those who had fallen asleep in Christ (verse 18). Paulís candid language is such that could be interpreted no other way by those who received the epistle:

1 Corinthians 15:51-58 Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. "We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed," are the comforting words of the apostle. Many scholars agree that Paul believed that the resurrection and judgment would take place in his generation. This is correct. Where the "scholars" err is when they assume that Paul was mistaken in his expectation of these promises. It is amazing how these scholars affirm themselves as having a greater understanding than the apostles concerning the revelation of prophetic events. In fact, their magnificent prophecy "updates" attain high blasphemy in adding to the words of inspired Scripture. By affirming that Paul was mistaken, they ignorantly, sometimes intentionally, take away and then add to the words of the apostles. This is cause for great warning and, if necessary, extrication from their pulpits and classrooms (1 Timothy 1:19,20; 2 Timothy 2:17,18). Paul did not use obscure language in saying that they "should not all sleep." Those who received the faith-building letter took Paul at Godís word.

It is also significant that Paul uses the qualifier"therefore" in verse 58: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast". Why"therefore"? The admonishment was clearly given so that the Corinthians would be counted worthy of the "change" that would come upon all those in Christ.

The same "end" of which Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians 1:8, he reiterates in his commending second epistle to the Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 1:13-15 For we write none other things unto you, than what ye read or acknowledge; and I trust ye shall acknowledge even to the end; As also ye have acknowledged us in part, that we are your rejoicing, even as ye also are ours in the day of the Lord Jesus. And in this confidence I was minded to come unto you before, that ye might have a second benefit; This is the same "end" as the "end of the age" in Hebrews 9:28 and 1 Corinthians 10:11. Paul had not only told the Corinthians that they were in the end of the age, he also assured them that he trusted that they would acknowledge the holy Scriptures until the end of the age, or the coming of the Lord. He then proceeded to give the incentive for continuing unto the end, i.e. that the brothers and sisters in the Lord would be each otherís rejoicing in the Day of the Lord Jesus, which Day was at hand (cf. Romans 13:11,12; Hebrews 10:25). Note the phrase "in this confidence." Paul not only was certain that the Corinthians would continue trusting the Lord to the end, he also was certain that the mere knowledge of the nearness of Christís coming compelled him to visit them for their encouragement to endure until they received the promise (Hebrews 10:36).

A promise by Paul given to the Philippians could not be misunderstood by first-century Christians who trusted that Christ would return within His stated timeframe (cf. Matt. 16:27,28; 24:34).

Philippians 1:6 Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: What could be more uplifting than 1) the knowledge of the keeping power and eternal security of God, and 2) the fact that this keeping power would be performed until the Day of Jesus Christ. How would the Philippians interpret this confidence of Paul? Would they assume that it was an indecipherable phrase that only a "scholar" could decode? Or, were they taking into consideration the integrity of their Lord to fulfill His word within their generation and, thus, give them that were living the pledged everlasting life?

Paul not only told the Philippians that God would keep them and perform in them that good work until the Day of Jesus Christ, he also admonished them in the Lordship of Christ to manifest that God had truly begun the good work in them:

Philippians 1:9-10 And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; "Being sincere and without offence" in regard to the Day of Christ would have no relevance at all in terms of imminence if the coming of Christ was not to take place for two thousand years. After just reading that God would perform this work until Christís coming, the Philippians would presume to an even greater degree that His coming was near. Surely, they would infer this, especially coming from the hand of the apostle Paul. Once again, the virtue of Paul should cause us, as it did the Philippians, to never suppose he was either mistaken or misled in his inspiration. If either of these errors were true, would this not deny the infallibility of Scripture? Certainly, to claim this position would reveal the facade of our profession of Christianity.

Ward Fenley


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