The terms "latter days" and "last days" are sprinkled in both the Old and New Testaments. Many Christians believe we are now living in the last days foretold in Scripture. Are they right? Are we even now living in the end times of the world? Are "end times" prophecies being fulfilled now or did Scripture have something else in mind? When are these "last days?"
To begin our quest for the answer, we need to see the difference between the last day [singular] and the latter days - or last days - [plural]. John is the only writer to use the term "the last day." In his gospel, it is used to describe the final day of the earth when everybody will be resurrected.
"No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day" [John 6:44, NKJV].
"He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him - the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day" [John 12:48, NKJV].
John definitely uses "the last day" to describe the end of time when Jesus will return to judge the earth. And it is in this sense many people think of "the latter days." But is there a difference between "the last day" and "the last days" as used in Scripture? Are they referring to the same period of time or to different periods of time?
The first time the term "the last days" is used is in Gen. 49:1. "And Jacob called his sons and said, 'Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days...'" [NKJV]. Jacob then proceed to prophesy about each of his 12 children. What did Jacob mean by "the last days?" He was not describing the end of the world, but what would happen to his children and their descendants. The prophecy about Judah even went so far as to come down to the time of Christ.
So what? The point is this, from the first mention of "the last days" we can clearly see it does not always refer to the end of the world. This means we should never take for granted that "the last days" or "the latter days" is talking about the latter days of the world as we know it. We will have to closely examine the context to determine to what "the last days" is referring.
Before we move into the New Testament, let's look at how some of the prophets used the phrase. Is. 2:2 declares, "Now it shall come to pass in the last days, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream into it" [NKJV]. Micah 4:1 is almost an exact quote of this verse.
The "mountain of the house of the Lord" is the kingdom of God which was brought into being in the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. It has become the chief mountain and all the nations and peoples who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior become part of it. In this case, we see that the phrase "the last days" was referring to the days when the international kingdom of God was established, i.e. at the First Coming of Christ.
Another important passage is Dan. 2:28. "But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days..." The context is dealing with the king's dream of the image which represented various world governments down to the time of Christ. "You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay [the Roman Empire], and broke them in pieces...and the stone that stuck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth" [Dan. 2:34,35 NKJV]. The stone is the kingdom of God which will grow into a mountain [like in Is. 2:2] until it fills the whole earth. Since the kingdom of God was founded when Jesus died and rose, we see - again - the term "latter days" referring specifically to the first century when these things happened.
Study for yourself - nowhere in the Old Testament does the term "the last days" or "the latter days" refer to the physical end of the world. For the most part they were looking forward to the time of the New Testament. But what about the New Testament? How do its writers use these phrases?
The first time in the New Testament the term is used is in Acts 2:16-17. "But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh...'" [NKJV]. On the Day of Pentecost Peter, quoting Joel, states that God promised to give the Holy Spirit in the latter days. This means that the last days began, according to Peter's usage, on the Day of Pentecost. He makes no mention of when they end.
The author of Hebrews confirms the first century Christians were living in the latter days. "God...has spoken in these last days to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things" [Heb. 1:1,2 NKJV]. The people who heard Jesus speaking were, according to the Bible's own definition, living in the last days.
What about Paul? What did he have to say on the subject? "But knowing this, that in the last days perilous times will come: for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away" [2 Tim. 3:1-5 NKJV].
Wow! What a list! It sounds just like today, so it must be referring to the present time as the latter days, right? It might be, if not for that last sentence. Paul specifically told Timothy to turn away from these people. Timothy could not turn away from people who would not be born for almost 2,000 years. No, Paul was warning Timothy about deceivers who were spreading evil in his time era, not ours [although we need to take the warning as well]. So, once again, we see "the last days" were in effect in the first century.
Finally, lets consider James 5:3,4. "Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out..." [NKJV]. Some have taken these verses to refer to the end of the world. The context does not allow this. James is charging specific people with specific crimes. The whole context is of actions which were going on during the lifetime of James.
Although many people believe we are living in "the latter days" of planet earth, not once does Scripture use the term that way. Its use in the majority of times refers to the days of the apostles. The apostles were living in the latter days and they knew it. But that leads to question: the latter days of what?
There are two possible answers. The first answer recognizes that the history of the world is divided into two parts. The first part was the Old Covenant before Christ established the kingdom of God with His death, resurrection, and ascension. The second part is the New Covenant after the kingdom of God has been put into effect. We would then have the former days of the Old Covenant and the last or latter days of the New Covenant.
While this could be the meaning of "the last days," it covers a period of almost 2,000 years. The very term "the last days" implies that something is going to end reasonably soon after the last days began. We know the latter days began in the time of the apostles. Was there something of supreme importance which also ended in their lifetime or close to it?
The second possible answer is the Jewish nation. The apostles were living in the latter days of the Jewish nation and they knew it. They knew of the impending destruction of Jerusalem and they warned their followers about it. Even Jesus warned them in Luke 19:43-44 and other places.
Why was this important? Since the time of Moses, Israel had been a nation. They had been called and blessed by God. For thousands of years they were God's people on earth. The only way for outsiders to enter God's covenant blessings was to join the Israelites, as some of them did.
But Israel was more than just God's representative on earth. They had a mission, a very special mission. Through one of them the Messiah would be born. If for some reason the Messiah was not born then nothing else would matter. The whole world would be condemned to hell.
It was a vital mission of universal importance, and yet they forgot what their mission was. Unfortunately many became proud, thinking God had chosen them because they were better than everyone else. They forgot their mission and when Jesus came anyway, they rejected Him, nailing Him to the cross.
For that, God judged them and allowed the Romans to destroy their nation. We fail to understand the importance of that event. For thousands of years every Jew was ingrained with the idea that they were the only people of God. They had forgotten what God had told Abraham, "...and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed" [Gen. 12:3 NKJV].
For a time in history, until Jesus came, God needed to work with one specific nation to prepare the way for the Messiah. When Jesus rose from the dead, it was time to fulfill the original vision of God - a world-wide family united in Jesus alone. It was time for the kingdom to be transferred from a physical nation to a world-wide spiritual nation - the church.
If the Jewish nation had recognized this and repented they would have received the blessing of God and been greatly used in bringing the world into right relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Many individual Jews did indeed do this, and received the benefits of it. Unfortunately, as a nation, the Jews continued to reject the message and the salvation offered through Jesus. So, after a period of time was allowed for repentance, the nation was destroyed. If the Jewish Christians had not been prepared for this, by Jesus and the apostles, their faith would have been shattered.
The apostles were living in this time of great change, enormous confusion, and deep deception. There were many Jews who were trying to deceive the new Jewish Christians back to their old Judaistic beliefs. To some the Law was perverted into a method of getting or keeping salvation. To others there was no Law, so why couldn't they live as they wished? Many other vital issues were raised as the conflict between the old and the new raged on. The latter days of the Jewish nation were traumatic ones in many ways. That is why the writers of the New Testament took the time to remind and warn the people of things they had been taught that would happen in the latter days of the Jewish nation.
Even today we often use the phrase "the last days" or a similar one without meaning the end of the world. "These are the last days of summer." "The last days of a political campaign are the most important." "You had better enjoy the last days of camp for the end is near." The examples could go on forever.
In the light of the Scriptures we have studied, it should be apparent that the term "the latter days" as used in the Bible cannot refer exclusively to our time era. It may include our time [although I think not] but if it does, then the last days have been going on for almost 2,000 years, and may continue to go on for a long time. Only God knows. Whether "the last days" includes our time or ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, it is apparent that its main focus is on the 1st Century not the 21st Century.
For information on "latter days" subjects take the e-mail courses: The Book Of Revelation, Secret Signs Of Christ's Coming, The Great Tribulation.