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The Real End of the World

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When Christians hear the phrase the “end of the world,” they assume it’s a reference to a great end-time prophetic event like Armageddon, the Second Coming of Christ, or the inauguration of the New Heavens and New Earth. Actually, the phrase “end of the world,” as in the end of the physical world, is not found in the Bible. There is Psalm 19:4, but in context “end of the world” is a geographical description: “Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world.” The same is true of its use in the New Testament (Acts 13:47; Rom. 10:18).

The “end of the world” appears a number of times in the King James Version. The Greek word kosmos, the word we would expect to find for the translation of “world,” is not used. Modern translations render the phrase as the “end of the age” because the Greek word aion, not kosmos, is used. The New King James Version remedies the translation error of the original KJV by translating aion as “age” and not “world” (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20; Heb. 9:26). Aion refers to a period of time, not the physical world (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26[1]).

Peter writes from the vantage point of his day that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter. 4:7). This can hardly be a declaration that the end of the physical universe was about to take place. “At hand” tells us that whatever this end is, it was near for Peter and to those whom he addressed his letter. Jay E. Adams offers a helpful commentary on the passage, taking into account its historical and theological context:

[First] Peter was written before A.D. 70 (when the destruction of Jerusalem took place)…. The persecution (and martyrdom) that these (largely) Jewish Christians had been experiencing up until now stemmed principally from unconverted Jews (indeed, his readers had found refuge among Gentiles as resident aliens)…. [H]e refers to the severe trials that came upon Christians who had fled Palestine under attack from their unconverted fellow Jews. The end of all things (that had brought this exile about) was near.

In six or seven years from the time of writing, the overthrow of Jerusalem, with all its tragic stories, as foretold in the Book of Revelation and in the Olivet Discourse upon which that Part 1s based, would take place. Titus and Vespasian would wipe out the old order once and for all. All those forces that led to the persecution and exile of these Christians in Asia Minor—the temple ceremonies (outdated by Christ’s death), Pharisaism (with its distortion of O.T. law into a system of works-righteousness) and the political stance of Palestinian Jewry toward Rome—would be erased. The Roman armies would wipe Jewish opposition from the face of the land. Those who survived the holocaust of A.D. 70 would themselves be dispersed around the Mediterranean world. “So,” says Peter, “hold on; the end is near.” The full end of the O.T. order (already made defunct by the cross and the empty tomb) was about to occur.[2]

Similar language is used by the writer to the Hebrews where he describes his own day as “the consummation of the ages,” a time when Jesus had been “manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26). Jesus’ appearance on earth as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) coincides with the consummation of the ages, a first-century reality. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews opens his epistle with the claim that he was living in “these last days” because of the presence of Jesus in the world (Heb. 1:2; cf. 1 Peter 1:20). Paul says something similar when he tells his Corinthian audience that “the ends of the ages have come” upon them (1 Cor. 10:11).

The end of the age was the real end of the world, the world of old covenant Judaism and the inauguration of a new era where God no longer speaks in types and shadows but “in His Son” (Heb. 1:2). There was such a dramatic transference from one age to the next that Peter described it as “the end of all things.” This end-time language is “typical Jewish imagery for events within the present order that are felt and perceived as ‘cosmic’ or, as we should say, as ‘earth-shattering’. More particularly, they are regular Jewish imagery for events that bring the story of Israel to its appointed climax. The days of Jerusalem’s destruction would be looked upon as days of cosmic catastrophe. The known world would go into convulsions: power struggles and coups d’état would be the order of the day; the pax Romana, the presupposition of ‘civilized’ life throughout the then Mediterranean world, would collapse into chaos. In the midst of that chaos Jerusalem would fall.”[3]

. Kosmos is used in Hebrews 9:26 and is translated as the “foundation of the world,” that is, the physical world. It seems odd that the translators of the KJV would have translated two different Greek words in the same verse as “world.”
[2]. Jay E. Adams, Trust and Obey: A Practical Commentary on First Peter (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), 129–130.
[3]. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 362


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