In a private Bible study, my wife Laura was asked to write a short paper outlining why she believes that prophecy was fulfilled in the first century. Here is that paper!
Before reading any of these passages, please try to put yourself in the mindset of the first century Jews and Christians. Sometimes Christians today tend to think the Bible, especially the New Testament, was written directly to us as if it is a letter talking about 21st century issues, but with every epistle, we can see those letters were written to the Christians at that time dealing with persecution from the Jews. Jews of the first century recognized the references to the Old Testament that Jesus made in his teachings during his 3-year ministry about a coming judgement on the Jewish nation but were hard of heart to repent. Christians that repented and converted understood what the apostles were talking about when they wrote to them about the wrath to come. That wrath would come on any who did not repent of the spiritual adultery they had committed against God as well as those that did not repent of their part in crucifying Jesus. The figurative language that Jesus and many of the New Testament writers used was common language that the people of the first century were used to. Even though the New Testament is written in present tense making it sound like it directly applies to the 21st century, we have to remember those letters were written in the first century to real people, and those letters have already been received by their intended audiences. Statements, such as “shortly come to pass,” would have been in the present tense for the first century audience. Christians today now have the benefit of learning from those accounts that took place in the first century, and of course can make secondary applications to our own spiritual lives as well as follow scripture for our outline on worship and how to live as a faithful Christian, but we cannot put ourselves as the intended audience of those letters since we are not the “church of Thessalonians” or the “Saints who are at Philippi” etc. In other words, the Bible was written for us, but not to us.
First of all, here are some passages about the figurative language I mentioned that people of the first century were used to:
- Please read the entire chapter of Isaiah 13. Throughout this chapter you can see usage of phrases like “stars will not give their light,” “heavens will tremble,” “earth will be shaken,” “Babylon will be like Sodom and Gomorrah,” and “its time is close at hand.” All of these phrases are very similar to words used in Revelation 11:8, Matthew 10:15, 11:24, chapter 24 and Luke 21 where John and Jesus described the fall of Jerusalem showing how God would bring His wrath on the Jewish nation in similar fashion to how He had treated Babylon.
- Read Isaiah 19 to see the type of language 1st century people would have been used to in reference to the judgement of a nation. Here, God judged Egypt. Notice at the beginning of the chapter that God came riding on a swift cloud to judge Egypt. This is a phrase God's people recognized as being a symbol of the presence of God, not that God rode a literal cloud.
- Nahum 1 mentions the “earth and hills melting,” “mountains quake,” “earth heaves before him,” “standing before his indignation,” and “wrath poured out like fire.” This chapter is concerning God's wrath and judgment on the nation of Nineveh. Similar language is found throughout the New Testament that many people today think is concerning a future judgment and the end of the planet, but within the context of the first century, those phrases were warning the Jews and Christians of a coming judgment on the Jewish nation.
- In Matthew 24:29-34, Jesus applies some of the same figurative language to his coming, such as “sun darkened,” “moon not give its light,” “stars fall from heaven,” “powers of heaven be shaken,” and “coming in the clouds of heaven.” Verse 34 limits the fulfillment of this passage to that generation to whom Jesus was speaking.
- Joel 1 and 2 describes the judgement on Jerusalem because they did not keep the Sabbath and they had gone into idolatry. God judged them by placing them under Babylonian captivity.
- Joel 2 and 3 use the same language to describe God's wrath and His wanting His people to return to him. 3:2 “enter into judgment with them there in those days when he gathers all the nations” 3:12 “there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations” 3:14-16 “for the day of the lord is near,” “sun and moon are darkened, and stars are not shining,” and “heavens and earth quake”.
- In Acts 2, Peter referenced Joel 2:28. After the Jews returned from Babylon, they awaited the day when the spirit of God would be poured out on them – this would mean the “last days” had arrived. Peter made it clear that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was sent to the apostles in the first century to perform miracles to confirm the teachings of Christ after his death.
- In Acts 2:40, Peter tells the crowd at Pentecost to repent and save themselves from that crooked generation because it would be within that generation that the nation of Israel would be judged for their unrighteousness against God.
- Based on how Peter applies the passages he referenced from Joel, it would appear Joel 3 begins to describe the destruction of Jerusalem that would take place in AD 70 and how at that time God would restore his people (by establishing the church).
Now, I will discuss why I believe the Old law was not done away with until the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
- Matthew 5:17-18 says the law would not pass away until all of it was fulfilled. Jesus came to fulfill what the prophets had foretold, and several passages in the Old Testament mention the future judgment of Israel and the restoration of God's people through a kingdom that would never be destroyed which is the church (Daniel 2:44.)
- Luke 21:20-21 mentions that at the destruction of Jerusalem God would take his vengeance on those Jews that had not repented, and it would be during those days when all would be fulfilled. So if the law would not pass away until all of it was fulfilled, it had to have passed away at the destruction of Jerusalem when Jesus had promised all would be fulfilled.
- Paul still kept the Old Law as Acts 21:20-26 shows. Verse 24 shows the elders speaking to Paul and wanting him to show that he still lived in observance of the Law so that the believing Jews (Christians) in that town would not get upset. Those believing Jews were getting upset because false teachers had been saying Paul had forsaken the Law, but Paul made an offering to prove he walked orderly and kept the Law. So even after the cross, Jewish Christians still kept the Law because they were still bound by it until it was completely fulfilled (Luke 21:20-21).
- Acts 21:25 is referencing the account found in Acts 15 concerning the Gentiles who were under scrutiny by the Jews for not being circumcised. Many Jews who were considered believers were under the impression that everyone needed to be circumcised to be saved since they themselves were supposed to uphold the Law, but with Christ's sacrifice, grace and adoption as the children of God was now open to all who wished to be saved. The Old Law was not yet wiped out, so that is why it was okay for the Jews to still perform circumcision (Acts 16:3; Galatians 5:3), but it was the apostles' job to make them understand that the Gentile believers would be adopted in under the New Law and did not need circumcision. So this passage is a good one to see that the two laws were in affect simultaneously until the Old Law was ready to be done away with.
- Hebrews 8:13 says that the Old Law was “becoming obsolete” and was “ready to vanish away” meaning it was at the time where it was almost ready to be done away with but that it was still very much in affect until it was the right time to vanish. It says it was becoming obsolete; not that it already was.
These are some of the reasons why I think many Christians misunderstand the coming of the Lord and the passing away of the Old Law. I think Christians struggle with being inconsistent with how figurative language in the Bible should be interpreted. I also think that it is often misunderstood that there was a transition period between when the New Law was given and when the Old Law was ready to pass away. Again, keep in mind the reason I came to this conclusion on these concepts is that I had to shift my mindset from thinking everything in the New Testament was written to my 21st century Christian self, and instead remember the New Testament had already been received by the intended audience within the 1st century.