It has often been observed that the “last days” are not just some future event of tribulation and doom but are instead the days of Christ’s church, inaugurated by his resurrection. Thus, as Acts 2:17 and Hebrews 1:2 teach us, the last days have begun with the finished work of Christ and will culminate when he comes again to consummate what his resurrection began.
Such an observation stands behind the notion of an inaugurated eschatology, the belief that the kingdom of God is already and not yet. Indeed, coming out of the debates with George Eldon Ladd in the mid-twentieth century, evangelical theology has found a large consensus on this fact—the kingdom is not only present and it is not only future; rather the kingdom of God has been inaugurated but awaits its culmination.
Certainly, this view of the kingdom is different than the way the Old Testament Prophets foresaw the coming kingdom. To them the coming of the messiah meant the restoration of Israel’s kingdom, the outpouring of the Spirit, and a new age marked by resurrection and life. What we find in the New Testament, however, is that this new age would come in the midst of the old, and that the last days of the old age would coincide with the era of the church, whereby the people of God would bear witness to Christ’s future return.
Biblical evidence for this two-phased kingdom is found in the Gospels where Jesus speaks of the kingdom as already (Matthew 12:28) and not yet (Matthew 24:35). It is also found in the arrival of the Holy Spirit which has made born again believers new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), but without restoring the whole cosmos yet—what Isaiah 65 describes as a new heavens and new earth. Likewise, the resurrection of Christ—the first-fruits of the new creation—indicates a redemptive-historical shift from the old age to the new. And its this resurrection shift that is picked up by certain language in the New Testament.
Beginning with Paul’s speech to in Athens (Acts 17), there are two words that mark the change brought about by Christ’s resurrection. These words are nuni de, “but now.” As Fleming Rutledge observes in her provocative book on Christ’s crucifixion (and resurrection), “this radical newness, this transformation, is epitomized by the very frequent appearance in Paul’s letters and the epistles of Peter of the phrase “but now” (nuni de)” (The Crucifixion, 60).
Her observation reflects the apocalyptic nature of the New Testament, that the future has invaded the present (to borrow Ladd’s language), the kingdom of heaven has come to earth, and the resurrection of Jesus has marked a new stage in redemptive history. Indeed, the kingdom is not consummated yet, but neither is it absent. And importantly, the presence of the kingdom and the resurrection power of Christ is witnessed through the apocalyptic phrasing “but now.”
“But Now” in Acts, Paul, Peter, and Hebrews
To get a sense of how prevalent this phrasing is, consider these 13 passages. (These are not the only places nuni de is used (cf. John 8:40; Romans 11:23; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 1 Timothy 3:6; etc.), but only the ones which have redemptive-historical importance).
1. Acts 17:30–31 — But now repentance goes to all people
30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Cf. John 15:22, 24)
2. Romans 3:20–23 — But now righteousness has been granted in Christ
20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
3. Romans 6:20–23 — But now slaves of sin have been set free from their deadly master
20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
4. Romans 7:5–6 — But now we have died to the law and been made alive by the Spirit
5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
5. Romans 11:30–31 — But now we have received mercy from the God we disobeyed
30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.
6. Galatians 3:24–26 — But now faith has come and we are sons of God by faith
24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
7. Galatians 4:8–9 — But now we are known by God
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?
8. Ephesians 2:11–13 — But now Gentiles have been brought near
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
9. Ephesians 5:6–8 — But now you are in the light; so walk in the light
6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.
10. Colossians 1:24–26 — But now the mysteries of the gospel are revealed in Christ
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. (Cf. John 16:4–8; Ephesians 3:1–13)
11. Colossians 3:7–8 — But now you must walk in your new life
7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.
12. Hebrews 12:26 — But now God is establishing a kingdom that cannot be shaken
26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”
13. 1 Peter 2:10 — But now you are God’s people who have received God’s mercy
10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Together, these verses many of the glorious realities of those who have been raised to life with Christ (Romans 6). Moreover, they show just how apocalyptic the New Testament is. That is, in addition to giving pastoral instruction to the church, Paul and Peter also teach the church how to live in the age of Christ’s resurrection. In this sense, the church is God’s apocalyptic community, the people on whom the end of the ages has come (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Accordingly, this “but now” reality should shape everything about us. Because of the redemptive-historical realities laid out in these Scriptures—things like forgiveness, freedom from the law’s penalty, and the power of the Holy Spirit—we find what we need to walk in newness of life. Indeed, just Ephesians and Colossians teach, because we have been raised with Christ in his new age, we now have power to live in a new way. In fact, Philemon 11 shows exactly how the redemptive-historical shift brings about individual change: “Formerly he was useless to you [when he was dead in sin], but now he is indeed useful to you and to me [because Onesimus is alive in Christ].”
Do you see how practical this is? Seeing the big picture of the Bible is not just an esoteric exercise; it is imminently useful.
Living in the “But Now”
In the end, a faithful reading of the Bible often depends on seeing small but important words. Observing how Paul and Peter employ “but now” is one example. In the flow of their letters, these words do not give us major propositional truth, as they are not main verbs or key subjects. Instead, they are a simple temporal contrast. But covenantally and canonically, catching Paul’s phrasing is massive for understanding what is happening in the New Testament and in the new covenant church made of Jews and Gentiles.
Therefore, when we read the Bible, we should endeavor to see the eschatological and apocalyptic nature of the New Testament. We should marvel at the new work that God has done in Christ. Indeed, as Rutledge puts it, we should see how “the cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the novum, the new factor in human experience, the definitive and world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in the world” (61).
Truly, the newness of the New Testament is found in the fact that God has begun to bring about his new creation in the last days of the old age. In this, we do not have to wait until some future time period to experience the power of God. Rather, in the gospel (Romans 1:16) and in the Spirit of Christ (Ephesians 1:18–23, 3:14–21) we find the power of God through faith in Christ.
May we rejoice in that reality and walk in that strength, remembering that the old world is fading away, “but now” in Christ we are new creatures being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Soli Deo Gloria, ds