What does Peter mean when he says that “The end of all things is near?” (1 Peter 4:7). Is he talking about the return of Jesus? Does he mean something to the effect of, “The end of the world (i.e., the return of Christ) could take place at any time?” I suppose that’s a possibility since he has just spoken of Christ being ready to judge the living and the dead (due to His completed redemptive work culminating in His resurrection – v. 5; Acts 17:30-31). Since He is ready, then from that point of view, the end is near (or nearer than it was).
Still, we recognize there is a difference between someone saying they are ready to eat and saying they will be eating in ten minutes. The first tells us they open to the idea and available while the second tells us that the meal itself is (almost) prepared and it is about time to eat. When Peter says, “The end of all things is near,” it sounds like he is saying something more than just that Christ is prepared—we’re told the end is “near” or “at hand” (ESV). Is there another way of understanding Peter’s words that take the idea of imminence into account?
I think there is. Remember that Peter is writing to Jewish disciples (1:1). Is there any reason why “the end of all things” couldn’t refer to the impending destruction of Jerusalem by Titus and the Romans in AD 70 (roughly a decade from the time of this writing)? The siege of Jerusalem would result in the destruction of the temple, the end of the priesthood and sacrifices. Unlike the Babylonian captivity, there would be no restoration. From a Jewish perspective, this would qualify as “the end of all things.”
If you continue in the text, Peter goes on to say in 4:17, “For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?'” Gerald Wright says, “This is in reference to God’s refining of the house of Israel by taking away all who were not true Israel (rebellious and wicked Jews) in the judgment upon Jerusalem in AD 70 (Romans 9:6ff; Matthew 8:12,21:43). When God judged Jerusalem, all Jews—true and false—were judged. But only the true Jews—the elect—were saved.”
We see this refining throughout the book of Acts as the good news is taken first to the Jewish people (Acts 1:8). Those who are baptized in the name of Jesus show themselves to be true Israel by embracing Him as the Messiah. Those who do not, mark themselves out as not belonging. This is what Malachi had spoken of five centuries before (3:2-4,4:1-3). This theme was taken up by John at the Jordan when some were receptive of his baptism but others (like the Pharisees) were not (Matthew 3:7-12). Moreover, the same Peter will speak of those Jewish people who don’t listen to the Prophet being “completely cut off from their people” (Acts 3:23). All of this provides us with the background for understanding his remarks in 1 Peter 4 and how “the end of all things” was near in his day.