What did the close of the age mean to the first century readers of the New Testament? Were they expecting the end of the world or was it something different? In order to examine this we have to look at what the first century, second temple Jew would have understood end of the age to mean. We are in luck thanks to the dead sea scrolls.
The King James Problem:
The KJV of the bible is very good in most cases but not when it comes to eschatology in the gospels. The KJV renders aion world in Matthew 13:39 et. al. passages and that is just a bad translation. Aion in the Greek is age. So then, Matthew 13:39 speaks of the end or the close of the age and not the end of the world. It is not the end of the space time continuum for certain. That is not what was meant by the first century, second temple Jews. And yet, the recipients of the messages recorded in the gospels were solely to first century, second temple Jews. While it is very likely that some were written for congregations that were primarily Gentiles, the words recorded told of events that happened to first century, second temple Jews. In other words, the intended audience of the words spoken by Jesus, John the Baptist and others were strictly first century, second temple Jews.
Now that we have solved the King James problem, let's look at its implications. That means that the intended audience of the New Testament writings was those in the first century while the second temple still stood. The best place to understand their thinking on the matter is to look at the community who wrote/copied the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are divided into three types of documents. First was their copies of the scripture. They spent much of their time copying the scripture. Secondly, they wrote about their interpretation of the scripture, especially the Prophets and most especially Isaiah. And thirdly, they wrote about the rules for their community. Because of this, we can get a very good idea of what they thought about many things and one of the main things they were concerned with was eschatology. Therefore, the meaning of the end of the age was made quite clear in their writings. They often referred to it as the end of the evil age and thus, the beginning of a better age to come. They did not refer to the end of the planet and a new existence in heaven. While they were expecting a battle of Armageddon, they were not expecting the end of the planet.
Now, when you read carefully the pages of the New Testament you see that the beliefs of the Christian communities were very similar to that of the Essenes at Qumran which is the group responsible for creating the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is safe to say that the early Christian communities were not expecting an end of the planet. Apocalyptic language is figurative and not literal. The melting of the heavens and the earth and fire and brimstone and coming on clouds is part of the apocalyptic language and is figurative.
We really mislead our audiences when we proclaim that we are now in the last days or the eschaton. The truth is that they were. You can find that in many of the New Testament writings. As an example, Paul wrote the Corinthians telling them that they were the ones on whom the end of the ages had come, (1 Cor 10:11.)
The paradigm shift will go a long way to help us present a much more clear understanding. It will offer more hope for believers.