It has become a fact more familiar to many, through certain recent discussions of momentous importance, that Scripture is full of a doctrine of the "ages." The phrase is, in our common version, more often obscured than not by being translated "world," or "worlds," or hidden under the stereotyped form, "forever," or "forever and ever." This last expression is always, in the New Testament, if literally rendered, "for the ages of ages." It never implies less than full eternity, as it is the measure of God’s own life: "He that liveth for the ages of ages" is His title (Rev. iv. 9). Christ, too, presents Himself as "alive for the ages of ages" (chap. i. i8); and there are ascribed "blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for the ages of ages" (chap. v. 13). These same "ages of ages" measure also the duration of the punishment—which is no less, then, than eternal —whether of the devil and his angels in the lake of fire (chap. xx. io) or of the beast-worshippers who drink of the wine of the wrath of God (chap. xiv. ix). There is no hope of finding an escape from eternity under an admitted phraseology of this kind in Scripture.
The term "forever" is, again, sometimes "for the ages," while much more often the singular of this word is used, which some would render, in a way very equivocal to our habits of thought, "for the age," but where "age" must refer to the "age of ages" (the expression used in Eph. 3: 21), inasmuch as it also stands for true eternity, for which it is the common word; while (save in three passages) the adjective derived from it is rendered "everlasting," or "eternal," everywhere in the New Testament; and rightly and necessarily so.
There may be thus an "age" (a period rounded off from the rest of time, and having distinctive characters of its own) as well as, in Scripture-language, "the age," sum of all ages, which knows no limit and no end. In the adjective also may be found these different significations; for while in its ordinary use, as I have already said, it means eternal, there are just three passages, with which we have now more to do, in which it refers to an age, or ages, rather than the age.
The Revised Version, even in Romans xvi. 25, 2 Timothy i. 9, and Titus i. 2, keeps to the word "eternal;" but it is hard to realize what "eternal times" can be. The Authorized Version has "before [or "since "] the world began;" but this is again a paraphrase rather than a translation. The true force is, "in [or "before "] the age-times "—times marked out as "ages," distinctive, rounded off periods. In Timothy and Titus it is God’s grace, or the promise of eternal life, which is said to have been given us (in the divine counsels) before these age-times were: in Romans it is that in certain ages God had kept secret a mystery, now in Christianity revealed.
Thus there are ages past as well as ages to come— ages which lose themselves to our sight in that eternity which stretches in measureless infinity before us. The ages that are past, moreover, are distinguished from those to come as a series which, in a certain sense at least, has come to an end, and which is characterized as a series of steps toward the fulfillment of a purpose now accomplished, and from the accomplishment of which important results accrue to us. So, speaking of the things that are recorded as happening of old to Israel, the apostle says (i Cor. x. ii), "Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples [or, as in the margin, "types"]; and are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages [not "world"] are come." Since these ages have ended, then, the types of a past dispensation have begun to speak as never before; which corresponds to what, in another place, the apostle says (Cor. iii.)—that the veil which was over the Old Testament is now "done away in Christ."
Again, in Hebrews ix. 26, we are told precisely that it was "at the end of the ages" (as we should read it) Christ "appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." This sacrifice closed, then, if not in every sense, the ages; and thus the New Testament, written on this side of the dividing line, gives the true key to the Old. In Christ come, all that the past pointed to was fulfilled; the substance was reached of all its shadows; the heart of God was opened out to man, and in free and unrestrained speech declared itself.
But why not before? it is natural to ask. If, as now seen, this grace was in Him from the beginning, why was it so long before He openly manifested it? Was it necessary that through so many centuries of deferred hope, or of darkness without true hope, the coming of the Deliverer and the gospel of deliverance should be delayed? The New Testament affirms this absolutely when it speaks of a "due time" in which Christ died (Rom. v. 7). How, then, was this "due time" marked? First, "when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly." And again, "when in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe." (Cor. i. 21.) The wisdom of the world had thus to be proved at fault, and the world itself helpless and hopeless in its moral ruin, before the due time of man’s deliverance could come. He must get the blessing on true ground,— as grace, not something that man’s hand had wrought at. "When we were yet without strength" — "yet," after repeated trial. Again, "when in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God;" it must be granted time and opportunity to prove this, therefore. The delay in the coming of the Deliverer was the result of time required to certify the need of the deliverance: the ages previous to Christ’s death were ages of a special trial of man, which the cross ended; for indeed there was his heart fully proved to be at "enmity to God," while, as to true and divine wisdom, it was what "none of the princes of this world knew; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." (i Cor. ii. 8.)
But if, then, it was so necessary that these probationary ages should have their course,—if the coming of Christ on this very account waited four thousand years, how important must it be for us to get hold of the meaning of these age-times! As the world is but the multiple of the individual man, so it will be found that we pass in general, in order to find our blessing in Christ’s death, through the stages of these different dispensations. Certainly it is when yet ungodly and without strength we find what that death has wrought. And what law is, though God never put the Gentile under it, we know as putting ourselves under it, as indeed the Gentile Christians have done in a body.
Scripture, too, will be cleared for us as we consider these ages past; our own portion in it will be freed from admixture, and appraised more truly; God’s ways will speak more distinctly their perfect character, and many a precious lesson as to these shall we learn, or be confirmed in; the history of the world itself will have a new significance, if perchance it thus may fill fewer pages ;- in short, every way we may find most real profit, if only the blessed Spirit of God lead us Himself down the track of a past, gone indeed, but not yet done with,- a past which is the seed of the present and the future, and of which the judgment-Seat at last will give us, for eternity, the full moral. For now "we know in part, and we prophesy in part;" and yet this partial knowledge may be most helpful.
Let us glance at the course over which, if the Lord will, we hope to travel. We have
1. The trial of innocent man in Eden; brief indeed - the history of a day rather than an age,- yet all-important in its results for every step of the journey afterward.
2. The trial of natural conscience simply, in the time before the flood.
3. The trial of human government (the political trial, as we may call it) from Noah’s time, virtually over at Babel, although, of course, as a divine institution, this remains to the present time.
4. After an important interval, which has its own significance with reference to these age-times and in which Abraham and his seed appear upon the scene, we have next the great trial of man under the law. This has two parts of very unequal duration. The trial of pure law lasted at the most forty days, ending, under the mount itself, with the breaking of the tables of the covenant, and judgment executed on the people for the breach of it, in the worship of the golden calf. Then followed, for nine hundred years, a system of mingled law and mercy, the tables of law being now written by the hand of the mediator; and here man was as much convicted of his impotence for self-recovery as he was of his ungodliness before. This ended when Hosea’s "Lo-Ammi" was recorded against the people, and the kingdom of Judah came to an end by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar.
5. From this time onward the question was not, Could they keep the law? but, Would they submit to the sentence, and receive the Deliverer? The remnant, returned from the Babylonish captivity, with their temple empty, and under the heel of the Gentile, were witnesses of a ruin which John’s baptism of repentance called to (and should have sealed) their confession of. Thus, and thus only, could they have been prepared for the Saviour, and found remission. Here, alas! Satan’s wit combined with human pride to build up Pharisaism, and the cross proved not merely that man could not keep the law, but that the mind of the flesh was "enmity against God." This was the "end of the ages" of Hebrews ix. 26.
Yet, in fact, the ages go on after this,- nay, the Jewish "age" does. We learn this from Daniel, whose seventieth prophetic "week" is detached from the sixty-nine at the end of which Messiah the Prince comes and is cut off, by an interval of desolation for the city and the sanctuary, whose final blessing he announces. From the New Testament alone we learn what fills this interval, and that the "harvest" of judgment upon Christian profession coincides with the "end" of this Jewish "age."
The gap is thus a very large one, of more than eighteen hundred years, and in this Christianity comes in, not properly as an age, but as a break in the ages, in which a wholly different thing is presented from such probationary trial as the "ages" present. God’s revelation of Himself is what characterizes Christianity. Man remains the same as ever, indeed, and shows himself as incompetent to hold the blessings of the gospel as he was to stand the probation of law; still these are essentially different; and Christianity is but an interruption of the course of the world-ages, the end of which (for us) is come, and which yet go on after Christianity, to their full consummation in Messiah’s kingdom-the "age to come."
Christianity past, the true saints, living or dead, being taken up to heaven, the "end of the age" is marked on the one hand by a new work of grace in a remnant of Israel and of the Gentiles, and on the other hand by the apostasy of professing christendom and the mass of the Jews, who, having rejected Christ, receive Antichrist. The full ripe result of iniquity is reached and judged by the Lord at His personal appearing.
6. Then follows the "world to come "-a day in which, Satan being bound, and evil kept down with a strong hand, man is brought face to face with eternal realities. It is a dispensation of sight rather than of faith, under which, alas! man, as ever, shows what he is, in once more (Satan being again let loose) rising up against God in open insurrection. The judgment of the dead follows; the wicked being cast into hell; the earth and heavens fleeing away before the face of Him who sits upon the great white throne.
7. All enemies are now subdued; the kingdom of the rod of iron is given up; new heavens and new earth succeed the old; God is all in all; and the ages of ages (probationary ages no more) commence their eternal course.
The Lord give us ability to gather up in some measure the lessons of these wondrous ages-lessons not for time alone, but for all eternity.