|Topical Bible Study||May 1954|
Know Your Bible—Part XVII
God’s Plan of the Ages
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” —II Timothy 2:15
IN HIS letter to timothy, Paul reveals that there were some in his day who taught that “the resurrection is past already,” (II Tim. 2:18) and it is evidently in view of this false teaching that Paul admonished Timothy to ‘rightly divide the word of truth.’ The lesson is obvious. The resurrection of the dead is one of the most prominent teachings of the Bible. It is so important in the plan of God that Paul himself wrote, that if there be no resurrection of the dead, “Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.” (I Cor. 15:16-19) The erroneous view mentioned by Paul to Timothy was not the teaching that there would be a resurrection of the dead, but that the promised resurrection was ‘past already.’
This helps us to understand what Paul meant by rightly dividing the word of truth, which was that we should learn to place the various promises of God, and the prophecies of the Bible, in their proper place with relationship to the time sequences in the Divine plan. The Bible emphatically teaches the resurrection of all the dead—“the just and unjust” (Acts 24:15)—but it does not teach that the resurrection was to take place in the time of the Early Church. The “due time” for the general resurrection of the dead is still future.—I Tim. 2:6
God has a ‘due time’ for every feature of his plan of salvation. There was a due time for Christ to come and to die for the sin-cursed world. (Rom. 5:6) There is a due time when the knowledge of the provision of Divine love will be “testified” to all. It is only as we recognize the time element in the plan of God that we are able to discover the marvelous harmony of his Word.
A simple illustration of this would be an architect’s plans and specifications for a three-story building. While there would be some similarity between the plans and specifications for the various floors, in many respects they would differ. Should we attempt to apply the specifications for the third floor in place of those for the first floor, they would certainly seem contradictory.
The divisions in the plan of God, of course, are not from the standpoint of height, as in a building, but in terms of time; and we find that there are three major time divisions in the plan of God. In a very general way these might be designated as past, present, and future. More specifically, however, the Bible refers to these three time divisions as “the world that then was,” the “present evil world,” and the “world to come.”—II Pet. 3:6; Gal. 1:4; Heb. 2:5
The world that ‘then was’ came to an end at the time of the Flood. This was the antediluvian world, which began with the creation of Adam. The ‘present evil world’ began after the Flood, and continues to the completion of the church. The ‘world to come’ begins then, and continues into the endless ages of eternity, the first thousand years being the millennium of Christ’s reign.
In the third chapter of Peter’s second epistle, he describes the main component elements of these three worlds by the symbolic terms “heavens” and “earth” (II Pet. 3:7), meaning the spiritual, and material—or earthly—aspects of these worlds, or social orders. In rightly dividing the Word of Truth, it is essential to determine when literal language is used, and when the Lord is speaking to us in symbolic language. This can be determined by applying the known facts concerning the Divine purpose in the creation of man. The Scriptures reveal clearly, and unmistakably, that it was God’s purpose that the earth should be man’s eternal home. We have the assurance that “the earth abideth for ever,” and that God created it “not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited.”—Eccles. 1:4; Isa. 45:18
This means that prophecies which refer to the passing away of the ‘heavens’ and the ‘earth’ must of necessity be symbolic. The earth itself did not perish at the time of the Flood, although Peter declares that the heavens and the earth, or world, of that time did perish. (II Pet. 3:5,6) By the same token, when we read that the heavens and the earth which are now will also be destroyed, we know that the literal earth will remain. It is the symbolic earth that is “removed,” and it is the literal earth in which God’s name will ultimately be exalted, when he says to the raging nations, “Be still, and know that I am God.”—Ps. 46:2,10
The Apostle Peter assures us that there will be a “new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” (II Pet. 3:13) This will not be a new sun, moon, and stars, and a new planet Earth, but a new social order. It will be the kingdom of Christ—that Divine government which will cause God’s will to be done in earth as it is now done in heaven. In that new social order there will be peace and joy and health and everlasting life for all who obey the laws of Christ’s kingdom.
In our study of the Bible, it is essential to discern which texts, or portions, apply to the first world, which to the present world, and which to the ‘new heavens and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.’ We read, for example, God’s instructions to Noah concerning the building of an ark. We know those instructions applied exclusively to the first world, and particularly to Noah. This illustration highlights the fact that certain instructions and promises which apply to one period in the plan of God might not necessarily apply to another.
So far as general conditions in the present evil world are concerned, Malachi says, “Now we call the proud happy; … yea, they that tempt God are even delivered.” (Mal. 3:15) This harmonizes with what we know to be true in the present experience of the human race. But the Bible also tells us that in “his days” the righteous shall “flourish.” (Ps. 72:7) We know that this is not true at the present time; therefore, in rightly dividing the Word of Truth, we apply this text to the third world, to the time when Christ’s kingdom will be reigning.
Jesus referred to Satan, the Devil, as the “prince of this world.” (John 14:30) Paul speaks of him as the “god of this world,” and explains that he blinds the minds of those who “believe not.” (II Cor. 4:4) Jesus will be the king, the ruler, in the righteous world of tomorrow. This, indeed, is what guarantees that it will be a righteous world. Knowing this, we properly apply all the texts of the Bible, which refer to a time when righteousness will flourish and be triumphant, to the future world.
Additional Time Divisions
The Bible indicates that in this present evil world there are additional time divisions in the plan of God. These we speak of as ‘ages.’ The first age, or era, of this world began with the Flood and continued until the death of Jacob. We refer to it as the ‘Patriarchal Age,’ because it was during this time that God dealt exclusively with the patriarchs—Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. To these God made his promises, the principal one being to Abraham—that wonderful promise that through his “seed” all the families of the earth would be blessed.—Gen. 12:1-3; 22:18
This promise indicated God’s interest in all the people, yet during that age he did nothing to show his favor to other than the patriarchs. He allowed the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah to continue in their sin until it came to the full; then he destroyed them. Jesus explained that if the same efforts had been made in Sodom and Gomorrah as he had made in Israel, they would have repented and not been destroyed. He said, also, that it would be more “tolerable” for Sodom and Gomorrah in the “day of judgment” than for the Israelites who rejected and persecuted him.—Matt. 10:15; 11:21,23
These statements reveal that God’s due time for extending his favor to the Sodomites is still future, and that it will be during the ‘day of judgment.’ Paul told the Athenians that God “hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness.” (Acts 17:31) This again emphasizes the due time element in God’s plan. The judgment day, when God will deal with and offer his blessings to the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah, is an ‘appointed’ day in the Divine plan, and we may be sure that God will keep this, as well as all of his appointments.
The Jewish Age
The patriarchal age ended with the death of Jacob. On his deathbed, Jacob gathered his twelve sons around him and pronounced blessings upon each one. They were the nucleus of the nation of Israel. And from the death of Jacob to the First Advent of Christ, God’s dealings were exclusively with this nation. He visited and delivered the nation from its slavery in Egypt. Through Moses, he gave this people his Law. He sent his prophets to them. Through the Prophet Amos the Lord said to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.”—Amos 3:2
Jesus came in the final years of the Jewish Age, and he respected his Heavenly Father’s special appointment with Israel. When sending his disciples into the ministry he said to them, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5,6) This was no indication that Jesus did not love the Gentiles, nor did it mean that God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth had been forgotten. It was merely that the due time had not yet arrived for Divine favor to be extended to other than this one nation.
When Jesus was raised from the dead he removed this restriction, saying to his disciples just before he left them, “Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This broadening of the witness represented the beginning of a new age in the plan of God—the Gospel Age. During the Jewish Age God dealt with a nation as a nation. During the Gospel Age he has carried on his work through the proclamation of the Gospel to all nations, and has accepted and blessed as his people all those who have responded to the drawing power of the Gospel, regardless of their race or nationality.
Ages of Preparation
However, one thing has been common to both the Jewish and Gospel Ages, which is that in them the work of the Lord has been to prepare a people through whom the promise made to Abraham to bless all the families of the earth would be fulfilled. The natural descendants of Abraham were given the first opportunity to become the “seed” of blessing. (Gen. 22:18) It was offered to them on a national basis, and made dependent upon obedience to God’s Law. Through Moses, God said to this nation, “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”—Exod. 19:5,6
The priestly family within the nation of Israel served the nation as God’s representatives in extending his blessings to the Israelites. God’s promise that upon the condition of faithfulness the whole nation would be a ‘kingdom of priests’ indicates that the nation could have become the channel of blessing, the ‘seed’ through which his promised blessing to all the families of the earth would flow.
The final test of worthiness for this high position in the plan of God came when Jesus presented himself to the nation at his First Advent. As a nation, the Israelites rejected him. The Apostle John wrote, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1:11) This national rejection of Jesus proved the nation’s unworthiness of being a kingdom of priests.
From that time forward the selection of the seed of Abraham, the future channel of God’s blessings to the world, has been conducted on an individual basis. The first opportunity for individuals to qualify for this high honor was offered to the Israelites. John explains that while the nation rejected Jesus, “As many as received him [individually], to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”—John 1:12
But the number of individual Israelites who accepted Jesus was too small to make up God’s foreordained number of the seed class. So, as we have seen, soon after Pentecost the Gospel invitation began to be extended to the people of other nations. This was in keeping with Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.
But it was not the Divine intention that the witness of the Gospel among all nations would convert the world to Christ. God’s purpose in the work of this age, which began at Pentecost, is clearly expressed in Acts 15:14, where we read that “God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” This ‘people for his name’ are called and prepared to be joint-heirs with Jesus, who is the Head of the promised “seed” class.—Rom. 8:17; Gal. 3:8,16,27-29
They are shown to be with the “Lamb”—Jesus—on Mount Sion. They number 144,000 and all of them are said to have “his [the Lamb’s] name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (Rev. 14:1, Revised Standard Version) The first of these to be called were the individual Jews who accepted Jesus, and to whom he gave ‘power to become the sons of God.’ The remaining number are called out from the Gentile world, and these also are taken into the Divine family, the ‘Father’s name’ being written in their foreheads.
The call and preparation of these, through the medium of the Gospel, has been the principal work of God in the earth throughout the age which is now ending. It is “after this” Gospel Age call of a people for his name that the work of God is extended to embrace all mankind. We read, “After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.”—Acts 15:16,17
Through David, and other kings of Israel, God ruled his ancient people. But that arrangement ceased with the overthrow of their last king, Zedekiah. The “crown” and the “diadem”—the right to rule—were then removed, and the Prophet Ezekiel stated, “It shall be no more, until he come whose right it is.” (Ezek. 21:25-27) Jesus is the One ‘whose right it is,’ and it is at his Second Presence that he comes to establish the kingdom. Concerning this we read, “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”—Isa. 9:7
In this reestablished ‘kingdom’ of David, Divine rulership will not be limited to the one nation of Israel, but will embrace all nations—‘Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end.’ With the inauguration of this kingdom in the hands of Jesus, and those called from Jews and Gentiles to be a people for his name, the present age closes and a new age begins. This will be the Kingdom Age. The Scriptures indicate that it is a thousand years in length, hence it is often referred to as the Millennial Age.—Rev. 20:1-4
It will be during the Millennial Age that the ‘residue,’ the remainder, of men will have an opportunity to ‘seek after the Lord,’ and this will include ‘all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called.’ (Acts 15:17) The Gospel has been widely witnessed to the Gentile world during the present age, but only a small number—a “little flock”—have responded to its call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. (Luke 12:32) But these upon whom the Lord’s name has been called will still have an opportunity to seek after him.
Obviously, this means that the Gentiles who throughout the age did not respond to the Gospel call of self-sacrifice will need to be raised from the dead if they are to have an opportunity to seek after the Lord during the Millennial Age. And this is just what the Bible teaches. Not only will the whole world then be enlightened with a knowledge of the glory of God, but it will also be that glorious age in the plan of God when sickness and death will be destroyed, and when the dead will be raised and given an opportunity to enjoy the blessings of the kingdom.
Only by recognizing these time divisions in the plan of God, and discerning the nature of God’s work in each one, can we see and appreciate the marvelous harmony of the Scriptures. For instance, Jesus said to his disciples, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matt. 7:14) Isaiah 35:8 reads, “An highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those; the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.”
A glance at the description of these two ways shows that they are quite different. If we were to suppose that the ‘way’ mentioned by Isaiah is the same as the one described by Jesus, then we would have a contradiction. But when we “rightly” divide the Word of Truth (II Tim. 2:15), and recognize that the ‘narrow’ way Jesus described to his disciples is the one on which his sacrificing followers of this age have been walking, while the ‘way of holiness’ foretold by Isaiah is the one over which mankind will return to life during the Millennial Age, we have harmony.
During the present Gospel Age, the way of the Lord’s people has been ‘strait’ and narrow. They are invited to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, footsteps which lead to persecution, suffering, and finally to death. Those who walk in this way are “planted together” in the “likeness of his death.” They are “crucified” with him. (Rom. 6:5,6) Jesus admonishes them, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”—Rev. 2:10
Satan is ever watchful for an opportunity to deceive and discourage those who walk in the narrow way. Peter wrote concerning him that he “walketh” about, as a roaring lion, “seeking whom he may devour.” (I Pet. 5:8) True, the Lord’s people are “not ignorant of his devices,” yet his constant attacks upon them help to make the way in which they walk very difficult.—II Cor. 2:11
But it will be quite different for those who travel over the way that leads to life during the next age. No longer will it be necessary to suffer “for righteousness’ sake.” (Matt. 5:10) The opportunity to suffer and die with Jesus in order to live and reign with him will be past, so the way of holiness of the next age will not be one of sacrifice and they will not be invited to be faithful unto death, but unto life.
Besides, Satan will then be bound. No longer will he go about as a ‘roaring lion’ seeking whom he may devour. “No lion shall be there,” Isaiah assures us, “nor any ravenous beast [such as temptation to strong drink, and other evils] shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion [where the ‘Lamb’ and the 144,000 are enthroned to administer blessings of life] with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”—Isa. 35:9,10
Yes, the ‘ransomed’ of the Lord shall return. Jesus gave himself a “ransom for all,” Paul explains, and this glorious fact is to be “testified” to all “in due time.” (I Tim. 2:3-6) So the ransomed millions of earth will ‘return’ from death that they may be made acquainted with the loving provision of everlasting life which has been made for them through the redemptive work of Christ. The ‘due time’ for this will be during the Millennial Age.
The reward for faithfulness will be perfect life upon earth, whereas the reward for faithfulness in the Gospel Age will be Divine nature for the church and a spiritual nature for the great company.Go to Part XVIII