Reading God’s Word and Seeing God’s World through the Lens of Two Biblical Ages

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For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.
Romans 13:11b 

Redemptive history has two overlapping ages. And unless you grasp how the new age brings the future into the present, without entirely swallowing up the old age—yet!—you will have a difficult time understanding how the Bible fits together and how God is working in the world. To say it differently, your doctrine, especially your eschatology, will shift off-center if you don’t consider both ages as described in Scripture. Either you will see too much of God’s kingdom present today, or you will withhold too much of the kingdom until some later time period. This approach to the kingdom of God is sometimes called inaugurated eschatology and I have discussed that here.

In what follows, I want to sketch out how necessary it is to see both ages and how the entirety of the Bible depends on rightly grasping this two-age perspective. First, we will consider how the Old Testament teaches us to look forward to a new age. And instead of considering this in the abstract, we will note at least twelve specific expectations given by the prophets, such that when the authors of the New Testament describe them as fulfilled in Christ, they are telegraphing the way that the new age has come.

At the same time, and this is the second thing, we will see from the New Testament how the presence of the new age does not mean that we have seen all things made new yet. Rather, what began with Christ’s resurrection and ascension is the dawning of a new age. (N.B. New age in the biblical sense, not in the Eastern mystical sense). And just like light enters the day before the sun is seen, so in redemptive history, we see the light of Christ dawning in the world, even though we have not yet seen the full glory of Christ on earth. The light of Christ is here, but not fully. Thus, we must live as those who are citizens of this new age, even as we are surrounded by death, sin, and evil of this fallen world.

Only together, when we recognize the hope of the new age and abiding horrors of the old can we rightly assess the world in which we live. Indeed, so many doctrinal, ethical, and practical questions are answered or assisted by understanding the times in which we live. And this depends upon seeing both ages at the same time, and how they overlap in our present day. 

To help explain that overlap and the conflicts that result, I share the following reflections as a starting place to see how the presence of the future and the fading of the past are described by God’s Word. For more on this subject, I encourage you to read Benjamin Gladd’s concise theology essay, “The Two Ages” and to become familiar with the framework illustrated here (found on Learning and Living the Word). You might also be helped by my article, “The Course of this Age.”

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What to Expect When Expecting: Old Testament Prophecies About the New Age

When G. K. Beale begins his A New Testament Biblical Theology, he devotes five chapters to eschatology—and rightly so![1] The New Testament does not leave eschatology for Revelation. Rather, the apostles apply Israel’s eschatological hopes to Christ and by application to his new covenant people. Expecting the restoration of the kingdom of God to Israel (Acts 1:5), Jesus’s disciples did not immediately perceive how Jesus would do this. Yet, Jesus explains how the Holy Spirit brings a new age. In every book of the New Testament, therefore, we see how the promises of the Old Testament are presently fulfilled, even as their future consummation awaits.[2]

To be clear, this new age is not new in the sense that Jesus did something unexpected or novel. Instead, his life, death, and resurrection ushered in the “latter days,” an eschatological future which goes back to Genesis 49:1.[3] Therefore, to see how the New Testament speaks of the course of this age, we need to see how Christ inaugurated the last days. In particular, we can outline the multi-faceted nature of this new age under twelve headings. Admittedly, there are disagreements on how these eschatological hopes are fulfilled, but for all students of eschatology, these aspects of the new age must be considered.

Twelve Facets of the New Age

  1. Tribulation will come and precede God’s plan of salvation (Daniel 7–12, esp. 12:1)
  2. A New Exodus (Isa. 40–55; Jer. 31:31–32; Hos. 11:1–11)
  3. A Righteous King from David’s House (Isa. 9:6­­–7; 11:1–5; 55:3; Jer. 23:5–6; 33:14–26; Ezek. 37:24–28; Hos. 3:4–5; Mic. 5:2; Amos 9:11–15; Zech. 12:7–9, 10; 13:1)
  4. A New High Priest and Holy Priesthood (1 Sam. 2:35; Ps 110:4; Isa. 56:6; 61:6; 66:20; Jer. 34:14–26; Mal. 3:1–4)
  5. A New Covenant (Jer. 31:31–34; Isa. 54–55; Ezek. 34:25–31; 37:24–28; Hos. 2:16–20)
  6. Forgiveness of sins (Isa. 53:4–9; Jer. 31:34; Ezek. 36:25; Zech. 12:1–10; 13:1)
  7. Restoration of Israel (Jer. 31:1, 27, 31, 38; Ezek. 37:15–23; Joel 3:17–21; Amos 9:11–15)
  8. Inclusion of the Nations (Gen. 49:10; Ps 22; Isa. 2:1–5; 19:16–25; 49:1–7; 60:1–6; Jer. 48:47; 49:39)
  9. Resurrection from the Dead (Isa. 53:10–12; Ezek. 37:1–14; Dan. 12:1; Hos. 6:1–3; Jonah)
  10. A New Temple (Ezek. 40–48; Haggai 1–2)
  11. The Outpouring of the Spirit (Isa. 11:1–10; 32:15; 61:1–3; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28–3)
  12. New Creation (Isaiah 65:17–25; 66:22–23)[4]

This list helps us understand what was of importance to Israel and the apostles who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, teach us to see how Christ fulfills and inaugurates all of these prophetic expectations. Importantly, these expectations are not discreet, disconnected parts of God’s redemptive purposes; they are unified in the new age which Christ has brought by the Spirit. Accordingly, the Old Testament trains us to see what is important. And now we turn to the New Testament to see how these promises are fulfilled and will be fulfilled in Christ.

Already and Not Yet: New Testament Fulfillment of Israel’s Expectations 

When John the Baptist, imprisoned by Herod, asked Jesus if he was the One they should expect, the Lord does not say “yes” or “no.” Instead, he highlights ways he fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies (Matt. 11:2–6). This approach of answering Old Testament prophecies with the person and work of Christ will become normative in the New Testament. For repeatedly, the apostles recall God’s words to Israel as means of hope (Rom. 15:4) and instruction (1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Tim. 3:16–17) for all people—whether Jew and Gentile.

In this way, we learn how “all the promises are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ in him” (2 Cor. 1:20). Certainly, this does not mean all things have been made new, but it does mean Christ has ushered in the last days. As Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, he interpreted the outpouring of the Spirit as fulfilling the “last days” prophecy of Joel 2:28–32 (Acts 2:17). Likewise, Hebrews 1:2 indicates that Jesus has spoken “in these last days,” bringing a word from God that far exceeds the prophets of old (cf. Heb. 9:26).

Truly, the resurrection and ascension of Christ means that all the promises of the Old Testament have been fulfilled in real and meaningful ways. Corresponding to the list above we can say with confidence that:

Twelve Fulfillments of Old Testament Expectations

  1. Christ experienced in his life and death all the tribulations and curses assigned for Israel (Gal. 3:13), which ushered in a new age.
  2. Christ’s new exodus has been effective (Luke 9:31).
  3. Christ is a righteous son of David who now sits at God’s right hand (Heb. 1:4).
  4. Christ is a faithful high priest who lives to intercede for God’s people (Heb. 7:25).
  5. Christ has begun a new and better covenant (Heb. 8:8–13).
  6. Christ offers forgiveness of sins for those in covenant with him (Luke 24:47; John 20:22–23; Eph. 1:7).
  7. Christ has redeemed a remnant from Israel (Luke 2:25, 38), has conjoined the twelve tribes as symbolized in the twelve disciples (Luke 22:28–30; Acts 1:15–26), and continues to bring Jews and Gentiles to faith, even as the nation of Israel is hardened against God (Romans 11).
  8. In Christ, the nations have been brought to faith and grafted in (Eph. 2:14–17; Romans 1:7; 16:25).
  9. In Christ, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh (Acts 2, 8, 10, 19).
  10. The Holy Spirit now dwells in the church, the temple of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:14–18).
  11. The resurrection is being experienced in the new birth (John 5:26–29; 1 Pet. 1:3–5).
  12. New creations are being made every time the Word of God raises someone form the dead (2 Cor. 5:17).

From these present realities, we see how the purposes of God are being accomplished on earth since the exaltation of Christ until now. And we also see how the fulfillment of God’s promises are eliciting hostility from the world. Just as Jesus promised, those who follow him will be hated, persecuted, and even killed (John 15:18–25). As Peter says, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet. 4:14).

Clearly, this tension of spiritual blessing and worldly cursing stands at the center of this age. For today, we are neither living in the old age, nor fully in the new age. Both are in existence. Indeed, for while Christians have every spiritual blessing in heavenly places, and are living in the resurrection life of Christ, they are simultaneously experiencing great tribulation and hostility from those who hate Christ and all that he brings. This is the ongoing spiritual warfare that rises today. And it only makes sense in light of the two ages.

Indeed, the age of life and peace and righteousness found in Christ is genuinely here. It has visible effects in churches who are gatherings of people renovated by the Holy Spirit (see Titus 3:5–6). Yet, because the consummation of the new creation has not come, these communities still battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Like Israel in the wilderness, we still await the Promised Land. As the New Testament describes, we long for the final trumpet, the return of Christ, and the final separation of the righteous and the unrighteous. This is what all of creation awaits to see—the final revealing of the sons of God and the completion of what Christ has begun. As Paul says in Romans 13:11, we are closer to this day of salvation than we have ever been. Yet, it is still not here.

Therefore, until that day, we are to be witnesses of Christ’s resurrection and the kingdom that is available to all who turn from sin to Christ. This the gospel we preach—a message of the new life found in Christ, proclaimed to those dead in their sins and (in)sensibilities of this age. In truth, knowing how the Word teaches us to think about the world, doesn’t automatically change the world. But it does equip us for the mission God has given us in Christ. Therefore, as growing disciples we should strive to understand what Scripture says about these two ages, and how the New Testament shows us that Christ has fulfilled and is fulfilling all the promises of the Old. To that end, I would encourage you to revisit the lists above and consider what Christ has done, and then go tell others the good news—that all that they long for and all that they need is found in him.

That is our gospel message. May God give us strength to proclaim that truth in a world that continues rail against the things of Christ. But may we also remember that the old is fading away, and the new is almost here. The light of Christ’s kingdom has dawned. May we continue to run towards that light.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

___________________

[1] G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 88–224.

[2] Ibid., 129–60.

[3] Ibid., 92–99.

[4] This list is heavily dependent on, but not identical with, Beale’s tenfold list that composes the “latter days” in the Old Testament. See ibid., 115.

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