The Course of This Age
This age is the time between the ascension of Christ and his return in glory.
In the Bible, we find two ages—“this age” and “the age to come.” This essay will survey what Scripture says about these two ages, what they are like, and how they relate to one another. Most importantly, this essay will consider how this present evil age and the future age of the Spirit are at work today, in a period of time when Christ’s kingdom is present and future. We will find seven characteristics that mark the course of this age, and we will finish with a call for faithfulness based upon our study of eschatology.
What time is it? This everyday question is one of the most important questions to answer when interpreting the Bible or the signs of the times. This question seeks to understand where we stand in relation to God’s plan of redemption. The question is important because how we perceive our place in God’s drama of redemption will inform how we seek to hear and do what God says.[i]
Jesus addressed this very question when he said to those who tested him, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky,” referring to the red color of the clouds, “but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matt 16:3). This indictment reveals the blindness of Jesus’s opponents, but it also stresses our need to learn from Jesus how to understand the course of this age. In the New Testament, “this age,” and its corollary “the age to come,” appear repeatedly. The difference between the two ages comes not from a sign in the sky but from Christ’s resurrection and ascension.
Interestingly, when Jesus condemns the Jewish leaders for their blindness, he points to his resurrection. Jesus says in Matthew 16:4, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” This sign of Jonah was previously identified in Matthew 12:39–41, where Jonah’s three days in the fish prefigured Jesus’s death and resurrection. As we will see, this cataclysmic event—Christ’s resurrection—is the one that ushered in a new creation and changed the course of this age.
While we still await the consummation of God’s kingdom and the regeneration of the cosmos (Matt 19:28), passages like Acts 2:17 and Hebrews 1:2 testify that Christ has ushered in the “last days.” Still, the old age has not been wholly removed. Sin, death, and evil (angelic and human) continue to have their place—if only for a limited time. Thus, as the age to come has come and we experience the blessings of Christ by the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:3), we continue to suffer the effects of a fallen world. Such is the course of this age.
In this article, we will consider the characteristics of our conflicted age. We will observe seven features that mark our time as the two ages and all they entail. Then, because biblical eschatology impels Christian discipleship, we will close with Christ’s charge to walk faithfully in this embattled age. Indeed, eschatology should not be a leap into the esoteric; it should instead lay bedrock under the feet of the believer, so that we would understand our day with hope in the Day of the Lord.
The Conflicted Course of This Age
The overarching characteristic of this age is tribulation and warfare. In his Olivet Discourse, Jesus speaks of “wars and rumors of war” and “a great tribulation” (Matt 24:6, 21). Some interpret his words to describe events that will occur at the end of time, but even if that is the case, we must remember spiritual warfare goes back to Cain and Abel. Spiritual conflict is the outworking of Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring.” And as Revelation 12 tells the story of redemption, the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve is the same one who persecuted Christ and now chases those who trust in him.
With this bigger picture in mind, there is good reason for seeing the tribulation that Jesus described as beginning during the days of his crucifixion, continuing in the Church, and intensifying until his return.[ii] This is the “great tribulation” described in Revelation 7:14, and like everything else in the New Testament, it is both present and future. Often this is where various theologians (and theologies) disagree on points of eschatology. And though space does not permit a full discussion of these points, we can see at least seven characteristics of this age which will continue until Christ comes again.
First, false teachers and false teaching. False teaching is not new; false prophets plagued Israel from its inception (cf. Num 22–24; Deut 13). Nevertheless, Jesus (Matt 7:15–20; Rev 2:14–15, 20, 24) and the apostles (1Tim 4:1; 2Tim 3:1; 2Pet 3:2–7; 1Jn 2:18; 4:1–5; Jude 18–19) all identify false teachers as a problem for the church. And more specifically, this age is marked by false teachers arising from within the church.
Second, desecration of the church. As a result of false teachers in the church, God’s temple will be desecrated. Although some anticipate a day when a temple will be rebuilt in Israel, Paul’s consistent use of “temple” refers to the church (1Cor 3:16–17; 6:19; 2Cor 6:14–18) composed of Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:21). Hence, when Paul speaks of the man of lawlessness who sits in the temple of God (2Thess 2:3–4), Paul most likely describes a false teacher uttering blasphemies among God’s people. Likewise, Jesus repeatedly addresses the sins of the churches in his letters to seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev 2–3). These verses remind us that false teaching is not immaterial; it leads to idolatry and immorality among the people with whom God dwells. In this age, the church will continue to be afflicted by such temptations to sin.
Third, hostility and persecution. Anticipating his own death, Jesus told his disciples that they would be hated and persecuted, just like him (John 15:18–20). Yet, he concluded, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart I have overcome the world” (16:33). This promise reinforces the point he told his disciples earlier, that all who follow him would carry a cross (Luke 14:27). In this age that stands between Christ’s coronation in heaven and his reign on the earth, his disciples must suffer with Jesus in order to enter his glory (cf. Acts 14:22; Rom 5:3; 8:17, 35–36; Phil 3:10; Col 1:24; 2Tim 3:12; Rev 1:9; 2:9; 3:10; 7:14; 12:9–12). This suffering will not be equal for all parts of the Church, but hostility and persecution will be an ongoing factor for the true Church.
Fourth, the advance of the gospel. Despite the increased opposition to God’s people in this age, the gospel will go forth in power (Rom 1:16–17). This is promised by Jesus in Matthew 24:14, when he says that the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” In other words, this is the age of the gospel (cf. Gal 3:23; 1Tim 1:8–11), where the message of Christ will go to the ends of the earth. Acts begins to tell this story; Colossians 1:5–6 indicates the gospel is bearing fruit and increasing in the whole world; and it will continue until all God’s sheep are found.
Fifth, the collection of all the sheep. Although the promise of Matthew 24:14 means that all nations will hear the good news before Christ returns, it does not promise they will all respond in faith. John 10:16, however, indicates that all the sheep, in all the folds (i.e., Jew and Gentile), will hear the voice of their shepherd and follow him (10:27–29). In another passage in John’s Gospel, Jesus cites Isaiah 54:13 to indicate that “they will all be taught by God” (John 6:45). The people in view are the ones whom the Father gave the Son (6:37) and now draws to Christ by the Spirit (6:44). This means of drawing comes through the preaching of the Word, but it is important to see that in this age, the triune God brings the elect to faith. As Paul says in Romans 8:30, those who have been predestined will be called, justified, and eventually glorified.
Sixth, believing Jews and Gentiles will be united in Christ. As a result of the saving power of the gospel and the gathering of God’s elect, Jews and Gentiles will be made one new man. This is the testimony of Ephesians 2:14–17 and an ongoing experience in the church. In fact, in fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament, we see two movements between Jews and Gentiles: (1) Salvation came to the Jews first (Rom 1:16; Eph 1:12) and proceeds to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8); and (2) in the opposite direction, salvation for the Gentiles would goad unbelieving Jews to trust in Christ as well (Rom 11:11, cf. Isa 19:16–25). With both groups in view, Paul can conclude, “For God has consigned all [Jews and Gentiles] to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Rom 11:32). Indeed, the course of this age will continue to see Jews and Gentiles brought to faith by the Spirit and joined together as a people whose identity is found in Christ.[iii]
Seventh, ecclesial divisions will persist in the Church amidst certain hope of Christ’s return. Even as redeemed sinners are gathered, there will remain differences in the body of Christ. This will be true in countless doctrinal, ecclesial, methodological, and sociological ways. And this will be true of how we even interpret the course of this age. The biblical texts and historical characteristics will continue to be a source of smaller and larger divisions. But hopefully, as we keep the resurrected Christ at the center our eschatology and gospel message, the promise of Christ’s return will strengthen our faith, hope, and love—the three Christian virtues we must cultivate in this conflicted age.
Living in This Conflicted Age
In the end, pondering our blessed hope should result in enduring faith and obedient love. In the Gospels, when Jesus spoke of the coming judgment, he said, “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” and “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt 24:42, 44). Likewise, when Paul corrected wrong views about Christ’s resurrection, he said, “Encourage one another with these words” (1Thess 4:18; cf. 5:11). In this way, we see how eschatology is meant for present living. When we consider the course of this age and the events that will occur between today and the Day of Christ’s return, the most important application is Christian discipleship, mortification of sin, and the building up of God’s people in love.
This essay has focused less on the points of eschatology (i.e., the signs of the times) that often divide evangelicals.[iv] Instead, it provides an outline the realities of the future that have been made present through Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are the points of eschatology that are central to the gospel and the ones that build faith, spur on love, and provide grace to endure the difficulties of this age.
To that end, may our hope continue to be Christ-centered and our eschatology grounded in the gospel of the kingdom (Acts 8:12)—a kingdom that is both present and future. Indeed, this is what time it is—a time to trust Christ, preach Christ, and pray for his return. As Paul says in Romans 13:11, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” With that sense of timing, we should redeem the time with faith, hope, and love, for days are evil. But praise be to God; these evil days are passing away and Christ’s age to come is drawing nearer every day.
- Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, 2nd (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).
- G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).
- Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History, Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1946).
- Benjamin L. Gladd and Matthew S. Harmon, Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).
- Millard J. Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).
- Adrio König, The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology: Toward a Christ-Centered Approach (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).
- George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
- Herman Ridderbos, When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957).
- Trevin Wax, Eschatological Discipleship: Leading Christians to Understand Their Historical and Cultural Context (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2018).
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.