Leaves From the
THE LESSONS OF THE AGES.
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 Gods 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 punishmentwhich 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 Gods 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 mans deliverance could come. He must get the blessing on true ground, as grace, not something that mans 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 Christs 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 Christs 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; Gods 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-
i. 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 Noahs 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 Hoseas "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 Johns 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! Satans 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. Gods 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 Messiahs 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.
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.
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.
THE TIME OF INNOCENCE.
A TIME so different from anything we ourselves have known as is the primitive time of innocence in Eden, there is necessarily difficulty in realizing or interpreting aright. Innocence we have lost, and can never regain. Nor is there anything really like it to be found in such a state as that of childhood, which, speaking comparatively only, we call the age of innocence. Much of what we deem this, is in fact but immaturity; and Adam was not immature, but a man with all the faculties of manhood fresh and vigorous in him, as come, in a perfection nowhere to be seen, out of the hand of his Creator.
Indeed, theologians, realizing this, have imagined a moral or spiritual perfection in him for which Scripture gives no warrant. It is the "new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." On the other hand, it is said that "God made man upright," which is in contrast with the craft implied in the "many inventions" they have since "sought out." Let us look briefly at the whole Scripture account (confined as it is to little more than one chapter of the book of Genesis) of mans creation, and of the condition in which he was placed in Eden, the "garden of delight."
The first words are,- "And God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. "So God created man "-and here the words fall into a rhythmic measure, the first poetry of Scripture, as if God were rejoicing over the creature He had made-" So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him: male and female created He them." The second and briefer, yet more detailed, account is in chapter ii. "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."
We must not expect to have mans inner nature, however, fully revealed in this initial revelation as to him. The language is pictorial and figurative largely, according to the usual character of the Old Testament. More is hidden than is openly declared. Plainly "of the earth, earthy," as the first man is, "the dust of the earth" is not all he is. Formed, as to his bodily frame, of this, God "breathes into his nostrils," communicating thus something from Himself, by virtue of which he becomes a living soul. Not even does this expression, "a living soul," give the full reality of what he is. The beast also is, and has, a living soul, "everything wherein there is a living soul" is the description, in chapter 1:30, of every beast of the earth, and every fowl of the air, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." " Likeness" to God cannot be affirmed of such an one as this, for God is not "soul," but "spirit," and the "Father of spirits." Man is thus alone in relationship to God, as possessing not only soul, but also spirit; that "spirit of man" which "knoweth the things of a man," and is his real distinction from the beasts that, as having no link with God or Gods eternity, are "beasts that perish."
"Spirit," thus, in man, is linked with "soul." An intelligent and moral nature, which is implied in this, furnishes the affections of the heart (or soul) with objects suited to its own proper character, and lifts it thus, as it were, into its own sphere of being. Man is not a more developed beast, although he has an animal nature which resembles the beasts. He belongs to another and higher order of life; and to this the language of chapter i. will be found to correspond in a manner all the more significant that it is not interpreted to us there, but left for the general voice of Scripture to interpret.
It has been made a question of late whether the word used for "creation" necessarily means that. Yet in the first verse of the chapter, where we are told that "in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," the bringing out of nothing must be certainly intended. After this, (with the exceptions to be just now noticed,) the word "created" is exchanged for "made;" and the whole six days work is characteristically a "making," as in the words of the fourth commandment; a making which is of such importance in the sight of God that it is said, in chapter ii:3 that He "created to make" it. Thus it stands, rightly, in the margin of our Bibles and in the Latin Vulgate, although few ancient or modern interpreters seem to have understood it; "creation," or the bringing out of nothing, being thus distinguished from the "making" of existing materials. We find that there are but two distinct acts of creation in the six days work; the first, where the "living creature," or "soul," is introduced; the second, where man is. Thus soul and spirit are distinguished from all modifications of previous existences. They are "creations "- the calling into being of that which before had none: creations successively of higher character until in man at last we find "the offspring of God." But in man, spirit has its links with lower and preceding forms. He is a living soul, as the beast is; and this soul is the seat, not only of those affections in which it corresponds to what we call ordinarily the "heart," but also of the instincts, senses, and appetites. The adjective of soul (for which in English we have no corresponding term) is, in the New Testament, in our Authorized Version, translated twice "sensual." The same word also, both in Hebrew and Greek, stand for "soul" and "life," thus marking the soul, in distinction from the spirit, as the source of this to the body. In man thus, as a "living soul," spirit, or mind, is made dependent upon the soul, or senses, for its proper furnishing; and thus the body also becomes, in this present condition of things, a necessity to the spirit, and, if it be not in a fit state, a drag upon it - at the best, a limit beyond which it cannot pass. Men "out of the body" are called "spirits," and not souls; and the body in resurrection is a spiritual body, henceforth imposing no limit.
But this link with the body is a matter of great interest in another connection. Before man was in being, a class of spiritual existences had been created - purely such; and of these, many had already fallen away from God. Hence the tender care and wisdom of God are seen in this hedging about the new spiritual creature with restrictions which manifestly tend to "hide pride from man" in this his probationary state. Probation seems to be the rule, and so (as we may infer) the necessity, for moral beings; but the goodness of God is shown in thus fencing man round, as far as possible, with witnesses to him of creature-imperfection, perpetual preachers of humility and self-distrust.
The necessities of this mysteriously compounded nature were another argument in the same direction. In Eden, man had his wants, as out of it. Hunger was his, and thirst, although no distress could result from these, but rather new sources of enjoyment - all the trees of the garden ministering to his need. Sleep he needed for the recruiting of a frame which would otherwise have been exhausted by the putting forth of its own energies - nay, the immortal life, which was his conditionally, another tree was made to minister. He was not taught that it was his by the mere fact of what he was. He had it not as what was essential to his being, but rather the opposite - a thing foreign to him naturally, communicated by the virtues of that wondrous tree which was perpetually to sustain the wasting bodily frame. All this was thus to him constant witness of his creature-condition; on the other hand, the constant witness of divine goodness which met all this need with superabundant resources, so that appetite should be but the occasion of enjoyment, and no want be for a moment known. This was Eden, mans garden of delight - for us, type of a greater - where all was "good," as God Himself pronounced, and no evil at all existed, nor could exist, save as man introduced it; no hand but his own could mar this beauteous picture. To all but himself it was a citadel impregnably guarded from assault.
But this leads us on to consider what was the prohibition, and what the nature of the temptation to which man yielded. One thing alone was prohibited to man, lord of all else, -the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As to this, the commandment was precise, and the penalty assured: "In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die." One prohibition thus served, or should have served, to keep in the mind of one who, as the image of God, was otherwise uncontrolled master of this fair domain, that he too had a Master. "Duty," as it is the thought of which man alone, and not the beast, is capable, must be necessary to his proper development as man. The moral faculties must have a field provided for their exercise, for man assuredly was from the first a moral being - that is, a being capable of discerning good and evil. I say capable; for the actual discernment plainly came afterward, when, and when alone, evil was there to be discerned. As yet, there was none, and therefore, while good was present everywhere, and its enjoyment not denied, the knowledge of even good was not as yet discriminative - was not discernment - when as yet that from which it had to be discerned was not within the field of vision. We are not to suppose a moral incapacity in innocent man which would have put him outside the pale of morality, and render a fall impossible, by leaving nothing from which to fall; neither must we suppose a mind into which the thought of evil had ever yet entered. When solicited by the fruit in the hand of his already fallen companion, "Adam was not deceived; but the woman, being deceived, was in the transgression." He, at least, with his eyes open thus far - although not yet having eaten of the tree of that fatal "knowledge "- became a transgressor. In whatever sense the eating of the forbidden fruit opened the eyes of both of them, it created no moral capacity which was not there before, implied in the very nature of a spiritual being, such as was Adam by the gift of his Creator.
Righteousness and holiness are another matter. Scripture does not affirm these of the first man. These, in the creature, represent a character which could only be the outcome of spontaneous rejection of the evil when in sight. This character was not and could not yet be found in Adam, when evil there was none in that garden of delight, planted by the hand of God Himself, for the object of His care and goodness. And herein the meaning of all that we call "probation" lies. Probation was permitted - nay, necessitated, not alone by the tree forbidden, or the tempters assault, but by the very constitution of a moral being - a being who apprehends, and deliberates, and wills.
Next - The Trial of Innocence
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