THE PURPOSE OF GOD IN THIS AGE (Pt. 1)
from a book titled, Sermons
Whoever reads the Scriptures with any consecutiveness or
attention cannot fail to perceive that in them may be traced a gradual
unfolding of divine truth and purpose. Such a reader sees that nothing is told
all at once, that nothing is done without preparation, without deliberation.
Intimations go before revelations; types before anti-types; prophecies before
fulfillments. "First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear,"
is ever the divine method. God always has things to tell which we are not able
When this is understood, then it begins to be seen that there is a beautiful system in this gradualness of unfolding. The past is seen to fall into periods, marked off by distinct limits, and distinguishable period from period, by something peculiar to each. Thus it comes to be understood that there is a doctrine of the Ages, or Dispensations, in the Bible. The clear perception of this doctrine of the Ages marks a most important step in the progress of the student of the divine oracles. It has the same relation to the right understanding of the scriptures that correct outline work has to map making. Every school boy knows that when the outline is right, the details rivers, mountains, cities come easily into their right relative positions; whereas, if the outline is wrong nothing fits, and the map is mere confusion.
Just so it is with the Bible; for lack of clearness at the point of the dispensational divisions the inevitable penalty is some degree of confusion everywhere. Not that much truth may not be apprehended it may be but the majestic and beautiful synthesis of truth is inevitably lost. For this unfolding of truth and purpose by distinct stages, and according to a necessary order of progress, is one of the seals of God upon the whole book, marking it as His own.
Now I should be sorry to have you think that this doctrine of the Ages is a deep, or secret thing, in the word of God. It is not. Not only is it directly taught in express terms, but these ages constitute the structural divisions of the book itself, and are as clearly marked as the divisions of an orange.
For an example of the direct teaching, it may suffice to refer to one well-known passage in Ephesians:
For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ,) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel. (Ephesians 3:1-6)
Here, as you see, the Apostle gives the present period the significant title of "the dispensation of the grace of God," and refers to the past as "other ages." And not only so, but the very distinction of which I have been speaking, namely, that the Ages are an orderly arrangement of an ever unfolding purpose, is brought out in the fifth verse: "Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy Apostles and prophets by the Spirit." From Ephesians 2:7 we learn that as the past has been divided into ages, so also is the future to be so divided.
It is a matter for deep regret that the direct teaching of the Word concerning the Ages is often obscured by the lack of consistency in the translation. The word (aion, in its various forms) constantly used in the original to express these divisions, is, in our usually excellent Authorized Version, sometimes translated "world." An illustration of this misleading mistranslation is twice repeated in Matthew 13:39-40, "the harvest is the end of the world;" "So shall it be in the end of the world." In both cases the original word is the same translated "ages" in Ephesians 2:7, and Colossians 1:26. In the first of these passages the translators could not very well say, "worlds to come," and yet, to be consistent with their rendering in the Matthew passages, they must have done so. The "harvest" of Matthew 13, is at the end of the age, or dispensation. There is much "world" after that.
As for the way in which these ages inhere, in the very structure of Scripture itself, illustrations can scarcely by necessary. As you are aware, they are marked, as to their beginning, by some new probation for man, as to their ending by some act of judgment for man always fails at last. The age of innocency, for example, began with man under the probation of abstinence from the fruit of one tree; it ended in the judgment of the expulsion from Eden. The age of conscience, again, began with man no longer innocent, but knowing good and evil, and under probation, therefore, to do good and eschew evil and it ended in the judgment of the Flood.
But enough! Every reader of the Bible knows how these judgments indicate the endings of distinct and differing periods; that they are the great lines of cleavage in the progressive revelation of God.
We have, then, to take account of this fact; to respect these distinctions which God has himself made, and neither to put asunder what God has joined together, nor join together what God has put asunder. If Christ says "the law and the prophets are until John;" if the scriptures put Moses and law in one age, and Christ and grace in another, let us be very sure that we respect the divine arrangement. And if God has put a difference between this present age of grace in which He is calling out the church, and the age which is to follow, wherein he will set up His kingdom, let us respect that arrangement also. As we will not go back to Judaism because we are not of that age, so neither will we go forward into the kingdom age, seeking to imbibe its spirit, or to do its work. We will stand fast in our own age, striving by God's grace to do the allotted to us, restfully leaving the consequences and the future to the God of the ages.
The question, then, of paramount importance to us is the question of the purpose of God in this age in which we live. In the degree in which we misapprehend this we shall fail, whatever our zeal, to do the thing God would have us do. Nay, the greater our zeal the more absolute and disastrous will be our failure. Nothing is more pathetic than the spectacle constantly repeated of a zeal, beautiful in its purity, and passionate in its devotedness, burning itself out in utter abandonment to a cause which is in no sense that of God.
Perhaps no better illustration of this can be found than the Crusades. Beyond all question, the greater part of the thousands who streamed across the Hellespont in the endeavor to rescue the empty tomb of a risen Christ from the possession of the infidel, were actuated by an unselfish zeal; but no one who reads the Bible believes that their enterprise was in any scriptural sense Christian. And the pitifulness of it is that one-tenth part of that lavish cost of life and treasure would have done, and done completely, the only specific thing laid upon this Age namely, the evangelization of the world.
And yet, in not one of the dispensations, if we except the first, has the especial responsibility committed to man been so simple, so capable of statement in terms of transparent lucidity. Never, in any age, has there been so little excuse for mistake at this point. The man under law was set to the performance of a minute and laborious ritual, the validity of which depended upon exactness in every part. This was that yoke of the Thora which Paul said neither he nor his fathers were able to bear.
Likewise the kingdom age, which is to follow this, will have, for the man of God, the vast and complicated activities attending the administration of an universal kingdom.
But the saint of this dispensation is neither set to do a ritual, nor to bear rule over the kingdoms of this world. What, then, is the purpose of God in this age, the execution of which is committed to us?
In Matthew 16:18, Christ announced a purpose which, as Paul informs us in Ephesians 3, involved the disclosure of a mystery which had been entirely hidden from past ages: "I will build my CHURCH."
Now, my hearers, the KINGDOM was no mystery. The kingdom is the great theme of the prophets. From Isaiah to Malachi the burden of the prophetic testimony is the kingdom to be set up by the Messiah, David's great son, but who was to be also "the mighty God, the Everlasting Father."
In the fullness of time John the Baptist first, and then the Christ, came preaching '"the kingdom of heaven is at hand." "But His own received Him not." Israel would not have her King "meek and lowly," (Zech. 9:9; Matthew 21:1-5), and so, when His rejection by the bulk of the nation became manifest, the kingdom was postponed, and Christ announced the mystery, the Church.
The Church, as you know, is to form the subject of a subsequent address in this series, when I hope fully to go into it, and to show how the church differs from the kingdom. Let it suffice now to refer to one passage only, but a passage which proves conclusively that the church did not exist, could not have existed, before the ascension of Christ.
According to the working of his mighty power which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenlies, far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the CHURCH, WHICH IS HIS BODY. (Ephesians 1:19-23)
As you know, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, tells us how this Body is formed, by the baptism of the Holy Spirit uniting believers to the risen Head. The baptism of the Holy Spirit began on the day of Pentecost, and so, naturally enough, we find that from that day the Church is constantly in view: "the Lord added to the CHURCH daily such as should be saved." There were individual believers before Pentecost, of course, but any number of individual believers, even though associated under a common name, and observing ordinances, could not form the Church. Only the baptism of the Holy Spirit uniting these disjecta membra into one living Body could do that.
Now the word selected by our Lord for the name of this new thing is singularly descriptive of what it is, of the process of its formation, and, hence, of the purpose of God in this age. That word is "ecclesia," and it means "the called out ones." The church is composed of called out people.
I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world. (John 17:6)
Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for his name. (Acts 15:14)
There is not a passage, nor a line, of Scripture which intimates that the world is to be converted during this age.
It is the age of the called out ones. Paul says he was "made all things to all men if by all means he might gain some," not "all." He declares that his apostleship was for "obedience of the faith among [not "of"] all nations."
Nay, not Paul only, but the Lord also describes the whole course of this age in terms which exclude the possibility of a converted world during its continuance. The parable of the tares in Matthew 13 declares in express terms that the children of the devil are to be mingled with the children of the kingdom until the end of the age. The purpose of God in this age is the calling out of the church.
The method employed is the preaching of the glad tidings that Christ died on the cross, a vicarious sin offering, the saving merit of which avails for any who will believe on Him. The saving offer is made to all, and this not in mockery but in good faith, as expressing the desire of God for the salvation of all.
The one commission with which we are invested is to proclaim that message to every creature, to baptize those who by receiving it become the disciples of Christ, and to instruct such baptized believers in all righteousness. Our character as such heralds is that of ambassadors who are, in Christ's stead, to beseech sinners to be reconciled to God; proclaiming that Christ, the sinless one, has been made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Acts 1:8, 2 Corinthians 5:18-21.
In perfect harmony with this program the Age began. The little flock called out by three years of our Lord's personal ministry were baptized with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, forming thus the beginning of the "ecclesia." In the fulness of the Spirit's power they began on that day their ambassadorship. Out of the vast throng gathered for the feast three thousand were converted. A glorious out calling for His name, truly, but neither then, nor on any subsequent occasion, was Jerusalem converted. The entire Apostolate was gathered there, filled with the Holy Spirit, and preaching a pure Gospel in incorruptness, "the Lords working with them and confirming the word with signs following," but still Jerusalem was not converted. After a time the ambassadors were scattered abroad, and Philip went down to Samaria and "preached Jesus unto them." There was much joy in that city, and many were saved, but the city was not converted.
But I need not dwell upon the story of the apostolic church as it is told in the Acts, and gathered from the Epistles. In Antioch, Philippi, Athens, Rome where ever the Gospel was preached it proved to be the power of God unto salvation to every one that believed. To every believing hearer it was a savor of life unto life. But the number who believed was insignificant in comparison with the number who rejected and disbelieved. To them it was a savor of death unto death. Paul and the other ambassadors soon discovered that from some their message was "hid." The God of this world had blinded their minds. This mighty Gospel, which had in it the power of God, which could instantly save the brutal jailer of Philippi, could, it was discovered, be rejected. It was foolishness to the Greek, a stumblingblock to the Jew.
In the great city of Corinth "not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble" were converted. And so it was everywhere. And so, my hearers, has it been ever since. This world, so far as we know, has never seen a converted city, or town, or even village.
Is the Gospel then a failure? God forbid! The Gospel never failed, can never fail. God's word by the Gospel is accomplishing precisely the mission which was foreseen and foretold for it, that whereunto it was sent. And we must not forget, either, that the Gospel will yet bring this world to Christ. It is not at all a question of the ultimate triumph of the blessed Lord. The heathen may rage and the people imagine vain things, but Jehovah will yet set his King on his holy hill of Zion. Converted Israel, glorified saints, even a mighty angel shall yet proclaim the Gospel, and "the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it" (Isaiah 2:2). "The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
All this will surely come to pass, for the Lord hath spoken it but not in this age. This is the age of the "ecclesia" of the called out ones.
Let me just here refer you again to that great passage in the Acts which has been most aptly called "the divine program of this age and the next."
Simeon that declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to TAKE OUT OF THEM a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 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 15:14-17)
Now let me ask, dear friends, what is God doing in this age of ours? Is it not precisely the thing spoken of in that fourteenth verse? Is He not taking out of the Gentiles a people? A few Jews are being converted, for Paul tells us there is always a remnant in Israel according to the election of grace; (Romans 1:5), but the great, the altogether vast majority of the church is taken out of the Gentiles. This we all see. To believe this is not at all a matter of faith, but of observation simply. And I must again call attention to the words "take out." It is exactly what we see. Not, anywhere, the conversion of all, but, everywhere, the taking out of some.
Now what, according to the prophet quoted by James, is to follow this out-taking? "After this I WILL RETURN," and then follows the conversion of the world.
The evangelization of the world, then, and not its conversion, is the mission committed to us. To do this, to preach the Gospel unto the uttermost parts of the earth, to offer salvation to every creature is our responsibility. It is the divinely appointed means for the calling out a people for his name, the church, the "Ecclesia." ¢
Go to Part Two
This was excerpted from a book titled, Sermons and was originally preached on October 15, 1893 at the 1st Congregational Church of Dallas.
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