New Testament Time Telling
The New Testament tells time in “ages”. There is “the present age” and “the age to come”.
Matthew 12:32 (NIV)
32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
What we call “the end of the world” the New Testament calls “the end of the age”.
Matthew 24:3 (NIV)
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Jesus promises to be with us until the “end of the age”
Matthew 28:20 (NIV)
20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The term “eternal life” in the gospel of John is literally translated “the life of the age”. Implicit is “the life of the age (to come)”.
Ephesians 1:20–21 (NET)
20 This power he exercised in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms21 far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.
Present Age as Now
The “present age” is the time when things are not as they should be.
Galatians 1:4 (NIV)
4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,
Titus 2:12–13 (NIV)
12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,
2 Timothy 4:10 (NET)
10 For Demas deserted me, since he loved the present age, and he went to Thessalonica. Crescens went to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia.
Present Age and the Kingdom of God
The present age is not just “a time when things are bad”, it is a situation, a condition and an administration. In the first three gospels Jesus talks about “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God”.
The kingdom of God’s relationship to time is not exactly linear or clear cut. Jesus says “the kingdom is near”, “the kingdom is coming”, “the kingdom has come among you”. What does he mean?
The kingdom of God is the administration of the world as God intends. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”
Today we experience this in fleeting ways, in glimpses, in moments but the “present evil age” continues to endure.
Life in the Present Age
Life in the present age is unstable. We break down while we age. We decay. The things we build, relationships, families, businesses, institutions, dreams, all break down. Everything turns to dust. Nothing lasts. Everything goes and we can hold onto nothing.
This is our lot. “If you try to save your life (in this age) you will lose it.”
No one can argue against this. It is the world we know. This is what I call “the age of decay”. Where do I get this idea from?
Romans 8:19–23 (NET)
19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
The New Testament talks about “decay” as the quality of life found in the present age. That’s why I call it “the age of decay”.
This is our reality but it is not our destiny.
Jesus Announced the End of the Age of Decay
If you read the gospels you’ll see that Jesus repeatedly announces “the kingdom”. How can we understand this in other words? Why did he do miracles like healing or multiplying loaves? His miracles were physical sermons repeating and illustrating what he was saying. When Jesus sent is disciples to announce that “the kingdom is near” he was telling them to announce the end of the age of decay. That is the gospel hope that we long for.
That kingdom is physical and “spiritual” as we call it. It involves our obedience and our rescue. It is not something we achieve, it is something we receive.
Listen to what Jesus says about how to live today.
Matthew 6:19–21 (NET)
19 “Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
He is inviting us to invest in the age to come because investment in the age of decay makes no sense.
The Age to Come is Inaugurated in Jesus’ Resurrected Body
This word translated “decay” in Romans 8 is also a key word in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul talks about Jesus’ resurrected body. There the words often used in English are “perishable” and “imperishable”.
1 Corinthians 15:42 (NET)
42 It is the same with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.
1 Corinthians 15:50–57 (NET)
50 Now this is what I am saying, brothers and sisters: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—52 in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 Now when this perishable puts on the imperishable, and this mortal puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will happen, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus’ body is the first fruits of the age to come for humanity.
Living Between the Ages
We currently live subject to the age of decay. All that we do breaks down, is corrupted, is perishable.
This should loosen our grip on many of the idols that grab our hearts. Most of our idols are in the age of decay. We long for money, looks, fame, power, admiration, recognition, etc. None of this will remain.
Jesus invites us to invest in the age to come even while everything is being taken away from us in the age of decay. We age, kids have trouble, things we toiled to build fall apart, things we try to rescue fail, etc. If we place our hearts on the things of the age of decay we are setting ourselves up for failure.
Jesus invites us to live as he lived.
Jesus healed sick people who would die again. Jesus fed people who would be hungry once more. Jesus forgave people who would sin again. Why? He was inviting them into his life, into his way of living, into his kingdom.
“The Life of God”
I said before that “the age of decay” and “the age to come” (eternal life) are not so much periods of time as qualities of administration over life.
What governs “the age of decay” is an approach to life that I sum up as “my well-being at your expense”. This is the “natural” order of things in the age of decay. It is how the world works.
Jesus works his life the other way around “your well-being at my expense”. Look at what he does in his ministry? Look at what he does on the cross?
He does this because the Father does this. I often point out that the “be perfect” invitation that Jesus gives is all about this relational polarity.
Matthew 5:43–48 (NET)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? 47 And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they? 48 So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
When Jesus invites us into God’s perfection he isn’t talking about his power as we think about it, he is talking about his generosity. What Jesus invites us into is, as CS Lewis calls it “the life of God”.
The Life of God in the Age of Decay
What happens, however, when you live this life of God in the age of decay? What happens when you turn the other cheek? You usually get hit twice.
If you live Jesus way in the age of decay you get what Jesus got in the age of decay: death.
That seems like bad news, but the reality is that you ALWAYS get death in the age of decay, so why spend you life trying to preserve it. Jesus says it’s futile.
Matthew 16:24–26 (NET)
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but forfeits his life? Or what can a person give in exchange for his life?
What does Jesus mean by “his cross”?
Jesus’ cross is his greatest act of “your well-being at my expense”. The great irony of the cross is the mocking he absorbed. He saved others by not saving himself. The world derived well-being at his expense. This was Jesus’ ultimate revelation of the father, revealing the father’s glory in “that hour” (the gospel of John).
When we practice “your well-being at my expense” we participate and bear witness to Jesus’ cross.
How does this impact our work?
Philippians 2:14–18 (NET)
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world16 by holding on to the word of life so that on the day of Christ I will have a reason to boast that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice together with all of you. 18 And in the same way you also should be glad and rejoice together with me.
When Jesus was dying on the cross no one imagined what was happening was happening. It seemed like a horrible waste to everyone. In the resurrection, however, the waste of the cross became glory. Paul says this is our lot too.
The Age of Decay
This world matters to God. We are not looking for “the end of the world” but rather the end of the administration of the age of decay, the end of “my well-being at your expense.”
We wait for the resurrection of our bodies, where the creation itself will no longer be subject to decay but will be like the resurrected body of Jesus.
Misery: we are subject to the age of decay in our bodies. We can put things off, but in the end we can’t hold anything in the age of decay, it is all loss.
Deliverance: Jesus has beaten the age of decay and the new age has begun in him. His resurrected body sits at the right hand of the God who controls his creation. If we follow Jesus in his life, we will follow him in his death, and we’ll follow him into his resurrection where we will reign with him in the creation that like Jesus’ body is no longer subject to decay.
Gratitude: We cannot defeat the age of decay but Jesus has. What this means is that like Jesus we should feed the hungry, heal the sick, raise the dead, give hope to those in despair and even when we lose we should not be downhearted because our victory comes in the resurrection. Christians live out of gratitude, not fear or obligation.