Ages or Dispensations
We now notice the ages into which these great epochs are subdivided, as illustrated in the diagram below.
The first of these great epochs (“worlds”) was not subdivided: God’s method of dealing with men did not vary during all that time–from Adam’s fall to the flood. God had given man his law, written in his very nature; but after he had sinned he left him measurably to his own course, which was downward, “evil, and that continually,” that thus man might realize his folly, and that the wisdom of God in commanding absolute obedience might be made manifest. That dispensation ended with a flood, which took away all but faithful Noah and his family. Thus the first dispensation not only manifested the disastrous effects of sin, but showed that the tendency of sin is downward to greater degradation and misery, and proves the necessity of Jehovah’s interposition, if the recovery of “that which was lost”–man’s first estate–is ever to be accomplished.
The second epoch, or “world that now is,” includes three ages, each a step in the plan of God for the overthrow of evil. Each step is higher than that preceding it, and carries the plan forward and nearer to completion.
The third great epoch–“the world to come”—future from the second advent of Christ, comprises the Millennial Age, or “times of restitution”; and following it are other “ages to come,” the particulars of which are not revealed. Present revelations treat of man’s recovery from sin, and not of the eternity of glory to follow.
The first age in the “world that now is” we call the PATRIARCHAL AGE, or dispensation, because during that period God’s dealings and favors were with a few individuals only, the remainder of mankind being almost ignored. Such favored ones were the patriarchs Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each of these in turn seems to have been God’s favored one. At the death of Jacob, that age or order of dealing ended. At Jacob’s death, his descendants were first called “the twelve tribes of Israel,” and were together recognized of God as his “peculiar people”; and through typical sacrifices they were typically “a holy nation,” separated from other nations for a particular purpose, and therefore to enjoy certain special favors.
The time allotted to this feature of the divine plan, beginning here and ending at the death of Christ, we designate the JEWISH AGE, or the Law dispensation. During that age God specially blessed that nation. He gave them his law; he made a special covenant with them; he gave them the Tabernacle, whose Shekinah glory in the Most Holy represented Jehovah’s presence with them as their Leader and King. To them he sent the prophets, and finally his Son. Jesus performed his miracles and taught in their midst, and would neither go to others himself, nor permit his disciples to go to the surrounding nations. He sent them out, saying, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5, 6) And again he said, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 15:24) That this national favor ended with their rejection and crucifixion of Jesus is shown by Jesus’ words, when, five days before his crucifixion, he declared, “Your house is left unto you desolate.” Matt. 23:38
There, at Jesus’ death, a new age began–the CHRISTIAN AGE or GOSPEL DISPENSATION, wherein should be heralded good tidings of justification, not to the Jew only, but to all nations; for Jesus Christ, by the grace of God, tasted death for every man. During this Gospel age also there is a class called to special favor, to whom special promises are made; namely, those who by faith accept Christ Jesus as their Redeemer and Lord, following in his footsteps. The gospel proclamation has gone hither and thither throughout the earth for over two thousand years, so that it can now be said that it has been preached more or less in every nation. It has not converted nations–it was not designed to do so in this age; but it has selected here and there some, in all a “little flock,” as Jesus had foretold (Luke 12:32), to whom it is the Father’s good pleasure to give the Kingdom in an age to follow this.
With this age the “present evil world” ends; and mark well that while God has been thus permitting the predominance and reign of evil, to the seeming detriment of his cause, nevertheless his deep designs have been steadily progressing according to a fixed and definite plan, and in the exact order of the seasons which he has appointed. In the end of this age, and the dawn of its successor, the millennial age, Satan is to be bound and his power overthrown, preparatory to the establishment of Christ’s kingdom and the beginning of “the world to come, wherein dwells righteousness.”
Millennium, signifying a thousand years, is by common consent used as the name for the period mentioned in Rev. 20:4 –the thousand years of Christ’s reign, the first age in the “world to come.” During the Millennial age, there will be a restitution of all things lost by the fall of Adam (Acts 3:19-21), and before its close all tears shall have been wiped away. Beyond its boundary, in the ages of blessedness to follow, there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying; neither shall there be any more pain. The former things will have passed away. (Rev. 21:4) God’s revelations particularize no further, and there we stop.
We have here only glanced at the mere outline of this plan of the ages. The more we examine it, the more we will find in it perfect harmony, beauty and order. Each age has its part to accomplish, necessary to the complete development of God’s plan as a whole. The plan is a progressive one, gradually unfolding from age to age, upward and onward to the grand consummation of the original design of the Divine Architect, “who works all things after the counsel of his own will.” (Eph. 1:11) Not one of these great periods is an hour too long or too short for the accomplishment of its object. God is a wise economist of both time and means, though his resources are infinite; and no power, however malicious, for a moment retards or thwarts his purposes. All things, evil as well as good, under divine supervision and overruling, are working together for the accomplishment of his will.
To an uninstructed and undisciplined mind, which can see only a little of the intricate machinery of God’s plan, it appears like anarchy, confusion and failure, just as the whole, or even a part, of an intricate machine would appear to a child. To its immature and untutored mind it is incomprehensible, and the opposite motions of its gears and levers are but confusion. But maturity and investigation will show that the seeming confusion is beautiful harmony, working good results. The machine, however, was as truly a success before the child understood its operation as after. So, while God’s plan is, and has been for ages, in successful operation, man has been receiving the necessary discipline, not only to enable him to understand its intricate workings, but also to experience its blessed results.
As we pursue our study of the divine plan, it is essential that we keep in memory these ages and their respective peculiarities and objects; for in no one of them can the plan be seen, but in all of them, even as a link is not a chain, but several links united form a chain. We obtain correct ideas of the whole plan by noting the distinctive features of each part, and thus we are enabled to divide rightly the Word of truth.
A statement of the Word which belongs to one epoch, or dispensation, should not be applied to another, as things stated of one age are not always true of another. For instance, it would be an untruth to say of the present time that the knowledge of the Lord fills the whole earth, or that there is no need to say to your neighbor, know the Lord. (Isa. 11:9; Jer. 31:34) This is not true in this age, and it cannot be true until the Lord, having come again, has established his kingdom; for throughout this age there have been many seducing deceptions, and we are told that even in the very end of the age–“In the last days…evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Tim. 3:1, 13) It will be as the result of Messiah’s reign during the millennial age that knowledge and righteousness shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
A similar mistake, and a very common one, is to suppose that God’s kingdom is now established and ruling over the earth, and that his will is now done among the nations. This is manifestly far from the truth, for the kingdoms of this world are supported and enriched through oppression, injustice and deceit, to as great an extent as the increasing intelligence of the people will permit. Satan, the present “prince of this world,” must yet be displaced, and these kingdoms, now under his control, must become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Anointed, when he shall take unto himself his great power, and reign.” (A 70-75)