Times and Seasons
Timothy was exhorted to be “a workman that has not to be ashamed, cutting in a straight line the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2: 15). This “cutting in a straight line” implies not only the need for care and precision in the way in which we handle the Word, but also that such handling must involve dividing it up. Orthodox theology, by contrast, has consistently taught the opposite. We have, for example, four inspired accounts of the life of the Lord on earth, but men have treated this fact almost as a mistake, and endeavoured to make them into one. The path of God’s workman is to recognise the divine wisdom in causing four Gospels to be written and to seek out their differences, thereby cutting the Word where God would have it cut, and releasing a bounty of truth.
The Bible tells us that “God having spoken in many parts and in many ways formerly to the fathers in the prophets, at the end of these days has spoken to us in [the person of the] Son” (Heb. 1: 1). The time in which God spoke “to the fathers” is thus set in contrast to the time in which He has spoken “to us”. One lesson of this is that the times and seasons of Scripture must be distinguished if Scripture is to be rightly understood. They must be separated out before we can really get at the truth.
Now if God has spoken in many parts and in many ways, then the means by which He has chosen to administer those different times and seasons also varies. For example, in the Millennium, or the “administration of the fulness of times”, God will “head up all things in the Christ” (Eph. 1: 10). However, while that will be His principle of administration over this earth then, it is quite clear that it is not His principle of administration now. In the day in which we live the kingdom of the heavens is in mystery form (hidden or secret), and only “to the assembly” (Eph. 1: 22) is Christ “head over all things”. Certainly “the heavens do rule” (Dan. 4:26) even now, but not in the direct and public way they will during the thousand year reign of Christ. Thus each time and season is characterised by a different method of divine administration. We call these periods of time dispensations.
Like many other truths, what the Bible presents as to the times and seasons has been formulated by theologians into a system of doctrine: dispensationalism. How far this school of teaching agrees with the Bible is for others to decide, but of one fact there can be no doubt: the Bible is dispensational. Furthermore, there can be little or no understanding of the Word of God unless there is at least a rudimentary appreciation of this fact. A dispensational approach to Scripture tends to clarity and light; lumping everything together with no consideration of the things God has made to differ leads inevitably to confusion.
It is not difficult to find an illustration. The people of God were once instructed to “take heed to do all the words of this law” (Deut. 31: 12). By contrast, the people of God in Paul’s day were told that “ye are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6: 14). All becomes clear when it is seen that the law belongs to the time and season in which God had placed it. Under Moses, God’s people were responsible to obey the law; under Christ they have “been made dead to the law” (Rom. 7: 4). Sadly, multitudes of Christians today do not see this. They hear the OT read, but fail to divide it properly, and understand the interpretation as belonging to them. They thus put themselves under law, instead of being “led by the Spirit” (Gal. 5: 18), and consequently fail to enjoy the liberty in which Christ has “set us free” (v1).
Another example: while many expressions in the Psalms rightly give comfort and encouragement to Christians, it does not alter the fact that their primary application is to the Jew under law. There is scarcely a Psalm which a present–day believer could intelligently apply throughout to himself. How can it be of “the meekness and gentleness of the Christ” (2 Cor. 10: 1) to sing “Happy he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock” (Ps. 137: 9)? Yet such language will be on the lips of Jewish believers in the coming “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30: 7).
The first distinct period of time that Scripture presents is that of man in innocence—Adam in the Garden of Eden. Of that probably brief period we are told little, but he was clearly able to commune with God unhindered. However, the moment sin came in and man ceased to be innocent, the way of approach to God was tied to sacrifice. There will never be a return to communing with God without a sacrifice. Some teach that all men are children of God, thereby denying the need for an offering, and in effect saying that “Christ has died for nothing” (Gal. 2: 21). They presume to approach God as they are. Scripture is quite plain: by nature we are children “of wrath” (Eph. 2: 3) and the right to be called the children of God is limited to “those that believe on his name” (John 1: 12). When Paul quotes the Greek poets saying “we are also his offspring” (Acts 17: 28), the sense is simply that mankind is a product of God’s creatorial power. It is a fundamental truth that the world unfallen man knew has been lost forever. Sometimes people define justification as “just as if I never sinned” as if to put the believer back in Eden, but I am not reckoned innocent, but “constituted righteous” (Rom. 5: 19). If Eden is a Paradise Lost (to borrow Milton’s expression), then the believer has a better Paradise Gained.
The Old World.
The world in which Noah preached is described as an “old world” (2 Pet. 2: 5) and the fact that it is described as old distinguishes it from “the present heavens and the earth” (2 Pet. 3: 7). Peter also contrasts the end of that world with the end of the present world: “and an earth, having its subsistence out of water and in water, by the word of God, through which [waters] the then world, deluged with water, perished. But the present heavens and the earth by his word are laid up in store, kept for fire unto a day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (vs 5–7). Thus the present world will one day be replaced by “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21: 1) “wherein dwells righteousness” (2 Pet. 3: 13).
We know little of this old world. The Lord equated the moral conditions of the period leading to its end with the moral conditions immediately prior to His coming again: “But as in the days of Noe, so also shall be the coming of the Son of man” (Matt. 24: 37). Those who rejected Noah’s preaching perished in the flood, but they were not annihilated. Their spirits are currently “in prison” (1 Pet. 3: 19) awaiting the final judgment of the great white throne (see Rev. 20: 11–15).
The Times of Ignorance
Idolatry was not known in the period before the flood but it appears to have risen up rapidly afterwards. Even Abraham “served other gods” (Josh. 24: 2) in Ur of the Chaldees. When Paul viewed the idolatry of the Athenians from Mars Hill and their altar “To the unknown God” (Acts 17: 23), he was moved to preach the Gospel to them saying that God had “overlooked the times of ignorance” (v30). These men were the foremost philosophers of their day, intelligent but ignorant as to the truth. Science would have us believe that man is evolving—improving himself—but God’s Word presents another picture. This period that Paul describes as “the times of ignorance” actually began much better for man left the ark with a knowledge of the true God. Alas for the descendants of one who “walked with God” (Gen. 6: 9), that “knowing God, they … fell into folly in their thoughts … professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into [the] likeness of an image of corruptible man” (Rom. 1: 21–23). This is devolution not evolution.
Now the times of ignorance, though a distinct period, was not a dispensation in the strict sense, because for most of its duration God chose to administer the earth through His people Israel. If we borrow the language of 1 Cor. 9, there were those “under law”, and those “without law” (vs. 20, 21; see also Rom. 2: 12). Thus the bulk of the Bible, right through and into the Gospels, is concerned with God’s dealings with one nation on earth on the grounds of the Mosaic Law.
This Age and the Coming One
The Jews recognised only two ages: “this age” and “the coming [one]” (Matt. 12: 32). The coming age is the day of Israel’s glory when her Messiah will be on the throne. The writer of the Hebrews refers to it as “the habitable world which is to come, of which we speak” (Heb. 2: 5), while Paul writes of how Christ has been exalted above “every name named, not only in this age, but also in that to come” (Eph. 1: 21). As far as the Jew understood things, “this age” would run right up to the millennial reign of Christ. He knew nothing of a parenthesis in between, unmentioned in prophecy, and filled by the Assembly.
Before and after the flood, God dealt with mankind on an individual basis: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, in the book of Exodus we have a significant change. First we read that God looked down on the “children of Israel” and “acknowledged [them]” and then He refers to them for the first time as “my people” (Exod. 2: 25; 3: 7). God demanded of Pharaoh that he “Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exod. 7: 16) and having broken off their chains of bondage, brought them across the Red Sea and into the wilderness. At Sinai, the Law was delivered to Moses and Israel entered into a solemn covenant with God saying “All that Jehovah has spoken will we do!” (Exod. 19: 8). Furthermore, God commanded that “they shall make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exod. 25: 8). This brief summary suffices to show the unique place in which Israel as a nation was set.
Despite these advantages, the Law was but “a shadow of the coming good things” (Heb. 10: 1), our “tutor up to Christ” (Gal. 3: 24). Christian worship is “by [the] Spirit of God” (Phil. 3: 3), but the worship under the Law, though according to “the representation and shadow of heavenly things” (Heb. 8: 5) was by forms and rituals. The offerer could have no settled peace, “for blood of bulls and goats [is] incapable of taking away sins” (Heb. 10: 4) and access into the very presence of God had “not yet been made manifest while as yet the first tabernacle has [its] standing” (Heb. 9: 8). By contrast, in Christianity, we find that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4: 18) and that “God has sent out the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Gal. 4: 6).
The Times of the Nations
Israel was set up to be God’s kingdom on earth. At first it was said of them that “Jehovah your God was your king” (1 Sam. 12: 12), but the people desired a king “like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8: 5) and so God gave them Saul. The inception of this form of the kingdom was accompanied by a solemn warning: “If ye fear Jehovah, and serve him … and rebel not against the commandment of Jehovah, then both ye and the king also that reigns over you shall continue following Jehovah your God. But if ye will not hearken to the voice of Jehovah … then will the hand of Jehovah be against you” (1 Sam. 12: 14–15). As we know, God bore long with the waywardness of His people, but eventually He sent Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem, and carry her people into captivity. From this point on “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of [the] nations until [the] times of [the] nations be fulfilled” (Luke 21: 24). During this period, Israel shall “abide many days without king” (Hos. 3: 4), and the world will be administered by successive Gentile powers to “whom the God of the heavens hath given the kingdom” (Daniel 2: 37) as set forth in the great image of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The culmination of this will be the great tribulation when the nations shall tread the “holy city … under foot forty–two months” (Rev. 11: 2), following which a “deliverer shall come out of Zion” (Rom. 11:26) and Jerusalem will be re–established as God’s earthly centre of rule “and all the nations shall flow unto it” (Is. 2: 2).
The ‘times of the nations’ will therefore be brought to an end only when the Lord returns as Israel’s Messiah, and restores the Jews to their earthly prominence. As a period, it thus overlaps both with the dispensation of the Law (“this age” in Jewish terms) and today’s dispensation of grace (which the Jew knew nothing about). In the old dispensation the Law was the means by which God dealt with man (the Gentiles being left largely to their own devices), whilst grace is the theme of the present dispensation. The ‘times of the nations’ however, is a narrower idea than either of the dispensations it overlaps, being confined to the means by which the world is administered politically.
The ‘times of the nations’ were already running when the Lord entered this world, but He also came “under law” (Gal. 4: 4). Thus the message he preached was totally in accord with his background as a Jew (see Matt. 5: 17). The so–called Sermon on the Mount for example, sets out the principles that would mark the kingdom. This coming millennial age (see Matt. 12: 32) formed the basis of His preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh” (Matt. 4: 17). This was not the Gospel of “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1: 23)—how could it be?—but the good news to those “awaiting the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2: 25) and the nation’s restoration to prominence under Christ as king. Of course, as we know, this Gospel was rejected, the kingdom put on hold (hidden, as it were, in mystery form), and the building of Christ’s Assembly announced.
The Seven Assemblies
That the Gentiles should be equally blessed with the Jews, and both reconciled “in one body to God” (Eph. 2: 16) was a mystery (or secret) which was “hidden from ages and from generations” (Col. 1: 26). Accordingly, the OT makes no reference to the Assembly, and the language used in its first mention in the NT makes it clear that it was not yet in existence. Certainly Israel is referred to by Stephen as “the assembly in the wilderness” (Acts 7: 38) but the expression “my assembly” (Matt. 16: 18, my emphasis) is specific. The martyrdom of Stephen revealed a number of the unique features of the Christian dispensation, namely a man “full of [the] Holy Spirit” on earth, bound together with a glorified saviour in heaven (Acts 7: 55). The doctrine of this would be later set out by Paul, God’s chosen vessel for the purpose.
Once the Assembly had been “made manifest” (Rom. 16: 26), the way was open for God to set out its history prophetically. This was left to the apostle John in his addresses to “the seven assemblies” (Rev. 1: 4). He was told to “Write therefore what thou hast seen, and the things that are, and the things that are about to be after these” (v19). Having written of the state of each of the seven assemblies (“the things that are”), he is instructed to “Come up here, and I will shew thee the things which must take place after these things” (Rev. 4: 1, my emphasis). That there is no gap is a clear indication that the seven addresses, while obviously relevant to conditions in John’s day, also had a prophetic character. Some object to this, but the parallelism between each assembly and successive stages of ecclesiastical history is too marked to be ignored. It is nonsensical to separate out a portion of the book as not prophetic when the whole is entitled “the words of the prophecy” (Rev. 1: 3).
Much more could be said, but space precludes us. The “present course of things” (Titus 2: 12) will not go on forever, for we are now in the Laodicean phase of Assembly history, and the “appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6: 14) is surely very near. Our day is not noted for its lack of teachers, but “sound teaching” (2 Tim. 4: 3) is rapidly disappearing. More than ever, the faithful Christian needs to “strive diligently … cutting in a straight line the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2: 15). These things matter for many are being “tossed and carried about” (Eph. 4: 14) by false and erroneous doctrines. A dispensational approach to Scripture is the only sure path through the Babel of voices that assault us from every side.