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One of the most difficult portions of the New Testament to consider and discuss with any real doctrinal certainty is the book of Revelation.While its title in Greek means to “uncover,” or “disclose,” the book seems to be as confounding in its content as illuminating.[1]So we might ask, “How could such an elusive and complicated text come to be called Revelation?” What’s more, seeing as the church’s addressed at the beginning of the book are in such difficult circumstances, why do so many people seem to think that their predicament has so little to do with the overall book? There is strange comfort here for them and even stranger implications for churches that follow.

Considering the diversity of opinions and interpretations of the book, would it not be more fitting to call it The Great Enigma? Even John, the author, seems perplexed at times by what he hears and sees and writes… “Astonished” is the term he uses in Revelation 17:7. While my intent certainly isn’t to disparage the author by inferring that the book defies beneficial definition, it is to face the truth of the perplexing place Revelation holds in Christian literature.

Despite its enigmatic nature, there’s something that draws readers back to Revelation time and again for a kind of strange comfort. For many of us, we return to the book in hopes that we might come to understand the substance of its dramatic function in God’s overall plan more clearly. Who doesn’t want to know “what really happened,”or better yet, “what’s going to happen?” And yet, the shear glut of dreadful commentary and horribly miscalculated conjectures associated with the book of Revelation is infinite. This, combined with Revelation’s prophetic vagueness, continues to interest readers who keep coming back for more. Come to think of it. Maybe it’s the enigma that keeps us coming back for more!

 

The End of the Age

After Jesus had scolded some Jewish critics, them warned them that Jerusalem and the temple would be “left desolate,” within a generation. His disciples approached Him and asked in Matthew 24:3, “Tell us, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?” (NIV)

R.C. Sproul explains that what Jesus was talking about when He spoke of the “end of the age” was God’s final judgment against Israel, and not necessarily the end of the world. The end of the age, Sproul says, is more accurately a description of the end of the biblical era of the Jewish covenant in the Old Testament. An old covenant that gave way to a more inclusive new covenant in Christ prophesied about by Jeremiah and fulfilled in the New Testament as in Luke 21:20f. This idea is significant, so keep that in mind as we make our way through this text. The end of the age is not addressing the end of the world, as such. Rather the Jewish age and the Old Testament laws that characterized it were coming to their consummation with the destruction of the temple and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The dispersion of the Jews, who had broken God’s covenant by rejecting His Son, Jesus, was an unmistakable indication that things were changing radically. Thus, the beginning of the new age of the New Testament was inaugurated by the gathering of non-Jews (Gentiles) into the mix of God’s elect… This is more than merely a passing historical observation, it’s a crucial aspect of an otherwise endless enigma.[2]What’s more, the close of one age and the advent of a new one provided strange comfort of the early believers who were under tremendous pressure to dismiss their newfound faith in Jesus.

Although the Greek word used by Matthew for “age” is aionand the Greek word used for “world” is most often either “cosmos” or “oikoumene,” the KJV translated all of them singularly with the English term “world.” This may account for much of the confusion. For instance, John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world,” where the Greek word translated “world” is actually cosmos,and that works out just fine in that particular context, since the point to be made is rather general. However, when the disciples asked Jesus in Matthew 24:3, “what shall be the sign of the end of the world?” He used a different Greek word, aion(not cosmosor oikoumene),meaning the end of the “age,” not the end of the world. What’s important about this is the definite difference between the two ideas of the end of the “age” and the end of the “world.” Although the disciples may have thought the two were the same, in Jesus’ expression they appear to be two different things. Whereas cosmosor oikoumeneimplies an end to the world, aeonsimply implies the end of an age.

The biblical notion of “ages,” goes back to the Old Testament concept of separating time into segments based on God’s unfolding covenant design. The central focus of God’s covenantal plan is arranged leading up to the time when the Messiah comes and the time after His arrival. The ancient Jews thought of human history as being divided into two stages of before and after the Messiah.[3]To ignore these facts is to risk the peril of ignorance, and worse yet, a misreading of the text altogether.

During Jesus’ era on earth, Jews considered themselves to be living in the time when the present age was coming to a close. Their sense of living in the end times didn’t necessarily mean that they were expecting the end of the world, but that a new age was dawning just as Jesus had predicted in Matthew 24.

Again, it is essential to understand the above explanation in order to grasp the passages in Scripture, such as Jesus’ sermon at Olivet as well as the prophecies in the book of Revelation. The idea of an “age to come” in Jesus’ day, overtly implied that what was being spoken about was yet to occur, as well it was an understood distinction from the present age and what that age had represented. Logically, since the “age to come,” in Scripture has no end, the phrase “last days”would have to apply to the end of the “present age.” The end of the “present age” then, would essentially mean the end of an era such as the old covenant as it gave way to God’s “end time” plan that was being fulfilled by Jesus’ resurrection.

What all this means to us as Christians, is that the time period separating the present age from the time “yet to come” begins with the earthly ministry of Jesus, or about AD 30. This is the historical time that was prophesied in the Bible as the coming of the Messiah to His people, thus signifying the “last days.” In Hebrews 1:1f, we’re told that God speaks to us in this new age by His Son and not by the Old Testament prophets.

So, speaking in strictly theological terms, the old covenant was fulfilled at the cross, where Jesus said, “It is finished.”[4]However, so long as the temple remained in Jerusalem, nothing much was going to change despite Jesus’ death. By means of the Roman army—just as God had used the Egyptians in Moses’ day, and just as He had used the Assyrian’s and Babylonians later on—God used the Romans to level the temple and destroy the city of Jerusalem once and for all. This was accomplished in AD 70 and in such a fashion that hardly anyone could ignore it. The cross of Christ and His subsequent resurrection was the fulfilling of the old covenant and the coming of the fuller and more inclusive dispensation of the new covenant and new age. We might say that the advent of the new covenant was held up until the old covenant’s fulfillment. And, of course, this occurred at the destruction of the temple, leading to the end of Israel’s theocracy. It was only after the destruction of the temple that the new covenant would be fully revealed, not necessarily by further revelation, but by historical verification. The fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple established, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the new covenant was now fully available to those who believed in Christ. Both Jews and Gentiles.

So, in review, the old age(aion) ended at the cross of Christ and the destruction of the temple in AD 70. The “new age” (aion), although spoken of as a future event (“to come”) in the Scriptures, was the fulfillment of the old covenant with by means of Christ’s death and resurrection. Thus, in a strictly technical sense, there is no “future event,” but a present-day reality in the life of Christians today, having been inaugurated by Jesus Himself at the cross. But still, the final end is yet to come in the Second Coming (parousia) of Christ in glory.

Early Christian views of the end times (eschatology) were based on Jewish notions consistent with the idea of divided Messianic eras of history, as already noted above. For instance, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles preached that the present erawould end soon—or at least “quickly”—and the coming erawould lead to, yet another future age. The Apostle Paul was nearly transfixed upon the fact that Jesus would return soon. However, as the Apostolic era ended, the urgency—but not necessarily the immediacy—of Jesus’ return was necessarily tempered by the passage of time. Most post-Apostolic believers came to view Jesus’ return with the same immediacy but with less urgency. Along with the realization that the end would not come as quickly as might have been initially expected, there was the realization that the end was growing closer with the passage of time. This is the “now” and “not yet” of biblical prophecy. While on the one hand the time is “now” there is also a time “not yet” that is still to come.

 

[1]The Gk word is Ἀποκάλυψις (UBSGNT4) formed from the prefix apo attached to the word kaloopto literally describing the “stealing away” of something as if to read the text would enable a person to steal its content.

[2]See Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, p.17f.

[3]Thayer’s Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament, Page 19

[4]John 19:30.