This Age and The Age to Come

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How did Jesus' contemporaries distinguish between "this age" and the "age to come"?
In biblical literature and also in discussion about the Bible, we sometimes find or encounter the terms "this age" and "the age to come." What is meant by these terms is the following: This age is the age, the period, the era, in which human beings live, the age since the Fall. It is life in a fallen world. The "age to come," as expected by the Old Testament prophets, was a time where God would reconstitute paradise in some sense; there would be a new heavens and new earth, and the human heart of stone would be removed and we all would perfectly follow and do the will of God. There would be no violence among human beings, there would be no violence even in the animal kingdom. Another technical term that is often used for what we are talking about is eschatology, the doctrine of the last things, that a time would come ushered in by a redeemer chosen by God, by the Messiah, as he was called then in early Jewish texts, a son of David, a royal figure, and he would usher in a completely new world, where all evil among human beings in our hearts but also in society would be gone.

And so the question then is, when Jesus arrived, who was he? The understanding of the Messiah in contemporary Judaism at the time was more of a political liberator, someone who would make Israel great in a national, nationalistic, patriotic sense, that he would perhaps or certainly overthrow the Romans, that he would be king in Israel, and society in Israel would be different. After Jesus had left, had gone back to the Father, society in Israel was still as it had always been. There were some good people, there were some bad people, there were people who wanted to do the will of God, there were people who did not care about the will of God. The Romans still occupied the area, Judea was still a Roman province, and the ruler of Galilee still was really dependent on the Roman overlords. And so, the age to come, therefore is obviously still in the future. And this is what the New Testament says, that one day Jesus will come back and then everything will be new. We get glimpses of that in Paul's letters, but it is mostly in the book of Revelation in the transition from chapter 19 to 20 and 21 where there God says that everything will be new, where we have this wonderful picture of salvation that God will wipe away the tears from our eyes. God will be so close that he will stand right in front of us, and we don't have to be afraid as he touches our face – and one can't get closer to people than touching our face – because our sin has been forgiven.

And that's a symbol for all suffering, all sin having completely vanished, everything being new. There is the symbol of the streets of the heavenly Jerusalem being made of gold. In antiquity many of the bigger cities had the two main streets paved not even with marble let alone with gold, simply with limestones very often. So, this is a picture of a value, of a preciousness that we cannot even imagine. So, the age to come is in the future. At the same time, there is complete forgiveness for those who believe in Jesus, who trust in him, who acknowledge that he is Israel's Messiah and Savior of the world.

So, in a certain sense, the age to come has already begun, the kingdom of God has already started. This is sometimes called "inaugurated eschatology," a complicated term that simply means that the last days have already started, they have already been inaugurated. And so, Christians live between the times. We still live in the old world, in the present world. We are still tempted, we still sin, there is still evil in the world, and yet in our hearts and in our Christian communities, there is something new that has started and that gives a glimpse of the perfection of the age to come.

Answer by Dr. Eckhard Schnabel

Dr. Schnabel is Professor of New Testament Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston MA