The Age of Grace (Acts 2.1-?)
The dispensation which we know as the Church Age or the Dispensation of Grace was not revealed in the Old Testament. Paul writes that it is a "mystery, whichhath been hid in God" (Eph 3.9). Prophets do not write of it and there is no indication in the Scriptures written before the birth of the Lord Jesus that such an era would ever be.
It was not, however, an afterthought in the purpose of God. Although it was not revealed it always was the mind of God that such an age would be introduced. There was given to the apostle Paul the revelation of the truth which he now preached and taught (Eph 3.3).
The commencement of the Church
When, exactly, did the Church begin? The first mention of "church" is in Matthew where the Lord Jesus states that He "will build" His church (16.18). The future tense is used here and therefore at that time the Church had not come into being. When we come to the Acts of the Apostles the Church is in existence. It commenced on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
The composition of the Church
The composition of the Church is revealed in the "mystery" which is that "Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel" (Eph 3.6). Thus Gentiles now will be brought in on an equal footing with Jews and together they will be jointly heirs, jointly of thesame body, and jointly sharers in the promise of the gospel. Thus the command of the Lord Jesus is now to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Israel had failed in the responsibility of being evangelists to the world and therefore the work now falls to others.
Previously, Gentiles were "far off" (Eph 2.13) and between them and Israel there was a "middle wall of partition" (Eph 2.14). This has been broken down and both Jew and Gentile can now be reconciled unto God in one body by the cross (Eph 2.16).
This does not mean that Gentiles could not previously know the blessing of God in salvation. They could, by faith. All salvation has been at all times on that basis. But now the difference between Jew and Gentile has been removed completely.
The character of the Church
In what way does the Church differ from the dispensations which went before? There are a number of fundamental and unique features which must be understood to appreciate the blessings of the church age.
The indwelling Holy Spirit
The promise of the Lord Jesus is that the Holy Spirit would be "in you" (Jn 14.17). This is the only dispensation when the Holy Spirit dwells within believers. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit came upon individuals for a specific purpose, but this was of a temporary nature. Now the Holy Spirit comes, never to depart.
Members of the body of Christ
The church is not an organisation. It is a living organism. It is the body of Christ (Eph 1.23). Paul had his introduction to this truth when, on the Damascus Road, he heard the words of the Lord Jesus, "Why persecutest thou me?" (Acts 9.4). To touch the saints was to touch the Lord; to persecute the saints was to persecute the Lord. Christ is the Head of the body (Eph 4.15), and from Him comes all that is necessary for the health of the body (Eph 4.16).
The heavenly hope of the Church
The hope of believers of past ages was essentially earthly. They were looking for a kingdom which would be founded on earth. The hope of the Church is essentially heavenly. We will examine the significance of this when we deal with events yet to be.
A spiritual age
In past ages there was a physical altar, there were physical offerings, there was a tabernacle and there was a temple all of which could be seen. Things are different now. This is a spiritual age. The sacrifices which believers offer are spiritual; the worship which is given is spiritual. The work in which we are engaged is spiritual; and the gifts which are used in this work are spiritual.
The completion of the Church
This is the enforced removal of the Church from earth to heaven (1 Thess 4). At that time the Lord will come to the air and the bodies of believers who have died will be raised. Living saints will also be changed and snatched away to meet the Lord in the air. After that they will be forever with the Lord.
The Judgment Seat of Christ
The word bema means primarily a step, and it was used to denote a dais or platform which was reached by steps. The word was used, for instance, of a platform from which an orator would address a crowd. As time passed the word came to be used of two platforms which were to be found in the law courts of Greece. One of these platforms was used by the accuser and the other by the accused. Then it became used of the raised platform on which a judge, a magistrate, or a ruler sat.
What form does the judgment take?
The place of review - Rom 14.12
The expression which Paul uses here, "give account", is an accounting term. It is the word which means "to reckon". When an accountant prepares accounts it is a statement of how the directors of the company have exercised their stewardship over the resources at their disposal. The accounts are a review of the year past and reveal whether they have put these resources to good use, or whether they have been ill-used.
The place of revelation - 1 Cor 4.5
When we read 1 Corinthians 4 we learn that the Lord will "bring to light the hidden things of darkness". These are things that are not revealed or known at the moment, but will be revealed at that day. There will be no hidden corners. He will know everything, even those things that we have been at great pains to keep shrouded in secrecy. This can cover things that would do us credit and things that would do us no credit, but we have been careful not to let them be advertised abroad. So all that is not known now, all that is hidden, will be made known. In addition to that, the counsels of the hearts will be made manifest. The motives for what we did will be fully exposed.
The place of reality - 1 Cor 3.14
The fire will try every man's work to see what sort it is. There will be the unfolding of the reality of the character of the work which we have carried out. It may have looked so good and impressive to all who saw it on earth, but we will learn here what was the true value of what we did. The apostle divides the nature of our work into two distinct categories. Wood, hay and stubble is the first, and gold, silver and precious stones is the second. Wood, hay and stubble have plenty of bulk about them, and compared to gold, silver and precious stones they are relatively easily obtained. Gold, silver and precious stones are of far greater value and are not easily obtained. At the Judgment Seat my work will be put under the test to reveal its true character.
A place of reward - 1 Cor 4.5; 2 Cor 5.10
God is righteous and He will reward those who have served Him faithfully. He does not do this because it is a duty which has to be performed; He does it because He delights to reward faithfulness. This does not turn the Judgment Seat into some kind of prize giving. It is much more solemn than that, but God, in grace, is prepared to recognise all that we have done, no matter how little, which pleased Him.
At the Judgment Seat we receive the things done in the body. We note that it is each one who will receive the things done in the body, so what we have here is individual assessment. As a result of this we receive back what is our due. The words used indicate receiving back what we have earned, what is our wages. If what we have done is good we will receive back what is of value. If what we have done is bad or worthless we will receive nothing back of value, thus there will be no reward. This should cause us to ponder each action and each motive. Each day we are earning our wages, we are building up what will be given back to us at the Judgment Seat.
The Church era
The churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3 reflect the spiritual condition of local churches throughout the era. They also are a record of the various phases though which the Church has passed and is presently experiencing.
The outline of these ages as shown in the Chart is taken from "What the Bible Teaches - Revelation", by J. Allen. The Editor thanks Mr Allen for his permission to use the outline.