It is important to understand that God has been working with mankind, all through human history, according to a definite and developing plan, in order to test whether under any circumstances we will willingly obey Him, or not. This is the reason for the seven different ages, or dispensations, during which He has dealt with mankind under somewhat different conditions. In every dispensation God has given mankind a responsibility, a test of obedience, and has answered its failure to obey Him with a judgment which has then led to the introduction of a new dispensation. Scripture predicts and records the total failure of mankind under all seven dispensations, and then introduces us to a totally new heaven and earth, in which there can never be failure. The differences between the successive dispensations explain various passages of Scripture which, otherwise, are perhaps difficult to reconcile in the light of other parts of Scripture. God’s character never changes, but His methods have varied throughout the different ages of mankind’s probation. In the end, He will be seen to have given man every opportunity to obey Him and to enjoy His fellowship, but He will also prove the incorrigibility of our present fallen human nature. Hence the need for a new creation without sin. This way of viewing the Scripture record is very illuminating, and seems to be the only way to make total and coherent sense of every part of God’s revelation to us in the Bible. Any other method fails to explain certain parts of the Bible satisfactorily.
1. The Age of Innocence after Creation
Adam was given the responsibility of tending the Garden of Eden, and acting as God’s viceroy over the rest of the earth, with the one proviso that he must not eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, through deceiving Eve, Satan persuaded him to disobey this command, and so Adam fell into sin. His judgment was the entrance of death into the world and a curse on creation, and our first parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Because Adam was the head of the human race, we all inherit his original sin.
2. The Age of Conscience after the Fall
During this age, which lasted around 1,600 years, God made mankind responsible to live according to his knowledge of good and evil, his conscience, which he had wrongly acquired in Eden. The result was disastrous. Mankind quickly became completely corrupt, and violence filled the earth, so that God regretted that He had ever made man. In judgment, He sent the worldwide Flood to destroy all mankind, with the earth, apart from Noah and his family whom He protected in a divinely-designed ark in order that the human race might be preserved. Man still retains his conscience as a guide to his moral behaviour.
3. The Age of Human Government after the Flood
During this age, which lasted almost 500 years, mankind was partially restrained from gross acts of immoral behaviour and violence by God’s institution of human government, which could exact the death penalty for murder. By His covenant with Noah, God promised never to send another worldwide flood, but told man to scatter over the earth and to multiply its population. In disobedience they stayed in the Middle East, with the aim of making a name for themselves, rather than God, and began to build a city and idolatrous tower at Babel, with the object of reaching Heaven in their own way. God therefore confused the universal language of the builders, so that they had to abandon the project and begin to travel to other regions. However, the institution of human government has remained ever since.
4. The Age of Promise to the Patriarchs after Babel
During this age which, again, lasted about 500 years, God chose one man, Abraham, and his family, as the nucleus of a chosen earthly people, Israel. Through that nation He would accomplish His purposes of grace, and bring in the Messiah, Christ. To Abraham, and the other patriarchs, He made a number of unconditional promises concerning a Promised Land in Canaan, and both personal and spiritual blessings, dependent on his initial exercise of faith. Permanent occupation of the Land would depend on their obedience in dwelling within it. However, several times, under pressure, they strayed from the Land into Egypt, and their rejection of Joseph led to his whole family going down into Egypt and suffering there under bondage imposed by the Pharaohs. Nevertheless, the unconditional covenant promises made to Abraham still stand, and will be fulfilled in a future day.
5. The Age of Law after Israel’s Exodus from Egypt
This age lasted from the time of Israel’s redemption from Egypt by the blood of the Passover Lamb, and by power at the Red Sea, until the first coming of Christ, and His death and resurrection; a period of about 1,500 years. It began at Mount Sinai, when the Lord, through Moses, gave Israel His commandments to keep, as His redeemed earthly people with special privileges. Although they foolishly agreed to obey them, they broke them immediately, and then repeatedly throughout their chequered history in the Promised Land. The Lord chastised them in the two exiles to Assyria and Babylon, but restored a remnant of Judah, who rejected and crucified their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. They were then eventually dispersed throughout the world. The conditional covenant of Law was never meant to save, but was a temporary measure, preparing mankind for the coming of Christ and the Gospel, by revealing the seriousness of sin and the inability of man to keep God’s commandments, apart from divine help.
6. The Age of Grace, and the Church, after Christ’s Passion and Pentecost
This divine help has been granted to believers in Christ today, because they are indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit formed God’s heavenly people, the Church, on the Day of Pentecost, bringing together both Jews and Gentiles on an equal basis. We are empowered to fulfil the righteous requirements of the Law, without being under it, by following the promptings of the Holy Spirit within us. We also fulfil our Lord’s ‘Great Commission’ to preach the Gospel of grace to every creature. However, apostasy and false doctrine have marred the professing Church’s testimony, and mankind has largely rejected God’s overtures of grace in the Gospel; only a minority of men will ever believe it. After Christ has removed the Church to Heaven at the Rapture, apostasy will come to a head, led by the Man of Sin, who will challenge God directly. God will then prepare to impose His authority at the second coming of Christ to earth by sending cataclysmic judgments on this world to quell its rebellion. Thus Church believers today are distinct from earthly Israel, and are more connected with Heaven than earth. Our task is not to try to reform the world but, by preaching and living the Gospel in godliness, to rescue lost men from suffering eternal punishment in Hell.
7. The Age of Christ’s Millennial Kingdom after the Tribulation Judgments
Christ’s direct rule over this world for a literal 1,000 years of peace, perfect government, and spiritual blessing, with the curse on creation removed, will be God’s last test for those who have survived the horrors of the Tribulation, to see if they will obey and worship Him alone. After its end, Satan’s brief release from the abyss will try mankind’s true allegiance, and it will reveal many who are ready to rebel directly against Christ and all His saints. This will finally prove the incurability of man’s sinful heart, and God will purge this present world, defiled by sin, judge all unbelievers at the Great White Throne through Christ, and create a new heaven and earth in which righteousness not only reigns, but dwells permanently.
By observing our place in this overall plan as God’s heavenly people, the Church, we may understand more clearly what our present responsibilities are concerning the Gospel, our personal godliness as salt and light in the world, and be guided aright in appropriate relationships with those around us. Without this wide view of God’s purpose, we will be liable to make unfortunate mistakes concerning these responsibilities.