God recorded history past, history present, and history future within a book, the word of truth. He recorded the past, present, and future for your understanding. If you do not rightly divide the Bible, you will never fully understand it. We are commanded to both study the Bible and to rightly divide the Bible. While studying the Bible, what is just as important as knowing what happens within the Bible is knowing when things happened or when things will happen. The apostle Paul’s epistle to the church at Ephesus assists us greatly in this effort by providing us additional insight for how the Christian is to rightly divide their Bible.
The book of Ephesians, which is filled with many time distinctions, talks about the foundation of the Church, when it was laid, its future destiny, and how it differs from what God was doing in the past. The apostle Paul uses words like “before” and “after,” “until,” “time past,” “ages to come,” “were,” “are,” and “but now.” One example of this is found in the third chapter of Ephesians, where the apostle Paul states that there are “other ages” in the past where people did not know things that are “now” revealed:
Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; [Ephesians 3:4-5]
Realize that the apostle Paul was living in the “now” portion of this verse and that the Old Testament prophets were living in “other ages.” If one was to go back in time to the prophets of other ages (accomplished by just turning a number of pages backwards within the Bible), they would see that those same prophets did not have the understanding that the apostles and the prophets that lived contemporaneously with the apostle Paul had:
Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. [1 Peter 1:10-11]
The Bible describes changes that take place over time. This necessitates that the student of the Bible pay attention to when it was that things were known. Times, seasons, and ages must be distinguished and separated within the Bible. One can read about the past or they can read about the future within the Bible. It is, however, an erroneous approach for us to time travel and to put ourselves into another time spoken to within the Bible or to do the opposite and to take instructions to those in time past and apply it to ourselves today. This, unfortunately, is all too common from pulpits around the world with many a preacher taking something from another time, season, or age and bringing it back into the present as instructions for their hearer’s today. Making every verse in the Bible speak to the present time does a great disservice to God’s manifold wisdom, it breaks the laws of interpretation, and it creates a Bible time paradox that can make your instructions from God and a proper understanding of your position in Christ confused or disappear altogether.
Christians should never be “date-setters,” but they do need to acknowledge where words, phrases, and verb tenses within the Bible indicate time and how those words are being used. One example of this exercise comes to us by way of the first two verses of the first chapter to the book of Hebrews:
God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; [Hebrews 1:1-2]
We see from this verse that God “spake” (past tense of “speak” and we now use “spoke”) at some point in time. We must ask how God spoke, whom He spoke to, and what He spoke about. Recognize that God did not speak just one time; He has spoken multiple times within His creation. The word “sundry” means several, divers, or more than one or two. The word “divers” means different, various, and can truly just have an “e” tacked on to the end while reading it. What we need to understand is that if the times were different, then the context is very important to us also. What God said at one time may be different than what He said at a different time. The student of the Bible must respect the sundry times in which God spake.
With the diverse manners in which God spoke at sundry times, we must also recognize that God spoke in multiple ways. He spoke through angels, He spoke audibly through a burning bush, He spoke through visions, He spoke through dreams, and He even spoke through a donkey. God often spoke in order to teach, He spoke in anger and in wrath, He spoke in mercy, and He spoke to reveal new information. God spoke in “divers” manners according to His purpose and His will. He spoke in “time past” to the nation Israel.
Understand that there is a difference between how God spoke in time past compared to how He speaks now. God does not speak throughout history in the same manner, to the same people, in the same way, treating it as if it is all the same time. In time past God spoke to the fathers of Israel, the prophets of Israel, the kings, and the people of Israel. The chief advantage for Israel is that unto them were committed the oracles of God:
What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. [Romans 3:1-2]
What God said and how He said it was different in time past than it is now. It is also different than what it will be in the future. Asking to whom God spoke to is critical for proper Bible interpretation. God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the fathers of Israel, a land, a nation, and a blessing for the whole world through them and the Son of God came to Israel in order to confirm the promises made to the fathers:
Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: [Romans 15:8]
Jesus came to His own and His own received Him not. Jesus came to Israel in order to fulfill prophecy concerning Him, the Son of God, the Messiah spoken of by the prophets. Jesus spoke to His twelve apostles about the last days fulfillment of the promises in the world to come:
Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; [Hebrews 1:2]
For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we speak. [Hebrews 2:5]
It was after the King and His earthly kingdom was rejected by Israel that the Lord Jesus Christ sent Paul to the Gentiles with the message of the fellowship of the mystery. According to this new dispensation of the grace of God, God would send salvation to all men in sin in order to create a new creature saved by grace without Israel, apart from their covenants, and without the Law. When the student of the Bible combines the proper understanding of Hebrews 1:1 with what we have reviewed that Christ revealed to the apostle Paul, they are then able to recognize that a tremendous dispensational change has occurred and that they are living, now, in a unique period of time:
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; [Romans 3:21]
Unto me [Paul], who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: [Ephesians 3:8-9]
Ephesians Teaches Division
Paul’s epistle of Ephesians was addressed to Christians in Ephesus. Within Ephesians chapter 2, the apostle Paul sets forth the basic three-fold division in God’s word, dealing with mankind: Time Past, But Now, and the Ages to Come. Let’s look at all three of these:
Time Past –
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: [Ephesians 2:11-12]
But Now –
But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. [Ephesians 2:13]
Ages to Come –
That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. [Ephesians 2:7]
When the Bible is laid out according to this divinely inspired division, we can easily obtain an overview of not only what we are reading, but when and to whom it was written. Thus the word of God itself provides us with yet another key to its own proper division and understanding.
Ephesians 2:11-12 sets forth the basic issue in “Time Past” as being the division between the Circumcision and the Uncircumcision, between the nation Israel and the Gentiles. In Time Past, Gentiles, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the Jews (the Circumcision), were without Christ, strangers from the covenant, and had no hope – they were without God. When one finds this issue governing the way God was working with mankind, they know that they are in Time Past. When one sees a distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles within the Bible, they must recognize that they are reading Time Past. We Gentiles had no part in the economy of God in Time Past. “Time Past” refers to God’s dealing with His nation Israel, to the exclusion of the Gentiles, and this distinction covers the “Old Testament” as well as Matthew through John and the early Acts period. The body of Christ did not exist in Time Past. The body of Christ was a secret hid in God during that period of time. Though this statement may be hard for many a pastor to agree with, we need to acknowledge the fact that the primary subject of Time Past is the Kingdom that was promised to the nation Israel:
And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. [Daniel 2:44]
The Kingdom promised to Israel is the subject of prophecy. The Kingdom is not the subject of concern within the mystery program. When the Kingdom promised to Israel is in view, you know that there is a distinction between Jew and Gentile.
Ephesians 2:13 indicates that in the “But Now” portion, Gentiles are no longer “far off” but rather something called “the middle wall of partition” between Israel and the Gentiles has been eliminated and now those who “were far off are made nigh” to God:
For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; [Ephesians 2:14]
The “But Now” period, described by the apostle Paul, speaks to the dispensation of the grace of God and it removes the middle wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles, offering salvation to all men freely, without distinction. “But Now” is a designation that refers to this present time in which we live called the “dispensation of the grace of God.” The “But Now” period began in Acts chapter 9 when God interrupted His program with Israel (Time Past) to accomplish another purpose prior to His day of wrath. This new purpose was one that God had always planned, yet He had previously never spoken about.
Unexpectedly, due to Israel’s rebellion and its rejection of their Messiah, God raised up a new apostle, different from the twelve, the apostle Paul, and He sent him to “the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ “according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began.” Because of this, Paul called himself “the apostle of the Gentiles” and he has been used uniquely by God to reveal the grand mercy and grace of God that He is offering to all of mankind, Jew or Gentile.
To Paul, God revealed the “mystery of Christ,” a secret purpose which He has in Christ involving a new dispensation and a “new creature.” The apostle Paul has also been used uniquely by God to reveal His plan and purpose for the Church, the body of Christ, today. The body of Christ only begins with “But Now”. God used Paul to record all of this information within the thirteen epistles of Romans through Philemon.
During this present dispensation of the grace of God, God is not carrying out His program with Israel. God, however, is by no means through with Israel. As the apostle Paul teaches in Romans, chapters 9 through 11, God will resume and fulfill His program and dealings with the nation Israel after this present dispensation is over. Israel’s salvation is yet to come. In accordance with this, the books of Hebrews through Revelation follow Paul’s epistles within the divine layout of the Bible. Hebrews through Revelation focuses upon the resumption and fulfillment of God’s program with Israel after the Church, the body of Christ, has been removed. God will bring His purposes to fruition and thus Ephesians 2:7 points to the “Ages to Come.”
“Ages to Come” refers to the time period that will immediately follow this present time period (But Now), wherein God will resume His program with Israel and He will complete it. The Day of the Lord’s wrath will come and it will be followed by a 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ on earth. Ultimately God will unite all things under the headship of Christ Jesus our Lord, both which are in heaven and in earth.
It is with this understanding, and with this proper application of division, that the student of the Bible can conclude that Scripture can also be rightly divided into three major sections:
|1.||Time Past||Everything before the apostle Paul and Acts chapter 9.|
|2.||But Now||The dispensation of the grace of God that you and I are living in.|
|3.||Ages to Come||Everything after the body of Christ is “caught up” to the Lord, in the clouds, to be with Him forever in heavenly places.|
A Final Nuance We Must Recognize
At the start of the Old Testament, in Exodus 19:5, we learn that the nation Israel was intended to be a peculiar treasure to the Lord, a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation:
Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. [Exodus 19:5-6]
We will also recall from the Old Testament that Moses was able to have personal conversation with God. Through this interaction and through this revelation provided to him, Moses wrote about a righteousness gained from the obedience of faith in the Law:
And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us. [Deuteronomy 6:24-25]
Under the Law program given to Israel, the results were conditional. God states repeatedly to those He made the covenant with “if you do this, I will do that.” The following are a number of examples of that point:
Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD. [Leviticus 18:5]
But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. [Exodus 23:22]
And if ye will not yet for all this hearken unto me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. [Leviticus 26:18]
And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the LORD thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth: [Deuteronomy 28:1]
The apostle Paul expounds upon the understanding of Moses when he quotes Leviticus 18:5 above within Romans 10:5:
For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.
This righteousness and the faith that Moses and his followers had in God’s covenant was not faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their faith in God and His Law required obedience and was not through grace alone. The requirement to do works was a product of the content of their faith in God’s revealed covenant. The following of Gods Law then, was to be the righteousness of Israel. Clearly, Israel was under the impression that they would be able to follow God’s Holy Law. Could they follow it? Did they follow it? Clearly they did not as the only man who could ever perfectly follow God’s Perfect Law was the “God As Man,” Jesus Christ. It was subsequently revealed by Paul that Jesus Christ was the “end of the Law” to them that believed. During Christ’s earthly ministry, Israel did not believe and they still do not yet see.
The giving of the Law was done in order to force Israel to the realization that the Law was impossible to keep and that the nation needed a righteousness that was external to them. The Law was provided in order to drive them from their own self-righteous attitudes. With this as background, there is nuance to this Times Past, But Now, Ages to Come division that will help us further in our understanding of Right Division:
|Time Past||The Nation Israel||Results were dependent upon obedience.||Physical and Visible|
|But Now||The dispensation of the Grace of God||Our relationship is not based upon performance or obedience. We have been blessed with all spiritual blessings, seated with Christ, in heavenly places.||Spiritual and Invisible|
|Ages to Come||The Kingdom||I will and ye shall, ask what you want, it shall be done unto you, endure to the end, whatever you ask it’s done.||Physical and Visible|
Thus we see that the lines of demarcation within the Bible are set at Time Past, But Now, and the Ages to Come. This is an important distinction because when one takes doctrine from one dispensation and applies it to another dispensation, the result will always be confusion, discouragement, bondage, fear, error, false teachings, or apostasy. Rightly dividing the word of truth assists the Christian with avoiding those things.
The Bible records all of God’s plan and purpose – His “Time Past” dealings with Israel, His “But Now” dealings with the body of Christ, and the resumption of Israel’s program in the “Ages To Come.” When we combine this three-fold division of God’s word with an accurate understanding of the Prophecy Program versus the Mystery Program, combined further with a proper understanding of the Old Testament (OT) versus the New Testament (NT) versus the Mystery Truth (MT), the student of the Bible will begin to recognize God’s instructions for us today while also appreciating the unique nature and message of the apostle Paul’s ministry. This recognition and appreciation brings clarity to the gospel message proclaimed by the apostle Paul and it assists the Christian with understanding what their faith is to be placed in and how that faith differs from faith found in Time Past and the Ages to Come.
The middle wall of partition screams out to the world that “Israel is separate from you; you are not part of them, and they are not part of you”.
Hermeneutics: the art and science of interpreting Scripture. Theologically and biblically speaking, it is the means by which a person examines the Bible to determine what it means. There exist many different kinds of hermeneutical approaches that theologians use.
Genesis 17:9-14; Deuteronomy 4:5-8; Numbers 23:9
Romans 15:8; Matthew 10:5-6, 15:24; John 4:22
Luke 24:27; Acts 1:6, 8, 2:14, 22, 36, 5:32, 11:19
Colossians 3:11; Galatians 3:28
Acts 9:15 But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
Romans 11:13 For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:
2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:5
Commonly referred to as the Rapture of the Church. The Greek word behind “caught up” is harpazō and it means to seize, to carry off by force, to snatch out or away. See 1 Thessalonians 4:13:18; 1 Corinthians 15:50-55; 2 Thessalonians 2; Philippians 3:20; Titus 2:13
Romans 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.
Deuteronomy 6:24-25; Leviticus 18:5
Ephesians 2:6 And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:
Ephesians 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:
Isaiah 66:12-13; Jeremiah 30:22; John 14:13-14; Revelation 2:10
John 15:7; Matthew 18:19, 21:21
Matthew 24:13; Mark 4:17, 13:13