AION IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
It is common practice to base a discussion of the N.T. use of 'aion' upon some association with the Rabbinic concepts of 'this age' and 'the coming age'. This is a useful starting point for it shows that by N.T. times the concept of recognizable periods with distinguishing characteristics had become established in Hebrew thinking and, although the earliest proven occurrence of the above expressions in Rabbinic writings belongs late in the first century A.D., the frequency of N.T. references to 'this aeon', 'the present aeon', 'that aeon', 'the coming aeon' indicates that the idea of one age giving place to another was common in both Judaic and Christian thought. An important question is to determine what events or developments were regarded as bringing about or indicating the change over from 'this aeon' to 'the coming aeon'.
In Rabbinic works the advent of Israel's long awaited Messiah forms the disjunctive point, and therefore may biblical scholars and students have argued that since Christians hold that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Christ event formed the demarcation between 'this age' and 'the age to come'.
Now the concept of the messianic advent and associated developments took definite shape and became invested with urgent expectation during the inter-testamental period. The Qumran scrolls provide much evidence of the Messiah(s) upon the sect's religious theory and conduct. Also the utterances of Simeon and Anna recorded in Luke 2, indicate the state of expectancy existing in devout Jewish circles at the time of the birth of Jesus.
Little definite material can be found in the O.T. itself to show what characteristics were anticipated in the Messiah. The 'Deliverer who should come out of Zion and turn away ungodliness from Jacob' (Isa.59:20,21 quoted in Rom.11:26) appears to have to have been envisaged as an ideal king who would establish Israel as the supreme terrestrial race in a kingdom without end. This concept is expressed in Luke 1:32,33, which contains ideas from II Sam.7:11-13 and 16; Psa.89:4; 132:11; Isa.9:6,7; and 16:5. Looking back with hind-sight, N.T. writers and Bible students ever since have linked up many O.T. passages and even isolated sentences with the person and work of Jesus; but that the O.T. authors or their pre-Christian readers regarded many of such statements as applying to the Messiah seems doubtful. Probably the establishment of Israel as a people faithful to their God in a kingdom holding world-wide sway, formed the most important ingredient in the Messianic hope. The disciples' question in Acts 1:6 accords with this view.
Of course the Rabbis did not regard the first advent of our Lord as the disjunctive episode between the two ages, but since the N.T. writers regarded Jesus as the promised Messiah, the question arises whether they believed his birth, life, death, and resurrection actually and completely fulfilled the O.T. prophecies on which the Rabbinic expectations were based, and hence the then 'present age' closed with his birth and 'the coming age' opened with say Pentecost so that the whole Christ event formed a transition period between the two ages.
For an answer we turn to a study of the N.T. usage of the word 'aion' and its derivatives. Respecting 'this aeon' it should be noted that Jesus is recorded as using the phrases 'in this aeon', 'in the coming aeon' and sons 'of this aeon' (Matt.12:32, Mark 10:30 and Luke 16:8; 18:30, 20:34 and 35) but the great majority of occurrences are in the Pauline letters. (Rom.12:2, I Cor.1:20; 2:6,8; 3:18, II Cor.4:4, Gal.1:4, Eph.1:21; 2:2, II Tim.4:10, Tit.2:12). The only other case is in Heb.6:5. In popular versions translators have frequently used the word 'world' to render 'aion', thus deleting the time reference inherent in the original Greek term.
Now in determining the location of the demarcation between 'this aeon' and 'the coming aeon' Luke 20:34,35 provides a definite indication.
"the sons of this aeon marry and are given in marriage, but they that are counted worthy to attain to that aeon and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry or are given in marriage.'
The whole passage - verses 27 to 36, is concerned with the future resurrection. This climacteric event was future then, when Paul wrote I Cor.15, and when the Apocalypse was written. The stern warning in II Tim.2:18 against 'men who concerning the truth have erred saying that (the) resurrection is past already', shows that even in those early Christian days there were individuals who imposed their own ideas about the timing of this important event, upon the apostle's teaching and 'overthrew the faith of some'.
The unique importance of the future resurrection and its associated events and developments as the episode which will mark the division between 'this age' and 'the coming age' will become increasingly evident as we record the characteristics of each of these early periods.
Regarding 'this aeon' we note the following points:-
A. Once it is seen that the N.T. writers regard the end of 'this aeon' as future still and marked by the resurrection and Christ's second advent, there is no major clash between their timing and that of the Rabbis. Unless the student of the Bible is prepared to allegorize and spiritualize the bulk of the predictive prophecies, he must soon realize that the greater part of these refer to a still future presence and work of the Messiah King. With this view the Rabbinic writers agree but do not identify the Coming One with Jesus.
B. The characteristics
of 'this aeon' are clearly stated in various N.T. passages.
From this analysis it appears obvious that in the N.T. there exists a very definite contrast between 'this present evil age' and the glories of 'the age to come', a contrast also prominent in Rabbinic thought, and in more nebulous form in parts of the O.T.
It may be noted here that whatever may be held regarding the duration of the coming aeon or aeons (Eph.2:7) the N.T. view of the present age is that it will come to an end. The phrase 'end of the aeon/ will now be considered.
The Authorized Version, 1611, by invariably mis-translating this phrase is 'end of the world', has produced a great deal of confusion respecting predictive prophecy regarding the future. To a lesser but still significant degree the R.V. (1881) and the A.S.R.V. (1901) have followed the same pattern. Three Greek words have thus become confused in English versions - 'aion' a time period, 'kosmos' the world of humanity (John 3:16, Rom.3:6, Rev.11:15 and 166 other N.T. cases) and 'ge' the physical earth. (II Pet.3:5-15). If for 'end of an age or this age', we read 'end of the world' we are apt to think of some catastrophic destruction of 'the earth' at doomsday. The N.T. inspired writers were not guilty of such loose, imprecise use of language, nor should we be.
Obviously if 'the world' should come to an end either (a) no further terrestrial life and development could go on (that is if we mean 'end of the earth') or (b) the human race will have concluded its career (if we mean 'humanity'). The scriptures repeatedly refer to the end (in some cases 'consummation') of 'an age', 'the age' or 'this age' but not to the end of the world.
In the Authorized (1611) and R.V. (1881) Matt.24:3 is translated, 'What shall be the sign of thy coming (Gr. parousia presence) and the end of the world?' and Eph. 3:21, 'To whom be glory world without end'. The contradiction in the English versions does not exist in the originals where 'aion' and its plural occur and if we render the texts accurately using 'aeon' and 'aeons' or 'age' and 'ages' no problem arises in English.
Further it should be noted that the phrase 'end of the aeon' occurs in Matthew only, and may possibly have been du to Rabbinic influence, but the use of the plural or an expression that demands plurality ('this aeon' and 'the coming aeon') in more than two third of the occurrences of 'aion' prove that several aeons were envisaged. Since one 'aeon' must follow another we cannot accept 'eternity' as a meaning for this Greek word.
Now by far the greater number of cases of the use of the singular 'aion' are in phrases of which the commonest is 'into, unto or for the aeon' (eis ton aiona). The first example is in Matt.21:19 with regard to the barren fig tree, 'May no fruit grow on thee 'eis ton aiona.'
Here the meaning may be simply 'not at all' or 'not any more'. but as our Lord's miracles were signs (John 20:30) and hence to be interpreted symbolically, the barren fig may well be representative of Israel to whom the Messiah came (John 1:11) and was rejected. The nation was then, and has ever since been barren, withered, insensitive. (Isa.6:9, Matt. 13:13-15, John 12:37-41, Acts 28:26 and 27, cf. Luke 13:6-8.) But restoration is promised when 'the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (filled ful, Luke 21:24) when 'the complement of the Gentiles' be come in (Rom.11:25 and 26) and thus, by 'the Deliverer coming forth out of Zion to turn away ungodliness from Jacob, all Israel shall be saved'.
Unless there be some symbolic meaning, the cursing of the fig must be regarded as a rather meaningless and frivolous exhibition of power. If the figurative symbolism is accepted 'unto or for the age' becomes literally pertinent, and the 'curse' or rejection of Israel will be reversed and 'the new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Jacob' will become operative at the end of the period of insensitivity as predicted by Jer.31:31, Rom. 11:27 and Heb.8:8-12.
This symbolic interpretation is consistent with Eastern thought patterns and the rest of biblical predictions and promises for Israel, and is commenced here with consequent acceptance of 'for the age' rather than 'for ever'. "Eternity' is out of the question. 'Let no fruit grow on thee for duration without beginning or ending' has only to be stated to show its inapplicability. Mark 11:14 recounts the same incident.
Luke 1:55 is important. The concluding verse of the Magnificat speaks of Yahweh's care for Israel, 'He hath supported Israel his servant (or child) to be mindful of mercies, according as he spake unto our fathers to Abraham and his seed 'to or during an age'. The A.V. and R.V. have 'for ever' but that is obviously incorrect especially as this question from the O.T. in Micah 7:20 reads 'Thou wilt give the truth to Jacob, the mercy to Abraham which thou hast sworn unto our fathers from days of old'.
From this it would appear that the Hebrew phrase in Micah, 'from days of old', would form an excellent paraphrase for the concluding phrases in Luke 1:55.
In John's gospel there are seven cases where 'always' and 'never' may serve to render the phrase 'unto or for the aeon', provided these terms are not taken to imply eternity.
John 4:14 reads, 'Whosoever will drink of the water that I shall give him in no wise shall thirst unto or for the age, but the water...will become in him a fountain springing up unto life aeonian'. The Samaritan woman's error of taking 'water' literally should not be ours; but read in the light John 7:39, we may understand the 'water that I shall give him' to mean the gift of the Spirit which at the time had not yet been given. An understanding of the doctrine of the Spirit in John leads to an appreciation of the appropriateness of 'unto or for the age' in John 4:14. The gift of God's Spirit was contingent upon the departure of Jesus and his later return. In the interim period of his absence the Spirit's consoling presence will abide with his followers, but in the promised reunion presence of their Lord, no such consoling representative activity of the Spirit could be needed. Hence if taken literally 'unto or for the age' seems fitting, but to force 'eternity' or even 'for ever' or 'everlasting' into these passages would make it appear that the Comforter will be needed 'for ever' even in the presence of Christ himself. (John 14:3). The Spirit's abiding in the believer's person, 'the inner fountain of life', belongs to the period between the ascension and the parousia (presence) of our Lord, that is, within this present evil age'.
In John 1:31 the Spirit is said to be given to Jesus; in 20:22 to the ten apostles, Thomas being absent; and in Acts 1:8 and 2:1-8, to the Jerusalem assembly. The seeming contrast between John 20:22 and Acts 1:8 and 2:4 may be resolved by the phrase 'with power' in Acts 1:8, there being no evidence of the power of the Spirit's presence prior to Pentecost.
In Matthew's gospel, which contains no promise of the Spirit's indwelling of the believers, Jesus is stated to have pledge his own presence till the consummation of the aeon. (Matt.28:20). As this presence is spiritual, not carnal, no difficulty arise in linking this promise with those in John's account.
The sic passages in John (John 6:51.58; 8:51,52; 10:28; 11:26) which treat of 'eating my flesh and drinking my blood', 'keeping my words', 'believing' and the like , and consequently 'not tasting death', or 'living, unto or for the aeon', need only be read in the light of their context (John 6:39,40,44 and 54) 'I will raise him up at the last day', for the thought to appear that the promise of living and not dying applies to resurrection life in the coming aeon. Those 'given me by the Father' (6:39) 'believers' (6:40) 'drawn by the Father' (6:44) 'who feed on me' (6:54) and have died along with other mortals, and are dependent upon being raised at the last day of this age to 'aeonian life'. (Luke 18:36) This is in complete harmony with the words of our Lord to Martha about resurrection life 'at the last day'.
'He who believeth on me though he die, shall live, and all the living and believing shall not in any wise die unto (or for) the aeon'. (John 11:26).
There are of course two classes of believers mentioned here,
(a) those who will have died previously to the resurrection which as we have already noted Jesus said will mark the inauguration of 'the coming age' (Luke 25:34,35); and (b) believers then living will not die. It should be particularly noticed that the context of both John 11:26 and Luke 20:34,35 is that of future resurrection. It must be evident that Martha's 'last day' is the end of this age' of Matt.13:39,40 and 49; 24:3 and 28:20, when resurrection of believers will usher in "that aeon' as Jesus is recorded as saying in Luke 20:34,35.
Further this exegesis corresponds with Paul's declaration in I Thess.4:15-17.
"The Lord himself with a word of command, with a chief messenger's voice and with God's trumpet shall descend from heaven and the dead in Christ shall be raised first; thereupon we the living who are left over shall at the same time, together with them be caught away in cloud's (anarthrous, not in the clouds') to meet the Lord in the air, and thus evermore with the Lord we shall be'.
Thus the two classes of believers are by Paul, explicitly distinguished and related as by our Lord in John 11:26; and both passages are in full accord with references to the conclusion of this age in Matthew, (13:39,40,49; 24:3; and 28:20) to be followed by aeonian life for believers in the age to follow. (Mark 10:30, Luke 18:30; 20:35, John 4:14; 11:26).
In John 12:34 is recorded the statement of the crowd. 'We have heard out of the law that the Christ abideth 'unto or for the aeon'. As no specific O.T. reference is mentioned, it is presented that one or more of the promises respecting David's seed was in view, perhaps Psa.89:4 and subsequent verses. Here the Septuagint uses 'aion' to translate 'olam;' and the promise, 'thy throne I will build up generation after generation', suggests a terrestrial dynasty, with the probability that infinite future time was not in mind. Probably 'continuously;, 'permanently' or 'indefinitely' would express the idea.
On the other hand, if the clause, 'We have heard out of the law,' referred to Rabbinic doctrine respecting the age to come, then the phrase 'into, unto, or for the aeon' may be read literally.
In Paul's use of the same expression in I Cor .8:13, 'In no wise will I eat flesh eis ton aiona', the meaning appears simply to be 'not for the rest of my life' or 'not any more'. Similarly in II Cor.9:9, in the quotation from Psa.112:9 regarding 'the man who revereth Yahweh and generously helps the poor, whose righteousness standeth unto the aeon', we may probably use 'all his life', 'permanently', or 'lastingly'.
From this study of the use of the singular 'aion', in various syntactical relationships, the following conclusions may be drawn.
(a) With the prepositions 'from' and 'out of', 'aion' has the significance of 'past time' or 'a bygone age or period'.
(b) The present age is clearly distinguished from a future age.
(c) In some case the concept expressed by 'permanently', 'indefinitely' or 'lastingly' with the negatives 'not any more', 'not at all', or 'never' seems appropriate.
(d) The singular is never applied to the Deity.
There is therefore no reason to suggest that it ever includes the idea of eternity either as infinite time or timelessness.