By Charles H. Welch
The word ‘age’ is the translation of the Greek word aion,
and occurs also in the plural, and in the progressive form ‘the ages of
the ages’. In the A.V. the word aion
is given the following renderings: age 2, beginning of the world 2, course
1, world 32, eternal 2, world began 1.
The Hebrew equivalent of aion
is olam. This Hebrew word comes
from a root meaning something hidden or secret (as in Psa. 19:12, ‘secret
faults’) and indicates a period of undefined limits. Aion,
the Greek word is used by the translators of the Septuagint to render
the Hebrew word olam into Greek.
Here we have ‘for ever’, ‘old time’, ‘world’, and ‘long’ as translations
of the one word olam. Such a variety
of renderings gives no connected thought, and consequently the evident
relation of these passages is missed. Supposing we take the original word
in each passage and translate it by the word ‘age’, we at once realize
that seven such references may contain much helpful teaching. Their order
and connection likewise are made apparent, and their claim upon our attention
Olam in Ecclesiastes
A 1:4. The earth abideth to the age - The passing generation.
A 12:5. Man goeth to his age-home
- The passing generation.
Leaving these passages until we are more prepared to consider their
teaching in detail, we pass on to another cluster of seven, this time
in the New Testament, namely, in the epistle to Ephesians. There the word
aion is translated as inconsistently as we found its parallel olam had
been in Ecclesiastes.
Here we have a strange assortment. This world,
which had a beginning, but which
has no end, the course
of this world, and the eternal
purpose. Translate the word aion
consistently, and order, light and instruction take the place of human
tradition and confusion.
Aion in Ephesians
A 1:21. Rulers of this and the coming age. - Subject to Christ in resurrection.
A 6:12. Rulers of the darkness
of this age. - Withstood by believers in resurrection power.
All lovers of the Word must see how great is the loss which we have sustained through the traditional translation. ‘The eternal purpose’ sounds very grand, it gives a certain feeling of reality and indefectibility to the purpose of God, yet it is a double violation. The noun aion is translated as though it were the adjective aionion, which is a serious liberty to take with inspired Scripture apart from the mistake of putting eternity where an age should have been. What we have to learn is that the Bible does not speak of eternity. It was not written to tell us of eternity. Such a consideration is entirely outside the scope of revelation. Many, many undreamed wonders will doubtless be unfolded when the ages are no more. What they will be and what they will involve is idle and profitless speculation. The Word of God as it has been given is a complete system of teaching for us; it does not treat fully of the creation around us, much less of the time before or after the Creation.
While we acknowledge that there is much which our curiosity would tempt us to ask, we do most heartily bow before the divine boundaries of our studies, realizing that by the repeated emphasis upon the teaching of the ages, and the absence of teaching concerning eternity, the Lord is still showing us (as is expressed in Ecclesiastes) that the time has not yet arrived when we may ‘find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end’. Accepting the fact of the ages, and of the age-times, we shall have to inquire from the Scriptures an answer to the question ‘when did they commence?’
As an added contribution to the subject, we place before the reader, some of the most important expressions that are found in the New Testament dealing with the time factor of the ages. Such expressions as ‘the end of the world’; ‘since the world began’; ‘this world’; ‘the world to come’ are known to all. We now propose to submit them to a more careful scrutiny, so that the Scriptural association of time with the ages shall be better seen. The reader will already know that aion is often translated ‘world’ in the A.V. and while it is a good rendering, meaning etymologically ‘the age of man’ (vir man, eld age), it simplifies the inquiry, if we agree to translate kosmos by ‘world’ and aion by ‘age’, thereby preserving the distinction that must be maintained between words dealing with place and words dealing with time.
‘The end of the world’. There are more words than one that can be translated ‘end’, the word used in this phrase is sunteleia. In Matthew 13:39,40,49; 24:3 and 28:20, aion is in the singular, but in the one remaining occurrence, namely in Hebrews 9:26, aion is used in the plural. What the significance of this change may be we do not pause at the moment to consider, but just make a note of the fact that nowhere else except in Matthew or Hebrews do we meet the expression sunteleia tou aionos. If there is a period that can be called ‘the end of the world’, there is also a period which speaks of a time ‘since the world began’ or ‘from the beginning of the world’. We should remember when reading this expression that the word arche ‘beginning’ does not occur in this phrase, all that is found in the original being the two words ap’ aionos ‘from (an) age’, when used in Luke 1:70, Acts 3:21 and 15:18; and apo ton aionon the plural with the article, in Ephesians 3:9 and Colossians 1:26. We observe that in the last reference the ages are coupled with generations, a term which we must consider separately.
‘The world to come’, translates two forms, one in which aion is spoken of as erchomeno ‘coming’, Luke 18:30; and aion spoken of as mello ‘about to be’, Matthew 12:32, Ephesians 1:21 and Hebrews 6:5. ‘This world’ and ‘that world’ are contrasted, the former expression using toutou with aion, the latter using ekeinos. ‘That world’ occurs but once, namely in Luke 20:35, but ‘this world’ occurs some fourteen times, and these will be given in fuller detail when the occurrences are being examined in detail. Variations of this expression are found in Galatians 1:4 which adds the words ‘present’ and ‘evil’, and 1 Timothy 6:17, 2 Timothy 4:10, and Titus 2:12 where the word ‘now’ nun, is added.
One passage contains the phrase ‘before the ages’ (plural) pro ton aionon, 1 Corinthians 2:7, the other passages which speak of ‘before the world’ contain the word kosmos not aion. The word ‘generation’ is used in association with the ages. Genea has three meanings in the New Testament. It means the simple succession from father to son (Matt. 1:17); it means a company of men living at the same time and sharing similar characteristics; and thirdly, it means a mark of time, the successive lives of offspring being taken to indicate so many stages in the world’s history.
Aion ‘age’ belongs to no one particular dispensation or line of teaching. Aion occurs in all but five of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. The epistles that contain no reference are 1 and 2 Thessalonians, James, Philemon and 3 John. Aionios the adjective, translated ‘eternal’ and ‘everlasting’, occurs in nineteen books of the New Testament, being omitted from 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, James and 2 and 3 John. The books therefore which contain both aion and aionios are the four Gospels, Acts, Galatians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, Jude and the Revelation. We must examine some of these occurrences in detail, and we shall have to consider the bearing of apo ‘from’ and ‘since’, pro ‘before’, and eis ‘unto’ or ‘for’, before we can even begin to come to any conclusion as to when the agetimes began.
What does the Scripture mean by ‘age times’? Is such a term a correct translation of the original? What light do parallel constructions throw upon the phrase? Where does the expression occur? What light do we get from the context? Are there parallel - though different - expressions that should be considered? Let us address ourselves to these and any related questions that may occur during the investigation.
The rendering ‘age-times’ is not found in either the A.V. or the R.V. In the A.V. the translation reads ‘before or since the world began’ and in the R.V. the rendering is ‘through’ or ‘before times eternal’. ‘Before the world began’ is at least understandable, but ‘before times eternal’ cannot be understood without a very drastic revision of the meaning ascribed to ‘eternal’. If eternal things have neither beginning nor end, then it is impossible to speak of a ‘period’ before times eternal - the translation is figurative, and does not contribute to our understanding or add to our knowledge. The occurrences of the expression are three in number and we give them first of all as they occur in the A.V.
The Greek words translated ‘since the world began’, are chronois aioniois in Romans 16:25, and ‘before the world began’, pro chronon aionion in 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2. We observe that the expression in either form is exclusive to Paul, and that such an exclusive character is emphasized in the context by such added terms as ‘my gospel’; ‘through the gospel where unto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles’; ‘through preaching which is committed unto me’.
Our first note therefore is that ‘before the world began’ or ‘since the world began’, however ultimately we are obliged to translate the original, belong exclusively to the ministry of Paul.
Secondly we note that there is a difference between the phrase found in Romans 16, and those found in 2 Timothy and Titus. The former speaks of a period ‘since’, the latter of a period ‘before’ the beginning of the world. We must be careful therefore to keep these two periods distinct, together with the revelations associated with them.
Ignoring for the time being the preposition pro ‘before’, or the dative case translated by the A.V ‘since’, let us examine the words chronon aionion. It is not a matter of debate, that aionos is an adjective, derived from aion the noun, or that chronos is a noun. If we read in Matthew 25:19 meta de chronon polun, we naturally translate ‘but after a long time’. If we find the order of the words reversed as in John 5:6 polun ... chronon, while the emphasis may be shifted, the translation must remain the same, polun still remains an adjective, chronon still remains a noun. The word chronos ‘time’ is not of frequent use in the epistles, occurring only twelve times in the fourteen written by Paul, and when we turn to Romans, 2 Timothy and Titus in the hope of observing the usage of chronon in those three epistles which use the phrase since, or before ‘the world began’ we find but one passage, namely Romans 7:1, ‘the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth’, literally ‘for a long time’, eph hoson chronon.
Aionios, the adjective is derived from aion, and must retain whatever essential meaning pertains to the noun. It is impossible that the noun should be translated ‘age’, which most certainly had a beginning, and will certainly have an end, and to translate the adjective ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal’. Keeping to Paul’s epistles we find aionion translated eternal, everlasting and for ever, except in the three passages before us, Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2, where we read ‘since, or before, the world began’. If chronos be translated ‘world’ then aionios must have been translated ‘began’, or if chronos has been translated ‘began’ because of its association with time, then aionios has been translated ‘world’. In any case the translation is exceedingly wide.
The Revisers were evidently unsatisfied with this rendering for in the three passages they substitute, ‘times eternal’, which though it adheres more to the actual words so translated, is still too poetic to be of use, for ‘times’ belong to one category and ‘eternal’ to another. We can speak of ‘a living death’ but only in a figure, we can speak of ‘times eternal’ but only in a figure; for the purpose of discovering at what point in the outworking of the purpose of the ages, these ‘times eternal’ commence, such a translation is valueless. There is nothing for it, but to adopt either the foreign sounding phrase ‘ -onian times’, or the cumbersome expression ‘age-times’. This latter has the advantage of presenting to the eye the fact that we are still within the bounds of the ages, and not dealing with either ‘the world’ as in the A.V. or ‘eternity’ as in the R.V.
We must now return to those passages that are under review, to observe any particular features that will help us in our attempt to place them in the outworking of the Divine purpose. First, we will give Weymouth’s rendering of Romans 16:25-27, with our own emphasis of each occurrence of aion and aionios.
The words chronois aioniois, in Romans 16:25 are in the dative case. This case is used to denote ‘a space of time’, ‘for’, as in Acts 13:20 and John 2:20. (The A.V. use of the word ‘since’ is without precedent; this demands the preposition apo, or its equivalent). In the space of time known as the age-times, a truth had been ‘kept secret’. As the word musterion and its derivations express the idea of something ‘secret’ and as the word translated ‘kept secret’ in the original of Romans 16:25 is sigao ‘to keep silence’ (see 1 Cor. 14:28,34), the translation of the A.V. is misleading. The word does not indicate that the truth in view was never made known at all, or at any time, but that in the space of time known as the age-times, it was ‘hushed’, that period ending with the revelation found in the epistle to the Romans, and referring, not to ‘The Mystery’ of Ephesians, but to the inner portion of Romans, namely Romans 5:12 to 8:39, where instead of the law of Moses, and personal transgressions, being the dominant theme, Moses retires into the background, and Sinai is exchanged for ‘the law of sin and death’, Adam takes the place of Moses, and the ruin of the creature is stressed rather than personal transgressions, ‘sin’ rather than ‘sins’. Since the call of Abraham, and during the period of Israel’s discipline this inner teaching of Romans remained unemphasized, but with the commission of the apostle, the hour struck for its proclamation. A comparison of Romans 1:1-7 with Romans 16:25-27 will reveal some things in common, and some that differ.
The structure of the epistle to the Romans is exceedingly complex, as
we can well believe of so mighty an epistle. Simplified to the extreme
it appears somewhat like this:
The conclusion to which an examination of the word aion leads, is that eternity is never in view, but that the word is employed to cover the period of time since Genesis 1:2 and reaching up to the day when God will be all in all, when the Ages will have reached both their goal and their end.
The reader would find considerable help, if the notes on ‘age’ given in the appendix of Rotherham’s Emphasized New Testament were consulted; Weymouth’s Translation of the New Testament in Modern Speech, and Appendix 129 and 151 of The Companion Bible. For further notes, see the article entitled TIME .