People today often feel that Christian faith is a negative approach to life; we have a ‘glass-half-full’ approach to life in which we are constantly saying, ‘The world’s going from bad to worse and only the end of the world will change things.’ That is the common attitude towards those of us who are willing to call ourselves Christians.
After all, we hear regularly from educational and scientific leaders that we live today in a vastly different world than all the generations who went before us, and, in many ways, they’re right.
- We are in the midst of technological advancement unparalleled in human history. The invention of the computer – really of the microchip which makes the computer possible allows us to do things never imagined before. The phone in your pocket today has more computing power than the computer we sent to the moon in 1968.
- We are in the midst of medical advancement unparalleled in human history. The impact of the MRI along with robotic procedures is ahead of anything imagined a generation ago. Diseases like leukemia, which fifty years ago was a death-sentence are now routinely dealt with and put into remission. And the possibilities are endless.
- And we are experiencing social advancement that has only been talked about for generations. The status of women is rapidly changing. The structures of society, which have been static for many generations are now undergoing tremendous changes including the definition of marriage and family.
And, in all of this, Christianity is looked upon as a force that is holding back the progress that we are making in so many different realms. Why do you always see evil in the world? we are asked.
Well, it’s in part because of what we read in this passage:
‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age…’
There you have it. Our detractors are right. Our book calls this world in which we live ‘the present evil age.’
Let’s think about this for a few minutes. Why is it that Christian faith has a decidedly negative cast to it? The Bible at points focuses on the greatness of the creation and the wonderful way in which God has gifted the human race, but with the coming of Jesus, there is this unmistakable emphasis on evil in the world. It is an emphasis that is clear, forthright, and unambiguous.
Why this emphasis on ‘the present evil age?’ Does this mean that our approach is negative? Does it put Christians in the category of those who are only focusing on evil and sin and not doing anything to remedy the situation?
Before we answer that, let’s consider these words in verse four, ‘the present evil age,’ and what they mean. Why does it strike us as being a negative statement?
First, we have to put it in the context of the Bible’s overall message.
It is sort of a commonplace of human life that the young are optimists and as they age they become less optimistic about life. I remember well my grandparents when I was a child in the 1960’s talking about how the world was going to hell in a handbasket and morals, government, business everything was worse than when they were young. Now I’m the grandfather and sometimes I catch myself sort of complaining in the same way.
While that may be the way of the world, it’s not what this verse is talking about. ‘The present evil age’ does not mean ‘this present evil generation.’ It doesn’t mean that 2017 is bad and 1975 was better.
One of the ways to understand the overall message of the Bible is to see that the Bible is divided into three parts: Creation–Fall–Redemption. Now they’re not three equal parts: Creation is covered in two chapters (Genesis one and two); fall in one chapter (Genesis three); and redemption in the rest of the Bible. Nevertheless, the message divides itself that way.
Central to understanding this phrase – ‘the present evil age’ – is the fact that it describes the whole period from the fall in Genesis chapter three to final redemption and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth in Revelation chapter twenty-one. Yes, during that period and in different parts of the world some times will be worse than others. But overall, this world is characterized as ‘the present evil age.’
Another way to understand the Bible is to see it in terms of ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come.’ That begins in the prophets and is expanded in the New Testament. This age – ‘the present evil age’ – will end at some point and will lead to ‘the age to come’ which will be the final point, the completion of redemption, the new heavens and new earth.
So ‘the present evil age’ is God’s title for life after the fall and before redemption. The amount of evil and goodness present in the world waxes and wanes from generation to generation but, overall, human life is not as it was meant to be.
Another thing we should note is that the Bible needs to inform us that this world is not all there is because we will have a natural tendency to figure this world is pretty okay. After all, we exist in material bodies and we find ourselves in a material world which is suited to our existence. If there are accidents, sickness, and social problems in this world we figure they can be solved given enough time and growth – after all, there is no other world that we are aware of simply by observing life!
Yet, the Bible informs us over and over that this world is not all there is. There is a spiritual, unseen, unverifiable aspect of our existence that we can only know if it is revealed to us from outside. Jesus claims to be one who came from that other realm to reveal God to us; the Bible is the written revelation of him and what he seeks to impart to us.
And, added to that, there is the fact that something in the human heart knows that we were built for a different world that this – a material world, of course, but one that is not riddled with sickness, death, broken relationships, abuse, and neglect. We long for it, but left to ourselves, we make our way through the world hoping for the best.
In addition, there is the fact that as we move through the world, many people try to make it a better place. So, we figure that if only there were more education, better parenting, more wise leadership, the world would be able to emerge out of its darkness and move forward to be better and better.
But the Bible says,
‘We know that we are from God and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 John 5.19).
There you have it again! This negative perspective! This assertion that the problem is not a lack of education, social programs, or medical advancement. The problem is inside the human heart – something bent, twisted out of its proper shape. When you put billions of human hearts together in a material world only words like, ‘the present evil age’ are going to adequately explain reality.
So, let’s put the two side by side:
- On one hand, you have our present generation’s view of an incomplete world undergoing continual progress. Yes, the world has been characterized by a primitive past — superstition instead of medical progress; wars instead of mutual conversation and understanding. But look at all of the changes; look at the opportunities.
- On the other hand, Christian faith. Yes, there is progress. Every generation moves the ball forward, so it seems. But all of human history is only one step forward and one step back. The automobile allows for rapid transportation… and brings incredible pollution with all of the difficulties that brings; the splitting of the atom allows for cheap and abundant energy but also creates problems of waste, not to speak of the unspeakable terror of nuclear warfare.
All progress, from the Bible’s perspective is like re-arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Changes make life easier for some people, some times; but they don’t deal with the broken heart.
So, the Bible without any reservation and with complete assurance reminds us that the problem with the world cannot be overcome by any external changes to human life.
However, there is a solution. The Bible is not a book that simply has a negative message – ‘life is bad and getting worse.’ It is an alternate solution.
The general solution is for humans and for human society to continue to evolve. Technology, medicine, science, social programs – these are all ways for humans to move forward with the inevitable progress that will lead to a better world. We need only to see the opportunity and grab for it. This world, this age is not evil; it is just incomplete, unfinished.
On the other hand, we have in this passage the solution offered by God:
‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father…’
The Bible has a problemsolution approach: The problem is ‘the present evil age.’ The world is not in an unfinished state; it is in a ruined state though it still retains the remnants of its original glory and we humans still retain the remnants of our magnificent giftedness by God. Yet the problem is one beyond human capacity to solve. Education, good intention, better parenting… all good things are never going to deal with the real problem, which is the human heart.
The focus on the passage is on the solution, not the problem.
First, ‘who gave himself.’ This is a phrase that came from the lips of Jesus himself and became the characteristic way of referring to Jesus among the early Christians. Jesus said,
‘For even the Son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45).
Rather than us doing something to remedy the problem, God himself did something on our behalf. As the old hymn writer said,
O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.
This is the gospel: Jesus came for us; he gave himself for us.
And, not simply for us, but ‘for our sins.’ This is the wonder of substitution: He took our place and died for all of us who believe taking on him our individual and unique sins and paying the penalty for them in our place.
- In a sense, every soldier who died on the fields of France in World War I, died for us for our freedom. If no one had been willing to fight, our state would not be what it is today.
- But, every soldier who died while we might say he died for us, didn’t die in our place as our substitute – none of us were going to die if he didn’t.
- The difference is that Christ became the substitute of his people – he died in our place for our sins. So that we might have the full assurance that, whatever our particular failings have been in life, God, completely aware of them, more aware of them than we are, blotted them out in the blood Christ,
‘Jesus Christ…gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.’
He came to deal with the real problem: ‘The present evil age.’
You say, ‘I thought he died so that I could go to heaven.’
Yes, but that’s not all. That is a consequence of his death, and important consequence; but that happens because of the real purpose of his death. If you think that’s all there is to it, you won’t even begin to experience what God is seeking to do, in fact, you might miss it completely.
Now, how does God do this? How is it that he is delivering us from the present evil age through the death of Jesus Christ?
The Bible sees it this way: When Jesus Christ came, he appeared from the presence of God the Father to this sinful earth, the present evil age. He came to reveal the values of heaven in a dark world.
When Jesus’s advance man, John the Baptist, came, he said, “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near. And when Jesus began to preach, he said, ‘The time is fulfilled.’ In his life and death, he set inaugurated the kingdom of God. That means, he set in motion the kingdom and its values. Now it won’t be fulfilled until he returns. But what Jesus did is he called people to be a part of his kingdom now – to live by its values and standards and behavior – while we wait for the consummation.
So, there are from the Bible’s perspective, two kingdoms in conflict in the present age. They are ‘the present evil age’ and ‘the people of God, the church.’ These represent two sets of values, ways of thinking, ways of relating and living. These two realms overlap to some degree – they are not diametrically opposed. But in significant ways, they differ.
In a sense, you can say that ‘the age to come’ began with the first coming of Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus belong already to the ‘age to come,’ even while we live in ‘the present evil age.’
What this means is that God’s work in our lives now is one of shaping us, forming us to reflect the values of life that will characterize the age to come, the kingdom of God, when Jesus reigns over this world.
To be delivered from ‘the present evil age’ is to have our lives shaped by God to display those new characteristics.
- ‘The present evil age’ involves a set of beliefs: It says we, humans, are the measure of all that exists, so the human mind and the human will reign supreme. The belief-system of the kingdom of God says that God orders life and submission to his will is what matters.
- ‘The present evil age’ tells us what to value: ‘This life is all there is so you had better go out and squeeze every ounce of pleasure and happiness out of life that you can.’ Kingdom values say this life is only a preparation for the life to come so you can sacrificially serve God now with freedom.
- ‘The present evil age’ says that this world is all there is so you should find a willing partner and capture every experience you can in life ‘cause when it’s over, it’s over. Kingdom behavior says God has designed life to function for his glory when he is honored. Trust him. Obey him.
Sometimes we’re not very clear on that, are we? But, it is what we sing about. It is what we pray for. It is what God calls us to do.
I’m afraid the people of God are too afraid of the world today. We feel so besieged and hounded by the world. We hear people saying that we’re so negative, so unloving, so otherworldly, and we feel harassed and helpless. So what we seem to do is set out to prove that we can be just as hip as the rest of the world. We can be like you in so many ways – music, dress, talk. See, we say, we’re not so different.
But, imagine a person who comes to a church because she feels there is something missing in life. Imagine a young, single mother. She’s working two jobs and trying to care for her two little children; their father left a couple of years ago and she doesn’t have any idea where he is. She looks back and sees that she made some mistakes. She grew up and he didn’t. Life is hard and its not getting any easier.
Imagine that this troubled woman decides to go to church. An invitation from a friend or a memory of childhood, perhaps, spurs her to do that. She knows she needs something. She shows up on a Sunday morning.
Now she assumes that our message to her is, “Become religious like us and God will accept you and help you in life.” She figures that maybe religion can so something for her.
Of course, that is not our message. Christians don’t sing, ‘I once was lost but now I’m religious.’ We know that, while we’ve learned things from the Bible, just knowing more of the Bible doesn’t do the job.
But I’m afraid that, in our zeal to let this young woman know that it’s not religion and it’s not Bible knowledge and it’s not really our classes or our pastor, we sometimes give this message, ‘We’re just like you, only forgiven of our sins. But we still struggle with the same things. Accept Jesus and be forgiven.’
But, if that’s the Christian message, then it seems to me the young woman is going to say, ‘If you’re just like me, only forgiven, that’s pretty miserable because I’m pretty miserable.’
Our message cannot be, ‘We’re just like you, only forgiven.’ If it is, then this passage doesn’t really mean what it says – ‘Jesus gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.’
But that is not really our message. Our message is, “Apart from divine grace, we are just like you. But God has worked in our lives to bring us to Jesus Christ — in him, we find acceptance and peace with God. And he teaches us to give that to each other; the deepest needs of our hearts are met. Now, we still struggle with things, but we know that God is with us and he is changing our hearts to respond differently to life’s challenges.
This thing that we’re about is all of life — if you are just what you were before you came to Christ, only forgiven, then you are not being delivered from the present evil age. That’s what Jesus came to do. That’s what the gospel is all about.