“Forever” or “To the age”? New Testament

Have you ever been puzzled by a passage that uses the word “forever”?  Well, what if “forever” is not the most accurate translation?  The following passages I have listed here as a reference because there is something quite significant about them.  The words translated for us as “forever” may actually some some significance that we would never see if we did not go looking into the Greek.  As you shall see, the phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα literally means “to the age”.  This αἰῶνα is the word from which we get “age” (αἰών, or aiōn, which should remind you of our English word “eon”). This should bring to mind the various discussions about the change of the ages that was imminent in the New Testament writings, such as where Jesus says:

Matthew 12:32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

And where Paul says:

1 Corinthians 10:11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.

They were in a time of transition from one age to the next.  And that discussion centered around use of the word αἰώνSo our big question is this:  Is this just a meaningless coincidence that the term we read translated as “forever” and “never” stems from αἰών ?  Or should we consider the possibility that what was meant by εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (to the age) had in view the end of that age, as opposed to an unending eternity?  Our answer to this question is certainly not without its consequences, for changing “forever” to “to the end of this age” will force us to reconsider just what was meant by certain sayings.

This is the question I am now studying.  For now, I list the following passages for the record, without commentary.  The following represent every instance of εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα in the New Testament.  Before I get to that, however, let me give one interesting note.

The word “forever” often appears in our translations where εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (to the age) appears in the Greek.  Sometimes our translations say “forever and ever”, and that appears thus in the Greek:  εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων, which is literally rendered, to the ages of the ages.  This saying, which is how it reads in 1 Peter 5:11, and others like it, probably do have eternity in view, which gives us all the more reason to wonder whether the simpler form, εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (to the age), may be intended to speak only of the time remaining in any given age.

Matthew 21:19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. Lit: No longer to the age be any fruit from you.
Matthew 21:19 καὶ ἰδὼν συκῆν μίαν ἐπὶ τῆς ὁδοῦ ἦλθεν ἐπ’ αὐτήν καὶ οὐδὲν εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ εἰ μὴ φύλλα μόνον καὶ λέγει αὐτῇ μηκέτι ἐκ σοῦ καρπὸς γένηται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα καὶ ἐξηράνθη παραχρῆμα ἡ συκῆ

Mark 3:29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” Lit: not to the age has forgiveness
Mark 3:29 ὃς δ’ ἂν βλασφημήσῃ εἰς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον οὐκ ἔχει ἄφεσιν εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἀλλὰ ἔνοχός ἐστιν αἰωνίου ἁμαρτήματος

Mark 11:14And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. Lit: may no one to the age eat fruit from you again
Mark 11:14 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτῇ μηκέτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἐκ σοῦ μηδεὶς καρπὸν φάγοι καὶ ἤκουον οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ

Luke 1:55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Lit: to Abraham and his descendants to the age.
Luke 1:55 καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν τῷ Ἀβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

John 4:14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Lit: shall not thirst to the age
John 4:14 ὃς δ’ ἂν πίῃ ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος οὗ ἐγὼ δώσω αὐτῷ οὐ μὴ διψήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἀλλὰ τὸ ὕδωρ ὃ δώσω αὐτῷ γενήσεται ἐν αὐτῷ πηγὴ ὕδατος ἁλλομένου εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον

John 6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Lit: he will live to the age
John 6:51 ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος ὁ ζῶν ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς ἐάν τις φάγῃ ἐκ τούτου τοῦ ἄρτου ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα καὶ ὁ ἄρτος δὲ ὃν ἐγὼ δώσω ἡ σάρξ μού ἐστιν ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ κόσμου ζωῆς

John 6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Lit: will live to the age
John 6:58 οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἄρτος ὁ ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς οὐ καθὼς ἔφαγον οἱ πατέρες καὶ ἀπέθανον ὁ τρώγων τοῦτον τὸν ἄρτον ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

John 8:35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. Lit: 1) does not remain…to the age. 2) remains to the age
John 8:35 ὁ δὲ δοῦλος οὐ μένει ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ὁ υἱὸς μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

John 8:51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Lit: will not to the age see death. NOTE:  Caution should be taken here not to over-read this.  That is, this should not be taken as a promise that those in view WOULD die at the end of the age, but rather that they were protected throughout the remainder of the age.
John 8:51 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ἐάν τις τὸν ἐμὸν λόγον τηρήσῃ θάνατον οὐ μὴ θεωρήσῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

John 8:52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Lit: he will not to the age taste of death.
John 8:52 εἶπον οὖν αὐτῷ οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι νῦν ἐγνώκαμεν ὅτι δαιμόνιον ἔχεις Ἀβραὰμ ἀπέθανεν καὶ οἱ προφῆται καὶ σὺ λέγεις ἐάν τις τὸν λόγον μου τηρήσῃ οὐ μὴ γεύσηται θανάτου εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

John 10:28 I give them eternal (αἰώνιος) life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. Lit: they will not to the age perish.  NOTE:  Caution should be taken here not to over-read this.  That is, this should not be taken as a promise that those in view WOULD perish at the end of the age, but rather that they were protected throughout the remainder of the age.
John 10:28 κἀγὼ δίδωμι αὐτοῖς ζωὴν αἰώνιον καὶ οὐ μὴ ἀπόλωνται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα καὶ οὐχ ἁρπάσει τις αὐτὰ ἐκ τῆς χειρός μου

John 11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Lit: shall not to the age die. NOTE:  Caution should be taken here not to over-read this.  That is, this should not be taken as a promise that those in view WOULD die at the end of the age, but rather that they were protected throughout the remainder of the age.
John 11:26 καὶ πᾶς ὁ ζῶν καὶ πιστεύων εἰς ἐμὲ οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα πιστεύεις τοῦτο

John 12:34 So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Lit: remains to the age.
John 12:34 ἀπεκρίθη οὖν αὐτῷ ὁ ὄχλος ἡμεῖς ἠκούσαμεν ἐκ τοῦ νόμου ὅτι ὁ Χριστὸς μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα καὶ πῶς λέγεις σὺ ὅτι δεῖ ὑψωθῆναι τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου τίς ἐστιν οὗτος ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου

John 13:8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Lit: not to the age shall you wash…
John 13:8 λέγει αὐτῷ Πέτρος οὐ μὴ νίψῃς μου τοὺς πόδας εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς αὐτῷ ἐὰν μὴ νίψω σε οὐκ ἔχεις μέρος μετ’ ἐμοῦ

John 14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, Lit: be with you to the age
John 14:16 κἀγὼ ἐρωτήσω τὸν πατέρα καὶ ἄλλον παράκλητον δώσει ὑμῖν ἵνα μεθ’ ὑμῶν εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

1 Corinthians 8:13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. Lit: not eat meat to the age
1 Corinthians 8:13 διόπερ εἰ βρῶμα σκανδαλίζει τὸν ἀδελφόν μου οὐ μὴ φάγω κρέα εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἵνα μὴ τὸν ἀδελφόν μου σκανδαλίσω

2 Corinthians 9:9 As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” Lit: endures to the age.  NOTE:  This should not be taken as a statement that Jesus would only remain righteous until the end of the age.  Rather, the point is that that which Jesus had “distributed freely” upon the Earth was going to remain until the end of the age.
2 Corinthians 9:9 καθὼς γέγραπται ἐσκόρπισεν ἔδωκεν τοῖς πένησιν ἡ δικαιοσύνη αὐτοῦ μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

Hebrews 1:8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. Lit: to the age of the age
Hebrews 1:8 πρὸς δὲ τὸν υἱόν ὁ θρόνος σου ὁ θεός εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ ἡ ῥάβδος τῆς εὐθύτητος ῥάβδος τῆς βασιλείας σου

Hebrews 5:6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” Lit: you are a priest to the age.
Hebrews 5:6 καθὼς καὶ ἐν ἑτέρῳ λέγει σὺ ἱερεὺς εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα κατὰ τὴν τάξιν Μελχισέδεκ

Hebrews 6:20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Lit: a high priest to the age.
Hebrews 6:20 ὅπου πρόδρομος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν εἰσῆλθεν Ἰησοῦς κατὰ τὴν τάξιν Μελχισέδεκ ἀρχιερεὺς γενόμενος εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

Hebrews 7:17 For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” Lit: a priest to the age.
Hebrews 7:17 μαρτυρεῖται γὰρ ὅτι σὺ ἱερεὺς εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα κατὰ τὴν τάξιν Μελχισέδεκ

Hebrews 7:21 but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.’” Lit: a priest to the age.
Hebrews 7:21 ὁ δὲ μετὰ ὁρκωμοσίας διὰ τοῦ λέγοντος πρὸς αὐτόν ὤμοσεν κύριος καὶ οὐ μεταμεληθήσεται σὺ ἱερεὺς εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

Hebrews 7:24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Lit: continues to the age
Hebrews 7:24 ὁ δὲ διὰ τὸ μένειν αὐτὸν εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἀπαράβατον ἔχει τὴν ἱερωσύνην

Hebrews 7:28 For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. Lit: made perfect (complete) to the age.
Hebrews 7:28 ὁ νόμος γὰρ ἀνθρώπους καθίστησιν ἀρχιερεῖς ἔχοντας ἀσθένειαν ὁ λόγος δὲ τῆς ὁρκωμοσίας τῆς μετὰ τὸν νόμον υἱὸν εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τετελειωμένον

1 Peter 1:24 for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.” Lit: remains to the age.
1 Peter 1:25 τὸ δὲ ῥῆμα κυρίου μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦτο δέ ἐστιν τὸ ῥῆμα τὸ εὐαγγελισθὲν εἰς ὑμᾶς

1 John 2:17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. Lit: lives to the age.
1 John 2:17 καὶ ὁ κόσμος παράγεται καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία αὐτοῦ ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

2 John 1:1 The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, 2 because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever: Lit: with us to the age.
2 John 1:2 διὰ τὴν ἀλήθειαν τὴν μένουσαν ἐν ἡμῖν καὶ μεθ’ ἡμῶν ἔσται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

 

If you have pondered this as you have read these passages, you can see that taking a literal translation would definitely have its consequences in how we interpret things.  For example, Jesus would not still be serving as high priest, but would have completed that role at the end of the age.  That one might not be so hard to swallow;  after all, we know that he “hands over the kingdom to the Father” at the end of the story.  (1 Corinthians 15:24)  Another consequence that’s perhaps more intriguing are these promises that those who would believe would live to the end of the age.  We can immediately find exceptions in the martyrs from 30 to 70, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that they are not what Jesus had in mind.  It causes me to wonder whether the gifts of healing were intended to keep lots of Christians alive during those 40 years, to see his return.  And it also brings to mind that many among the Corinthians were “weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” because of their sin.  These were those who did not meet the condition of continual belief, and who would, therefore, no longer be qualified to live to the end of the age.

My own personal jury is still out on this overall question of interpretation, but I must say that it’s intriguing enough to be worth listing the possibility for the record.

NOTE:  This same exact phrase  (εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα) occurs over 200 times in the Old Testament, where it is just as intriguing.  For example:

Genesis 3:22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” Lit: live to the age
Genesis 3:22 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός ἰδοὺ Αδαμ γέγονεν ὡς εἷς ἐξ ἡμῶν τοῦ γινώσκειν καλὸν καὶ πονηρόν καὶ νῦν μήποτε ἐκτείνῃ τὴν χεῖρα καὶ λάβῃ τοῦ ξύλου τῆς ζωῆς καὶ φάγῃ καὶ ζήσεται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

And:

Genesis 6:3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” Lit: live in man to the age
Genesis 6:3 καὶ εἶπεν κύριος ὁ θεός οὐ μὴ καταμείνῃ τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις τούτοις εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα διὰ τὸ εἶναι αὐτοὺς σάρκας ἔσονται δὲ αἱ ἡμέραι αὐτῶν ἑκατὸν εἴκοσι ἔτη 

I’m working on listing all these passages in the same fashion as the ones above.

 

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