Nothing more effectually baffles the mind of man than the conception of eternity before the world began. Man can know nothing at all concerning it except what God has revealed. Scripture is comparatively silent about the eternal past. Even in the New Testament, where the clearest and fullest light of God's revelation shines, very few passages reach backward in their scope further than the foundation of the world and the beginning of the ages of time. But these few allusions are to be prized and studied as of choicest worth, seeing they unveil to us a little of God's secret purposes formed by Him before He launched the universe into being by His omnipotent word and furnished it by His omniscient wisdom.
The "foundation of the world" is frequently mentioned in scripture as the extreme border-line of the past "from" which human history is reckoned (Matt. 13:35; Matt. 25:34; Luke 11:50; Heb. 4:3; 9:26; Rev. 13:8; Rev. 17:8). For instance, the names found in the book of life were written "from the foundation of the world," as the two passages in the Revelation (N. Tr.) declare. The divine record of these elect persons began at that point.
But what lies beyond that border-line of creation's beginning, when God was all? What was "before the foundation of the world?" What took place when the Deity was Absolute, and unrelated to the non-existent universe? An answer can be found only in the disclosures God has been pleased to make in His word. And from His revelations we learn of His love, of His foreknowledge, His election, and His promise of eternal life; and we know, therefore, that these plannings of infinite love were formulated before the foundation of the world. The counsels of grace existed in the Godhead from eternity, but the fact of their existence then was revealed to man in time.
The phrase, "before the foundation of the world," occurs three times in the New Testament (John 17:24; Eph. 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20) , and the kindred phrase, "before the ages of time," twice (2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2, N. Tr.). Let us with unaffected humility of mind look at these five passages, remembering the sacred and profound nature of their communications, proceeding, as they do, from "the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity" (Isa. 57:15). Let our hearts be as the "weaned child" that the Lord alone may be exalted in our eyes as we receive His word.
The Father was loving the Son before the World's Foundation
In John 17:24, the Son presents to the Father His desires for those whom the Father had given Him, basing His request upon the love that existed between Them before the foundation of the world. He said, "Father, [as to] those whom Thou hast given Me, I desire that where I am they also may be with Me that they may behold My glory which Thou hast given Me, for Thou lovedst Me before [the] foundation of [the] world." The Son knows that His Father's eternal love would give Him His heart's desire, and would not withhold the request of His lips.
The Son's desire for His own is that they may contemplate His given mediatorial glory in company with Himself — in that sphere which is proper and peculiar to Himself. For we must note that the Son said, "where I am," not "where I shall be." Moses had his Pisgah from whence he viewed the earthly inheritance promised to the fathers. The disciples too were led up into the "high mountain apart" where in company with "Jesus only" they beheld a transient display of the coming glories of Messiah's kingdom. But the Lord here seeks a viewpoint more exalted for His own. He requests the Father that with Him ("where I am") they may view His conferred glory, in that day when all things in the heavens and on the earth shall be headed up in Him (Eph. 1:10).
But how divinely transcendent is the basis presented to the Father for this exceptional boon! The Son does not make request for His own, because "Thine they were; and Thou gavest them Me" (as in ver. 6); nor because Thou "hast loved them as Thou hast loved Me" (as in ver. 23); but because "Thou lovedst Me before the foundation of the world." The Son knew that there was no plea weightier in the Father's estimation than the love which was co-eternal with the Father and Himself. In the secret intimacies of the Deity, the Father loved the Son "before the foundation of the world," and therefore the Father can deny His Beloved nothing in His incarnation.
In this passage, then, a single phrase of the Son of the Father conducts us to the regions of the timeless past. As a "door was opened in heaven" for John to behold visions of judgments and glories to come (Rev. 4:1), so for us a door is opened in the eternal Home of love. Standing at the world's foundation, we by faith gaze from that threshold into that unapproachable dwelling-place of Light, and behold that then and there "God is love." Moreover, we hear, reverberating throughout the heights and depths of infinite inscrutability, these words of the Son, "Thou lovedst Me before the foundation of the world." "Thou" — the Father; "Me" — the Son! So that before the worlds were, the Father was there, and the Son was there — living and loving Persons in that eternal past.
This utterance to the Father, allowed by God's matchless grace to fall upon the creature's ear, is a marvellous unveiling of the seclusions of the remotest eternity. By it we are, if we may so speak, brought into the presence of the divine relations of the Father and the Son, in Absolute Deity. Truly these relations are "the depths of God," of which the apostle speaks, and adds that "the things of God knows no one except the Spirit of God" (1 Cor. 2:10, 11). But God's Spirit has revealed to us this eternal relationship of the Father and the Son through these words of the Son Himself.
Will it weary us to tarry a little in the light of these revealing words? They contain so much in such little compass. They surely unfold that in the eternal all-comprehending Godhead, love was ever being bestowed, and love was ever being received. Before the existence of any creature or created thing, One was being loved by Another: "Thou lovedst Me." The One Who was loved before the foundation of the world speaks to the One Who loved Him then, and addresses Him as Father: "Father, I will . . . for Thou lovedst Me" — the Son.
How exquisite is this confidence of eternal love! The Son discloses "the secrets of the Father's breast" to those whom He has chosen out of the world. He would have them, not the world, know that, in the essential nature of Deity, "before the world was," the Father's love dwelt in complacent affection upon "the Son of His love." Before the foundation of the world, the Father in His essential Being was Father relatively to the Son, and the Son in His essential Being was Son relatively to the Father.
How fervent the Father's love for the Son! How ardent the Son's love for the Father! The love of the Deity is no personified abstraction. We do not read that love is God, but that "God is love," and also that in its exercise the love of God is Paternal and Filial. The Son, speaking with the perfect knowledge of that love in all its fullness, desired of the Father that "His own" might be with Him and behold the glory given Him. The Son knew that the Father, Whose love for Him was eternal, found His good pleasure in the "will" of the Son even as He did in the obedience of the Son to the will of the Father. And on this immutable basis the Son, blessed be His holy name for evermore, places the special character of our destiny in endless bliss.
Let us now pass from the words of the Son relating to His glory to the words of the Holy Spirit, which relate to matters decided by consultation in the Godhead "before the foundation of the world."
Chosen in Christ before the World's Foundation
In Ephesians 1, we are again led back to the threshold of time, and again receive a revelation of what was enacted before the worlds began. Again, we learn that in that timeless state we were present before the mind of God. Even as we begin to read, the Holy Spirit puts into our lips the language of praise: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ; according as He has chosen us in Him before the world's foundation, that we should be holy and blameless before Him in love" (Eph. 1:3, 4).
Observe the divine names employed in the passage. The Spirit speaks not of "God" but of "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" in the exercise of this discriminating choice of those who were to be "in Christ," the Centre in Whom all things in the heavens and on the earth should be headed up in the fullness of times (1:10). God the Father made His selections "in Christ" before the world's foundation.
There is love as well as government embodied in the new creation "in Christ"; accordingly, the appropriate name of relationship in love is added, "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." His eternal purpose is that we should be "holy and blameless before Him in love"; hence, it is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ Who has chosen us in Him Who is the Son of His love, "His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 1:3).
Thus, we are taught in Paul's Epistle as in John's Gospel that the divine relations of Father and Son are associated with those counsels and purposes formulated in Deity before the world's foundation. Then the Father was loving the Son and determining who should be His companions in that effulgent glory to God which will be the crowning outcome of His mediatorial work, when all things are headed up in the Christ, the Son of man.
That the Father should have loved the Son before the world's foundation is perhaps less wonderful in our eyes than that we should have been then chosen in Him; but both truths are clearly revealed to us for the exaltation of our worship and the exuberance of our praise.
Foreknown before the World's Foundation
In Peter, this remarkable phrase occurs for the third time. We are here shown that God's redemptive plan for heavenly as well as for earthly blessing and glory was foreknown by Him "before" the world's foundation. While the redemption and salvation of God's earthly people were announced "by the mouth of His holy prophets, which have been since the world began" (Luke 1:70) , the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot, was foreknown before the world began. The apostle writes, "knowing that ye have been redeemed . . . by precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot, [the blood] of Christ, foreknown indeed before [the] foundation of [the] world" (1 Peter 1:18-20). Peter speaks of what preceded the divine purposes for Jehovah's earthly people which are said to be "from the world's foundation."
Here, also, we are admitted into secrets "hid in God" before any creation or time relations were established. Then was foreknown "the blood of Christ Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God." Then in the circle of Absolute Deity the divine will in respect to the sacrifice for sins and the sanctification of believers was enunciated. The "volume of the book" was written (Heb. 10:7-9). The order of the Son's coming into the world was fixed, and recorded in "the roll of the book," known only to the Deity.
There were, therefore, foreknowledge and determination in the Godhead before the world's foundation with reference to the great sacrificial work, and to the One Who would undertake it "in these last days." It was God's Son Who said, "In the volume of the book it is written of Me;" "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God" (Ps. 40:7, 8; Heb. 10:7). That will of God involved not only the revelation of the Father, but the service of sacrifice and priesthood and the sanctification of believers (Heb. 10:10).
Purpose and Promise before the Ages of Time
But we read in scripture of priority to the ages of time as well as to the world's foundation. The "world" in Biblical usage may be said to be the scheme of material things designed for Adam and his race, into which sin entered (John 1:10; Acts 17:24; Rom. 5:12). The "ages of time" seem to be the successive phases and periods of God's dealings with His creatures, and the beginning of these ages coincides with the beginning of creation.
Anterior to both and to the whole sphere of space and time is the boundless, timeless state of eternity, where Godhead dwells.
But God has revealed certain matters which took place before the ages of time as well as before the world's foundation. These matters relate to counsels and purposes determined within the Deity. With regard to the creation of mankind, for example, we read that God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). Man was created in accordance with that expression of purpose, whenever determined.
The phrase, "the ages of time," rendered "before the world began" in the A.V., is found twice in the New Testament, once in Timothy and once in Titus. In Ephesians, Paul speaks of our being chosen in Christ before the world's foundation; and in Timothy speaks of God's purpose and grace which was give to us in Christ Jesus before the ages of time (2 Tim. 1:9). He connects the Christian calling with the determining will of God exercised toward "us in Christ Jesus" before the successive ages of time with their varied characters began to run their course. This divine purpose and grace existed in the counsels of the Godhead before all ages and time-cycles, and are now revealed to the church, the chosen vehicle of their display.
In Titus, we read of the promise of eternal life before the world began: "in the hope of eternal life, which God, Who cannot lie, promised before the ages of time" (Titus 1:2). Here again, we are shown that the promise which the Christian inherits goes back in origin before all human history into the eternity of the past. This is the "promise in Christ" of which Gentile as well as Jewish believers equally partake (Eph. 3:6).
But who was there before the ages of time to receive a promise? For "promise" implies a plurality of persons concerned. At least, there must be one to make a promise and another to receive it. This promise of eternal life was, therefore, made by God and received by the Son in the counsels of the Godhead before the world began. The following extract is from J.N.D.'s Synopsis on this passage in Titus: —
"'Promised before the world began' is a remarkable and important expression. One is admitted into the thoughts of God before the existence of this changing and mingled scene. . . . Eternal life is connected with the unchangeable nature of God; with His counsels, which are as abiding as His nature; with His promises, in which He cannot deceive us, and to which He cannot be unfaithful.
"Our portion in life existed before the foundation of the world, not only in the counsels of God, not only in the Person of the Son, but in the promises made to the Son, as our portion in Him. It was the subject of those communications from the Father to the Son, of which we were the objects; the Son being their depositary.
Marvellous knowledge which has been given us of the heavenly communications of which the Son was the object, in order that we might understand the interest which we have in the thoughts of God, of which we were the objects in Christ before all the ages!"
What then in substance do these few scriptures teach us? They reveal divine relations which in the beginning existed in Absolute Godhead. They show that before created things were called into being, that before the ages of time began to roll their course, and that when Deity was absolutely all, the Father loved the Son, and, moreover, purposed that when the universe should be brought into subjection to the Son as its Head, there should be heavenly associates with Him in His universal rule, whom He would choose out of the sinful and lost world to occupy this exalted station. Such is the Father's good pleasure in His beloved Son, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever will be.
"What raised the wondrous thought,
Or who did it suggest,
That we, the church, to glory brought,
Should with the Son be blest?
"O God, the thought was Thine,
Thine only it could be,
Fruit of the wisdom, love divine,
Peculiar unto Thee."