In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth. From nothing, the triune God made everything. Light, land, and lemmings all came from his all-powerful world. Genesis 1 records this marvelous, six-day creation, and the rest of the Bible treats the universe as one that had a beginning.
But what was there before the beginning?
Before the Foundation of the World
While Genesis starts with creation, later revelation explains that God was active before the beginning. John 1, which takes its cues from Moses’ introduction, says that in the beginning the Word already was: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (vv. 1–2). John’s grammar makes it plain that the Son of God, the Word, was already existing when the world was made. And John is not alone, Matthew, Paul, and Peter all reveal an awareness of events transpiring in the mind of God before he spoke light into the darkness.
On Sunday, my sermon considered one of the passages that speaks about what transpired before creation. Titus 1:2 says of eternal life that it was promised before the ages began. With such a phrase, it is worth asking what does the Bible say happened before the foundation of the world? Since the phrase “ before the foundation of the world” occurs five times in the NT, and “before the ages” three times, it will be profitable to list these verses and see what they say. While space doesn’t permit an explanation of each passage, let me simply draw your attention to them.
“We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (1 Cor 2:7)
“He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ . . .” (Eph 1:4–5).
“[God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, . . .” (2 Tim 1:8-10)
“in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began . . .” (Titus 1:2)
The lamb of God “was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake.” (1 Pet 1:20)
“And authority was given it [the beast] over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” (Rev 13:7–8; cf. Rev 17:8)
When we look at all of the verses, we can deduce six things that happened before creation:
- God decreed a secret wisdom for our glory
- God chose us in Christ
- God called us and gave us grace in Christ
- God promised eternal life
- Christ was designated the Lamb of God to be slain
- A certain number of people were written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
All these things happened before the foundation of the world. Still it remains to be seen who these passages are about. The identity of the chosen, the called, the promised is somewhat veiled. Is there any way to discern who is being described? I think there is, by looking at John 17, the place where Jesus unveils what happened in eternity past.
John 17: The Definitive Answer
Before Paul, Peter, or John spoke of things before creation, Jesus himself divulged God’s pre-temporal glory. While John 17 is often called ‘Jesus’s high priestly prayer,’ it is more accurate to speak of it as an inter-trinitarian dialogue between the Father and the Son. In other words, what we find in these verses is a window into the mind of God. To understand what Jesus is saying, you will need to read all of John 17, but let’s key in on three things:
- The Father and Son shared infinite glory before the world began. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (vv. 4–5)
- The Father loved the Son before the world began. “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (17:24)
- The Father promised the Son in eternity everything he would give him in time. Like a drumbeat running through John 17, the Father gives to the Son. First, the Father gives the Son a work to do (v. 4). Next, Jesus indicates the Father gave him a people out of the world: “Yours they were, and you gave them to me” (v. 6). This theme of ‘given ones’ repeats what Jesus said in John 6 and is mentioned in verses 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, and 14. To this people given from the Father to the Son, he gave the words that the Father gave him (v. 8); he prays for them and not the world (v. 9); he sanctifies them by his “consecration” and his truth (v. 17–19); and finally, he glorifies them by sharing his glory with them (vv. 22–25).
There is no question that Jesus’ words are heavy-sledding and challenge our thinking. But they are Jesus words—words that stretch our minds, enlarge our hearts, and provide the answer to what happened before creation: the Father promised the Son a people whom he would save and sanctify by his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.
These are the chosen ones of Paul’s letters and the ones written down in Lamb’s book of life. This was God’s plan before the foundation of the world, a mystery hidden but now revealed, one that should not be ignored but that should fuel our worship: the church of Jesus Christ is an eternal love gift the Father gave to the Son, and that the Son is now returning to the Father.
What a glorious truth! It will take eternity to know and enjoy, but now through God’s perfect revelation we can know that in eternity past God was planning a future eternity with a people redeemed by the blood of Christ (1 Pet 1:20). To that we can only say: Hallelujah! What a Savior.
Soli Deo Gloria,