Foundation of the WorldThe 'Foundation of the World'
Matthew 13:35 | Matthew 25:34 | Hebrews 4:3 | Luke 11:50 | Hebrews 9:26 | Revelation 13:18 | Revelation 17:8
Before the Foundation of the World | Mount Moriah | Conclusion
There is a group of texts in the N.T. that mention "the world", and a sub-group of these passages mention things that happened 'before' the world began. These texts are used in pre-existence arguments. For example, John 17 records the high-priestly prayer of Jesus. One verse of this prayer has him saying,
This verse appears to speak of glory which the Son was looking forward to once again sharing with the Father. If we read this verse with the meanings that these words often have today, then Jesus had glory with the Father before the earth came into existence some four or five billion years ago. On this reading, the verse establishes the pre-existence of Christ beyond any reasonable doubt. This quick strategy applies a meaning to the word 'world' that is perfectly familiar today, but is it correct?
We must apply the meanings intended by the biblical writers. It is all too often assumed that their words must be used in the same way they are used today. When arguing about the pre-existence of Christ, this assumption rears its head at every point. It is so embedded in popular ways of thinking that discussions on this topic often fail to persuade people. In this series of postings we will look at the N.T. understanding of the 'world'.
A foundation usually requires a certain amount of destruction in the preparation of the ground, and then the materials that make up the foundation are laid down. The Greek noun ('katabole') for 'foundation' suggests something 'cast down' (cf. 2 Cor 4:9, Rev 12:10), because the related verb is made up of the word for 'throw' or 'cast' and a preposition that often conveys the sense of 'down'. Hence the meaning of the noun is that of a foundation which is laid down (cf. Hebs 6:1). In all but one of the places (The exception is a figure of speech or idiom which has not been carried forward into the English. Paul says, Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed ( Hebs 11:11). This statement literally rendered would be received strength for a foundation of seed, which is a unique idiom in the N.T., (both O.T. occurrences ( Lev 12:2, Num 5:28) of 'conceive seed' use ordinary verbs for 'conceive')). where this Greek word for 'foundation' occurs, it is part of the phrase 'foundation of the world'. The expression 'the foundation of the world' occurs 10 times in two kinds of phrase in the New Testament:
Our proposal is that the foundation of the world is the establishment of the Mosaic order. The Mosaic dispensation was a time of preparation for the Christian dispensation. Those texts which refer to the foundation of this 'world' highlight certain characteristics of that age. Our first example is contained in the comment that Matthew makes about the parables of Jesus. Jesus spoke in parables in keeping with the rule that certain things were to be kept secret during the Mosaic age.
Jesus uttered words in parables and Matthew observes that this was in order,
The marginal reference in the A.V. points us to the Psalm which Matthew quotes:
The Psalm talks of 'dark sayings of old' and the expression 'dark sayings' has been interpreted with the word 'secrets' in Matthew's paraphrase, while the expression 'of old' has become 'from the foundation of the world'. The Psalm gives us the meaning of Matthew's statement. The 'sayings' are enshrined in a law and testimony given to the people, but hidden from the fathers. Jesus heard these sayings and was not hiding them from 'the generation to come', a generation which would be born, and which would tell them to their children, so that they would not rebel like their fathers in the wilderness (vs 8, 9, 41, 57). The parables and sayings recounted in the Psalm record the many works and wonders that God performed in bringing Israel out of Egypt, in leading them through the wilderness, and in bringing them to the door of the promised land. As a catalogue of miracles they were to give hope to a future generation, and this was the generation being addressed by Jesus in his parables.
We should think therefore of Jesus in his ministry as at the threshold of the promised land, looking forward to the land, but looking back at the people behind him, hesitant, and full of doubts. His appeal to the nation was that 'the kingdom of God was near', as if to say, 'look over that hill, and you can see it'. He encouraged them to 'enter into the kingdom', and to back up his preaching, he told them what 'the kingdom of God was like', just as the two spies had earlier given good reports of the land.
The expression 'foundation of the world' then picks up the time reference implicit in the fact that the sayings were 'of old', and this is further delimited by the Psalm as a time when God 'established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel'. This identifies the 'world' as the nation and its foundation under Moses.
The apostle Paul mentions the mystery kept secret since the 'world' began:
What this passage shows is that the princes of the world did not 'know' Christ and as a result they crucified him. This identifies what Paul understood by 'world' here - the nation of the Jews. Paul claims that God had hidden the wisdom of the Gospel, ordaining before the 'world' that it should be revealed by the apostles.
If the sayings about the kingdom have been kept secret from the foundation of the world, we should not be surprised to read also that the kingdom has been prepared from the foundation of the world. How was the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world? There are several clues to the answer.
The underlying type is again that of the entry to the land and the people's refusal to take their inheritance. This is why Jesus says 'inherit' the kingdom - he has in mind the promises about the land made to the patriarchs. In the same discourse, Jesus describes the separation of the sheep on his right hand from the goats on the left hand, and this is an allusion to Psalm 95:7,
Here the people are the 'sheep of his (right) hand', and it is their response to the king's invitation to 'come' to the temple,(The appeal of the Psalm is about 'coming' to a temple, whereas the warning of the Psalm is about 'returning' to Egypt and not entering the land. It might be thought that the warning was inappropriate, however, the land was a sanctuary ( Ex 15:17) in which the nation were to be a kingdom of priests to the nations), for the Psalm has had the people say 'Let us come before his presence' (v2) and 'O come let us worship' (v6). These sheep therefore come to the kingdom, they 'enter' it - for it was a kingdom prepared for them. (That is, 'come' in Matt 25:34 picks up 'come' of Psalm 95 as part of the allusion.) The Psalm illustrates this preparation, for it describes the people's acknowledgement that the sea and the land were made by the Lord, by His hands, i.e. it was His 'work' ( Ps 95:5, 9). Such preparation reflects a divine pattern of preparing a garden and placing the man in that garden.
However, it is apparent from the Psalm that not everyone heeds the call to worship before the Lord, because at the same time a warning goes out for the people not to harden their hearts as in the day of provocation and temptation. This is an allusion to the waters of Massah and Meribah, at which the people had exclaimed that they wanted to return to Egypt.
The warning in the Psalm is apposite because the desire to 'return' is the natural contrast to the call to 'come'. The wilderness journey was a leading ( Rms 8:15) of the people to the land, but they continually looked back to Egypt. Consequently, the Psalm is not just about the murmuring at Massah and Meribah; it also alludes to the refusal by the people to enter the land, which was also a desire to return to Egypt ( Num 14:3). At that time God declared they would 'not enter into my rest' ( Ps 95:11).
Jesus mentions two prepared places - a kingdom for the sheep and everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, i.e. the goats (Mt 25:41).This mention of the devil and his angels is an allusion to the rebellion of Korah, which concerned the establishment of a rival tabernacle to that of Moses ( Num 16:24). This allusion fits in with Jesus' prophecy because a characteristic of that rebellion was a refusal to "come" to the tabernacle of God ( Num 16:4, 9, 12, 14), and indeed the rebels argued that Moses had failed to bring the people to the land (14). A characteristic of this rebellion was the use of fire, both in the false worship of the rebels, and in the mode of their destruction. Hence, the punishment is one of everlasting fire. In the Psalm, likewise, the people 'saw' God's prepared work (Ps 95:9). At Massah and Meribah they saw the water from the rock ( Ex 17:6), and at Kadesh the people received the report of what the spies 'saw' in the land ( Num 13:17ff cf. v 27, 14:23, Deut 1:25, Hebs 3:7). In both cases what was seen was the work of God, and in the case of the land, it was a land prepared by God, flowing with milk and honey. (Compare the theme of 'seeing' (a city afar off) in Hebrews 11).
(The antitype to this preparation is also reflected in Jesus' words, 'I go to prepare a place for you' ( Jn 14:2), but Jesus' focus is on the temple rather than the land).
(Another example of preparation is David's preparation of a place for the ark of God ( 1 Chron 15:1-3)). We might not think that the land was prepared and ready for them; it wasn't like an empty house waiting to be occupied. The nation had work to do in clearing the land of the Canaanites.(The fact that after the Fall Adam had work to do, should lead us to expect Israel to play a part, and not have it all ready for them. They didn't see their work, or they balked at it, and so they chose to return to Egypt.) Once this had been done, they would then have to function as a kingdom of priests under God towards the nations. Israel were God's firstborn son ( Hos 11:1, Deut 1:31). They were a created man ( Num 14:15), and a nation designed to be priests for the other nations ( Ex 19:5). Their sanctuary was to be the land of Israel, a tabernacle in the midst of the nations. Like Adam, they were brought to this garden of Eden. It was a good (i.e. very good) land full of fruit, evoking images of paradise. However, they refused to enter into God's 'rest'. As a result, God again proposed making a second man, a second nation from the loins of Moses ( Num 14:12). (In a Psalm recalling the refusal to enter the land, the psalmist exhorts the people to think of God as their 'maker', picking up the theme of nation-making ( Ps 95:6)). This did not happen, but instead of the Fathers, it was the next generation, the children, that inherited the land under Joshua. This inheritance was not completed, for the Canaanites were not completely destroyed from the land.
We can now answer the question: why was the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world? The expression looks back to the time when the kingdom was first offered to the nation: it was prepared at the time of the foundation of the nation, but they refused to enter the land. Nevertheless, there still remains the same rest for the people of God - it is still prepared for them ( Hebs 4:9), as we shall see in our next example.
Paul deploys a comparison in Hebrews 4 between the Genesis creation and Exodus. He refers to the rest that God took after the six days of creation, and then he comments, 'And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest' (vs 4-5). The 'again' signals a second time of rest for God from His works, and it shows that God had been working for a second time. This time was the period of Israel's formation and Exodus from Egypt. This was a period of many works all directed to establishing Israel in the land.
We might ask why this period in God's purpose should be described using the language of the Genesis creation. This is the wrong question, because the concepts of the Genesis creation have been repeatedly used to describe beginnings and endings in God's purpose, thereby showing that God's purpose remains the same - to create an image of God.
Paul's argument is that they did not enter the land because of unbelief (v 6), and therefore the rest still remains to be realized for the people of God (v 9). He applies the opportunity of entering God's rest to the church. The same Gospel that was preached to the tribes in the wilderness was preached to the church, who were likewise a creation of God, (Paul refers to the church as 'creatures' ( Hebs 4:13), 'naked', and 'opened unto the eyes' of God, alluding to the fall of Adam and Eve, who were naked with their eyes open and subsequently found by God.) and they should take heed that they did not fall (like Adam, and like Israel).
The language describing the Exodus is modelled on the language of the Genesis creation. This can lead commentators to suggest that the foundation of the world in the texts we are examining is the foundation of the Genesis heaven and earth. However, this is a mistake because the Genesis terminology is being reused in an Exodus context, and it is this that constitutes the foundation of the world. Our next example is the sharpest text for this disagreement over 'the foundation of the world'.
The two prophets that Jesus mentions are Abel ( Gen 4:10) and Zacharias ( 2 Chron 24:19-22). The argument is put that with Abel being mentioned, the foundation of the world must be the foundation of the Genesis heaven and earth. However, Jesus has just made the point that it was the Jewish fathers that killed the prophets ( Lk 11:47-48), and it is certain that Cain, who killed Abel, is not one of the Jewish fathers.
This difficulty gives rise to the suggestion that Jesus' remark is a literary figure of speech, rather than an historical observation. These two are chosen because they are the first and last martyrs in the Jewish O.T., (the Jewish O.T. ended with 2 Chronicles). Indeed Jesus quotes Zacharias' last words:
Therefore the expression 'from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias' is a figure of speech referring to the O.T. Scriptures, rather than the historical events of their killings. This Jewish perspective identifies 'the World' as the nation, rather then the physical heavens and earth. Moses brought together the records of the patriarchs and with the other books, the Law of Moses was laid down in what we know as the Pentateuch. This Law was the 'foundation' of the nation comprising the covenant with God at Sinai, and his requirements for the nation. It is this law and its requirements on sacrifice that lie behind our next text on what took place after the foundation of the world.
Hebrews contrasts the Law of Moses and its sacrifices with the sacrifice and priesthood of Christ. Jesus was a priest after the order of Melchizedek and not after the Levitical order ( Hebs 7:11). Salvation was not possible through the Levitical priesthood, which offered sacrifices for sins on a daily basis ( Hebs 7:27). The blood of bulls and goats could not take away sins ( Hebs 10:4). So a better sacrifice was necessary. This sacrifice was not presented by Christ in an earthly tabernacle, but in a heavenly temple ( Hebs 9:24). Neither was this sacrifice offered repeatedly every year as on the Mosaic Day of Atonement ( Hebs 9:25). Had this been required,
Christ would have had to suffer repeatedly in order to match the pattern of the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies once a year. But Christ's sacrifice was offered once, appropriately, at the end of the world, i.e. the end of the Mosaic world. The various sacrifices of the Law of Moses typify aspects of Christ's work. Our next 'foundation of the world' text is based on the sacrifice of the Passover lamb.
It's easy to overlook the central role of the Passover lamb in the Exodus. But as far as sacrifices go, the Passover lamb is used in the description of Christ's sacrifice, and therefore the type should have a high measure of importance. The blood of the Passover lamb was placed on the lintels and posts of the Israelite houses:
The Angel of the Lord prevented the destroying angel from annihilating Israel, but this action was only possible because of the blood of the Passover lamb. This blood showed that there had already been death in the house, and as a result there was no need for the destroying angel to enter the house. In a sense therefore it was this blood that saved Israel, and it was because of this sacrifice that Israel could be re-born through the waters of the Red Sea. The Passover lamb of the Exodus is a basis for thinking about Christ's sacrifice. It is stressed by John:
Since the sacrifice of Jesus is the means through which the new creation is made, this would also be true of the type - the Exodus was also a creation made through a sacrifice - that sacrifice was 'Christ' in type. The importance of the Passover sacrifice, as a sacrifice standing at the beginning of things, is shown by the Apocalypse, where Christ is spoken of as the 'lamb' slain from the foundation of the world.
Revelation mentions a book of life written up since the foundation of the world. Seeing such a consistent interpretation of the expression, 'the foundation of the world', it should come as no surprise to find a reference to the book of life in the days of Moses:
Moses knows of a book 'of life' which has been written by the Lord. He offered to be blotted out of this book so that his people might live, but this proposal was refused. (One suggestion about the book of life is this: this book was set down at the time of the patriarchal promises. This is the time when the purpose of God first focuses on the descendants of the Seed, their number and their inheritance. Rather than think of the book of life as a book written before the Genesis creation (as church theologians might propose), think of the book of life as a product of the patriarchal promises (the covenant document). Let us now explore this idea.
What was before the foundation of the world? If the foundation of the world is the foundation of the nation under Moses, what can we learn about the time-period before this event? In John 17:24 we read of the Father loving Christ before the foundation of the world. Similarly, in Ephesians 1:4 we read of the apostles and saints chosen by God before the foundation of the world. We do not need to read the notion of pre-existence into either of these passages, because they are explained by the concept of foreknowledge:
The point here establishes the superiority of Christ and the independence that the apostles and saints have in Christ, independence, that is, from the Law ( 1 Pet 1:18). This is why God introduces the idea ( Rms 8:28-30) of His foreknowledge and pre-destination. It establishes that believers are not grounded in the Mosaic system, but in a new way based on prior promises. He does not introduce the idea to make a point about His decisions before the creation of the Genesis heaven and earth. The pre-destination of Gentile believers (and the book of life) is encapsulated in the patriarchal promises about Abraham's descendants, both Jew and 'Gentile' (Eph 1:4). (In English we might turn this around and say, 'to what is God's knowledge to the fore?'. The theological proposal is that it is afore time and space, it is, as it were, in eternity. The Biblical answer is more pointed, this knowledge of God is afore the foundation of the world and demonstrated in the patriarchal promises).
Paul makes a similar point about the ages. Promises were made before the (Mosaic) age began ( 2 Tim 1:9, Tit 1:9) These promises concerned eternal life - hence Jesus prays, 'this is eternal life that they may know thee the only true God' ( Jn 17:3). The promise is the one which God made to Abraham at Moriah, for Paul stresses that it was in this promise that God cannot lie (cf. Hebs 6:13ff). This is the promise which states that in Christ Jesus all the nations of the world should be blessed ( Gen 22:18). Thus Paul comments that this mystery has been made known to all nations, and he comments that we Gentiles have been called according to the grace, a grace that was given to us in Christ Jesus (the seed of the Abrahamic covenant) before the world began.
Paul's focus is on a particular point before the world began - namely, the hope of eternal life demonstrated in the events surrounding the Father and the Son making a sacrifice on Moriah. Appropriately, the promises are not according to works as in the Law and the world associated with that Law, but the promise is 'of grace' - given by God.
Jesus prayed, 'And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.' ( Jn 17:5). What did he mean? Did he literally share glory with the Father before the world began? Perhaps the first expression to examine is 'glorify thou me with thine own self'' The stress here lies in the words with thine own self, but what does Jesus mean by the word 'glorify'? In John 17:1, Jesus opens his prayer by asking God to glorify him so that he might in turn glorify his Father. This request is repeated in John 17:5. He is asking to be glorified so that his Father would be thereby glorified. Jesus is not asking to be glorified by being placed alongside God in heaven; rather he is asking to be glorified along with the Father.
What is the glorification? The immediate context suggests that it is Christ's death and his resurrection ( Jn 11:4, 12:28-32, 13:32, Acts 3:11-14). We are presented then with the idea that Christ viewed his imminent death and resurrection as a glorification which he had already had with the Father before the world began. The thought is not therefore one of exaltation to a heavenly position formerly occupied, but it is the thought of a crucifixion, death and resurrection previously shared. How can this have been? The answer is that such an experience with a father occurred in type before the world began (cf. Gen 45:13).
To discover the typical basis of Jesus' remark, we need to study the expression 'thine own self'', which occurs only three times in the A.V., It translates a common Greek word (seautw, transliteration - 'seauto') which is usually translated 'thyself''. However, the expression 'thine own self'' adds a stress not present in an ordinary use of 'thyself''. This stress comes from Christ using the personal pronoun 'thou'. He doesn't simply say, 'Glorify me with thyself'. He says 'Thou glorify me with thyself''. This stress is quarried from the following quotation:
We suggested in the last chapter that the 'world' in John is the nation as constituted under the Mosaic covenant (e.g. Jn 1:10, 7:1-8, 18:20), and we have seen that the glory Jesus seeks is the glory entailed by his death and resurrection. What we find before this world are the covenants of promise . These covenants of promise are sworn by God, but one in particular is sworn by his own name. Hebrews refers particularly to this covenant:
And this promise comes just after Abraham had offered up his only son, and received him back to life again in a figure or type ( Hebs 11:19).
Jesus' appeal to the Father is based on this event. Abraham and Isaac, a father and son, went together to make this sacrifice. And so it is with Jesus and his Father, for both had set their faces towards Jerusalem (the same Mount Moriah) to make this sacrifice. Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw (cf. Jn 8:56, Hebs 11:13) Mount Moriah afar off ( Gen 22:4). So too Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven when he offered up this prayer ( Jn 17:1), just before his sacrifice. Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness; he was a righteous father who loved his son Isaac. In this he foreshadowed the Righteous Father who loved His Son before the foundation of the world ( Jn 17:24-25).
The glory that Christ had with the Father was before this foundation and enshrined in the patriarchal promises. Christ had this glory when typed as Isaac, he went with his Father to Mount Moriah. Because Isaac typed Christ in this walk, Christ can speak of this incident as glory which he had with His father. In this sense enacted types are like television programmes which actually show the future events.
His death and his resurrection were his glory and the glory of the Father. The superiority of Christ over the world rests in his antecedent and superior sacrifice. The glory of Christ rested in his death on the cross and then his resurrection. This glory he had with the Father before the world began.
Abraham's function as a type of the Father is alluded to in the text that describes the only begotten Son as 'in the bosom of the Father' (Jn 1:18). The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus supplies one clue to the interpretation of this word picture. In that parable, it is Lazarus (symbolizing those with faith), who is in the bosom of Abraham, and not the Rich Man, who (with his 'five' brethren) symbolizes the Jews and their Law. As Jesus demonstrated in John 8, Abraham was not the father of those Jews who did not have faith in him. In John 1, the contrast is in the same vein - a contrast between the Law of Moses and grace and truth (v 17). Hence John states that the only begotten Son was in the bosom of the Father. Abraham's beloved son was Isaac, and he was the son of the free woman. Those who are in the bosom of the Father are those who are born of Sarah and not of the bondwoman (who was wrongly placed into the bosom of Abraham ( Gen 16:5, Gal 4:24)).
Studying the topic of the 'foundation of the world' provides the background to one of the main pre-existence texts, 'And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was'. The foundation of the world is the foundation of the nation of Israel under Moses, and this is shown by a careful consideration of all the texts where this expression occurs. The glory that the Son had with the Father before this world began was a glory that he had in type on Mount Moriah.
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