Thanking Logos for this devotional.
What Happened “Before the World Was”
“I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do. And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I ever had with Thee before the world was.”-John 17:4, 5
What is the earliest recollection that you can unearth from the deep mine of your memory? I have a faint remembrance of my mother going to the hospital for surgery and an aunt coming to care for us children, but the picture is quite dim.
The oldest written text the historian can lay his hands on is dated about 3500 B.C. It is found on some clay tablets unearthed in Iraq in 1952.
But the Bible takes us back beyond time and into eternity. Why? Because we can never really understand what is going on “in time” unless we know what happened “before the world was.” As Dr. A. T. Pierson used to say, “History is His story.” A modern novelist has affirmed that “everything is accident,” but the Christian knows better. Everything is appointment. If you and I did not believe that God was on His throne, working out His perfect will, we would sink in the storms of life. The hymn writer William Cowper expressed it perfectly:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Modern self-made man with his egotistical emphasis on “do-it-my-way-living” wants nothing to do with a sovereign God. To be sure, the sovereignty of God in no way eliminates human responsibility or man’s moral freedom; but it does mean that God rules, and when He is not permitted to rule, that He overrules.
All of which takes us back to our Lord’s statement “before the world was.” Let’s try to answer, from the Scriptures, the important question: “What was going on ‘before the world was’?” Several facts emerge to help us discover the answer.
1. Jesus existed as eternal God.
Of course, all three members of the Godhead existed; but our special focus of attention in John 17 is the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, this is the focus of John’s Gospel: “… that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). We noted in Chapter 1 the evidences in John 17 alone that prove that Jesus Christ is eternal God.
The Gospel of John opens with a declaration of the deity of Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1, 2).
It is worth noting that six different persons in John’s Gospel bear witness that Jesus is the Son of God: John the Baptist (1:34), Nathanael (1:49), Peter (6:69), the healed blind man (9:35–38), Martha (11:27), and Thomas (20:28). The Samaritans called Him “the Savior of the world” (4:42), a title that could only belong to deity. Our Lord Himself affirmed His eternality in John 8:58: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” The people attempted to stone Him for this statement because they knew what it meant: “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (John 10:33).
The fact that Jesus Christ existed before the creation of the world helps us to understand the necessity for the virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 1:26–38). Every baby born into this world is a new person who has never existed before. But Jesus Christ existed before the world was, before there were people. Therefore, when He was to take upon Himself a human body, it could not have been through the normal process of human reproduction. After all, Jesus existed before His mother was born! Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus Christ, though he certainly was the legal father according to the Jewish records. Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, for this is the way a preexisting Person must come into the world as a human.
In other words, Jesus existed from eternity in heaven having a Father and no mother; but He came into the world having an earthly mother but no earthly father.
“Before the world was” the Trinity existed in timeless, dateless communion. The hymn writer Frederick Faber has expressed it this way:
Timeless, spaceless, single, lonely,
Yet sublimely Three,
Thou are grandly, always, only
God in Unity!
Lone in grandeur, lone in glory,
Who shall tell Thy wondrous story
The fact defies explanation and comprehension, yet it is true. If it is not true, then Jesus Christ lied, the Bible is fantasy, and our universe is an accidental conglomerate of electrical particles that came out of nowhere.
2. Jesus shared the Father’s glory.
He stated this in verse 5: “And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I ever had with Thee before the world was.” Hebrews 1:3 states it: “And He is the radiance of His [the Father’s] glory and the exact representation of His nature.” The Apostle John testified: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
As we have seen, the glory of God is the sum total of all that He is, the expression of His character. It is the manifestation of all that He is in Himself, His marvelous attributes. We have a difficult time grasping the concept of God’s glory because there is nothing like it on earth. While it is true that “The heavens are telling of the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), it is also true that sin has put God’s creation into bondage and robbed God of glory (Romans 8:18–25). Psalm 19 makes special mention of the sun as an illustration of God’s glory, and perhaps that is the closest we can come to finding a picture. Just as the rays of the sun cannot be separated from the sun itself, so Jesus Christ cannot be separated from God, because He is God.
The amazing thing is this: Those who have trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior possess this glory now (John 17:22) and will see God’s glory and share it in heaven one day (John 17:24). God does not need man or anything else in order to be glorious. He is glorious in Himself and eternally self-sufficient. Yet in His grace, He deigned to share His glory with sinful man! And Jesus Christ was willing to lay aside His glory to die so that sinners, all of whom have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), might receive that glory.
3. Jesus was beloved of the Father.
He stated this in verse 24: “… for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world.” “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Before God poured His love out on mankind, the Persons of the Godhead expressed their perfect love to one another in a glorious communion. The Scriptures especially point out the Father’s love for the Son.
When Jesus was baptized, the Father affirmed His love: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). This was the Father’s “heavenly seal of approval” on the life Jesus had lived as a boy, youth, and young man in Nazareth. From our Lord’s twelfth year until His thirtieth year, we have no record of what He said or did, except that He was in subjection to Mary and Joseph and that He developed as any normal child (Luke 2:51, 52). But the Father made it clear at the baptism that the Son had lived a perfect life, well-pleasing to the Father.
The Father reaffirmed His love when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; hear Him!” (Matthew 17:5). Moses and Elijah were with Jesus on the mount, yet the Father did not give special attention to them. Peter, James, and John were also there, but no voice of approval was addressed to them. It was the Son, Jesus Christ, who was singled out as the recipient of the Father’s special love and approval. This must have been a great encouragement to the Savior as He faced the cross.
The prophets bore witness to the Father’s love for the Son. “Behold, My Servant whom I have chosen; My Beloved in whom My soul is well-pleased” (Matthew 12:18, quoted from Isaiah 42:1).
Jesus alluded to the Father’s love in His parable about the wicked men and the vineyard (Luke 20:9–18). “And the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him’ ” (verse 13).
The Apostle Paul also affirms this eternal love of the Father for the Son: “… giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son”-literally “the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:12, 13).
It is impossible for the human mind to grasp the concept of eternity. We cannot imagine timelessness and spacelessness. “Time” and “place” help to keep order in our lives. Yet the Father and the Son and the Spirit existed eternally, sharing an eternal love. If we, in this brief span of time that we call “life,” can learn to love deeply the people that we do; if we, with our sins, can grow in our love for others; just think of what kind of perfect, timeless, uninterrupted, unchanging love the Father and the Son and the Spirit enjoyed.
And think of what it meant when the Son left the bosom of the Father and came to earth to be hated! John 3:16, familiar as it is, takes on new depth of meaning when you try to comprehend the eternal love of the Father for the Son.
4. The Father established His eternal purpose.
“This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He [the Father] carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11). This purpose is further described in Ephesians 1:10–12: “… with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.”
That God has an “eternal purpose” for all things is both scriptural and logical. If God is God at all, He is sovereign. He cannot work independently of His own nature, for then He would cease to be God, something that is impossible. He is a wise God; therefore, His eternal purpose is a wise one. He is a powerful God; therefore, He is able to accomplish what He purposes. He is a loving God; therefore, what He purposes will manifest His love. He is an unchanging God; therefore, His purpose is unchanging.
God’s ultimate purpose is to bring glory to His name. “… to the praise of the glory of His grace … to the praise of His glory … to the praise of His glory …” (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). He will do this by uniting “all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). Today, sin is dividing and destroying; but when God wraps up history, all things will unite in Christ and bring glory to God.
Words like “predestination” and “election” frighten some people and are greatly misunderstood by others. “If God has an eternal purpose, then why bother to do anything?” some people ask. “Why pray? Why send out missionaries? After all, God will certainly achieve His purpose!”
But not without us! God has ordained (and this is amazing) that His purposes shall be fulfilled in and through His church. Why pray? Because prayer is one of God’s ordained ways to accomplish His will in us and through us. Why send out missionaries? Because He has commanded us to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth, and our obedience is a part of His ordained plan. God’s eternal purpose, established “before the world was,” is not an excuse for carelessness and disobedience. It is one of our greatest encouragements to obedience and service.
God’s eternal purpose is not fatalism. Rather, it is the perfect plan of a loving Father, and our Father loves us too much to harm us. He is too wise to make mistakes. “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation” (Psalm 33:11). Note that important phrase: “the plans of His heart.…”
Please keep in mind that a part of God’s eternal plan is the fact that man shall have moral freedom. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility do not conflict or contradict each other; they are friends, not enemies. You and I cannot fathom this because we are creatures of time with minds incapable of understanding God’s vast purpose. But this does not keep us from believing it and acting upon it. The greatest Christian theologian who ever lived wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33). If the Apostle Paul admitted that he was over his head when he thought about God’s eternal plan, where does that leave you and me!
God’s eternal plan is not a discouragement to prayer, but an encouragement. At least, the early church found it so. Read the prayer recorded in Acts 4:24–31, and note their faith in God’s sovereignty: “… to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:28). Nor did faith in God’s eternal purpose hinder their preaching of the gospel: “… this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross …” (Acts 2:23). Calvary was not a mistake or an accident; it was part of God’s eternal plan.
“But why did God plan it this way?” some may ask. Because His plan is the best. God cannot ordain less than the very best. There are some things about God’s plan that we may not understand, but we agree with our Lord’s affirmation of faith in Matthew 11:26, “Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight.” And if any of us gets the idea that God needed our help as consultants, we had better listen again to Paul: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?” (Romans 11:34). God did not need our help in framing His great plan, nor does He need our criticism of it. But He does want to share with us the privilege of working out His plan in this world.
Is God’s plan going to succeed? Of course it is! “Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it” (Isaiah 46:11). It is because of this eternal purpose that “God causes all things to work together for good to them who love God …” (Romans 8:28).
5. The Father elected people to be saved.
This, of course, is a part of God’s eternal plan. “Just as He chose us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world …” (Ephesians 1:4). “Who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Timothy 1:9). “… in the hope of eternal life, which God who cannot lie, promised long ages ago [literally, before times eternal]” (Titus 1:2).
God did not choose any to be saved because of their good works or personal merit. Salvation is wholly by grace (Ephesians 2:8, 9). God’s sovereign choice is based upon His own divine purpose. For that matter, God does not have to save any sinner! His electing grace is the expression of His eternal love. To be sure, there are mysteries here that we cannot explain; nor does it promote practical godliness to debate them. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever …” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
It is important to remember that divine sovereignty does not negate human responsibility. What God had ordained in eternity must be worked out in time. We may be “chosen … from the beginning for salvation,” but we are also called through the human instrumentality of the preaching of the gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:13, 14). The same God who ordains the end (the salvation of lost sinners) also ordains the means to the end; and that is where prayer, witnessing, good works, and the exercise of the means of grace all come in.
6. The Son covenanted to die for sinners.
Calvary was not a divine afterthought or a stopgap measure devised by a frustrated God who was caught unawares. Calvary was part of God’s eternal purpose. In his powerful sermon at Pentecost, Peter affirmed that Jesus was “delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Our Lord Himself said to His disciples, “For indeed, The Son of Man is going as it has been determined …” (Luke 22:22). The Lamb was “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20).
When our Lord uttered the prayer recorded in John 17, He looked upon the Cross as a completed ministry. “I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do.” What kind of a work was this?
To begin with, it was an assigned work. God the Father gave the Son the assignment. It was a part of the “eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20, 21) that the Son should die for the sins of the world. While each Person in the Godhead is equal to each of the other Persons, it is still true that each Person has an assigned ministry in the plan of salvation. According to Ephesians 1:1–14, we are chosen by the Father, purchased by the Son, and sealed by the Spirit. We are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood …” (1 Peter 1:1, 2).
It is interesting to trace in the Gospels the stages in our Lord’s revelation of this assigned work. When the Savior was born, His testimony was, “Behold, I have come … to do Thy will, O God” (Hebrews 10:7). When He was twelve years old, Jesus said to Mary and Joseph when they found Him in the Temple, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” [literally, “in the affairs of My Father”].
Jesus told His disciples, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34). “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38). When He voluntarily yielded up His life on the cross, He shouted, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).
Nobody but Jesus Christ could have accepted this assignment and completed it successfully. The great work of salvation demanded the perfect sacrifice, the spotless Lamb of God. In His love for us, Jesus Christ accepted the assignment and brought it to a successful conclusion.
In other words, the work that He did is a finished work. Nothing need be added to it, and certainly nothing dare be taken from it. When our Lord died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). This announced the end of the Mosaic Law, “for the law made nothing perfect” (Hebrews 7:19). It also announced the end of the Jewish priesthood, for the priesthood could make no sinner perfect before God (Hebrews 7:11). It declared the end of the sacrificial system, for the sacrifices could make no man perfect (Hebrews 9:9 and 10:1).
Our Lord finished the work of redemption on the cross, returned to heaven, and sat down. The Old Testament priests did not sit down in the sanctuary, for their work was never finished. “But He [Jesus], having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). That phrase “for all time” is in the original Greek “perpetually, continually, forever.”
Since the work of redemption is finished, all that sinners need to do is believe it and accept it for themselves.
His work was an assigned work and a finished work; but it is also a glorious work. “I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do.” Of course, everything that Jesus did was glorious. Even the common activities of life, like the breaking of bread or the cuddling of a baby, had the touch of glory about them.
When our Lord was born in Bethlehem, the angels announced the event to the shepherds, “and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). “We beheld His glory,” confessed John (John 1:14). Even our Lord’s death on the cross was seen in the light of God’s glory: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23).
Sin has robbed man of God’s glory, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The glory of man-flesh-does not last. “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass” (1 Peter 1:24). Great men and women come and go, and yesterday’s heroes are today’s forgotten people. The glory of man is always in the past tense: the glory that was Rome, the glory that was Greece.
The purpose of redemption is the glory of God. There are many blessed by-products of redemption, like the transforming of lives and the restoring of homes; but all of this has as its ultimate goal the glory of God. Our Lord did many mighty works on this earth, and all of them revealed God’s glory (John 2:11). But the greatest and most glorious work He did was the finished work of salvation on the cross. This glorious work was planned before the foundation of the world.
Yes, there are some profound truths in these verses. When we, with human minds and hearts begin to think and meditate on what happened “before the world was,” we soon find ourselves beyond our limit. These truths were not given so that we might debate, but that we might surrender and worship. It is not a big head, but a burning heart, that proves we have grasped something of the meaning of God’s eternal plan.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1988). Prayer: Basic Training (pp. 41–54). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale.