Jesus: A Theographyby Leonard Sweet, Frank Viola
Virtually every other “Jesus biography” begins with the nativity account in Bethlehem. In this groundbreaking book, Sweet and Viola begin before time, in the Triune God, and tell the complete interconnected story of Jesus from Genesis to Revelation.See more details below
Virtually every other “Jesus biography” begins with the nativity account in Bethlehem. In this groundbreaking book, Sweet and Viola begin before time, in the Triune God, and tell the complete interconnected story of Jesus from Genesis to Revelation.
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By LEONARD SWEET, FRANK VIOLA
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola
All rights reserved.
Christ Before Time
Every word of the God-breathed character of Scripture is meaningless if Holy Scripture is not understood as the witness concerning Christ.
—G. C. Berkouwer
All scripture finds its organic center and unity in Jesus. For this reason, the biblical narrative has its beginning in the creation of the universe through Christ, its middle in the earthly life and ministry of Christ, and its end in the reconciliation of all things in Christ. There's an overarching unity to both Testaments. And Christ is the unifying agent.
Part of that statement is not entirely accurate. While Genesis begins the scriptural narrative at the point of creation, the Second Testament tells us that the narrative actually begins somewhere else. The Jesus story doesn't begin in Bethlehem, Nazareth, or even Israel. According to the Second Testament, it begins long before them. It begins in the dateless past, before angels or atoms.
In this chapter, we will narrate the Jesus story as it happened before creation, and we will get a breathtaking glimpse of the preincarnate Christ—the eternal Son, the preexistent Word, Jesus before time, Christ before creation.
The Second Testament contains numerous texts that give us insight into Christ before time. And the First Testament supports those texts.
BEFORE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD
Considering Jesus before the world began is mind-boggling. We feel we are fumbling in the dark, groping for words to express the inexpressible. It's impossible to find adequate language for what happened before creation. Taken literally, before creation is unintelligible because there is no such thing as a "before" or an "after" until there is a creation. According to Einstein's physics, time doesn't exist without mass and matter. Time, therefore, begins with creation.
So on a literal basis, phrases like time before time or before creation are nonsensical. They only make sense when we see them as intuitively graspable metaphors. When we talk about what God was doing before creation, it's impossible to avoid language that sounds as though we are talking about a time before time. Nonetheless, we will use these metaphors because Scripture uses them. The phrases "before the foundation of the world" and "before the world began" are used frequently in the Second Testament.
Both First and Second Testaments speak much about God's eternality.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
To God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.
It has been said that a student once asked Martin Luther, "What was God doing before He created the world?" Luther responded, "He went into the woods and cut rods with which to punish good-for-nothing questioners!" John Calvin reportedly responded to the same question: "God was not idle but was creating hell for curious questioners!"
While we respect Luther and Calvin, we don't agree with those sentiments toward this question. What happened before God created the world is critical. And it is for that reason that the Scriptures are not silent on the matter. As Paul put it: "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
What God was doing before creation belongs to the unseen and eternal. And Paul exhorted the Corinthians to fix their eyes on those eternal intangibles. In that connection, let's explore what Jesus Christ was doing before the foundation of the world.
THE SON AND FATHER LOVED EACH OTHER
Before God the Father said, "Let there be light," He loved His Son. Before time, the Father and the Son enjoyed a mutual exchange of love, life, and fellowship through the Spirit. All throughout the Second Testament, we see Jesus returning to the Father what the Father has given Him. This reciprocal activity is rooted in His very nature of God Himself. His nature is love. Thus, what Jesus did on earth, He did in His purely divine state as the eternal Son. The loving oneness the Father and the Son shared before time was reflected on the earth as well.
This exchange of love, life, and fellowship is best understood in terms of the triune God. In the trinitarian community, the Father, Son, and Spirit all enjoy the fullness of one another in endless fellowship. Each member loves the other. That is, the Father and Son both empty themselves and pour themselves into each other through the Spirit. It is within this eternal fellowship that we find the headwaters of the mission of God, the church, and the believer's life in Christ.
According to Philippians 2, the Son left the pristine setting of a shared love that flowed between the Father, Son, and Spirit, and made Himself of no reputation as a human being—even a servant. While on earth, Jesus divested Himself of His divine rights and was the recipient of the Father's love, life, and power—just as He had known them in eternity.
Consequently, the incarnation should not be seen as a single temporal act in history. But the divine emptying that it embodied began before creation, continued into the incarnation, and further than that. As Paul wrote, it continued to "even the death of the cross." In the incarnation, the God of eternity gave Himself to humanity by becoming human.
Because we are caught in space-time, the incarnation is something we can approach only from the human side. We know it to be a historical event that took place in the first century. But when we talk about the incarnate Son—Emmanuel, God with us—we're talking about a profound mystery. The incarnation points to an eternal reality. Namely, God's nature is that of kenosis, the pouring out of Himself in love into the other members of the Trinity. This pouring out of divine fullness was experienced between the members of the triune God before time. God the Father has always been the God who pours Himself into the Son. He has never been anyone else. And God the Son has always been the God who pours Himself into the Father. He has never been anyone else. When Jesus took on human flesh, the principle of incarnation broke into time and space.
But that's not all. Before time began, the Son of God lived by His Father's life. This practice continued when He took on flesh and became a man. Jesus repeatedly said that it was not Him but His Father who did the works. It was not Him but His Father who gave the teachings. It was not Him but His Father who made the judgments. Jesus boldly declared that He could do nothing without the Father. And He lived by the Father's life. But this was nothing new. It was true of Jesus in eternity. With the coming of Bethlehem, the key had switched from the divine to the human, but the song remained the same. The Father's life was the source of the Son's being and living—in eternity as well as on the earth. As one theologian put it, the Father is the Source, the Son is the Wellspring, and the Spirit is the Living Water.
THE SON AND FATHER SHARED THE DIVINE GLORY
Before God the Father ever said, "Let there be ..." He shared His radiant glory with His Son. And His Son returned that glory back to the Father.
God's glory is not something separate from His Being. His glory is another way of talking about who He is. God's glory is His own essential life, with all of the wonder and splendor of what it means to be God. The Hebrew word for glory is kavod, and it means the essential weight of something. The very being of God is love, and that love is understood as the mutual sharing of glory with one another "before the world was."
With the birth of Christ, the eternal broke into space and time. And one of the hallmarks of this inbreaking was glory. The Lord Jesus left glory to come to a sin-cursed earth. In His High Priestly Prayer in John 17, Jesus recalled "the glory which I had with You before the world was." We can only put our hands over our mouths when it comes to articulating the glory that was shared between Father, Son, and Spirit before anything was made.
But, thankfully, the Lord has given us numerous glimpses of His glory in the unfolding drama of history. We will just highlight a few. Keep in mind that these were appearances of Christ, who is "the radiance of His glory."
The pictures, signs, and events that were given by God before Christ came to earth were not random. Hebrews 8:5 states that they were copies and shadows of what existed in heaven before anything was made. In other words, they were the pre-creation heavenly realities flowing out of the eternal Christ.
We know that Abraham encountered the eternal Christ. Jesus told His detractors, "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." They responded by noting that Jesus was not even fifty—"How could you have seen Abraham?" Jesus gave them this astounding response: "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM."
Isaiah said, "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up." When confronting the Jews' unbelief, John noted, referring to Jesus, "Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus' glory and spoke about him." Thus when Isaiah "saw the Lord," he was speaking of the eternal Christ.
After the exodus out of Egypt, God led Israel by His glory in a cloud. Paul noted that the eternal Christ was the One who was guiding the people of God. He wrote that they "all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ." This literal rock pointed to the spiritual reality of Jesus Christ.
Recall that Moses asked God to show him His glory. The Lord put Moses in the cleft of a rock and covered him with His hand while His glory passed by. Then the hand of God was removed, and Moses saw God's back but not His face, for God said, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!" That was then, but later, in the gospel age, Paul said that God made His light shine in our hearts "to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." John said the same, writing, "No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him."
Jesus is the human face of God. He is also the inbreaking of the eternal into time. This is a good definition of the kingdom of God, which is embodied in Jesus.
After Moses constructed the tabernacle according to the Lord's directions, "the glory of the lord filled the tabernacle." This was a picture of the Lord dwelling with His people. When Jesus appeared on earth, He "tabernacled" among us, and "we beheld His glory." He was the fulfillment of the earthly tabernacle and the glory that rested upon it.
Given the inexpressible glory that the Father, Son, and Spirit shared before time, and given the amazing and repetitive appearances of the glory of God in history, it is not surprising that the glory of God would explode in the person of the heavenly Man as He penetrated the earth through Mary's womb. Shepherds beheld the glory at His birth.
John saw the coming of Christ stepping into history against the backdrop of the original Genesis account. "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning." This One who had full, unabated glory with the Father before time had now entered the confines of time to fulfill the eternal purpose of the Godhead. And what was the chief attribute that captured their attention? "We beheld His glory." The glory from above was now functioning on earth. However, before Calvary it was a veiled glory.
Luke noted that he and the other apostles "saw His glory" on the Mount of Transfiguration. But then something beyond remarkable happened: "a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud." This cloud is reminiscent of the cloud that led Israel, came upon the tabernacle of Moses, and filled Solomon's temple. It was the cloud of God's shekinah glory of His awesome presence. Out of this cloud the Lord spoke with clarity, "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!"
Glory is the highest expression of a life. When a flower is in full bloom, we say it is glorified. When God's divine, uncreated life is at its highest expression, Scripture calls it glory.
Jesus is the mercy seat. He is the dwelling place of God and the Sin-Bearer. Christ is the fulfillment of all that was signified in the space between the cherubim.
In the end, we are given a spellbinding look at the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from God. The city shines with the glory of God. Next, we see the glory of God filling the new heaven and new earth: "I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp." The glory that humanity lost at the Fall has been restored.
THE GODHEAD BIRTHED AN ETERNAL PURPOSE AND SHROUDED IT IN A MYSTERY
Before creation, the Godhead conceived of an eternal purpose. They shrouded that purpose as a mystery in Christ, where it was hid in God for ages. An entire book could be written unveiling God's eternal purpose. But we will summarize it briefly. Before time, the Father, Son, and Spirit counseled together and purposed to expand the fellowship they had with one another. This was the very reason that provoked creation. God wanted to enlarge the love relationship between the Father and the Son through the Spirit. In the words of C. S. Lewis, "The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us."
History is not about whim and chance. It is the unfolding of God's timeless purpose in Christ. Paul saw that the creation was designed for the formation of a bride and a body for the Son. With everything being by the Son, for the Son, and to the Son, the perfect eternal communion of the triune God would be expanded through history into a vast, uncountable number of saints ("holy ones") from all over the earth.
To this end, the church is said to be chosen in Christ "before the foundation of the world." This bride and body constitute the family of God and a dwelling place for the Father through the Spirit. Therefore, God the Father desired children. He also desired a home through which to express His glory. The Son desired a bride to be His counterpart and enter the divine dance that existed eternally between the Father, Son, and Spirit. She would be the new partner in the dance. The bride would also be the body for the Son's visible expression and movement in a created world. These four aspects of the eternal purpose—a bride, a body, a family, and a house—are all highlighted in Paul's letter called Ephesians. And they can be found from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. (This point will be explained further in chapters 2 and 3.)
GOD FINISHED ALL THINGS BEFORE HE BEGAN ALL THINGS
Jesus Christ had finished all things before He created all things. This is perhaps one of the most glorious things Jesus Christ accomplished before creation, but it may be the least reflected upon. Imagine a builder standing in front of an empty lot, saying, "What a beautiful house I have constructed." But there is nothing there. Only the Lord can say that His plans in the Son were finished in eternity before they came to pass in history. He completed the masterpiece before He ever painted it.
How can this be? It is because time exists in Christ. Paul told us that in Christ, "all things hold together." That includes creation itself, which includes time. C. S. Lewis drew a brilliant illustration to describe this reality. He said to imagine a straight line on a piece of paper. The line is time. The paper is God Himself. Time is in God just as the line is in the paper. Consequently, He is at the beginning and the end at the same time. As one theologian put it, "God is immediately and simultaneously aware of all events. Whether they be in what we call 'past,' 'present,' or 'future,' they are all in God's 'present.'"
This throws fresh light on the declarations in Revelation that Jesus Christ is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega, and First and the Last. It's not that Christ was first the Alpha and then later the Omega. It's that Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, at the same moment. How? Because the line of time exists within Him.
Recall when Jesus said to the Pharisees, "Where I am you cannot come." Notice He didn't say, "where I am going," but "where I am." Jesus couldn't have said that unless time was in Him. Christ is the great I AM, the self-existent One, the One "who is and who was and who is to come" all at once. According to John, Jesus used the divine formula "I AM" without the predicate:
"For if you do not believe that I am He [I AM], you will die in your sins."
"When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He [I AM]."
"Before Abraham was, I AM."
"Now I tell you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe that I am He [I AM]."
Excerpted from JESUS by LEONARD SWEET, FRANK VIOLA. Copyright © 2012 Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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