Author: Ron Graham
Dividing Past and Future
—Understanding the Great Divide
Paul said, "Be diligent to present yourself approved before God, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2Timothy 2:15). This "rightly dividing" includes TIME.
1 The Crucial Divide
We must know what is past and what is future in the Bible. One person might put some portion of the Bible into the time division called PAST. Another might regard it as FUTURE. They cannot both be right. One of them has wrongly divided the word of truth and has a distorted view of it.
As an example, read Revelation 20:11-15. Note the events described there —destruction of the heavens and earth; resurrection of the dead; the Day of Judgment; the damned cast into Hell. Are these events future or past?
If you say the latter visions of Revelation depict the past, but I say they depict the future, we will have quite different interpretations of what John saw in the vision. You might have in mind past events whose shape in reality was far different to anything in the vision. You might treat the vision as purely and intensely symbolic. and not be looking toward the end of the world, resurrection of the dead, and day of judgment.
Clearly, a right understanding of God's word, and its important doctrines, depends on rightly dividing in terms of time.
2 The Shifting Divide
What was the past for those who wrote Scripture, is the very ancient past for us. What was the near future for Bible writers, is, from our perspective, now history. But the Bible was itself written over such a lengthy period, that what is prophetic future in one book, may turn up as historic fulfillment in another. The divide shifts generally forward as we turn the pages.
To understand the Bible properly, we must have a reasonable idea of where, in any given portion of Scripture, the past-future divide should be placed along the time-line of the Bible's unfolding story.
As an exercise, read Exodus 3:7-8, Jeremiah 31:31-32, and Hebrews 8:6-9. These passages place three men at widely-spaced points in human history:
- Moses in Egypt before the wilderness wanderings,
- Jeremiah after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem,
- The author of Hebrews in the early church.
Think about the perspectives of these three men on two events, namely the giving of the old covenant at Sinai, and the inauguration of the new covenant through Jesus Christ. Taking each man in turn, would the inauguration of both the old and new covenants be in the man’s future, or both be in the past, or would one inauguration be in the past and the other still in the future?
From this exercise, you can see that what was in the FUTURE for Moses, was in the PAST for Jeremiah. For Moses, it was still a future event that God's people would escape from bondage in Egypt, and Moses would give them the law-covenant at Mount Sinai. For Jeremiah that was history.
You can further see that what was in the FUTURE for Jeremiah, was in the PAST for the writer of Hebrews. For Jeremiah, the enacting of a new and better covenant was yet future and stood as a promise. For the author of Hebrews it was history and stood as prophecy fulfilled. The future had become the past.
This demonstrates the principle of the shifting divide.
3 The Great Divide
As the imaginary line separating past from future moves constantly forward in the Bible, it passes over certain events at which an important long-term change occurred. The most important event is this: "Having cancelled the handwriting of ordinances against us, which was hostile to us, Christ has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to his cross" (Colossians 2:14).
This is the turning point where Jeremiah’s prophecy for the future new covenant became no longer a promise for the future but a fulfillment in the past. Paul is quite clear about where to put this great divide. Paul pinpoints the cross of Christ as the time-divide where the two covenants meet, and FUTURE from Jeremiah’s standpoint became PAST from Paul’s.
The cross of Christ is the main divider of time in the Bible (Colossians 2:14, cf Hebrews 9:8-15).
How crucial this is! What if Paul had got it wrong, and moved the time-divide from the cross to a future day when, say, the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed? What a difference that forty-year anachronism would make! Instead of opposing the teachers who said Christians must keep the law of Moses (Acts 15), Paul would have joined them with a loud Amen, regarding a false doctrine as true, all because he was wrongly dividing the word by forty years!
What Future Is Left In The Bible?
How much future was left in the Bible, once its last page was written? Had the shifting divide caught up with the future, and rendered all the Bible as history? Or was something left for future fulfillment?
- The Premillennialist believes that most Bible prophecy will be fulfilled in the 21st century —the last days are coming.
- The Preterist believes that most prophecy was fulfilled in the 1st century —the last days are gone.
- Both the Premillennialist and the Preterist have failed to rightly divide the word of God in terms of time —the last days are now.