This article sheds light upon how God in Scripture speaks ‘proleptically’; speaking of future events as though they  had already taken place. The writer shows that because God possesses all knowledge, His intentions are sometimes  recorded as having already taken place. This omniscience of God also helps us understand some passages which  speak of salvation as having been already attained.

Past tense passages in John 17

Why did Christ say as recorded by John?:

  •  v2 “Thou hast given him (the Son) power over  all flesh that he should give eternal life,” when  the power to grant it would not become his until  after his ascension?

Why did Christ say?:

  •  v4 “I have finished the work which thou gavest  me to do,” when he had not been crucified?
  •  v5 “Glorify thou me … with the glory which I had  with thee before the world was,” when he had no  previous existence before his birth?
  •  v9 “I pray for them (the believers) … which thou hast  given me,” when multitudes were yet to be born?
  •  v11 “I am no more in the world,” implying that  he had already departed?
  •  v18 “Even so have I also sent them (the apostles)  into the world,” when it occurred after his ascension  (John 20:21)?
  •  v22 “The glory which thou gavest me I have given  them,” when believers, past, present and future  are yet to be glorified?

These verses may seem problematic at face value,  but if Christ and John were speaking ‘proleptically’,  that is, “the representation of something in the future  as if it already existed or had occurred”, then these  texts become much clearer. In fact this principle has  its origin with the Father, and Christ and the apostles  merely followed His example. So the use of the past  tense in John 17 and elsewhere needs to be considered  in this light, because clearly they describe not  what has already happened, but what was destined  to happen in the foreknowledge of God.

“As I have purposed, so shall it stand”

In view of this when the writers of Scripture wanted  to speak of something that was foreknown, it was  not uncommon for them to speak about it as already  existing. And since it was God who inspired  these men to write this way, an understanding of  this principle will lead to an appreciation of how  the divine mind functions. So when God declares  something will come to pass, even though its fulfilment  is yet many years into the future, so certain  is its accomplishment that it’s effectively done the  moment He plans it. Thus, in Isaiah 14 we read,  “Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass;  and as I have purposed, so shall it stand” (v24).  Accordingly, from His perspective as Master of all  creation, God alone is able to declare “the end from  the beginning” (Isa 46:10). Hence, a person not yet  born is spoken of as already existing or being known  to Him: people like Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), Cyrus, king  of Persia (Isa 45:1–4), believers (2 Tim 1:9) and  especially Christ (John 17:5).

Since “Known unto God are all his works from  the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18), the following  are examples of how He speaks about events  that are still future. In Romans 4:17 we read, “As it  is written, I have made you (Abraham) the father of  many nations. He was appointed our father in the  sight of God in whom he believed, who gives life  to the dead and speaks of the non-existent things as if  they existed” (Amplified Bible). In quoting Genesis  17:5, where the past tense is used of God’s promise  to Abraham, Paul shows that with God the end of  all things is known from the beginning.

Consequently, as far as God is concerned His  faithful followers, currently dead, “live unto him”  (Luke 20:35–38)! Yet in reality they will not be  brought back to life again until Christ is in the  earth and the judgment takes place (2 Cor 5:10).  So, although Abraham is currently dead and buried  (Gen 25:8–9), because God promised to make him  “the father of many nations”, effectively, in His mind he is already alive and immortal and His promise  fulfilled.

The prophetic past tense

Surprisingly, many writers of Scripture used the  principle of prolepsis more than we might appreciate.  This unique use of the ‘verb tense’ became  known as the ‘prophetic past tense’ or ‘the prophetic  perfect’ and the following verses are examples of its  widespread use.

In Genesis 15:18 God says to Abraham, “Unto  thy seed have I given this land.” The remarkable  thing about this promise is that Abraham was  childless when God spoke those words! How could  “Abraham’s seed” possess the land when in reality  they were yet to be born? Because the appointed  end of all things is known to God, He can speak  from this perspective!

God spoke to Jacob, “And the land which I gave  Abraham and Isaac, to thee will I give it” (Gen  35:12). However, Abraham and Isaac were only  ever “strangers and sojourners” in Israel (1 Chon  29:15), so neither possessed it during their mortal  lives; nevertheless this promise will be fulfilled in  the Kingdom Age (Acts 7:5). So again, divinely  planned future events are described in the past tense  as if they had already come to pass.

In Isaiah 53:6–8, 12 there are several examples of  the ‘prophetic past tense’ regarding the Lord’s suffering  and crucifixion, events that were some 700 years  away. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have  turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath  laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed,  and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth…  He was taken from prison and from judgment….For  he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the  transgression of my people was he stricken….he hath  poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered  with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many,  and made intercession for the transgressors”. So why  was this prophecy written in the past tense? Since  Christ played such a principal part in the Father’s  plan to redeem mankind, God speaks ‘proleptically’  about him – he “was foreordained before the foundation  of the world” (1 Pet 1:19–20).

In John 8 Christ said to the Jews, “Your father  Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and  was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not  yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus  said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before  Abraham was, I am” (v56–58). Clearly this was about  pre-eminence and not about time and pre-existence  – Christ’s mission transcended that of Abraham.

Pre-mature claims to being saved

In Romans 8:29–30 we read, “For whom he (God)  did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed  to the image of his Son, that he might be  the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover,  whom he did predestinate, them he also called:  and whom he called, them he also justified: and  whom he justified, them he also glorified.” So God  “foreknew” precisely who would be saved. He also  “predestined” them, meaning: “to pre-determine,  to decide beforehand” (Strongs). God’s foreknowledge  allows Him to foretell who will be faithful.  But believers do not have this foreknowledge,  hence they cannot prejudge their own salvation.  In Romans 8 the past tense is used of the salvation  of the redeemed saying they are already “justified”  and “glorified.” Moreover this was written some  2000 years ago and subsequent believers are also  described as being justified and glorified! How can  this be? Because in God’s eyes the whole process of  our calling, justification and glorification was known  to Him from the foundation of the world, before  our birth: He “hath saved us, and called us with an  holy calling….which was given us in Christ Jesus  before the world began” (2 Tim 1:9).

Salvation is a promise

The Bible uses three tenses when it speaks about  salvation. We have been saved in the past (Eph 2:5,  8), we will ultimately be saved in the future (Rom  5:9), and we are being saved in the present. This last  tense is illustrated in such passages as, “And the  Lord added to their number daily those who were  being saved” (Acts 2:46–47 NIV). We have salvation  now in the sense that it is a promise which God  will honour in the day appointed (Acts 17:31). So  the promise is certain (1 Jn 2:25). However salvation  is an ongoing process and it is possible for us to fall  from grace (Heb 6:4–6), but “he that endureth to  the end shall be saved” (Matt 10:22).