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Looking Back, Stepping Forward



Where do you live?


In your head, I mean. The past, the present, or the future?


GLORY DAYS


My wife and I like to joke about our ‘glory days!’ These days are now so far in the past, they are almost recorded on papyri. Yes, I’m talking about the 1970s and early 1980s. At school—a small school, it must be admitted—I was the outstanding athlete. I was captain of almost every team, won every award, and loved every minute. But then I left that school, and went to one three times the size. Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy. Aside from tennis, the prizes dried up. As for my wife, Bettina, she was very quick in her teenage years. She was on every athletics team, played basketball, and flourished academically. She won numerous prizes.


But then she grew up.


This is now all in the past, and we both view these years through rose-tinted spectacles, perched on our aging noses!


Nostalgia, huh? It’s not what it used to be. 😉


TIME


Though we live in the present, it is extremely hard to stay there. Our minds are inevitably drawn forwards and backwards. Looking back can lead to regret, while looking forward can lead to anxiety.


What does the Bible teach? It certainly takes a view on this issue. A very clear view.


THE PAST


In the Old Testament, whenever Yahweh wanted to remind his people of his character, he would point backwards to one singular event: the Exodus. It’s the headline statement that forms the basis for the Ten Commandments.


And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Exodus 20.1-3


Not only is it in the Torah, but it’s a theme that occurs in the Psalms, the histories, and the prophets.


You brought your people Israel out of Egypt with signs and wonders, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror.

Jer 32.21


I am the Lord your God,

who brought you up out of Egypt.

Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.

Ps 81.10


All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

2 Kings 17.7


In the Old Testament, the repeated reminder of the Exodus highlighted the character of Yahweh as a saving, covenant God. His saving act, bringing his people out of slavery into freedom, is the basis for the covenant he makes with them. Sadly, it was often a reminder used to call them back from their apostasy. Nevertheless, it signals an important aspect of the way in which God communicates with his people.


History matters. It really matters.


God stakes his reputation on an historical event, and repeatedly emphasises the historicity of this event to shine a light on the kind of God he is.


A saving God. A covenant God. A faithful God.


His attributes flow from his actions.


When we get to the New Testament, the same methodology continues. The writers emphasise an historical event to demonstrate the character of God. Here is Peter explaining the healing of a lame man to the Sanhedrin.


It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.

Acts 4.10b


Whenever the apostle Paul preached, he always focused on the Resurrection. This is how his visit to Thessalonica is described.


As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.

Acts 17.2-3a


As believers, we are urged to reflect on the past as a source of encouragement. Indeed, in our songs, we often refer to God’s actions in the past to help us cope with the struggles we experience in the present. Hence lyrics like these from You’ve Already Won.


I don't know what You're doing

But I know what You've done.


I have chosen these lyrics because they connect the present to the past. Right now, we face all kinds of challenges, but we know whom we serve, and what our God has done for us in Jesus. So we hold on. This is how we should relate to the past. It is an anchor for us, because nothing can change what God has done for us.


It is written in history and in our hearts.


What about the future?


THE FUTURE


The Bible speaks of the future in glowing terms. We call it Hope. The Day of the Lord. The Day of his Appearing, when ‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes’ (Rev 21).


In the New Testament documents, the future is held out as an encouragement in the midst of suffering. The hope of heaven serves to encourage saints who are being persecuted. There is an assumption in the apostle Paul’s writing, in particular, that followers of Jesus will face persecution for their faith. Back in the first century, they were flogged, had their property taken, and paid with their lives.


How are we to view the future?


It contains a certain hope, which should lead us to engage with a suffering world. Heaven is never presented as a reason to withdraw. Personally, I take encouragement from the apostle Paul, who wrote this towards the end of his life.


For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

2 Tim 4. 6-8


As he longs ‘for his appearing’, Paul looks forward to ‘the crown of righteousness.’ He has kept the faith; he has finished the race. Such is the function of our future hope. It spurs us on to faithfulness. As the final lyrics of You’ve Already Won make clear,


No more fear in life or death

I know how this story ends.


THE PRESENT


Which brings us to the present. What did Jesus teach about the present?


The Kingdom of heaven has arrived. The Kingdom of God has come near. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6.20b)


The present rule and reign of God has come. It is here. It is life, found in the Messiah, who brings in his kingdom, where joy, peace, and love can be experienced to the full. In the here and now. Jesus makes this clear in John’s gospel.


I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10.10b


This is our message. Life. Abundant life.


ENCOURAGING THE SAINTS


So, how do we encourage those stuck in the past?


Grace and more grace.


There is nothing we can do to cancel out our sins. However, grace tells us that our past is never held over us. The slate is wiped clean. Our clothes are now righteous robes, because of what Christ has done for us. The cross and Resurrection—past events—live on now in our hearts and lead to worship.


How do we encourage those fixated on the future, who use it to tune out the present?


Invite them into new life found in Jesus, the king. And remind them what their king is doing now. Not in the past. Not in the future, but right now. Two things stand out.


Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

Rom 8.34b


He is praying for us. Imagine that. He’s not stuck in the past or a distant thought in the future. He is praying for us. Right now. But there’s more.


But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.

1 John 2.1b


The Lord Jesus is on our side. Our advocate, our protector, the one who represents us, and fights for us. Between what God has done for us and what he will do to display his glory, we live now in union with our Saviour, who prays for us, who advocates for us, who loves us.


For we live now. Right now. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow.


Right now.


This is where we savour new life in God’s kingdom.


In the present.

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