58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. 59 Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. John 8:58-59
13 And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? 14 And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. Exodus 3:13-14
Before Abraham was, I AM
A most interesting juxtaposition, comparing and contrasting a past tense (Abraham was) with the present tense (I AM).
I AM – a nearly incomprehensible concept for us to understand concerning God. For God is not I WAS. Neither is He I WILL. God is, instead, I AM. He is the ever-present, transcendent God. And in every respect, He is fully indecipherable beyond the written Word given to us in plain, simplistic language, with many additional bits of help such as symbolic anthropomorphisms provided for us to relate. But most importantly, the Holy Spirit, who guides us into all truth.
The contrasting and seemingly contradictory words of John 8:58 gives us but a glimpse of the enormity of the hurdle to our understanding. It provides, however, enough of a glimpse both to us and to those rebellious Pharisees of that day. Enough for them to pick up stones to stone Jesus had he not escaped their stiff necks, gritted teeth, and stones.
Each of us has a past, a current present that is continually fleeting to the past with every passing microsecond, and a diminishing future (in time) as our bodies slowly perish under the weight of corruption. We slide along a belt of time, though haphazardly bumping along through life might be more appropriate. We can be in a state of I AM but only for the briefest of time, and then that I AM moment is gone into the I WAS.
But not God.
God has never been an I WAS. God never will be an I WILL.
God stands vigil in an ever unyielding I AM, as we scamper laboriously and falter along in time, all done relative to his fixed position. He is somewhat like a bright beacon in the stormy night, light shining out of the darkness that we dash into and out of in our lives, both literally and figuratively.
But already I fail, finding myself trapped in an oversimplification of God. For light He is, but not fixed to a point on a rocky jetty like a lighthouse—a point on a map. For God cannot be narrowed down in such a manner. For—
Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heaven like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of of the earth as emptiness. To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? Says the Holy One. Isaiah 40:21-23, 25
See what I mean.
And if that isn’t enough, here is a little more from Isaiah:
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. Isaiah 40:28
His understanding is unsearchable. A fixed point, present tense, I AM, and yet UNSEARCHABLE.
Look out the window to your right as the train of your life zips by and God is there, in the ever-present I AM. Quickly, now turn your head to the window on your left and He is there as well. Ahead He is there. Behind, He is there. Above and below, inside out outsider—at one moment and then another, God is swallowing up all the moments that make up the universe and beyond.
For God, unlike any aspect of creation including you and I, is the creator of time, remaining outside of time, and is not controlled, dictated, or limited by time. The same is true of space.
Go back a trillion years in time and you find I AM.
Go forward a trillion years in time and you find I AM.
You cannot expand time to unfathomable lengths, or diminish it to microscopic levels and have any effect on God, for He remains immutably, I AM.
The ever-present, unmoveable, unshakeable God who fills all things with regard to both time and space. There has never been nor shall there ever be a time when God isn’t I AM. There has never been nor shall ever be a place where God isn’t I AM.
7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? 8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; 10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalm 139:7-10
Focusing more on the time aspect, Arthur Custance, a Canadian Scientist, and Biblical scholar said this on the matter: Eternity includes Time and yet is fundamentally something other. The reduction of Time until it gets smaller and smaller is still not Eternity. Nor do we reach Eternity by an extension of time to great length. There is no direct pathway between Time and Eternity. They are different categories of experience. (Doorway Paper No. 37)
Time and eternity are two different categories of experience, related in some aspects, and completely foreign in others. Eternity is all around us, inside of which is time, where we are. Eternity is veiled to us, eternally separated from the temporal, immediately there, but unreachable apart from the door of death or the harpazo. We know of it, we have some sense of it, but it is so far beyond us, as we look through the glass darkly.
And filling every morsel of both time and space is the great I AM.
Now that we have seen that interesting juxtaposition in John 8:58, let us consider another, found in the book of Revelation.
In Revelation 4:1, we read that John looked and beheld an open door in heaven. He then heard a voice, sounding like a trumpet, talking with him. The voice said to John to come up so that he can be shown things which must be hereafter (in the future).
So from the Isle of Patmos, in the year 95, John is immediately in the Spirit (verse 2), in heaven, where he saw a throne and one sitting on the throne. It is worth noting that we find the apostle John, in the Spirit, three times in Revelation.
10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, 11 Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea. Revelation 1:10-11
1 After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. 2 And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. Revelation 4:1-2
1 And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters: 2 With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. 3 So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. Revelation 17:1-3
Concerning, “in the Spirit,” we must first address whether John was having a vision, a dream, or some kind of supernatural actual experience, the kind of which goes well beyond the most amazing IMAX screen showing the latest blockbuster movie. The story that John shares far surpasses the greatest movie ever made. In other words, was the revelation to John nothing more than the clickity-clack of a filmstrip showing before his astonished eyes with the ominous sound of a narrator in the background, or something more? Was John turning the pages of the latest adventure thriller, or following the sketched outline of a creator’s storyboard? What was his experience?
Before we address this, let us look at the scene in heaven as Scripture reveals in Revelation 4.
2 Immediately I was in the Spirit, and a throne was standing in heaven with someone seated on it! 3 And the one seated on it was like jasper and carnelian in appearance, and a rainbow looking like it was made of emerald encircled the throne. 4 In a circle around the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on those thrones were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white clothing and had golden crowns on their heads. 5 From the throne came out flashes of lightning and roaring and crashes of thunder. Seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God, were burning in front of the throne, 6 and in front of the throne was something like a sea of glass, like crystal. In the middle of the throne and around the throne were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second creature like an ox, the third creature had a face like a man’s, and the fourth creature looked like an eagle flying. 8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around and inside. They never rest day or night, saying: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful, Who was, and who is, and who is still to come!” Revelation 4:2-8
As your mind attempts to envision what it was that John saw, I would like to shift your attention to the 24 elders mentioned. Specifically, who are these elders, these people, sitting around the throne? Is it even remotely possible to identify them? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But I do believe, that we can provide enough clues to point in a certain direction.
Let me first provide you with the biblical text in Revelation 7:9-17:
9 After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. 10 They were shouting out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels stood there in a circle around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Praise and glory, and wisdom and thanksgiving, and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” 13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These dressed in long white robes—who are they and where have they come from?” 14 So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb! 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will never go hungry or be thirsty again, and the sun will not beat down on them, nor any burning heat, 17 because the Lamb in the middle of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:9-17
These verses will help us in our quest to determine who the elders are by shedding crucial light on who they can’t be without the Bible contradicting itself.
They cannot be tribulation saints. Why not? Because in Revelation 7:13-14, one of those 24 elders speaks with John, asking a question and then ultimately answering it himself. Read here:
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These dressed in long white robes—who are they and where have they come from?” 14 So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb! Revelation 7:13-14
The elder has identified this white-clothed group as the tribulation saints who have survived. Therefore, the elders cannot be of that group since it was one of the elders asking, “who are they, and where have they come from?” in Revelation 7:13.
They cannot be angels, for we read in Revelation 7:11 that ALL the angels stood in a massive circle around the throne.
And all the angels stood there in a circle around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground before the throne and worshiped God, Revelation 7:11
They cannot be Israel, despite the use of 24 found in 1 Chronicles 14-15 where the priests were divided into 24 groups representing the whole of Israel. For Israel is on the earth during the tribulation. 144,000 of them are special missionary envoys, sealed and protected by God as they preach around the world. Two of them are preaching for 3/12 years from Jerusalem in the first half of the tribulation (Revelation 11). The remnant of Israel is being chased by the dragon, and God intercedes on their behalf, taking them into the desert and protecting them for the second half of the tribulation (Revelation12).
Now, some more clues as to who they might be:
They (the 24 elders) sit on thrones around God’s throne. Now read Revelation 3:21-22, following the letters to all seven churches. In these verses, God promises to the overcomers that they will sit on thrones. And by the way, who is it, according to Scripture, are the overcomers? (Whoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. 1 John 5:4)
21 To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. 22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. Revelation 3:21-22
They (the 24 elders) are clothed in white raiment. When we read in Revelation 3:5, speaking to the church of Sardis, “he that overcometh shall be clothed in white raiment.” And remember, who is the overcomer? (Whoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. 1 John 5:4)
He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment. Revelation 3:5
They (the 24 elders) are wearing crowns. Scripture tells us in Revelation 2:10, concerning the church in Smyrna, that should they be faithful unto death, God would give them a crown of life. Also note, in Revelation 3:11, the Lord tells the church to hold fast to what they have so that no man would take their crown.
Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. Revelation 2:10
Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. Revelation 3:11
The final clue is this. Beginning in Revelation 4, the church, after being in constant thought throughout the first three chapters, is not mentioned again until chapter 22. In fact the words church and churches are mentioned 19 times in Revelation chapters 1-3 with a final time, an epilogue if you will, in Revelation 22:16. And why is the church not mentioned AT ALL during the harrowing pages of the tribulation? Quite simply. The church is not on the earth.
So where are they?
Go back and review all these comments and clues concerning the elders in heaven and if you honestly do, you might come away with the understanding that the 24 elders represent the church in heaven. They have been delivered from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10) and will not go through the tribulation. I know that I am convinced of it.
Now that we have an understanding as to who the 24 elders are, let us look back at Revelation 7 and look closer.
9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; 10 And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. 11 And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, 12 Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. 13 And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? 14 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Revelation 7:9-14
John beholds—he sees everything that is going on. Again, is he just sitting in the IMAX theater watching a projection of things to be, or something more? The story unfolds and there is a lot going on. But then—something really amazing happens.
One of the 24 elders (the church in heaven) ASKS John a question in verse 13.
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” Revelation 7:13
John’s IMAX experience while “in the Spirit” in heaven has just changed dramatically. Imagine that as you sat in a movie theater, enjoying the drama, the action, and buttery popcorn, that one of the main characters suddenly stepped forward and addressed you in your seat? This is quite an upgrade to the IMAX experience as you now become part of the scene, interacting and talking with the elder. That is what is happening between John and one of the elders. And John answers the elder’s question.
And I (John) said unto him (the elder in heaven), Sir, thou knowest. Revelation 7:14a
The dialogue between the Apostle John and the elder in heaven continues with the elder giving the answer to his own question. That those they were looking upon were indeed tribulation saints.
And he (the elder) said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Revelation 7:14b
While it might seem that I am only restating something that I covered earlier, my desire here is for you to capture in your mind this amazing exchange. John is on the Isle of Patmos. He is quite old and is a prisoner, held under the order of the Roman Emporer Domitian in the first century A.D., around the year 95. From Patmos, John is taken “in the Spirit” up into heaven, out of time, and into eternity, where he is not only a witness to these amazing future events but a participant in a conversation. And who is John talking to, but a representative of the church that will be raptured and taken to heaven some 2000 years after John’s life is over. And as John and the elder, who hasn’t been born yet and won’t be for 20 centuries or so after John, talk, the focus of their conversation are the tribulation saints that have survived. The amazing thing here is that the tribulation has hardly gotten underway in the pages of Revelation, just after the opening of the sixth seal. In other words, the great tribulation was yet future, IN TIME, but NOT IN ETERNITY.
IN TIME, everything moves on a belt, chugging forward, one event after another. On that belt, you can look behind you at everything that once was, for it is also on the same belt. The prophetic future is also on the belt. You just haven’t gotten there yet.
But in ETERNITY all that changes.
John and another (the elder), born 2000 years apart, are together talking and looking at others that have yet to be safely delivered from an event (the tribulation) that hasn’t even started yet.
For in ETERNITY, we stand IN CHRIST, partakers of His Divine Nature, part of His body, sharing in his ETERNALITY. He is I AM, ever present in both time and space, and we share in that with him.
And back to our original verse:
58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. 59 Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. John 8:58-59
They (Jesus and Abraham) seem out of sync with one another, certainly out of time. But the truth is deeper. It is the coming together of ETERNITY and TIME and their disassociation with each other. While this might seem to indicate a non-linear story, not progressing along the avenue of time, I think it reveals something else entirely, and that is the relativity of time to that which stands outside of time.
We all have the understanding of our positional truth, that is WHO WE ARE IN CHRIST. Some of those include truths include that we are perfected forever, seated in heavenly places, joint-heir with Jesus Christ, and so on. The amazing part of that is that those are all written in the Bible in the present tense, even as Christ is the ever-present tense, I AM. When the weight of that begins to settle in your heart, you might begin to see things a little differently. You know that you are seated in the throne room of God (positionally), but I would like to postulate that it is more than positional truth. The you IN TIME is still on the belt of TIME, knowing that you are seated with Christ. But IN ETERNITY, where you already are IN CHRIST who is I AM, you are already seated (literally).
Positional truth is relative. From the perspective of time, where we are, we see ourselves seated POSITIONALLY in CHRIST. But I believe that we are already actually seated in the heavenlies (literally) but from our current position, trapped in time if you will, we cannot comprehend it. And that from our heavenly throne, we can look down at us in time, and IN TIME, we are positionally living our lives waiting for everything to unfold relative to eternity. More on this in a moment.
Positional truth is not merely a promise pointing to a fact; it is reality. Our positional truth points to a present reality IN CHRIST, divorced from TIME, in eternity. We ARE because we are IN CHRIST, is just as ever-present and ever certain as I AM for we are IN CHRIST who is the great I AM.
Unbound by time, we now fully experience the reality that we only had a hint of before. Veiled to the reality of the invisible, our minds are clouded by the limitations of this body and of time and space, causing us only to see through the glass dimly. The reality of our earthly hope in Christ is everlasting life, having a beginning with no end, walking and struggling along the apparently slow path of life with all of its earthy baggage.
But when we step through the veil and we behold his glory face to face, eternal clarity is finally seen, understood, and experienced. We then step from everlasting in our positional understanding into eternal as we grasp our relationship with Christ who always has been and always will be…the great I AM. And being IN CHRIST, we share in that as well.
While we all had a beginning, a physical birth, in eternity, we will know of no such thing, only Christ and his ever-present transcendence of everything apart from himself and God. And from our place IN CHRIST, we can look down and see ourselves POSITIONALLY on the earth, just as we now see ourselves POSITIONALLY in the heavenlies IN CHRIST.
For eternity is not an extension of time. We say things like “back in eternity past” to enable our limited minds to grasp the truth, but there is no eternity past. There is only eternity. Other language is used to render aid to our understanding.
There are other passages in Scripture that have collisions of time and eternity. For example, it says in Revelation 13:8 that Jesus was slain before the foundation of the world. How often is this type of language addressed with convenient understandings such as the Divine Decrees, in eternity past to mean that it was declared to be true. In other words, a Divine “done deal”. Notice that the Bible does not say that the Lamb was foreordained to be slain but was actually slain. I believe that here we will find a much deeper truth, where an event, 2000 years ago on Calvary, the crucifixion of the I AM who is transcendent and ever-present in eternity, a fixed point that fills all, puts the cross in that same place. The cross and its meaning is an eternal event, taking place in both time and eternity, for Christ is both in TIME (when he walked the same time belt that we walk), and ETERNITY for his is the great I AM. The cross, while it happened 2000 years ago on the belt of time, is ETERNAL. It stands FOREVER, and in fact, FOREVER OCCURS.
So as we prepare to close, let your minds free and consider this. In ETERNITY, it is all over, and that is why from the hill of Golgotha when Jesus cried, “it is finished,” it really is. So what do I mean by that?
In the ever-present ETERNITY, you and I are already in heaven. We have already been through the Judgment Seat of Christ (Bema). We have already received our rewards. The rapture and the tribulation are already done, the millennial kingdom is over, and all the bad guys have been judged and are in the lake of fire. There is no more sorrow, no more tears, no more pain because everything from the fall has been restored, even a new heaven and new earth. When we step from time into ETERNITY, this convergence means a lot of amazing things could very well be possible.
Let me allow Dr. Custance to elaborate even further.
The experience of each saint is shared by all other saints, by those who have preceded and those who are to follow. For them all, all history, all intervening time between death and the Lord’s return is suddenly annihilated so that each one finds to his amazement that Adam, too, is just dying and joining him on his way to meet the Lord: and Abraham and David, Isaiah and the beloved John, Paul, Augustine, Hudson Taylor and you and I—all in one wonderful experience meeting the Lord in a single instant together, without precedence and without the slightest consciousness of delay, none being late and none to early. (Doorway Paper, No. 37, pg. 28)
If we were given the opportunity to peak outside of time and into eternity, we could see “the Lord coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones,” just as Enoch did when he was permitted to look into eternity. And whose to say, that if that opportunity was ever given, could we have been looking at the same event unknowingly together.
When dealing with this matter of time and eternity and life beyond death, know this that when time ends, eternity begins. They are not the same, and though our minds try and make them the same, they are not. In time, we a confined and locked into a pattern of chronological sequence that we are helpless to break, says pastor Ray Stedman. For example, all human beings sharing the same room will experience an earthquake together. While in the group there are varying feelings and reactions, everyone will feel the earthquake at the same time. But in eternity events do not follow a sequential pattern. There is no past or future, on the present NOW, as in I AM. Within that NOW all events happen. An individual will experience sequence, but only in relation to himself, and events will occur to him on the basis of his spiritual readiness. No two individuals need, therefore, to experience the same event just because they happen to be together.
Pastor Rollin Miller