The first instance of the use of the phrase “the foundation of the world” occurs in Matthew’s account at 13.34-35: Jesus spoke all these things in parables to the crowds; he did not speak to them without a parable. This fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (NET). The “prophet” Matthew is referencing is probably Asaph, whom David appointed as a leader of songs in the Tabernacle. The citation is Ps 78.2: I will sing a song that imparts wisdom; I will make insightful observations about the past (NET). The NET Bible explains the terminology of the Hebrew:
Heb “I will open with a wise saying my mouth, I will utter insightful sayings from long ago.” Elsewhere the Hebrew word pair חִידָה+מָשָׁל(mashal + khidah) refers to a taunt song [Hab. 2.6], a parable [Ezek. 17.2], proverbial sayings [Pr. 1.6], and an insightful song that reflects on the mortality of humankind and the ultimate inability of riches to prevent death [Ps. 49.4].
Returning to Matthew’s description of Jesus’ ministry in speaking to the crowds in parables, is it possible to determine when these mysterious and veiled sayings (parables) first occurred to which he and Asaph refer?
Fixing the meaning of the term “world” is the crucial step which allows placement of the idea at a point in time. The lexicon BAGD indicates kosmou (world) as an “adornment.” Or better in this case as the arrangement “of the sum total of everything here and now, the (orderly) universe.” Therefore, it refers to the cosmic ordering of the world system after expulsion from Eden. Some translations render the phrase (here and at other places) as “from before creation.” This rendering is incorrect as shown from the meaning of the term “world.” A further indication that our phrase means after Eden and not the creation of matter, is Jesus’ usage of the phrase in Lk. 11.50-51…for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah… (NET). This shows the “world” is the sphere of influence during this present evil age and not during or before Eden.
With the timing set as the orderly arrangement of the universe, post Eden, what was the “parable” given at the beginning? Gen. 3.15 fits succinctly as it is given in an overt judgment on the serpent by God: He will crush your head, and you will pierce His heal (my translation). This refers to the ‘two hours’ of Christ: the first mentioned is the second hour, crushing of the serpent’s head which is “The Day of The Lord.” The first hour is Christ’s Advent which culminated in the offering of Himself on the cross. Both of these events, or “hours” are judgments since they are given during a scene of judgment after the Fall in Eden. Yes, Christ suffered immensely when His heal was pierced in crucifixion, but it was for us and not because He was guilty. It was the great substitution, His life for ours. Since death could not hold Him, eternal life is given to all who are His.
I noted how Gen. 3.15 spoke of The Redeemer having His heal pierced in death. When God announced the heal piercing, during The Judgment after the Fall, it constituted a promise and therefore a certainty that He would redeem humankind. This piercing of the heal happened already as was mentioned at Calvary. God committed to its fulfillment when He announced it and so the “work” was as good as finished at least from the time it was stated. This is reflected in Heb. 4.3 where our phrase “from before the foundation of the world” is used again: …And yet God’s works were accomplished from the foundation of the world (NET).
Another use of the phrase: “from the foundation of the world” seems to refer to the need for individual sacrifices when the person committed a sin as well as the covenant a person ratifies with God by sacrifice (see Ps. 50.5). Christ did not have to undergo a suffering of death every time a sin occurred by His people but a representation of the act seemed to be required. This was the institution of animal sacrifices which were a shadow of the ultimate act of redemption by Christ. Christ was the second and Last Adam (see Rom. 5) and as such fulfilled the symbol which the animals only suggested. Heb. 9.26 speaks about this idea while using the ‘foundation phrase’: for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the consummation of the ages to put away sin by his sacrifice (NET). The phrase also occurs in 1Pet. 1.19-20 reflecting much this same idea of fulfillment of an innocent one instead of the guilty party: but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was manifested in these last times for your sake (NET).
Not only is Christ known from the foundation of the world, but believers also were in the mind of God which fact should greatly encourage us. This is our “Hope” reserved in heaven. This hope sustains us during our earthly journey since it instills confidence that no suffering on earth can outweigh our comfort and lasting reward for patient endurance. Notice Mt. 25.34: Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (NET). This commonly known as The Sheep and Goat Judgment. God had us in mind as persons and is preparing a dwelling place for us.
Recalling the “parables” cited “before the foundation of the world” in Mt.13.35, again the overt judgment scene after the Fall provides the source of the “parables.” The initial statement of Gen. 3.15 speaks of two groups or division of peoples which agrees well with Mt. 25.34 where Jesus references The Sheep and Goat Judgment: And I will put hostility between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring. Though Gen. 3.15 gives in a “parable” for the future division of humanity, Jesus uses another parable with a different focus: the division’s end result. The point I am raising is that we all personally were conceived in the mind of God before the foundation of the world. It may be significant to note from Mt. 25 that only the sheep are mentioned having a place prepared. The goats are not personally known and so passed over it seems.
These persons are those given by the Father to Jesus as reflected in Christ’s High Priestly Prayer in John 17.24: Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they can see my glory that you gave me because you loved me before the foundation of the world (literal Greek translation). Here we note Jesus claiming His Father’s love from before this world’s order and the uniting in glory of His chosen people. Finally, along this same thought, is believers’ names written in the Book of Life and belonging to their Redeemer in Rev. 13.8: …been written since the foundation of the world in the book of life belonging to the Lamb who was killed (NET).