The Past Tense and the Good News from Jesus

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Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11:24)

What’s So Important about Tense and Language?

I am neither a Greek scholar nor a grammarian, but I am aware, as my readers are or will soon be, that “tense” matters when it comes to faith in Jesus. By “tense” I mean the way verbs may point to past, present, and future events (I ran yesterday, I run or am running today, and I will run tomorrow).

The intent of this post is to urge us to live in terms of the past—not our checkered and unreliable past, but in terms of the divine past. This past consists of needs God addressed before the beginning of time, and it is fulfilled in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The divine past is one way of accessing faith, which we know looks at things unseen, not at things that are seen.

Before entering into the wonderful realm of the divine past, let’s suspend our modern distinction between physical healing and spiritual salvation. In the Gospel (the revelation of Jesus), the two often overlap.

Three words in Greek are used to refer to both healing and salvation: sozo/σώζω, therapeuo/θεραπεύω, and iaomai/ἰάομαι (Three New Testament Words for Healing). Each of these words is used in the New Testament, and each refers to both physical healing and spiritual salvation. The Gospel (incarnated in Jesus) reveals that the whole person is under the purview of God’s love, with the result that God “will make peace your governor and well-being your ruler” (Isaiah 60:17, NIV). On more than one occasion, Jesus healed and forgave the person, making the person whole physically and admonishing the person to sin no more. Let us learn, then, to think of the divine touch as complete, sufficient for all our needs.

The present and the past are not separate for the eternal God. We live in time, but God does not. Are we addressing another person in time or are we addressing the real God? Similarly the two kinds of healing—physical and spiritual—are never strictly separated in the New Testament. Why do we draw a line where God does not? A genuine experience with either type of healing can encourage an experience with the other. May our minds be open to the God for whom nothing is impossible, the God who resists the proud but who reveals himself to children. Then we will be able to hear what Jesus said to the blind men: “According to your faith let it be done to you…” (Matthew 9:29).

Today’s Prayers Have Been Answered Already by God

Speaking in strictly human terms we can, I think, agree that the past seems stable (if not always desirable), while the future remains uncertain. If the present is difficult (such as with ill health, bad circumstances, or demoralization), we will find more consolation in learning that something for our benefit has been done in the past than we will in finding something may be done for our benefit in the future. It is my wish that the readers of this post will walk away with more confidence that our Father has already foreseen and addressed the majority of their needs in the past. This revelation will result in peace for the believer who will be free to respond with thanksgiving, and not with worry.

Usually, hope looks to the future, while faith accepts in the present something that has already been done or promised in the past. Similarly, promises refer to future events (I will marry you), while facts refer to past accomplishments (I married you). As we will see for past and future, as well as facts and promises, each has its role and each works in its own way to communicate to us the provision of God who lives outside of time. What I overlooked for years and what appears to be overlooked by much of Christianity is that our Father and our Lord Jesus have already accomplished much of what we hope will be done.

Most of us feel comfortable with promises, while we are forgetful of facts. Promises and the future come to us naturally. We grow up with parents or caregivers who make promises, and if this person is both capable of fulfilling the promise and trustworthy, we can hope for its fulfillment. Similarly when the scriptures provide a promise such as “no good thing will he [God] withhold from them that walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11, KJV), we are right at home. We put our hope in the promise for future fulfillment and, assuming the promise applies to us, we will receive its fulfillment so long as we walk uprightly.

But we are less used to hearing a divine fact about a past accomplishment and accepting it as being done because we cannot see or touch the result. For this difficulty there are at least two reasons.

First, the facts to which I’m referring are not obvious to natural observation. These must be revealed in the scriptures and by the Holy Spirit. Who, in fact, would have guessed that the key to faith in the opening quotation (Mark 11:24) instructed us to believe that we have already received whatever we ask for? Many of us have read this verse all our lives and have not caught its meaning.

Its meaning, however, points directly to the one to whom we are praying: the eternal creator who knows everything and stands outside of time. If you are not praying to this being, you are probably praying to someone created in your own image, most likely a “god” who is occasionally forgetful and sometimes indifferent. Listen to Jesus’ words on tense: “Do not be like them [those who keep repeating prayers], for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8, NIV). As we trust that God already knows and cares, we are living in faith.

The second reason we think in terms of God responding in the future instead of the past is that we simply have not been instructed well. We hear “the promises of God” applied too loosely. In Christian sermons the phrase often is not only applied to promises, but also to facts that have been long ago been performed. We are often treading water, lacking confidence in both the divine past and the future, both in God’s will and in our inheritance—all with the result that we flounder in the present.

It’s fine to hope for fulfillment in the future—and some things, such as one’s wedding date or our new bodies, are reserved for the future and are proper objects of hope. Other things—indeed many of our greatest needs—have already been known by God, addressed by God, and accomplished by Jesus. To use a crude analogy, the check is not in the mail, it has been deposited before we knew we needed the money and awaits only for us to draw upon the account.

I want to emphasize that petitions (requests) for present needs are best considered as already provided by God. The past tense is undeniable in the Greek for Mark 11:24.

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (NIV)

Greek: πιστεύετε ὅτι ἐλάβετε καὶ ἔσται
New American Standard: believe that you have received them, and they will be [granted] you.
King James: believe that ye receive [them], and ye

If you are indifferent to what I’m pointing out, please know that the difference is immense. Trusting what God already knows, what God already intends, and what Jesus already accomplished delivers us from a life of fretful worry to a life of peace and joy. We may not instantly experience much, but the knowledge that the matter is in hands greater than ours promotes trust. I’ve found peace and resolution by assuming a gift from God is mine, even when it isn’t visible or sensible.

Once we open our minds to God’s awareness and provision for our present, we see it expressed often in the gospels, as well as in stunning passages such as the entirety of Romans 8. We see it before Jesus heals the man born blind. In the past—before his birth and blindness—he was ordained to be healed, and he was later healed (in his present) (John 9:2-7).

After word got out that Jesus could heal people and deliver them from demons, Jesus was flooded with requests:

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.”

(Matthew 8:16-17)

Before the infirmities and diseases affected people in the present-day Palestine, Jesus had offered himself as a servant to remove the suffering. Jesus was, we learn, “the lamb slain before the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Of course, I don’t know how the prophetic past tense and present time relate—only that what was intended and accomplished is later manifested.

We discover that time is and is not important in Christ: it’s extremely important because everything has to be worked out, experienced, achieved. Jesus had to suffer on a specific day under the authority of Pontius Pilate. Yet the intentions, the obedience, the supernatural power were expressed “since the foundation of the world” (Hebrews 4:3).

Assurance without tangible evidence may be considered the foundation of faith, which, as we learn in Hebrews 11:1 is “the substance [in the present] of things hoped for [in the future], the evidence [in the present] of things not [yet] seen” (KJV]). The litmus test of prayer is whether, when we are done expressing it, we are walking away with assurance that it’s being taken care of or whether we feel it all remains up to us to accomplish.

This assurance comes by being convinced that we know God’s will, that it is good, perfect, and acceptable, that it is for our welfare and not our destruction, that it is full of grace and mercy. We must rid ourselves of institutional disbelief—teachings and practices that reduce God to some kind of sadistic being that prefers to teach through sickness rather than healing, through punishment rather than forgiveness. If the good news is anything, it is good and, yes, at this late date, it is still news.

New People as a Result of the Past Obedience of Jesus

Up to this point, we’ve focused on petitionary prayer. This kind of prayer includes asking for daily needs and physical healing—both incredibly vital for each of us. As secure as our lives may seem and as wonderful as medical science may be, many of us still have unmet needs—hence the need for petitions. We are all living closer to the brink of disaster than we often realize. We are taught to ask for our daily bread. Each of us, like Shakespeare’s Richard II, has these needs (“I live with bread like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends”). It’s perfectly good for children to turn to their Heavenly Father for aid.

However, more important than our health or our physical well-being is our identity—who and what we really are. If I’m the wrong person, all the health or provision in the world cannot make me happy. But if I’m a new person, a person adopted by God and endowed with the righteousness of Jesus—well, then, I’m forever fine!

One quotation from Peter (who was quoting Isaiah) provides us with a transition from physical to spiritual healing. It uses a word for healing but with a strong emphasis on sin (moral bankruptcy). And it stresses the past tense: :

“He [Jesus] himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (I Peter 2:24 NIV)

This scripture quotes Isaiah 53:5 but Peter changes “are healed” to “have been healed.” Some Christians interpret Peter as meaning our physical healing is tied into the physical sufferings of Jesus—far be it for me to discount this. More Christians interpret the statement in Peter as referring to the beginning of Jesus’ redemptive crucifixion. What everyone agrees on is that the healing occurred in the past, which is plain and simple in the Greek:
Greek: τῷ μώλωπι ἰάθητε
New American Standard: for by His wounds you were healed.
King James: whose stripes ye were healed.

Remembering that the Greek words for healing and salvation are the same, we can celebrate God’s provision for this life and the life to come. What remains unambiguous throughout the New Testament is

  1. Jesus frequently healed all who came to him who were ill,
  2. he often chided his followers for their disbelief,
  3. he valued our eternal welfare over our physical existence (Matthew 18:8-10).

With those points in mind, we proceed to how the Gospel assures us our spiritual welfare has already been addressed by God.

The great scripture that is so often quoted as to become a mere jingle to our ears is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV). Note that the deed has been done in the past; we need not pray it happens nor can we make it happen: “he gave his one and only son….” Note, also, that we who live in the present can believe in this son: “whoever believes in him….” And, finally, observe that the effect of this past deed will result in future effects for those who believe who “shall…have eternal life.”

Here is a wonderful scripture that highlights the role of tense:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!
(Romans 5:6-9)

The “right time” is the historical past, about 33 AD. This is followed by literary (or eternal) present, “God demonstrates his own love.” And, again, “While we were still sinners,” refers to the past in one or two respects. First, the author, Paul the Apostle, was alive and sinning (by his own confession) when Christ died for him. Second, those who were born after the crucifixion (that’s us) discover that, in the present (now) while we may be still sinning, in the past, Christ already died for us. As a result, whether in the first or twenty-first century, “we have now been justified” (past perfect tense—to indicate that one event happened before another in the past).

The important point is that whether God so loved the world that he gave his son or that while we were still sinning Christ died for us—the important point is that the miracle happened in the past and that we benefit from it by believing in the present. Put differently, the only remaining event is our acceptance…all the divine work has been finished.

We often pray as though God is a hopefully caring individual who will assist us if we can just get his attention, and this, frankly, indicates we are already living in disbelief. It’s essential to believe in the present that God both understands and has provided for this moment’s needs. He knows before we ask what we have need of (Matthew 6:7-8, KJV). We do not “remind” God of anything. We remind ourselves that God has already numbered the hairs on our head and knows what we need (Luke 12:6-7, KJV).

Most of what we need now has already been provided in the past. And this is what we find in the New Testament: Our old man was crucified with Christ so the body of sin can, in the present, be made powerless (Romans 6:6, NIV). We count (in the present) ourselves dead to sin (a done deal), with the result that we are alive with God (in the present) (Romans 6:11, NIV). We have already received the spirit of adoption, which causes us to cry out in the present, “Dad, Father” (Romans 8:15, NIV). Finally, we realize that we have been crucified with Christ (in the past), and that it is no longer we who live (spiritually speaking) but Christ who now lives in us (Galatians 2:20, NIV).

More can be said for living by faith in what God has already achieved and accomplished. Not only does it put us in tune with God. It also makes our part in the process perfectly clear. We are recipients. We cannot brag about things God has done for us. We can only be grateful. When we realize that the vast majority of our needs have already been met by Christ—through his sufferings and his resurrection—we have nothing to boast about, to anxiously work for, to fear concerning, or to earn. We are already home:

It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (I Corinthians 1:30-31, NIV)

We are not waiting to gain entrance to God’s presence or to be near Jesus—God has already placed us in Christ. We are not waiting for Jesus to give us wisdom, righteousness, holiness/sanctification, or redemption. We now have them by virtue of already being in Christ. All we need are the eyes to continually see this and the heart to insist on it when the drizzle of this life tells us we are on the outside.


One of my readers said this post reminded him of the following song—something to rejoice over, so I’m embedding it as a bonus track:



Publishing Info
This post was first published on: April 22, 2024 at 15:1001. If this article is significantly updated, the publication date beneath the title may change in order to bring current posts to the top of the directory.