Part of the ongoing Verse Quick Reference project.
2Ti 1:9 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began,
The NKJ translation states that grace was given to us “before time began”. The KJV lists this phrase as “before the world began”. The ESV states “before the ages began”. The Greek phrase is “χρονων αιωνιων” (time eternal). The Word English Bible possibly has the best translation “before times eternal”. The word for “time” is used consistently in the Bible for a passing of time. The word for “eternal” is used consistently to denote a large amount of time, or an unceasing time.
Second Timothy 1:9 is used to claim that individuals were chosen before time began, before any fall of man. Jesus, it is said, was an eternal plan in the mind of God. John Piper writes:
In other words, God not only foreknew in eternity the sinful choice that Adam (and Lucifer before him) would make, but he also planned to give us grace through Jesus Christ in response to the misery and destruction and condemnation resulting from the fall that he foreknew.
Piper, John; Taylor, Justin; Helseth, Paul Kjoss. Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (p. 375). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
Piper makes a good point. And the verse could be read in that fashion. This is particularly true if the word for “eternal” is being used as Plato uses it in Timeaus:
… Accordingly, seeing that that Model is an eternal Living Creature, He set about making this Universe, so far as He could, of a like kind. But inasmuch as the nature of the Living Creature was eternal, this quality it was impossible to attach in its entirety to what is generated; wherefore He planned to make a movable image of Eternity, and, as He set in order the Heaven, of that Eternity which abides in unity He made an eternal image, moving according to number, even that which we have named Time…
But the verse does not have to be read in the fashion of eternity. Instead, it could be used in more of a hyperbolic sense. In Polybius’ Histories, he uses the word to mean “a very large number” of writings:
Nor is it necessary to mention any names: but after Alexander’s death, in their mutual rivalries for the possession of various parts of nearly all the world, they filled a very large number of histories with the record of their glorious deeds.
Strabo in Geography uses “eternal” for natural phenomenon of tides, a twice daily event:
For instance, one could not accept such a reason for their having become a wandering and piratical folk as this—that while they were dwelling on a Peninsula they were driven out of their habitations by a great flood-tide; for in fact they still hold the country which they held in earlier times; and they sent as a present to Augustus the most sacred kettle1 in their country, with a plea for his friendship and for an amnesty of their earlier offences, and when their petition was granted they set sail for home; and it is ridiculous to suppose that they departed from their homes because they were incensed on account of a phenomenon that is natural and eternal, occurring twice every day.
In these uses, “eternal” just means “happens all the time” or “a very large amount”. Paul, in this fashion, could be using “time eternal” to mean “since always”, an English expression meaning that something has been in place for a long time, but not necessarily eternal in essence.
The idea of a Messiah is definitely not “eternal” in the Bible. One does not see talk of this Messiah until after the Babylon and Assyrian exiles. This is after the line of David is cut off (David was a Messiah, an anointed). Paul could be referring to expectations that have been in existence since the exilic period.
Alternatively, he may be referencing God’s enduring plan to have a people with whom to commune, a plan first implemented in the creation of man, and then time and time subverted throughout the Bible. The Bible tells a story of God attempting to reconcile man to Himself.
While Piper’s reading is acceptable, there are alternatives which are also likely.