“Looking back is a bad habit”, said John Wayne in “True Grit”. Biblically speaking, he was dead right. Jesus warned us to remember Lot’s wife (Luke 17:32) who, we are told, looked back with fatal results (Gen. 19:26). He also said that anyone who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is unfit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). Admonishments like these suggest that Scripture as a whole has much more to say on the issue, and it is worth further exploration.
The Bible begins at the beginning (of creation). This very fact implies it has an end, both an objective and a terminus. Creation (Genesis) leads inexorably to consummation (Revelation). For the earth was created to be inhabited (Isa. 45:12,18; Jer. 27:5) until, like the law (Mt. 5:18; 2 Cor. 3:11) but in contrast to the word of the eternal God (Mt. 24:35), it has served its purpose of producing the children of God (Rom. 8:21) and ceases to exist (Gen. 8:22), mission accomplished (Rev 21:1).
It is scarcely surprising that in this broad setting of forward movement the Bible provides many pictures illustrating conformity to the basic pattern. This assertion would appear to be contradicted almost at the start by the sin of Adam and Eve which was essentially a sign of or a bid for independence. Yet, while they can hardly be said to have made acceptable moral progress, their ejection from the Garden of Eden to which they cannot return (Gen. 3:24), has at least launched them, and indeed mankind, on a journey under the grace of God towards the unseen goal of a glorious salvation in Christ. In the event, until the covenant with Noah is put into effect, moral degeneration seems to preponderate. But, despite the judgement of the flood, God commits himself to dealing graciously with man despite his inherent tendency to sin (Gen. 8:21f.). Thus we are led to draw the conclusion, suggested in the preceding paragraph, that God will complete his purpose despite man (cf. Gen. 28:15). In other words, with him there is no going back, for as we learn later he remains faithful to the end and cannot deny himself (Jer. 31:3; 2 Tim. 2:11-13, cf. Heb. 6:17-20). Even the judgement on Babel and the scattering of the people, which thwarted man’s attempt to reach heaven by his own efforts, will contribute to the achievement of the divine objective.
The nature of the God’s purpose is clarified by the story of Abraham. Having separated him from his background in Ur of the Chaldees, God tells Abram that he will make him a blessing to all the families of the earth by making him a great nation and giving a land to his descendants (Gen. 12:1-7). It is a question here of a divine destination and destiny from which there can be no ultimate deviation despite the ever-present tendency, characteristic of Adam and Eve and hence of all mankind, to “follow after your own heart and your own eyes” (Num. 15:39, cf. Gen. 8:21). The implication is that Abraham’s original separation from Ur of the Chaldees is permanent and the fulfilment of the promises is a dominant theme from the time Abraham first believed them till Joshua leads the people across the Jordan into Canaan. For, though, as the author of Hebrews tells us, there was opportunity to return, Abraham and his family were seeking another homeland (Heb. 11:13-16). So, if we may speak somewhat anachronistically and metaphorically, they had crossed the Rubicon, burnt their bridges behind them. The forward march of history, despite setbacks, frustrations, disappointments and above all lapses into sin, evidenced particularly in the life of Jacob, was now firmly established.
Evidence of Abraham’s refusal to return, undergirded by his deep commitment to his calling and unwavering faith in God’s promises, is provided in Genesis 24. Here it is a question of a wife for his only son Isaac who inherited the promises made to his father (Gen. 18:19; 22:16-18; 24:7; 26:3-5, etc.). In his instructions to his servant Abraham makes it palpably plain that the very idea of a Canaanite wife for Isaac is out of the reckoning (Gen. 24:3f., cf. 28:1 re Jacob). And even if a girl from his own country and people is unwilling to accept a proposal, on no account is Isaac to be taken back there (24:6,8). In the event, Rebekah commits herself and the promise remains secure. In due course, Esau and Jacob are born, and the latter’s progeny form the foundation of the nation of Israel. In contrast, the former, who is rejected, finds Canaanite wives acceptable (26:34) despite the opposition of his parents (26:35, cf. 28:8f.).
While the moral and social separation of Abraham’s posterity from the rest of the heathen is again brought out in the story of Dinah (Gen. 34) and the blessing (48:8- death and burial of Jacob (Gen. 49:28-50:14) despite the temporary (Gen. 48:21) return of Joseph and his brothers (50:14), it is more dramatically demonstrated in the story of the exodus. In Egypt, Israel remains distinct as an alien race (46:34; Ex. 1:9f.; 8:23; 11:7) and it is as such that they are rescued from their bondage. Throughout their sojourn, the promises of God to Abraham remain prominent (Ex. 2:24; 3:8,17; 6:4,8; 12:25; 13:11, etc.) and provide strong motivation for the exodus as such. As has already been stressed, there was to be no deviation from the divine destination (cf. Num. 15:39), and the Israelites should have pursued their goal with complete commitment (Dt. 1:8,21, cf. 41). But they did not. The people are scarcely out of Egypt and launched on their journey to Sinai before they start to complain, wishing to return (Ex. 14:10-12, cf. 13:17; 16:2f.,7f.). They are urged to go forward (14:15), however, by God himself who goes before them leading them by pillars of cloud and fire (Ex. 13:21f., cf. 23:21,23; Dt. 1:30-33) towards their intended goal (15:13,17). After the giving of the law the basic disposition of their hearts is eventually manifested by an ignominious lapse into and return to idolatry (Ex. 32, cf. Acts 7:40f.). Humanly speaking, it is only the intercession of Moses, noticeably based on the divine promise to Abraham (v.13), that saves the day.
The conflict between those who, like Moses, wish to complete their pilgrimage to the Promised Land and those who wish to return to Egypt with its wide variety of food (Num. 11:5, cf. 16:13) is a major motif in the picture painted in the book of Numbers. Confronted by his Herculean task of leading a reluctant rabble, consumed with fleshly craving (Num. 11:4; Ps. 78:18,29f.), towards their divinely appointed destination, Moses regularly intercedes with God’s promise in mind (e.g. Num. 11:12). When Israel eventually arrives on the fringes of Canaan, even the spies chosen to survey the land are divided. While the majority give a report calculated to produce a crescendo of murmuring and rebellion (14:2ff.), Caleb and Joshua are powerfully impressed by the “exceedingly good land” (14:7) they have reconnoitred and counsel faith in the God who has promised to give it to them (vv.8ff.,40). In the event, despite further rebellion, setback and testing of one kind or another, the pilgrimage is completed. Before his death on the very border of the land Moses warns regarding future kings that there must never be a return to Egypt whether for horses (Dt. 17:16) or wives – a warning that was flagrantly flouted by Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 10:28; 11:1ff.; Neh. 13:26) and others who made ungodly alliances and compromises with the surrounding nations (Ezra 9). This led inevitably, according to Jeremiah, to their going backward and not forward (7:24, 15:6, etc.), to the people becoming in some instances worse than their forefathers (Jer. 7:26; 11:10; 16:12) thus bringing judgement on themselves (cf. Jer. 15:6).
In contrast with the perennial tendency to “return to Egypt” (Acts 7:39), there were those who showed a different spirit. Outsiders such as Rahab and Ruth (cf. the Ninevites who repented at the preaching of Jonah), like Abraham before them (Jos. 24:2f.), were prepared to move forward by leaving their ancestral idolatrous religions and link themselves with Israel and the purposes of God. Joshua, like Jacob before him (Gen. 35:2f.), provides a graphic indication of what is at issue when he challenges the people to reject the false gods of their forefathers, tear down their idolatrous altars and commit themselves unreservedly to the Lord (24:14f., cf. Gideon in Jud. 6:25-27 and Samuel in 1 Sam. 7:3).
The Rest of the Old Testament
And it is failure to do so that results in dire judgement later in Israel’s history. For the truth is that in the exiles to Assyria and Babylon the people of God do in effect go back to “Egypt”. On these occasions, however, it is not a question of rescue from famine, as it had been originally when Joseph in the plan of God had gone ahead and prepared the way (Gen. 45:5,7; 50:20), but punishment (1 K. 14:14-16; 2 K. 17:6; Hos. 7:16; 10:6; 8:13; 11:5) as Moses had warned (Dt. 28:27,58-60,64,68). Exile to Babylon meant that the people of God went back almost to Ur and recapitulated Abraham’s experience! In other words, it was like returning to childhood (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11). Even then God remained true to his purposes and, though he acted as a sanctuary to his people during their exile (Ezek. 11:16), he nonetheless fulfilled his promise of bringing them back to their land from Babylonian captivity (Jer. 25:11f.; 29:10; 32:36ff.) in a second exodus, as we learn especially in the book of Ezra (cf. Isa. 40:3-5; 41:17f.; 42:14-16; 43:1-3,14-21; 48:20f.; 49:8-12; 51:9f.; 52:11f.). Yet it has to be noted that while they are in their own land they suffer to all intents and purposes the ravages of exile as Nehemiah poignantly observes (9:36f., cf. Dt. 28:47f.), a situation that prevailed later even up to the time of Jesus when the Romans exercised their iron-fisted domination. Far from being the head they were the tail. Instead of going up, they had in effect gone down (Dt. 28:13, cf. Jer. 2:27; 7:24; 15:6).
While in one sense God’s people were the prisoners of hope (Zech. 9:12), eventual freedom beckoned in the form of the servant whose ear would be open, who, far from being blind and deaf (Isa. 48:8), was not rebellious and would not like Jonah turn back (Isa. 50:5). Rather, he would be totally committed to doing his Father’s will (John 4:34; 8:29) until he achieved the glory and honour of the perfection of God himself (Mt. 19:21; Heb. 1:3).
The New Testament
Though the teaching of the OT could be treated in more detail and reference made to the distant promise that the time will come when all nations will go up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord (Isa. 2:2-4; Mic. 4:1f.; Zech. 8:20-23), it is time now to find out whether the same emphasis on going forward and opposition to going backward is manifest in the NT. We have already seen in the introduction words of Jesus suggesting it is. There is, however, much more to be said.
John the Baptist and Jesus
First, we need to remember that once the Israelites were settled in the Promised Land, they came more and more, particularly in the time of David, to look forward to the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of God. 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 highlight the promise made by God to David build a house for his name and establish the throne of his kingdom forever. Thus eventually John the Baptist, the messenger promised long before by Malachi, when preaching in the wilderness of Judea called on the people to repent for the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Mt. 3:1f.). He insisted that the one who came after him, that is Jesus, was greater than he and possessed a superior baptism. Consequently, being true to his word, he urged his disciples to look to Jesus while his own ministry decreased (John 3:30). Even before, as well as after, John completed his course (Acts 13:25) in death at the hands of Herod, Jesus and his disciples confirmed and expanded his ministry (John 4:1f.). Much stress fell on the idea of fulfilment especially of the law, on which the Jews set great store (Mt. 5:17f.), and of the promises (Acts 2 and 3). In the event, tradition ruled the thinking of many, especially the Pharisees and their followers. The inevitable consequence of this was at best spiritual inertia and a complete failure to recognise the day of their visitation (Luke 19:44); at worst a repetition of the sins of the fathers which had been so characteristic in the OT (Mt. 23; Luke 6:23,26; 11:48; Acts 7:51f., etc.). So just as the fathers in their stubbornness killed the prophets God sent them, the Jews finally murdered the God’s own Son (1 Thes. 2:15).
So far as Jesus himself was concerned, he made it very clear that he had a mission to accomplish and taught plainly that he had come with the purpose of serving and of giving his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45, cf. John 10:17., etc.), of putting his hand to the plough by setting his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) where he would accomplish his exodus (Luke 9:31) without turning back (Isa. 50:5, cf. John 8:29; 14:31), of pioneering the regenerate life of his people (Mt. 3:15; Heb. 2:10), of finishing his course (cf. Luke 13:32; Heb. 5:9) by completing the work he had to do (John 4:34) despite his natural revulsion at the suffering that lay ahead of him (Mt. 26:39; Heb. 12:2), of returning to his Father (John 16:28), of sending the Spirit (John 16:7) and eventually of coming again to judge his enemies (2 Thes. 1:7f., cf. John 5:27; Acts 17:31) but also to bring salvation for those who love his appearing (John 14:3; 1 Thes. 4:16f.; 2 Tim. 4:8, etc.). Like Joshua and the angel of God (Ex. 33:2) in the OT, our Jesus has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us (John 14:2f.) in anticipation of presenting us to the Father (2 Cor. 4:14; 1 Pet. 3:18). In sum, Jesus’ entire earthly life is one of progressive spiritual maturation, of complete or perfect human development in conformity with the will of God (Mt. 5:48; John 4:34; 5:30; 8:29, etc.) fitting him to become the paradigm of his people (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 1:3; 3:1f.). His, as B.B.Warfield correctly maintained, was “the only strictly normal human development, from birth to manhood, the world has ever seen” (Selected Shorter Writings, p.160). In other words, as the true Son of God, Jesus began his ascent to heaven, uninterrupted (except by the cross which involved the hiding of his Father’s face) from the moment of his conception until he was received in glory (Heb. 1:6; 1 Tim. 3:16).
The Apostolic Church
Once the Holy Spirit had descended on the disciples the same pattern of the progress or advance of the kingdom of God was evident among Christian witnesses as the true spiritual descendants of Abraham who God had promised would inherit the world (Rom. 4:13, cf. Gal. 3:29). Apostles and disciples imbued with the Spirit of God invaded the devil’s domain (Acts 8:1,4) as Jesus had done before them (Mt. 12:29) with the result that people turned from darkness to light (Acts 26:18; 1 Pet. 2:9; Col. 1:13) in accordance with the promise made long before in Isaiah (42:6; 49:6). Like Jesus, Paul gave himself unstintingly to his Saviour’s cause. He too, convinced that God would complete the work he had begun (Phil. 1:6), sought to finish his course (Acts 20:24; 2 Tim. 4:6f.), forgetting what lay behind and straining forward to what lay ahead (Phil. 3:12-14), confident, like Peter (1 Pet. 5:4) and James (1:12), that God would grant him the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8, cf. 1 Tim. 6:12). Needless to add, all believers who persevere in the faith once delivered to the saints have before them the prospect of conquering through Christ (Rom. 8:37, cf. 1 John 5:4, etc.), who himself overcame the world (John 16:33, cf. Heb. 2:9), and of being granted a seat at his side (Rev. 3:21).
Emphasis on not turning back is not confined to the process of sanctification and ultimate perfection, however. While the NT certainly stresses the need to make progress and grow in faith, knowledge, holiness and above all in love (1 Cor. 3:1-3; 13; Col. 1:10; 2 Thes. 1:3; Heb. 5:14-6:1; 2 Pet. 3:18), it underlines the urgency of remaining doctrinally sound and, since creed determines conduct (2 Tim. 1:13f.; 3:14,16; Tit. 1:9,13; 2:1f.), believing the tradition or body of truth that has been given to us. In the letter to Galatians Paul indicates that there is only one gospel (Gal. 1:8f., cf. Eph. 4:4-6) just as there is only one God (1 Cor. 8:4), and deliberately to desert or pervert it has disastrous consequences. For Gentiles to relapse into heathenism like a dog returning to its vomit (2 Pet. 2:20-22, cf. Gal. 4:8f.) or Jews who make a profession of faith only to toy with the idea of reverting to Moses, circumcision and the law that can give neither righteousness (Gal. 2:21) nor life (Gal. 3:21) is potentially fatal. At the very least it signifies a relapse into immaturity and childish behaviour (cf. Gal. 3:23-4:7), reversing the movement from flesh to spirit (1 Cor. 15:46) by returning to the flesh (Gal. 3:3). For adults to behave like children is radically reprehensible (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11). Rather, all are called on to dispense with the imperfect and pursue the perfect (cf. Mt. 5:48; Rom. 8:29; Jas. 1:4), to put away childish things (1 Cor. 3:1-3; 13:11, cf. Heb. 6:1) and in understanding strive for mature manhood (1 Cor. 14:20, cf. 3:1-4) both as individuals and as a body (Eph. 4:13-16). Not surprisingly, the Christian’s armour does not protect his back (Eph. 6:10ff., cf. Phil. 3:13f.)!
The author of Hebrews also spells out the result of failure to persevere by contrasting the judgement that occurred under Moses (10:28) and that which will eventuate under Christ (10:26ff., cf. 6:4-8). Indeed, it is precisely this writer who graphically portrays the ascent of believers from earth to heaven, or from the temporal to the eternal (cf. Heb. 12:22-24), by comparing it with the pilgrimage of their immature pre-Christian brethren from Egypt (the world) to the Promised Land (heaven) with its interlude at Sinai (12:18-21). And just as there was to be no return to Egypt (Dt. 17:16) so there will be no return to this temporary world of the flesh where sin, death, corruption, destruction and condemnation rule (Gal. 1:4; 6:7f., cf. John 6:63; Rom. 8:13). Rather all will be perfected together when what was promised will finally be fulfilled (11:39f.). It is worth mentioning that two of the greatest characters in the OT are said in Hebrews 11 to look forward, Abraham to the city of God (v.10, cf. 12:22; 13:14) and Moses to the reward (v.26, cf. 10:34) that lay ahead. They were strangers and exiles on the earth (11:13, cf. 1 Pet. 2:11) who clearly figured among those who did not shrink back (10:38f.) but proved themselves to be true members of the fellowship of the redeemed (1 John 2:19).
The Return of Jesus
This prompts us to ask about the return of Jesus. Does not this basic belief contradict the rule of not returning? Here we need to recall that just as Moses, after meeting God at the burning bush, returned to his people in Egypt to rescue them (Ex. 3:10) and herald judgement of the Egyptians and their gods (Ex. 12:12), so Jesus will return in the glory of the Father not to rule on earth but to rescue his own from the divine wrath and judgement (1 Thes. 4:17; Heb. 9:28, cf. 2 Thes. 1:7f.; Amos 4:11; Zech. 3:2; Jude 23) and to banish idolatry for ever (cf. Zech. 13:2; Rev. 22:3)! When this occurs the wilderness pilgrimage of believing aliens and exiles (1 Pet. 2:11) who, like Abraham (John 8:56), have glimpsed from afar the eternal city (Heb. 11:8-16, cf. 1 John 2:25; John 6:40; 17:3) and refuse to love this temporal world of temptation and sin (cf. Heb. 13:14), will be brought to its glorious end in the freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:21). The travail of pregnancy will finally give way to the joy of birth (John 16:20f.; Rom. 8:22f.). Then the pain and the tears of this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) will sink into oblivion (Rev. 21:3f.), lost to view in the glorified bride’s vision of her Saviour King in all his heavenly splendour (John 17:24; Rev. 22:4).
All this was of course summed up in the earthly life of Jesus himself. He who descended from the Father had it in mind from the start to ascend back to him who sent him (John 3:13; 6:62; 13:1,3; 16:28; 17:5, cf. 1 Tim. 3:16) but with many sons in train (Heb. 2:10). This entailed his doing his Father’s will to perfection, in other words, of finishing his work (John 17:4; 19:30, cf. Luke 13:32), of being himself perfected (Heb. 5:9; 7:28) and thereby perfecting his people (Heb. 5:9; 7:27; 10:5-10,12,14, cf. 9:9; 10:1,11). In light of this and the cloud of witnesses mentioned by the author of Hebrews, it is vital for us to lay aside every weight and sin and run with endurance the race that lies before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that lay ahead of him endured the cross and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1f.; Rev. 3:21). There he will rule until he has put all his enemies under his feet and God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
The old nursery rhyme had it that the pussycat had been up to London to see the queen. It is our intent as Christians, who by the grace of God have become the bride of Christ, to ascend into heaven to see the King (John 17:24; Rev. 22:4). So, as long as we are in this world, let us ever keep him in mind, steadfastly refusing to look back. John Wayne said it is a bad habit! It is more than that: it is a matter of life and death.
What has been written above is of vital religious importance. Throughout the Bible retreat into the religious past is condemned. It is particularly noteworthy that for Abraham, Moses and Elijah, the greatest figures in the OT, going back to unadulterated heathenism was out of the question. In the NT the same is true for Paul (see especially Galatians, e.g. 3:10; 5:3 and Philippians 3, e.g. vv.7-11), Peter (1 Pet. 1:14; 4:2f.) and the author of Hebrews, e.g. 6:1-8 and 10:26:31) who warn repeatedly against returning to Judaism and heathenism alike. It is like an enlightened and responsible man deliberately returning to the ignorance and irresponsibility of childhood (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; Eph. 4:14). So in these days of religious pluralism it is essential for Christians to stand their ground and resist the temptation to embrace the world’s religions, ideologies, philosophies and cults. Central to the biblical viewpoint is the teaching that there is one true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent to be the one and only Saviour (John 17:3, cf. 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). This is the pearl of great price which must be guarded at all costs. To lose it is to lose life itself (cf. Mt. 16:26).
There is perhaps a final point to make and that is that all those who refuse to turn back follow God. It is he who goes ahead of his people like a medieval king leading his troops victoriously into battle (Ex. 14:14; 15:3; Dt. 3:22,28; Jos. 24:8,11). Thus we read in Deuteronomy 1:30 (cf. 9:3; 31:3,8) how the Lord goes before the children of Israel, fights for them and leads them unerringly to their eventual destination, the Promised Land. This scenario is repeated in the NT where Jesus, the Joshua of the new covenant, is represented as going ahead of those who put their trust in him as the pioneer of their course into heaven itself (John 14:2f.; Heb. 2:10; 4:14; 6:20; 9:24;12:1-2,22-24;13:13f.).