In last week’s blog we looked at something John the Baptist said about Jesus (John 1:29-30) and we claimed that it required Jesus to have existed before his human birth. In this week’s blog we will look another statement John the Baptist made comparing himself with Jesus, this time taken from John 3:27-32:
“27 John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.' 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.’ 31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.”
It is plain from the immediate context ( verse 35) and the wider context of John’s Gospel (John 8:23) that ‘he who comes from heaven’ is Jesus Christ.
It appears that ‘he who is of the earth’ refers to John the Baptist (or perhaps more generally to all prophets other than the Christ). Thus we have here another contrast between John the Baptist, who ‘is of the earth, belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way,’ and Christ, who ‘comes from heaven,’ ‘is above all,’ and ‘bears witness to what he has seen and heard.’
In what sense did Christ come from heaven? Did he pre-exist in heaven and then actually descend to earth? This is the literal interpretation of the passage. But others claim it has a figurative meaning. Some say it refers to the fact that Jesus was born as a result of miraculous, heavenly intervention. Others say Christ came from heaven in the sense that the heavenly God had been planning his life long before he was born. Still others say that Christ came from heaven in the sense that the heavenly God sent him on a mission. So which meaning is correct?
A basic rule of biblical interpretation is to take words at their plain, literal meaning unless there is good reason to prefer a figurative meaning. In this case, there is no good reason to prefer a figurative meaning, and in fact the figurative interpretations mentioned above have serious flaws.
One thing everyone can agree on is that the main point of this passage is the distinction between Christ (who came from heaven) and John the Baptist (who is of the earth). Interpreted literally, the distinction is significant indeed. But interpreted figuratively, the distinction is almost trivial. It is true that Christ’s birth was a result of heavenly intervention; but so was John the Baptist’s (Luke 1:7-20). It is true that Christ’s life was planned ahead by God, but so was John the Baptist’s (John 1:23), and so too are all the saints’ (Ephesians 1:5). It is true that Christ was sent on a mission by God, but so was John the Baptist (John 1:6). So under these interpretations, John the Baptist came from heaven almost as truly as Jesus Christ did. It is only the literal meaning that accounts for the ‘heaven and earth’ distinction drawn here between Christ and John the Baptist.
There are other reasons to take the words “He who comes from heaven” literally. John 3:31-32 implies that Christ testified to what he had seen and heard in heaven (we will look at other passages in this vein in the next blog). Christ could not have seen and heard things in heaven unless he had actually been there.
Note also the difference in verbs between “he who comes from heaven” and “he who is of the earth.” The writer doesn’t say “he who comes from the earth,” because John the Baptist didn’t literally come out of the ground. But he does emphatically refer to Christ as “he who comes from heaven.”
The Socinians (a group of Polish unitarian Christians in the 16th century) believed that Christ made a special trip to heaven after his baptism where he met the Father, was instructed by him, and then returned to earth (see Section V of the Racovian Catechism, ‘Of the prophetic office of Christ’). They knew that this verse and others clearly taught that Christ actually descended from heaven, but they were not prepared to accept the pre-existence of Christ.
Rather than inventing a story to avoid the plain meaning of the passage, let us hear the Scriptural testimony that Christ personally pre-existed in heaven before coming down to earth. He ranked before John the Baptist because he existed before him. He is above all because he comes from above.