Pre-existence is a strange word. It refers to existence before entering one’s current state of being. To say that a human being pre-existed is to say that they existed in some personal form before their human birth.
The Church has taught for many centuries that Jesus Christ pre-existed. In the past two centuries, however, this teaching has come under heavy criticism on two fronts. Firstly, critics have argued that the idea of pre-existence is unscientific – a biological impossibility – and have called on the church to conform to modern science and abandon such absurdities. Secondly, critics have argued that the idea of pre-existence is unbiblical – a myth invented by the early church – and have called on the church to return to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
To the first criticism, we can respond that the idea of pre-existence is just one of many “unscientific” claims the church makes about Jesus. The virgin birth, walking on water, the resurrection, ascending bodily into heaven – none of these events can be reproduced in a laboratory; and yet without them, the Christian faith is an empty shell. If you don’t believe in miracles, can you really call yourself a Christian? If you do believe in miracles, the limitations of science should not prevent you from believing in the pre-existence of Christ. The real question is whether the Bible teaches the pre-existence of Christ.
This brings us to the second criticism. We do not have space in one blog entry to consider the biblical case for and against the pre-existence of Christ in detail. However, I want to discuss one Bible passage which I believe is a good starting point for a larger study.
John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus and a great prophet who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. From the birth accounts in Luke 1 we know that he was a few months older than Jesus. Yet in John 1:29-30 we read the following astounding statement:
The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.'” (English Standard Version)
The most obvious meaning of these English words is that Jesus existed before John the Baptist. Since Jesus was born after John, this could only be true if he pre-existed.
Now, this may be the obvious meaning of these English words, but we must ask, is this meaning supported by the context and by the original Greek text? The answer to both questions is a resounding yes! From looking at the context we note the following:
- "He was before me” can only refer to precedence in time, not in rank. John the Baptist had already mentioned precedence in rank earlier in the verse! If he did so twice, his statement would be a tautology: “After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he ranked before me.” This is redundant, and it fails to make sense of the shift from present tense to past tense.
- John the Baptist’s statement opens with, “After me comes a man…” This ‘after me’ plainly refers to time, so the symmetry of the whole thought requires that ‘before me’ also refers to time.
- The wider context of the chapter strongly supports a pre-existence interpretation. The same statement by John the Baptist is quoted earlier in John 1:15 as part of the prologue to John’s Gospel, which is all about the Word who existed in the beginning. The prologue even contrasts the pre-existent Word with John the Baptist, who was merely “a man sent from God” (John 1:6). John 1:30 should be interpreted within this framework.
The original Greek also bears out the pre-existence meaning of “He was before me”:
- The Greek word translated “before” is protos, which can refer to precedence in time or in rank, and takes on both meanings numerous times in the New Testament. However, within the writings of John it always refers to time, and not once to rank (John 1:41; 2:10; 7:51; 8:7; 10:40; 12:16; 15:18; 18:13; 19:32; 19:39; 20:4; 20:8; 1 John 4:19). So John’s stylistic tendencies suggest that protos also refers to precedence in time in John 1:30.
- It is worth noting the tense of the Greek verb translated ‘was’: it is the imperfect tense of the verb en (to be), denoting continuous past existence. This is the same verb and tense used to describe the past existence of the Word in John 1:1-2. So the Greek does not actually say that Jesus came into existence; he simply was in existence. By contrast, John the Baptist is introduced in John 1:6 (“There was a man…”) with the aorist tense of the verb ginomai (to become; to come into existence), denoting that he came into existence at a point in time.
So, after looking closely at the grammar and context of the verse, we can confirm that the most obvious meaning of John the Baptist’s words is also the one best supported by context and language. John was explaining that Jesus, despite coming after him, ranked before him. This was an exception to the rule that the younger prophet should submit to the older prophet (see 2 Kings 2), and the reason for the exception was that Jesus had in fact existed before John the Baptist - which is possible only if he pre-existed!
It would be foolish to build a whole doctrine upon one verse. Fortunately, we don’t have to, as there is plenty of other biblical evidence that Jesus pre-existed, some of which we will examine in future blog entries. But my hope is that this one verse will motivate you to open your mind to think more about this subject.