In a previous blog we looked at John 3:31-32, which says that “He who comes from heaven…bears witness to what he has seen and heard.” We claimed that this implies Christ saw and heard things in heaven prior to his ministry on earth, and that this is best explained by the idea that he personally pre-existed in heaven. In this blog we are going to look at four other ‘experience of heaven’ sayings in John: passages where Christ alluded to previous experience of God’s presence in heaven.
The first is earlier in the same chapter, in John 3:11-13, when Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus:
“11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
Jesus is saying, “We [i.e. the Father and I] speak from personal experience about heavenly things, because we have been there.” He goes on to point out that he alone among human beings has been to heaven (we will look at verse 13 in more detail in a future blog).
The second experience of heaven passage is John 5:37. The context is picking up on the same familiar themes: the authority and witness to Jesus’ teachings, and his superiority over John the Baptist. The verse reads, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen”.
The other passages spoke about Christ having seen and heard things in heaven, but this passage refers more directly to having seen and heard the Father. As Jesus did so often, he is contrasting his opponents with himself. In stating the obvious fact that his detractors had not seen the Father’s form or heard his voice, Jesus was implying that he himself had done so.
The third passage we will consider is John 8:38, 41-42:
“38 ‘I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father’…‘You are doing the works your father did.’ 41 They said to him, ‘We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father--even God.’ 42 Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.’”
Here, Jesus claims to speak about what he has seen with his Father. “With his Father” means in his Father’s presence in heaven. This interpretation is supported by the statements Jesus made in v. 42. First, he said, “I came from God and I am here.” To say ‘I am here’ as a result of coming from God implies that the coming from God was a literal relocation of his personal presence. That is, before he was ‘here’ (on earth), he was somewhere else (with God in heaven).
Secondly, he emphasized, “I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.” If Jesus meant he came from God in the sense of being born by divine intervention, then this was a completely unnecessary statement to make. No one comes into existence of their own accord!
The final ‘experience of heaven’ passage we’ll consider is John 17:5, where Jesus prayed, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” Jesus was speaking about his imminent departure from the world to be with God in heaven (v. 11). It is hard to miss the parallel between “…I had with you before the world existed” and John 1:1 (“In the beginning…the Word was with God”). In both cases the key verb is in the imperfect tense, denoting continuous action over a period of time. The words “the glory that I had with you” require nothing less than a personal relationship between the Father and Son in each other’s presence. Jesus “had” glory – he himself possessed it, which he could not have done if he did not yet actually exist!
These passages together provide us with a picture of the pre-existent Christ. They tell us the what (a glorious existence in God’s presence), the where (in heaven), and the when (from before creation until the time he came down to earth).