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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Pre-existence in the other Gospels

In many of our past blog entries we have been looking at passages in the Gospel of John which teach the personal pre-existence of Christ. In places like John 1:30, 3:13 and 8:38, the argument for pre-existence is plain enough. However, such obvious references to pre-existence are absent from the other three Gospels. This has led some Bible students to see the Fourth Gospel as the exception to the rule. They justify fanciful interpretations of John by saying his portrayal of Jesus needs to conform to that found in the other Gospels.

This is a wrong approach for two reasons. Firstly, we must allow the author of the Gospel of John his own unique voice as an inspired writer. Just because John provides information that is absent from Matthew, Mark and Luke does not mean he is in conflict with the other Evangelists.

Secondly, the assumption is made too hastily that the other Gospels know nothing of Christ’s pre-existence. In fact, hints of pre-existence are to be found in all four Gospels. In this blog we are going to look at one example from Matthew 23:37, which reads in context thus:

“34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. 37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
This saying of Jesus has some remarkable features. By sending forth prophets, Jesus is taking on a prerogative that belonged to God in the Old Testament (see e.g. 2 Kings 17:13; Jeremiah 26:5). He also applies to himself the imagery of a mother hen protecting her young with her wings, which is similar to imagery used of Yahweh in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalm 17:8; 36:7; 91:4). Most significantly of all, Jesus describes having lamented over Jerusalem’s disobedience throughout the city’s history. This of course requires that he personally existed throughout that time!

Considering verse 37 in context, it is plain that Jesus is speaking in first person. The “How often would I have gathered your children together…and you would not” is best understood as referring to the sending of prophets in the past who were killed and stoned (as mentioned earlier in the verse).

Bible students who deny the pre-existence of Christ usually interpret Matthew 23:37 as referring to Jesus’ several visits to Jerusalem in his human life thus far. The biggest weakness with this interpretation is that within Matthew’s narrative, Jesus had not expressed any lament about Jerusalem’s disobedience up to this point, and indeed spoke these words on his first visit to the city. In Luke’s account, Jesus says this saying before ever reaching Jerusalem (Luke 13:34).

Now, we can infer from the Gospel of John that Jesus had in fact made several visits to Jerusalem by this time (though perhaps not enough to justify the lament ‘How often…’) and had met with great opposition. However, Matthew (and Luke) could not have assumed their readers to be familiar with these visits to Jerusalem. They have set this saying of Jesus within a context where it would certainly be read with reference to the history of Jerusalem through the ages.

In summary, Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem occurs in the context of the persecution of prophets throughout history; and the saying is positioned within Matthew’s narrative in such a way that it cannot plausibly refer to anything within Jesus’ human lifetime. Jesus here assumes the perspective of one who has been longing for Jerusalem’s repentance throughout the city’s history.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Ascending and Descending (Part 3)

In the last blog we continued our exploration of ‘ascending and descending’ language in the Gospel of John. We found that John 3:13, when considered in context and against the background of Proverbs 30:4, provides a strong statement of Christ’s personal preexistence.

In this, the last of a three-part series, we will consider yet another verse which uses ascending and descending language to teach us about Christ’s pre-existence: John 6:62. It reads in context thus:

“58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever." 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
Here we find Jesus issuing a bold rebuke to those who were offended by his prior claims to have descended from heaven, and to have given his flesh to eat: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” We find again the common thread of the “Son of Man” which was also found in John 1:51 and 3:13, which is certainly worthy of further study.

But it is not too difficult to determine what Jesus question meant. The context is full of references to Christ having descended from heaven (John 6:33, 38, 41, 42, 50, 51, 58), so for Jesus to “ascend to where he was before” can only refer to his ascension back to heaven. The rhetorical question makes good sense in light of the historical record which declares that Jesus subsequently did ascend to heaven. Jesus’ subsequent ascent to heaven was undeniably literal (i.e. personal). So for him to use the language of “ascending to where he was before” requires that he had literally, personally, been in heaven before. This requires that he pre-existed. The argument is straightforward.

Those who deny the pre-existence of Christ have produced innovative alternative interpretations of John 6:62. One is that Jesus was referring to an ascent to Jerusalem (i.e. an uphill walk). Support for this view is claimed in the use of the verb anabaino (to go up), which is used of going up to the feast in Jerusalem in John 7:8, 10, 14; and also is translated 'ascending' in John 6:62. However, this view makes no sense in the context. Jesus’ question, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if…” implies that he is about to make an even more provocative statement than those he had just made (about descending from heaven and giving his flesh to eat). Does “Then what if I were to go up to the feast at Jerusalem?” qualify as even more provocative? It does not.

Others have claimed that Jesus’ statement in John 6:62 referred to his resurrection, that is, “ascending” out of the grave back to the realm of the living. This, too, is fraught with difficulties. For one thing, the verb anabaino is nowhere else used in the sense of resurrection. For another, the verb is a present active participle here; Jesus is emphasizing the action in progress. What if you were to see the Son of man in the act of ascending to where he was before? This use of the verb makes little sense if it refers to a figurative, resurrection meaning; but it makes a lot of sense if it refers to his bodily ascension to heaven, which was witnessed in progress by some of the disciples who heard these words (see Acts 1:11).

In their commentary on John, Bernard and McNeile bring out the sense of this verse well:

“Here is suggested the pre-existence of the Son of Man, as before at 3:13...The meaning of vv. 62, 63 is best brought out if we take them in connexion with v. 58 (cf. v. 51), which had seemed to the hearers of Jesus to be hard of acceptance...that He was the Bread which came down from heaven...That One moving among men in the flesh had descended from heaven seemed incredible, but is it not still less credible that He should ascend to heaven?  Yet the former had happened (in the Incarnation); the latter will happen at the Ascension, and some of those present might be there to see it” (p. 111).

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Ascending and Descending (Part 2)

Last week we began an exploration of the language of ascent and descent in the Gospel of John as it relates to the pre-existence of Christ. We looked at John 1:51, an allusion to the Old Testament account of Jacob’s ladder which effectively equated Christ with the ladder that stretched from earth to heaven and allowed angelic beings to pass between the two domains.

In this blog we will look at a passage that bears more directly upon the pre-existence of Christ: John 3:13. In context, a Jewish nobleman named Nicodemus has come to see Jesus under cover of darkness, and is perplexed by his teachings about the need to be born again. Jesus expresses amazement that a teacher of Israel could be ignorant of these things, and then declares that he speaks about things he has seen – earthly and heavenly things. He then makes this startling claim:

“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

There are some important textual issues that affect the way this verse is interpreted. Firstly, in a few English translations such as the King James Version, there is a final clause at the end of the verse: “which is in heaven.” However, most textual authorities are agreed that this is not authentic.

Secondly, some have thought that the words in this verse are not the words of Jesus. Rather, Jesus’ speech ends at verse 12, and verses 13-21 are narration by the author of the Gospel of John. We can, however, say confidently that Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus. The use of the phrase ‘Son of Man’ points us in this direction. Outside of this text it occurs 77 times in the New Testament (with definite article). 75 of those are in the words of Jesus himself (the lone exceptions are John 12:34 and Acts 7:56). Furthermore, in verse 14 the Greek verb ‘dei’ is in the present tense – the Son of Man must be lifted up. This refers to the crucifixion as an event that must yet happen (as opposed to Luke 24:26, where ‘dei’ occurs in the imperfect past tense after the crucifixion).

If Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, the question that confronts us is, what did he mean when he claimed (at this early stage of his earthly ministry) to have descended from heaven and ascended up to heaven? Those who deny the pre-existence of Christ have suggested various interpretations, such as that the verbs are to be understood in future tense (in plain violation of the rules of grammar). Others have suggested a figurative interpretation. However, we already saw that John 1:51 sets a strong precedent for ‘ascending and descending’ language in this Gospel being literal.

I think there are two keys that allow us to unlock the correct interpretation of this verse. The first is recognizing from the context that the focus of the passage is about access to divine knowledge (see verses 10-12). A major theme in the Gospel of John is the contrast between Moses and Jesus (see John 1:17). A Jewish scholar like Nicodemus would have been aware of contemporary Jewish traditions which taught that Moses, Enoch and other figures had ascended to heaven to receive knowledge from God. Jesus here denies that anyone had experienced such a visit to heaven other than himself. But he does not stop there; he goes further to say that he had come from heaven. In effect he was saying, “Not only have I been to heaven; I come from there!” It is the difference between hearing about Paris from someone who vacationed there, and hearing about Paris from a Parisian.

The second key to interpreting the verse is recognizing that Jesus is alluding to Proverbs 30:4, which also occurs in the context of access to divine knowledge:
“3 I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. 4 Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son's name? Surely you know!”
Jesus’ statement in John 3:13 is an allusion to the rhetorical question, “Who has ascended to heaven and come down?” The implied answer in Proverbs 30:4 is, “No one except God!” but this is followed with a veiled reference to the Messiah in the question, “What is his name, and what is his son’s name?” This mysterious question supports Jesus’ claim that someone other than God – namely the Son – had ascended to heaven and come down from heaven.

The ascending and descending in Proverbs 30:4 can only be literal (when seen next to the references to creation of the earth and control of the weather), so this parallel strengthens our case that in John 3:13, Jesus claims to have literally come down from heaven.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Ascending and Descending (Part 1)

In three previous blogs (here, here and here) on the pre-existence of Christ in the narrative of John’s Gospel, we focused on three separate lines of argument. Firstly, we focused on a plain assertion from the mouth of John the Baptist that Jesus had existed before him. Secondly, we looked at statements in which John the Baptist contrasted himself (a fundamentally earthly being) with Jesus (a fundamentally heavenly being). Thirdly, we looked at statements Jesus made which express an awareness of a prior existence in God’s presence in heaven. On this collective evidence a strong case can be built that Christ existed in heaven prior to his human birth.

However, the evidence doesn’t stop there! In this blog we are going to begin looking at passages that reveal another fascinating line of evidence from John’s Gospel – the language of Christ ascending and descending between heaven and earth.

The first such passage is John 1:51, where Jesus spoke to Nathanael (who had just professed faith in him as the Son of God because of Jesus’ powers of perception): “And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” This is a puzzling statement, and it is also the first occurrence of Jesus’ equally puzzling self-referent, ‘the Son of Man’ (which is a study in its own right). It is also the first use of his signature phrase, “Amen, Amen I say unto you” in this Gospel. Indeed, it was the first of many profound statements about himself that Jesus would make in this Gospel. But what does it mean?

The key to interpreting this saying is to recognize it as an allusion to a dream had by Jacob recorded in Genesis 28:11-13, in which there was a ladder reaching from earth up to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Here in John, the angels are portrayed as ascending and descending on the Son of Man – Christ himself! Thus Christ is describing himself as a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. John Phillips describes the point Jesus was making in his commentary on John’s Gospel:

“I am that ladder.  I link God and man, heaven and earth.  I am the one and only mediator between God and man, the only link between heaven and earth.  The angels ascend and descend because of me” (Phillips, John. Exploring the Gospel of John: an expository commentary, p. 50)
This begs the question of how angels travelled between heaven and earth prior to Jesus’ existence, if he did not personally pre-exist. But more importantly, it establishes that in the context of this Gospel, language about ascent and descent between heaven and earth is literal. When angels travel between heaven and earth, they actually travel (not spatially in a physical sense, but nonetheless in terms of actual relocation). This sets a precedent for how to interpret language about Christ ascending and descending between heaven and earth in this Gospel.

We have a similar contextual clue at the end of John’s Gospel when Christ spoke of ascending to his Father after his resurrection (John 20:17). We know that he literally ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9-11 is unmistakably clear), so the language of ascension in John 20:17 must also be taken literally. Thus in John 1:51 and 20:17 we have two ‘bookends’ of literal ascent/descent language in the Gospel of John. In between these two bookends are two remarkable passages about the ascent and descent of the Son of Man. We’ll take a closer look at these two passages in the next blog.