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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.

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