dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label Pre-existence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pre-existence. Show all posts

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Previously unreleased material, direct to the public

OK, this is unlikely to generate the same kind of buzz as the postmortem release of recordings from a platinum-selling musician.

However, I'm happy to announce that I've posted a new theological article on my website. It was actually written almost three years ago but has languished in "My Documents" since then, so this is the first time it's available for public consumption.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Five Reasons why Pre-existence Matters

Many of the entries in this blog over the past few months have focused on lines of biblical evidence for the pre-existence of Christ: that Christ personally existed as a divine being prior to his birth as a human being.
The pre-existence of Christ has long been a hotly debated subject among Christian thinkers and students of the Bible. For some Christians, however, such a topic might seem confined to the realm of theologians and philosophers. Pre-existence is an odd enough idea; and why does it matter whether Christ pre-existed? How is it relevant to my life as a follower of Jesus Christ?

In this blog we want to briefly touch on five reasons why the pre-existence of Christ matters, and how an understanding of this doctrine could enrich your faith and your spiritual walk.
  1. It increases God’s sacrificial involvement in our salvation. God did not merely create a special man to die for our sins; he sent his already existent Son whom he loved. Within a Trinitarian framework it could even be said that God himself became flesh to save us. “He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him” (Isaiah 59:16). 
  2. It adds another dimension to Jesus’ sacrifice. He did not simply learn as he grew up that he was a man designed for a special mission. He made a conscious choice to embark on that mission, and in doing so he gave up the prerogatives of heavenly divinity to live within the constraints of a mortal human body in a fallen creation. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2:4-8 (and more concisely in 2 Corinthians 8:9), this was the ultimate example of humility.
  3. It makes salvation a divine gift, not a human achievement. If Jesus was merely a human being, albeit a Spirit-filled one, then God’s plan of salvation depended on a man to deliver the victory. A creature is the hero of the salvation epic, not the Creator. This contradicts many passages about salvation belonging to the Lord (Jonah 2:9), glory belonging to God alone (Isaiah 42:8), and the vanity of human achievement (1 Corinthians1:29-31). If Christ himself was a pre-existent, uncreated divine being, however, everything he achieved can be credited to God. 
  4. It justifies worship of Jesus Christ. The New Testament is full of praise, worship, and prayer to the exalted Lord Jesus Christ (e.g. Revelation 5:13), and these practices continue amongst Christians today. Have we ever stopped to ask why these practices arose, and still persist, with respect to a human being? The strict monotheism of the Old Testament does not allow for the deification of a human being; this would be a blasphemous affront to the sovereignty of God. But if this human being was in fact a pre-existent being who had always belonged to the identity of the God of Israel, problem solved. 
  5. It marks the Christian faith’s uniqueness. In this age of religious pluralism, it is often said that each religion is a different, but equally valid, path by which humans may find God or the higher principle. If the pre-existence of Christ is true, however, then trying to find God is missing the point because God has come to us on our own terms. As we explored in a previous blog, the pre-existence makes Christ a two-way ladder connecting God and man, heaven and earth (John 1:51).
In summary, then, the pre-existence of Christ is not just an abstract notion for Christian philosophers and theological think tanks. It is at the heart of the gospel message and has real implications for how we relate to God and how we live out our faith.

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.

Thursday 21 July 2011

What I have seen with my Father

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).

Saturday 18 June 2011

He who comes from heaven

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.

Thursday 9 June 2011

An Introduction to the Pre-Existence of Christ

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: 
  1. "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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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”:
  1. 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. 
  2. 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.