Saturday, November 18, 2017

A consideration of passages thought to reveal the "preexistence of Christ": John's Account, Part One

John 1
1 In the beginning was the word, and the word was toward God, and God was the word.
2 This was in the beginning toward God.
3 All came into being through it, and apart from it not even one thing came into being which has come into being.

In a Nutshell: The “word” in view here is not a reference to a pre-existent person, but rather to the spoken word or declaration of God by which he brought everything into existence, and which is the expression of his wisdom, purpose and character. It is this word which “became flesh” when Christ – the final and ultimate agent in whom God has chosen to speak (and through whom God will succeed in accomplishing his redemptive purpose for the world) - came into existence.

Expanded Explanation: In these verses we are told that the word (logos) was “with (or “toward”) God,” and that the word “was God.” But what does the word “God” (theos) represent here? What meaning did John intend the word to convey to his readers? Most Christians believe that the “word” refers to Christ in a pre-existent (or “pre-incarnate”) state. To test this theory, let’s substitute the expression, “the word,” with the expression, “the pre-incarnate Son,” and replace the word “God” with “the Father.” In doing so we read: “In the beginning was the pre-incarnate Son, and the pre-incarnate Son was with the Father, and the pre-incarnate Son was the Father.” That doesn't work. While it would be perfectly consistent with the so-called “Modalist” position to say that, in the beginning, the Son was the Father and the Father was the Son, such a position should, I believe, be rejected by all clear-thinking students of scripture as neither logical nor scriptural.

I think there is a better way to understand what John was saying in this verse. First, we need to identify the being referred to as “God” in the first part of verse 1. Since scripture is the best interpreter of itself, we'll do this by comparing verses 1 and 4 from John chapter 1 with what John wrote in his first epistle:

In the beginning was the word (logos), and the word was toward God, and God was the word...in it was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:1, 4).

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, at which we gaze and our hands handle, is concerned with the word of lifeAnd the life was manifested, and we have seen and are testifying and reporting to you the life eonian which was toward the Father and was manifested to us (1 John 1:1-2).

By comparing these two passages, it is evident that the title “God” in John 1:1 refers to the Father. Moreover, it should be noted that John refers to the “word” as theos, not as ton theon, which is the personal title that refers to the Father here and elsewhere (see John 3:16; 3:34; 4:24; 6:46; 11:22; 14:1; 17:3). Without the Greek article ton, the word theos can refer to that which is qualitatively divine (or divine in nature). Understood in this way, John was not, in verse 1, telling us WHO the word was, but rather WHAT the word was (i.e., the word was divine in nature, or divine in a qualitative sense). So the “word” of which John wrote was, in the beginning, divine in nature, but it was not numerically identical to the Father himself (who was referred to previously as “ton theon,” and is the divine being whom the word is said to have been “with” or “toward”).

Moreover, the word that was “with God in the beginning” cannot be understood as Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, since the only-begotten Son of God was, and is, a human being – i.e., a descendent of the first man, Adam - and did not exist until he was conceived/begotten in the womb of his mother Miriam by the “power of the Most High” (Luke 1:30-35). It was at this time - and not any time before - that God became the Father of our Lord. So Christ – the only-begotten Son of God – cannot be the “word” that was “toward God in the beginning.” Rather, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the “word made flesh.” Christ is the human being (the person composed of “flesh”) which the word “became” (or was embodied as) at a certain point in time (v. 14).

But what then is the “word” that was “with” or “toward” God “in the beginning?” Answer: the “word” (logos) here simply refers to the spoken word of God - i.e., the divine declaration or utterance by which God brought everything into existence, and which is the expression of God’s wisdom, purpose and character:

“In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...and God SAID...” (Gen 1:1, 3)

“By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host...For he [Yahweh] spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Ps. 33:6, 9).

“He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction” (Ps. 107:20).

“He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly...He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow...He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel” (Ps. 147:15, 18-19).

“It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Jer. 10:12-13).

“...by the word (logos) of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water...” (2 Pet 3:5).

More Examples of the “Word of Yahweh” in the OT

Genesis 15:1, 4
After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision: "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."

And behold, the word of Yahweh came to him: "This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir."

According to Jamieson, Fausset and Brown in their commentary, the “word of Yahweh” referred to in Genesis 15:1 is “a phrase used, when connected with a vision, to denote a prophetic message.” There is no reason to understand the person speaking the “word of Yahweh” to Abraham in this vision as being anyone other than Yahweh himself (i.e., the Father, who is a unipersonal being).

Consider also the words that Yahweh gave to Moses to say to Pharaoh, in Exodus 9:13-19:

Then Yahweh said to Moses, "Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, 'Thus says Yahweh, God of the Hebrews...You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go. Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them.

We're then told in vv. 20-21:

Then whoever feared the word of Yahweh among the servants of Pharaoh hurried his slaves and his livestock into the houses, but whoever did not pay attention to the word of Yahweh left his slaves and his livestock in the field.

Here "the word of Yahweh" is simply the spoken message that Yahweh gave Moses to give to Pharaoh. It's not a visible (or invisible) "person of Yahweh" who exists as a person distinct from another "person of Yahweh." This "word of Yahweh" is simply what Yahweh had spoken to Moses to say to Pharaoh, and has no existence apart from Yahweh himself.

Similarly, in Numbers 3:14-16 we read:

And Yahweh spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, "List the sons of Levi, by fathers’ houses and by clans; every male from a month old and upward you shall list." So Moses listed them according to the word of Yahweh, as he was commanded.

Here the “word of Yahweh” is simply the message that Yahweh spoke to Moses, not a person distinct from Yahweh (or one of two or more personal beings who are each, in some sense, all “Yahweh”).

Consider also Numbers 15:31:

Because he has despised the word of Yahweh and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.

Here despising the word of Yahweh is equivalent to breaking the commandment that was given to the people of Israel.

Again, we read in Numbers 24:12-14:

And Balaam said to Balak, "Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, 'If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of Yahweh, to do either good or bad of my own will. What Yahweh speaks, that will I speak'?"

Here it is evident that the "word of Yahweh" was simply understood to mean that which Yahweh had spoken.

In Deut. 5:4-6, 22, we read:

Yahweh spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between Yahweh and you at that time, to declare to you the word of Yahweh. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:

"'I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery..."These words Yahweh spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me.

Here again we find that the "word of Yahweh" is simply that which God spoke to the people. There is simply no "person of Yahweh" distinct from another "person of Yahweh" in view here or anywhere else when the "word of Yahweh" is referred to. This “word” is simply the divine utterance and declaration, and is not another divine person or "mode of existence" distinct from the divine person speaking. But astoundingly, this is precisely how most Christians understand the "word" of John's prologue when they come to this portion of Scripture. Rather than identifying God’s word as the spoken declaration which is the expression of God’s mind/thoughts and the means by which he accomplishes his purpose (and which, like God’s wisdom, may be personified), they turn it into a distinct divine person (or “mode of existence”) whom they believe the man, Jesus Christ, pre-existed as before his conception in the womb of his mother, Miriam.

As a final example of the “word of God” referred to in John 1:1, consider Isaiah 55:10-11:

"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isa. 55:10-11).

Although personified, the word of God in this passage (which was said to go out from God’s mouth and accomplish the purpose for which God sent it) is not literally a person. But being God’s word (and thus the expression of his wisdom, purpose and character), it is divine in nature, and may thus be said to be theos.

Moreover, the word logos is used throughout John’s Account to denote a spoken word, and I submit that it means the same thing in his prologue. It’s no more a personal, intelligent being with a mind and will separate from the Father (whom the word was “with” or “toward” in the beginning) than is “wisdom” is in Proverbs 8 (which is also represented as being alongside God in the beginning). This being the case, there is no more reason to capitalize logos in John 1 than there is to capitalize “wisdom” in Proverbs.

It was God’s word which, in a figurative sense, “became flesh” when - in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Matt. 1:22-23) and the word of God that came to Miriam through the messenger Gabriel (Luke 1:26-37) - Christ was generated by the “power of the Most High.” For not only did Christ live out and perfectly embody the inspired words that he spoke during his earthly ministry (words which came from his Father - John 7:16; 17:14), but – as the “word become flesh” - Christ is the ultimate and definitive communication of God’s heart and mind to mankind. In Hebrews 1:1-2 we read that, in contrast with the “many portions and many modes” in which God spoke “of old,” it is “in a Son” that God speaks “in the last of these days.” As such, Jesus - and Jesus alone – can be understood as “the Word of God.”

Moreover, just like the divine word referred to in Isaiah 55:10-11, Jesus is the one through whom God will succeed in accomplishing his redemptive purpose for the world (i.e., the reconciliation of all, so that the Father may be “all in all”). Thus, it is highly appropriate that John refer to Jesus in Rev. 19:13 as the “Word of God.” While, in the course of redemptive history, God has spoken through both celestial messengers and human beings (the prophets), only Christ is the perfect manifestation of the divine logos, for “in him dwells all the fullness of the divine nature bodily” (Col. 2:9; cf. Col 1:19; Eph 3:19; 2 Pet 1:4).

John 1:10-13
“In the world He was, and the world came into being through Him, and the world knew Him not. To His own He came, and those who are His own accepted Him not. Yet whoever obtained Him, to them He gives the right to become children of God, to those who are believing in His name, who were begotten, not of bloods, neither of the will of the flesh, neither of the will of a man, but of God.”

In a Nutshell: The one referred to as “He” in these verses is God, the Father. Jesus, the Son of God, does not directly come into view until verse 14, where we read that “the Word became flesh and tabernacles among us…”

Expanded Explanation: As has been previously argued, the “word” (logos) referred to in John 1:1-3 should best be understood as the spoken word or declaration of the Father – i.e., the spoken word by which God, the Father, reveals himself, expresses his mind and brings his plan to fulfillment. It is this word which “became flesh” when Christ was supernaturally generated in his mother's womb. In v. 4 we read that in God's word is “life.” The life that John had in view will first be enjoyed by the saints as eonian life (1 John 1:1-2; cf. John 5:24; 6:68; 12:50) – i.e., life in the kingdom during the eons of Christ’s reign. However, the life that is “in” God’s word will ultimately be the enjoyment of all mankind at the consummation, when death, the “last enemy,” is abolished (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

We’re further told that the life that was in God’s word in the beginning is “the light of men” – i.e., a source of knowledge/truth concerning God (cf. John 17:3). Significantly, we’re told by John that the one true God – i.e., the Father whom Christ represents and makes known - “is life eonian” (1 John 5:20) as well as “light” (1 John 1:5). As “life eonian,” the Father is the ultimate blessing that will characterize the life that will be enjoyed by the saints during the coming eons. As “light,” the Father is the ultimate, absolute source of truth for mankind.

John the baptizer came that he should be testifying concerning this light (divine source of truth), that all should be believing through it. When we’re told that John the baptizer was not this light (divine source of truth) but rather was sent to testify concerning it, the idea being conveyed is that the divine light - i.e., the absolute source of truth - was not manifested in John. That is, we’re being told that John was not, himself, the perfect representation and expression of this divine source of truth. This source of truth – which, we’re told, is enlightening every man – did not come into the world through John the baptizer. Rather, this light came into the world through another man: Jesus Christ.

In keeping with this fact, Christ declared himself to be the “light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5; 12:46). Although only the Father is “light” in the ultimate, absolute sense, Christ (and no one else) was and is the perfect representation and expression of the Father. Christ did the works of the Father, and declared not his own word but the word of the Father (John 12:49-50; 14:8-9, 24; cf. Hebrews 1:1-2). It should be noted that what Christ declared concerning himself he declared concerning his disciples as well, since they – to a lesser and imperfect degree – were also to manifest the light of God in the world (Matt. 5:14-16). Similarly, Christ referred to Moses as “a lamp, burning and appearing” – i.e., Moses was a man in whom God’s light was manifested in the world as well. But the “light” that we’re told God “is” was manifested most fully and consistently in Christ alone.

We’re then told in John 1:10 that “In the world He was, and the world came into being through Him, and the world knew Him not.” Although this verse is commonly understood to be referring to Jesus Christ in a pre-existent state, I believe John had the Father in view here. As we’ve noted, the Father is said to be both “light” and “life eonian,” and it was by sending his Son into the world that the Father came into the world. It is not that Christ is the same person or being as Father, but rather that Christ represented and manifested the Father through his words and deeds. Not only did Christ perfectly represent his Father (such that if one saw Christ – who is the “Image of God” - one saw the Father), but Christ even spoke of the Father as being/remaining in him, and as working in and through him during his ministry on earth (John 10:32, 37-38; 14:9-11; 16:32). Paul also affirmed this truth when he wrote that “God was in Christ, conciliating the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

It may be objected that the world cannot be said to have come into being “through” God, since God is the first and absolute cause of everything. However, the Greek word dia does not necessarily mean or imply that something is a secondary cause, or that it is less-than-absolute with regards to causation. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the preposition dia can refer to “the means or instrument by which anything is effected; because what is done by means of person or thing seems to pass as it were through the same (cf. Winer's Grammar, 378 (354)).” We also read that this word can be used “of one who is the author of the action as well as its instrument, or of the efficient cause” (http://biblehub.com/greek/1223.htm). Thus, although God is the absolute and primary cause of all, the word dia can still be appropriately used in reference to him (see, for example, 1 Cor. 1:9; Romans 11:36; Heb. 2:10; 7:21).

When we read in v. 11 that “to His own he came,” it is commonly thought that the pronoun “his” is a reference to Christ. However, this can just as easily be understood as a reference to the Father. The words “his own” imply that the people in view were the unique possession of the one who came to them, and of course Israel is a nation which originated and belongs to God in a unique sense that cannot be said of any other nation on earth (Ex. 19:5; Deut. 7:6-8; 14:2; 2 Sam. 7:23-24; 1 Chron. 17:20-21; Romans 11:1-2; etc.). Israel is the nation of which God is figuratively considered as being both the “father” (Mal. 2:10) as well as the “husband” (Jer. 31:32; Isaiah 54:5; 62:4-5; Ezekiel 16:32-34; Hosea 2:7). Despite the unique sense in which Israel could be considered God’s “own,” the unbelieving Israelites to whom Christ spoke did not know God (John 8:19; 16:3), and Christ even rebuked them for being “children of the Adversary” rather than being children of God (John 8:38-44).

However, there were a few within Israel who, at the time John wrote, had “received” or “obtained” the Father. How did they receive/obtain him? Answer: by “receiving” or “taking” the one whom the Father had sent - i.e., his Son, Jesus (John 13:20; Matthew 10:40; cf. John 12:44). Those who obtained the Father by believing in his name (having believed in God’s Son, who represented him) were given the right to become children of God. Who gives people the right to become children of God? Ultimately, God does; it is ultimately because of the Father’s love that anyone is given this special status (1 John 3:1).

It may be objected that it was Christ's name in which we're told people were to believe (John 2:23; 3:18). This is true; however, it’s also true that it was the Father's name which Christ declared he had manifested to those who believed on him (John 17:6, 26), and that by believing in Christ they were believing in the Father (John 12:44). Thus, absolutely speaking, those who believed in the name of Christ believed in the name of the Father. And, in doing so, they therefore obtained the Father: “Everyone who is disowning the Son, neither has the Father. He who is avowing the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).

4 comments:

  1. I think I am getting it brother. Keep praying for me as I will for you. Thanks!

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  2. Dear Nathan, You're working too hard to "get it." It isn't this difficult. The plain, apparent meaning of these passages (I am speaking chiefly of the Colossians 1 passage explained away in the last section) is the true meaning. Two or three sentences ought not require two or three thousand words of explanation as to meaning. And they don't. More later. --MZ

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  3. Hi Martin,

    As you well know, sometimes clearing up misunderstandings and clearing away mistaken interpretations of scripture requires more words than would be necessary if such misunderstandings and misinterpretations didn't exist. The irony is that I can imagine a believer in the Trinity (or eternal conscious torment) using the same words you used in defense of what they believe against someone who believes as we do: "It isn't that difficult. The plain, apparent meaning of these passages is the true meaning!"

    The fact is that the understanding of Colossians 1:16 that I defend in my article is not at all hard to understand. The meaning of Paul’s words in Col. 1:16 concerning all (presently) being created in and through Christ is just as plain and easy to understand as the truth that Christ is “carrying on all by His powerful declaration.” So, contrary to what you’ve said, I don’t think one has to “work hard” to understand this. Rather, what one has to do is something that we’ve all had to do when coming to understand certain passages of scripture differently than we did before we became believers: shake off the “baggage” that comes from having held to a certain doctrinal belief for years when one is shown a different way of understanding a text in scripture, and begin to see things in a different light than we did before. Surely you can appreciate this.

    In any case, I look forward to what I’m sure will be a fine attempt on your part to defend what you believe against my “complicated” understanding of scripture that our Lord’s life began when he was generated in his mother’s womb, and that God became his Father at this point.

    Grace and peace, brother.

    Aaron

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