Monday, November 20, 2017

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

“He was first, before me”

John 1
15 John is testifying concerning Him and has cried, saying, "This was He of Whom I said, 'He Who is coming after me, has come to be in front of me,' for He was first, before me…"
26 John answered them, saying, "I am baptizing in water. Now in the midst of you One stood of Whom you are not aware.
27 He it is Who, coming after me, has come to be in front of me, of Whom I am not worthy that I should be loosing the thong of His sandal."
28 These things occurred in Bethany, the other side of the Jordan river, where John was, baptizing.
29 On the morrow he is observing Jesus coming toward him, and is saying, "Lo! the Lamb of God Which is taking away the sin of the world!
30 This is He concerning Whom I said, 'After me is coming a Man Who has come to be in front of me,' for He was First, before me.

In a Nutshell: The word translated “first” in verses 15 and 30 should be understood to mean “foremost in importance.” Understood in this way, these verses affirm the preeminence/superiority of Christ in relation to his cousin, John, rather than the idea that Christ was alive before he was generated.

Expanded Explanation: When John stated that Jesus “was first, before me,” he was simply acknowledging the fact that Jesus had always been superior in rank to, and of greater importance than, he himself. John later stated that Jesus “must be growing” but that it was his (John’s) place to be inferior (John 3:30). Similar to the word translated “first” in Col. 1:18 (prōteuō), the word translated “first” in John 1:15 and 30 (prōtos) can convey the idea of superior rank, or of being “foremost in importance.” Strong’s Concordance, for example, defines prōtos as follows: “foremost (in time, place, order or importance).” 

Understood as referring to importance and rank, Jesus had always been “first” before his cousin, John. That is, Jesus had always been “foremost in importance” in relation to John. And this is something that would be true - and would’ve been true for John to have affirmed - irrespective of whether Jesus was alive before John or not.[1] Even some Christians who affirm the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ have acknowledged this fact. Consider, for example, the following remark on John 1:15 from John A.T. Robertson in his commentary: “[Christ] had always been (ēn imperfect) before John in his Pre-incarnate state, but “after” John in time of the Incarnation, but always ahead of John in rank immediately on his Incarnation (emphasis mine). As is clear from the quote, Robertson (like all Christians) affirmed the view that Christ was alive in a “pre-incarnate” state. And yet Robertson did not understand the sense in which Christ was “first” or “before” John to have pertained to Christ’s pre-incarnate state. Rather, he understood John to have been saying that Christ was “always ahead of” him (John) in rank “immediately on his Incarnation” (i.e., from the time that Christ entered the world at conception, and began life as a human).

Moreover, even if one wanted to say that John the baptist understood Jesus as being “first” in relation to him even before his conception, it would not require the belief that Christ was alive before his conception. For, consider that it could also be said that Jesus had always been “foremost in importance” in relation to John with respect to his foreknown and prophesied role in God’s plan. Thus, whether we understand Jesus’ being “first” in relation to John to be something that had been true of Christ ever since he was generated/conceived, or whether we understand it to have been true of Christ before both he and John came into existence on earth, there is no good reason to understand John’s words as supporting the idea that Jesus was alive before he was generated in the womb of his mother.

“He who descends out of heaven”

John 3
13 “And no one has ascended into heaven except He Who descends out of heaven, the Son of Mankind Who is in heaven.”[2]

John 6
33 “…but My Father is giving you Bread out of heaven, the true, for the Bread of God is He Who is descending out of heaven and giving life to the world.”

38 “…for I have descended from heaven, not that I should be doing My will, but the will of Him Who sends Me.”

50 “This is the Bread which is descending out of heaven that anyone may be eating of it and may not be dying.”

51 “I am the living Bread which descends out of heaven. If anyone should be eating of this Bread, he shall be living for the eon. Now the Bread also, which I shall be giving for the sake of the life of the world, is My flesh.”

58 “This is the Bread which descends out of heaven. Not according as the fathers ate and died; he who is masticating this Bread shall be living for the eon.”

In a Nutshell: If understood literally, Jesus’ claim to have “descended out of heaven” would mean that the Son of God descended out of heaven as a flesh-and-blood, mortal being (John 6:51, 58). However, as is the case throughout chapter six (such as when Jesus spoke of his flesh being eaten and his blood being drank) Jesus was using figurative imagery here. Specifically, Jesus’ “descent from heaven” imagery is the same sort of figurative imagery that is found elsewhere (in James 1:16 and 3:15), and emphasizes his supernatural origin as the Son of God.

Expanded Explanation: The “Bread of God” which descended out of heaven and gives life to the world is clearly the man, Jesus Christ. But notice that Christ further clarified the “Bread of God” as being his flesh. In verses 51 and 58 we read, “I am the living Bread which descends out of heaven. If anyone should be eating of this Bread, he shall be living for the eon. Now the Bread also, which I shall be giving for the sake of the life of the world, is My flesh…This is the Bread which descends out of heaven. Not according as the fathers ate and died; he who is masticating this Bread shall be living for the eon.

If we take Christ’s words to mean that he literally came down from heaven from a pre-existent state, then, to be consistent, we must also believe that it was Christ as a mortal, flesh-and-blood human who pre-existed and then came down from heaven. However, no one who believes in the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ would affirm that a mortal, flesh-and-blood human literally came down out of heaven and was “incarnated.” Thus, what Christ declared in John 6 ends up “proving too much” with regards to providing support for the view that Christ pre-existed as a celestial spirit-being before he was conceived.

But if Christ wasn’t saying that he literally descended from heaven as a flesh-and-blood human, then what is the meaning of these verses? It was, apparently, an idiom among the Jewish people to say that something came down from heaven if God was its direct source. For example, the brother of our Lord wrote that “all good giving and every perfect gratuity is from above, descending from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Similarly, in chapter 3, we are told that the wisdom that should characterize those to whom James wrote is that which is coming down from above” (v. 15) and which is from above (v. 17). This wisdom that “comes down from above” is contrasted with that which is “terrestrial, soulish, demoniacal.”

These verses do not, of course, mean that the good things in our lives literally come down from heaven (much less that they undergo some kind of mystical transformation before we receive them). What James meant is clear: God is the author and source of the good things in our lives (including the wisdom by which the saints should live). And just as God is the direct source of “all good giving and every perfect gratuity,” so God was the direct source of the ultimate blessing: his Son, Jesus Christ (Luke 1:34-35).

A similar idiom can be found in Matt. 21:25, when Christ asked the Jewish people, “John’s baptism – whence was it? Of heaven or of men?” The way that John's baptism would have been “of heaven” was if God - rather than man - was the source of the revelation and practice. John did not get the idea on his own or from some other human individual; it was “of heaven.”

In light of how such language is used in Scripture, Jesus’ words in John 6:38 and elsewhere are clear: Jesus, who was generated supernaturally in the womb of his mother, Miriam, “descended from/out of heaven” and is “from above” in the sense that God is his Father, and the direct source from whom he originated. 

Later in John’s account, we read the following exchange between Christ and his disciples: I came out from the Father and have come into the world. Again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.” His disciples are saying to Him, “Lo! now with boldness art Thou speaking, and not one proverb art Thou telling. Now we are aware that Thou art aware of all and hast no need that anyone may be asking Thee. By this we are believing that Thou camest out from God.

What was previously spoken of more figuratively as Christ’s “descending from heaven” is, in these verses, more plainly stated as Christ’s simply coming “out from God.” Jesus could declare that he “came out from the Father” because, as the one responsible for the miraculous conception in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:35), God was his direct source. Jesus “entered the world” when he was conceived, and left the world and went to the Father at his ascension.

There are also verses that say Jesus was “sent from God,” a phrase that also emphasizes God as the ultimate source of that which is sent. John the Baptist is also said to be a man who was “sent from God” (John 1:6). The idea of coming from God or being sent by God is clarified by Jesus’ words in John 17. There, we read, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (v. 18). We understand perfectly what Christ meant when he said, “I have sent them into the world.” He meant that he commissioned his disciples, or appointed them. No one thinks that Jesus' disciples were in heaven with God and incarnated into the flesh. Christ said, As you have sent me, I have sent them.”

John 6:62
62 If, then, you should be beholding the Son of Mankind ascending where He was formerly -- ?

In a Nutshell: When Jesus referred to the Son of Mankind as “ascending where He was formerly,” he had in view Daniel 7:13-14. In the prophetic vision described in these verses, the “Son of Mankind” was seen by Daniel as ascending to heaven and being presented before God in the heavenly throne room. Jesus was, therefore, speaking enigmatically about fulfilling this particular prophecy (which is also the origin of the title “Son of Mankind” which Jesus so often applied to himself during his earthly ministry).

Expanded Explanation: In response to this enigmatic question, the question naturally arises, “Where was the Son of Mankind ‘formerly?’? I believe the key to answering this question is found in the expression “Son of Mankind.” When we understand the prophetic significance of this title, the meaning of Christ’s words in v. 62 will, I think, become clearer. The expression “Son of Mankind” (or “Son of Man”) is not original to Christ, but is derived from a prophetic passage found in the book of Daniel. In Daniel 7:13-14 we read, “I was perceiving in the visions of the night, and behold, with the clouds of the heavens one like a Son of Mankind was approaching. He went up to the Transferrer of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honor, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and language groups shall serve him.”

Every usage of the title “Son of Mankind” by Christ points back to this key passage, and may thus be understood as having been Christ’s way of identifying himself with the prophesied Messianic figure seen by Daniel in the night visions. Moreover, it must be emphasized that the title “Son of Mankind” refers to a human descendent of Adam and Eve and not to some sort of pre-existent celestial spirit-being that God created before the creation of the universe. As such, the “Son of Mankind” had no existence outside of Daniel’s vision until Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother, Miriam.

And yet, there is a sense in which the Son of Mankind can be said to have been somewhere “formerly.” In the aforementioned vision given to Daniel, the Son of Mankind was in heaven, having ascended there and been presented before his God and Father. This, then, is what Christ had in mind when he referred to the Son of Mankind as ascending to ”where he was formerly.” “Formerly” means at the time when Daniel received his vision of the Son of Mankind ascending to heaven and being presented to God. And when Christ Jesus – the one whom Daniel saw in his vision – ascended to God forty days after his resurrection, he fulfilled the prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14.

John's Account, Part Three:

[1] On the other hand, the mere fact that someone was alive before (and thus older than) John did not, in and of itself, mean that John was less worthy or less important than they were; on the contrary, according to Christ in Matt. 11:11, “not among those born of women has there been roused a greater [prophet] than John the baptist” (cf. Luke 7:28).

[2] It should be noted that there is disagreement among students of scripture as to where, in the third chapter of John’s account, Christ’s discourse actually ends. The Greek manuscripts have no standard way of indicating where a quotation ends, and so it is uncertain whether verses 13–21 are the words of Christ to Nicodemus (or perhaps to a wider audience on another occasion) or the words of the narrator (John) that were added as an editorial comment.

Some scholars see verse 13 as the beginning of John’s own words in this chapter, rather than a continuation of the words of Christ to Nicodemus (the Concordant Literal New Testament, for example, has the words of Christ ending in v. 12). Others, however, see Christ’s words as ending with v. 15, and v. 16 as marking the beginning of John’s comments (see, for example, the New English Translation, the RSV, the Lexham English Bible and the NIV 2011). Still others believe Christ’s words continue all the way to v. 21 (e.g., Moffatt, J.B. Phillips, NEB, ESV, NASB, NRSV, HCSB and NIV 1984). I see the first view as most plausible (i.e., that Christ’s discourse concludes with v. 12, and that John’s commentary begins with v. 13 and continues all the way to v. 21).

No comments:

Post a Comment