Monday, November 20, 2017

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

John 8:58
53 Not you are greater than our father Abraham who died! And the prophets died. Whom are you making yourself to be?"
54 Jesus answered, "If I should ever be glorifying Myself, My glory is nothing. It is My Father Who is glorifying Me, of Whom you are saying that He is your God.
55 And you know Him not, yet I am acquainted with Him, and if I should be saying that I am not acquainted with Him, I shall be like you, a liar. But I am acquainted with Him and I am keeping His word.
56 Abraham, your father, exults that he may become acquainted with My day, and he was acquainted with it and rejoiced."
57 The Jews, then, said to Him, "You have not as yet lived fifty years, and you have seen Abraham!"
58 Jesus said to them, “Verily, verily, I am saying to you, Ere Abraham came into being, I am
59 They pick up stones, then, that they should be casting them at Him. Yet Jesus was hid and came out of the sanctuary. And passing through the midst of them, He went and thus passed by.

In a Nutshell: Rather than claiming to have been alive before Abraham was (as the unbelieving Jews erroneously interpreted him as claiming), Jesus was enigmatically alluding to the fact that he was the promised “seed” spoken of by God in Gen. 3:15. The divine promise of a future “seed” was, of course, made long before Abraham “came into being,” and before Abraham “became acquainted with” Christ’s “day” (which is something that occurred when Abraham believed God’s promise to him concerning his future “seed,” in whom all the nations will be blessed). Christ was, in other words, implying that he was the promised Messiah - and thus superior to Abraham - rather than claiming to have been alive before Abraham.

Expanded Explanation: For those who believe in the pre-existence of Christ, the words translated as “I am” (egō eimi) in v. 58 are viewed as implying that, before Abraham existed, Jesus pre-existed as either Yahweh himself or as a celestial being who served as Yahweh’s representative. However, the expression “egō eimi” was simply a common way of designating oneself; it did not mean one was claiming to be Yahweh or Yahweh’s representative. The very same Greek expression is used in the next chapter by the man Jesus healed of blindness. There, we read that this man kept telling the people, “I am he” (egō eimi), in response to his being questioned (John 9:9). Although this man’s response could just as legitimately be translated “I am” as Jesus’ words in chapter 8, no one thinks this man was claiming to be Yahweh, or even to have been Yahweh’s representative.

The Greek phrase translated in John 8:58 as “I am” occurs many other times in the Greek Scriptures, and is often translated as “I am he” or something equivalent in meaning (for “I am he,” see Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8; John 8:24, 28; 13:19; 18:5, 6 and 8; for “It is I,” see Matt. 14:27; Mark 6:50; John 6:20). Translating egō eimi as “I am” (rather than as “I am he”) in John 8:58 seems to have more to do with the translator having a “theological axe to grind” than anything else, since “I am he” would be both a grammatically valid translation as well as more consistent with how the expression is normally translated.

Moreover, in order for Christ to have been referring to himself as “Yahweh” in John 8:58, he would need to have used different words than he did. The Septuagint translation of Exodus 3:14 (Lexham LXX Interlinear) reads as follows:

κα επεν θες πρς Μωυσν γώ εμι ν,
— said — God to Moses, I am the (One) (who) exists.",

επεν Οτως ρες τος υος Ισραηλ
And (then) he said, "Thus you will say to the sons of Israel,

ν πέσταλκέν με πρς μς.
`The (One) (who) exists has sent me to you.’".

So the Greek translation of God’s title was ho ōn (
ν) rather than egō eimi (γώ εμι).

And God said to Moses, “I AM (egō eimi) THE BEING (ho ōn).” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘THE BEING (ho ōn) has sent me to you’” (Ex 3:14, LXX). But in John 8:58, Christ does not refer to himself as ho ōn (“the being”). Rather, he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you: before Abraham came into being, I am (he) (egō eimi).” There’s a big difference between merely saying “egō eimi” and “egō eimi ho ōn.” The Greek expression egō eimi is, by itself, not the divine name of God in Greek (which, again, is egō eimi ho ōn), nor is it the shortened version of the name (which is ho ōn). In the LXX, God never used the words egō eimi alone as a means of self-designation. The title ho ōn - either by itself or immediately following egō eimi - was how God identified himself.

Moreover, we can clearly see that the Jews didn’t consider the words “I am (he)” to be the name of God because they weren’t bothered by Jesus using it earlier in the chapter (John 8:24, 28). It definitely wasn’t a reaction to Jesus saying “egō eimi” or else they would have attempted to kill him at verse 24. In this verse, Jesus told the unbelieving Jews,
“I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he (egō eimi) you will die in your sins.” In response to this the unbelieving Jews asked, “Who are you?” Jesus then replied, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning.” And what had he been telling them? Answer: that he was the one sent from God, and the one to whom the Scriptures bore witness. In chapter 5, Christ told the Jews, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eonian life; and it is they that bear witness about me...” (v. 39). Similarly, in John 5:46-47 he told them, ”If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

So who was Christ claiming to be in John 8:58? As is evident from John 8:24-25, the exact meaning of what is being said when someone declared “egō eimi” is not necessarily inherent in the expression, but in many cases needs to be supplied by the listener or reader. That is, when someone used the Greek expression “egō eimi,” the listener (or reader) had to “fill in the blank” in order to understand the exact claim that was being made. There was clearly something being implied that Jesus did not directly state when he declared “egō eimi” (“I am he”) in v. 58. The exact claim that Jesus was making here must be inferred by the listener/reader – and, I submit, this is done by taking into account Jesus’ words in verse 56.

In v. 56, we read that Jesus told the unbelieving Jews, “Abraham, your father, exults that he may become acquainted with My day, and he was acquainted with it and rejoiced.” How did Abraham “see” (or become “acquainted with”) the day of Christ? As is clear from what is said in Hebrews 11:8-19 (cf. v. 39), we can conclude that Abraham didn’t see/become acquainted with Christ’s “day” as a fulfilled reality. Instead, Abraham became acquainted with this “day” by faith in God’s promise concerning his (Abraham’s) future “seed.”

In Gen. Gen. 22:18 God promised Abraham, Your seed shall take over the gateway of its enemies and all the nations of the earth will bless themselves in your seed, inasmuch as you have hearkened to My voice” (see also Gen. 12:4, Gen. 26:4 and Gen. 28:14). God’s promise to Abraham concerning his “seed” was a promise concerning Christ himself, who is the seed of Abraham in whom all the kindreds of the earth will be blessed (Acts 3:25-26; Gal. 3:16). Abraham believed God’s promises to him concerning his future seed and, in that sense, Abraham “saw” or became acquainted with Christ’s “day” (i.e., the time period when the promises made to Abraham concerning his seed began to be fulfilled).

In light of John 8:56 (off of which Jesus is clearly building in v. 58), it is evident that the implication in Jesus’ words in v. 58 is the Messianic claim to be the one who had been promised by God before Abraham was born. Significantly, Gen. 22:18 is not the first time Moses wrote concerning Christ. Nor is Gen. 22:18 the first time that Christ was prophetically referred to as the “seed” of someone. The first Messianic promise in scripture (recorded by Moses) is found in Gen 3:15. In this verse we read of a promised “seed” who, despite being injured by the serpent, would deal it a mortal blow: “And I shall set enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed. He shall hurt you in the head, and you shall hurt Him in the heel.”

Putting it all together, that which was implied in Christ’s words in verse 58 (when he said “I am he”) may be understood as follows: “Before Abraham came into being, I am he (who was promised/spoken of by God).” This makes Jesus’ claim one of pre-eminence and not literal pre-existence (keep in mind that, just a few verses before, the Jews had said to Jesus, “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?”). By claiming to be the promised “seed” or offspring foretold by God even before Abraham existed (Gen 3:15), Jesus was claiming to be greater than Abraham (a fact which was inconceivable to the unbelieving Jews, since they did not believe he was who he claimed to be; v. 53). And though Christ was and is superior to Abraham, we have no more reason to think that he literally existed before the patriarch was born than we have reason to believe that Abraham literally “saw” the Messiah’s “day” nearly 2,000 years before Jesus was born (John 8:56).

While the unbelieving Jews rightfully understood Jesus to be making a Messianic claim (which is why they sought to kill him at this time, and is also the basis of the charges that would later be brought against him during his trial), they mistook his words to be an absurd claim to be literally older than Abraham. This is yet another example of the unbelieving Jews completely misunderstanding what Jesus was saying (just like how Jesus’ words were misunderstood when he said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” and “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”). However, Jesus was no more claiming to be older than Abraham than he was claiming that Abraham literally saw his “day” thousands of years before he was born. He was claiming to be the same “seed” promised to Abraham, but who was promised by God before Abraham came to be.

John 17:5
"And now glorify Thou Me, Father, with Thyself, with the glory which I had before the world is with Thee."

In a Nutshell: When Christ prayed that the Father would glorify him, he was referring to the post-resurrection glory that he received because of his sacrificial death. The sense in which Christ had this glory “before the world [was] with [the Father]” is the same sense in which Christ was “slain from the disruption of the world” (Rev. 13:8) and believers were given grace in Christ Jesus “before times eonian” (2 Tim. 1:9). It was, in other words, in God’s foreknowledge that Christ possessed his post-resurrection glory. That which was foreknown by God to take place and central to his redemptive purpose could be spoken of as having occurred long before actually taking place.  

Expanded Explanation: In reading this verse, we first need to ask, “What was the glory that Christ was expecting to receive at some future time, when he prayed this prayer to his Father?” By answering this question, I believe we will be able to come to a more accurate understanding of this verse.

We know that there was a glory that Christ had and manifested when performing miracles during his earthly ministry (John 2:11; cf. 11:4), as well as a glory that he received at the time of his transformation on the mount (Matt. 17:1-2; 2 Pet. 1:16-17). However, we also know that there is a sense in which Christ had not yet been glorified: Now this he said about the spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). Later, we learn that the future glorification which Christ underwent was inseparably connected with his death on the cross, and was fully realized in his resurrection (John 12:6, 23; Luke 24:26; 1 Pet. 1:11, 21).

Hebrews 2:9 is especially relevant here. There, we read, Yet we are observing Jesus, Who has been made some bit inferior to messengers (because of the suffering of death, wreathed with GLORY and HONOR), so that in the grace of God, He should be tasting death for the sake of everyone.

It was “because of the suffering of death” that Christ was “wreathed with glory and honor.” The glory and honor that Christ received by virtue of his obedient death on the cross was not a glory and honor that he had, or could’ve had, beforehand (at least, not in any fully realized sense). This glory and honor was given to him by God “BECAUSE” of the suffering of death.

Paul described the glory and honor conferred onto Christ by God in Philippians 2:8-11. There, we read that Christ became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Paul went on to declare, Wherefore also [i.e., for this reason also]God highly exalts Him, and graces Him with the name that is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should be bowing, celestial and terrestrial and subterranean, and every tongue should be acclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God, the Father.”

Do those who believe in the preexistence of our Lord also believe that, from the beginning of his existence, Christ had a “name that is above every name?” How could this be, when this elevated status and honor was given to Christ BECAUSE Christ was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross?” It’s impossible that this particular glory could’ve been given to Christ and enjoyed by him in any realized sense at any time prior to his death and resurrection. And yet, this is the very glory that Christ entered into after he was roused from among the dead by his God and Father. I hope the reader can now see the error of believing that, in John 17:5, Christ was referring to a glory he personally and consciously enjoyed in a pre-existent state. For the glory that Christ was expecting to receive (and to which he was referring in John 17:5) was a glory that would be given to him by God because of his obedient death. No other created being had been given (nor ever WILL be given) this glory and honor.

So what did Christ mean when he said that this was a glory which he “had before the world is with Thee?” The answer is simple, and (unfortunately) shows how even highly intelligent students of scripture who are “in the grip of a theory” can completely miss the obvious because of a commitment to their own doctrinal presuppositions. In Ephesians 1:4 Paul declared that the saints in the body of Christ were chosen in Christ “before the disruption of the world.” Similarly, we read in 2 Timothy 1:9 that God’s grace was “given to us in Christ Jesus before times eonian…” Did we personally and consciously exist at the time that we were “chosen,” and at the time that God’s grace was “given to us?” Of course not. The only sense in which we existed in order to be “chosen before the disruption of the world” and in order to be given “grace before times eonian” was in God’s foreknowledge, as a key part of his redemptive plan for the universe. God foreknew those in the body of Christ “before the disruption of the world” and “before times eonian,” and thus it can be said that we were chosen in Christ and given grace at this time.

In Romans 8:29 we read that those in the body of Christ were foreknown by God and designated beforehand. The saints in the body of Christ didn’t exist when they were foreknown by God; had they existed, they wouldn’t have been “foreknown” by God. They would’ve simply been “known.” Given this fact, consistency demands that the same be said concerning Christ in light of what we read in 1 Peter 1:20. There, we’re told that Christ was foreknown, indeed, before the disruption of the world, yet manifested in the last times because of you…” (1 Peter 1:20). Had Christ personally existed before the disruption of the world, he wouldn't have been “foreknown” by God at this time. He would have simply been known. As is the case with the saints in the body of Christ, the fact that God foreknew Christ before the disruption of the world presupposes that Christ didn’t actually exist before the disruption of the world.

In response to my sharing my understanding of John 17:5 in a private email correspondence with another believer (who is a proponent of the pre-existence view), he responded with the following rhetorical question: “What sort of glory could a mere concept have before the world was?” In response to this objection, I remarked that if such an objection was really valid, perhaps we should ask Paul in heaven, “How could concepts be chosen in Christ before the disruption of the world?” Or, “What sort of grace could concepts be given in Christ Jesus before times eonian?” My response to this objection also involved quoting Rev. 13:8 from the Concordant Literal New Testament (which the questioner had quoted approvingly on several occasions): “And all who are dwelling on the earth will be worshiping [the wild beast], everyone whose name is not written in the scroll of life of the Lambkin slain from the disruption of the world.

If the objector had no trouble believing that Christ had been “slain from the disruption of the world,” then he should have had no trouble believing that Christ could have been glorified with God before the world was. Not surprisingly, my friend did not follow up with any further objections after this. I can only assume that he realized that, in whatever sense one could say that Christ was “slain from the disruption of the world,” one could also affirm that Christ had been glorified before the world was. And, of course, the only sense in which Christ could be said to have been slain before the disruption of the world was in God’s foreknowledge, as the central figure in his redemptive plan. And in the same way, it was in God’s foreknowledge that Christ was glorified before the world was. Since Christ was “foreknown, indeed, before the disruption of the world,” it follows that Christ’s being glorified after his death was also part of God’s foreknowledge. 

Further support for this understanding of John 17:5 is that Christ went on to say in John 17:22, “And I have given them the glory which Thou has given Me, that they may be one, according as We are One…” Notice here that the same glory that Christ prayed that God would give him is spoken of as if he already possessed it. And not only that, but this glory is spoken of as if it had already been given to his disciples (and from verses 20-21 we know that the disciples of which Christ was speaking included those who weren’t even alive yet!). And in v. 24, Christ prayed, “Father, those whom Thou hast given Me, I will that, where I am, they also may be with Me, that they may be beholding My glory which Thou hast given Me, for Thou lovest Me before the disruption of the world.”

Was Christ literally in a future time and place when he spoke these words, and expressing the desire that his disciples could be there too to see him in a glorified state that was present to him but still future to them? Was Christ confused during his prayer? Not at all; this was simply a figurative way of speaking. In both cases, something that is certain to happen and central to God’s plan (and which had “already occurred” in God’s foreknowledge) is spoken of as if it had already taken place. In v. 5 Christ spoke as if he had been glorified before the world existed, and in v. 24 he spoke as if his glorification (and his being present at the location of his glorification) was a present reality, at the time of his prayer (“…where I am, they also may be with me”). This was simply a figurative way of speaking that emphasized how certain Christ’s glorification was, and how central it was, and has always been, to God’s plan. Things that are certain to exist or take place, and which are central to God's plan, are sometimes spoken of in scripture as if they already exist, or have already been accomplished. When we keep this in mind, Jesus’ words are easily harmonized with the fact that his existence as God's Son began at the time of his conception. Jesus was glorified before the world existed in God's divine foreknowledge, as the center of God’s redemptive plan. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent research! Jesus was the promised First Born, the pre-eminent child in God’s family, and the one who paves the way for all of mankind to become children of God as well. Thank you for your excellent articles on a much neglected topic that is subject to incredible bias