Saturday, November 18, 2017

A consideration of passages thought to reveal the "preexistence of Christ": Paul's letters to the body of Christ

Note: In this post (and in subsequent posts) I will be examining passages thought by most Christians to be in conflict with the position defended in the previous two-part article:

1 Corinthians 10:1-4
For I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, that our fathers all were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all are baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank of the spiritual Rock which followed. Now the Rock was Christ.

In a Nutshell: The “rock” that Paul had in view was the rock at Horeb, from which water miraculously flowed for the Israelites in the wilderness. When Paul wrote that this rock “was Christ,” he was using the same sort of figure of speech as that used by Christ when, during the last supper, he said (concerning the bread), “This is my body.” Paul was, in other words, speaking metaphorically here.

Expanded Explanation: In these verses Paul was referring to the desert wanderings of the Israelites after the exodus. The “spiritual food” that they all ate was the manna from heaven that was miraculously provided for them. Corresponding to this “spiritual” (although completely tangible) food is the “spiritual drink” that the Israelites drank from a certain “spiritual rock.” This “spiritual drink” is a reference to the water that miraculously flowed from the rock at Horeb that Moses struck with his staff on two separate occasions (Ex 17:6; Num 20:8-11; Deut. 8:15; Isaiah 48:21).

Thus, when Paul wrote of “the spiritual rock which followed” in 1 Cor. 10:4, he was alluding to the literal rock at Horeb from which water miraculously flowed. This literal rock was said by Paul to be “spiritual” in the same sense that the manna that fell from heaven and the water which flowed from the rock are said to have been “spiritual.” In speaking of the rock as following the Israelites, Paul was likely using a figure of speech called metonymy, with the rock standing for the water that sprang forth from the rock. On this verse, commentator Adam Clarke (who was a Trinitarian and believed in the pre-existence of Christ) remarked as follows:

“How could the rock follow them? It does not appear that the rock ever moved from the place where Moses struck it. But to solve this difficulty, it is said that rock here is put, by metonymy, for the water of the rock; and that this water did follow them through the wilderness. This is more likely; but we have not direct proof of it. The ancient Jews, however, were of this opinion, and state that the streams followed them in all their journeyings, up the mountains, down the valleys, etc.; and that when they came to encamp, the waters formed themselves into cisterns and pools; and that the rulers of the people guided them, by their staves, in rivulets to the different tribes and families. And this is the sense they give to Num. 21:17 : Spring up, O well, etc.”

It should also be noted that Paul doesn’t say the rock provided them with water for their entire journey. While he does say the rock “followed them,” this doesn’t necessarily have to be understood to mean that the water from the rock followed them for their entire journey. Of course, it’s possible that God actually caused streams of water from the rock to miraculously follow the Israelites for the entirety of their journey in the desert. However, the word translated “followed” could also mean “accompanied.” Understood in this way, the water from the rock accompanied them in the sense that they carried it with them in their journey through the wilderness (i.e., in skin-bottles or some other vessels that were used by ancient near eastern people in that day).

In any case, it can be reasonably concluded that Paul understood this rock to have typified Christ, and it was for this reason that he said the rock “was Christ.” The rock at Horeb was not literally Christ; rather, it was like Christ in some way, and can be understood as having represented him. The figure of speech used by Paul is the same as that used by Christ during the last supper when he said of the bread, “This is my body.” Paul was, in other words, speaking metaphorically. Even for those who believe in the pre-existence of Christ, one would think that this would be somewhat obvious (does anyone who holds to the doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence really believe that a certain celestial being who would later become incarnated as Christ was disguising himself as a rock in the wilderness?). But then again, I suppose that it should not be all the surprising if some did really believe this. After all, millions of Christians continue to mistakenly believe that when they partake of the “Eucharist” they’re literally consuming Christ’s body.

In what way can the rock at Horeb be considered a “type” of Christ, or to be like Christ in some way? Like the rock at Horeb which was “struck” or “smitten” by Moses for the sake of Israel during her wilderness wanderings (Ex. 17:6), it was prophesied that Christ would also be “struck” or “smitten” for our sakes (Isaiah 53:4-5, 10; Zech. 13:7). And, just as water came forth from the rock at Horeb after it was struck, so we’re told that water (along with blood) came out of Christ’s side when, after dying on the cross, he was pierced by a Roman solider (John 19:34). We also know that, figuratively speaking, Christ’s death resulted in “living water” becoming available to those who believed on him (John 4:10-14; 7:37-38; cf. Rev. 21:6).

2 Corinthians 8:9
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, being rich, because of you He became poor, that you, by His poverty, should be rich.

In a Nutshell: When Paul wrote of Christ’s becoming “poor” so that the saints in Corinth to whom he wrote “should be rich,” he had in view Christ’s sacrificial death on mankind’s behalf. Christ’s death – an essential element of Paul’s evangel - was the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” of which the saints to whom Paul wrote already had knowledge (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

Expanded Explanation: Some who believe in the preexistence of Christ assume that the words “being rich” imply a pre-existent state, and that Christ’s becoming “poor” should be understood as referring to his “incarnation” (since Christ was, of course, born into a state of poverty). However, this is not the only (nor, I believe, the best) way of understanding Paul’s words here. The saints to whom Paul wrote weren’t made “rich” simply by virtue of Christ’s being conceived and born into this world (which is what the “preexistence” interpretation of this verse would entail). Rather, their becoming “rich” (which, of course, was not a reference to whatever material wealth they may or may not have had) was the result of Christ’s death for their sins.

To be “rich” is to be in possession of something that is of great value, and for someone who is rich to subsequently become “poor” (as Paul said happened to Christ) is for them to give away, or be deprived of, that which belonged to them, which was of such great value. So what was it that Christ gave away which was of such great value, and which (by giving it up) made him “poor,” and placed him in a state of “poverty?” I believe Christ himself answered this question for us in Matthew 20:26-28:

“But whosoever may be wanting to become great among you, let him be your servant, and whoever may be wanting to be foremost among you, let him be your slave, even as the Son of Mankind came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His soul a ransom for many.

That which Christ gave up – and which was of such great intrinsic value that it could be given as a “ransom for many” (and indeed for “all mankind,” as Paul would later write in 1 Tim. 2:6) – was his very “soul,” or self (the word “soul” is often used in Scripture in reference to one’s entire being, or self, considered as the subject of sentience/consciousness). For our sakes, Christ gave all that he had to give – his very self - as a sacrifice to God. And for three days, the One who had previously enjoyed unbroken communion with his God and Father was lifeless and in a state of utter destitution.

The same idea found in Matthew 20:28 was, I believe, expressed by Christ in parable form elsewhere:

Matthew 13
44 "Like is the kingdom of the heavens to a treasure hidden in the field, finding which, a man hides it, and, in his joy, is going away, and is selling all, whatever he has, and is buying that field.
45 "Again, like is the kingdom of the heavens to a man, a merchant, seeking ideal pearls.
46 Now, finding one very precious pearl, he comes away, having disposed of all whatever he had, and buys it.

Concerning these parables, A.E. Knoch wrote, “In order to possess Himself of the treasures, the Son of Mankind gives His all and purchases the world. He has overpaid its price by His blood.” Knoch went on to remark that Christ – who he interprets as being the “merchant” of the parable - “gave up all His riches to purchase [the very precious pearl] for Himself.” Christ truly “disposed of all whatever he had” when, in obedience to God, he laid down his own “soul” (his own sentient self, or being) – something which Peter elsewhere affirmed as “precious” (1 Pet. 1:19; 2:7).

Philippians 2:5-8

5 For let this disposition be in you, which is in Christ Jesus also,
6 Who, being inherently in the form of God, deems it not pillaging to be equal with God,
7 nevertheless empties Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming to be in the likeness of humanity,
8 and, being found in fashion as a human, He humbles Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
9 Wherefore, also, God highly exalts Him, and graces Him with the name that is above every name,
10 that in the name of Jesus every knee should be bowing, celestial and terrestrial and subterranean,
11 and every tongue should be acclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God, the Father.

In a Nutshell: In verses 6-8, Paul had in view the “disposition” which was in Christ during his lifetime on earth, and the humble and obedient manner in which he chose to live in relation to God during this time (which culminated in his obedient death on the cross). Rather than using his God-given power and authority in a way that elevated himself above the rest of humanity (and above all the various evils that are common to humanity, including death itself), he “took the form of a slave” and conducted himself in a way that reflected humanity’s complete dependency on God. 

Expanded Explanation: Strangely enough, those who hold to the view that Christ pre-existed as a human before his conception point to this passage as supporting the view that Christ pre-existed his conception. But if this were the case – and if verses 7 and 8 are to be understood as meaning that Christ became a human when he was conceived - then it would mean that a human who pre-existed his conception subsequently became human by virtue of being conceived as one. But this, of course, is absurd. However, I submit that Paul did not have in view the “pre-existence” of Christ (whether as a “human” or otherwise) in these verses at all. Rather, I believe that what Paul had in mind here was Christ’s earthly ministry – a ministry which began when Christ was baptized and anointed with the Spirit of God (Luke 3:21-22), and which later culminated in his “becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

In v. 6, Paul wrote that Christ is “inherently in the form of God.” This need not be understood as having any reference at all to a pre-existent and “pre-incarnate” state that Christ was supposedly in before he was generated in the womb of his mother, Miriam. Being “inherently in the form of God” is something that was true of Christ during his earthly ministry, and agrees with what Christ himself declared concerning himself (i.e., that to be seeing and beholding him was to be seeing and beholding the Father; John 12:45; 14:9). Christ was just as much the “image of the invisible God” while on earth as he is now, in heaven (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4). There is, consequently, no need to look back beyond the beginning of Christ’s lifetime on earth to a supposed pre-existent state in heaven in order to understand what Paul wrote concerning Christ’s “being inherently in the form of God.”

But what did Paul mean by Christ’s “emptying himself” and “taking the form of a slave?” Although Christ inherently had great privileges and rights due to his status as the Son of God (as John says, this status entailed his being “equal to God,” in the sense of being able to do certain things that God – but no one else – had the authority to do), Christ relinquished whatever privileges/rights he had during his ministry, and (as Paul says) took “the form of a slave” and came to be “in the likeness of humanity.” He didn’t “pillage” to be “equal with God” – i.e., he didn’t take advantage of his status and seek to elevate himself over other human beings and “lord it over them” (as Christ himself said that the political “chiefs of the nations” were doing in his day; see Matt. 20:25). Paul was not referring to an immortal, celestial spirit-being transforming himself into a mortal, flesh-and-blood human; rather, Paul had in mind the “disposition” that Christ had during his mortal lifetime, and which was most fully manifested when he became “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (v. 5, 8).

Clearly, Christ’s “taking the form of a slave” didn’t have anything to do with a pre-existent spirit-being becoming “incarnated as a slave” (from a pre-existent non-slave state?). In the same way, Christ’s “coming to be in the likeness of humanity” had nothing to do with Christ’s “becoming human” (in fact, it is reasonable to understand Paul’s words in v. 7 as an example of parallelism, in which the same basic idea is being conveyed in two different ways for the sake of emphasis). The words “coming to be in the likeness of humanity” are not about a non-human being who, at some point, came to have the “likeness” of a human. Rather, these words are about a human being who, despite being unique and in certain ways unlike every other human (being the “Son of the living God”), chose to live and act in such a way that gave him the “likeness” of the rest of humanity (i.e., humanity in general). Rather than using his God-given power and authority in a way that elevated himself above the rest of humanity (and above all the various evils that are common to humanity, including death itself), he “took the form of a slave” in relation to God, and conducted himself in a way that reflected humanity’s complete dependency on God – even to the point of death.

Thus, what Paul was emphasizing was simply the manner in which Christ conducted himself on earth in relation to God (which was as a humble human being rather than an exalted divine being). Christ lived in full recognition of his humanity and his dependency on God. He didn’t use his unique status as God’s only begotten Son to his own selfish advantage, or seek to elevate himself above the rest of humanity. As Christ told his disciples in Matthew 20:28, he “came, not to be served, but to serve.” Christ’s “emptying himself” and his “coming to be in the likeness of humanity” thus should be understood to mean that Christ lived in a way that manifested and demonstrated that which is common to all humans – i.e., utter dependency on God - rather than doing for himself (and for his own benefit and advantage) what no human being could naturally do.

Similarly, when Paul wrote that Christ was “found in fashion as a human,” he wasn’t suggesting that Christ once existed as something other than a human; rather, he meant that, since Christ was a human, he was able to “empty himself”/“humble himself” to the point of being “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” That is, the fact of Christ’s being “found in fashion as a human” is what made it possible for him to die. And Christ’s mortality as a human is what allowed his decision to “empty himself” to find expression in the act of perfect obedience to God that resulted in his death.

Consider another example that reflects the fact of Christ’s “emptying himself.” Right after the start of his ministry, Satan tried to get Christ to do things that would prove himself to be the Son of God (“If you are God’s Son…”), and to thus use his unique status (his “equality with God”) to his own advantage. But what did Christ do? He did only what a human being entirely dependent on God could do, rather than as one who was “equal with God” (and who, given this status, could’ve easily used his God-given authority and power to turn rocks into bread, or perform some other self-serving miraculous feat). That is, Christ “emptied himself” by not doing what he (being God’s Son) could’ve done, and - after quoting Scripture - simply continued being very hungry.

Or consider Matthew 26:53, where Christ declared (while being arrested), “Are you supposing that I am not able to entreat My Father, and at present He will station by My side more than twelve legions of messengers?” In other words, Christ – being the Son of God - had the inherent authority to do what no other human being could’ve done in such circumstances. But (as he had done since the beginning of his ministry) Christ “emptied himself,” and (rather than take advantage of his being “equal with God”) acted in such a way that emphasized his humanity and dependency on God (“coming to be in the likeness of humanity”). But the ULTIMATE expression of Christ’s “emptying himself” was, of course, when he humbled himself by becoming “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

Colossians 1:15-18

13 “[God, the Father] rescues us out of the jurisdiction of Darkness, and transports us into the kingdom of the Son of His love,
14 in Whom we are having the deliverance, the pardon of sins,
15 Who is the Image of the invisible God, Firstborn of every creature,
16 for in Him is all created, that in the heavens and that on the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones, or lordships, or sovereignties, or authorities, all is created through Him and for Him,
17 and He is before all, and all has its cohesion in Him.
18 And He is the Head of the body, the ecclesia, Who is Sovereign, Firstborn from among the dead, that in all He may be becoming first,
19 for in Him the entire complement delights to dwell,
20 and through Him to reconcile all to Him (making peace through the blood of His cross), through Him, whether those on the earth or those in the heavens.

In a Nutshell: Everything that Paul wrote of as being true of “the Son of [God’s] love” in the above verses should be understood as being true of Christ as the Son of God (and especially true of Christ since he was “designated Son of God with power” when he was roused from among the dead by God). Paul was, in other words, emphasizing the preeminence that Christ presently enjoys as the vivified and ascended “Son of [God’s] love.” The “creating” that Paul had in view in v. 16 is not a reference to the event described in Genesis 1; rather, it refers to something that was presently occurring/ongoing when Paul wrote – namely, the upholding and preserving of creation by virtue of Christ's authoritative declaration that it be so (cf. Heb. 1:3). Although everything in the universe has its ultimate origin in God (who originally brought everything into existence), everything in the universe remains or “stands” created by virtue of Christ’s God-given authority.

Expanded Explanation: Notice that, in v. 15, Paul says that Christ IS (present tense) “Firstborn of every creature.” Although the title “Firstborn of every creature” is commonly understood by those holding to the “pre-existence” doctrine to mean that Christ was created by God before every other created thing, this interpretation is not warranted by the facts concerning the meaning of the term “firstborn” (it should also be pointed out that, when understood literally, the term could not even be appropriately ascribed to a “pre-existent” being if his existence began long before he was ever actually “born”).

In Scripture, “firstborn” (prototokos) is a legal term that refers to one on whom a privileged status is conferred, or to whom a major inheritance is given. Although the term is undoubtedly derived from the ancient custom of conferring special privileges or an inheritance on the legal firstborn in a family, it should be noted that this did not necessarily mean that one was born first in time (a well-known example in Scripture of someone failing to receive their legal birthright despite being born first is Esau). Based on this custom, the word came to be used in reference to anyone to whom a preeminent rank or special privileges had been given.

For example, the word prototokos appears in the LXX translation of Exodus 4:22 where God referred to Israel as his “firstborn son.” The word also appears in Jeremiah 31:9 in reference to Ephraim (which is significant, since Ephraim’s brother Manasseh was actually born before him). In both of these examples, the term “firstborn” has to do with one’s being “first” (i.e., preeminent) in rank and privilege rather than being first in time.

Consider also Psalm 89:26-29: He, he shall call out to Me, You are my Father, My El and the Rock of my salvation. Indeed, I, I shall make him the firstborn, the uppermost of the kings of the earth. For the eon shall I keep My benignity upon him, and My covenant with him is faithful. I will establish his seed for the future, and his throne as the days of the heavens.” Here, again, the title “firstborn” clearly involves a person being given a preeminent status or rank. Thus, when we find Christ being referred to as the “Firstborn,” we need not understand Paul to have been saying that the man, Jesus Christ, existed before his conception and was the first being ever created by God. Instead, the title “Firstborn of every creature” is a title that was bestowed upon the man, Jesus Christ, when he was roused by God from among the dead and given all authority in heaven and on earth. That is, the title refers to Christ’s present, preeminent status as Lord of all, and to his having been appointed “enjoyer of the allotment of all” (which is a status and privilege that Christ received after his death and resurrection, and not before).

The conferring of this exalted status on Christ by God is something that had been prophesied long ago; see, for example, Psalm 89:27 and Hebrews 1:5-6 (verse 6 should be read in light of Heb. 2:5). When Paul referred to Christ as the “firstborn from among the dead” a few verses later, he was revealing when Christ became the “firstborn” - i.e., when he was roused from among the dead by God. It is AFTER Christ became “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” that God “highly exalts Him, and graces Him with the name that is above every name...” (Phil. 2:8-9). It is in his risen and vivified (not “pre-existent”) state that Christ “enjoys the allotment of a more excellent name than they [the messengers]” (Heb. 1:3-4). In the same way, it was when Christ was roused from among the dead that he became what he now is: the “Firstborn of every creature.”

But what about verse 16? In the last installment, it was shown that Christ, Paul and God himself all affirmed that the universe was created by God alone, with no indication that God was accompanied by anyone, or used any intermediary to accomplish his creative work. However, those who affirm the pre-existence of Christ believe that this verse proves that everything God created was created through, or by means of, Christ (which would, in their view, provide conclusive evidence that Christ was alive before the creation of the universe). 

There are several points that can be made in response t this interpretation of Col. 1:16. First, it needs to be kept in mind while reading verse 16 that the one in, through and for whom everything in view is said to be created is Christ Jesus, who (in v. 13) is called the “Son of [the Father's] love.” But as argued earlier, scripture is clear that “the Son” did not personally exist as such until he was begotten by God. We know that it had been prophesied that the Christ would be fathered by Yahweh himself; quoting Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:1, the author of Hebrews wrote: “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’? Or again, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’?” (Hebrews 1:5) As noted earlier, this “begetting” of the Son (i.e., when God became the father of Jesus) did not take place before creation, but rather when Christ was “generated” in Miriam’s womb (Luke 1:31-35; Matt. 1:20-21).

Second, what did Paul have in view when he said that all is created in, through and for Christ, both in the heavens and on the earth? After I came to reject the Christian doctrine of the “triune God,” my understanding of Paul’s words here was as follows: God originally created everything with his Son in mind, as the ultimate reason and explanation for God’s creative act. Paul, I believed, was simply affirming that creation was the expression of the eonian purpose of God, within which Christ (foreknown by God at the time of creation) was destined to play the central role as the agent through whom God’s eonian purpose would be accomplished and God would become “all in all.”

While I still think it is true that God created everything with Christ in view as the centre of his eonian purpose, I no longer believe this to be what Paul was intending to convey in these verses. As I was reading these verses in the Concordant Literal New Testament one day, I noticed something interesting that, as far as I know, is not present in other translations. Whereas most Bible translations have translated verse 16 in such a way that the creation event in view appears to be something that took place in the past, the relevant portions of verse 16 are both translated in the CLNT as follows: “...for in Him IS all created...” and “...all IS created through Him and for Him...” “Is” created, not “was” created. Why did Knoch choose the present “is created” here rather than the past “was created?”

I knew this translational difference in Knoch’s version couldn’t be attributed to theological bias on Knoch’s part, since Knoch was an adamant believer in Christ’s personal pre-existence, and understood him to be the agent through whom God created all things at the beginning of the creation. Why, then, didn’t Knoch simply use the past tense to reflect this belief, if the text allowed for it? While doing some further study to understand why A.E. Knoch chose “is” to translate this verse rather than “was,” I discovered that, in the last part of v. 16, Paul was using what's called the “perfect passive indicative” of the Greek verb ktizō (to create). According to Greek scholar A.T. Robertson, Paul’s use of this particular tense conveys the idea of everything’s “standing created” or “remaining created.”

Thus, it seems that what Paul was actually intending to convey here is that all things in heaven and on earth stand (or remain) created “through” and “for” Christ. This understanding is consistent with what we read in Hebrews 1:3, where it’s said that Christ is “carrying on [or “upholding”] all by His powerful declaration.” In other words, the authority that God gave Christ when he made him “Lord of all” after rousing him from among the dead means that the universe “stands/remains created” by virtue of Christ's authoritative declaration that it be so. Although everything in the universe has its ultimate origin in God (who originally brought everything into existence), everything in the universe remains created and continues to exist by virtue of Christ’s God-given authority.

Paul expressed the same idea in 1 Corinthians 8:6, where he wrote “…for us there is one God, the Father, out of Whom all is, and we for Him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through Whom all is, and we through Him.” Notice the use of the present tense here. All that is “out of” God is said to be (presently) “through” Christ. Ever since God gave Christ all authority in heaven and on earth, everything created by God is remaining in its created state by means of Christ, who is “carrying on all by His powerful declaration.” In the first part of Col. 1:16, we read that “in Him [Christ] is all created.” Here, Paul is using the “constative aorist passive indicative” of ktizō. The aorist tense “presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole from the outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence.” This tense basically describes an action as a bare fact. Since we know that Paul had in mind everything’s “remaining created” through and for Christ in the last part of v. 16, we can understand him to have had this same event in mind in the earlier part of v. 16, viewed “as a whole” and as a “bare fact.”[1]

Finally, in verses 17-18, we read: and He is before all, and all has its cohesion in Him. And He is the Head of the body, the ecclesia, Who is Sovereign, Firstborn from among the dead, that in all He may be becoming first, for in Him the entire complement delights to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all to Him (making peace through the blood of His cross), through Him, whether those on the earth or those in the heavens.”

Notice, again, the present tense used: “IS before all,” not “WAS before all.” Paul was not talking about something that was true of Christ at some point in eons past (i.e., prior to the creation referred to in Genesis 1:1). Rather, what Paul had in view was something that was true of Christ, the Son of God, at the time he was writing (and which remains true of him now). It was something that was true of the roused and vivified Son of God as the roused and vivified Son of God (and not as some pre-existent, pre-Son of God being). Christ “is (presently) before all, and all has (presently) its cohesion in Him.”

The Greek word translated “before” in v. 17 is the word pro, and can refer to time, place or position. Although those believing in the pre-existence of Christ tend to understand Paul’s use of “before” here to be in regards to time, Paul’s use of the present tense (“is”) suggests otherwise; had Paul intended pro to mean “before” in regards to time, then the past tense “was” would’ve more clearly (both grammatically and otherwise) conveyed such an idea.[2] So what, then, did Paul mean here?

In this context, the central idea is clearly that of Christ’s preeminence (even those who believe that the pre-existence of Christ is being revealed in these verses would have to concede that the “theme” of these verses is that of Christ’s preeminence, and that the main purpose of what Paul wrote in Col. 1:15-20 was to affirm and support this truth). In light of this fact, it is noteworthy that the word translated “before” in Col. 1:17 (pro) can mean “in a higher or more important position than.” This is also the case with the English word “before” (see, for example, the third definition provided by Merriam-Webster, along with the example provided). It should also be note that the exact same expression “before all” (pro pantōn) used by Paul in Col. 1:17 was used two other times by two other inspired writers to convey just this idea.

In both James 5:12 and 1 Peter 4:8, the expression pro pantōn (“before all”) conveys the idea of something’s being of greater importance than something else, rather than of something’s being chronologically prior to something else. In James 5:12, James was emphasizing what he considered to be the greater importance of not swearing, and letting your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no” (and in this regard, he was simply taking seriously the words of his Lord; see Christ’s words in Matthew 5:34-37). And in 1 Peter 4:8, Peter was emphasizing the greater importance of “having earnest love among yourselves.” Again, in neither of these verses does “before all” (pro pantōn) convey the idea of something’s being chronologically prior to something else. Instead, the idea is that of something’s having greater importance than something else (which is why most translations translate the words pro pantōn as “above all” or “above all things” in these verses). And I submit that the same idea was being expressed when Paul used the same expression in Col. 1:17. That is, Paul was simply saying that Christ is (again, not “was”) in a higher and more important position than all. The idea being expressed is that of preeminence in rank, not pre-existence.

This meaning of “before all” in Col. 1:17 is, I believe, confirmed by what Paul wrote just two verses later. In v. 19 Paul wrote that Christ is “…Firstborn from among the dead, that in all He may be becoming first…” The word translated “first” here is prōteuō [be-BEFORE-most]. According to Strong’s, the word means “to be first (in rank or influence).” Greek scholar Bill Mounce defines it as meaning “to be first, to hold the first rank, or highest dignity, have the preeminence, be chief” ( Clearly, Christ’s “becoming first” has nothing to do with the idea of his having preexisted as the first being created by God. Rather, the word has to do with Christ’s preeminence in rank, which is a status he received when he became “Firstborn from among the dead.” It was so that Christ could “in all be becoming first” that he was roused and vivified by God. Since this event took place, Christ has been - and remains - “first” and “before all.”

Next: Objections Considered (Part Two):

[1] It should be noted that, even if Paul had in view in v. 16 the original creation event, when everything actually came into existence (as described in Genesis 1), it would still not require Christ’s personal preexistence at this time. This is because everything’s being created is said to be “in Christ” (rather than “through Christ,” as in v. 17). The expression “in Christ” appears in scripture only in Paul’s letters, and can be understood as referring to the status of one who is, or who will be, in a relationship with Christ that involves being blessed through and with him; believers, for example, are said to have been chosen “in Christ” before the disruption of the world, meaning that we were chosen to be in a certain relationship with Christ, through which we would enjoy our future eonian allotment among the celestials. Thus, even if Paul had the original creation event in view in v. 16, at most he need only be understood as saying that, when God created everything in heaven and on earth, he created it with a view towards its ultimately being blessed through and with Christ.

[2] Even if pro were to be understood as meaning “before” with regards to time, then the context would still have to inform us as to what, exactly, Paul meant. And Paul’s use of the present tense would, as already noted, suggest that the word “before” refers to something that was true of Christ at the time he wrote (rather than something that was true of Christ before creation). Paul went on to refer to Christ as the one in whom “the entire complement delights to dwell” (Col. 1:19), and then referred to the future reconciliation of all to God through Christ (Col. 1:20). At this future time, God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), which means that what is true of Christ now will be true of all later, at the consummation. For now, however, God can be considered “all in Christ” (for, again, it is in Christ that “the entire complement delights to dwell”). Thus, if Paul meant “before” with regards to time, then we can understand him to have had in mind what was true of Christ alone when he wrote, but which will be true of everyone else later. 

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