The Preexistence of Jesus Christ

Introduction

Was there ever a time when Jesus Christ did not exist? Did He exist in some other form before He took on bodily form and came to earth? Was He always there or was He created at some point? Throughout history we have debated the preexistence of Christ. Even today, or rather especially today, the eternal nature of the Son is a hot-button issue amongst theologians. Preexistence should not be assumed, implied, or taken for granted. Not everyone agrees that Jesus Christ has always existed. Particularly in recent decades, this ostensibly fundamental principle has been called into question. For example, following the thought of Rahner and Pannenberg, English theologian John Macquarrie’s, “Jesus Christ in Modern Thought” attempted to debunk the preexistence of Christ.[1] Why the persistent trend in theology of doubting this elemental fact? It is argued that preexistence is a late and marginal idea. Does the Bible support the preexistence of Jesus? What are the implications of Christ’s preexistence? What are the implications if Jesus were not preexistent? The thesis of this paper is to prove that there is Biblical support for the fact of Jesus Christ’s preexistence.

Preexistence is simply defined as “existence in a former state or previous to something else.”[2] That definition is simple until it is applied to Jesus Christ. What does preexistence mean theologically speaking? R. E. O. White calls the pre-incarnate existence of Christ “rudimentary messianic, even adoptionist, assessment of Christ in the primitive Christian community (Acts 2:22-23; 10:38).”[3] It was a basic fundamental understanding as far as the early church fathers were concerned. White further says the concept of Christ’s preexistence was, in fact, “central to Christian faith.”[4] With a hint of sarcasm, White concludes that “the fact of preexistence is not questioned, except where Christ’s deity and divine mission are wholly denied.”[5] Jesus Christ existed in a former state previous to His earthly incarnation. Why, then, are there still theological debates on this very (as White suggests) rudimentary subject? The fact that there are lingering arguments on the preexistent Christ, demonstrates its powerful implications. The treatment of preexistence is still a concern, even to the modern theologian. To know where one is, one must know where one came from. In order to ascertain how modern theologians have reached their respective opinions on preexistence, this paper will look to the first theologians and their Christologies.

John’s Understanding of the Preexistent Christ

The most relevant Biblical passage declaring the preexistence of Christ is arguably John 1:1-18. Mark L. Strauss, professor of the New Testament at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, explains, “The dominant Christology of John is expressed in terms that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31). This is clear even in the prologue: (1) Preexistence is not a uniquely Christian idea with reference to the Messiah. The rabbis debated whether the Messiah would be preexistent.”[6]As he whisks us back to the very beginning of everything, John refers to Jesus as “the Word” (Logos). John says before the first tick of the cosmic clock the Word was with God. W. E. Vine points out the Greek for “with” denotes, “not mere company, but the most intimate communion.”[7] Not only was the Word with God, John further explains that the Word was God. The ESV describes these simple details as the “building blocks that go into the doctrine of the Trinity: the one true God consists of more than one person, they relate to each other, and they have always existed.”[8] D. A. Carson writes in his Pillar New Testament Commentary The Gospel According to John, “Stretch our imagination backward as we will, we can find no point in time where we may agree with Arius, who, speaking of the Word, said, ‘There was once when he was not.’”[9] Therefore, Jesus was with God at the Creation. The next section will look at the unique relationship of the Father to the Son. John emphatically promoted the preexistence of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Understanding of the Preexistent Christ

Paul’s understanding of the preexistent Christ can be seen in what is commonly called, the “Philippian Hymn.” In Philippians 2:6-8, Paul states:

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (ESV).

Paul explains there is a definite transition from Christ being in a prior form (of God), to taking a different form (of a servant). Therefore, if taking the form of a servant shows Jesus’s earthly ministry, there seems to have been a state from which he exited, prior to that in the form of God (one could say: His heavenly ministry perhaps). Before He was, and after, He was. Brendan Byrne, a professor of New Testament at Jesuit Theological College reflects on Paul’s soteriology, “Paul’s writings do not support playing down Christ’s pre-existence in the interests of a Christology supposedly more firmly anchored in his historical human life. On the contrary, the rhetorical effect of central Pauline texts is seriously eroded if Christ is not affirmed as the Fathers pre-existent Son. At stake here is Paul’s acute sense of God’s love for humanity made vulnerable to the world in the costly gift of the Son.”[10]

How did this transformation come into being? It is important to make the distinction that it was Christ’s own action. Coming from the initiative of the Father, the incarnation was obediently carried out by the Son. Paul’s phrase, “He emptied Himself,” hints at a conscious action. He was not specifically created to perform a task. He was there and made a choice. He was a person with a will who deliberately decided to act. This demonstrates pre-existence. If Jesus did not previously exist, there would be no ability to consciously decide anything. The very way in which Jesus purposely emptied Himself promotes His pre-existence.

Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 8:9, Christ became poor. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV). If you become something, that indicates there was a prior state of the Son before the incarnation. If one were to say that they became famous, it would be assumed that previously they were not famous. Jesus did likewise. Taking the form of God and turning it into the form of a servant promotes a previous state. Simply, Jesus was in a state of riches before and poverty after.

Both of the above mentioned Scriptures (Phil. 2:6-8 and 2 Cor. 8:9), point to the gracious nature of the Son. The fact He was willing to give up riches and a divine status to become an impoverished mortal, indicates a supreme graciousness. Take, in contrast, Adam and his decision. Adam’s account is almost an exact opposite scenario. He tried to trade up to divinity as opposed to humbling down to servant hood. Whereas Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, Adam, in fact, did. This also further exposes Adam’s feeble humanness and amplifies Jesus’s benevolent deity.

Paul, when he referred to the Shema of Deut 6, insinuated the pre-existence of Jesus. He remarked, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 (ESV) Through whom all things came. This is a staggeringly universal account from the Father through Christ. Similarly, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Colossians 1:16 (ESV) All things refer to spiritual things as well as physical things.

Paul also hints at the involvement of Jesus with the production of Israel as the nation representing God:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were 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 from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 (ESV).

Paul is clearly proclaiming that Jesus was present with the Israelites in the wilderness experience. The water-producing rock with Moses was in fact, Christ; the source. Philo said the rock equals “wisdom.” Wisdom (Logos again) personified is another identity of Jesus Christ. Paul also emphatically promoted the preexistence of Jesus Christ.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Understanding of the Preexistent Christ

Throughout the Synoptics, we are given countless indicators of the preexistence of Christ. For one, Jesus transcends the human and heaven divide. He has a heavenly identification as well as an earthly one. During the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, Jesus’s true identity was revealed. Both his identifications were visible at the same time. Also, Jesus is constantly privy to heavenly information. In one instance, Jesus knew that satan[11] desired to sift Peter like wheat. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” Luke 22:31 (ESV). This is reminiscent of the account of Job wherein the reader is allowed to peer into heaven at a scene (Job 1:6-12). Jesus is repeatedly recognized by heavenly personnel. God recognized His Son at Jesus’s baptism:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son,with whom I am well pleased.’ Matthew 3:13-17 (ESV).

Demons also recognized Jesus all throughout His ministry, “But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?’” Acts 19:15 (ESV). Also note Matt. 8:28-34. The actions of Jesus’s numerous healings and altruistic forgiving also denote His eternal nature (Mark 2:3-12). Indeed, Mark’s preexistence-heavy account reveals Jesus’ overall authority. Jesus’s preexistence revealed His authority over the Sabbath (Mark 2:28), His authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:3-12), and ultimately­, His authority over death and the grave. The Resurrection itself, points to the very preexistence of Christ (John 10:17-18; Matt. 12:38-40, 16:1-4; Luke 24:36-43). In this manner, Matthew, Mark, and Luke also emphatically promoted the preexistence of Jesus Christ. Now that we’ve established the views of the Apostles and Paul, we will look at Jesus’s personal identification as being preexistent.

Jesus’s Understanding of His Own Preexistence

Present with the Father

It is clear that Jesus fully understood His own eternal nature. Throughout His short time on earth He made many incredible claims. For instance, He claimed to be one with the Father in John 10:30. He also said that to see Him (Jesus) was to see the Father in John 14:7-9. Then in John 8:58, Jesus declared, “before Abraham was born, I am!” It is interesting that Jesus didn’t say, “I was” as would be expected. Instead, He says, “I am!” Either Jesus had horrendous grammar (which, of course, is absolutely ridiculous!) or Jesus was alluding to knowledge of His eternal nature. Erickson mentions a quote from Leon Morris from his book, The Gospel according to John, which implies a contrast here between, “a mode of being which has a definite beginning and one which is eternal.”[12] Jesus is very simply stating that He existed before Abraham hundreds of years prior. The Jews understood this statement perfectly as they attempted to stone Him for such a blasphemous claim.

In 1 John 1:2, John states, “and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—” (NASB). World renowned authority on the Greek New Testament, A. T. Robertson teaches “with the clause [“was manifested”] as a parenthesis, the Greek means to make known what already exists, whether invisible (B. Weiss) or visible, ‘intellectual or sensible’ (Brooke).”[13] Jesus Christ existed in a state elsewhere before he was manifested and therefore able to be known to us. Had Jesus not already existed, the Holy Spirit would have chosen a different word, such as “created” or “made.” Instead, Scripture says he was manifested which implies from one place to another. Similarly in Romans 8:3 and Galatians 4:4, we see God sends His Son to resolve the law. God sends Jesus. This insinuates Jesus was already present.. He was not created for that purpose and then sent. The following sections will look at how Jesus was present at the Creation and statements He made which are known as the “I have come,” statements.

Present at Creation

Jesus was an active partner in the act of creation. He is not solely a coming future (eschatological) figure. In addition, Jesus is an ever-present (proto-logical) figure. He will be a key figure for the end times and He was a key figure at the beginning. As this paper mentioned previously, John poetically informs us that Christ was not only present at creation, but was an acting agent in its production. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made,” John 1:1-3 (ESV). He was present when it started and He will be present when it culminates. Note also Col. 1:16-17 and Hebrews 1:2.

The “I Have Come” Statements

Examining the “I have come,” statements scattered throughout the Synoptics are evidence of a prior state which offers the clearest indications of a preexistence Christology. These statements made by Christ immediately echo Old Testament sentiments. His I have come statements can be broken down into (A) I have come in order to do [Matt. 10:34], (B) The Son of Man has come [Matt. 20:28], and (C) the have You come, statements made by demons [Mark 1:24]. Coming with a purpose, in order to do something strongly suggests that one is coming from another place. It implies a deliberate act. A deliberate act implies pre-existence. It suggests a before and after. It is logical to assume that to come is to come from another place. Literally, one cannot come to or from nothing. Jason A. Fout, a professor at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge commented, “It has long been the received wisdom among New Testament scholars that the Gospel of John represents a portrait of Jesus as divine, coming down from heaven, whereas the Synoptic Gospels do not consider him in such exalted terms, and specifically contain no hints of Jesus being preexistent.”[14] Conversely, Dr. James P. Sweeney, a Pastor at Immanuel Church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts parlays “for the prima facie plausibility of the preexistence interpretation of the ‘I have come’ sayings on logical grounds and the implausibility of the other scholarly options.”[15] Jesus embraced, taught, and promoted the preexistence of Himself as Christ. In the next section we will look at what it would mean if Jesus were not preexistent.

Implications if Jesus was Not Preexistent

            The implications of Jesus not being preexistent are staggering. William Myatt, a professor at Creighton University at Omaha, Nebraska stated, “Removing the doctrine of Christ’s preexistence would leave us with different concepts of God, Christ, humanity, salvation, and creation.”[16] It would change absolutely everything. In essence, for one to imagine that disastrous scenario, one could take this paper and read into it, the exact opposite or negative. First of all, suggesting that Jesus was a created being who did not exist in a prior state before His incarnation would result in the Biblical having mistakes or errancy. If the Bible were wrong about this fact, then it goes to reason that it is wrong about everything else within its pages. If one follows the outline of this paper under the new assumption that Jesus is not preexistent, it would also mean that He was not involved in any shape or form in the act of Creation. It would also mean that Jesus lied about Himself. As Carson noted, denying Christ’s preexistence is paramount to denying His divinity. Not to get too dramatic, but if the Bible were, in fact, full of lies and mistakes, then the entire universe would implode.

Areas of Further Research

The Virgin Birth

            There are many avenues one could go down for further research. For example, Erickson suggests an incompatibility with preexistence and the virgin birth. He purports that if one subscribes to the preexistence of Christ then one cannot logically accept the virgin birth. Erickson asserts, “If we hold the one, it is claimed, we cannot hold the other. They are mutually exclusive, not complementary.”[17] Citing Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus—God and Man[18] as the most recent statement arguing this objection. Logically, this would lead the researcher through the heresies of the Ebionites and later, Unitarians. This is an area that could benefit from further research. However, Erickson refutes this claim of incompatibility and states, “In the orthodox Christian understanding, Jesus is fully divine and fully human. His preexistence relates to His divinity and the virgin birth to His humanity.”[19] If these two concepts are kept separate then the issue seems to resolve itself.

Worship

Another area worth further research is an examination of how preexistence reveals Jesus as the only object to worship. Looking at such Scriptures as Matt. 28:9, 17; Luke 24:52; John 9:38, 20:28, we can conclude that because of His eternal nature it is revealed that the Jesus, and only Jesus, is worthy of our praise and adoration. Why is it that so many (far too common things and people) garner our attention and worship? Why not the One who has always existed? Why not the One who is so gracious? Why not the One who humbled Himself for us? When one meditates on the many gracious wonders of Jesus and His preexistence, all the things of this world fade away.

Preeminence vs. Preexistence

When Paul said Jesus is before all things, could He possibly meant first as in, prior to (time), or rank (advantage)? If we compare the account of Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41). The Pharaoh said that Joseph was first over his house, second only to him. Here he obviously meant first as in place or rank. Could it be that the confusion over preexistence is actually wrapped up in His preeminence? The scope of that answer is outside of this paper.

Conclusion

            Theologian and author G. C. Berkouwer says, “But any number of any other texts points to the same direction. Repeatedly Christ asserted that His existence was not exhausted by His being a man on earth.”[20] Quoting Heering, Berkouwer also mentions, “One can hardly dismiss the difficulty by saying that Jesus says ‘little’ in this gospel about his pre-existence.”[21] Indeed, there are a myriad of Scriptures one could bring forth to prove the preexistent Jesus. Due to restrictions, this paper has shown merely a handful. If one notices, during the High Priestly Prayer in Jesus’s Farewell Discourse in John 17:5, Jesus says, “Now, Father, glorify Me to gather with Yourself, with the glory which I had with you before the world was” (NASB). This statement is evidence that Jesus knew who He was. Jesus was there before the world was, He was there as the world was being made, and He will be back in the future. Regardless of the contemporary debates, the sheer magnitude of entries one could draw upon demonstrate how truth of Jesus Christ’s preexistence. Paul and all the Apostles were in agreement: Jesus is preexistent. Jesus, Himself, confirms His preexistence. Jesus was there with the Father when our world began. In fact, Jesus was a Co-Agent of this process. Jesus made many claims that He was, is and always will be. If these claims were not true, then Jesus would be a liar. If these Scriptures were not valid, then the Bible would be full of lies. Jesus is who He said He was. The Bible is not full of lies, it is full of truths. One of those truths is the preexistence of Jesus Christ.


[1] John Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1991), 1.

[2] “Preexistence.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed June 1, 2015. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/preexistence.

[3] R. E. O. White, “Preexistence of Christ,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 951.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mark L. Strauss, “Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society57, no. 1 (03, 2014): 184-7, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1534298288?accountid=12085, 186.

[7] W.E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words: with Topical Index (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 683.

[8] Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2019.

[9] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), 114.

[10] Brendan Byrne, “Christ’s Pre-Existence in Pauline Soteriology.” Theological Studies 58, no. 2 (06, 1997): 308-30, http://search.proquest.com/docview/212688621?accountid=12085, 308.

[11] This author deliberately refuses to capitalize the devil’s name or proper pronoun and wishes there was something lower than lowercase that could be used.  If it costs this paper a couple of grammatical points, so be it.

[12] Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 473.

[13] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Concise ed., ed. James A. Swanson (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000), 638.

[14] Jason A. Fout, “The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Reviews in Religion and Theology, 15:1 (2008): 9-11, ProQuest Central, 9.

[15] James P. Sweeney, “The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.” Trinity Journal 29, no. 1 (Spring, 2008): 142-3, http://search.proquest.com/docview/212978232?accountid=12085, 142.

[16] William Myatt, “He Came Down From Heaven: The Preexistence of Christ and the Christian Faith.” Trinity Journal, (Fall 2006): 342-3, ProQuest Central, 342.

[17] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing 1991), 687.

[18] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 143.

[19] Erickson, 687.

[20] G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ. Studies in Dogmatics. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 164.

[21] Ibid., 163.


Bibliography

Bennema, Cornelis P. “Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society52, no. 3 (09, 2009): 655-61, http://search.proquest.com/docview/211167243?accountid=12085.

Berkouwer, G. C. The Person of Christ. Studies in Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954

Bibles, Crossway The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Byrne, Brendan. “Christ’s Pre-Existence in Pauline Soteriology.” Theological Studies 58, no. 2 (06, 1997): 308-30, http://search.proquest.com/docview/212688621?accountid=12085.

Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Fee, Gordon D. Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics. Peabody, MA: Baker Academic, 1991.

Fout, Jason A. “The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Reviews in Religion and Theology, 15:1 (2008): 9-11, ProQuest Central.

Lederle, Henry I. Treasures Old and New: Interpretations of. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub, 1988.

Macquarrie, John Jesus Christ in Modern Thought. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1991.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to John: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.

Myatt, William. “He Came Down From Heaven: The Preexistence of Christ and the Christian Faith.” Trinity Journal, (Fall 2006): 342-3, ProQuest Central.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus—God and Man. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968.

Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Concise ed. Edited by James A. Swanson. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000.

Schreiner, Thomas R., and Shawn Wright, eds. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007.

Strauss, Mark L. “Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society57, no. 1 (03, 2014): 184-7, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1534298288?accountid=12085.

Sweeney, James P. “The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.” Trinity Journal 29, no. 1 (Spring, 2008): 142-3, http://search.proquest.com/docview/212978232?accountid=12085.

Vine, W.E. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words: with Topical Index. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996.

White, R. E. O. “Preexistence of Christ,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.


Submitted to Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the completion of the course THEO 530: Systematic Theology II.

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About mrpatvincent

Follower of Jesus. Lover of my wife and daughter. Professional Goofball.
This entry was posted in Blogging, Christ, Christ Follower, Christian, Christianity, Evangelism, God, Gospel, Holy Spirit, MDiv, Ministry, New Testament, Pastor, Pastoral Ministry, Philosophy, Reasons to Believe, Religion, Religion & Spirituality, Salvation, Scripture, Seminarian, Seminary, Spiritual Growth, Theology, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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