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Jesus’ Preexistence in the Gospel of John

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by Robert Reymond


Did Jesus claim for himself pre-existence, and if so, in what sense? In the ontological (essential) or in the ideal (‘foreknown’) sense? For one who takes Jesus’ words at face value and does not explain them away, it is evident that Jesus affirmed of himself as ‘the Son,’ not just an ideational pre-existence, but a pre-existence of an eternal ontological kind: ‘Glorify me, Father,’ he prayed, ‘with yourself, with the glory which I had with you before the world was’ (17:1, 5), indeed, with ‘my glory which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world’ (17:24). This claim on Jesus’ part to an eternal pre-existence with his Father is not an aberration, for he speaks elsewhere, though in somewhat different terms, of that same pre-existence:


3:13: ‘No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man.’


6:38: ‘I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.’ (see also 6:33, 50, 58)


6:46: ‘[No one] has seen the Father except him who is from [παρά with genitive; that is, from the side of] the Father.’


6:62: ‘… what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending where he was before [τὸ πρότερον]?’


8:23: ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are from this world, I am not from this world.’


8:38: ‘I speak of what I have seen with the Father.’


8:42: ‘… I came out and came forth from [ἐκ with genitive] God.’


8:58: ‘… before [πρὶν] Abraham was born, I am [ἐγὼ εἰμί]!’


9:39: ‘For judgment I have come into the world.’


12:46: ‘I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.’


16:28: ‘I came out from [ἐκ, παρά] the Father, and have come into the world.’


17:5: ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before [πρὸ] the world began.’


17:24: ‘Father, … you loved me before [πρὸ] the creation of the world.’


18:37: ‘… for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.’


See the following verses for similar statements in the mouths of others about Jesus.


1:1a, 2: ‘In the beginning was the Word … He was with God in the beginning’ (John).


3:19: ‘Light has come into the world’ (Is John speaking here?).


11:27: ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world’ (Martha).



Perhaps the greatest assertion among all of his claims to eternal pre-existence is that which is to be found in his ‘I am’ saying of 8:58. Most of Jesus’ ‘I am’ sayings, it is true, he supplied with a subjective complement of some kind, such as the following:


John 6:35, 48, 51: ‘I am the Bread of Life.’


John 8:12; 9:5: ‘I am the Light of the World.’


John 10:7, 9: ‘I am the Door of the Sheep.’


John 10:11, 14: ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’


John 11:25: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’


John 14:6: ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’


John 15:1, 5: ‘I am the Vine.’


According to D. A. Carson, ‘two are undoubtedly absolute in both form and content … and constitute an explicit self-identification with Yahweh who had already revealed himself to men in similar terms (see esp. Isa. 43:10–11).’ The two sayings Carson refers to are in John 8:58 and 13:19, but there could well be others such as his ‘I am’ usages in John 6:20; 8:24, 28; and 18:5–8. In the case of John 8:58, standing before men who already regarded him as demonic and who had told him as much, Jesus declared: ‘Before Abraham was, I am,’ invoking not only the term which Yahweh in the Old Testament had chosen as his own special term of self-identification, but claiming also in the process a pre-existence (see his ‘before Abraham was’) appropriate only to one possessed of the nature of Yahweh. His meaning was not lost on his audience for ‘they took up stones to throw at him’ (8:59). They understood that Jesus was claiming divine existence for himself and was thus making himself equal with God. In the case of his ‘I am’ in 13:19 Jesus himself explicated its implications for his unity with the Father and in turn his own Yahwistic identity when he declared in the following verse: ‘… he who receives me receives him who sent me.’ In 6:20, by his ‘I am’ in ‘I am; be not afraid,’ Jesus admittedly might have been simply identifying himself to his terrified disciples, but as Carson notes: ‘Yet not every “I” could be found walking on water.’ Then in 8:24, following immediately as it does his declaration that he was ‘from above’ and ‘not of this world,’ Jesus’ ‘I am’ in his statement, ‘If you do not believe that I am, you will die in your sins,’ surely carries with it divine implications. Finally, in the case of his ‘I am’ in 18:5–8, as soon as he uttered these words, his would-be captors ‘drew back and fell to the ground,’ John surely intending to suggest by this eye-witness ‘touch’ in his account of Jesus’ arrest that his readers were to recognize in Jesus’ acknowledgement that though he was Jesus of Nazareth he was also as to his implicit self-identification Yahweh himself.

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