Pre-existence in the Gospel
by Sean Finnegan
Recently someone dropped by the http://www.kingdomready.org blog and left this comment:
"Having found restoration theology in the past year and having the Trinity drummed into me all my life, it is a joy to find the ‘truth’ being taught and verified by this website. Yet, how do I come to believe the teaching that Jesus wasn’t with God before he came to earth born of the Virgin Mary? John 17:21-24 reads, ‘That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me…the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.’ If someone can comment on those verses and how they seem to run contrary to the teaching that Jesus’ beginning was only at his birth, I would really love to hear those thoughts."
Did Jesus exist before he was born? Can one in fact exist before one exists? Is Jesus a spirit made flesh or even God Himself? This question about pre-existence is repeatedly asked, especially by those who have come out of a Trinitarian background. Usually the question is raised by pointing to specific verses in the gospel of John. However, we need to build our understanding of Jesus by asking the following questions in order: (1) What does the Old Testament say with regard to prophecies about who/what the Messiah would be? (2) What do Matthew, Mark, and Luke say with regard to when the Messiah began? (3) Now that we have those underpinnings of some 42 books of the Bible, we can approach the gospel of John and ask how to work this all together. We will look at each of these three questions in turn in an effort to answer this question about Jesus’ pre-existence.
The Old Testament clearly states that the son, the Messiah, was not already in existence. Below are some prophecies that speak of him.
"And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel" (Gen. 3:15).
The Messiah is to be a descendant of the woman. A descendant is by definition one who comes into existence after the ancestor. Apparently, from the very beginning of this mess (the fall), God had plans to fix the problem through the seed of the woman (i.e., a solution from within the human biological chain).
"For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on his shoulders; and his name will be called wonderful counselor, mighty god, eternal father, prince of peace" (Isa. 9:6).
The child will be born/given. At the time of Isaiah 9, the language used to describe the Davidic Messiah is future tense. This is a prophecy of a child who would be born in the future (just as chapters 7 and 8 had prophesied about other children who would be born). If Jesus already existed, we would expect different language here.
"Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The spirit of the LORD will rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And he will delight in the fear of the LORD, and he will not judge by what his eyes see, nor make a decision by what his ears hear" (Isa. 11:1-3).
"A shoot will spring" means that a descendant of David (Jesse’s son) would be born some day. The whole idea of lineal descent is emphasized by the terms "shoot" and "branch" which are tree metaphors. In other words, this person would come from the line of Jesse. If he already existed independent of the line of Jesse, then he would come through but not from the stump of Jesse.
"I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as your possession’" (Psalm 2:7-8).
This oracle does not include when this was to happen. The only information given is that on a certain day (i.e. "today") God begets a son who is to rule the world (not just Israel). This means that the day before this "day" the Son did not exist. "Begotten" means a father brings someone into existence. (Typically this occurs via the sexual union of a man and a woman, but obviously with Jesus a miracle occurred in which Mary remained a virgin, though she had conceived.)
"When your days are fulfilled that you must go to be with your fathers, I will set up one of your descendants after you, who will be of your sons [i.e. a human being]; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build for Me a house, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father and he shall be My son; and I will not take My lovingkindness away from him, as I took it from him who was before you. But I will settle him in My house and in My kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever" (1 Chron. 17:11-14).
Again, notice the future tense here. One day a descendant of David will be born, and he will be chosen by God to rule on the throne of David forever. Was David thinking that an angel, a spirit, or God Himself would metamorphose into a human, pose as a descendant, and fulfill this prophecy? Of course not! David was most likely thinking of Solomon (who we know didn’t end up being "the one") or perhaps a distant descendant. What is clear is that one of David’s progeny will rule forever.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke need to be investigated with respect to the question of Jesus’ origin before we look at the gospel of John. Mark does not have any information about the birth of Jesus, so we will focus on the first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke.
"Eliud was the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob. Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah" (Matt. 1:15- 16).
It is essential that we take into consideration the context that immediately precedes this verse. Matthew has just enumerated dozens of generations in genealogical fashion (just as in Genesis chapters 5 and 11). Then at the end of this impressive list of descendants, he gets to Jesus (Matt. 1:16). The point is that Jesus is a bona fide, lineal descendant of Abraham and David (cf. Matt. 1:1) — a real human being.
"Now the birth [lit. origin] of Jesus Christ was as follows: when his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 1:18).
The NASB says "birth," but the word used here is a bit stronger than that. It is the word "genesis" which means beginning or origin (like the first book of the Bible). So the origin of this Messiah (Christ = Messiah) is in the womb of the virgin, Mary. The inescapable consequence of his origin being in Mary is that he did not literally exist prior to this (though, of course, Jesus existed "notionally" from the beginning — in the mind of God).
"But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the child who has been conceived [lit. begotten] in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son; and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,’ which translated means, ‘GOD [IS] WITH US’" (Matt. 1:20-23).
The first thing to note is that the word translated "conceived" in verse 20 is really the word "begotten," which is important because it is the part the father has in making the child. In other words, we find here in Matthew 1:20 the fulfillment of the oracle in Psalm 2:7 (one day the Father will beget a child who will rule the world). Remember that "to beget" is what the father does to bring someone into existence.
The next thing to note is that the angel of the Lord tells Joseph that the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy that one day a virgin shall bear a son. In other words, we are being told that the future tense language used in the Old Testament is in fact fulfilled in Joseph’s time through the miraculous begetting and subsequent birth of this son. All of this causes one to think of a monarchical story of a promised heir of royal blood who will rule the world. Jesus is that heir. The twist that the New Testament adds is not that he always existed and "transmuted" into a human, but that this child was actually miraculously begotten without a human father, making God his literal (i.e. biological?) father.
"‘And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy child shall be called the Son of God’" (Luke 1:31-35).
Two points here:
(1) Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive, she will bear a son, and he will be great. The clear implication of this language is that Jesus did not already exist, but that he was about to be born. Furthermore, if he were to have existed prior to his birth, then he was not great. Gabriel says that "he will be great," which means if he already existed he was not great, or else the angel should have said, "he is great" or "he will remain great" or something to that effect.
(2) The precise reason given for why the child is the "son of God" is not because he always existed, not because he is the second member of the Trinity, and not because he shares the same divine substance or being with the Father. No! He is the "son of God" because of the miracle in the womb of Mary. This is the precise reason why he is God’s Son. This is so simple, yet so overlooked — Jesus is the Son of God because God begot him! How did God do it? The holy spirit, God’s creative power and presence (cf. Gen. 1:2 where spirit hovers over the chaotic waters) overshadowed Mary, and the result was an impregnated womb, the beginning of a human being. Jesus did not pass through the womb, but rather he began at his birth. The womb is not an incubator for an alien being! So from all of this evidence (and there’s more at www.kingdomready.org/topics/god.php), it is absolutely clear that Jesus began at birth (after all that is what it means to be a human).
The gospel of John is so often misunderstood because we forget to look at the dozens of books that precede it, and we then isolate verses and interpret them in light of our culture rather than harmonizing them with the Hebrew thought-world of first-century Judaism. In the gospel of John, we are suddenly confronted with a lot of language which seems to say the opposite of what has preceded in the Bible. How do we make sense of this? There are two options: (1) harmonize John with the rest of the Bible, or (2) overturn the previous books in favor of a hypothesis that to John was revealed "secret" information about the "true" origin of Jesus. It is our belief that the former is preferable. So what does it mean when we find sayings about Jesus coming from heaven, being sent by the Father, or having things (glory, love, etc.) with God before the foundation of the world? I will take each of these in turn.
Jesus came down from heaven. All good things come down from heaven (James 1:17). Saying something came down from heaven could mean it fell from the sky, or it could mean that this person, idea, or event was in God’s plan (in heaven), and then it came to pass on earth. Johannes Weiss explains this well:
"We have to bear in mind that for the Israelites, and likewise for Jesus, there existed a twofold world, and thus also a twofold occurrence of events. The world of men and history is only the lower floor of the world’s structure. The world of the angels and spirits is erected above that. Both parts make up the world (1 Cor. 4:9). Moreover, what happens on earth has its exact parallel in heaven. All history is only the consequence, effect, or parallel copy of heavenly events. Thus an event which on earth is only just beginning to take place may not merely be already determined, but even already enacted in heaven." 
Although I certainly don’t believe that every single event on earth occurs because it has been determined in heaven first, I do most certainly believe that certain events (the coming of the Messiah, etc.) are already determined by God in heaven, and they will come down to earth in the fullness of time.
The second category is when John’s gospel says Jesus was sent (around 40 times). But does "sent" mean that Jesus was in heaven with God, and then one day God sent him to earth to save us? I would suggest that there is another sense for the word "sent" that is more harmonious with what we have already seen. Isaiah was sent (Isa. 6). What does this mean? He was commissioned by God; he was given a mission by God to do something. Furthermore, John the Baptist was sent: "There came a man sent from God, whose name was John" (John 1:6). This is the same sort of language used of Jesus. "The Father sent me," etc. Was John in heaven? He was sent from God! We conclude that being sent from God need not imply pre-existence. It may just mean that someone was commissioned by God.
The third idea found in John is that Jesus "has" things with God before he was born (or even before the foundation of the world). There is one question we need to answer before we come to understand this: did Jesus literally exist before the foundation of the world? If the answer is "yes," then it would be quite natural to say that Jesus literally had glory with (John 17:5) or experienced love from (John 17:24) the Father before his birth. However, if it is our understanding from the 42 books that precede John that Jesus is in fact a genuine human who had a literal origin in his mother, though his father was miraculously God, then we will see these expressions in terms of predestination, not preexistence.
In other words, when Jesus says, "Now, Father, glorify me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was" (John 17:5), he means that he had glory stored up with the Father (i.e. in God’s plan), and he is now asking for it. And when Jesus says, "You loved me before the foundation of the world" (17:24) he means that God has always loved His son, even before he existed. This does not mean that Jesus experienced the love before he existed, but that God still expressed His love, perhaps by ordering history in such a way that all things would culminate in His Son, in much the same way as expectant parents make preparations before their child is born.
Another example of this type of thinking may be helpful. "All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8). Was the Lamb literally killed before the beginning of the world? No! But in the counsels of God he was, so this event is projected into the past, as having already been done — from the beginning — though everyone understands that the slaying of the Lamb did not actually take place until AD 30 or so.
In conclusion, Jesus is a human being. Though he was always planned for in the counsels of God, he did not literally pre-exist his own beginning (birth). The Bible tells a beautiful, Jewish story about a godly woman who had a baby destined to rule the world. God’s triumph over Satan was to be a victory from within creation rather than from without. Because Jesus is one of us, he can completely relate to the human plight. Yet, because God begat him, Jesus finds himself in full solidarity with God as well. He is the perfect mediator, the second Adam. What a glorious story — a story that is cheapened when we move his origin prior to his birth and make Jesus into some sort of superhuman spirit turned man!
 Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom, p. 74.