© L.D. Underwood 2011
The Preexistence of Jesus
The idea of Jesus’ preexistence is found in John’s prologue, namely John chapter 1:1-18. Before unpacking these verses further, it is worth noting there are some people who say that the Gospel of John is simple in contrast to the other synoptic records. That in one sense may be true, because the vocabulary is relatively easy, the language consists of monosyllabic or disyllabic one or two syllable words making it accessible to most readers. Yet the greatest minds in all the world have failed to fathom the fullest meaning of these words. They have a depth beyond analysis. Like Lake Tahoe—the water is clear, but deep. We are not going to be able to probe all of the depths or climb all of the heights or wrestle with all of the philosophical and metaphysical terms. All we can do is skim the surface.
One possibility is that perhaps Mark’s gospel would be a better book for a new convert, than the gospel of John which frequently is given to new converts because of the profundity and depth of involved in his language. Whereas other gospel accounts begin with an event in time and space, John begins with an existence in eternity advancing the notion that the Word, Jesus Christ, is qualified in every way to be the perfect revelation of God.
What is a prologue? A prologue is more than just a preface or a philosophical prefix. In many ways we can think of it as a thesis or a digest of everything to follow. A summary, a summation, a summing up--independent in itself, yet integral to the whole book. A prologue leads into the subject, it arouses interest. Some have suggested we can think of it much like the overture of a great oratorio or symphonic composition. It is a preview of the entire gospel—the essence of all that follows.
We have already looked at one prologue in Luke’s gospel, the first four verses of the first chapter. If could also look at the first five verses of the book of Acts where there is a similar prologue. We could look at the opening verse of 1 John, or the book of Hebrews where we have similar prologues. But in these 18 verses, John compresses his Gospel account into this form. He gives the setting; he states the theme; he introduces the main character and he relates the elements of conflict. Every good novel has conflict to complete the plot. Here the conflict is between belief and unbelief.
We will find that the language of these opening eight verses is more formal than the language in the rest of the book. There are some scholars who posit that these verses are an adaptation of some early Christian hymn. When we read through these 18 verses, we note the pattern that is involved. Verses 1-5 talk about the Word. Verses 6-8 speak about John the Baptist. Verse 9-14 again underscore the Word. The fifteenth verse refers back to John. Finally, the concluding verses 16-18, come back to the Word. So, it’s the word, and John and the word, and John, and then the Word. That is the pattern, or the structure of these opening verses.
It is very possible that John may have written the narrative of his gospel first, and then came back to summarize all of it in these opening verses. But he very clearly shows, in these opening verses, the mission of the word. He is referring to him as word, and light and life. Telling why he came—to make known the Father; to reveal God and how he was received. There were essentially responses—that of either belief, or unbelief. Additionally, it records what he did in terms of giving light and giving life, and coming with grace and truth and what he revealed—all focusing around the mission of the Word.
What is the meaning of this term ‘logos’ (λόγος) or ‘word’? As many know, the scripture makes a distinction between the Word of God written—which of course refers to Holy Scripture—and the Word of God incarnate, which refers to Jesus Christ. It is interesting that John does not use the name Jesus Christ in this prologue. Instead he gives him a different title. What an unusual name for Christ—"the Logos”, “the Word.” Apparently, he did not coin the term. He did not make-up a new word. Instead he gave a new meaning to a word that was already in use. There is wide spread speculation among the theologians as to the roots as to the origin of this term. Where did it come from? There are some who say that it comes as a carryover from Greek philosophy, the philosophy of Philo the Jew. He was an Alexandrian, allegorizing, philosopher in the first century who used this word logos about 1300 times in his writings. Yet it is never clear whether Philo meant an abstract impersonal force, or whether he meant the divine thought behind the universe. It is unclear as to his meaning even though he uses the term so frequently.
The stoic philosophers for example thought of “the logos” as the central principal of the universe. The spirit that pervaded the world; the ultimate reason that controlled all things. To these stoics, the logos was a metaphysical principal. Whereas John’s interest seems to be more historical rather than dealing with the nature of the individual.
There are others who say, we can’t look to Greek philosophy, we have to look instead at John’s usage as being Hebraic—Hebrew in its background. The equivalent in Hebrew דָּבָר (dabar) is “regarded as the definite content or meaning of a word in which it has conceptual background.”
For Palestinian Jews used the Aramaic term ‘emer’( אֵמֶר ) which is the Aramaic term for ‘word.’ They use this term emer as a periphrasis or a round-about saying, or a reverent substitute for God’s name in the Targum. So in the Targum, they would use this Aramaic term, emer, as another way of saying God’s name. The term has even been personified as wisdom, for example, in Proverbs 8: “All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing forward or perverse in them” (KJV). We’re really uncertain as to the background of this term. It may come from Greek sources; it may come from Jewish sources; but perhaps it is more helpful by asking, what is a ‘word?’ The notion of a ‘word’ is something that is universally comprehensible. Everyone speaks. Most of us too much. But the best way to get to know somebody is to listen to the words which he or she speaks or writes, because we express ourselves through words. We learn very little from person that we call poker-faced. But we communicate a great deal by our words and by our gestures. And so words are the vehicles by which ideas and thoughts are conveyed. They are symbols of communication that have little or no value unless they have meaning. If I write the word ‘columbidae’, most people would not be able to give the definition of that word. It would be just about as meaningless as the word ‘God’ is to most people. If I give the more common meaning of that scientific term, and give the meaning as being pigeons, that conveys a much more definite impression in one’s mind. Just as the name Jesus is more tangible to the person in expressing who God is. So just as words, utter and express thought or ideas, so Jesus Christ utters and expresses God and who he is. Jesus interprets, he makes intelligible the incomprehensible God. He is the speaking God. God has spoken only one word, and yet that word includes the whole language, wrapped up in Jesus.
There is no word without influence. The Greeks thought of a word as basically being a very impersonal abstract concept behind everything concrete. But the Jews went a step further. Words to Jewish people were not just sounds, or representations. They were powers; powers that did things and accomplished things; they moved people. We even today talk about the words of Winston Churchill, or the words of John Kennedy, that moved people to action. They had power in them. We must realize in the Old Testament we are told frequently, that God acted by his word.
Take the first chapter of Genesis: “And God said, “’Let there be light.’” Or Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the Lord, the Heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.’” Or take the opening of Hebrews where the author says, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets” (He 1:1, KJV). Even the title given to Jesus in the book of Revelation is ‘Alpha and Omega’ (Re 1:8). That is the beginning and the end of the alphabet—the first letter and the last letter of the Greek alphabet. So, in the beginning was the speech, was the word, was meaning wrapped up in Jesus Christ.
In these opening verses we have the relation of the word, Jesus, to God. He begins by saying, “In the beginning was the word” (Jn 1:1) and that speaks of his eternality; his preexistence in eternity past. It calls to mind the words of Genesis the first chapter, where we have in the opening verse of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth (Ge 1:1). It is interesting to note that the word ‘beginning’ in the Greek language can have up to eighteen different meanings. We have to ask ourselves is this a relative beginning or is this an absolute beginning that he is talking about—the origin of all things, the starting point; the original beginning. That is the idea that John has. Is it just a passive expression, a result of some other force; or is it more likely active where it is the cause of all things?
There are at least three different beginnings mentioned in the Bible. In John chapter 1:1, we have a beginning that refers back to the coming of Jesus Christ to earth almost two thousand years ago. Or some interpret that as even as a contemporary existential beginning. If we go back to Genesis 1:1, we have the beginning of the creation of the universe. That is a dateless date, we simply don’t know when that occurred. It could have been million, billions, or squillions of years ago. But in John 1:1, the beginning antedates even Genesis 1:1. This carries us back as far as our minds are capable of conceiving and then beyond that. John is saying, even then the Word was. And he uses and imperfect tense here in the Greek which means, a continuance of existence in the past; a timeless existence. Eternity is not just a vast amount of time, it is the timelessness, the opposite of time. So that the Psalmist writes “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen” (Ps 41:13). “From everlasting to everlasting” or from vanishing point to vanishing point, thou art God. What is he saying? He is saying that Jesus did not begin to be; he did not come into existence at some point in time and space, but he eternally was. Before there was even a beginning. The Word already had been. He predates time and creation. Saint Augustine was once asked the question, “Where was God before the heavens were created? And his marvelous reply was, “He was in Himself.” So, whereas Mark begins his Gospel account with the ministry of John the Baptist and Matthew traces it back with Abraham, and Luke goes all the way back to Adam, John starts long before, in eternity past. The eternality of the Word. He preexisted in the beginning He already was.
Secondly, we are told in this first verse that the “Word was with God” and that speaks of personality. In fact, the particular preposition that he uses, literally means, “face to face with;” or “in the presence of.” Face to face. And it is the concept of the closest communion and fellowship possible. Divine intercourse as it were, where we have harmony and reciprocity in the Godhead. There has always been this intimate connection between Jesus and God. They live in deep unfathomable intimacy. That is significant, because we see one person cannot be with another person unless he is a distinctly different personality, than the one he is with. So, the term suggests here an additional entity. Not that Jesus is merely an emanation from God, like the Gnostics taught, not that he is an attribute of God, but that he is a distinct personality; just as a word can be distinguished from a thought, so the Logos, the Word, Jesus Christ the son is distinguishable even while he is inseparable from God the father. He was with God, a distinct personality.
The third thing that we are told in that verse is that the “Word was God.” That speaks of his deity. That he is identical in essence with God the Father. The word was God himself. Now this is a key statement in the study of Christ. It answers the question as to whether the distinction to be drawn between the Word and God makes the Word anything less than God. John is at pains to show us that his deity is affirmed he has equality of essence with the Father. He is a different personality, but at the same time he has divine essence. Therefore, the word has his whole being within deity, even while he does not exhaust the whole being of deity. So, John is not saying here that Jesus was identical with God, that he is the same person as God the Father; but he has the same character, the same quality, the same essence, and being as God.
To be technical for a moment, when the Greek language uses a noun, usually it will have a definite article before that noun. When it uses the word ‘God’ it will in effect say “the God” with a definite article before it. When the article is not there, the noun becomes more like an adjective and describes the character, or the class or the quality of the person or the thing. When there are two nouns, both of them having articles, and they are joined by the verb ‘to be’ then the one is fully identified with the other. For example, if I were to say, “The preacher is the man,” we are identifying the preacher with an individual person. But if I said, “The preacher is man,” then the preacher is being classified as a man in the sphere of humanity, he is one of many human beings.
It is interesting that when John begins his gospel, he doesn’t say, “The Word was the God, in the sense that he equaled the totality of God’s being, but that he was Theos; he is divine; He is deity; he is the same nature, the same essence, the same quality as God. To give another example of that, in first John Chapter 4, we have the expression made that the “God is love.” Now if there was another article before love, “the God is the Love”, then that would be interchangeable, and love would be God. But without that second definite article, he is saying that the essence and the quality and the nature of God is in essence love and not the other way around. What John is saying here, is that what Jesus was, the word was. He was not only the revealer of God, but he was God himself revealed. He goes on in the second verse to talk about this as being an unchanging relationship; the same one who was before the beginning was also, at the beginning.
Then in verses 3-5 we have the relationship of the word to the first creation. And he is shown very clearly to be the co-creator of this universe. The presence, the activity of the personal Word, Jesus Christ at creation, when God said, is clearly implied. That doesn’t mean that God the Father wasn’t actively involved in creation, because obviously he was the author of creation. But what John is saying is that Jesus Christ is of the same essence of the Father, but distinct in personality of the Father—Jesus Christ was the active agent of Creation. The Father is the ultimate source, but Jesus was more than just a passive instrument in the hands of the Father, for every created thing passed through the intelligence and the will of the Son. Only God can create.
It is only because it is God’s nature to communicate himself that there is a world at all. This universe is the arena of God’s disclosure. And whereas people used to think that this was a geocentric universe, since Galileo, it has now become heliocentric, that is all revolving around the Son. The estimates are that we have at least twelve quadrillion solar systems…that is a one followed by fifteen zeros (1,000,000,000,000,000). Twelve quadrillion solar systems. More accurately we can say that we believe in a Christo-centric universe. It all revolves around Christ. He says here, that “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:3). “All things”, in the sense of the universe, and all that it contains, every single occurrence in time and space is subject to his control. Notice how methodical, how infinite, how meticulous is his care and his planning. The universe is divine in its construction, and diverse in its conception and dependent in its conservation. But not even one little atom has come into being except through the complete creative act of Jesus Christ. He is co-creator.
Secondly, he is life: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (Jn 1:4). The word for life here, ζωὴ (zōē) is not the word that gives us ‘biology,’ but the word that gives us ‘zoology.’ Interestingly, we have an inclusion where the fourth gospel begins with life, here in the fourth verse, and it ends with “life.” It was the regret of Jesus that men would not come to him, that they might not have life, and have life in abundance. He claimed elsewhere in this fourth gospel that he was the life, as well as the way and the truth (see Jn 14:6). This word occurs many, many times within the gospel, and the point is that there is no life apart from Jesus Christ. In fact, he is going to say that in his first epistle, when he writes, “He that hath not the Son of God, hath not life. It is only because there is life in the Logos, in the Word, that there is life in anything on earth at all. For life does not exist in its own right, it is a gift from the one who is life.
He also proclaims himself to be light, and this title has its roots in the Old Testament. A very fitting symbol for Christ, because light is necessary for life. Growth and health depend upon light. Light is actually something unseen. Of course, we see the little glowing filament in the bulb; we see the thing illuminated, but we don’t actually see the light passing from the bulb to the object. We can see a light in a projector, and we can see the lighted image on the screen, reflected, but the rays of light as they pass from the projector to the screen is invisible, unless the atmosphere is sufficiently dusty to reveal the passage of light by the particles that are in its path. But light is invisible, light is pure. Evil cannot stain; impurities cannot defile; light can pass through a poisonous atmosphere without contacting taint or carrying germs. The light is what puts chaos to flight. We never see our lives, as truly as they are until we see them in the light of Jesus Christ. Light guides us. We find in the gospels numerous times people running to Jesus asking, “What am I to do?” When he enters the life, the path that was dark becomes light and the guessing, and the groping, and the uncertainty, and the vacillation flee. The interesting thing is that John contrasts this with darkness. There is of course freedom portrayed where man can say “no” to God’s “yes’s”, but there is a limit to the authority and the power of darkness. The natural man disregards the light, and that means he is in the dark. Fallen man loves darkness rather than light.
When they finally stormed the Bastille, that great prison in France, after the French revolution, they battered down the doors and invited the prisoners to come out. These men and women had been in that prison for so long, that when that light shone through the door, they couldn’t stand the brilliance of it they said, “Close the doors and leave us in here, we can’t stand that light.” If we were to go to the woods and turn over a log, that’s been sitting there for quite a time, we find there would be little creatures under that log, and as that log was moved, it would begin to rush around these little bugs, and in effect if they could talk, they would say, “Put out the light.”
And since the darkness of sin came and settled upon the world like a fog, the light of God has been engaging in unabating combat with that darkness. “The light shineth,” John says (1:5). That means that God has never left himself without a witness, at times he has been obscured, but he has never been eclipsed. In him was life, the life was the light of men, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness it says, “comprehended it not” (KJV). That does not mean it misunderstood it, it means that the darkness is not able to distinguish or put out, or overpower, the light. Darkness has done everything possible to eliminate Christ, and yet it cannot ultimately destroy the conquering Christ. Light may be rejected, but it cannot be extinguished. Darkness can hate him, but it can never get rid of him. It is interesting that darkness and light here exist together. This is the cosmic conflict. Contrary to natural law, we have both light and darkness at the same time. The point is, apart from God, everything is darkness. And the only light that there is, is the light that is found in God himself. One way that the light of the Logos has been shining, has been through the prophets—special messengers from God sent to this earth. One of the greatest of those prophets was John the Baptist. Beginning in verse 6 we have the relation of the word, to the new creation. We have the first reference to John the Baptist—"there was a man sent from God whose name was John.” It is interesting that in this fourth gospel, almost every reference to John the Baptist, is a reference to apparent depreciation—sort of a put-down. It might be that the reason for that is the certain people were so fascinated by John, that they gave him a higher place than he ought to have had. In fact, one sect actually put him in first place. So even though he was the greatest man born of women, that is what Jesus’ estimate of him was, yet he was subordinate to the place of Christ. Doesn’t that still happen—that men’s eyes get fixed on the messenger boy, rather than upon Christ? Certainly, John the Baptist was not to blame for what happened, he was the first prophet in over four hundred years; but he speaks of himself as a voice, not a great personality, but a voice crying in the wilderness. John the apostle is determined to see, that there be not a John the Baptist movement that none should remove Christ from the topmost niche.
Look at the contrast here between John the Baptist and the Word. John came, whereas Christ was from all eternity. John was a mere man; Christ was the Word. John was commissioned by God; Jesus was God himself. John testified to the real light; the Logos was the real light himself. He describes his mission as being a witness. He came for testimony—to bear witness to the light. That really defines the character of the preacher’s office. He is a witness. As a witness, he knows what he says, and he says what he knows because he has had firsthand experience. He is not just dealing in speculations and fancy words, he is speaking out of his own experience, and is testifying to Christ, who is the true light. When John talks about Christ being the true light, he is not saying true as opposed to false, but he is saying, real, or genuine, as opposed to unreal. That is reality instead of a type. Perfect as opposed to partial. That is, Jesus is the real light. Before him there were other lights which men followed and some had flickers of truth, and some were faint glimpses of reality, and some were will-o-wisps which men followed and lead them into the darkness even further and left them there, because they were only partial lights they were in some cases—even false lights—and some still follow them today. But Jesus is the only genuine light to guide humankind on its way, and he lights every man.
That doesn’t mean that there is a divine spark within every person, as some of the old-fashioned liberals taught, but physical life had its light where we have the invisible attributes of God, perceived even by the light of creation. Even animal life, as we look at the wisdom of even little insignificant insects. Or rational life, the life of a moral philosopher, or a religious thinker, or a poet, or musician, that is not just genius, many are haunted by the speaking voice of God. We who are children of God know spiritual life; the light of redeeming grace has shined into our hearts, and as children of the light, we are to walk in the light. The tragedy is, that man does not recognize or acknowledge the source of light and inspiration. We have man’s rejection of God’s revelation. He depicts it here in three stages: verse 5 we see the unsuccessful attempt of darkness to extinguish God’s light—the darkness was not able to overcome it. It is “unextinguished light.” Verse 10 shows us another aspect which is “unrecognized life” –“He was in the world, the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.” The kόσμος (kosmos) knew him not. It is charged with ignorance. It is like an ambassador who is refused entrance even though he bares credentials from his government which are all in order.
In the same way, the living Word, Jesus Christ was ignored by those whom he had created. They didn’t perceive who Jesus was; they didn’t acknowledge his claim, there was unrecognized life. Then verse 11 says, “his own received him not.” That is the most serious step of all, that is unwanted love. For Israel is charged with a deliberate refusal and a rejection. They missed God’s revelation because they didn’t want it. By the way that eleventh verse is significant because we have two “his own’s” in the verse: “He came to his own” and the word is he came to his own home; he came to his own property; he came to his own creation; he came to his own things; it’s a neuter in Greek. Many know that most words in a foreign language are either masculine, or feminine, or neuter. The word “his own” that is used here first is the Greek word ἴδια from ἴδιος (idios) that he came to his own things, his own creation, his own people; household; his own property (see Perschbacher 207; and Bauer 396); and his own people, received him not.
There is the story of the synoptic gospels in a nutshell—unextinguished light; unrecognized life, unwanted love. That is a pretty bleak picture. But it’s not all that bleak because some have received him. Verse 12 reads “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God” (KJV). This twelfth verse is the human side of salvation, and verse 13 is the divine side of salvation, where it tells us they were born of God. Men are not just naturally born children of God. We don’t believe in the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man concept. One has to become a child of God, by the grace of God. But the invitation here is “As many as received him” that is the equivalent of saying whosoever will, regardless of their culture, or their color, or their cash. Notice again the equivalent of believing is what in verse 12? Receiving. Receiving is another equivalent to believing. And to those who receive him, or believe in his name, he gives the power, and word there is literally the authority, to become the children of God.
He also goes on to say that salvation is not of heredity, “Who were born not of blood.” The Jews boasted that Abraham was their father. But he is saying, no this is not inherited through a natural bloodline. It is not through the will of the flesh. It is not through the impulse or the will of the natural man. It is not through self-effort, or personal reformation, nor is even of the will of man, even through well meant efforts on the part of friends or the preachers persuasive power. No, salvation is of God from start to finish. Then in verses 14-18, we have the relation of the word to the Old Testament system. Here is really the message of Christmas, where God becomes Jesus of Nazareth—without ceasing to be the Logos or the word. The word became flesh; the word became man, through the incarnation. That is a very important term that we will find frequently in the theology. By incarnation literally, the word means, “enfleshment.” The incarnation simply means the act by which God took to himself a human nature. He didn’t just assume a body. That would be a psycho-physical superimposition to put a term to it. He didn’t just take upon himself a body, he took upon himself a total human nature apart from sin. And that is mysterious—the mystery of his divine condescension.