The Old Testament is the foundation on which the supremacy of Christ is established in the Gospel of John. It is the frame of reference to which John takes his readers to demonstrate that Christ is first and foremost in the purpose of God and among all men. The Old Testament was authoritative with the Jews and it needs to be so with us as well. It is Christ in the Old Testament that holds the key to understanding the so-called “preexistence passages” in John’s Gospel.
When John writes, “In the beginning was the word,” he has Genesis 1 in mind. In fact, he has the Christ of Gen 1:26 in mind, the one who is portrayed with God in glory and through whom God will bring many sons of Adam to glory — “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion … over all the earth.” Gen 1:26 introduces one who is with God and is (like) God.1
Thus Christ has first place in the Old Testament. He is there before Adam is created. He is there before Abraham is born. He is the one of whom Moses writes. And John the Baptist can say of him, “He is preferred before me: for he was before me.”
John 1:15, 30 — “he was before me”
The earliest confession concerning Christ, recorded in the Gospel of John, is that of John the Baptist:
“John (the Baptist) bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me” (John 1:15).
“And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No. Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias”.(John 1:19-23).
John the Baptist declares that he is the forerunner of Christ spoken of in the Old Testament. Thus he cites Isa 40:3 to the Jews who come to him (v.23). But John is only the forerunner. A mightier one is coming who is greater than he and who has precedence over him in every respect!
“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me” (John 1:29-30).
Even though Jesus would come after John in point of time, he was preferred before John in the purpose of God and was before John in terms of his place in the Old Testament. In other words, very simply, John understood that the God-ordained role of Christ was vastly more important than his role, and accordingly it was defined well in advance of his role in the Old Testament.
To be sure! The life-giving role of Christ is defined in Genesis 1:26 before Adam was created. And the life-saving role of Christ is defined in Genesis 3:15, long before the Old Testament says anything about the appearance of a forerunner.
John 6:62 — “where he was before”
John 6 ends with the tragedy of defecting disciples. Many were having difficulty understanding the parabolic nature of Jesus’s teaching, and when he demanded, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you,” the literal sound of his words cut forcefully against the grain of their Jewish scruples.
“Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it? When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you?” (John 6:60-61).
But before these disciples walked away from him and turned their backs on eternal life, Jesus gave them something to think about. Something was soon to happen that would surely give them second thoughts:
“What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?” (John 6:62).
For this argument to carry any weight at all, it had to fit into a framework of thought that was familiar to his disciples. Jews had no concept of a preexistent Christ — then or now. Jesus would not have expected his Jewish disciples to think in terms of preexistence, nor would he have tried to induce them to second thoughts with an argument based on it. The frame of reference for the Jews was the Old Testament, not post-Nicene Christology. The way for them to understand the concept of before was in terms of what their Scriptures had to say about Christ. The Old Testament ordained Christ for glory with God beforehand; in fact, before Adam drew his first breath — Gen 1:26. The glory, foretold in their Scriptures, was soon to become historical reality in the one they were about to turn their backs on. Surely this ought to give any disciple reason to reconsider the wisdom of defecting from him.
Of added interest in today’s religious climate is the fact that Jesus declares that it was the Son of man who was in an ascended state before. Does anyone believe that Christ preexisted in human form?
Is Jesus not rather telling his disciples — and us — that when he read Gen 1:26, he not only saw Christ portrayed in glory with God, he understood that the one whom God invites to join Him in bringing many sons of Adam to glory is, in fact, a glorified son of Adam.2 And he was that son of Adam soon to enter into glory with God.
John 8:58 — “before Abraham was”
“Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58)
Several versions read as follows or in similar words:3
“Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58).
This statement by Jesus is a straightforward declaration of his supremacy over Abraham, of whom the Jews were boasting that he was their father. The Lord’s declaration is intended to be understood in terms of the Old Testament, and so it can be. Its meaning is evident from the fact that Christ is written into the earliest chapters of Genesis, before Abraham was born! That is, before Gen 11:26.
Christ is first and foremost in the saving purpose of God; he is first and foremost in the Old Testament. Thus from a Biblical frame of reference he is before all men.
In John 8, a debate about fatherhood has arisen between Jesus and the Jews. The Jews have asserted their descent from Abraham, and it is in this context that Jesus declares his supremacy over Abraham:
“I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father. They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?” (John 8:38-46).
The disdain that the Jews were showing for Jesus and the aspersions that they had cast on the nature of his birth (v.41) called for stern Scriptural redress: he was the sinless seed of the woman promised in Gen 3:15 (cp. v.46), and God was his Father (vv.38, 42). Meanwhile, quite apart from them being faithful children of father Abraham (v.39) or of God (v.41), Jesus tells the Jews that they were seed of the serpent (v.44).
The Gen 3:15 background is clear and becomes the frame of reference in which to understand the declaration of Jesus in John 8:58. If we feel a need to probe the Lord’s declaration further, by asking, “Before Abraham was, I am who?”, then a Scriptural answer can be phrased this way:
“Before Abraham was born (Gen 11:26), I am (the one spoken of in Gen 3:15).” Or “Before Abraham was born (whom you claim to be your father), I am (the promised seed of the woman whose Father is God).”
Jesus would never have expected the Jews of his day to think in terms of a preexistent Christ. Rather, he required them to understand the supremacy of Christ from the promises and structure of the Old Testament. The Old Testament was their frame of reference, and it must be ours as well when it comes to understanding Christ.
John 17:5 — “before the world was”
“And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5).
John 17 brings us to the eve of the crucifixion. In less than a day’s time, Jesus will sleep in the dust of the earth, awaiting the resurrection and the glory that must follow. The history of mankind has arrived at the time when the eternal glory that God ordained for Christ before the world began is to become living reality in the man Jesus.
Jesus knew it, and he prayed for the fulfillment of that which God promised for him in the beginning. The Old Testament foundation for his prayer is not hard to identify.
The world is the kosmos <Strong’s Number 2889>; it is the world of mankind. The history of the world goes back to the creation of man in Gen 1:27. “Before the world was” takes us back to the declaration that God made in Gen 1:26, before the creation of Adam; and the prayer of Jesus picks up the prophetic implications of God’s words.4
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” portrays someone who is with God and is like God; someone who cooperates with God and shares His eternal glory. Historically speaking, of course, that someone was the angels who were God’s agents in the creation of this world. Prophetically speaking, the someone is Christ, through whom God will bring Adam’s faithful children to the same eternal glory and give them dominion on earth.
Such was the declared purpose of God at creation. Jesus understood the full implications of God’s purpose, and on the eve of his crucifixion he prayed for its fulfillment. John also makes it clear that the prayer of Jesus went beyond himself:
Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovest me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
Prophetically speaking, those who will behold Christ in glory are the them of Gen 1:26. When Jesus read Gen 1:26, I believe that he saw them as the disciples whom God would give him, and he saw them as the expression of God’s love for him, declared in the Old Testament “before the foundation of the world” — kosmos.
The ideas are breathtaking, and we are there.
Jim Harper (Meriden, CT)