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The Nature of Preexistence in the New Testament - Page 2

by Anthony Buzzard

 

Our scholar goes on to tell us that this typical mode of Jewish thought is clearly illustrated in 1 Peter. This reminds us immediately that Peter did not abandon his Jewish ways of thinking (based on the Hebrew Bible) when he became a Christian. Peter’s letter is addressed to "the elect according to the foreknowledge (prognosis) of God the Father" (1 Pet. 1:1, 2). Peter believed that all Christians were foreknown, but that did not mean that we all preexisted!

Peter’s doctrine of future things is permeated by the same thought that all is foreordained in God’s great Plan. God sees everything laid out before Him. Those who have the gift of the spirit will share God’s outlook and in faith recognize that the realities of God’s plan will in the future become realities on earth. According to Peter the Messiah himself was foreknown, not just his death for our sins but the person Messiah himself(1 Pet. 1:20). Peter uses the same word to describe the "existence" of the Son of God in God’s plan as he did to describe the "existence" of the Christian church (v. 2).

Though the Messiah was foreknown (not known, but foreknown, as was Jeremiah before his birth, Jer. 1:5), he was manifested by being brought into actual existence at his birth (Luke 1:35). This is a typically Jewish way of understanding God’s purpose for mankind. He executes the Plan at the appropriate time.

The sort of "preexistence" Peter has in mind is the sort that fits the Jewish environment, not the Greek atmosphere of later, post-biblical Christianity.

"We are not entitled to say that Peter was familiar with the idea of Christ’s preexistence with the Father before the incarnation [we are therefore not entitled to claim that Peter was a Trinitarian!]. For this idea is not necessarily implied in his description of Christ as ‘foreknown before the foundation of the world,’ since Christians are also the objects of God’s foreknowledge. All that we can say is that the phrase pro kataboles kosmou [before the foundation of the world] affirms for Christ’s office and work a supramundane range and importance . . . . Peter has not extended his belief in Christ’s divinity to an affirmation of his pre-existence: his Christology is more like that of the early chapters of Acts than of John and Paul."[7]

Peter, as the leading Apostle (Matt. 10:1), would have had no sympathy with either a Trinitarian or Arian (cp. modern Jehovah’s Witnesses) view of Jesus.

We note also that for Peter the future salvation of the Christians, the Kingdom they are to inherit at the return of Christ, is likewise waiting in heaven "ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Pet. 1:10, 11). The Second Coming is thus to be an "apocalypse" or unveiling of what is now "existing" but hidden from our sight. So it is said of Jesus that he was "foreknown," and waiting to be revealed in God’s good time (1 Pet. 1:20). Neither the Kingdom nor Jesus actually existed in advance. They were planned from before the foundation of the world.

Paul uses the same concept and language about the future resurrection and immortality of the saints. He says that we already "have" "a building from God, a house fit for the coming age."[8] Our future resurrection body already "exists" in God’s intention and may be thought of as real because it is certain to be manifested in the future. In that sense we "have" it, though we obviously do not yet have it literally. The same is true of the treasure we have in heaven. It is promised for our future. We will receive the reward of the inheritance (Col. 3:24) when Christ brings it from heaven to the earth at his future coming.

Foreordination Rather than Literal Preexistence

Having grasped this elementary fact of Jewish (and biblical) theology and thinking, it will not be difficult to adjust our understanding of other passages where the same principle of "existence" followed by actual manifestation is found. Thus Jesus says in John 17:5: "Glorify me [now] with the glory which I had with you before the foundation of the world." On the basis of 2 Cor. 5:1 a Christian in the future, after the resurrection at Christ’s return, will be able to say that he has now received what he already "had," i.e. laid up for him in God’s plan. Christians are said to have treasure in heaven (Mark 10:21), that is, a reward stored up with God now and destined to be conferred in the future. This is only to say that they will one day in the future "inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34).

When Jesus says that he "had" the glory for which he now prays (John 17:5), he is merely asking for the glory which he knew was prepared for him by God from the beginning.[9] That glory existed in God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus already "had" it. We note that Jesus did not say "Give me back the glory which I had when I was alive with you before my birth." This notion would have been completely foreign to Judaism. It is quite unnecessary and indeed wrong to read Gentile ideas into the text of Scripture when we can make good sense of them as they stand in their Jewish environment. The onus is on those who believe in literal preexistence to demonstrate that the texts cannot be explained within their own Jewish context.

The so-called "preexistence" of Jesus in John refers to his "existence" in the Plan of God. The church has been plagued by the introduction of non-biblical language. There is a perfectly good word for "real" preexistence in the Greek language (pro-uparchon). It is very significant that it appears nowhere in Scripture, but it does in the writings of Greek church fathers of the second century. These Greek commentators on Scripture failed to understand the Hebrew categories of thought in which the New Testament is written.

The so-called "pre-human existence" of Christ in the Bible refers to the prior existence of Jesus in God’s Plan and vision. Preexistence in the Bible does not mean what it meant in later creeds: the actual conscious existence of the Son of God before his birth at which time he entered the earth and the human condition by passing through the womb of his mother.

A Jewish and biblical conception of preexistence is most significant for Jesus’ understanding of himself as the Son of Man. The Son of Man is found in the book of Daniel. He "preexists" only in the sense that God grants us a vision of him in His Plan for the future. The Son of Man is a human being — that is what the words mean. Thus what John wants us to understand is that the human Messiah was in heaven before his birth (in God’s Plan) and was seen in Daniel’s vision of the future (Dan. 7; John 6:62). Jesus at his ascension went up to the position which had been previously prepared for him in God’s Plan. No text says that Jesus went back(upostrepho) to God, though this idea has been wrongly imported into some modern English translations to support "orthodoxy." Such mistranslation of the Greek "go to the Father" as "go back to the Father" tells its own story.[10] The translation of the Bible has been corrupted to mirror traditional, post-biblical ideas of who Jesus is.

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[7] E.G. Selwyn, First Epistle of St. Peter, Baker Book House, 1983, pp. 248, 250. We disagree that Peter’s idea of Jesus is different from that of Paul and John. It is highly improbable that the Apostles differed in their view of who Jesus was.

[8] 2 Cor. 5:1. This is the proper translation of aionios, i.e., belonging to the coming age of the Kingdom, not "eternal." This does not of course mean that the body of the future is temporary. It confers immortality and thus lasts for ever. The acquisition of that body is nevertheless the great event of the coming age introduced by the resurrection.

[9] The synoptic way of expressing the same idea is to talk of the Kingdom "prepared before the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34).

[10] See NIV at John 16:28.

 

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