If Jesus pre-existed, he wasn’t a human, John 17:5

Many trinitarians believe that Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John 17:5 shows that Jesus pre-existed:
“and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made” (RSV).

For a video presentation on this passage, see here.

As with any difficult biblical passage, we must consider the context of Jesus' statement in this prayer to God (the Father). Just two sentences before, as recorded in John 17:3, Jesus prayed to God: “Father (17:1) …this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah whom you have sent.” In John 17:5, two sentences after Jesus said that the Father is the only true God, it would be very strange for Jesus to imply that he too, Jesus himself, is also God.

Father = God
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is directed to the “Father”. In the New Testament, Jesus’ Father is synonymous with “God”. When Jesus says, "Father", he means "God". Bringing presuppositions to the text, trinitarians look at this prayer and see “God the Son” making an appeal to God the Father to give back glory that he, “God the Son” had before in a pre-human existence. But this interpretation misunderstands the Fatherhood of God in the Bible. In the Bible the Fatherhood of God is a metaphor which describes the relation of God to Israel (Exo. 4:22; Deut. 14:1, 32:5-6, 18-9; Isa. 43:6, 45:11, 63:16; Jer. 3:4, 19, 31:9, 20; Hos. 11:1. And, as representative of Israel, Israel's king: 2 Sam. 7:14; Psa. 2:7; cf. Matt. 5:45, 6:9, John 20:17).

Biblically, the Fatherhood of God does not describe a metaphysical relation of one person of the “godhead” to another.

Also, the Bible does not describe the glory destined for the Messiah at the right hand of the Almighty God as something that the Messiah once had, that he gave up, and was given back. Rather, the exaltation and glory of Messiah was predicted in the Old Testament and then fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus said: "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:25-26).  

Speaking of things that don’t yet exist, as though they exist

The trinitarian interpretation of John 17:5 fails to understand that both God, and God through His prophets, speak of prededetermined (or pre-known) things (and people) as if they already exist. Note Jesus’s words in this same John 17 prayer just 15 verses later:

"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, The glory that you have given to me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:20-22).
  1. Here Jesus said he already had been given the glory intended for him. But his glory had not literally been given since Jesus had not yet died, been raised and exalted to the right hand of Almighty God (Luke 24:25-26). Jesus said the glory had already been given  because he knew that God had promised the glory. The granting of the glory is as “good as done” so Jesus could speak of it as if it he already possessed it.
  2. And Jesus could also speak of glory that he had given to people that were not yet believers in him. Some of those people that Jesus already gave glory to did not even exist when Jesus spoke these words. Just as God gave to the Messiah glory before the Messiah literally existed, here Jesus speaks of glory he had given to people before they literally existed.
  3. So called "deity of Christ" believers insist the glory that Jesus had and gave up was his glory as God. But Jesus says the same glory that the Father (already) gave to him, Jesus (already) gave to some people that had not yet been born. Is it not obvious that the glory that God gave to Jesus is not the glory as God?
Reading a couple verses further, in John 17:24, Jesus reiterated what he prayed in 17:5: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world.”

Note that Jesus basically said the same thing, but in a slightly different way. Jesus not only “had” glory with the Father (17:5), but WAS GIVEN glory (17:24) before the foundation of the world. 

Once again, Jesus’s prayer conflicts with deity of Christ interpretation in at least two very important ways: 

  1. Are we to suppose that the first person of the godhead gave glory and loved the second person of the godhead only before the foundation of the world? Why not in eternity past? 

  2. The Father GAVE the son glory before the foundation of the world.  This means there was a time even before the foundation of the world when the second person of the godhead did not have glory, and was GIVEN glory. Why did the first person of the godhead have to give glory to the second person of the godhead before the foundation of the world? 
Deity of Christ interpreters create contradictions and dilemmas like these because what they believe is not the truth.

A basic principle of interpreting Scripture is to take the words in their historical and grammatical context. In this case we only need to listen to 15 more sentences in Jesus' prayer to get a better understanding of what Jesus meant in 17:5. In John 17:20-24 Jesus used again the language of “giving glory” and “having glory” before literal existence.

The glory that God planned for Messiah, Jesus spoke of in past tense, just as he spoke in past tense of the glory that he would give to future believers. Predestined things are spoken of as already existing because they are “as good as done” in God’s eyes.

Another way to say this is that in the Bible, a person can “have” something before they literally have it or even before they literally exist. Jesus said the poor in spirit and those persecuted for righteousness sake have the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3, 10).  Even though these people weren’t in possession of the kingdom of heaven yet (they were poor and persecuted) they had it.

Paul said that believers in the One true God and His Messiah Jesus had salvation and a holy calling even before they existed. “(God) who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Messiah Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested…” (2 Timothy 1:9-10). For Paul, being “fully convinced that God is able to do what He promised” is saving faith (Romans 4:21).

Like Jeremiah was foreknown and appointed to be a prophet before being formed in his mother's womb, Jesus was foreknown and appointed to be Messiah:

""Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5).

Another example, Isaiah 53
Most Christians would agree that Isaiah 53 is Messianic, that is, while it parallels the nation of Israel’s experience, Isaiah 53 in some way tells  us about the coming Messiah (John 12:37-38, 1 Pet. 2:24-25). Isaiah 53 was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. Yet Isaiah 53 is all in past tense. “He grew up before him…he was despised and rejected by men…he has born our griefs…we deemed him stricken…he was wounded…Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all…” and on and on, all past tense. Did Yahweh lay on Jesus the iniquity of us all before 700 BC? Obviously not, but it is spoken of 700 years before it happened, as if it already happened.

Some call this language the “prophetic perfect tense” because the prophets’ words deal with something yet to come, but the words are spoken as if it already happened, already existed. If God predestines it, it is as good as done. In the same way Jesus could say God “had given” him glory, before he received the glory.

Another example, Abram

When Abram had no descendant, Yahweh said to him: "“I HAVE GIVEN (past tense) this land to your descendant/s (Gen 15:18). Before they (or he) existed, the descendant/s of Abram were given the land.

When Abram was old and as yet had no child of promise, God said to him “I HAVE MADE (past tense) you the father of many nations”. Really? Abram, old and childless, was already the father of many nations? This is because God speaks of things that don’t yet exist as if they already exist (see Romans 4:17).

More problems with the Trinitarian interpretation
Trinitarians create huge theological problems by saying that Jesus is recalling his own literal pre-existence and glory in John 17:5. Let’s be clear: Jesus makes no claim to deity in John 17:5, let alone to be a part of a three-personed godhead.  Neither did Jesus say he had glory with God from eternity past, only from before the world was, which is a strange way to describe a shared glory of two eternally existing godhead persons.

In trinitarian doctrine, “God the Son” did not give up his divine-nature when he took on human-nature at the incarnation, i.e, when he became “fully God and fully man”. The human-nature of Jesus did not have divine glory “before the world existed” so this must be the divine-nature of “God the Son” speaking in John 17:5.

But can “God the Son” be fully God without His glory?
  • If the Son gave up his glory, the Son is not God, since God can not give up His glory as God.
  • If the Son had glory with God, the Son is not God.
  • If the Son was asking God to give him (back) glory, the Son is not God.
  • If the Son was given glory before the foundation of the world (17:24), the Son is not God.
The trinitarian interpretation of John 17:5 ends up being a tangled web of contradiction.

If trinitarians want to say that John 17:5 shows Jesus literally pre-existed, then they should be followers of AD 4th century Arius who believed that the Logos (Word), a lesser god or angel who pre-existed took on human nature. Anyone that had glory “with” God, indeed had been given glory, then didn’t have glory “with” God, but then is given glory back again “with” God, is not God. Just like anyone who “goes to God” is not God.

A better way to Understand John 17:5

Rather than the recollection of a so-called eternal divine person, John 17:5 is an expression of faith (on the eve of being put to death by crucifixion) of the man Christ Jesus of Nazareth in the promise of God. The so-called “deity of Christ” interpretation denigrates, indeed tries to eliminate the man Christ Jesus and the trust he put in YHVH his God.

As God gave Abraham's descendant/s the land, even before they existed, and as God made Abram the father of many nations, even before he had a son of promise, so God gave glory to the Messiah Jesus before he literally existed. God speaks of things that are not yet as though the already are. The man Christ Jesus trusted completely in the promise of God, determined for him long ago.

A Warning
If Jesus pre-existed as God, he is not a human. He would be some other kind of creature, but not a human person. Trinitarian doctrine in the end leads to a denial of the man Jesus.

Did Adam pre-exist other than in the plan and purpose of God? Did any other human being pre-exist other than in the plan and purpose of God? (Apparently Mormons believe that humans pre-existed, but this is unbiblical). If Jesus pre-existed literally, then he is not a human being, he is something else. He is not like you or me in what makes us essentially human. The dual-natured Jesus of the catholic creeds is a Clark Kent Superman, a science fiction, a fairy tale, a fantasy. If Jesus is God who took on flesh, he is not a human person and we don't have a sin offering (Romans 5:15, 17; 1 Tim. 2:5; 2 Cor. 5:21).

The Scriptures never come close to saying something like "that's the human Jesus”, but “that's the God Jesus". A dual-natured Jesus is philosophical speculation, a fantasy. The death of the man (not dual-natured) Jesus on the cross, the resurrection of the man Jesus from the dead, the exaltation of the man Jesus to the right hand of Almighty God in heaven, is not a fantasy.

For more information see here.


Troy Salinger said…
Good post Bill. Only on a cheap surface reading of the passages does it lend support for trinitarianism, but upon a closer inspection many problems are detected for that position, as you have adequately demonstrated. Thanks for your work.
Stroup's Troupe said…
Why are you re inventing the wheel? The cult of Jehovah's Witnesses will welcome you with open arms!
Bill Schlegel said…
Stroupe's Troupe, Jehovah's Witnesses and Traditional Christianity share this in common: both believe in a pre-existent, non human "person" that in some way "became" Jesus the Messiah. The Hebrew Scriptures, on the other hand, declared the coming of a human Messiah (a descendant of David) and the New Testament proclaimed that human Messiah, Jesus. You might be closer to Jehovah's Witnesses than you think!
Unknown said…
Bill, I appreciate all your work and striving towards the truth regardless of what people say. I have only been born again for a year, however I am very strong in the faith. I study the word constantly, and do not come from a church background. I believe there are many trinitarians that are full of passion but, sadly are mislead by many theologians and teachers. I am starting to see why so many followers of the Islamic and Jewish faith can't become Christians. The trinity is a serious obstacle for those who seek truth. Sometimes I see videos of street preachers witnessing to those who follow Islam and they find the trinity to be a contradiction! I just wish this "One God the Father and One Messiah" truth was instilled in more people. Sadly I can't even find a church that believes this that isn't at least an hour away from my home in Ohio. Please continue to provide truth for those who seek it! I would also like to hear your opinion on the law vs. grace topic. I have struggled with this topic for a while and I am unsure about if we should keep the mosaic law in its entirety or not. There are some obvious parts of the law such as atonement through animal sacrifices and stoning sinners that have been changed, however this requires a great cover to cover understanding and I'm not quite there yet. Thanks Bill!
Bill Schlegel said…
Unknown, thanks for the comments. So glad to hear of your growing faith in our God and His Messiah, Jesus. Yes, Trinitarianism has put up a huge obstacle for people to hear the truth as proclaimed in Scripture. Most Jews and Muslims (and so many others) have heard that the New Testament proclaims that Jesus is God.

Don't feel bad about struggling with the topic of law vs. grace. In short, I probably take kind of a "middle-ground". You are right, nobody is keeping the Torah of Moses. If they were there would be a priesthood, an altar, sacrifices, etc. On the other hand, the "Torah is good" and not judging a person by their diet or calendar is a two-way street. I don't think any of the authors of the NT expected Jews to become Gentiles. I see the LORD and His Messiah still having a role for ethnic Israel as witnesses of the LORD and His Messiah. The continuation of the Jewish people themselves is evidence that "This is God".

I hope these brief comments help. If you haven't yet, befriend me on facebook and we will keep in touch. May the God the Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah give us wisdeom (Eph. 1:17).

Anonymous said…
Thanksfor the post....I like the reference to jn 17:20...being an ex-trinity these passages used to go untouched but now the human messiah understanding unlocked many issues in my walk with the Father and the Lord Jesus

samual yoder said…
The Christian view of the trinity never made sense to me and this bit about it is a mystery that one just has to believe in faith is not rational either.
God told Moses he would raise up a prophet like unto Moses from among his brethren which would be a Hebrew, an Israelite. Before that God said the Messiah would be from the seed of the woman, a human being.
To me if the Messiah existed in heaven and was transferred into Mary's egg that would be the doctrine of reincarnation would it not?
There is truth and error in every denomination or religious organization, it is only by constant studying that one is able to discern or increase their discernment between truth and error, between the holy and the profane with the spirit's help, without the leading of the spirit none of it would make sense or as scripture says it would be foolishness to the non Hebrew or Israelite.

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