Misunderstanding of John
Misunderstanding of John

Misunderstanding of John

John, The Cause of Endless Confusion

As noted in previous articles, John is a devised literarily masterpiece that heavily incorporates the theme of misunderstand and conveys things on the surface which gives a misleading impression if taken literary. It is meant to be taken allegorically in which the metaphor and symbolism can only be discerned with a deep study of the full context. From the beginning of the Prologue and throughout the book, both the author and Jesus convey information in a provocative and ambiguous way which can easily be misinterpreted by the reader. The reader must have a high level of sophistication to grasp the nuance and not fall for the most surface-level literal interpretation of what is being expressed. It is so easy to fall for errors and to misuse the Gospel of John when taking single verses out of context without regard to the clarifications that are provided in the fuller dialogue before and after the particular verse or phrase being quoted.   

It is on account of the ambiguity intrinsic throughout the Fourth Gospel, and it’s highly cryptic intent, that John is the cause for so many errors regarding theological speculation. It serves as the primary grounding for such errors as Trinitarianism, Modalism (Oneness doctrine), Arianism (Doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses of preexistence and incarnation of Christ). Clearly Luke-Acts supports none of these doctrines. The simple Gospel message of 1st Century Apostolic Christianity, affirms that there is One God the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ, the human messiah who was made both Lord Christ. (1 Cor 8:5-6, Acts 2:35) There is one God, and their is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ who gave himself as a ransom for all. (1 Tim 2:6) What has caused the departure from the simple unitarian Christianity affirmed by Luke-Acts and Paul’s writings? The Fourth Gospel bears most of the blame, being the principal grounding of erroneous theological speculation. It has been abused and misused since the period it was circulated 2000 years ago until today. Tireless discussions and arguments of the meaning of passages in John never settle the debate as to bring uniformity to the body of Christ. The Fourth Gospel provides too much cover to those insisting on adhering to a particular theological views which are divergent from each other.

John, The Basis of Much Speculation

 The excerpt from James Dunn’s book below, ‘Did the First Christians Worship Jesus‘ provides a concise overview of how John supports theological speculation that goes beyond any other book in the New Testament, while also clearly acknowledging that these theological speculations were later developments. Dunn states, “John clearly felt free to attribute to Jesus words and sentiments that Jesus himself probably never uttered while on earth” and further adds that, “It is much more likely that John has developed a portrayal of Jesus… a portrayal that makes clear how the significance of Jesus should be seen, in John’s eyes, rather than simply how Jesus was remembered.” (p. 119)

Dunn, James D. G.. Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (pp. 118-123). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

How best, then, to read the prologue (John 1:1-18)? 

From a straightforward reading of John’s Gospel the answer would seem to be obvious. For in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks consistently as one who was conscious of his personal preexistence with the Father. For example, he speaks of the glory he had in God’s presence before the world existed (John 17:5); Isaiah saw his glory in the Temple (John 12:41). Jesus asserts simply but bluntly, ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58), the ‘I am’ echoing God’s own self-referential formula. And he speaks regularly of his having been sent by God, his Father (John 4:34; 5:23, 24, 30, 36, 37, 38; 6:29, 38, 39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28, 29, 33; 8.16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9.4; 11.42; 12.44, 45, 49; 13.16, 20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:3, 8, 21, 23, 25; 20:21) from heaven ‘into the world’ (3.17; 10.36; 17.18).

Yet some hesitation remains. For John clearly felt free to attribute to Jesus words and sentiments that Jesus himself probably never uttered while on earth. As most commentators realize, had the great ‘I am’ sayings been uttered by Jesus during his mission in Galilee and Judea, they would hardly have been so ignored by the other Evangelists. It is much more likely that John has developed a portrayal of Jesus, on the basis of such traditional material as, in this case, Mark 6:50, a portrayal that makes clear how the significance of Jesus should be seen, in John’s eyes, rather than simply how Jesus was remembered

Does such a consideration merely move the question of Jesus’ personal pre-existence from being a historically questionable description of Jesus’ own self-consciousness to John’s perception that Jesus as such had been with God? That is certainly plausible. The alternative would be to say that John has elaborated the rich poetic metaphors used to describe the Logos, and that in transforming the Creator–Logos image into a Father–Son image John has given the poetic metaphor of God’s immanence its richest and most elaborate expression. The genius of the creator of the poem/hymn would then be that John 1:14 comes as a dramatic shock in the story of the Logos. Prior to John1:14 it was the Logos through whom the world was created, which was conceived as being the true light. As we shall see in the next section, prior to John 1:14 nothing is said in the poem/hymn that would be strange to a Hellenistic Jew familiar with the Jewish reflection on the immanence of God. It is with John 1:14 that the shockingly new is expressed: that the Logos became flesh, became a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Properly speaking, then, it is only with John 1:14 that Jesus as such comes into the story. To be somewhat pedantic, according to the Johannine prologue, Jesus is not the Word; he is the Word become flesh. At the same time, the point should not be pushed too far. For John 1:14 also asserts that Jesus reveals what the true character of the Logos is, Jesus is the clearest expression of God’s immanence, the one who makes visible the invisible God. In other words, and the point is important, it is not so much that the personification language used of the Logos is now used of Jesus. It is rather that Jesus reveals the personal character of the Logos, a character that previously could only be expressed in personification terms

The success of the prologue in communicating its claim therefore depends on the background theology of Israel’s reflection on the Word. In other words, John must have assumed that his readers would think of the Word as a way of speaking about God acting. The Word is the expression of God, the unspoken thought of God coming to verbal expression. Hence the opening attribution of creation to the Word; that is, to the divine fiat. Hence too the understanding of the Word as manifesting divine glory (John 1:14), indeed as manifesting God, as making the unseen and un-seeable God known, or literally as expounding (exegēgēsato) God (John 1:18). For in effect the claim of Jewish theology is that the Word is the self-revelation of God, the way God makes himself known. And on that claim John in turn builds in asserting that the Word became incarnate in or as Jesus, so that Jesus is the epitome and summation of that self-revelation. This is presumably why the poem/hymn does not hesitate to speak of Jesus as the only Son in intimate personal relationship with God as Father, and not only so but also as ‘the one and only, God’ (John 1:18). Here, we may infer, the Johannine prologue has found itself in the same tension as Philo, when he spoke of the Logos as ‘the second God’ (Quaestiones et Solutiones in Genesin 2:62). In both cases, the attempt is evidently being made to assert that the Logos is as close to God as can be imagined, that the Logos is God to the extent that God can possibly be known. 

The major breakthrough that the Johannine prologue makes, then, is that it identifies the Logos with the man Jesus Christ. It brings to expression the concept of incarnation. The ancients had no problem with the thought of the gods appearing in the likeness of human beings. But to ‘become flesh’ was a step beyond them. And the wisdom writers of Israel could think of Wisdom becoming or at least being identified with the Torah. But to identify Wisdom with a particular person was a step beyond them too. Yet this is what the Johannine prologue does. Jesus is the Word, God’s creative speech, God’s revelatory and redemptive action, become flesh. As the identification of divine Wisdom with the Torah was an evangelistic pitch (Here is where you will find the Wisdom you are looking for and need), so John’s identification of the Word with Jesus was evangelistic. John was saying that if you look at Jesus, his mission, death and resurrection, you will see the glory of God; you will hear God’s word, God himself speaking to you; you will be drawn into an intimacy with God that nowhere else is possible. You will see the unseen God in and through Jesus; you will encounter God in and through Jesus. 

No wonder, then, that the Jesus of John’s Gospel is accused of making himself equal to God (John 5:18), indeed of making himself God (John 10:33). For the intimacy of the relationship between Jesus and God, the bound-togetherness of the Son and the Father, the mutual indwelling of each in the other, is all a way of saying that Jesus really is the Word of God, really is God speaking, though speaking in and through useless flesh (John 1:13; John 3:6; John 6:63). And no wonder that the Gospel climaxes in Thomas’ worshipful confession, ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). 

In short, John’s Gospel shows very clearly why our question, ‘Did the first Christians worship Jesus?’, is so difficult to answer adequately. For Jesus was understood very early on as the human face of God, as the one who made the unseen God known and known more clearly and fully than he had ever been known before. In a real sense that the first Christians could only explain inadequately, to be in the presence of Jesus was to be in the presence of God – not, be it noted, in the presence of a god, but in the presence of God. The aim was still as with Israel’s Logos theology: to affirm a position for the Logos as close as possible to God, to the extent that they could easily be confused with each other; to assert that the Logos was truly God himself speaking and acting. That is why the Johannine Jesus can say that he is to be honoured (worshipped?) just as the Father is honoured (John 5:23). At the same time we should also note that John did not abandon all reserve on the subject. Jesus was the Son and not the Father. It was still the Father who is to be worshipped (John 4:23–24). So even when the evidence pushes us towards a positive answer to our question, we should not forget that John’s Gospel is a particular elaboration of Israel’s Logos theology, and that John too endeavoured to maintain a balance between the thought of Jesus both as God and as not God the Father, the incarnate Word as the most definitive revelation of God.

Following up on Dunn’s Overview

The above summary by James Dunn gives a glimpse of what is going on in John and how it has led to confusion and speculation. What is supposed to be taken as metaphorical is not. Jesus being the Word of God or being God, should be understood as the “is” of predication rather than the “is” of identity. It is a misunderstanding to read into the text conflation of Jesus with God in an ontological sense. A unitarian can simply appreciate that when Jesus is conflated with God such as when Thomas says “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), he is not making an ontological statement but rather expressing what Dunn has attested, that Jesus is ” the one who made the unseen God known and known more clearly and fully than he had ever been known before.” The Rosetta stone for interpretation of Jesus self identification in the overall Context of John given in John 10:32-37. It is in this respect we correctly understand what Jesus means when he expresses affinity with God by the statement, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). The oneness with God is not an ontological oneness of essence, substance or nature but a oneness of mission. Jesus is a servant of God, doing many good works from the father, as the Son of God to whom the word of God came. This is not so unlike the mighty servants of old who were called “gods”.  But Trinitarians, Modalists, and Arians like to ignore these straight forward explanations and read into a more literal surface-level interpretation in to the text. A dangerous thing to do win the most pervasive theme in John is the theme of misunderstanding. At any rate Dunn has provided us an overview as to what the Forth Gospel does to mislead many. 

– The key to understanding how Jesus is conflated with God in John –

32 Jesus answered them,
“I have shown you many good works from the Father;
for which of them are you going to stone me?”
33 The Jews answered him,
“It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you
but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”
34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?
35 If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—
and Scripture cannot be broken—
36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world,
‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

(John 10:32-36 ESV)

Theme of Misunderstanding in John

John widely embodies a literary theme of misunderstanding. Recognizing and understanding this theme is highly important for making sense of what the authors, of the Gospel of John are trying to convey to their ideal readers. The theme of misunderstanding is interwoven into the narrative of the Gospel of John. It appears 18 times in the Gospel of John according to scholars like Warren Carter (John: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist) and Allan Culpepper (Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design). Rudof Bultmann (The Gospel of John, A Commentary) argued the device of misunderstanding occurs again and again throughout the Gospel. Bultmann suggests that this device was already being used in Hellenistic revelation literature. The theme of misunderstanding would have been very familiar to those who were widely read in Hellenistic revelation literature. The theme of misunderstanding has been widely accepted as non-controversial and clearly apparent by scholars of the Gospel of John for over 100 years.
 

The theme of Misunderstanding typically comprises three steps:
Step 1: Jesus makes an ambiguous statement in the narrative of the Gospel of John
Step 2: The conversation partner misunderstands what Jesus says, either by interpreting it literally or by asking an inappropriate question.
Step 3: Either Jesus or the narrating author explains the statement, although sometimes an explanation is missing but it’s clearly implied.

Let’s explore the theme as it is applied to the following statements by Jesus that on their face would seem to imply a “high Christology.” 

“Unless you believe that I am you will die in your sins” – John 8:24
“Before Abraham was, I am” – John 8:58
“I and the Father are one” – John 10:30
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” – John 14:9
“Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” – John 17:5

We shall see that these are all cryptic statements that require further clarification from the context. The immediate context usually clarifies that the Father is the one God who is greater than Jesus, from whom Jesus has received power and authority, and that Jesus is a servant of God submitted to his will

“Unless you believe that I am you will die in your sins” – John 8:24

Step 1: Jesus makes an ambiguous statement in the narrative of the Gospel of John

John 8:21-24 (ESV)
21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” 22 So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” 23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”

Step 2: The conversation partner misunderstands what Jesus says, either by interpreting it literally or by asking an inappropriate question.

John 8:24-27 (ESV)
24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” 25 So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. 26 I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” 27 They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father

Step 3: Either Jesus or the narrating author explains the statement, although sometimes an explanation is missing but it’s clearly implied.

John 8:28-29 (ESV)
28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. 29 And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”

Clarifications:

Jesus is not calming to be God (the I am that I am of Exodus 3:14) Rather Jesus’ “I am” statement is in reference to his self-identification as the Son of Man and the identification of himself as the Messiah (Christ) in earlier Chapters. Jesus clearly puts himself under the authority of the Farther. Jesus did what was pleasing to him. Apart from him, Jesus could do nothing on his own authority.

“Before Abraham was, I am” – John 8:58

Step 1: Jesus makes an ambiguous statement in the narrative of the Gospel of John

John 8:56 (ESV)
56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

John 8:58 (ESV)
58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Step 2: The conversation partner misunderstands what Jesus says, either by interpreting it literally or by asking an inappropriate question.

John 8:57 (ESV)
57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”

John 8:59 (ESV)
59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

Step 3: Either Jesus or the narrating author explains the statement, although sometimes an explanation is missing but it’s clearly implied.

John 8:54-56 (ESV)
54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

Clarifications:

Jesus is not calming to have literally preexisted or be the Almighty God (The I am that I am Exodus 3:14) He existed as a prophetic reality before he came into existence as an actualized reality. Abraham was a prophet and could foresee the day of the Lord. Jesus was part of God’s plan before Abraham. It is in that sense that he was before Abraham. 

“I and the Father are one” – John 10:30

Step 1: Jesus makes an ambiguous statement in the narrative of the Gospel of John

John 10:29-30 (ESV)

29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

 30 I and the Father are one.”

Step 2: The conversation partner misunderstands what Jesus says, either by interpreting it literally or by asking an inappropriate question.

John 10:29-30 (ESV)
31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” 33 The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”

Step 3: Either Jesus or the narrating author explains the statement, although sometimes an explanation is missing but it’s clearly implied.

John 10:34-38 (ESV)

34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— 36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; 38 but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Clarifications:

Jesus claimed the Father is greater than all. In saying he was one with the Father this pertains to operating in accordance with his will (doing the works of his Father). He was not calming to be God, rather the Son of God. Even if he was calming to be God in some sense he would not be outside the tradition of scripture since “those to whom the word of God came were called gods.”

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” – John 14:9

Step 1: Jesus makes an ambiguous statement in the narrative of the Gospel of John

John 14:1-7 (ESV)

1 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Step 2: The conversation partner misunderstands what Jesus says, either by interpreting it literally or by asking an inappropriate question.

John 14:8 (ESV)
8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”

Step 3: Either Jesus or the narrating author explains the statement, although sometimes an explanation is missing but it’s clearly implied.

John 14:9-12 (ESV)
9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.

Clarifications:

Saying “I and the Father are one” is equivalent to saying, “the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.” (John 10:30 + John 14:10)

Earlier in John, when Jesus speaks of the day when the Holy Spirit will be given, he alludes to the same sense of oneness when he said, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14:20) While Jesus prayed for us to all be one, he also prayed for us to be in the Father saying, “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.” (John 17:21) “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.” (John 17:22-23)

The epistle of 1 John also affirms this understanding of the Father being in us and us being in the Father:

  • And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (1 John 3:23-24)
  • No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12)
  • By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. (1 John 4:13)
  • So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)
Thus he is not saying he is the Father but that the Father is at work in him and he is in one accord with the Father (in mission and purpose). 

An Egregious Example of Hyper-literal Interpretation of John

Modalists (believers in Oneness Doctrine) who uphold that Jesus is the one God and Father, will use John 14:9 as a proof text. This is where Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” as an indication that Jesus and the Father are one and the same person. They affirm this without looking at the surrounding context and not realizing that other verses in John refute this, such as John 8:16-18 where Jesus refers to himself and the Father as being two individuals (two witnesses):

16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true,

for it is not I alone who judge,

but I and the Father who sent me.

17 In your Law it is written

that the testimony of two people is true.

18 I am the one who bears witness about myself,

and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”

(John 8:16-18 ESV) 

A Trinitarian or Arian will decry the Modalist interpretation of John 14:9, saying that it obviously shouldn’t be taken literally. This is without realizing they make the same type of error with respect to many other passages in John. When it serves to support their doctrine, they affirm an overly literal interpretation rather than the more figurative interpretation when what is intended to be conveyed is a nuanced metaphorical meaning. The Fourth Gospel has confused many!

“Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” – John 17:5

Step 1: Jesus makes an ambiguous statement in the narrative of the Gospel of John

John 17:1-5 (ESV)
1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

Step 2: The conversation partner misunderstands what Jesus says, either by interpreting it literally or by asking an inappropriate question.

You the reader misunderstands what did Jesus mean by “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed”

Step 3: Either Jesus or the narrating author explains the statement, although sometimes an explanation is missing but it’s clearly implied.

John 17:20-24 (ESV)
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

Clarifications:

Jesus is the Christ (Messiah) and the Father is the only true God. Jesus fulfilled his mission and was asking for the glory that God intended for him to have from the beginning of creation. The glory that Jesus had was in a prophetic or notational sense. Jesus didn’t literally preexist. Believers are to share in the glory given to Jesus and be one with the Father as he was one with the father. Believers are to receive the love that Jesus received from the Father. 

Verses Used in Support of Preexistence / Incarnation

There are many verses in the Fourth Gospel that would lend anyone cover who had a disposition to believe in a literal preexistence of Christ. They also also lead credence to a believe in incarnation of some sort. Arians, who uphold a doctrine of subordination of Jesus to the Father, nevertheless believe that Jesus was the incarnation of preexistent divine spirit. While it is easer to demonstrate John does not support Trinitarian and Modalist (Oneness) Christological speculations on the ontology of Jesus, the Fourth Gospel provides much more cover to those who advocate a literal preexistence.  Below are verses such Arians use in support of a belief in a literal preexistence. Scriptural references are from English Standard Version (ESV).
 
  • John 1:1-4, 14 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men… 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
  • John 1:15 – John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”
  • John 1:30 – This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’
  • John 3:11-13 – Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
  • John 3:17 – For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
  • John 3:31 – He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.
  • John 6:38 – For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
  • John 6:46 – not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.
  • John 6:51- I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
  • John 6:57 – As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.
  • John 6:62 – Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
  • John 8:23 – He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.
  • John 8:40 – but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.
  • John 8:58 – Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”
  • John 16:28 – I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”
  • John 17:1-5 – When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

Following up on Preexistence “Proof -Texts” of John

The danger in interpreting the above verses is adopting a interpretation consistent with one’s disposition, based on their preconceived ideas or notions, that these verses indeed are teaching a literal preexistence. However it is clearly not necessary to approach these with these biases, and there is a perfectly reasonable unitarian (non-literal preexistence) explanation of these verses. This is covered on the site https://preexistenceofchrist.com addressing the sense in which Jesus preexisted. It is in a notional or prophetic sense as God’s plan hidden for ages in God. When Jesus said “before Abraham was, I am” in John 8:58, the context in John 8:56 when Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” That is, Abraham was a prophet and could foresee the day of Messiah, and he rejoiced because of it. Jesus existed as a prophetic realty before he he existed as an actualized reality. We preach and bring to light for everyone “what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known.” (Eph 3:9-10) “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:11) 

Moreover, Jesus “coming from heaven” or “from the father” is also figurative, as he likens himself to the bread (mana) that came down from heaven. This isn’t teaching incarnation but rather the Father is the source of his life, that is he is a direct creation by God gifted to us. We know that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)

Preexistence was actually a common belief of Hellenized Jews and Pagans in the the early centuries. Neo-Platonism taught that our souls exist prior to our physical existence. Ancient Jewish literature, seems to indicate the concept of literal preexistence in which a person is said to preexist their human life as a spirit or an angelic being. This concept is found in ancient Jewish writings like the book of Enoch, where the Son of Man figure is said to have existed with God consciously before the world was created.

“The Elect and the Concealed One existed in his presence, before the world was created, and for ever.

In his presence he existed, and has revealed to the saints and to the righteous the wisdom of the Lord of spirits.”

(1Enoch 48:5, 6 compare 62:7.)

Now a believer in a literal persistence of Christ such as an Arian or a Trinitarian might claim that the implication of John 17:5 is unavoidable that Jesus had glory with the Father, in his own presence, before the world existed. The way an Arian or Trinitarian under the Alexandrian Philosophical influence of Philo and others would take John 17:5 as indicating a literal preexistence in which, concerning the glory of the verse, (1) Jesus had the glory. (2) At a subsequent time, he did not have the glory. (3) He is requesting to be given the glory he once had.

4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 

5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

(John 17:4-5 ESV)

The simple and straight forward explanation of this passage which doesn’t entail a literal preexistence is that, within God’s plan from the foundation of the world, his Messiah was to be given glory with God. Jesus had this glory from the beginning of time as a prophetic reality, but, now that Jesus had accomplished the work the Father gave him, he was praying that it would become an actualized realty. He always had the glory in a notional sense. But he wanted, in the fullness of completion of his mission, the realization of this glory in a real sense. A great comparative passage is Matthew 25:34, where the kingdom that is to be inherited, by those who are blessed by his Father, is the kingdom prepared (planed) from the foundation of the world:

Then the King will say to those on his right,

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

(Matthew 25:34 ESV) 

An Arian or Trinitarian will nevertheless object and say that literal preexistence is the most literal reading of John 17:5 and that they are interpreting it in the most literal way possible (as if the literal interpretation is the better one). This is the problem. With the Fourth Gospel it is more often the case that the symbolic metaphoric interpretation is the correct one. The pervasive theme of misunderstanding that occurs at least 18 times in John, informs us we should resist the literal interpretation in favor for the more nuanced understanding of what is being conveyed. Rudof Bultmann argued in his commentary on the Gospel of John, that “the device of the misunderstanding occurs again and again throughout the Gospel.” Bultmann actually suggests that this particular device (theme of misunderstanding) was already being used in Hellenistic revelation literature, which would suggest, if this is true, that this particular literary theme is not unique to the Gospel of John. It might have been very familiar to those who were more widely read in Hellenistic revelation literature. With respect to the Fourth Gospel, context is more important in establishing the meaning of what is conveyed than the most literal interpretation of a particular verse or statement. With John the error is being too literal when there is occasion for a figurative or metaphorical explanation. 

The Gospel of John is Explicitly Unitarian

Despite the fact that John lends itself to be abused and misunderstood by Trinitarians, Arians, and Modalists, it is one of the most explicitly Unitarian books in the New Testament. Those statements which have the lest ambiguity and are the least cryptic are what should limit the speculation when it comes to understanding the more cryptic and ambiguous verses. If Bible students truly took these seriously, it would limit theological speculation to what is in harmony with the other gospels. Those more provocative and abstract verses of John should be interpreted by the reader in a way that is both logical and that harmonizes with the balanced testimony of Scripture. This would be in accordance with Biblical Unitarian Theology and Christology. Below are very clear verses in John that should be employed to put everything else into balance and perspective. Scriptural references are from the English Standard Version (ESV). 

The God and Father of Jesus is greater than Jesus

  • 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:21-26)
  • “My Father is greater than all” (John 10:29)
  • “Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:1)
  • “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)
  • “ And this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (John 17:3)
  • “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17)
  • These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31)

     

What Jesus has is given from the Father

  • He whom God has sent utters the words of God (John 3:34)

  • The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand (John 3:35)

  • “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgement to the Son” (John 5:22)

  • “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26)

  • “God has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:27)

  • “I am the true vine, and my father is the vine dresser” (John 15:1)

  • “You have given him (the Son) authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:2)

Jesus was a human servant under the authority of the one God and Father

  • “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34)
  • “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30)
  • “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” (John 7:16-18)
  • ”I do nothing on my own authority but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:26-29)
  • “Me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God” (John 8:40)
  • “It is my Father who glorifies me” (John 8:54)
  • “For this reason, the Father loves me” (John 10:17)
  • “I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment – what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49)
  • “I say as the Father has told me” (John 12:50)
  • “The word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s” (John 14:24)
  • “I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10)

John Should be Considered a Secondary Source

Although John is explicitly Unitarian, the reasons are multifaceted why John shouldn’t be used as foundational witness for establishing core doctrine and affirming Christian fundamentals. If we continue to be misguided so as to continue to use Gospel of John as a primary authority for grounding their Theology and Christology, most Christians will continue be in error in these matters. The fourth Gospel leads itself toward too much confusion and abuse by competing theological factions.  If we want a clear presentation of essential Christian doctrine, we should turn to Luke-Acts as the primary foundational authority. What cannot be established by Luke-Acts and the clear writings of Paul should not be considered central to the faith. This includes any doctrine of preexistence, of incarnation, of Jesus being of the same substance (ontology) as the Father, or of Jesus being the same person as the Father. The Fourth Gospel is an evangelistic document more in lines with Hellenistic Revelation Literature than historical narrative. It is not intended to be a histography with high level of historical reliability the way Luke-Acts is. 

John’s gospel cannot be regarded as a source for the life and the teaching of Jesus of the same order as the Synoptics…

We shall certainly want to call upon John’s gospel as a source,

but mostly as a secondary source to supplement or corroborate the testimony of the Synoptic tradition.

(James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, Paperback Edition, 2019, p. 167)