The Pre-Incarnate Christ

Where did Jesus come from? A person reading the Bible for the first time could easily finish the last verses of Malachi and begin to read Matthew only to feel somewhat blindsided by the sudden announcement and birth of Jesus, called Immanuel, "God with us." From one page to the next, the Messiah appears out of the blue, as it were, the divine abruptly breaking into human affairs.

Of course, this is only a perception by some, not reality. In fact, many Jews of that day, watching the signs of the times, were expecting the Messiah at any time. First-century AD Judea was awash in Messianic expectation and fervor. Every few years, a new Messianic candidate would arise, gather a following, revolt against the Romans, and be executed (see, for instance, Acts 5:36-37; 21:38). Between the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC and the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt in AD 135, as many as eighteen men, including Jesus of Nazareth, were acclaimed Messiah in the region of Roman Judea.

In the midst of this period, the apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:24, "Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ," a principle suggesting that the Old Testament is a guide in preparation for Messiah. In this context, it implies that the Old Testament is full of references, allusions, prophecies, and instructions concerning the true Christ. In other words, far from being mostly silent about Jesus, the Old Testament is a vital source of revelation about Him! Jesus verifies this Himself in Luke 24:44, "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me" (see also Acts 18:28; 28:23).

Most people realize that the Old Testament contains many prophecies of Christ, and in fact, Jesus fulfilled about 300 individual prophetic details. More broadly, however, the Old Testament chronicles, not just prophecies of His coming, but also the historical activities of the One who became Jesus Christ. Unlike other humans, Jesus was not a created Being but God the Word who "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1, 14). In short, He pre-existed as God—with all that entails—before His physical life and ministry.

In the famous passage in Philippians 2:5-8, Paul declares:

. . . Jesus Christ, . . . being in the form of God, did not consider it [a thing to be grasped] to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Clearly, Paul believes that Jesus had existed as a divine Being before His birth, and that He volunteered to divest Himself of much of His glory, power, and prerogatives to become a lowly human being and to die to redeem humanity from its sins. Moreover, the apostle asserts in other places that the pre-incarnate Christ was Creator of all things (I Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), that He led Israel through the wilderness (I Corinthians 10:1-4), and that, as "Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, . . . [He] met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him" (Hebrews 7:1-3).

Did Jesus makes similar claims about Himself—that He had existed as God before His birth to Mary? Yes, many times! The Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—contain many claims of divinity and pre-existence, though few of them are explicit. In Matthew 12:8, He proclaims, "For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath," equating Himself with the Creator, who "rested on the seventh day" and hallowed it (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:11). When Jesus drove out the moneychangers, He claims the Temple to be "My house" (Matthew 21:13). In lamenting over Jerusalem, He grieves over how He wanted to comfort and protect the people "often" throughout history, but they resisted (Matthew 23:37). After the scribes argue, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Jesus specifically says, ". . . the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins," a not-so-subtle declaration of His divinity, which He backs up with an astounding miracle of healing (Mark 2:7, 10-12). In Luke 10:18, He tells His disciples, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven," referring to an event that occurred before man was created (see Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 28:12-16). Later, under arrest and facing the Sanhedrin, He answers the question, "Are You then the Son of God?" with a firm, "You rightly say that I am" (Luke 22:70).

In contrast, the gospel of John proclaims the divine nature of Christ from its opening salvo: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). John shows Jesus doing little to obscure His divinity. Before the first chapter ends, He is acknowledged as "the Son of God" and "the King of Israel" (verse 49), and He Himself declares, "Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (verse 51). When in John 5:17 Jesus asserts, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working," the Jewish authorities "sought all the more to kill Him, because He . . . said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God" (verse 18). In John 5:26, He claims to have "life in Himself," that is, inherent life as ever-living God. He informs the Jews that He knew Abraham, who "rejoiced to see My day" (John 8:56), and when they protest that He was far too young, He announces, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (verse 58), taking upon Himself the divine name of the Eternal God. Later, He tells His disciples, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9), meaning that Jesus is "the express image" of the Father (Hebrews 1:3). In His final prayer with the disciples, He asks, "And now, O Father, glorify Me . . . with the glory which I had with You before the world was" (John 17:5).

These few examples only scratch the surface of the Bible's claims to the divinity and pre-existence of Jesus. Our salvation, in fact, depends on it, for if He were merely human, His death would be insufficient to pay for others' sins, even though He never sinned. However, if He were more than human—say, the Creator of all things—His sinless death would be priceless, more than enough to atone for the sins of all humanity for all time. Only the sacrificial death of the blameless Creator God makes redemption possible, and only His resurrection to life makes salvation and eternal life available to the called and chosen (Romans 3:21-26; 5:6-11). For this, we can truly be thankful.

Next:  Born to Rule  (5/17)

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