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After "In the beginning was the Word..." by which the writer implies the pre-existence of Jesus, they indicate John the Baptist also testifies to this question:

John doth testify concerning him, and hath cried, saying, `This was he of whom I said, He who after me is coming, hath come before me, for he was before me;' (John 1:15 YLT)
Ἰωάννης μαρτυρεῖ περὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ κέκραγεν λέγων οὗτος ἦν ὃν εἶπον ὁ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν ὅτι πρῶτός μου ἦν

Since John was both born and began to baptize before Jesus, does the Gospel-writer mean that John the Baptist understood Jesus was in existence before His incarnation?

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  • And also, Jesus calls John the greatest of all begotten of women. Yet John says 'he must increase and I must decrease'. John gives precedence to Jesus and also prominence, calling him 'Lamb of God' and 'Son of God'.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 22, 2021 at 20:43
  • That seems to be why John the author put it here in the prolegomena.
    – Perry Webb
    Feb 23, 2021 at 1:34
  • Note that John 1:15 is often shown in brackets: it slightly disrupts the flow and the similar John 1:30 is better positioned as part of the John the Baptist section.
    – Henry
    Feb 23, 2021 at 15:03

4 Answers 4

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The central matter here in John 1:15 is the meaning ascribed to the adjective πρῶτος (protos) which can mean:

  1. of time - first in time, earliest or earlier, eg, Phil 1:5, Acts 20:18
  2. first in a sequence of list, eg, Matt 21:28, 22:25, etc
  3. most prominent, foremost, most important, eg, Matt 22:38, Mark 12:29, etc.

Before answering this question we should observe that Jesus, was chronologically speaking from an earthly point of view, AFTER John the Baptist because (a) Jesus was born six months later than John, and (b) Jesus began preaching AFTER John's preaching.

In fact John makes this very point in this verse of John 1:15 -

John testified concerning Him. He cried out, saying, “This is He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ ”

Notice that John's testimony consists of three points about Jesus as Messiah:

  1. Jesus comes after John - a simply chronological statement of earthly time as noted above
  2. Jesus has surpassed John in importance. John later testified the same point when he said (John 3:30), "He must increase; I must decrease." See also Matt 3:11.
  3. Jesus is "before" John - in time or importance?? This is the question.

Benson, Meyer and Erasmus interpret πρῶτος as first in importance.

Barnes, Matthew Henry, and Gill interpret πρῶτος as first in time, ie, "before".

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary and Matthew Poole understand πρῶτος here means both in time and importance.

All three positions are compatible with the rest of the Scripture, but which is intended here?

The answer is actually simple - John 1:15 is a summary of John's testimony, to be fleshed out later in John's Gospel, of all that John taught about Jesus. If John's intention is only that Jesus is more important, then this only repeats in a tautologous way what the previous phrase has said - "he has surpassed me". However, if John realizes that Jesus existed before John's birth, then John has understood OT passages such as Isa 6:1 and Mal 3:1 as referring to Jesus.

This is reinforced by the the deliberate contrast with the first statement that Jesus came after John ... but was before John.

CONCLUSION

John 1:15 teaches that Jesus:

  1. was born and preached after John
  2. was more important than John
  3. had a pre-existence well before His incarnation
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  • I enjoyed reading this answer and learned something from it. Thank you. +1
    – Adam
    Feb 23, 2021 at 10:35
  • When you say "John 1:15 is a summary of John's testimony, to be fleshed out later in John's Gospel, of all that John taught about Jesus" there seems to be some potential confusion between the Gospel writer and the Baptist.
    – Henry
    Feb 23, 2021 at 15:05
  • @Henry - you are correct. I actually intended both but did not make that clear. John 1:1-18 contains, in summary form, all that both Johns contributed to our understanding of Jesus.
    – Dottard
    Feb 23, 2021 at 20:24
  • 1
    I like it when Jesus stumps those who are trying to trap him, using a seeming riddle about his own pre-existence in Luke 20:41-44 NIV: Then Jesus said to them, "Why is it said that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself declares in the Book of Psalms: "'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet."' -- David calls him 'Lord.' How then can he be his son?" Jesus himself is the answer to this riddle, being Messiah, Son of David, and the Lord of King David. Jul 6, 2021 at 0:54
  • 1
    @MicroservicesOnDDD - good point - I fully agree.
    – Dottard
    Jul 6, 2021 at 0:59
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It depends on what you mean by incarnation. If you mean by incarnation that he existed in the flesh, as a man, then there was a man sent by God, and, a man called Jesus made clay and washed in the pool of Siloam. Also, testimony is not heard by man. Thus, if John was a man sent to come to testify about the existence of Jesus, then he could not have heard his own testimony if he remained as a man. There are numerous references to man in the Gospel, but when he made clay, then he used earth, material, and water, mind or conscious,.to cover his eyes. Thus the Mind of God has been deluded, covered, made blind to the immaterial existence of Whom He is, because he had from the beginning always been but had become blind because,.precisely, there was a purpose for having the truth concealed by our identification with the consciousmaterial existence we call the flesh before we fully awaken to our own innocence. The man, the one who begged, who has been blind from birth (time-based experience), is surely a figurative telling of who our almost lifelong attachment to the flesh since birth has from the beginning been our blindness to knowing our eternal identity.

he saw a man which was blind from his birth. [2] And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? [3] Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. [4] I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. [5] As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. [6] When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, [7] And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing. [8] The neighbours therefore, and they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged? [9] Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am he. [10] Therefore said they unto him, How were thine eyes opened? [11] He answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight. [12] Then said they unto him, Where is he? He said, I know not

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If you think

  1. John 1:1's 'In the beginning' refers to the beginning of space-time (or the beginning described in Genesis 1), as opposed to the beginning as in Mark 1:1, which is "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" (or the beginning of any of the other Gospels)
  2. And therefore you think that John 1:3 refers to Jesus as a pre-existent Logos being making rocks and planets and water and so on (as opposed to being the Christ through whom the new creation comes into being, i.e., the Kingdom of God)
  3. And similarly you therefore think John 1:10's world refers to the planet which Jesus as a pre-existent Logos being made (as opposed to it being the social 'world' or order into which he came and the new social order that was brought about through him)

then

  1. It becomes more natural to interpret John the Baptist's words at 1:15 as describing Jesus as a pre-existent Logos being.

The grammar itself at 1:15 is ambiguous, so we must look to contextual clues. The biggest contextual clues are the rest of John's prologue, and so how we understand John's prologue will significantly impact our likelihood of interpreting 1:15 as John the Baptist stating that Jesus had a pre-existence as a Logos being (or what have you - this was a common view in the early church, since superseded by the idea that he had pre-existence as God Almighty Himself a la Trinitarianism).

But much of how the prologue is interpreted depends on how we understand what 'the beginning' refers to. Is the claim

"After "In the beginning was the Word..." by which the writer implies the pre-existence of Jesus"

correct? I don't think it is. Rather, it seems more plausible to me that the 'beginning' described in John 1:1 is the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Why should we think so?

  1. Mark's Gospel uses 'beginning' to refer not to Genesis creation (although this is obviously an allusion) but to the ministry of Jesus (the 'Gospel of Jesus Christ').

  2. The other two Gospels' beginnings are about Jesus, not Genesis.

  3. If understood as the beginning of Jesus' ministry, John's prologue becomes a summary of the rest of his Gospel, instead of a strange prelude where he talks about the creation of rocks and planets.

  4. Beginning at John 1:1 as the beginning of Jesus' ministry makes sense of John 1:6, otherwise a weird introduction of John the Baptist.

  5. Beginning as the beginning of Jesus' ministry fits better with John's overall usage of 'beginning' (arche), such as 8:25 ("Just what I have been telling you from the beginning.")

  6. Much of the perceived difficulties with the beginning being Jesus' ministry stem from ingrained habits of interpreting the Greek. 1:3, 1:10, and 1:14 are the key verses here. All of them can be interpreted along the lines of a new beginning. 1:3 seems more relevant if discussing all the things in the Kingdom which come about through Jesus. 1:10 makes more sense as referring to the 'human world' or society, not the planet (the word is cosmos, which refers to social order in particular). 1:14's key verb, egeneto, is capable of a large number of meanings, and can just be translated 'was'. The standard translation is greatly impacted by the translators' beliefs about what is happening in the rest of the prologue.

  7. John 17:5 can easily be explained by the common ancient Jewish idea of the ideal (not literal) pre-existence of the name of the Messiah in God's mind.

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  • If the beginning of John 1 is the beginning of Jesus' ministry this certainly couldn't have begun before he was born and that makes verse 1 and verse 14 synonymous and verses 2-13 kind of nonsensical. The verse 14 verb γινομαι (ginomai) is middle deponent in voice which means the subject (the Word) performs the action. Since the Word performs the action of becoming flesh, the Word must have pre-existed that event which is the early limit of the beginning of Jesus' ministry. The two "creation" verbs in verse 3 are basically the same with middle deponent and active voice respectively. Jul 9 at 22:22
  • @MikeBorden Thanks for this - I don't follow your first point. Why are 2-13 nonsensical? Jul 9 at 22:31
  • 1
    @MikeBorden For the second point, 'egeneto' is a vague verb and can mean all sorts of things. KJB translates it 'was made' (the translators evidently disagree with your grammatical claim), most translate it 'became', Weymouth's translates it 'came in the' (!). The same verb is translated in a variety of ways in other places in John. I don't think the line is referring to conception, BUT if it does ... we might say "Johnny became a baby in mommy's tummy." We say that, but we don't mean Johnny pre-existed. It's a figure of speech. Jul 9 at 22:38
  • @MikeBorden Similarly, the prophets (and John the Baptist, 1:6-7) were 'sent' by God. Did they literally descend from heaven? No, but they 'came' from God. Jul 9 at 22:42
  • 1
    @MikeBorden The comparison of egeneto to 6 is with 'was' (alternately, 'came'). Same exact word. Jul 9 at 23:39
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First look at the answer at Imperfect Indicative Active in John 1:1-4 related to ἦν.

ὁ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ⸆ ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν,* ὅτι πρῶτός μου ἦν. (John 1:15b, NA28)

‘He who comes [by birth] after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” (John 1:15b, NASB95)

When before/(in front of) him means "greater in rank" that is equal ot "mightier than." The ἦν at the end essentially has the meaning that Jesus already was before John did. Thus, you cannot use it to say Jesus had a beginning other that his life here on Earth. The γέγονεν (became) means he attained a higher rank here on Earth. Otherwise, it contradicts the next phrase.

Also look at the parallel statements (probably a difference in translation and summarizing John the Baptist's statements):

He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals (Matt 3:11, NASB; similarly in Mark 1:7; Luke 3 16)

Note: ἔρχομαι and γίνομαι in John 1:1-18 when referring to Christ, refers to his coming and life here on Earth (see v9, v11, and v14). When referring to Jesus' deity it is ἦν. When referring to his humanity on Earth it is ἔρχομαι and γίνομαι. Before Jesus began is public ministry, John ranked higher in the eyes of the people. But, when Jesus began his pulblic ministry after John, he soon ranked higher than John in the eyes of the people. See John 3:30, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (ESV)

 (John testified concerning Him and exclaimed, 
“This was the One of whom I said, 
‘The One coming after me  has surpassed me, 
because He existed before me.’ ”)
            (John 1:15, HCSV)

Maybe translating it this way makes more sense.

He who comes behind me, has moved in front of me, because he existed before me.

Commentaries

After me (ὀπισω μου [opisō mou]). See also 1:27. Later in time John means. He described “the Coming One” (ὁ ἐρχομενος [ho erchomenos]) before he saw Jesus. The language of John here is precisely that in Matt. 3:11 ὁ ὀπισω μου ἐρχομενος [ho opisō mou erchomenos] (cf. Mark 1:7). The Beloved Disciple had heard the Baptist say these very words, but he also had the Synoptic Gospels. Is become (γεγονεν [gegonen]). Second perfect active indicative of γινομαι [ginomai]. It is already an actual fact when the Baptist is speaking. Before me (ἐμπροσθεν μου [emprosthen mou]). In rank and dignity, the Baptist means, ὁ ἰσχυροτερος μου [ho ischuroteros mou] “the one mightier than I” (Mark 1:7) and ἰσχυροτερος μου [ischuroteros mou] “mightier than I” (Matt. 3:11). In John 3:28 ἐμπροσθεν ἐκεινου [emprosthen ekeinou] (before him, the Christ) does mean priority in time, but not here. This superior dignity of the Messiah John proudly recognizes always (John 3:25–30). For he was before me (ὁτι πρωτος μου ἠν [hoti prōtos mou ēn]). Paradox, but clear. He had always been (ἠν [ēn] imperfect) before John in his Pre-incarnate state, but “after” John in time of the Incarnation, but always ahead of John in rank immediately on his Incarnation. Πρωτος μου [Prōtos mou] (superlative with ablative) occurs here when only two are compared as is common in the vernacular Koiné. So the Beloved Disciple came first (πρωτος [prōtos]) to the tomb, ahead of Peter (20:4). So also πρωτον ὑμων [prōton humōn] in 15:18 means “before you” as if it were προτερον ὑμων [proteron humōn]. Verse 30 repeats these words almost exactly. John 1:16 -- Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Jn 1:15–16). Broadman Press.

  1. He [John] compares him to himself with respect to dignity when he says, he ranks ahead of me [ante me factus est, literally, he “was made before me”]. It should be noted that it is from this text that the Arians took occasion for their error. For they said that “He who comes after me,” is to be understood of Christ as to the flesh he assumed, but what follows, “was made before me,” can only be understood of the Word of God, who existed before the flesh; and for this reason Christ as the Word was made, and was not coeternal with the Father.

According to Chrysostom, however, this exposition is stupid, because if it were true, the Baptist would not have said, he “was made before me, because he existed before me,” since no one is unaware that if he was before him, he was made before him. He rather would have said the opposite: “He was before me, because he was made before me.” And so, according to Chrysostom, these words should be taken as referring to his [Christ’s] dignity, that is, he was preferred to me and placed ahead of me. It is as though he said: Although Jesus came to preach after me, he was made more worthy than I both in eminence of authority and in the repute of men: “Gold will not be equal to it” (Jb 28:17). Or alternatively: he is preferred ahead of me, that is, before my eyes, as the Gloss says and as the Greek text reads. As if to say: Before my eyes, i.e., in my sight, because he came into my view and was recognized.

  1. He compares him to himself with respect to their duration, saying, because he existed before me. As if to say: He was God from all eternity, I am a frail man of time. And therefore, even though I came to preach ahead of him, yet it was fitting that he rank before me in the reputation and opinion of men, because he preceded all things by his eternity: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). “Before Abraham came to be, I am,” as we read below (8:58).

If we understand this passage as saying that he “was made before me,” it can be explained as referring to the order of time according to the flesh. For in the instant of his conception Christ was perfect God and perfect man, having a rational soul perfected by the virtues, and a body possessed of all its distinctive features, except that it lacked perfect size: “A woman shall enclose a man,” i.e., a perfect man (Jer 31:22). Now it is evident that Christ was conceived as a perfect man before John was born; consequently he says that he “was made before me,” because he was a perfect man before I came forth from the womb. -- Thomas Aquinas. (2010). Commentary on the Gospel of John: Chapters 1–21 (F. Larcher & J. A. Weisheipl, Trans.; Vol. 1, pp. 80–81). The Catholic University of America Press.

1:15. Because v. 16 would follow nicely on v. 14, some have seen v. 15 as an interpolation. It would be fairer to conclude that v. 15 is a planned parenthetical remark. The earlier mention of the witness of John the Baptist (vv. 6–8) dealt with the coming of the pre-existent light into the world; this verse abandons that theme and grounds the glory of the incarnate Word in a concrete individual, a concrete ‘he’ attested by another individual. Thus it prepares the way for the detailed account of the Baptist’s witness, which immediately succeeds the Prologue.

The present tense (John testifies concerning him) followed immediately by the perfect tense (lit. ‘he has cried out’) combine to suggest the Evangelist is presenting John the Baptist’s witness both vividly, as if it were in progress, and comprehensively, summing it up as a set-piece. Before the Baptist was able to point to a specific individual (cf. v. 33), he was able to announce in general terms the advent of the long-awaited Coming One: He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me. In all four Gospels, Jesus entered public ministry after John. In a society where age and precedence bestowed peculiar honour, that might have been taken by superficial observers to mean John the Baptist was greater than Jesus. Not so, insists the Baptist: Jesus has surpassed him (lit., ‘became before me’), precisely because he was before him. The peculiar expression means ‘because he was first with respect to me’. It includes not only temporal priority (cf. NEB, ‘before I was born, he already was’), which picks up the pre-existence emphasized at the beginning of the chapter, but also absolute primacy. That was the Baptist’s proclamation before he knew of whom he spoke. Then, after identifying him, he could say, This was he of whom I said, etc. And by placing this summary of the Baptist’s witness here, the Evangelist by anticipation is identifying Jesus with the Word-made-flesh: ‘This was he of whom I spoke.’ -- Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (pp. 130–131). Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

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  • Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:7, and Luke 3:16 have no statement from John about the one coming after also being before him. Additionally, ἦν begins the verse, Οὗτος ἦν which, within the context of the Prologue recalls verse 2, οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. As for a reference to John 8:58 (in the linked answer), I do not think it is realistic to think a reader would wait until that point in the Gospel to form an understanding of John the Baptist's witness. Feb 1 at 1:56
  • That depends on if you take before him to mean greater in rank to equal mightier than.
    – Perry Webb
    Feb 1 at 2:21
  • The issue I see with making a comparison to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is the fact John went beyond what they record. So if Matthew, Mark, and Luke all express the idea of rank, then there is no need to add anything to that witness. It is not as if the previous three were not explicit and there was some question that needed clarification. Feb 2 at 4:26

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