Randy recently made the following query:
I agree with your theology regarding One God… my question today tho after reading an article is how does one explain this verse which seems to speak of the pre-existance of Christ:
John 8:55 Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. 57 Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? 58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.
The following response was taken from Anthony Buzzard’s booklet titled Who is Jesus from pages 8 to 9:
Jesus found his own history written in the Hebrew Scriptures (Luke 24:27). The role of the Messiah was clearly outlined there. Nothing in the divine record had suggested that Old Testament monotheism would be radically disturbed by the appearance of the Messiah. A mass of evidence will support the proposition that the apostles never for one moment questioned the absolute oneness of God, or that the appearance of Jesus created any theoretical problem about monotheism. It is therefore destructive of the unity of the Bible to suggest that in one or two texts in John, Jesus overturned his own creedal statement that the Father was “the only true God” (17:3), or that he took himself far outside the category of human being by speaking of a conscious existence from eternity. Certainly his prayer for the glory which he had had before the world began (17:5) can be easily understood as the desire for the glory which had been prepared for him in the Father’s plan. The glory which Jesus intended for the disciples had also been “given” (John 17:22), but they had not yet received it.
It was typical of Jewish thinking that anything of supreme importance in God’s purpose—Moses, the Law, repentance, the Kingdom of God and the Messiah—had “existed” with God from eternity. In this vein John can speak of the crucifixion having “happened” before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8, KJV). Peter, writing late in the first century, still knows of Jesus’ “preexistence” only as an existence in the foreknowledge of God (1 Peter 1:20). His sermons in the early chapters of Acts reflect exactly the same view.
But what of the favorite proof text in John 8:58 that Jesus existed before Abraham? Does Jesus after all confuse everything by saying on the one hand that the Father alone is the “only true God” (17:3, 5:44)—and that he himself is not God, but the Son of God (John 10:36)—and on the other hand that he, Jesus, is also an uncreated being? Does he define his status within the recognizable categories of the Old Testament (John 10:36; Ps. 82:6; 2:7) only to pose an insoluble riddle by saying that he had been alive before the birth of Abraham? Is the Trinitarian problem, which has never been satisfactorily resolved, to be raised because of a single text in John? Would it not be wiser to read John 8:58 in the light of Jesus’ later statement in 10:36, and the rest of Scripture?
In the thoroughly Jewish atmosphere which pervades the Gospel of John it is most natural to think that Jesus spoke in terms that were current amongst those trained in the rabbinical tradition. In a Jewish context, asserting “preexistence” does not mean that one is claiming to be an uncreated being! It does, however, imply that one has absolute significance in the divine plan. Jesus is certainly the central reason for creation. But the one God’s creative activity and his plan for salvation were not manifested in a unique created being, the Son, until Jesus’ birth. The person of Jesus originated when God’s self-expression took form in a human being (John 1:14).
It is a well-recognized fact that the conversations between Jesus and the Jews were often at cross purposes. In John 8:57 Jesus had not in fact said, as the Jews seemed to think, that he had seen Abraham, but that Abraham had rejoiced to see Messiah’s day (v. 56). The patriarch was expecting to arise in the resurrection at the last day (John 11:24; Matt. 8:11) and take part in the Messianic Kingdom. Jesus was claiming superiority to Abraham, but in what sense?
As the “Lamb of God” he had been “crucified before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8, KJV; 1 Pet. 1:20)—not, of course, literally, but in God’s plan. In this way also Jesus “was” before Abraham. Thus Abraham could look forward to the coming of the Messiah and his Kingdom. The Messiah and the Kingdom therefore “preexisted” in the sense that they were “seen” by Abraham through the eyes of faith.
The expression “I am” in John 8:58 positively does not mean “I am God.” It is not, as so often alleged, the divine name of Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh declared: “I am the self-existent One” (ego eimi o ohn). Jesus nowhere claimed that title. The proper translation of ego eimi in John 8:58 is “I am he,” i.e., the promised Christ (cp. the same expression in John 4:26, “I who speak to you am he [the Christ]”). Before Abraham was born Jesus had been “foreknown” (cp. 1 Pet. 1:20). Jesus here makes the stupendous claim to absolute significance in God’s purpose.
More resources can be found be logging on to www.christianmonotheism.com and choosing a Scripture under the media center. In particular, Victor Gluckin has an audio file called Did Jesus Claim to be the “I Am” in John 8.58? which may be helpful too. Also, I had written a blog entry a while back called “Is Jesus the I AM?” and in the comments there was some discussion of the Jewish concept of pre-existence. Lastly, biblicalunitarian.com has a short entry with their take on John 8.58.