Understanding John 17:5
Understanding John 17:5

Understanding John 17:5

Does John 17:5 teach a literal preexistence? Introductory Notes

John 17:5 is used as a common proof text for Trinitarians and Arians who believe that Jesus had a literal preexistence as a conscious being. 

John 17:5 (ESV)
5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

Does the statement according to John 17:5, “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” teach a literal preexistence? The literal interpretation of the isolated verse would seem to indicate that.  This is, however, not actually the case. There is a better explanation of what is being conveyed in John 17:5 that better fits the larger context of John 17 and the balanced testimony of the New Testament.

One of the principal hazards with respect to the book of John is that Jesus is presented as saying things that cannot be understood in the correct sense without looking at the surrounding context. John 17:5 is a prime example of this.

When one approaches any verse in John, the appropriate question is to ask first whether the verse should be taken literally. Is there an indication in the surrounding context the meaning is to be qualified? Indeed, the surrounding context indicates it to be understood in a non-literal or figurative sense.

If it can be observed that there are numerous passages in John that are clearly not literal, then why should John 17:5 be regarded in such a way if there is an explanation of the meaning that fits better with the surrounding context? Before we get into the correct understanding of John 17:5, let’s first review why we must be particularly careful about John.

John is clearly not the kind of book that should be as it is not written as a histography but rather scholars have observed it is more similar to Hellenistic revelation literature and is written in a style appealing to philosophically minded Jews and Greeks. Early Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria identified John as a spiritual Gospel. His pupil Origen of Alexandra, one of the most prolific Christian theologians of the third century, noted, that John cannot be taken as a historical narrative but is symbolic. Origen, in his extensive commentary on John, noted the discrepancies between John and the first three gospels that if literally read, the narrative cannot be harmonized and that John must be interpreted spiritually.

In modern times, since the 100+ years of critical scholarship stemming from the mid-19th century, it became more axiomatic for New Testament scholarship that the Gospel of John should be regarded as a theological, rather than a historical document. James D. G. Dunn, in reference to the quest for the historical Jesus, concurred that “it cannot be regarded as a good source for the life of Jesus.” (James D. G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, Jesus Remembered, Paperback Edition, 2019, pp. 40-41)

Dunn further concludes the conventional findings regarding John are correct. 

“Few scholars would regard John as a source for information regarding Jesus’ life and ministry in any degree comparable to the Synoptics.” After giving an overview of the numerous factors leading to this conclusion Dunn concludes in his book on Christianity in the Making, “On the whole then, the position is unchanged: 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, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, Jesus Remembered, Paperback Edition, 2019, pp. 165-167)

Richard Bauckham, in his commentary on major themes in Johannine theology, observed, “The Gospel of John is a text that constantly creates the impression that more is going on than immediately meets the eye. The author deploys the power of metaphor and symbol in a masterful way” and that “John is a master of irony, so that characters constantly say more than they intend, and sometimes even the opposite of what they mean. Jesus is consistently misunderstood, foregrounding the question of what is the true meaning of his words.” He further noted that “its frequently riddling character… is meant to tease the intelligence and entice its readers into its world of multidimensional meaning.” (Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory, Major Themes in Johannine Theology, p. 131-32)

Numerous scholars throughout the 20th century have noted that John exhibits a theme of misunderstanding and employs irony and symbolism throughout.

Hans Windisch in 1923 regarded expressions of misunderstanding in the Fourth Gospel as a mark of Johannine style.

H. Leroy interpreted this technique as the genre riddle, related to oracle and joke. The unreal riddles of John are given an abstract answer, which could not be understood without the accompanying clarification. (George Strecker, History of New Testament Literature (1997) p. 175)

Rudolf Bultmann argued, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, that “the device of the misunderstanding occurs again and again throughout the Gospel.” Bultmann suggested that this particular device was already being used in Hellenistic revelation literature. 

Alan Culpepper further elaborates on the misunderstanding, irony, and symbolism of John in his book Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, A Study in Literary Design noting:

“The continuous implicit communication within the Fourth Gospel is a major source of both its power and its mystery. What seems clear and simple on the surface is never so simple for the prospective reader because of the opacity and complexity of the Gospel’s subsurface signals. Various textural features, principally the misunderstandings, irony, and symbolism, constantly lead the reader to view the story from a higher vantage point.” (R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, A Study in Literary Design, p. 151)

Culpepper saw the distinctive feature of the Gospel of John is as the frequency in which its secondary characters misunderstand Jesus. He characterizes these misunderstandings by the following elements:

(1) Jesus makes a statement which is ambiguous, metaphorical, or contains a double-entendre;

(2) His dialogue partner responds either in terms of the literal meaning of Jesus’ statement or by a question or protest which shows that he or she has missed the higher meaning of Jesus words

(3) In most instances, an explanation is then offered by Jesus or (less frequently) the narrator. The misunderstandings, therefore, provide an opportunity to explain the meaning of Jesus’ words and develop significant themes further.

In the larger analysis of John, Culpepper observed “Our analysis of the misunderstandings, ironies, and symbolism of the Fourth gospel highlights it’s deformation of language. Images, concepts, and symbols, and in its milieu are defamiliarized, given new meaning, and used idiosyncratically. In succession, various characters missed their meaning. The misunderstandings warned the reader not to mistake superficial for real meanings. He further concludes “This interweaving of themes through misunderstanding, irony, and symbolism, is the signature of the evangelist’s insight and art.” (P.119)

Herbert Leroy has produced the most extensive study of misunderstandings and John, and it remains the best compendium of information on the subject. Through form-critical analysis, he defines the Johannine misunderstanding as concealed riddles.

Francois Vouga argued that John does not use misunderstanding as a “technique” which is applied in the same manner in every instance but that John’s method is supple and variable.

David W. Wead, concluded “Whether the misunderstandings are described as a “motif,” “technique,” or “device” is probably of little consequence as long as their frequency, variability, and effects are recognized, (David W. Wead, The Literary Devices in John’s Gospel, pp. 69-70)

C. H. Dodd noted “The evangelist, it seems, has molded his material in forms based upon current Hellenistic models of philosophical and religious teachings, instead of following the forms, of Jewish origin, represented in the synoptic gospels. The typical Johannine dialogue must be accepted as an original literary creation owing, so far as form is concerned, little or nothing to the primitive Christian tradition.” (C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, p. 321)

More recently, Warren Carter, in his book, ‘John: Storyteller Interpreter Evangelist, noted that the literary design of the Fourth Gospel, specifically the theme of misunderstanding, is highly important for making sense of what the author or authors of the Gospel of John are trying to convey to their ideal readers.

Dustin Smith noted recently in his Biblical Unitarian Podcast #204, “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.”

It is with this disclaimer we must affirm that the proper approach to understanding John is not to adopt the most straightforward or literal interpretation of a particular verse, but to understand how the meaning of the verse is to be understood by the surrounding context. This is precisely the approach we must take with John 17:5. If isolated from the entire chapter, John 17:5 could easily be misunderstood. The meaning must be qualified by the surrounding context, especially the entirety of the chapter containing the verse in question. Best practices for Bible interpretation require careful attention to the immediate context. Most errors in interpretation involve taking verses and phrases out of context, and passages in John are especially susceptible to misunderstanding.  

Analysis of John 17:5

Now let’s dive deeper into the first five verses of John 17 in the English Standard Version:

John 17:1-5 (ESV)

1 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.

First of all, we see that John 17:3 establishes that the Father is the only true God, and that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah of God). A clear Unitarian proof text.

Let’s also note that a major theme of John 17 is glory, and the context that proceeds John 17:5 is the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission and the salvation that has now been enabled through Christ’s mission. What comes after is prefaced with “the hour has come.” This is another way of saying that the fulfillment of the mission that God gave Jesus to accomplish is imminent, and it is in reference to this that Jesus seeks to be glorified.

According to John 17:1, Jesus asks to be glorified that he may glorify the father, and this is in association with the son being granted authority over all flesh, for giving eternal life to all God had given him. This granted authority is the result of Jesus being sent into the world as God’s Messiah.

According to John 17:4, Jesus notes that he glorified God on earth, having accomplished the work that he gave him to do. This is the context of John 17:5 when Jesus asks to be glorified in God’s own presence with the glory that he had with him before the world existed. To take this in an ultra-literal sense is to suggest that Jesus preexisted his coming to earth and had glory in the presence of the Father before the world existed.

However, this verse could be understood that this glory that Jesus had was in a notational or prophetic sense. Jesus is asking for the glory that God had intended for him before the world existed. Jesus didn’t literally preexist, but he was the centerpiece of God’s plan to reconcile all things to himself through his chosen agent.

Jesus is the messianic king through whom God would establish an everlasting kingdom. Jesus existed before Abraham in a prophetic sense and Abraham being a prophet can foresee the day of Christ, and he rejoiced as referenced in John 8:56. It is in this framework that we can understand that Jesus is essentially asking God to fulfill his glorious plan that he had from the beginning of creation.

The key lens for interpreting John 17:5 is the emphasis on fulfillment in John 17 at large. 1 Peter 1:10-11 lays out the sequence nicely in reference to the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. Indeed, the glories that Christ was to receive are subsequent to the necessary sufferings.

1 Peter 1:10-11 (ESV)
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.

It is because Jesus after having been sent into the world for ministry and to glorify God on earth, having accomplished the work that God gave him, that he is asking to be glorified. Jesus asks later in verse 20 that his disciples would see the glory that God had given him because he loved him before the foundation of the world. Accordingly, it is not necessary to be in existence as a conscious being in order to have been loved. Jesus was loved according to God’s plan to bless him.

Moreover, this glory that Jesus is to receive is not exclusive to Jesus. If we look at the fuller context of John 17, this same glory that Jesus is to be given is to be shared with his followers. Not only with those who are his disciples, but those who would believe through the word of their testimony. John 17:20-24 is critical for putting John 17:5 into context.

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.

Having glory with God before the world existed is synonymous with being loved before the foundation of the world. This is not something that is exclusive to Jesus, as Paul and other New Testament writers note in various places that believers are blessed and loved from the foundation of the world.

In 2 Timothy 1:9, Paul states that God saved us and called us to a holy calling, because of “his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

In Romans 8:28-29, Paul states that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

Ephesians is even more clear when Paul states in Ephesians 1:3-5 that God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” According to Paul, God predestined us, in love, for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.

Paul further elaborates in  Ephesians 1:9-11, that the mystery of God’s will, is according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Paul declares, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”

Thus, in a similar sense to Christ having glory with the Father from the foundation of the world, Believers were blessed and had glory before the world existed. This is the state of being that God intended for us, rather than what we find ourselves in at the present time. Of course, we didn’t literally exist before the world was made, and neither did Jesus.

Indeed what is being implied in John 17:1-5 is God’s intent. In what sense is Jesus God’s logos, God’s wisdom? Ephesians 3:9-11 gives the clear answer:

Ephesians 3:9-11 (ESV)
9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord

See the article Preexistence of the Church for numerous other examples of how believers are loved and blessed before the world existed. One such clue is Matthew 25:34 which indicates the Son of Man, when he returns, 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.’

There is nothing in the Synoptic Gospels and in Luke-Acts, that indicates Jesus had any literal preexistence or that he was an incarnation of a pre-existent being. 

It is in this light, the balanced testimony of Scripture, and the immediate context of John 17 that John 17:5 should be understood. The constant theme is the Gospel of the Kingdom of God which involves God’s provision for our salvation and intention for us to be glorified with Christ. Indeed, our hope is an inheritance with him as sons of God.

In addition to believers sharing in the glory that Christ receives, there are a few other parallels in John 17 to highlight where statements are made that apply to Jesus and also apply to believers that come after him.

  • John 17:11 and John 17:20-22 indicate that Jesus’ followers are to be one with the father as he was one with the Father
  • John 17:14 and John 17:16 indicate that Jesus’ followers are not of this world, as he was not of this world
  • John 17:18 indicates that Jesus sends his followers into the world as the Father sent him into the world.
  • John 17:22 indicates that Jesus gave to his followers, the glory God had given to him.

These statements if only applied to Jesus are potentially confusing or ambiguous. One might think what is being implied is deity preexistence or incarnation. However, because there are clear indications that believers share in these characterizations, the potential ambiguity is resolved. The widespread participation by the church clarifies how the meaning of these statements should be qualified. Because these statements apply to believers as well as Jesus, they are not an indication of deity, preexistence, or incarnation.

We share in the glory intended for Jesus. Thus claiming to have glory with the Father before the world existed is a statement that is not to be taken as indicating a literal preexistence. Christ and those who come after him are to receive the glory that God intended for them from the foundation of the world.

Praise God that he loved us and blessed us before the world was! May the Father glorify us in his own presence with the glory we had with him before the world existed!