Understanding various preexistence passages in John
A number of passages in John speak of Jesus being before John, coming down from heaven, being sent into the world, rising up where he was before, and coming from the Father and returning to the Father.
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 certain passages be interpreted as teaching a literal preexistence when there is an explanation of the meaning that fits better with the surrounding context? Before we get into the passages used as preexistence-proof texts, 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more axiomatic for New Testament scholarship that the Gospel of John should be regarded as a theological, rather than a historical document.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.
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.
An explanation of these “difficult passages” (from the REV Bible commentary) is provided below after some introductory notes on John.
John 1:10 “the world was made through him”
John 1:10 shows that the logos, God’s express purpose and plan was in the world, and it also repeats in a different way what had been stated in John 1:3, that it was through the logos that God made the world. However, John 1:10 adds that the world did not know the logos and thus by implication the world did not know God.
That John 1:10 restates what John 1:3 says brings this section of John to a close in a kind of inclusio, wrapping John 1:1-10 together and expressing what God did via the logos. John 1:11 changes subjects, and although we are to understand that it is still God working, but now through Christ and not through the logos, it seems apparent that the subject changes from the logos to Christ. Although we modern English readers could wish for a clearer presentation of what is happening in the text, given the poetic style of what John is writing, we can gain sufficient clarity from the scope of Scripture.
For more on understanding the prologue of John 1, see Understanding Logos in John 1
John 1:15, 1:30, “for he was before me”
The simple truth is that the Messiah always was superior to John. These verses are sometimes used to support the Trinity because the verse can be translated, “because he [Jesus] was before me” [John], and it is assumed that the verse is saying that Jesus existed before John the Baptist. In fact, a number of modern versions translate the last phrase something like, “because he [Jesus] existed before me.” However, there is no reason to bring the Trinity into this verse, and there are very good reasons that it does not refer to the Trinity in any way.
There are scriptures that we today know are prophecies of the Messiah that the Jews in the time of Christ did not apply to the Messiah. However, we also know that the ancient Jews had a lot of expectations about their Messiah that were based on Scripture. The Messiah the Jews were expecting was to be a descendant of Eve (Gen. 3:15), and descendant of Abraham (Gen. 22:18), from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10); a descendant of David (2 Sam. 7:12, 13; Isa. 11:1), that he would be a “lord” under Yahweh (Ps. 110:1), that he would be the servant of Yahweh (Isaiah 42:1-7), he will be “one of their own” and will be able to draw near to Yahweh (Jer. 30:21), and he will come out of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
This expectation perfectly fit John’s teaching his disciples that Jesus was the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29; i.e., the Lamb sent from God) and John’s statement that Jesus was “the Son of God” (John 1:34). If John had told his disciples that Jesus literally existed before he did, they would not have understood what he was saying, which would have engendered a big discussion and explanation of the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Messiah. There is no such discussion or explanation for the simple fact that John was not saying Jesus literally existed before him. John was not teaching, nor did he mention, the Trinity in this context.
Many versions have the translation that Jesus “was before” John. In that translation, the Greek word translated “was” is the verb ēn (ἦν), which is in the imperfect tense, active voice of eimi, (εἰμί) the common word for “to be” (which occurs more than 2000 times in the New Testament). In this context it is vital that we understand that the force of the imperfect tense is, “he was and continues to be.” Then comes the Greek word protos, which means “first.” It can refer to being “first” in time, and thus be translated “before,” or it can mean first in rank, and be translated “chief,” “leader,” “greatest,” “best,” etc. There are many examples referring to people being protos where protos refers to highest in rank or importance (cp. Matt. 19:30, 20:27; Mark 6:21; 9:35; 10:31, 44; Luke 19:47; Acts 17:4; 25:2; 28:17; and 1 Cor. 12:28). Similarly, protos is used of things that are the best or most important. For example, the “first” and great commandment was the first in importance, and the “first” robe was the “best” robe (Luke 15:22).
Given the mindset of the disciples and the fact that John was not teaching them about the pre-existence of the Messiah, but rather was trying to point out that Jesus was the Messiah, it seems that John was making the simple statement that Jesus had always been superior to him, going back long before they started their ministries. John’s statement that Jesus “was before” him does not have to mean that Jesus is God or even be a reference to all the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament going back to Genesis 3:15. Before John or Jesus was born, when Mary came to visit Elizabeth, John leapt in the womb for joy upon being close to his savior. To John, Jesus had always been superior to him.
Of course it is possible, but there is no way to prove it, that when John said Jesus was before him, he also had in his mind all the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament, and that Jesus had been in the mind of God for millennia. The existence of Christ in the mind of God is so clear that it need not be disputed. Before the foundation of the world he was foreknown (1 Pet. 1:20); from the foundation of the world he was slain (Rev. 13:8); and before the foundation of the world we, the Church, were chosen in him (Eph. 1:4). The certainty about the Messiah that is expressed in the prophecies about him definitively reveal that all aspects of his life and death were clearly in the mind of God before any of them occurred. If John did have the prophecies of the Messiah in mind when he made this statement, then it would be similar to when Jesus himself said that he was “before” Abraham (see commentary on John 8:58).
It is clear in the context that the primary reason for John’s statement was to magnify Jesus Christ in comparison to himself, and “was my superior” does that. The Messiah has always been superior to the other prophets.
John 3:13, 6:38,“but he who came down from heaven”
Something was said to have come from God or come from heaven if God was its source. For example, James 1:17 says that every good gift is “from above” and “comes down” from God. What James means is clear. God is the Author and source of the good things in our lives. God works behind the scenes to provide what we need. The verse does not mean that the good things in our lives come directly down from heaven. The phrase “he who came down from heaven” in John 3:13 is to be understood in the same way we understand James’ words—that God is the source of Jesus Christ, which He was. Christ was God’s plan, and then God directly fathered Jesus.
There are also other verses that say Jesus was “sent from God,” a phrase that shows God as the ultimate source of what is sent. John the Baptist was a man “sent from God” (John 1:6), and it was he who said that Jesus “comes from above” and “comes from heaven” (John 3:31). When God wanted to tell the people that He would bless them if they gave their tithes, He told them that He would open the windows of “heaven” and pour out a blessing (Mal. 3:10 – KJV). Of course, everyone understood the idiom being used, and no one believed that God would literally pour things out of heaven. They knew that the phrase meant that God was the origin of the blessings they received. Still another example is when Christ was speaking and said, “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven or from men?” (Matt. 21:25). Of course, the way that John’s baptism would have been “from heaven” was if God was the source of the revelation. John did not get the idea on his own, it came “from heaven.” The verse makes the idiom clear: things could be “from heaven,” i.e., from God, or they could be “from men.” The idiom is the same when used of Jesus. Jesus is “from God,” “from heaven” or “from above” in the sense that God is his Father and thus his origin.
The idea of coming from God or being sent by God is also clarified by Jesus’ words in John 17. He said, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). We understand perfectly what Christ meant when he said, “I have sent them into the world.” He meant that he commissioned us, or appointed us. The statement does not imply that we were in heaven with Christ and then incarnated into the flesh. Christ said, “As you have sent me, I have sent them.” So, in the same way that Christ sent us is how we should understand the phrase that God sent Christ.
John 6:46, “not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God, he has seen the Father”
John 6:46 shows the intimate relationship that Jesus had with God. Jesus had a level of intimacy that no one had ever had with God, before or since. Jesus revealed the intimacy he had with God in his dialogue with the people near the Sea of Galilee, a crowd that included Jewish leadership, disciples, and onlookers, to continue to tell them, albeit in somewhat veiled terms, that he was the promised Messiah. Jesus implied he was the Messiah in a number of ways. He said God set His seal upon him, meaning Jesus had God’s seal of authenticity and approval (John 6:27). He said doing God’s work meant believing in him (John 6:29). He said he was the Bread of Life and people who ate him would never hunger (John 6:35; cp. John 6:48, 51). Also, he said people who believed in “the Son” would have life in the Age to come because he would raise them from the dead (John 6:40, 44, 47, 54). This indirect way of teaching was typical of the way Jesus spoke—clearly implying the truth that he was the Messiah so people with a heart for God could hear and believe, but he did not state the fact so plainly that he forced his opponents into an out-and-out showdown. His opponents generally could not grasp what he was saying and ended up arguing about it (John 6:41-44).
Some people infer from John 6:46 that Jesus must be God, or at least that he pre-existed his birth because he said he had “seen the Father.” However, this verse has nothing to do with the Trinity or pre-existence. The key to understanding John 6:46 is knowing that the phrase “seen the Father” does not refer to seeing with one’s physical eyes but figuratively to “knowing the Father.” Jesus knew God, not because he lived and talked with God in heaven before his birth on earth, but because God revealed Himself more clearly to Jesus than He had to anyone else. Jesus made this clear in other teachings when he said, “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does…” (John 5:20).
In both Hebrew and Greek, words that are translated “see” throughout the Bible often mean “to know or realize.” The Hebrew word ra’ah is used of both seeing with the eyes and knowing something, or perceiving it (Gen. 16:4; Exod. 32:1; Num. 20:29). Similarly, the Greek word horaō (ὁράω), translated “see” in John 1:18, 6:46; and 3 John 1:11, can mean “to see with the eyes” or “to see with the mind, to perceive, to know.” Even in English, one of the definitions for “see” is “to know or understand.” For example, when two people are discussing something, one might say to the other, “I see what you mean.”
The usage of “see” as it pertains to “knowing” is found in many places in the New Testament. For example, Jesus said to Philip, “…Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…” (John 14:9). Here again the word “see” is used to indicate “knowing.” Anyone who knew Jesus (not just those who “saw” him) would know the Father. In fact, Jesus had made that clear two verses earlier when he said to Philip, “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). In this verse, Jesus says that those who know him have “seen” the Father.
Another verse that uses the word “seen” in the sense of “known” is John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” The phrase “seen God” is syntactically parallel to the phrase “has made Him known,” and both phrases refer to the role that Jesus, the only Son, fulfilled. No man fully knew God, but Jesus made Him known. Throughout the Old Testament, what people knew about God was very limited. In fact, 2 Corinthians 3:13-16 refers to the fact that even today, the Jews who reject Christ have a veil over their hearts. The full knowledge, the “truth” about God, came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). He was the one who “saw” (fully understood) God, and then he taught others—which is what John 1:18 is conveying. Before Jesus Christ came, no one really knew God as He truly is, a loving heavenly Father, but Jesus Christ “saw” (knew) God intimately because the Father revealed Himself to him in ways that no one else has ever known.
“John 6:57, as the living Father sent me.”
The teaching that God sent Jesus Christ occurs over forty times in the New Testament and can have different meanings in different contexts. That God sent Jesus into the world can have a couple different nuances. For one thing, Jesus is the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), and just as God created Adam, so God created Jesus by Fathering him in Mary. Thus, God’s sending Jesus can refer to his conception and birth, and then subsequent ministry to save mankind, or it can simply refer to the much later event of God sending Jesus to fulfill his ministry to be the savior of mankind. That latter meaning, for example, is what John 17:18 (NET) means when Jesus prayed to God and said: “Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.” Jesus commissioned his apostles and sent them out just as God had commissioned him and sent him out.
There are some who insist that because God “sent” Jesus, Jesus must be God. But that is reading far too much into the simple concept of being “sent.” The idea that something has been “sent” by God was commonly used and simply means that God is the ultimate source, or “sender,” of what was sent. There is no reason to believe that Jesus’ being sent by God makes him God—nothing else that is “sent” by God is God. The phrase just means what it says, that God sent Jesus. The Bible has dozens of examples of things being sent by God, all meaning that God was the source. God sent bad weather on Egypt (Exod. 9:23), fiery serpents upon the Israelites (Num. 21:6), Moses (Deut. 34:11), prophets (Judges 6:8), and many more people and things. John the Baptist was a man “sent from God” (John 1:6). The words of John the Baptist about being sent are very clear and, if taken the same way some Trinitarians take Jesus being “sent” by God, would make John God too. John said, “I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him” (John 3:28 HCSB). We all know that what John meant by “I’ve been sent ahead of him” simply means that God commissioned John at a time that preceded the Messiah. But if someone already believed John to somehow be a fourth member of the Godhead, then what John said could be used as evidence supporting that belief. The point is that the only reason someone would say that Jesus’ being “sent” by God meant that he was God or was pre-existent in heaven would be if he already held that belief. The words themselves do not say or mean that.
Jesus made it clear that the one who “sends” is greater than the one “sent.” In John 13:16 he said, “A servant is not greater than his lord, neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.” So if the Father sent Jesus, then the Father is greater than Jesus. Then he made that very clear when he said in the very next chapter, “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
John 6:62, “coming up to where he was before”
This verse is referring to the resurrection of Christ. This fact is clear from studying the context. Because the translators have chosen to translate anabainō (ἀναβαίνω) as “ascend,” people believe it refers to Christ’s ascension from earth as recorded in Acts 1:9, but Acts 1:9 does not use this word. Anabainō simply means “to go up.” It is used of “going up” to a higher elevation as in climbing a mountain (Matt. 5:1, 14:23, et al.), of Jesus “coming up” from under the water at his baptism (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10), of plants that “grow up” out of the ground (Matt. 13:7; Mark 4:7, 8, 32), or of even just “going up,” i.e., “climbing,” a tree (Luke 19:4). Christ was simply asking if they would be offended if they saw him “come up” out of the ground, i.e., be resurrected, and be where he was before, i.e., alive and on the earth.
The context confirms that Jesus was speaking about being the bread from heaven and giving life via his resurrection. Verses such as John 6:39-40 and 6:44 confirm this: Jesus repeatedly said, “…I will raise him [each believer] up at the last day.” Christ was amazed that even some of his disciples were offended at his teaching. He had been speaking of the resurrection, and they were offended, so he asked them if they would be offended if they saw him resurrected, which has been unfortunately translated as “ascend” in John 6:62. [Norton, op. cit., A Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of Trinitarians, pp. 248-252; Snedeker, op. cit., Our Heavenly Father Has No Equals, p. 215.]
John 8:40, “This is not what Abraham did”
Some assert that John 8:40 implies that Jesus preexisted because they take Jesus as saying Abraham did not kill him. However, the context is that Jesus referred to himself as “a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.” and previously in verse 39 he said, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did.” It is clear from the context that Jesus is making the point that their actions are inconsistent with those of Abraham and that Abraham did not try to kill men who told the truth as they heard from God. That is Abraham did not try to kill the prophets as they were conspiring to do. Elsewhere, in Luke and Matthew Jesus makes several references to killing of the prophets by hypocritical religious leaders (Luke 6:22-23, Luke 11:47-54, Luke 13:33-34).
John 8:58, “before Abraham was, I am”
Some assert that because Jesus was “before” Abraham, Jesus must have been God. But Jesus did not literally exist before his conception in Mary, but he “existed” in the plan of God, and was foretold in prophecy. Prophecies of the coming redeemer start as early as Genesis 3:15, which was before Abraham. Jesus was “the one,” the Savior, long before Abraham. The Church did not have to literally exist as people for God to choose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), we existed in the mind of God. Similarly, Jesus did not exist as an actual physical person during the time of Abraham, but he “existed” in the mind of God as God’s plan for the redemption of man.
It is also important to notice that many people misread John 8:58 and think it says Jesus saw Abraham. We must read the Bible carefully because it says no such thing. It does not say Jesus saw Abraham, it says Abraham saw the Day of Christ. A careful reading of the context of the verse shows that Jesus was speaking of “existing” in God’s foreknowledge. John 8:56 says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad.” This verse says that Abraham “saw” the day of Christ (the day of Christ is usually considered by theologians to be the day when Christ conquers the earth and sets up his kingdom—and it is still future). That would fit with what the book of Hebrews says about Abraham: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). The Bible says Abraham “saw” a city that is still future. In what sense could Abraham have seen something that was future? Abraham “saw” the day of Christ because God told him it was coming, and Abraham “saw” it by faith. Although Abraham saw the day of Christ by faith, that day existed in the mind of God long before Abraham. Thus, in the context of God’s plan existing from the beginning, Christ certainly was “before” Abraham. Christ was the plan of God for man’s redemption long before Abraham lived.
John 16:28, “came from…going to the Father”
This is very easy to understand if we take the Scripture at face value, that Jesus Christ is the Only Begotten Son of the Father. Jesus “came” from the Father when He impregnated Mary, just like all of us came from our fathers when our mothers were impregnated by them. Jesus knew from Scripture that he would go to the Father at some point after his resurrection, and so he states that to the apostles here at the Last Supper, just before his arrest and crucifixion. This verse does not refer to the doctrine of the “incarnation.”
John 17:5, “Father, glorify me together with yourself with the glory that I had with you before the world was”
God had planned to glorify His Son, and now that the time of Jesus’ death was drawing near, Jesus prayed that God would bring His plan to fruition.
This verse has been used to prove that Jesus is God because of the phrase, “that I had with you before the world was.” There is no question that Jesus “existed” before the world began. But did he exist literally as a person or in God’s foreknowledge, “in the mind of God?” Both Christ and those called to be in the Body of Christ, the Church, existed in God’s foreknowledge before being alive. Christ was the “logos,” the “plan” of God from the beginning, and he became flesh only when he was conceived. It is Trinitarian bias that causes people to read an actual physical existence into this verse rather than a figurative existence in the mind of God. When 2 Timothy says that each Christian was given grace “before the beginning of time” (2 Tim. 1:9), no one tries to prove that we were actually alive with God back then. Everyone acknowledges that we were “in the mind of God,” i.e., in God’s foreknowledge. The same is true of Jesus Christ. His glory was “with the Father” before the world began, and in John 17:5 he prayed that it will come into manifestation.
We can tell that Jesus was speaking of being in God’s foreknowledge from the immediate context. Just two verses earlier, in John 17:3, Jesus said that the Father was “the only true God.” Jesus could not have prayed that while at the same time thinking he was God too. Furthermore, Jesus spoke again about things in God’s foreknowledge in John 17:22 when he said that he had given the glory from God to his disciples. But that had not happened yet either (see commentary on John 17:22). Both the glory of Jesus and the glory that his disciples would have was in the foreknowledge of God, and Jesus prayed about it in his prayer. The proper interpretation of John 17 is simple and biblical. Jesus knew he was the promised Messiah and Son of God, and God had spoken of his glory many centuries earlier. Now, on the eve of his arrest, he prayed to his Father, the “only true God,” and asked for God’s plan to glorify His Son to come to pass.
For more on John 17:5, see the article Understanding John 17 verse 5