The Eternality and Pre-Existence of Christ
The subject of Christ’s eternality deals with the fact that He has always existed as a person from eternity past, with no beginning and no end. The Scriptures give at least three lines of evidence for this fact: direct biblical statements, the deity of Christ, and His role in creation.
Direct Biblical Statements
Four biblical passages clearly ascribe eternality to Christ. The first, Micah 5:2, declared that Judah’s future deliverer, who would rule in Israel on God’s behalf, would be born in the small town of Bethlehem. Because humanity is born, but deity is not, this part of the declaration revealed that the Messiah would be a human being.
The next part asserted that this same person’s “goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” Concerning this statement, D. K. Innes wrote, “These words are suited to convey both the ancient lineage of Christ as a descendant of the family of David and also His eternal pre-existence” (“Some Notes on Micah” in Evangelical Quarterly, 41, no. 3 , p. 170). Because eternal existence is an attribute of deity, but not of humanity, this part of the declaration ascribed deity to the Messiah.
Thus, Micah 5:2 indicated that the Messiah would be a God-Man, a unique being with deity and humanity existing in the same person. His humanity would have a beginning through conception and birth, but as a divine person, He is eternal—without beginning.
Two things should be noted regarding this prophecy. First, in spite of the fact that the mother and foster father of Jesus Christ lived in the city of Nazareth (Lk. 1:26–33), as the result of an imperial decree of Rome, He was born in Bethlehem (Lk. 2:1–7) in fulfillment of Micah 5:2.
Second, the ancient Jews understood Micah 5:2 to be speaking of the Messiah. This is revealed by the following events: Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem and asked King Herod, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” Herod asked the chief priests and scribes where the Messiah should be born. They answered, “In Bethlehem of Judæa,” and quoted Micah 5:2 as their proof (Mt. 2:1–6).
The second biblical passage that contains a direct statement about the eternality of Christ is Isaiah 9:6. In a context describing the future rule of the Messiah, this passage applied the name “The Everlasting Father” to Him. Franz Delitzsch stated that this name designated the Messiah “as the possessor of eternity” and as the one who would rule His people like a loving, faithful father (Isaiah, Vol. 1, Commentaries on the Old Testament, p. 253).
The third direct statement passage is John 1:1–3. Referring to Christ as “the Word,” the Apostle John stated, “In the beginning was the Word…The same was in the beginning with God” (vv. 1–2). He thereby asserted that Christ already existed with God before everything that had a beginning first began. Christ existed in eternity past before any part of creation came into existence. Concerning John’s statement, Leon Morris wrote, “The verb ‘was’ is most naturally understood of the eternal existence of the Word” (The Gospel According to John in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 73).
The fourth biblical passage is Hebrews 7:3. The writer declared that Christ had “neither beginning of days nor end of life.” Concerning this declaration, Leon Morris stated, “The writer is, of course, speaking of the Son’s eternal nature, not of his appearance in the Incarnation” (Hebrews, Vol. 12, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 64).
The Deity of Christ
The deity of Christ is the second line of evidence for His eternality. Deity’s nature is to be eternal. Thus, the Apostle Paul signified that eternality is one of God’s attributes (1 Tim. 1:17). The Scriptures present the deity of Christ; therefore, He too must be eternal by nature. The biblical evidence for Christ’s deity will be examined in a later article.
Christ’s Role in Creation
The Apostle John asserted the following truth concerning Christ: “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn. 1:3). Christ played a significant role in the creation of everything that has ever been created. That work required His existence in eternity past before creation began. If Christ had not existed before the beginning of creation, He could not have been involved in the creation of everything that has ever been created.
The Apostle Paul declared the same truth about Christ when he wrote, “For by him were all things created…all things were created by him, and for him; And he is before all things” (Col. 1:16–17).
Herbert M. Carson said, concerning these statements about Christ by John and Paul: “Here it is the Son in His eternal being who is being described, rather than the Son as incarnate. In fact, there is a close parallel between this passage and John’s teaching concerning the eternal Word or Logos. The only-begotten is also the agent of creation…Far from being in any way a part of creation, the Son is before all things….He is eternal, while creation is in time” (The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, pp. 42–43).
The Issue of the First-Born of All Creation
In Colossians 1:15 the Apostle Paul referred to Christ as “the first-born of all creation.” Some individuals and groups insist that this designation indicates that Christ was the first part of creation that God brought into existence. They claim that Paul was teaching that Christ is a created being, that He had a beginning in time and therefore is not eternal.
Does the expression “the first-born of all creation” mean that Christ was the first thing created? No, it does not. Paul was not saying that Christ is a created being. Several things prompt this conclusion.
First, Paul wrote Colossians to refute a heresy (Gnostic Judaism) that taught that Christ was part of creation.
Second, the idea that Christ was created is contrary to the context of Paul’s reference to Christ as “the first-born of all creation.” The context teaches that Christ created everything that has been created (vv. 16–17). Thus, F. F. Bruce wrote, “The context makes it clear that this title is not given to Him as though He Himself were the first of all created beings; it is emphasized immediately that, far from being part of creation, He is the One by whom the whole creation came into being” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 194).
Third, there was a Greek word (protoktistos) that meant “first-created.” Paul did not use it here, and it is never used of Christ in the Bible.
Fourth, the word that Paul did use (prototokos) had two connotations: priority and sovereignty. Priority had two possible sub-connotations: the first part of something or existence before something. The context of the word determines which sub-connotation is intended. The Colossians 1 context demands the sub-connotation of existence before something (vv. 16–17). Thus, when Paul referred to Christ as “the first-born of all creation,” he was teaching that Christ existed before and is sovereign over all of creation. F. F. Bruce stated, “What the title does mean is that Christ, existing as He did before all creation, exercises the privilege of primogeniture as Lord of all creation, the divinely appointed ‘heir of all things’ (Heb. 1:2). He was there when creation began, and it was for Him as well as through Him that the whole work was done” (Ibid.).
Pre-existence and eternality are not necessarily the same. This is evident because a human being can exist before a certain event, but that does not mean he is eternal by nature. Thus, when reference is made to the pre-existence of Christ, the emphasis is not necessarily upon His eternality. Instead, it is upon the fact that He existed before His incarnation in human flesh. He existed before He was born of the virgin Mary.
There are several evidences for the pre-existence of Christ.
The Eternality of Christ
Several lines of evidence have been examined for the fact that Christ is an eternal being, without beginning or end. The fact that He is eternal by nature prompts the conclusion that He existed before His incarnation.
Christ’s Claim of Pre-Existence
On one occasion when Christ was confronted by enemies, He said, “Your father, Abraham, rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad” (Jn. 8:56). His enemies challenged Him by saying, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?” (v. 57). Jesus responded with an astonishing claim: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58). The word translated “was” in this statement literally means became or came to be and refers to Abraham’s birth (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 157). Thus, through that statement Christ was claiming that He existed before Abraham was born. In light of that fact, the additional fact that Abraham lived approximately 2,000 years before Christ’s incarnation forces the conclusion that Christ existed before His own human birth.
Pre-Incarnate Appearances of Christ
The Old Testament Scriptures refer to a being who, on several occasions, either appeared or spoke to human beings. Various titles were applied to this being, such as “the angel of the Lord,” “the angel of God,” or “the captain of the host of the Lord.” The Old Testament references reveal that this being was divine, not an angel. The word translated “angel” in the Bible literally means messenger and sometimes refers to beings other than angels.
An example of an appearance by this being is recorded in Exodus 3–4. The person who appeared to Moses in the burning bush is called “the angel of the Lord” (3:2); however, He is identified as “the Lord” and “God” (3:4) and “I am” (3:14). He claimed to be “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6). Moses hid his face from this being, “for he was afraid to look upon God” (3:6). These facts signify that a divine being appeared to Moses. Because the Scriptures clearly teach that no human being has ever seen God the Father (Jn. 1:18; 6:46), it must be concluded that this divine being was not the Father. The Bible also indicates that Christ is the being who reveals God to the world (Jn. 1:18; 14:8–9; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). It seems evident, then, that Christ was the being who made these appearances to Moses and others in Old Testament times, and these appearances testify to His pre-existence before His incarnation in human flesh.
Christ’s existence did not begin when He was conceived in Mary’s womb and born into the world several months later. As an eternal divine being, He had always existed without beginning and end throughout eternity past and Old Testament history. When, at a specific point in time, He was incarnated in human flesh, He added a complete human nature to His pre-existent, eternal, divine nature. The Word, who existed with God the Father before the beginning of creation, became flesh and dwelt among people on the earth for more than thirty years (Jn. 1:1–3, 14).