Did Jesus exist before his human birth? What or who was Jesus before his incarnation? Was he the God of the Old Testament?
In order to understand who Jesus was, we first should understand the basic doctrine of the Trinity. The Bible teaches us that God is one and only one being. This tells us that whoever or whatever Jesus was before his human incarnation, he could not have been a God separate from the Father.
While God is one being, he exists eternally as three coequal and coeternal Persons, whom we know as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In order to understand how the Trinity doctrine describes the nature of God, we must keep in mind the difference between the words “Being” and “Person.” This distinction has been put in the following terms: there is but one what of God (that is, his Being) but there are three whos within the one being of God, that is, the three divine Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Being we call the one God has an eternal relationship within himself of Father to Son. The Father has always been the Father and the Son has always been the Son. The Holy Spirit has always been the Holy Spirit. One Person in the Godhead did not exist before the others, or without the others, and neither is one Person inferior to the other in his essence. All three divine Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—share the one being of God. The Trinity doctrine explains that Jesus was not created at some point, but existed eternally as God.
There are three pillars to the Trinitarian understanding of God’s nature.
- Only one true God exists, who is Yahweh (YHWH) of the Old Testament or theos of the New Testament—the Creator of all that exists.
- God includes three divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father or Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son.
- These three distinct (but not separate) persons equally share the one divine being, God, and that they are eternal, co-equal and co-essential. Thus, God is one in essence and one in being, but exists in three persons. (We must always be careful not to understand the “Persons” of the Godhead like persons in the human sphere, where one person is separate from another.)
God as Trinity transcends our understanding. God is greater than our finite minds can completely grasp. Scripture does not explain how it is that the one God can exist as the Trinity. It just gives us the basic facts: there is only one God, but the Father is God, the Son is divine, and the Spirit is also divine.
How the Father and the Son can be one being is difficult for us humans to understand. Our experience in the created world is that persons are different beings. So we need to keep in mind the distinction the early church made between person and essence, which the doctrine of the Trinity makes. This distinction tells us that there is a difference between the way God is one and the way that he is three. God is one in essence and three in persons. If we keep that distinction throughout our discussion, we will avoid being confounded by the seeming (but not real) contradiction in the biblical truth that God is one being in three Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
A physical analogy, though an imperfect one, might help us understand. There is but one pure light, and we perceive it as white light. But white light can be broken down into three primary colors—red, green and blue. Each of the three primary colors does not exist apart from the other primary colors—they are included within the one light, which is white. There is but one complete light that we call white light, but this light contains three distinct but not separate primary colors. (The analogy fails, as all analogies from the created world do, if we extend it further. Although white light contains three primary colors, it is physically possible to separate the colors, and to have a stream of red light, for example. In the Trinity, it is not possible to separate the Persons, although they can be distinguished from one another.)
The above explanation gives us the essential basis of the Trinity, which provides the perspective to understand who or what Jesus was before he became human flesh. Once we understand the relationship that has always existed within the one God, we can proceed to answer the question of who Jesus was before his incarnation and physical birth.
Jesus’ eternality and pre-existence in John’s Gospel
The pre-existence of Christ is clearly stated in John 1:1-4: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life.”
This Word (Logos in Greek) became incarnate in Jesus. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” John tells us (verse 14). The eternal, uncreated Word who was God, and yet was with God as one of the Persons of the Godhead, became a human being. The Word “was” God (an eternal state) but “became” a human being. The Word never came into being, that is, he didn’t “become” the Word. He always was the Word, or God. The Word’s existence is open-ended. He has always existed.
As Donald Macleod points out in The Person of Christ: “He is sent forth as one who already has being, not as one who comes into being by being sent” (page 55). Macleod further states:
In the New Testament, Jesus’ existence as a man is a continuation of his previous or prior existence as a heavenly being. The Word who dwelt among us is the same as the Word who was with God. The Christ who is found in form as a man is the very one who previously existed in the form of God. (page 63)
It was the Word, the Son of God, who became flesh, rather than the Father or the Holy Spirit.
Who is Yahweh?
In the Old Testament the most common name for God is Yahweh, which comes from the Hebrew consonants YHWH. It was Israel’s national name for God, the ever-living, self-existent Creator. In time, the Jews began to consider the name of God, YHWH, as too sacred to be pronounced. The Hebrew word adonay (“my Lord”) or Adonai was substituted. In many English Bibles, we see the word “Lord” used where YHWH appears in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Yahweh is the most common name of God in the Old Testament, being used over 6800 times. Another name for God in the Old Testament is Elohim, which is used over 2500 times, as in the phrase “the Lord God” (YHWH Elohim).
In the New Testament, there are many scriptures the writers apply to Jesus that referred to Yahweh in the Old Testament. The practice of the New Testament writers is so common that its significance may escape us. By using Yahweh scriptures for Jesus, these writers are implying that Jesus was Yahweh, or God, now made flesh. We shouldn’t be surprised that the writers make this comparison, because Jesus himself explained that Old Testament passages applied to him (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47; John 5:39-40, 45-46).
Jesus is the “Ego eimi”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples: “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am he” (13:19). The phrase “I am he” is translated from the Greek ego eimi. The phrase occurs 24 times in John’s Gospel. At least seven of these are said to be “absolute,” in that they are not followed by a predicate, such as in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life.” In the seven absolute cases, no predicate follows, and the “I AM” phrase comes at the end of the clause. This indicates that Jesus is using this phrase as a name to identify who he is. The seven places are John 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 6 and 8.
If we go back to Isaiah 41:4, 43:10 and 46:4, we can see the background for Jesus’ reference to himself in John’s Gospel as ego eimi (“I AM”). In Isaiah 41:4, God or Yahweh says: “I, the Lord…I am he.” In Isaiah 43:10 he says “I am he,” and later says, “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I am God’” (verse 12). In 46:4, God (Yahweh) again refers to himself as “I am he.”
The Hebrew phrase “I am he” is translated in the Greek version of the Holy Scriptures, the Septuagint (which the apostles used), by the phrase ego eimi in Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; and 46:4. Jesus’ made the “I am he” statements as references to himself because they directly connected to God’s (Yahweh’s) statements about himself in Isaiah. John said, in effect, that Jesus was saying he was God in the flesh (a point also taught in John 1:1, 14, which introduces the Gospel and speaks of the Word’s divinity and incarnation.)
John’s ego eimi (“I am”) identification of Jesus can also be carried back to Exodus 3, in which God identifies himself as the “I am.” Here we read: “God [Hebrew, elohim] said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you”‘“ (verse 14).
The Gospel of John makes a clear connection between Jesus and Yahweh, the name of God in the Old Testament. We should also notice that John does not equate Jesus with the Father (and neither do the other Gospels). Jesus, for example, prays to the Father (John 17:1-15). John understands that the Son is distinct from the Father—and he also sees that both are distinct from the Holy Spirit (John 14:15, 17, 25; 15:26). John’s identification of Jesus as God, or Yahweh (if we think of his Hebrew, Old Testament name), is therefore a Trinitarian explanation of God’s being.
Let’s go over this again, because it is important. John repeats Jesus’ identification of himself as the “I AM” of the Old Testament. Since there is but one God, and John would have understood that, then we are left with the conclusion that there must be two persons sharing the one nature that is God. (We have seen that Jesus, the Son, is distinct from the Father.) With the Holy Spirit, also discussed by John in chapters 14-17, we have the basis of the Trinity.
To put aside all doubt about John’s identification of Jesus with Yahweh, we may quote John 12:37-41, which says:
Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason they could not believe, because as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.” Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.
The quotes above come from Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10. The prophet originally spoke his words in regards to Yahweh. John says that what Isaiah actually saw was “Jesus’ glory” and that he “spoke of him.” For John the apostle, Jesus was Yahweh in the flesh; before his human birth he was known as Yahweh.
Jesus is “the Lord” of the New Testament
Mark begins his Gospel by saying that it is “the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). He then quotes from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in the following words: “I will send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Mark 1:2-3). The “Lord” in Isaiah 40:3 is Yahweh, the name of the self-existent God of Israel.
Mark, as noted above, quotes the first part of Malachi 3:1, “I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me.” (The “messenger” is John the Baptist.) The next sentence in Malachi says: “Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” The “Lord” is Yahweh. By quoting the first part of this verse, Mark implies that Jesus is the fulfillment of what Malachi said of Yahweh. Mark announces the gospel, which is that Yahweh, the Lord, has come as the messenger of the covenant. But, says Mark, Yahweh is Jesus, the Lord.
From Romans 10:9-10, we understand that Christians will confess that “Jesus is Lord.” The context through verse 13 shows that Jesus is the Lord upon whom all humans must call in order to be saved. Paul quotes from Joel 2:32 to make his point—”Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (verse 13). In the Old Testament passage, salvation comes to those who call on the name of Yahweh—the divine name of Israel for God. For Paul, it is Jesus upon whom we call in order to be saved.
In Philippians 2:9-11, we read that Jesus has a “name that is above every name,” that at his name “every knee should bow” and that every tongue will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Paul bases his statements on Isaiah 45:23: “By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.” This is Yahweh, the God of Israel, speaking of himself. He is the Lord, who says, “There is no God apart from me” (verse 21).
Paul has no hesitation in saying that every knee will bow to Jesus and every tongue will confess him. Since Paul believes in only one God, he must be equating Jesus with Yahweh in some way.
One might then ask: If Jesus was Yahweh, then where was the Father in the Old Testament? According to our Trinitarian understanding of God, both the Father and the Son are Yahweh, because they are one God. (So also is the Holy Spirit.) All three Persons of the Godhead—Father, on, and Holy Spirit—share the one divine essence and one divine name that is God, theos or Yahweh.
Hebrews connects Jesus to Yahweh
One of the clearest statements that connects Jesus to Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament is Hebrews 1, especially verses 8-12. It is clear from the first few verses of chapter 1 that the subject is Jesus Christ as the Son of God (verse 2). God “made the universe” through the Son and has appointed him the “heir of all things” (verse 2). This Son is “the radiance of God’s glory and “the exact representation of his being” (verse 3). He sustains all things “by his powerful word” (verse 3). Then, in verses 8-12, we read:
But about the Son he [God] says, “Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness, therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” He [God] also says, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end [italics ours].
The first thing we should notice is that the material in Hebrews 1 comes from several Psalms. The second passage in the selection is quoted from Psalm 102:25-27. This passage refers to Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, the Creator of all that exists. All of Psalm 102 is about Yahweh. Yet, Hebrews is applying this material to Jesus. Only one conclusion is possible: Jesus is God, or Yahweh.
Note also the italicized words above. They show that the Son, Jesus Christ, is called both God and Lord in Hebrews 1. Further, we see that Yahweh’s relationship to the one being addressed was: “God, your God.” Thus, both the one addressing and the one being addressed are God. How can this be, since there is but one God? The answer is in our Trinitarian explanation. The Father is God and the Son is also God. They are two of the three Persons of the one being, God, or Yahweh in the Hebrew language.
In Hebrews 1, Jesus is shown to be the creator and the sustainer of the universe. He “remains the same” (verse 12), or simply “is,” that is, his being is eternal. Jesus Christ is the “exact representation” of the being of God (verse 3). Hence, he must be God as well. It’s no wonder the writer in Hebrews could take passages that described God (Yahweh) and apply them to Jesus. In the words of James White, in pages 133-134 of The Forgotten Trinity:
The writer to the Hebrews shows no compunctions in taking this passage from the Psalter—a passage fit only for describing the eternal Creator himself—and applying it to Jesus Christ… What does it mean that the writer to the Hebrews could take a passage that is only applicable to Yahweh and apply it to the Son of God, Jesus Christ? It means that they saw no problem in making such an identification, because they believed that the Son was, indeed, the very incarnation of Yahweh.
Jesus’ pre-existence in Peter’s writings
Let us look at one more example of how New Testament writings equate Jesus with Yahweh, the Lord or God of the Old Testament. The apostle Peter calls Jesus the “living Stone,” who was “rejected by men but chosen by God” (1 Peter 2:4). To show that Jesus is this living Stone, he quotes from three passages in the Holy Scriptures:
See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame. The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone, a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.
The phrases come from Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 8:14. In each case, the statements refer to the Lord, or Yahweh, in their Old Testament context. For example, in Isaiah 8:13-14, it is Yahweh who says:
The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall [italics ours].
For Peter, as for the other New Testament writers, Jesus is to be equated with the Lord of the Old Testament—Yahweh, the God of Israel. (The apostle Paul in Romans 9:32-33 also quotes Isaiah 8:14 to show that Jesus is the “stumbling stone” over whom the unbelieving Jews had stumbled.)
In conclusion, for the New Testament writers, Yahweh has become incarnate in Jesus, the “Rock” of the church. As Paul said of Israel’s God: “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4, italics ours).
- Bowman, Robert M., Jr., Why You Should Believe in the Trinity (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989).
- Macleod, Donald, The Person of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998).
- White, James R., The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publisher, 1998).