The glory of Christmas is that it is not the beginning of Christ.
Long before that first Christmas, his story had begun — not just in various prophecies, but in a divine person. Christmas may be the opening of the climactic chapter, but it is not the commencement of Christ.
Christmas does indeed mark a conception and a birth. We rehearse Mary’s magnificent song of submission, and the shepherds’ visit to pay homage to her newborn son, and read she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). For mere humans, no doubt, such is the stuff of our origins. Prior to earthly beginnings, we simply did not exist.
But it is not so with the Son of God. His “coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). Unlike every other human birth, Christmas is not a beginning, but a becoming. Christmas isn’t his start, but his commission. He was not created; he came.
No other human in the history of the world shares in this peculiar glory. As remarkable as his virgin birth is, his preexistence sets him apart even more distinctively, even as he is fully human.
1. He existed before the incarnation.
Jesus Christ existed before he was made man at the incarnation. Jesus himself made the claim, so stunning — and even offensive to first-century Jewish sentiments, so offensive that “they picked up stones to throw at him” — when he said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58–59).
True as it was, this jarring reality didn’t go over much better in John 6. “‘What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ . . . After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:62, 66).
“Unlike every other human birth, Christmas is not a beginning, but a becoming. Christ was not created; he came.”
But those who were given eyes to see the glory didn’t turn back; their number would eventually include Paul and the author of Hebrews. Melchizedek, who lived a thousand years before Jesus, resembled the Son of God by “having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3). And Israel’s wilderness generation “drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4). Beyond that, four New Testament refrains join the chorus that the person of Christ existed long before that first Christmas.
Mark’s Gospel opens under the banner of Jesus as Yahweh himself come to earth (Mark 1:1–3). He came from outside the created realm, into our world, to bring God’s long-promised rescue. “The Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; also Mark 10:45 and Luke 19:10). In John, the language of coming, as in John 6:62, is descending. “The Son of Man descended from heaven” (John 3:13). Mere humans don’t descend; they begin.
Again, Paul and Hebrews follow in the Gospel wake. “Christ came into the world” (Hebrews 10:5), and in one of the most terse and potent gospel summaries, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Related to coming is manifestation. “He was manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16). “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you” (1 Peter 1:20).
On its own, “becoming” wouldn’t necessitate preexistence. The key is to ask what he was before he became. He was divinely rich, and became humanly poor (2 Corinthians 8:9). He was in “the form of God,” then took “the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6–7). One who was infinitely high, because he was God, became a little lower than the angels, because he became man (Hebrews 2:9).
His “becoming” was not a ceasing to be what he had been previously, but a “taking on” (Philippians 2:7) of human flesh and blood. The fully divine Son added full humanity to his person.
He Was Sent
Prophets were sent without preexisting, but not so with God’s own Son. He was sent from outside the world of flesh, into it, to redeem his people. The context is fundamentally different when we’re talking about sending the eternal Son, rather than mere human messengers.
In the parable of the tenants, the owner of the vineyard, at long last, sent his “beloved son” (Mark 12:6), decisively distinct in relationship from the other servants he had sent prior. “When the fullness of time had come,” Paul writes in Galatians 4:4, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman.” God didn’t take an already born human and send him forth; he sent forth his own divine Son to be human. Likewise, in the sacrifice of his Son, God did what we non-preexistent humans could not do for ourselves: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
He Was Given
Finally, and perhaps most memorably, the preexistent Christ was given. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). The sacrifice of Christ loses all its force as an expression of God’s love if Jesus did not preexist his incarnation.
The Mount Everest of biblical promises presupposes the Son’s preexistence in saying that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32).
2. He existed before creation.
But not only did Christ preexist that first Christmas; he also preexisted all creation. It’s difficult to imagine the New Testament being any clearer on this account. When the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325) confessed he was “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” it did so on the firm foundation of Scripture.
John’s Gospel opens with the declaration,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1–3)
Human flesh didn’t become the Word. The eternal Word became flesh. So also, Colossians 1:16–17:
By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created though him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Christ was “foreknown” by God, not only before his incarnation, but “before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20). And so he prays in John 17:5, “Now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
3. He is pre-existent because he is God.
That Christ existed before his incarnation, and even before the foundation of the world, is finally a function of his divinity. He is first and last, Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:8), because he is God. As Donald Macleod notes, “No formal distinction can be made between deity and preexistence” (Person of Christ, 57).
“Jesus is before, and he is better than, anything in the created world.”
Christmas is far more than the celebration of a great man’s birth. God himself, in the second person of the Godhead, entered into our space, and into our frail humanity, surrounded by our sin, to rescue us. He came. He became one of us. God sent God. The Father gave his own Son for us and for our salvation.
Jesus Is Better
As a materialistic society marks its most material time of the year at Christmas, the preexistence of Christ before all created things reminds us of his priority and preciousness above every gadget and gismo, every present and party, all the trees and trimmings, lights and laughter, candles and cookies. Surely this is what his preexistence means for us — priority and preciousness above and beyond anything else not preexistent.
Jesus is before, and he is better than, anything in the created world. And his preexistence calls to us with the quiet reminder that it is only fitting for such a one to be the greatest Treasure in our hearts.
God Lives Among Us: What is Christmas? In this lab, John Piper walks through the familiar words of John 1 to explain the unexplainable mystery of God becoming man for us. (Look at the Book)
What Child Is This? The light and joy of Christmas are hollow at best, even horrifying, if we miss the link between the manger and the cross. (article)
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