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Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God the Father

General Audience — September 2, 1987

—    Divine pre-existence

In the preceding catechesis we paid particular attention to those statements in which Christ, speaking of himself, used the expression, "I Am." The context in which these words appear, especially in John's Gospel, encourages us to conclude that in using such a phrase, Jesus referred to the name by which the God of the Old Testament designated himself to Moses when God entrusted to Moses the mission to which he had been called: "I Am who I Am...tell the sons of Israel, 'I Am has sent me to you'" (Ex 3:14).

Jesus spoke of himself in a similar vein during the discussion concerning Abraham: "Before Abraham was, I Am" (Jn 8:58). This expression allows us to conclude that the Son of Man gave witness to his divine pre-existence, and this is not an isolated statement.

More than once Jesus spoke of the mystery of his person. The most synthetic of these comments about himself would seem to be, "I came from the Father and have come into the world and now I leave the world to go to the Father" (Jn 16:28). These words were addressed by Jesus to the apostles in his farewell discourse on the eve of the paschal events. These words clearly say that before he came into the world Christ "was" with the Father as a Son. They indicate, as a consequence, his pre-existence in God. Jesus unambiguously stated that his earthly existence cannot be separated from his pre-existence in God. Without that, his personal reality cannot be correctly understood.

There are many similar expressions. When Jesus referred to his coming into the world from the Father, his words usually denoted his divine pre-existence. This is especially clear in the Gospel of John. In the presence of Pilate Jesus stated: "I was born for this; I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth" (Jn 18:37). Perhaps it is not without significance that Pilate later asked him: "Where are you from?" (Jn 19:9). Earlier in the text we had read: "My testimony is still valid because I know where I came from and where I am going" (Jn 8:14). In that nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus, the question, "where are you from?" receives a special response: "No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven" (Jn 3:13). This "coming down" from heaven, from the Father, indicates the divine pre-existence of Christ in relation to his "departure" as well: "What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before?" Jesus asked in the context of the Eucharistic discourse in the neighborhood of Capernaum (cf. Jn 6:2).

1.  Divine pre-existence

The entire earthly existence of Jesus as Messiah originates from that "before" and is united with it as a fundamental dimension which testifies to the Son as "one" with the Father. In this context, how eloquent are the words of the priestly prayer in the upper room, "I have glorified you on earth and finished the work that you gave me to do. Now, Father, it is time for you to glorify me with that glory I had with you before the world began" (Jn 17:4-5).

Similarly, the Synoptic Gospels speak in many instances of the coming of the Son of Man for the salvation of the world (cf. e.g., Lk 19:10; Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28). Nevertheless, the texts noted by St. John speak unequivocally about the pre-existence of Christ.

The prologue of St. John's Gospel contains the most comprehensive synthesis of this truth. It can be affirmed that in the text the truth of the divine pre-existence of the Son of Man is given a more explicit delineation that, in a certain sense, is more definitive. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came to be; not one thing had its being but through him. All that came to be had its life in him and that life was the light of men, a light that shines in the darkness, a light that the darkness could not overpower" (Jn 1:1-5).

In these statements, the evangelist confirms that which Jesus declared about himself: "I came from the Father and have come into the world" (Jn 16:28), or when he prayed to his Father to glorify him with the glory that he had with him before the world began (cf. Jn 17:5). At the same time there is a strict correlation between the pre-existence of the Son in the Father with the revelation of the trinitarian mystery of God. The Son is the eternal Word, he is "God from God"; he is of the same substance of the Father (as is expressed by the Council of Nicaea in the creed). That council's formula reflects exactly the prologue of John. "The Word was with God and the Word was God." To acknowledge the pre-existence of Christ in the Father is tantamount to recognizing the divinity. Eternity appertains to the substance of the divinity, just as it likewise pertains to the substance of the Father. It is this that is referred to when discussing the eternal pre-existence in the Father.

In revealing the truth concerning the Word, the prologue of John constitutes the definitive complement of what the Old Testament had already said regarding wisdom. For example we read: "From eternity in the beginning he created me and for eternity I shall remain" (Sir 24:9); "My creator made me pitch my tent and he said to me, 'Pitch your tent in Jacob'" (Sir 24:8). The wisdom referred to in the Old Testament is a creature that at the same time has attributes that enthrone it above all creation. "Although alone she can do all; herself unchanging she makes all things new" (Wis 7:27). The truth about the Word contained in the prologue of John reconfirms, in a certain sense, the revelation concerning the wisdom evident in the Old Testament. At the same time it surpasses it in a definitive manner. The Word is not merely, "with God" but "is God." Coming into this world, the Word "came into his own domain," since "the world had its being through him" (cf. Jn 1:10-11). He came "unto his own," because "he is the true light that enlightens every man" (cf. Jn 1:9). The self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ consists in this coming into the world by the Word, who is the eternal Son.

"The Word was made flesh and he lived among us and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14). Let us repeat it once more—the prologue of John is the eternal echo of the words uttered by Jesus: "I have come from the Father and come into the world" (Jn 16:28). It also echoes his sentiments when he prayed to his eternal Father to glorify him with that glory he had before the creation of the world (cf. Jn 17:5). The evangelist is contemplating the Old Testament revelation concerning wisdom and simultaneously visualizes the entire paschal event—that departure through the cross and resurrection in which the truth about Christ, Son of Man and true God, is rendered crystal clear to those who were eyewitnesses of those events.

In strict relationship with the revelation of the Word, that is, with the divine pre-existence of Christ, one also finds confirmation of the truth about Emmanuel. This word—which literally signifies "God with us"—expresses a particular and personal presence of God in the world. Christ's "I Am" manifests exactly such a presence, as pre-announced by Isaiah (cf. 7:14), which the Gospel of Matthew (cf. Mt. 1:23) repeats following the prophet, and is confirmed in the prologue of John: "The Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us" (Jn 1:14). The language of the evangelists is indeed multiform but the truth expressed is identical. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus pronounces his "I am with you" in moments of special tension (such as Mt 14:17; Mk 6:50; Jn 6:20), when he calmed the tempest, as also in the perspective of the Church's apostolic mission: "Behold I am with you all days even to the end of the world" (Mt 28:20).

Christ's statement, "I have come from the Father and have come into the world" (Jn 16:28) contains a salvific and soteriological significance. All the evangelists manifest this phenomenon. The prologue of John expresses it in these words: "To all who did accept him (the Word), he gave power to become children of God," that is, the possibility of being generated by God (cf. Jn 1:12-13).

This is the central truth of all Christian soteriology that finds an organic unity with the revealed reality of the God-Man. God became man so that man could truly participate in the life of God—so that, indeed, in a certain sense, he could become God. The Fathers of the Church had a clear consciousness of this fact. It is sufficient to recall St. Irenaeus who, in his exhortations to imitate Christ, the only sure teacher, declared: "Through the immense love he bore, he became what we are, thereby affording us the opportunity of becoming what he is" (cf. Adv. Haer., V. Praef. PG 7, 1120).

This truth opens up for us unlimited horizons among which we locate and pinpoint the concrete expression of our Christian life, in the light of faith in Christ, Son of God, the Word of the Father.