While describing the role of the “Word” (Logos) in the creation, that He was “with God” in the beginning, that He was “the only-begotten of the Father” who “became flesh,” John briefly called John the Baptist as a direct witness to Jesus’ pre-human existence.
John 1:15 (NIV) 15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.'”) The underlined clause in the Greek reads:
ὅτι πρῶτός μου ἦν
because first of me He was
The word πρῶτός is the ordinal number one, meaning first in sequence. The word ἦν is the verb of being (imperfect tense), also used in the first verse, “In the beginning WAS [ἦν] the Word.” The NASB captures the basic sense of the above clause as, “for He existed before me.” Notice that John the Baptist pointed to the cause of why Jesus came to outrank or surpass him. It was because He existed before John the Baptist even though He was born six months after him. This is portrayed as “John testified concerning Him.” The obvious question is this: To what exactly was John the Baptist testifying concerning Jesus? It was the very point that the Apostle John was making in his prologue, that the one who became flesh had a pre-human existence.
In the third chapter additional proof of Jesus’ pre-human existence is provided, this time from Jesus’ own statement to Nicodemus followed by John’s commentary on its meaning and significance.
John 3:10-12 (NASB) 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. 12 If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
This statement alone does not necessarily prove that Jesus was personally in heaven to witness the “heavenly things.” However, the next verse most definitely does, as it explains the source of Jesus’ knowledge about these “heavenly things.”
13 “And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man.”
There is some controversy concerning whether verse 13 contains the words of Jesus or whether it is John’s commentary on Jesus’ words in the previous verse. Many red-letter editions place this verse in red type as though these are the words of Jesus. However, that this is John’s commentary and not Jesus’ own words is proven by the fact that the verb translated “has ascended” is in the perfect tense, which describes a present situation which is the result of a past completed action. Thus, since Jesus “has ascended” He necessarily remained in heaven at the time the statement was made. Later copies of John’s Gospel add the words, “who is in heaven,” no doubt to make it abundantly clear that verse 13 was John’s commentary when he wrote his Gospel after Jesus’ ascension, since Jesus could not simultaneously be speaking these words on earth while claiming to be in heaven.
In verse 13 John was explaining Jesus’ meaning in verse 12, concerning how He could speak with authority about “heavenly things.” John made it perfectly clear that this was because He is the one “who descended from heaven.”
Unitarians typically attempt to circumvent John’s many statements about Jesus’ previous existence in heaven and His coming down from heaven by pointing to His statement in chapter 6 where He said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” The claim is that since He was not literally “bread” His coming down from heaven was not literal either. This is a non-sequitur, which will be shown in a future post. But even if a non-literal “bread” required a non-literal “came down from heaven” in John 6, this device is inadequate to explain John 3:13 for two reasons:
1. The original readers of John’s Gospel would have no basis for supposing that these words were not literal, since they would not as yet have read chapter 6 about Jesus’ statement “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” Also, on its face John 3:13 supports a literal reading of John’s prologue which indicates that Logos was “in the beginning with God,” and that “all things through Him originated” before He “became flesh and dwelled among us.” Plus, the original readers would have just read John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus that “He existed before me.” The obvious and natural conclusion would be that He literally and personally descended out of heaven. Writers provide a logical progression of ideas, with later comments being built upon previous foundational statements. They do not begin with a series of non-literal and confusing statements which appear at face value to be literal, and then much later say, “Just kidding,” all that came before was figurative language.
2. John directly compared two things of like kind to each other, that the same person “has ascended into heaven” who previously “descended out from heaven.” By placing these terms in juxtaposition, they are necessarily opposite in meaning. That is, “descended” is the direct opposite of “ascended.” But this can only be true if both are literal. Yet it is abundantly clear that Jesus’ ascension to heaven was literal and personal. Consequently, its direct opposite must also be literal and personal. John stated plainly that the same one who personally ascended to heaven previously personally descended out of heaven.
This is sometimes countered by the claim that Jesus is identified here as the “Son of Man,” which only applies to His humanity after the virgin birth. Thus, He could not have been the “Son of Man” if or when He literally descended from heaven. Yet this objection overlooks the fact that people are often called by their current title when referring to their past. If someone was to say that president Trump was born in New York, one would not suppose that he had to be the president of the United States at the time of his birth. John’s statement, “even the Son of Man,” only identifies who He was at the time the statement was made, not at a time in the past when He descended from heaven. The original readers of John’s Gospel would certainly conclude, after reading John’s prologue and then the testimony of John the Baptist, that verse 13 was a direct statement that the Son had literally and personally descended from heaven to earth.
It should be noted that the statement in John 3:13 was based on Solomon’s riddle which he posed to a man named Agur.
Proverbs 30:1-4 (ESV) 1 The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle. The man declares, I am weary, O God; I am weary, O God, and worn out. 2 Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. 3 I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
Note that Agur was frustrated with his lack of understanding about two things, “Wisdom” and “the Holy One.” His confusion was because of Solomon’s portrayal of Wisdom as a person, having been “begotten” by God (the Holy One) at the beginning of creation, and who assisted Him in the creation of all things. So Solomon addressed his answer to Agur in the form of a series of rhetorical questions.
4 Who has ascended into heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son’s name, If you know? (NKJ)
The first rhetorical question – “Who has ascended into heaven, or descended?” refers to the “Son” of the one “who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” His name is Yahweh. His Son’s name is Wisdom.
Compare the first question above, “Who has ascended into heaven, or descended?” to John 3:13: “And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven…” (NASB). In the Greek Septuagint, “ascended” and “descended” in this verse are the same Greek verbs found above in Prov. 30:4. Notice also that the order is the same, with “ascended into heaven” mentioned first and then “descended.”
There seems little doubt that John was referencing Proverbs 30, since it is nearly a direct quote. Yet, Solomon’s statement was answering Agur’s ignorance concerning “Wisdom” and “the Holy One” who is said to have begotten Wisdom and then through Wisdom created all things. In Proverbs 30:4, the one who ascended and descended was said to be the “Son” of the “Holy One.” John identified Him as “the Son of Man” (Jesus).
Also, note that in John 3:13 “ascended” is in the perfect tense meaning that He remained in heaven. But in Proverbs 30:4 the aorist tense is used, which says nothing about a continuing state once the action has been completed. Also, notice that in the LXX, the aorist indicative form of the verbs “ascended” and “descended” refer to past historical events. That is, the Son of the Holy One “ascended” and “descended” previous to Solomon’s statement! John simply cited this passage and applied it to the Son’s latest descent from heaven prior to His ascending and remaining in heaven. The one John identified as the Son of Man was identified by Solomon as the Son of the Most High.
Finally, John then concluded his commentary in the third chapter with the following words:
John 3:31- 36 (NASB) 31 “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from [lit. out from] heaven is above all. 32 What He has seen and heard, of that He bears witness; and no man receives His witness. 33 He who has received His witness has set his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. 36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
In this statement John made it clear that the Son literally came ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ (out from heaven). This is the same prepositional phrase he used in vs. 13, that He descended ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ (out from heaven). Notice especially the statement in vs. 32, “What He has seen and heard, of that He bears witness.” This comment by John was once again meant to explain the significance of Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus in vs. 12. “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Consequently, the main point of John’s commentary in this chapter was to make sure that his readers understood that Jesus literally came down from heaven, and that He was not merely a prophet speaking words that He heard, but had personally been in heaven previously, thus He speaks about heaven with authority as an eyewitness. John was reinforcing Paul’s earlier teaching concerning the second Adam.
1 Corinthians 15:47 (NASB) The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven.
Likewise, John reinforced Paul’s previous treatment of Proverbs 30:4 with his statement about the Son having first descended to earth before He ascended to the Father’s right hand.
Ephesians 4:8-10 (ESV) 7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
 Luke 1:36
 Prov. 8:22-36 (LXX)
 Prov. 8:25 (LXX)