John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’”
Testified. Once again, John’s chief role as a testifying witness is highlighted. God presents His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and we are in the position to judge Him as an acceptable offering. As we’ll see, John is called as a witness who represents the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets as represented by John the Baptist cry out saying, He who comes after me has a higher rank than I! He existed before me!” Perhaps one of the most amazing things about this is that we the people are in this courtroom, not as the accused, but as the judge. John the Baptist, representing the Law and the Prophets, testifies in defense of God, and presents his testimony to us! We are in the seat of the judged and God is in the seat of the accused.
Came before = higher rank? It is interesting that he would say that Jesus came before him, because John was conceived and was born prior to Jesus. On reflection this is an interesting rebuttal to those who believe in reincarnation: the Bible here clearly states that John the Baptist rightly believed that his existence started at the inception of his present life, but that Jesus is a unique case. Jesus existed before He was incarnated.
Is this a valid idea, that prior existence confers higher rank? It is, on reflection, a strange idea. I don’t think Hitler is better than my wife because he existed before her. Why would this be true for John and Jesus? I think there are many other criteria for John to concede a higher rank to Jesus that are better than prior existence. For instance, He is God in the flesh. He could do impressive miracles. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit to a virgin, and is thus quite literally the Son of God. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. All of these are excellent reasons to confer higher rank; but the one he actually lists here, prior existence, falls flat.
In his commentary on John, D.A. Carson says,
In a society where age and precedence bestow peculiar honor, that might have been taken by superficial observers to mean John the Baptist was greater than Jesus. Not so, insists the Baptist: jesus has surpassed him (lit., ‘became before me’), precisely because he was before him. The peculiar expression means ‘because he was first with respect to me’.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press ;, 1991. 131.
Apparently in the first century mindset the idea of authority and the idea of eldership are much more tightly entwined than we are used to in our culture.
In his commentary, Augustine adds this wonderful thought, as if quoting John the Baptist’s thoughts:
He was God from all eternity, I am a frail man of time. And therefore, even though I came to preach ahead of him, yet it was fitting that he rank before me in the reputation and opinion of men, because he preceded all things by his eternity.
Augustine. Commentary of the Gospel of St. John. Amazon Digital Services. Kindle edition. Location 1645.
Grace came before Law. This is also important, more important than it seems at first glance. Jesus Himself affirms that John is the culmination of the law and the prophets:
13 For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.
He is also the son of a Levitical priest (Luke 1:5, 8,9, 13, 17), and it was foretold by an angel that he would go as a forerunner before Christ in the spirit and power of Elijah. So we have several powerful indicators that he came as a representative and as kind of a stand-in for the Law and the Prophets. As such, and not simply as a man, he cries out that the Son of God existed prior to him and is greater than him. It makes sense to think that it confers authority to think that God’s existence predated the existence of the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets are not greater than God who conceived of them. So if He offers One who is greater than these, it stands to reason that it is His right to do so.