And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed (John 17:5)
This verse is part of much longer prayer of Jesus from the night of the Last Supper. His prayer covers a range of topics, including both his immediate disciples and future generations of disciples. In the preceding verse Jesus says that he has glorified his Father upon the earth by doing the work that God gave him to do (John 17:4). He is now asking God to glorify him in his presence, that is in heaven after the ascension.
What is difficult or controversial about this verse is that it says Jesus had glory with his Father before the world existed. This is taken to imply that Jesus existed before the world and had a personal relationship with God before the world. In turn, this implication is taken as a proof that Jesus is God.
Before seeking to understand what Jesus is saying, first let us look at what Jesus does not say. Firstly, Jesus does not say “I am God” in this verse or anywhere in this prayer. He does address his Father as “the only true God” and does not include himself in that description (John 17:3). So whatever else Jesus is saying, he believes in one God and considers that one God to be someone other than himself. Secondly, it is interesting that Jesus does not say “I am now going to claim the glory owed to me” or “I am now going to reclaim the glory I once had”. Rather, Jesus prayers to his Father “glorify me”. This is not the prayer of God to God; God does not need to request glory. Elsewhere Jesus makes this clear when he says that his glory is given to him from God:
Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ (John 8:54)
If Jesus is not claiming to God, is he claiming to have had a personal relationship with God before the world began? To understand what Jesus is saying, we need to understand what the Bible means when it talks about things before the world began. Consider these verses:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Eph 1:3-4)
He [Jesus] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you (1 Pet 1:20)
Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain (Rev 13:7-8)
According to the Bible, believers were chosen before the world began and their names were written the book of life before the world began. This does not mean believers existed before the world or had a personal relationship with God before the world, but that the foreknowledge of God is not bound by time; God already knows the end from the beginning. In the same way, Peter says that Jesus was foreknown before the world but revealed at a specific moment in time. To understand John 17:5, we need understand that something may exist in the foreknowledge whilst not yet existing in actuality.
Later in his prayer Jesus explains why he was glorified. He says “… my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Jesus was glorified with God because he was loved by God. That Jesus was loved by God “before the foundation of the world” is not surprising, since Paul says it was “in love” that God chose believers before the world began (Eph 1:4).
It is useful to compare what the Bible says about Jesus with what the Bible says about believers. For example:
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory (1 Cor 2:7)
In one sense, then, believers were glorified before the world began because God had already decreed that wisdom by which believers would be glorified. But in saying that believers were glorified in this way before the world began does not mean in any sense that believers actually existed before the world began.
So recap, Jesus was foreknown by God (1 Pet 1:20) and because he was foreknown he was fore-loved. Jesus was fore-glorified by God because he was fore-loved (John 17:24). When Jesus says “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5), he is asking that when he ascends into heaven he might receive in actuality that glory that existed in the foreknowledge of God before the world began.