What Is the Surprising Meaning of God's Name I Am?

Contributing Writer
What Is the Surprising Meaning of God's Name I Am?

In today’s Western culture, parents choose names for their children for various reasons. However, in Biblical times, a person’s name was more than an identifying label. Names conveyed truths about a person’s character or the circumstances of their birth so that others could know them more deeply. Similarly, God’s name divulges the truth about His divine nature. When God revealed Himself to Moses as I Am, the name carried such a significant meaning that it would become the banner under which His people would gain eternal freedom.

Where Does the Bible First Use “I Am” as a Name for God and Why?

In the third chapter of Exodus, God first reveals Himself as “I Am” to an 80-year-old man named Moses. Born to a Hebrew slave family in Egypt, Moses was from the tribe of Levi. Through a series of divinely orchestrated events, the Pharoah’s daughter adopted Moses at birth, and he spent the first forty years of his life enjoying all the privilege and education Egypt had to offer (Acts 7:22).

At 40 years old, Moses decided to visit his own people. After witnessing a Hebrew man suffer at the hands of an Egyptian slave master, Moses killed the abuser, thinking no one would see his act of retribution. The next day, when Moses tried to break up a fight between two Hebrew men, one of the men pushed him aside and shouted, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14)

When the news of his treachery reached Pharaoh, Moses had fled hundreds of miles to Midian. There, he married a priest’s daughter, had two sons, and worked for his father-in-law as a shepherd for forty years. One day, while he tended his flocks near Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Siani, Moses saw a bush engulfed in perpetual flames.

Baffled by the bizarre sight, he inched closer to the flaming bush until a voice told him to halt and remove his sandals. The voice then said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Terrified, Moses hid his face. But the Lord continued to speak. He had heard the cries of His enslaved people and planned to rescue them from Egypt—using Moses as His spokesperson.

Still trembling, Moses questioned his part in the rescue plan. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)

God assured Moses that he would not be required to embark upon the mission alone. God would go with him to lead His chosen people to freedom. Still hesitant, undoubtedly remembering his rejection during his previous attempts to help his fellow Hebrews, Moses asked God what name he should use if asked who sent him.

“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)

What Does God’s Name “I Am” Mean?

When Moses asked God what name he should provide to the Israelites if they should ask who sent him, the Lord gave Moses the name Ehyeh, a Hebrew verb that translates into English as I Am or I will be. The meaning of the simple name carries the full weight of God’s eternal, self-existing, self-sustaining nature.

God then told Moses how to convey His magnificent name to the enslaved Israelites. He told him to say, “The Lord [Yahweh] the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14-15). The Hebrew word Yahweh is a derivative of Ehyeh and means “he will be.”

The name Yahweh, also known as the Tetragrammaton, is used over six thousand times in the Old Testament and is so closely identified with the essence of God’s nature that, out of reverence, many orthodox Jewish people refuse to say the name out loud. Instead, they say HaShem—which means “the name,” or Adonai, which means “Lord.” Modern translations of the Bible print LORD, in all capital letters, to denote the use of the Hebrew word YHWH throughout scripture.

What Does the Meaning of “I Am” Tell Us about God?

Over four hundred years before God introduced Himself to Moses as I Am, He greeted Moses’s ancient grandfathers in a different way (Genesis 17:1, 26:24, 28:13). Abraham, Issac, and Jacob came to know their creator as God Almighty—a powerful, covenant-making, protector of His people.

God demonstrated His might and love for His chosen people through the Abrahamic Covenant by giving them five “I will” promises of blessing:

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Centuries later, the same Almighty God—the “I will” God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appeared to Moses. He unveiled a deeper understanding of His identity than previous generations had ever known (Exodus 6:2-3).

For four hundred years, God’s people had languished in bondage under Pharoah’s iron fist. They were immersed in worshipping Egypt’s pagan gods (Joshua 24:14). When they cried out for deliverance, the God of their ancestors—their all-present, all-powerful, infinite Yahweh heard them. With an outstretched arm and mighty acts of judgment, God loosened Pharoah’s grip and drew His people out of Egypt and into Himself. With each prescribed plague of judgment, God made a mockery of the has-been gods of Egypt and showed Himself as I Am. He then used Moses to lead His children to physical freedom while paving the way for their ultimate liberty.

As part of His overall redemptive plan, God chose that exact moment to give Israel a greater understanding of Himself as their ever-present God, who has no beginning and end. But it wasn’t until over a millennium later that the world would witness the full nature, character, and essence of I Am—in the person of Jesus Christ (John 14:7-9, Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3).

Why Were People Shocked When Jesus Used “I Am” to Talk about Himself?

Just like the Hebrew slaves were under Pharoah’s bondage before God’s deliverance, humanity as a whole was in bondage to sin. Through Moses, God liberated His children from Egypt and gave them the law as a teaching tool, plumb line, and guardrail to set them apart, reveal His character, and show them their own propensity toward sin. However, neither the law nor Moses could provide more than a temporary pardon from sin. Yahweh promised that their ultimate redeemer—their Messiah—would arise from the seed of David.

When the set time came, God sent Jesus as that promised redeemer (Galatians 4:3-5). During that time, the Jewish people languished in bondage under the iron fist of Roman occupation. They longed for their promised Messiah. However, many did not recognize or receive Jesus when He came (1 John 1:10-11).

Through their misguided understanding of prophecy, the Jewish religious leaders sought a political Messiah who would rule on earth and ensure Israel’s peace. Not only did Jesus stray far from their flawed expectations, but He wreaked havoc on their deeply rooted pride and hypocrisy. Infuriated by Jesus’s righteous condemnation, the Pharisees and Sadducees looked for every opportunity to destroy His credibility.

In John 8, we’re told about a heated confrontation between the religious leaders and Jesus. The escalating argument centered around Jesus’s identity and the identity of His critics until Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58), which brought the debate to an abrupt halt. In a frenzy, the crowd grabbed stones and prepared to execute Jesus for blasphemy. By owning the sacred name “I Am,” Jesus had blatantly declared His divinity.

Because Jesus’s appointed time to die had not yet come, He was hidden from the murderous mob and continued His earthly ministry. Seven other times in scripture, Jesus makes “I am” statements to reveal His divine nature: He said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), “I am the sheep gate” (John 10:7-9), “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and “I am the true vine” (John 15:1-5).

What Can We Learn Today from the Meaning of “I Am”?

Jesus asked His disciples two important questions pertinent to us today as His earthly ministry raced toward a climax. Jesus’s faithful followers had already traveled far and wide with Him, feeding on His words, witnessing His miracles, and shadowing their master’s every move. They also paid close attention to the reactions of the hordes of people Jesus impacted. When He asked them the first question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” all the disciples were prepared with an answer.

“They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’” (Matthew 16:13-16)

When Jesus brought the issue closer to home and asked His disciples a follow-up question, “But what about you? … Who do you say I am?” “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus commended Peter for his apt answer, called him blessed, and attributed his revelation to divine inspiration.

By then, all the disciples had seen enough to know that the world’s ideas about Jesus were wrong. They knew Jesus was no mere prophet or teacher, but they were only beginning to understand the truth about His identity fully. Peter’s revelation was truly divine. The eyes of his understanding were opened to reveal Jesus’s divine nature.

God’s Spirit still leads us into truth today. We no longer need to rely on prophets, a burning bush, or the law to show us the great I Am. We only need to fix our eyes on Jesus.

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Photo Credit:©GettyImages/Andry Djumantara

Annette GriffinAnnette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.

This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.

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