Why Jesus’ Claim That “before Abraham Was, I Am” Is So Important
“You know, Jesus never actually claimed to be God.”
As I was sharing the gospel with an elderly man, this was supposed to be the nail in the coffin. He believed this proved Jesus wasn’t God and had never claimed to be God, but Christians had just gotten carried away a few years after Jesus’ death. I had to confess, that there was not a verse where Jesus directly said, “I am God” ...or did I?
In John 8:59 we read that the religious leaders “picked up stones to throw at [Jesus]”. That was the way religious leaders were supposed to respond to blasphemy. This stone throwing was in response to what Jesus said in John 8:58:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’”
What did Jesus mean by saying this? And why is this verse so important?
What Is the Context of This Verse?
John 8 is a lengthy argument between the Pharisees and Jesus. They accused him saying, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true” (John 8:13). And Jesus responded by saying that the Father is His witness. This, then, creates a lengthy debate about lineage.
Jesus is talking about God being His Father. He acknowledges that they are the “offspring of Abraham” (v. 37) but then implies that they have a different “father” who is motivating their distrust and ultimately leading them into bondage. They remind him, “Abraham is our father.” This leads to a discussion about what it truly means to be “Abraham’s children.” Jesus concludes that because of their rejection of Him and His works they are, “of your father the devil.”
It's almost humorous where the Pharisees turn in the discussion. Jesus has leveled charges against their character and pointed out the inconsistency of claiming Abraham as their father but not “hearing the words of God” (v47). They turn to insults: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus informs them that not only does he not have a demon but he also has the words of life. “If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death."
The Pharisees pick up on the depth of this claim. Only God has eternal life, therefore only God can give eternal life. Abraham is dead. The prophets are dead. Who does this Jesus think he is? Jesus then speaks as if he was present for the days of Abraham. How can someone who isn’t yet 50 years old say that he has seen Abraham?
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’”
At this they began to pick up stones to stone him for blasphemy. They knew what Jesus was claiming here. In an argument about lineage and where authority comes from, Jesus places Himself outside of history itself. He is the great “I am.” He is eternal.
But what does he mean by this?
What Does This Verse Mean?
They are not only in error in calling Jesus a “Samaritan with a demon” but they were also mistaken by saying that he is “not even 50 years old.” Sure, in his flesh Jesus isn’t yet 50. But ontologically, He is timeless. He is eternal. In this verse Jesus is claiming to be God.
Yet, Jesus’ claim here is far more than just that of pre-existence. A mere argument about pre-existence might fall into the hands of the Pharisees who believed that he was a demon. It was believed that demons and angels existed before the creation of the world. Merely claiming pre-existence would place Jesus on the same level as an angel or a demon. Jesus, then, is taking this one step further.
When he claims to be “I AM” he isn’t talking about pre-existence, but self-existence. This is because at its core this is really a discussion about authority and their need to listen to Jesus’ words. Jesus is claiming to have authority over Abraham and the prophets. This is why he can say that if they do not listen to His words then they are not listening to the Father. And as a result, they are also not listening to Abraham. To not listen to Jesus, then, calls into question their claims of being “sons of Abraham.”
A simple “I am” statement does not necessarily mean you are claiming deity. You can say, “I am going to the store” and nobody will accuse you of blasphemy. It’s also not that the statement is standing alone as a bare “I am.” If somebody asked, “Are you going to the store” and you responded with “I am,” there would be no need for even the strictest of Pharisees to grab a stone.
In the above scenarios, the “I am” statements have a predicate, or an implied predicate. The “I am” is connected with something else. But Jesus’ “I am” statement is different than these. Craig Keener explains:
“When ‘I am’ lacks even an implied predicate, however, it becomes unintelligible except as an allusion to God’s name in the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint. In the Fourth Gospel both forms are significant (many of the predicates prove inappropriate for merely human bearers, and the absolute form is a claim to deity.”
By framing his sentence this way Jesus is taking for himself the title of “I am.”
Who Does Jesus Say He Is?
Jesus’ phrasing here goes all the way back to Exodus 3:14. Moses has his encounter with God at the burning bush, and he is a bit terrified of the commission that God has given to him. Moses was worried that they wouldn’t listen. “Who should I tell them sent me”?
“And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ Moreover God said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations’” (Exodus 3:13-15).
God is revealing Himself to Moses as the self-existent one. He is. No creature can claim this. Thus, Jesus is claiming to not be a creature. Demons are created. Angels are created. Humans are created. Jesus is uncreated. Jesus is.
There are, other “I am” statements which Jesus makes throughout the gospel of John, but none are as jarring as this claim to deity. There are seven “I am” statements in the gospel of John.
- In John 6, Jesus says “I am the bread of life.”
- In John 8, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.”
- In John 10, Jesus says, “I am the door.”
- In John 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”
- In John 14, Jesus says, “I am the way.”
- In John 15, Jesus says, “I am the true vine.”
He is. And He is these things. This is important for us even today.
Why Is This Verse So Important?
Jesus’ claim here is important for several reasons. For one, it is important because of Job’s dilemma. Job lamented “There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both.” Job needed, as we need today, someone who could be both God and man. It is important for our redemption that Jesus is the “I am.” This means that He is able to pay for our sin against an infinite being, but it also means He is able to give eternal life.
This verse is also important for apologetic reasons. In an effort to deny the deity of Jesus, some will say that Jesus never claimed to be God. This is simply not true. According to the gospel of John, Jesus most certainly is making a claim to self-existence. The Pharisees, who would have been attentive to these things, picked up on his statement and sought to stone Him.
This is important because this allows us to make C.S. Lewis’ “Liar, Lord, or Lunatic” argument. If Jesus truly claimed to be self-existent, then that means only one of three things: he was lying (or the disciples are lying about his claim), he is insane, or He is truly God.
Just as the Pharisees had to reckon with Jesus’ claims, so also we must do business with what Jesus is claiming for Himself. If Jesus truly is the self-existent then it means that Jesus is the authority who stands outside of time. He is the source of life. He is the source of joy. He is the source of hope. He, and He alone, is the source of salvation.
If He alone is self-existent, then all of us dependent creatures must either separate ourselves from the vine — to our peril — or we must attach ourselves to His life. In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
Jesus claimed to be the self-existent God. Do you believe Him?
Craig Kenner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, p769-770
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