48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 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.’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. – John 8:48-59 ESV
In the last two blogs, we have discussed the topic of Jesus and His identity. He was the Son of God who took on the form of a man but never lost His identity as the second person of the Trinity. Jesus, though fully man, was also fully God and remained so throughout His entire earthly existence, from the moment of His incarnation to His His final breath on the cross.
In the passage above, we have yet another example of Jesus expressing His awareness of His identity as the Son of God. In fact, He takes it a step further, clearly declaring Himself to be God.
Jesus had just been accused of being demon-possessed, a charge leveled against Him by the scribes and Pharisees. They had already been shocked at the audacity of Jesus to set Himself up as some kind of authority on religious matters. To them, Jesus was an uneducated nobody who had appeared on the scene, stirring up the crowds with His miracles and radical messages. These seasoned religious leaders questioned His credibility by emphasizing His relatively young age. They saw Him as a troublemaker and viewed His teaching as antithetical to their own. They refused to accept His claim to be a messenger from God and found His tendency to refer to God as His Father to be nothing less than blasphemy.
.And His offer of eternal life really rubbed them the wrong way. After all, even Abraham, the great patriarch of their faith, had died. Did Jesus think He was better than Abraham? They even asked Him, “Who do you make yourself out to be?” And Jesus matter-of-factly responded:
“If I want glory for myself, it doesn’t count. But it is my Father who will glorify me. You say, ‘He is our God,’ but you don’t even know him. I know him. If I said otherwise, I would be as great a liar as you! But I do know him and obey him. Your father Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to my coming. He saw it and was glad.” – John 8:54-56 NLT
In this statement, Jesus claims God as His Father. Not only that, He claims to know God intimately and, if Jesus said otherwise, He would be lying. And as for Abraham, Jesus states that even this revered founder of their faith had eagerly anticipated the day when Jesus would show up as God’s messenger. Not only that, Jesus claims that Abraham saw it and was glad. He had been given a vision of this day and Jesus was the fulfillment of it.
All of this was too much for the religious leaders. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was a madman and a threat to the religious status quo. But Jesus responds to their anger with an interesting statement that did little to assuage their doubts concerning Him. And the controversial nature of His words was intentional.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” – John 8:58 ESV
Other than what appears to be Jesus’ use of poor grammar, this statement may seem somewhat innocuous to us. But we can tell by the reaction of the religious leaders that they heard Jesus saying something they considered very dangerous and worthy of death. John tells us, “they picked up stones to throw at him…” (John 8:59 ESV).
The key to understanding their anger is found in the last two words of Jesus’ statement: “I am.” Two simple words, but they rocked the world of these learned men. They knew exactly what Jesus was saying and claiming. His choice of words was entirely intentional and it achieved the effect for which He was looking. By uttering those two words, Jesus was clearly declaring Himself to be God. How do we know that? First of all, by the intensity of their reaction. But more importantly, because of what they understood Jesus to be saying.
As religious leaders, they were very familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and especially the story of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. In the book of Exodus, Moses recorded how God chose him to be the deliverer who would free the people of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt and lead them to the land God had promised to Abraham, generations earlier. But when Moses had received His marching orders from God, he expressed his reluctant to God by saying, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13 ESV).
Moses was concerned that the people would have no idea who he was talking about if he announced that the God of their fathers had sent him. Keep in mind, for the 400 years the people of Israel had been living in Egypt they had been worshiping the gods of Egypt. They had long ago given up on the God of Abraham. They had become Egyptianized and had acclimated themselves to the false gods of the Egyptians. And Moses was more than a bit concerned that His announcement from this unknown God would fall on deaf ears. Moses needed a name, something by which to refer to this “new” God who was going to deliver the people from captivity. And God obliged Moses’ request God by describing Himself as “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14 ESV).
This phase sounds rather cryptic to us, but to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, it was understood as God’s self-identification as the one who was, who is, and who is to come. It is a claim of His eternal nature, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. It is an expression of total self-sufficiency, existence without beginning or end, and all-pervasive presence, unhindered by time and space. God’s declaration of Himself as “I am who I am” was His way of saying that He alone was God, and there were no others.
So, you can see why the scribes and Pharisees reacted so strongly to Jesus’ claim to be “I am.” He was declaring Himself to be God, and that was unacceptable and impossible. And according to Jewish law, Jesus’ claim was a crime punishable by death.
But what Jesus said was true. He was God. He was the second person of the Trinity, the holy Godhead. He was the image of the invisible God, the incarnate Son of God – Immanuel, God with us. Not only was He a messenger sent from God, but He was also the Word of God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV
Don’t miss the significance of what John is saying. Jesus was the Word and the Word was God. Yes, He was greater than Abraham, because He was Abraham’s Creator. He was greater than Moses because He was the Rock that Moses struck in the wilderness that provided water to the people of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:4).
Jesus knew who He was. He was fully aware of His identity and was not ashamed or afraid to admit it. Because it was His identity that gave Him the authority to do what He had come to do. It was C. S. Lewis who said, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).
Just a few chapters later in John’s gospel, he records another encounter between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. This time, Jesus claims to have the ability to bestow eternal life on men. He describes them as His sheep, those who hear His voice and follow Him. When they do, He states, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28 ESV). Of course, this kind of language infuriated the Pharisees, but Jesus makes it even worse by adding, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:29-30 ESV). And His enemies didn’t miss His point, because John states that they “picked up stones again to stone him” (John 10:31 ESV). And they justify their actions by explaining, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33 ESV).
Identity. It means everything. Even for those who don’t belong to Christ and who refuse to acknowledge the reality of God, identity is the driving force in their lives. It determines everything about them – what they eat, how they dress, where they live, the kinds of friends they choose, the brand of clothes they wear, the make of car they drive, and the way they feel about themselves. Every human being is in search of their identity. And we have plenty of help in determining what our identity is – including parents, peers, social media, the culture, the world of entertainment, the messages of advertisers and marketing firms, and the morally vacuous voice of modern identity politics and intersectionality.
For the believer, discovering who we are is simple. Our identity is made clear for us by virtue of our relationship with Christ. Because of Him, we are sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ, righteous in the eyes of God, citizens of the Kingdom, members of the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and so much more. Jesus knew who He was. Do you? And if you know who you are, do you live like you believe it? Jesus did, and so should we.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.