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 8:51-59 ESV
The longer Jesus spoke, it seems that the frustration of the religious only intensified. And their growing anger with Him seems to support His accusations against Him. He has claimed to be the light of the glory of God, but they prefer to remain covered by the darkness of their own pre-established notions of righteousness and holiness. He has offered Himself as the only solution to mankind’s sin problem and the key to eternal life. But they have refused His offer, choosing instead to label Him as a blasphemer and sinner, operating in league with Satan himself. He has declared Himself to be the Son of God, yet they accused Him of being illegitimate, and not even knowing the name of His own earthly father. Jesus had described them as being the children of Satan, and now they return the favor by declaring Him of being demon-possessed.
This entire section of John’s gospel is intended to support Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world. He has been standing in the courtyard of the temple of God, speaking to the people of God, and allowing the glory of God to illuminate what has become one of the darkest places within the nation of Israel: God’s own dwelling place.
The location for this latest conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders is extremely important. He is standing in the temple treasury, where all the voluntary and obligatory financial gifts given to the temple were kept. Earlier, in chapter two of his gospel, John described Jesus cleansing the temple of “those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there” (John 2:14 ESV). The Son of God had been appalled to find His Father’s house turned into a marketplace. In His anger, He literally cleaned house.
And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” – John 2:15-16 ESV
The temple was to have been the place where God’s glory dwelled. All the way back at the dedication of the original temple, the glory of God had descended upon the magnificent structure built by King Solomon.
As soon as Solomon finished his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord‘s house. When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed down with their faces to the ground on the pavement and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” – 2 Chronicles 7:1-3 ESV
In response to Solomon’s prayer of dedication over the newly constructed temple, God had told him:
“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever.” – 2 Chronicles 7:12-16 ESV
But God’s people had proved to be unfaithful. They failed to remain obedient to His commands and chose to worship false gods, even erecting idols to them within the temple Solomon had dedicated to God. And Solomon had been one of the chief instigators behind the nation’s rebellion against God. In time, God destroyed the temple that bore His name. He used the Babylonian Empire as His agent of judgment against His chosen people, turning the capital city of Jerusalem and the glorious temple into a heap of ruins.
The temple where Jesus spoke was the same one that had been rebuilt by the Jews who had returned to Judah after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. That much smaller and less ornate temple was greatly expanded by King Herod during the 1st-Century AD. And it was on the grounds of this temple where Jesus had His confrontation with the Jewish religious leaders.
In a sense, Jesus was presenting Himself as the replacement for the temple. With His coming, the primary purpose of the temple was being eliminated. It was no longer the dwelling place of God. Jesus had made the invisible God visible. He was God in human flesh, manifesting the glory of God through His miracles and messages. And, in time, He would offer His life as the ultimate and final sacrifice for the sins of mankind. The earthly temple would be replaced by the bodily temple of God’s own Son. That is why Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19 ESV). His death would accomplish what the temple and the sacrificial system could have never done. And the author of Hebrews makes this point perfectly clear.
…those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world, he said to God, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer. You were not pleased with burnt offerings or other offerings for sin. Then I said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will, O God—as is written about me in the Scriptures.’”
First, Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). Then he said, “Look, I have come to do your will.” He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:3-10 NLT
One of the things that infuriated the religious leaders was Jesus’ claim that He could offer eternal life. They had been shocked by Jesus’ audacious and ridiculous claim: “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51 ESV). His statement was illogical and, therefore, unacceptable. Abraham and all the prophets had died, they reasoned. So, who was He to think that He could offer a life free from death? They even ask Him, “Who do you make yourself out to be?” (John 8:53 ESV). Their question reveals that they know exactly what Jesus was saying. He was claiming to be God. And, almost as if to support their suspicions, Jesus responded, “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 ESV).
Jesus brings the conversation back to the issue of His relationship with God. He was not just another son of God, as they believed themselves to be. He was the actual Son of God, the second member of the Holy Trinity. He was claiming divinity and authority, provided to Him by His Heavenly Father. But, as Jesus pointed out, their failure to recognize and accept Him was due to their ignorance of God. They didn’t know God as their Father, so how would they ever recognize His Son when He showed up?
But Jesus emphasized that Abraham, their great patriarch, had looked forward to the day when the promise of God was finally fulfilled through Jesus. God had told Abraham, “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Genesis 12:3 BSB). And the apostle Paul had clarified the meaning of this promise when he wrote, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16 ESV).
Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and He claims, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56 ESV). In a sense, Jesus is saying, “If Abraham could ‘see’ and rejoice in my coming, why can’t you?”
And when His detractors scoff at Jesus’ words, He adds fuel to the fire by boldly asserting, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58 ESV). And the magnitude of this statement did not escape them. They knew exactly what He was saying. Jesus was claiming to be God, which is why John states that “they picked up stones to throw at him” (John 8:59 ESV). They distinctly heard Jesus using the self-designation used by Yahweh when He had spoken to Moses at the burning bush.
Then Moses said to God, “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?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” – Exodus 3:13-14 ESV
At this point in the story, John has presented a turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus. The confrontation between Jesus and His adversaries has entered a new and darker phase. Jesus has clearly stated His identity. No more cryptic answers. No more veiled references to deity. He is the great “I am.” And John ends this scene with a simple sentence that is pregnant with meaning: “but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59 ESV).
The glory of God, in the form of the Son of God, departed the temple. He vacated the premises, leaving the religious leaders still holding the stones in their hands with which they had intended to kill Him. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, had walked away from the very place where tens of thousands of sacrifices had been offered for hundreds of years. But this Lamb would be offered on a hillside outside the city, providing atonement for the sins of mankind – once for all.
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.