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How can a 30-year-old pre-exist someone 2,000 years older?

It’s a puzzle the Pharisees couldn’t solve as long as they clung to their opinion of Jesus. 

Solving a puzzle

In one of many confrontations, Jewish religious leaders challenged Jesus. Part of Jesus’ reply is,

“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

Theological fuses pop:

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am [egō eimi]!” (John 8:56-58).

The problem is Abraham lived and died 2,000 years before Jesus.

How do you make sense of Jesus’ statement?

The phrase “I am” translates the Greek egō eimi.

Eimi means “I am”; egō means “I” – so egō eimi is literally “I + I am.” The doubling “I” is both emphatic and instructive. For John, egō eimi is a significant phrase for understanding who Jesus is.

What are some of these “I am” statements?

Some unique statements

You are probably familiar with John’s use of “I am” with a descriptive noun. Here are his seven “I am” statements:

  • “I am [egō eimi] the bread of life” (6:35, 48);
  • “I am [egō eimi] the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5);
  • “I am [egō eimi] the gate for the sheep” (10:8);
  • “I am [egō eimi] the good shepherd” (10:11, 14);
  • “I am [egō eimi] the resurrection and the life” (11:25-26);
  • “I am [egō eimi] the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6);
  • “I am [egō eimi] the true vine” (15:1).

What do these statements mean?

What do these statements tell us about Jesus?

If, for the moment, we take the last of these we will realize that Israel claimed to be the “vine” (Psalm 80:7-19; Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 27:2-6; Ezekiel 15:1-15; etc.).

Jesus is contrasting himself with Israel, and declaring that it is he—and he alone—that is the genuine or authentic vine. He's not explaining Old Testament Jewish imagery, he's appropriating it.[1]

So what does that mean for you?

Whoever you may be (Jewish or not) it is only as you become a branch in the “true vine” – as you are connected with Jesus – that you will experience the life of God.

Some more statements

Jesus also says “I am” (egō eimi)—no descriptive noun—just “I am!”

The first record of this is in response to what a Samaritan woman says: “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us” (4:25).

Jesus declares, “I who speak to you am He.”

It’s as if the translators didn’t know what to do with this statement. The ‘He’ in italics indicates a word added to the text; it’s an attempt at better grammatical sense.

Literally, the text says: “I am [egō eimi] speaks to you!”

Elsewhere in John, Jesus says (literally):

  • To the terrified disciples as he walks toward their boat on the stormy surface of the Sea of Galilee: “I am; don’t be afraid” (6:20).
  • To disbelieving Jews: “… unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins” (8:24).
  • And to the same audience: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am …” (8:28).
  • To his disciples in the upper room: “… when it does occur, you may believe that I am” (13:19).

What is the significance of “I am” [egō eimi]?

Remember the burning bush?

The One True God revealed himself to Moses from within a burning bush (Exodus 3).

When Moses asks God to tell His name, God says, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (3:14)

Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, Jewish scholars translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek (the translation called the Septuagint). They used the Greek phrase egō eimi to translate “I AM.”

The title “I AM” is the name of the One True God.

What can this mean to you?

Something for you

Here are two things to consider:

1.         What do you understand Jesus is saying about himself when he says “I am!”?

The revelation at the burning bush points us to the only conclusion.

Jesus is claiming that he is the unique physical embodiment of the One True God.

When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (8:58)—not “I was”—he is asserting his identity as the One True God. He was, is, and shall continue to be the Eternal God of all Creation, “not simply [a] being which has lasted through several centuries.”[2]

Take time to reflect upon these statements (John 6:20; 8:24, 28; 8:58; 13:19) in their contexts. Perhaps ponder one each day for the next few days.

Ask yourself, “What is Jesus revealing to me?” Then turn that into worship of Him.

2.         What do the seven statements of Jesus mean for you?

We have already touched on “I am [egō eimi] the true vine” (15:1). So make sure you’re grafted into the “genuine vine” and allow his life to flow through you producing His fruit.

Consider another statement, such as “I am [egō eimi] the bread of life” (6:35, 48). The Old Testament parallel is the manna provided in the Exodus wandering. Without manna the people would have died of starvation. Jesus displaces this imagery with himself as “the bread of life.” There is no other nourishment for real living.

So day-by-day feed upon the One who is the “bread of life”:

  • Reading Scripture daily,
  • being sensitive to his presence in your daily activities, and
  • keeping company with Jesus.

Explore each of the other statements in turn. What are they building into your understanding and your living?

Do you have something to add? You can write me using this link.

FORWARD TO the next post in this series

BACK TO  “4 Responses When You Doubt” 

[1] John C. Hutchinson, “The Vine of John 15 and Old Testament Imagery in the ‘I Am’ Statements,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168 (2011): 63-80.
[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 474.

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