“Before Abraham was born, I Am!”

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The Gospel of John is a very deep, theological book which proclaims the deity of Christ as God incarnate.  In John 8, Jesus Christ asserts He preexisted Abraham by saying, “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.,” (John 8:58, NIV).  This would mean that Jesus always existed as the Son of God, second person in the Trinity, and architect of all things known and unknown.  Paul affirms this when he said, “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him,” (Colossians 1:16, NIV).  Like Paul, the writer of Genesis persuades us further into the triune Godhead, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” (Genesis 1:26a, NIV).  “John expresses his own view that Jesus is ‘prior’ to Abraham, and that men who believe in him find a new identity and a new freedom as his disciples.”[1]

In chapter eight of John’s Gospel, the “Jews responded by asking Jesus to identify Himself.”[2]  Shortly after the Feast of Tabernacles, an adulterous woman was brought to Jesus by the Jews in order for Him to advocate their interpretation of the law in regards to adultery, which ultimately would trap Jesus into compromising His ministry.  Jesus responded by saying, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” (John 8:7b, NIV).  By saying this, the Jews were left with little to no foundation in their preliminary efforts to derail Jesus’ message of hope and reconciliation for sinners.  Because of their hypocrisy, Jesus was quick to ignore them, “and began writing on the ground.”[3]  There have been several interpretations to this act, but what appears to be consistent with Jesus’ nature, He “is symbolically using His finger to remind the audience of His right to judge a woman by the law.”[4]  In His response to them, Jesus upheld the law and its authority, but He required that the law be observed in its proper spirit (see Matt. 5:18).”[5]

As the Jews slowly left, Jesus tells the woman that since the Jews couldn’t condemn her, neither could He.  Jesus then asserts that He is the “light of the world” (8:12), in which the Pharisees challenged Him on His authority and witness of His testimony.  He follows through by saying “I stand with the Father, who sent me,” (John 8:16b. NIV), affirming the legal necessity for two witnesses, being that He is the one who testifies for Himself and the Father who sent Him (8:18).  The Pharisees, although believed they had the truth, were countered by Jesus when He said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” (John 8:31-32, NIV).  However, the Pharisees believed they were descendants of Abraham and weren’t slaves who didn’t need to be set free (8:23), even though as Jesus showed previously with the adulterous woman, wherein no person is without sin, thus “everyone who sins is a slave to sin,” (8:34).

God promised deliverance to the children of Abraham, illustrating “how Jewish thought developed the figure of Abraham in connection with the theme of deliverance and salvation.”[6]  The Jews introduced “Abraham in connection with the idea of freedom from bondage,”[7] which eventually culminated in Jesus’ assertion that “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58, NIV).  “The claim to have been in existence before Abraham must be either a delusion or a statement that the speaker was sovereign over time.”[8]  Irenaeus of Lyons, while refuting the Gnostics of his day who believed Jesus died in his thirtieth year, asserted that, “Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while he still fulfilled the office of a teacher.”[9]  The church father is summarized, alongside with the traditions of the early church, that Christ died after his youth and was within the age frame that is required for one to be an old man, which is the “theological framework into which Irenaeus inserts his picture of Christ,”[10]  wherein He was “between the thirtieth and fiftieth year.”[11]  Fr. John Behr thus concludes “The literary coherence of Scripture, and the rhetorical coherence derived by engaging with Scripture to interpret Christ, is the ultimate criterion for Irenaeus’ reflections on the eternal Word of God.”[12]  Moreover, Jesus “is not thought of as simply another man,”[13] but God incarnate and the rightful judge over the law and the prophets.

In conjunction with John 13:19, “is the theme of unity between the Son and the Father,”[14] whereby “this developed view of Abraham in Jewish thought is an essential part of the background to the controversy material in chapter eight, culminating in the ego eimi statement of 8:58.”[15]  John’s terminology here “corresponds closely to the Jewish usage of various phrases referring to Yahweh,”[16] and that by Jesus’ assertion that He is the “I Am,” He is equating Himself with their God of the Old Testament (10:30).  The Jewish response to this is to stone Him for blasphemy.  If Christ said this and the Jews did not react the way in which they did, then His claim would not be equal to the Father, and by default, would render His statement intelligible and without cause for capital punishment.  Because the Jews had “lost the original meaning of the Scriptures, which presented the Lord as Son who came in human form,”[17] their inability to spiritually fathom Jesus Christ as the Holy One of God obfuscated proper discernment of Jesus’ emphatic statement(s) that He is God in flesh form, causing them to react in a way which convicted them deeply.  Moreover, their continued reactionary efforts against Him inevitably rendered their theocracy null and void once Christ offered Himself up as the Son of Man on Calvary.

Jesus Christ is the sole path to salvation, an efficacy only God can offer (Psalm 32:5-6), and for “those with faith in Jesus, who seek to be his followers after his death and glorification, can comprehend that he can make the statement ego eimi without uttering blasphemy.”[18]  In this chapter, John is “dealing with the problem of faith at a more general level.  In a limited sense, those without faith in Jesus can understand the meaning of his words ego eimi, but this partial understanding only reveals their failure to perceive the true meaning of the phrase.  They can understand that it constitutes somehow a claim to be one with God, but apart from the context of faith they must regard it as a blasphemous claim that no man can make.”[19]  However, it is just that, Jesus did claim to be one with the Father who existed before Abraham was born, and by this assertion of deification in the incarnate and eternal Son of God, wherein Abraham “being progenitor of the Jewish nation, rejoiced to see his day.”[20]  The patriarch “knew the Messiah would come from him and so rejoiced and saw Him by faith (Gen. 12:3),”[21] and that the “theophany appearance of Jehovah to Abraham” gives the reader a clear cut example depicting Jesus as the God of the Old Testament.  “Since Christ has all judgment (5:30), and this was a physical appearance of Jehovah (He ate), then it must have been Christ whom Abraham saw.”[22]  Therefore, the Jews who were present during Christ’s authoritative statement, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (8:58), “He is claiming to be their God.”[23]

[1] Philip B. Harner, the “I Am” of the fourth gospel, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1970), 40.

[2] Elmer Towns, The Gospel of John: Believe and Live, (Chattanooga, AMG, 2002), 83.

[3] Ibid., 79.

[4] Ibid., 80.

[5] Ibid., 80.

[6] Philip B. Harner, the “I Am” of the fourth gospel, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1970), 40.

[7] Ibid., 40.

[8] Leon Morris, Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989), 124.

[9] Against Heresies, 2:22.

[10] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), (Chicago, UCP, 1975), 144.

[11] Against Heresies, 2:22:6.

[12] Fr. John Behr, The Way to Nicaea V1 (Formation of Christian Theology) (Vol. 1) (The Formation of Christian Theology, V. 1), (Yonkers, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 130-131.

[13] Leon Morris, Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989), 124.

[14] Philip B. Harner, the “I Am” of the fourth gospel, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1970), 41.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] Ibid., 42.

[17] Margaret Barker, The Hidden tradition of the Kingdom of God, (London, SPCK, 2007), 120.

[18] Philip B. Harner, the “I Am” of the fourth gospel, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1970), 42.

[19] Ibid., 42.

[20] Leon Morris, Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989), 51.

[21] Elmer Towns, The Gospel of John: Believe and Live, (Chattanooga, AMG, 2002), 86.

[22] Ibid., 86.

[23] Ibid., xiv.

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