The “I Am” Saying of John 8:58

By: A.G. Martin

In studying the Gospel of John, there are certain statements that jump out begging for attention. After further review it is clear that these are statements that have always fascinated theologians. I am referring to the “I Am” statements of Jesus. Leon Morris says of these statements, “A significant feature of the fourth Gospel is a series of sayings in which Jesus uses an emphatic “I AM” to bring out important teachings about his person.”[1] Why is this significant? The “I Am” statements of Jesus link directly back to Yahweh in the Old Testament as an exclusive title. D.A. Carson points out, “A diversity of ‘I am…’ formulae in the OT by which Yahweh repeatedly discloses himself. He reveals himself as the God of the patriarchs.”[2] Likewise, Jesus is revealing himself as God to not only the people of His day, but also to those who study His word in the present day.

When examining these sayings, there are several statements of “I Am” with predicates that follow. These statements are as follows, “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the door,” “I am the true shepherd,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” “I am the way the truth and the life,” and “I am the true vine.” There are two statements however, that do not have a following predicate. These are found in verses John 8:58, and John 13:19. “These two are undeniably absolute in both form and content and constitute an explicit self-identification with Yahweh, who had already reveled himself to men in similar terms.”[3] In this paper I will focus on the absolute “I Am” statement in John 8:58, “Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” I will look at the event surrounding this statement of Jesus. I will also show how this saying relates to God in the Old Testament, and how it reveals the deity of Christ.

To set the scene, Dr. Towns indicates that Jesus is talking with the Jews in the temple area (8:20), and it was on the Sabbath (9:14). The Feast of Tabernacles has just taken place in the previous chapter. Jesus explaining to the Pharisees that in Him there is liberty, and to refuse His offer resulted in bondage. Dr. Towns continues showing Jesus’ teaching to the Jews and separates His teaching into three categories: Bondage declared (8:31-36), Bondage explained (8:36-47), and Bondage demonstrated (8:47-59).  The Jews were thinking when Jesus began speaking of bondage that He meant political bondage. Stating that they are the offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone (v.33). Ironically, they quickly forgot about their slavery to Egypt, and Babylon. Nevertheless, as Dr. Towns points out, He was not speaking of political bondage but rather of the bondage of sin.[4] “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (v.34). The Pharisees talked of how they were children of Abraham, but Jesus explains to them that they do not live like Abraham. The Jews say Abraham is their father. Jesus’ reply is that their father Abraham rejoiced that he would see the day of Jesus (v.56). Speaking of Jesus, the coming Messiah. Confused by this, they began to mock Jesus saying there is no way He could have seen Abraham since Jesus is not even fifty years of age. Jesus then lays claim to His deity telling them straight, “Before Abraham was, I Am” (v58).

Dr. Towns mentions, “John is the only gospel that records the ‘I am’ sayings of Christ.”[5]The “I Am” we read is translated from the Greek “ego eimi.” Ego eimi, while used in John’s Gospel has its roots in the Old Testament book of Isaiah where it is translated from the Hebrew, “ani hu.” This shows us that John writing, had a strong understanding of the Greek Septuagint. “It is true that many [of the “I Am” sayings] go directly to Exodus 3:14 for the background, but it is felt that unless one first establishes the connection with the direct quotation of ego eimi in the Septuagint, the connection with Exodus 3:14 will be somewhat tenuous.”[6] As stated before, connection that points Johns use of ego eimi to the Septuagint comes directly through the book of Isaiah. We can see this in Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 45:18; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; and 52:6. These verses are the direct connection to the Old Testament with Exodus 3:14 as the underlying foundation where God, Yahweh, declares Himself to be the “I Am.” The eternal God who has always existed.

As Christians, the deity of Christ is central to us. On this issue there is no compromise. Either Christ is God, or we are all fools for following Him. In this “I Am” statement we see clearly that Jesus is calling Himself God. Since we know that “I Am” is a name for God, and that God would use this name in the Old Testament to reveal Himself; when we see Jesus place this title upon Himself, He is telling the Jews directly, “I Am Yahweh.” After saying this, the Jews picked up stones to throw at Him (v.59). The reason they were picking up stones is because they viewed this statement from Jesus as blasphemous. That Jesus, a man, who is not yet fifty years old declares Himself to be God. They [the Jews] understood Jesus’ claim and followed Leviticus 24:16, which indicates that any man who falsely claims to be God should be stoned.[7]

When analyzing John 8:58, you see the direct connection back to the Old Testament. You also see Jesus’ claim that He is the eternal God. What you should recognize as well, is that one cannot make the connection from Jesus to Yahweh apart from the Trinitarian belief.[8] In verse 42 Jesus says, “I came from God, and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.” Two distinct persons sharing one nature of God. Jesus, claiming He came from God the Father, along with His claim to be the “I Am,” eternal God, and joined with John’s discussions of the Holy Spirit all throughout the Gospel, leads to the foundation of the doctrine of the trinity. This is yet another reason why this absolute “I Am” statement is important. It speaks directly to the triune nature of God.

[1] Leon Morris, Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1989) p.107

[2] D.A. Carson, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: “I Am” sayings Edited by Walter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics. 2001) p. 585

[3] D.A. Carson, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: “I Am” sayings Edited by Walter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics. 2001) p. 585

[4] Elmer Towns, The Gospel of John: Believe and Live (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2002) p.84-85

[5] Elmer Towns, The Gospel of John: Believe and Live (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2002) p. xiv

[6] James White, Purpose and Meaning of “Ego Eimi” in the Gospel of John In Reference to the Deity of Christ Aomin.org

[7] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible: The Holy Bible, New King James Version (Word Publishing, Thomas Nelson, INC.,1997) p.1601

[8] James White, Purpose and Meaning of “Ego Eimi” in the Gospel of John In Reference to the Deity of Christ Aomin.org

About the Author matteroftheology

In a culture where personal preference runs wild, it is important to look to what the bible says about topics talked about in our every day lives. On this page you can expect difficult topics to be examined and talked about. In writing it will not simply be my own personal preference. I have no right to push personal preference on anyone believer or not. However, if the bible is in fact the word of God, and God has spoken, then we need to know what He has said despite what our personal preferences might be.

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