The Incarnate I Am
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (vv. 58–59).- John 8:56–59
Clearly, the tension rose throughout Jesus’ dialogue with the Jews recorded in John 8:31–55. The Jews became increasingly frustrated as Jesus accused them of not really believing Him, of not being the children of Abraham or God, and of being the children of the devil. But in their minds, our Lord did not cross the line entirely until He spoke the words recorded in today’s passage.
Returning to the discussion of Abraham, Jesus acknowledged that the patriarch was the father of His Jewish interlocutors physically, but not spiritually. Our Savior said to them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (v. 56), again pointing out the spiritual difference between Abraham and his professed descendants. Unlike Abraham, who truly rejoiced at seeing Christ, these Jews had only a superficial trust in Jesus, thereby proving that they were not really the patriarch’s children. But what does it mean that Abraham saw Jesus’ day? Our Lord may have been alluding to the common rabbinic belief that God had revealed the secrets of the messianic age to Abraham, in which case He would have been making a claim to being the Messiah if His day is what Abraham saw. That would agree with Hebrews 11:13–16, which tells us that Abraham died in faith, looking forward to the complete fulfillment of God’s promises.
Yet, today’s passage also indicates that Jesus revealed far more than His messianic office when He said Abraham saw His day. When the Jews responded with incredulity, asking how He, a man younger than fifty, saw Abraham, who lived millennia earlier, Jesus made an even bolder claim: “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:57–58). Christ was saying more than that He preexisted Abraham, for He did not say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” Instead, He was drawing from the Old Testament and God’s covenant name revealed therein. As we have seen, the Greek construction behind the English translation “I am” (egō eimi) is the same one used when God revealed Himself to Moses. Thus, “Jesus claimed for Himself equality with the Father by clearly using the divine name that God revealed to Moses (Ex. 3:14). Jesus identified Himself as eternal deity, declaring that He was alive as the second person of the Trinity before Abraham was born” (R.C. Sproul, John).
Clearly, the Jews understood Jesus to mean this, for they tried to stone Him for blasphemy. And if Jesus were an ordinary man, His claims would be blasphemous. But He could speak them without sin because He truly is the incarnate I am (John 1:14).
Some people are willing to put Jesus on the same plane as other renowned religious leaders such as Buddha or Muhammad. In light of Jesus’ claims about Himself, however, we cannot do that. Jesus is not just another religious sage—He is God incarnate. God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus, and He retains that flesh forever. This claim separates Christianity from other world religions, and we must not be afraid to declare it.
Passages for Further Study