To present Jesus of Nazareth as, none other than the YHWH (יהוה, YHWH) of Old Testament Scripture is the sole purpose of this writing. The author of the Gospel of John recounts moments in the earthly ministry of Jesus where He identified Himself as YHWH. In the LXX or Septuagint (translation of the Hebrew Scripture into Koine Greek) the verb construction equivalent to the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH is ἐγώ εἰμί (egō eimi). It is precisely Jesus’s usage of egō eimi that will be considered here, for the expressed purpose of identifying Jesus as no less than the God revealed in Scripture.
The construction of the Hebrew is not easy to discern. אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה is a form of “to be”. It has the sense of “I am” and “come to be”, at the same time. Yet the clearest usage of the utterance is presented within the context of Moses and the Burning Bush narrative of Exodus 3. Here it is used in this manner: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’ ” (Exodus 3:14, NASB). “The Septuagint… renders the opening of the phrase in Exod 3:14 as ἐγώ εἰμί (egō eimi), which amounts to a title for God elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4; 51:12; 52:6)” (Miller 2015).
“When God would make His name known to mankind He could find no better word than ‘I AM.’ When He speaks in the first person He says, ‘I AM’; when we speak of Him we say, ‘He is’; when we speak to Him we say, ‘Thou art.’ Everyone and everything else measures from that fixed point. ‘I am that I am,’ says God, ‘I change not’” (A.W. Tozer ).
This could be interpreted to be prophetic, as if to say: “I AM and I AM to be”. “Grammatically, the imperfect form usually suggests a future or uncompleted state. Thus, the phrase can also be translated “I will be who I will be” (Miller 2015).Does this identification of אֱלֹהִים (Elohim) – GOD, indeed offer a prophetic glimpse forward to the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity? One thing is indisputable: God said that He is to be known by the name “I AM”. Therefore, I AM sent Moses to Egypt; I AM delivered the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt: I AM gave the Law to Moses; I AM delivered Israel into the Land of Promise; and it is IAM that promised Messiah.
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” John 8:58
Contextually, it all began on the Feast of Booths. During the midst of the feast, Jesus cried out in the temple, “You both know Me and know where I am from; and I have not come of Myself, but He who sent Me is true, whom you do not know. I know Him, because I am from Him, and He sent Me” (John 7:28-29). Jesus clearly declared that the people of the feast knew exactly who He revealed Himself to be, and from Whom He had come. He left them with no way out of this blatant confrontation with His Messiahship. In southern terms; He essentially said, “You know good and well that I am God; you just simply don’t know God.” He argues that the reason that they don’t readily accept Him as come from God, is because they really do not know God. As a result of these statements; some believed in Him while others wanted Him dead. (Towns, 73) The confusion of the gathered crowds lead to a failed arrest of Jesus by the temple police and a few confrontations with the “Jews” (leaders of Jewish religious life).
With a divided multitude and a furious Jewish leadership; the context of the immediate passage is to be understood. Look now at the “crowning moment” (for our purposes); the grand discovery of Christ’s deity; the ageless reference to I AM. Probably four or five days after His mid-feast declaration, the Jews come to confront Jesus for causing such disturbance among the festival crowd. (Remember: Jesus had already declared that He was the Source of “Living Water” (Jn.7:37-38) at the pouring out of the water ceremony, on the Great Day of the feast.) The Feast of Booths had effectively been ruined by this Teacher from Galilee. The Feast had ended and all of the pilgrims were preparing to return to their homes (or had already dispersed). “The stage has thus been set for the major confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus” (Borchert, 294). Now was the time for the Jewish leadership to shut this Jesus down, with their superiority and political pressure.
The Jews issue the argument that Jesus is not a credible witness, due to the fact that He has no witnesses to support His assertions. Their argument was provoked further by another of Jesus’ significant egō eimi declarations, to the lingering crowd. “Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12). The sides are sharply drawn; the Jews reject Jesus outright, and Jesus knows who He is. Cosmically the absence of witnesses is an absurd objection as Dr Towns points out, “In the context of Jesus’ claim to be the light, the rules of evidence are irrelevant. One might as well argue that the sun is not shining if it is the only one declaring itself to be the sun” (Towns, 82). “Jesus picked up the theme of the wilderness wanderings and proclaimed for those who followed him that they would not walk in darkness but have the light of life” (Borchert, 296).
Furious over the implications, the Pharisees initiated a debate that resulted in Jesus declaring, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). It is worth noting that the dialogue between them had returned to the mid-feast “set-up” statement, “You both know Me and know where I am from; and I have not come of myself, but He who sent Me is true, whom you do not know. I know Him, because I am from Him, and He sent Me” (John 7:28-29). The implications are clearly honed in, by Jesus, to confront the Jewish leadership. Compare Jesus’ statements in this current dialogue with His original statement in 7:28-29. “Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going” (John 8:14); “You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also” (John 8:19). It is evident here, that Jesus is again indicating that the Pharisees did not know the One who sent Him or where He came from. Jesus is effectively separating the leaders from the One who sent Him; thereby, drawing the conclusion that they are of a different stock than they suppose themselves to be.
Their argument ultimately came to a head with this identification of the unbelieving Jews. Their argument is made in vs 33, “We are Abraham’s descendants…”, and again, “They answered and said to Him, ‘Abraham is our father’” (John 8:39). Jesus responded by revealing the truth that they, in fact, were not of Abraham; because they did not do the deeds of Abraham. Nor were they the children of God (vs.42). He goes on to say, “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father…” (John 8:44). “The Jews obviously realized that he was rendering a judgment on their status, and they countered …” (Borchert, 305). In response, this infuriated collection of religious elitist, call Jesus a Samaritan and a devil (vs.49).
The dark hearts of the Pharisees were further convinced that Jesus was possessed of a devil after He put forth, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death”(vs. 51). Here we come to the “meat of the matter”. They understand Abraham and the prophets to be dead. Their question to Him, was then, in essence, Who do you think you are? “They suspect that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy as they charged in 5:18 in making himself equal with God. Later they will make it specifically (10:33; 19:7). They set a trap for Jesus for this purpose” (Robertson, Jn 8:53).The answer to this condescending bunch was no less than, “I Am God.”
Dr. J Vernon McGee describes this moment:
“They hate Him so much that they want to kill Him. They have murder in their hearts, and He has nothing but love in His. He is going to go to the Cross to die for them. They are thinking of death for Him, but He is offering them life. ‘If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.’ He is offering them eternal life, spiritual life. My friend, this Jesus is more than a man” (McGee, 144-145).
Jesus responds to this venomous crowd with these direct words of truth. “It is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’; and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word. ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad’” (Jn 8:54–56).
“The clear answer to their question was thus, that Abraham acknowledged the superiority/priority of Jesus and not the reverse” (Borchert, 308). But how could Abraham “see” Jesus’ day? Was he seeing it from Heaven? No, the text declares “and he (Abraham) saw it? This speaks of an action of the past, right? “Jewish speculation is not a clear indication of what Jesus meant by his statement, but the Jews realized they needed to deal seriously with him. The question was, How could Abraham have seen him?” (Borchert, 308). The answer is coming soon from the Savior.
“How did Abraham ‘see’ our Lord’s day, that is, His life and ministry on earth? The same way he saw the future city: by faith (Heb. 11:10, 13–16). God did not give Abraham some special vision of our Lord’s life and ministry, but He did give him the spiritual perception to ‘see’ these future events” (Wiersbe, 323). Obviously, these “supposed” children of Abraham did not exhibit the same faith of Abraham; therefore, they were bankrupt of any spiritual perception to see the “express image” of YHWH standing before them. In contrast, John testifies, “We saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The contrast could not have been sharper. Those who believed in Jesus were the faithful and believing recipients of Divine Light; while, the men of religious standing were void of any Light and reflected the nature of the devil.
Jesus reveals his greatest light to these “sons” of Satan. “Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). Here it is, the ultimate egō eimi! His statement found in John 8:58 can be translated, “Before Abraham came into being, I AM.” “Again, this was another affirmation of His divine sonship; and the Jewish leaders received it as such. He had once again made Himself equal with God (John 5:18), and this was the sin of blasphemy, worthy of death (Lev. 24:16)” (Wiersbe, 323). That is, unless this clear claim to deity; is, in fact true. It is true, and it effectively demonstrates that Jesus deliberately ascribes eternal divinity to Himself.
Dr. Towns points to the “double-truly(s)” of Jesus as always addressing the doubters and the unbelieving. The “before Abraham was” indicates a pre-existence of Jesus. The “I Am” reflects YHWH; just as it did in Moses’ day. Therefore, what the Jews heard from the divine lips of the Master was in effect, “You unbelieving doubters need to know that I am ever GOD; even before Abraham was formed in his mother’s womb. I am Abraham’s God.” The I Am is finite human vocabulary expressing the infinite. The “ever-eternally present” is indicated. This answers all metaphysical problems presented in the dialogue. Just as God ever “is”; so Jesus ever ‘is” I Am. Morris points out, “Jesus is saying that it is important that those addressed come to trust him as the I AM, which looks very much like a claim to share in the nature of deity. People must see Jesus as one with the Father and trust him as such” (Morris, 123).He further remarks, “He was a man, but he was more, and passages like these bring out the ‘more’” (Morris, 124).
This statement of the Master brings an abrupt end to the conversation. “The claim to have been in existence before Abraham must be either delusional or a statement that the speaker was sovereign over time” (Morris, 124). Evidence suggested to the Pharisees that Jesus was “at the least” making a definitive claim to be sovereign over time. They indicate their thoughts by picking up stones, in order to stone Him for blasphemy. Yet, Jesus slips away, into the crowd.
The great apologist and Christian author, C.S. Lewis brings this entire series of events to its intended climax.
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Lewis, 52-56).
As presented, Jesus stood up and cried out during one of the three most important feasts of the Jews; that each individual knew who He was and from Whom He had come (John 7:28-29). He rendered nearly the exact verdict upon the group of Pharisees. Taken as a whole; He announced the reason for their lack of understanding was due to their lack of spiritual knowledge of God. He repudiated the argument that these Jews were the spiritual sons of Abraham and God, based on the intent of their hearts. Essentially, He is saying, I am God and you are not. The altars are open. Come to Jesus. Accepting Him as deity was one of the two options placed on the table. The other option was to reject the YHWH.
The absolute use of egō eimi in 8:58 expresses the unity of the Father and the Son (Morris, 124). No other conclusion could be drawn. It surely was the conclusion of the Pharisees who attempted to stone Him. The Gospel writer, himself, claimed this to be the intended outcome for those who read it. “But these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
Borchert, Gerald L. John 1–11. Vol. 25A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. London: Collins, 1952.
McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary: The Gospels (John1-10). Vol. 38. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991.
Miller, Jeffery E. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015.
Morris, Leon. Jesus is the Christ: studies in the theology of John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.
New American Standard Bible:1995. LaHabra: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933.
Towns, Elmer . The Gospel of John: Believe and Live. Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2002.
Tozer, A.W., and E. Marilynne Foster. Tozer on the Holy Spirit:. Camp Hill: WingSpread, 2007.
Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary. Vol. 1. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1996.