“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am."
What do we have here?
This saying of Jesus comes in the second to the last verse of chapter 8 of John's gospel. The last verse (v. 59) says "so they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple." The entire chapter has been one long confrontation between the Jewish leaders and Jesus in which the leaders attempt to understand just what kind of teacher Jesus is.
The chapter opens with the Scribes and Pharisees bringing Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery in order to test and see if he would apply the appropriate scriptural punishment to her. Under Rabbinic law, she would be stoned. But Jesus, in his own way, directs to a higher purpose -- "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her," and the crowd disperses.
The confrontation continues with the Pharisees questioning his statements, finally asking in verse 25, "Who are you?" Jesus answers this in a way that is unclear to the Pharisees, because he seems to be implying some sort of special relationship to the Father. To the ears of the Pharisees, this is getting close to blasphemy. They press further. Truth and freedom are at stake in the discussion. Father Abraham is cited and the questions are framed by the Pharisees, who is the faithful one here? Who is the blasphemer? They accuse Jesus of having a demon or being a Samaritan (v. 48). Jesus ups the ante with "Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death." Now the unbelief really comes out front and center. The Jews cite that even Abraham died, to which Jesus responds, "Your Father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad." This is too much for the Jews -- "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" (v. 57).
The hammer falls in verse 58: "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." This statement is simple and it is clear. One's response is either to bend the knee and bow the head before the Lord of the Universe, or pick up stones to throw to immediately kill this blaspheming, lying, fake Rabbi. This is the choice the Pharisees had, and we too ...
This oath from Jesus leaves no middle ground. Only God himself refers to himself as "I am." In the Greek this is ego eimi (ego eimi), "I, even I am." No mistaking this. When Moses asks God who it is that he should say sent him (Moses) to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, God responds "JHWH" in the Hebrew. It can mean I am, I was, I will be. Time does not enter into the equation. This is translated ego eimi -- "I, even I am" in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. It is such a holy name that, to this day, no devout Jew will speak that divine name for fear of being accused of taking the Lord's name in vain.
Jesus does not say "before Abraham was, I was." He is not a reappearance of someone who knew Abraham when Abraham walked the earth. There is no reincarnation here. Jesus uses the divine name. He is the eternal one, the one "who was, who is, and is to come." This is how God identifies himself in Revelation 1:8.
What do we have? We have Jesus saying "I am." From our perspective, "he is." There is no getting around this fact. Jesus is -- forever, always, eternally. We can try "whistling through the graveyard," pretending he does not exist, he doesn't matter, he doesn't care, he is unimportant; but in the depth of our being, we know he is. His presence and his reality looms behind, ahead, and with us forever. I am so glad "he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." (Psalm 145:8)
Everything is nothing otherwise.
Remember Whose you are --