With his statement that “before Abraham was born, I AM”, Jesus breaks into some sacred territory for the Pharisees.
The association with I AM is a statement about the identity of Jesus. In the history of the Hebrew people, when God directs Moses to return to Egypt and lead, the name I AM THAT I AM is the title given. (This is not the only name for God in the Hebrew scripture, but became the most recognizable and venerated.)
This is the name that affirms God’s presence among the people, a presence that is displayed through the acts of the Exodus from Egypt and through the wilderness toward Canaan. It also coveys a mystical sense of belonging outside of temporal existence. I AM locates God in an eternal state of the present tense, while the literal translation can read I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE places this identity firmly in the unknowable future. The significance of this quantum time warp is that God’s reality is not the same as our reality and that God is beyond our manipulation or control. This intrusion of the eternal and mystical upon the temporal is not something entered into lightly.
It is fitting, then, that John uses this same charged language in presenting the presence of God alive in the person of Jesus. For John, the presence of Jesus is the sign that God is present with his people in the same way in the exodus that served to liberate an oppressed covenant people.
When Jesus declares that before Abraham’s birth, “I AM” (John 8), he reiterates this same existence and power beyond the scope of natural life. The Pharisee’s response, to bludgeon him to death, reveals the connotations of this blasphemous statement. The identity of God is present in Jesus’ life and ministry, and you cannot separate the man Jesus from the identity of God. John peppers his gospel with statements from Jesus that resonate with the I AM rooting Jesus’ identity firmly in the presence of God. Beyond the I AM statements, John presents Jesus as an eternal partner with God, writing,
In the beginning was the Word (Jesus)
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything can into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.
What came into being
through the Word was life,
and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:1-5)
What is remarkable about the gospel of John is the assertion that Jesus is what God looks like when he shows up in the flesh (in-carne). Clearer than leaders, prophets, or scriptures, God shows up in person to show us what it means to live faithful, full, and free lives.
For Jesus to be God revealing himself to humanity, we look to him for our definitions of both God and humanity. His character and teaching is our authority and foundation for truth. (And what do we see of God in Jesus’ character and teaching? The presence of God with his enemies, empathy for the hurt, compassion for the lost, and a reckless grace that extends to all of creation past the point of suffering and execution, and a new resurrected life, for starters…)
This is the linchpin to beginning our conversations about the four vision themes. As Christians, we look to Jesus, our experience with him, the community of his body, and the direction of mentors who exhibit his spirit to inform our understanding of identity, family, mission, and sacrifice.