Jesus said, “I am”
Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me . . . . Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
“You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (john 8:54–58)
Throughout history, many people have thought highly of Jesus even while dismissing the notion that he ever did anything supernatural. Thomas Jefferson was one of those people. Jefferson even edited the four gospels so that they retained the words of Jesus but excluded his miracles and his claims to be God.
“We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists,” Jefferson wrote to John Adams. (By evangelists, he meant the gospel accounts.) He told Adams that he would “select . . . the very words only of Jesus,” adding that these words were “fragments of the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man”—high praise for Jesus indeed! Yet Jefferson refused to admit that Jesus could be God.
Jefferson knew that Jesus claimed to be God. But many today who believe that Jesus was merely a great teacher or a wonderful moral example are surprised to learn that Christ never made such claims. But what did Jesus say about himself?
The Jewish people view their ancestor Abraham as the patriarch of their religion. According to their holy Scriptures, God told Abraham to leave his country as well as his father and mother to travel to the land now called Israel. The Lord promised Abraham the land and told him that his descendants would be as impossible to count as the stars in the heavens.
Since Abraham lived about 2,000 years before Christ, Jesus astonished his audience when he stated that Abraham anticipated his coming. That’s impossible! they thought. Jesus was not even fifty years old, and yet he claimed to know the thoughts of one who lived over two millennia before he was born.
This is where the plot thickens. Because many of us are unfamiliar with the Jewish Scriptures (what many call the Old Testament), we miss the original shock-value of Jesus’s reply: “Before Abraham was born, I am!” But Jesus’s audience knew exactly what he was saying.
When God first appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush, Moses asked him, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (exodus 3:13–14). One scholar explains, “The name should thus be understood as referring to [God’s] being the creator and sustainer of all that exists and thus the Lord of both creation and history, all that is and all that is happening.”1
In essence, Jesus is telling his listeners that he is the One who spoke to Moses. He existed long before Abraham was born because he is the eternal, everlasting God who has no beginning or end. He simply “is.” And in case we think that we’re reading into the text something that Jesus didn’t really mean to say, John’s gospel adds the following: “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (john 8:59).
Why would they attempt to kill Jesus for making such a statement? We get the plain answer later, when they again tried to stone Jesus. He was in the temple courts when the people asked him point blank, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (john 10:24). Jesus told them, “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep” (vv. 25–26). Then he got their attention with a statement they couldn’t miss: “I and the Father are one” (v. 30v. 30).
At that, the crowd picked up stones to kill him. “‘We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God’” (v. 33).
If Jesus’s claim is true, it changes everything. Throughout the centuries, countless people have claimed to teach us about God, but their teachings often contradict each other. Why should we believe one rather than another—or any of them for that matter? But Jesus is different. He is not merely a religious teacher or even a prophet sent by God. He tells us he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Our Creator came to earth in the person of Jesus so that we could know what he is truly like and not have to rely on religious speculation. No wonder people were astonished—and put off—by his teachings!
As we read the other “I am” statements in this booklet, we may be confused by the fact that Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father. How can God pray to himself? The earliest Christians wrestled with this conundrum. They knew that one of the most important teachings of Judaism was found in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (6:4). In other words, there is only one God and all others are mere idols. Therefore, Jesus could not be claiming to be a second God.
The early church eventually concluded that they were dealing with a mystery beyond human comprehension. They called this mystery the “Trinity.” There is only one God who exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Throughout the centuries, many skeptics have rejected the idea of the Trinity because it seemingly defies logic. Jefferson wrote that the “paradox that one is three, and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea?”2
And yet today we know that many scientific discoveries are beyond our comprehension. Light sometimes behaves as a wave and at other times like a particle. It cannot be both, but it refuses to obey the dictates of human logic. The Big Bang theory tells us that the universe had a beginning, but science reaches its limits in trying to explain either how or why. And when we measure a particle in one part of the universe, that measurement instantaneously affects its twin particle in another part of the universe, because the two are mysteriously “entangled.” Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.”3 It’s humbling to realize the limits of our understanding.
In the first sentences of John’s gospel, he stretches our thinking when he describes the mystery of the Trinity in the following way, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (john 1:1–3).
Thinking about Jesus, if he is God, how does your perception of God change when you think about what Jesus said and did?
1 D. K. Stuart, Exodus Vol. 2, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2006), p. 121.
3 For light behaving as both a wave and a particle, see https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bring-science-home-light-wave-particle/;for the “Big Bang,” see http://www.universetoday.com/54756/what-is-the-big-bang-theory/; for “spooky action at a distance,” see https://phys.org/news/2015-11-nist-team-spooky-action-distance.html;