You have likely heard the phrase uttered about someone who makes bombastic statements, “Give him enough rope, and he’ll hang himself.” That is essentially what is going on in the controversial dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish leadership in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel.
Notice the generally short remarks of the Jews with Jesus as compared to his longer responses. They are attempting to lead him forward with a series of questions and statements in order to have him condemn himself in his responses. The effort was to get Jesus to come right out and say that he was God – a blasphemy punishable by stoning according to the Law in Leviticus 24:16 which says, “The one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him” (NASB).
The heat is rising throughout this chapter as Jesus makes some very strong statements such as:
1) “I am the light of the world” (8:12)
2) “I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” (8:18)
3) “You are from below, I am from above” (8:23)
4) “… if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.” (8:24)
5) “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” (8:28)
6) “I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence.” (8:38)
Add to the mix the very frontal statements of Christ that these unbelieving Jews are from their father the devil. Obviously Jesus is not building a consensus here!
And it finally all boils over in verse 58, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” At this point, they pick up the rocks to stone him. Why there? Why not before that point?
Up until verse 58 they are essentially giving him the briefest sliver of a benefit of doubt. You can almost hear them thinking, “Wait for it … wait for it.” AH – there it is! He said it! Those two little words – I AM – were the final evidence of him equating himself with God.
The Greek helps us here just a bit – most likely. The words are “ego eimi.” The verb “eimi” in the Greek language is first person singular and contains the pronoun “I” in it … the only reason to add the “ego” is for the purpose of giving it extra emphasis. It was like saying, “Before Abraham was born, I am!”
But you might still wonder why this riled them up so much at this specific moment. That is because there was NO DOUBT what Jesus was saying. He was identifying himself with the very commonly known and central, prominent passage of Exodus 3:14 – the definitional statement of who the God of Israel is. When Moses is arguing with God about the assignment he is being given, he says to God …
13 “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?”
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”, “So who shall I say sent me?” And God answers, “I am has sent me to you.”
By this, God was saying that He, the one true God of Israel – the self-existent One – was the one who was sending Moses.
The “ego eimi” left no doubt whatsoever as to what Jesus was claiming and saying. The only thing saving Christ from being stoned to death at this moment was his divinely-enabled escape, as again, it was not the time for the sacrifice.
The question of the Jews in today’s reading in verse 53 – Who do you think you are? – is a timeless one that raises the question as to the exact identity of Jesus Christ. We are hitting on this same application over and over in this section of the Gospel of John. But it is timeless. Even in protestant churches today there are pastors and parishioners who do not see Jesus above the level of a divinely-inspired man like any other man … merely a great teacher and moral example. But they do not see him as God in the flesh, one with the Father – the Son of God as the second person of the Trinity. But he is God Up Close; and because of that, he is able to take our sins upon himself, pay the price as the perfect sacrifice, and having defeated death is able to genuinely offer us his eternal life with him.
It makes all the difference in knowing and believing that Jesus is EGO EIMI – God.
John 8:31-59 More Disputes with Religious Leadership
31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”
39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered.
“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the works of your own father.”
“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46 Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
Jesus’ Claims About Himself
48 The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”
49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
52 At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.