Centuries prior, when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, He identified Himself this way, in Exodus 3:14-15 (ESV):
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
In v. 14, God twice calls Himself אהיה (ʾEhyeh or ʾEhyah), which is the first person singular imperfect form of the verb היה (Hayah, “to be” or “to exist”). “First person” means that it is what one would use in reference to one’s self, accompanied by a pronoun “I” or “we.” Yet “singular” means that “we” is excluded. In this context, the Lord is One, in contrast to אלוהים (Elohim), which theoretically is plural. By “imperfect form,” it is meant that the action is continuous or habitual, signifying God’s existence in the past and His continuing existence. In v. 15, God instructs Moses to use His Name יהוה (Yahaweh or Yahweh), the third person form of אהיה (ʾEhyeh), which one would use in reference to a third party, accompanied by the pronoun “he.” (“They” is excluded as a plural. “She” and “it” also can be excluded because the word is decidedly masculine.)
What does this all mean in reference to Christ’s words in John 8:58? Hypothetically, a person, in conversation with others, would refer to God only as יהוה (Yahweh) or “HE IS.” He would never use אהיה (ʾEhyeh) or “I AM” since that would be, at best, poor grammar and, at worst, claims of self-deification. (Note that some lyricists of modern praise choruses could possibly be accused of blasphemy since they are notorious for incorrectly using “I AM” in this way.) When John writes ἐγὼ εἰμί (egō eimi), he is using the same Greek words that the Jewish translators of the Septuagint (LXX) chose for Exodus 3:14.
While it might be fashionable at times to insist that Jesus was the promised Messiah but never claimed to be divine, there is no mistaking the text. According to John, Jesus unabashedly declared that He is God, and the unbelieving Jews present reacted as might be expected. One of the following must be true: either John’s record, with all of its beautiful sayings and historical facts, is grossly unreliable; or Jesus is God as He claimed; or Jesus was guilty of committing blasphemy, the worst sin imaginable. Which would you choose?
This devotional was written as an assignment for Robert T. Davis’ course on “Johannine Literature,” which I am currently auditing at the Southern California School of Evangelism at Buena Park Church of Christ.