Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Devotional: John 8:48-59

In John 8:58, Jesus makes one of only a few claims to deity, but arguably the most pointed: “[B]efore Abraham was, I AM.” Not even hesitating to consider that a death sentence would need to be pushed through the proper Roman channels (John 18:31), the crowd of witnesses, impassioned by Christ’s words, immediately commenced stoning Him, the punishment for blasphemy imposed under the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 24:16). The reason for their fury was that Jesus was not merely claiming to have existed prior to Abraham. Rather, He was claiming the One True God’s Holy Name for Himself.

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.


  1. Good presentation, Jenny. I have been teaching this for 30 years. Good to see someone else doing so, and very clearly. Well done!


    1. exegete77: Thanks. The instructor seemed pleased with it too.

  2. This is what I try to point out to some of the Muslims I have encountered and have been fortunate enough to share in conversations and meals with. Muslims do not believe that Jesus ever claimed to be divine in any way. They, of course, camp out on statements made by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John is another matter because Jesus does make such overt claims to divinity which is evidenced by the fact that his fellow Jews wanted to kill him for committing what they believed was blasphemy.

    Grace and Peace,


    1. Rex: Thanks for your comment. Yes, I've heard that Muslims claim that those parts of the Gospels were corrupted later by Christians. What puzzles me is why God would let His Word in the Torah and Gospels become corrupted but ensure that His Word in the Qu'ran would be preserved, as they insist. If the previous two could be corrupted, according to them, why not the third also?

    2. The Muslims I have interacted with view the Qu'ran in the same way that fundamentalist Christian views the KJV Bible. That is, they have a hard time with any critical conversations regarding the Qu'ran. Now part of that is due also to the fact that for a Muslim, the Qu'ran is on the same level that Christians hold Jesus on. So I understand why they are hesitant to entertain any critical conversations about the Qu'ran but if they (or anyone) are going to making critical statements about the Bible then it only seems that the same can be done for their "holy book."

  3. Very good discussion.

    Jesus used "I am" again in John 18:5 to the men seeking to arrest him. They must have felt the weight of his words because they drew back and fell to the ground. I'm not sure exactly what was happening there, but there was some kind of powerful dynamic at work.

    Good post.

    1. Warren: Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure what exactly caused that reaction. I've heard one theory that, when Jesus spoke, they were physically blown away.

  4. Good post Jenny.
    Yes the Lord Jesus is the Lord God the Almighty the creator of heaven and earth and beside Him is no other.
    He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end and the only true God (1 John 5:20).
    Kind regards

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