The Most Shocking Thing Jesus Ever Said1
When Jesus declared to the religious leaders of his day that “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day” and that “he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56), this was more than they could stomach. He’s gone too far, they said to themselves. How can you possibly know what Abraham saw and what brought him joy? You haven’t seen him. Abraham was born in 2,160 b.c., or thereabouts. But “you are not yet fifty years old” (v. 57). Abraham was buried over 2,000 years ago! How dare you say that you know him or what he was thinking.
They mention being 50 years old because this was the age at which the Levites were compelled to retire from their work in the Temple (Num. 8:23-26). Thus, the age of 50 was when a priest was regarded as attaining seniority. “Jesus, you haven’t even reached seniority, and yet you claim to have seen or known Abraham and are aware of what he saw and felt!” And then he says it:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
Literally, “before Abraham came to be, I am.” Before Abraham even existed, I am. Jesus is here contrasting a mode of being or a mode of existence that had a beginning with a mode of existence that is eternal. The contrast is between existence initiated by birth and uninitiated existence.
There was a time, says Jesus, when Abraham didn’t exist. There was a time in the life of his mother and father when they were not yet his parents. There was a time when the person named Abraham came into existence. Abraham isn’t eternal. He didn’t exist prior to his conception in the womb of his mother and his physical birth. Prior to that moment, there was no Abraham.
But such is not the case with me, says Jesus. Jesus does not say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” He is not pointing to the fact that he existed before Abraham did. He is not simply saying that he was temporally prior to Abraham. The point is that Jesus transcends time altogether!
Jesus does not stand within a temporal series of great men beginning with Adam, as if he is comparing himself with Noah and Isaac and Moses and Joshua and Isaiah and Obadiah. No. He belongs to a different order of being altogether. The notion of “becoming” doesn’t even apply to the Son of God.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Sam, what about Christmas? We just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Granted, we acknowledge that he was conceived in the womb of a virgin. But he was still conceived! He was born, was he not?” Yes. But who was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary? The eternal one who always existed as the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, united himself to human nature and was given birth by Mary.
Let’s be absolutely sure we know what we’re talking about here. The birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem was not the beginning to be of the Son of God. Yes, you say in response, we know that he was actually conceived around 9 months earlier. True, but even that conception in the womb of Mary was not the beginning to be of the Son of God. The Word, who according to John 1:1, was in the beginning and was with God and was himself God, this Word at a point in time “became flesh” (John 1:14). But this wasn’t the start or the beginning or the first stage in the existence of God the Son, the Word. No, it was simply the point in time at which the eternal Word entered into human history as Jesus of Nazareth.
There is a sense in which it is incorrect to say that Jesus has always existed. The Word has always existed. The Son of God, second person of the Trinity, has always existed. There has never been a time when the Word, the Son of God, didn’t exist. But Jesus, the God-man, the child of Mary, the one in whom there is the union of divine and human natures, didn’t exist until by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit he was conceived in her womb. Little wonder that the apostle Paul exploded with the declaration: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh!” (1 Tim. 3:16a).
So, don’t ever think that what the angels announced and the shepherds saw with their eyes was the beginning to be of God the Son. No. They saw and witnessed the beginning to be not of God, but of the God-man, Jesus the Messiah.
Without a renewed heart and spiritual eyes, it is little wonder that the religious leaders couldn’t understand what Jesus was saying. He was saying to them, and to us, that his identity as the Word who became flesh stands outside of time altogether. December 25th, or whatever date you prefer to identify as the day of his earthly birth, was not the beginning to be of the Son of God. It was rather the beginning to be of the Son of God’s existence as the God-man, the union of divine and human in the person of Jesus.
If all that Jesus had said to the religious leaders was something along the lines of: “I am a good and faithful follower of Abraham,” or “I am a student of Abraham,” or “I am a scholar when it comes to the life and times of Abraham,” or “I honor and obey Abraham,” they would not have protested. But he says, instead, before there even was an Abraham, I am!
These religious leaders of Israel were extremely familiar with the Old Testament. When they heard Jesus utter this claim, their minds would have raced back over numerous sayings that came from the mouth of Yahweh, one of which is found in the prophecy of Isaiah:
“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God. Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 43:10-13).
And again, they would not have missed the fact that Jesus was claiming to be the “I am” of Exodus 3.
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 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 (Exodus 3:13-15).
“I am the great I am,” says Jesus. This is a claim for absolute self-existence. He does not say “I am because” or “I am as a result of” or “I am dependent upon” or “I am if certain conditions are met” or any such thing. He owes his existence to no one and nothing outside of himself. He simply is.
The religious leaders not only were familiar with Isaiah 43 and Exodus 3, but also with Leviticus 24.
“Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death” (Lev. 24:16).
And so they proceeded to do precisely that: “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). Literally, it should probably read, “but Jesus was hidden,” most likely by the Father. He blinded the eyes of the religious leaders so that they couldn’t see him. He paralyzed the arms and legs of these men so that they could not follow him or lay hands on him.” Of course, the time will come when the Father will permit evil men to seize him, but not to be stoned, but crucified.
Surely, then, those two words, “I am,” are the most amazing, breath-taking, shocking words that ever came out of his mouth.