He Is the I Am, John 8:48-59, 11/18/12

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Nov 182012

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church


48The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’


49Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.  50Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge.  51Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’


52The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.”  53Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’


54Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, 55 though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word.  56Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’


57Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’


58Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’


59So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.  (John 8:48-59, NRSV)



Before we look more closely at the passage we just read, I want us to rewind a bit.  To fully understand what we read in the New Testament, we always have to first understand what we read in the Old Testament.  So go with me back to Exodus 3.  At this time, the Israelites are slaves inEgyptand Moses, an Israelite himself and the adopted grandson of Pharaoh, has fled fromEgyptbecause he is wanted for murder.  For forty years he is an exile in the wilderness.  And then one day, God comes to meet him.  On a mountain called Horeb, God shows up in a burning bush and speaks to Moses.  God says to him, “I have seen the suffering of my people back inEgyptand I want you, Moses, to go down to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go.”


Well, as you might remember, Moses isn’t exactly thrilled with God’s idea.  In fact, he sees a lot of problems with this plan.  He’s just a simple shepherd, a wanted man, an old man.  He’s got no credentials, no army, nothing with which to bargain.  Furthermore, the Israelites have been in slavery for 400 years.  By now they certainly have forgotten all about God.  They are going to have no idea who this is who is going to rescue them.  That’s why Moses asks God, “Listen, Lord, when I go to them and tell them their God sent me, they are going to want to know your name.  I don’t know your name.  What should I tell them?”


That’s when God said these timeless words Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.  That’s what you will say to them, Moses.  Tell them, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’  This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.”[1]  In one of most important moments in the entire biblical account, we are told the very name of God.  I AM WHO I AM.


You need to understand that this is the highest expression of divine self-reference that has ever been spoken.  This is theMount Everestamong all the names and titles God ever gives to Himself.  In giving Himself this name, God is proclaiming, “I am uncaused.  I am eternal.  I have no beginning.  I have no end.  I am past, I am future, I am present.  I am above time and space.  I do not exist, I am existence.  Everything exists because of me.  I am transcendent above all.  I AM WHO I AM and nothing about that will ever change.”  You see, nobody but God can ever go by this name.


With this name God revealed to us so much about His nature.  For one, we learn that God is personal.  God has a name.  God is not just a force or energy, but a being who knows us and who can be known by us.  In some ways, this name brings God closer to us.  And yet in other ways it makes God farther way, at least higher up.  Yes, God is a personal being who can be known, but at the same time God is a being who is far higher above us than we can ever imagine.


As some of you know, this name for God came to have a place of central importance for the generations of Jews who followed Moses.  The 3rd Commandment etched this in their collective conscious when God told them never to use His name in vain.  God’s name was a holy name, a name which no reverent Jew would ever speak, or write, or even spell.  In fact, whenever this name was used in the scriptures, the biblical writers would only write the first consonants of the words and leave out the vowels so that it was impossible to speak.  As some of you know, the name appeared as an unpronounceable word with just four letters: YHWH.  Today we pronounce the name Yahweh, but no Jew would dare say that name.  God was simply too holy, too righteous, too far above to ever even utter his name.  In fact, for those who did, the punishment was death.


How times have changed.  Right?  As you know, God’s name is tossed around in our culture like a cheap toy.  Even in the church, how casually we tend to speak the name of God.  We pray, as Jesus taught us to pray, “Hallowed be Thy name,” but do we really do all we can to keep God’s name hallowed, or holy?  And what does the way we use the name of God tell us about how we see the person of God?


Hold all this in mind as we now fast forward again hundreds of years to Jesus.   We find him here, in the passage we just read, engaged in this spirited conversation with a crowd of fellow Jews.  At the beginning of the conversation, back in verse 31, John told us that this crowd is made up of people who believed in Jesus.  That’s important.  These are not his enemies, but people who liked some of the things he has been talking about.  Some of them, I’m sure, were hopeful that he could be a great help to them in their lives.   Initially, this is a pro-Jesus crowd.  They consider Jesus a friend, a good teacher, a wise man.


But the more they listened to him talk, the more and more upset they became over the sorts of things he was saying.  It was becoming clearer and clearer to them that Jesus was not going to allow himself to be simply a friend, or a good teacher, or somebody they could count on to help them out of a tight spot from time to time.  He was demanding more than that, much more than that.  He was, they began to realize, demanding their absolute devotion, and that demand ultimately turned them against him.


In verse 48 they become frustrated enough to call Jesus a Samaritan and suggest he’s possessed by a demon, neither of which was meant as a compliment.  Jesus responds by saying, “No, it’s not me who has a demon.”  The original language appears to suggest Jesus is saying that they are the ones who are falling for evil deception.[2]


Then, at the same time Jesus denies association with the devil, he once again affirms his association with God.  “I don’t have a demon,” he says, “but I honor my Father.”  Later he claims, “Whoever keeps my word will never see death.”  You see, Jesus is saying the same thing here that he’s been saying all along.  He has come from God.  And God is working through Him in a unique and decisive way to bring the world back to God.  The life that God has to offer us has been extended to us through Christ.  This was, and is, and always will be the claim of Christ.  If we trust him, we trust God.  And if we trust God, we will never die.


Now this ought to get your attention.  Listen!  Here is Jesus promising to deliver us from that which we most fear, death.  Can you see what an audacious promise this really is?  Imagine somebody else making you this promise.  Imagine, for instance, you go in for a check-up one day and your doctor says to you, “Listen, if you trust me, if you do what I tell you to do, you will never die.”  If your doctor said that to you you’d say, “Wow!  That’s incredible!  This new health care plan is really something!”  No you wouldn’t!  You’d get out of there as fast as you could.  You’d switch doctors right away.  You’d file for malpractice.  You’d think the guy was a nutcase.


Can you blame the crowds that day?  Here’s this Jewish carpenter turned rabbi who’s done a few fancy tricks and given a few impressive speeches, and now he’s telling us that he can deliver us from death itself.  To claim that you have the power over death itself is to claim that you stand above life and death.  And that, to put it simply, is a claim to divinity.  Is this man suggesting somehow that he is God?  The crowds can’t believe what they’re hearing and they say to Jesus, “Now we know you have a demon.  There’s no question about it.  Even Abraham, our great father, couldn’t cheat death.  And you’re telling us you’re greater than Abraham.  Who do you think you are?”


“Funny you should mention Abraham,” Jesus says.  “Since you brought him up, let me point out that your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day?  He saw it and was glad.”


What?  What does Jesus mean?  How did Abraham, who lived thousands of years earlier, see the day of Christ and rejoice?  Well, likely Jesus is referring to the covenant which God made with Abraham all the way back in Genesis 12, the covenant which began God’s relationship with Abraham and his descendants as his chosen people.  In that covenant, as you may remember, Abraham was promised that if he would follow God, God would make his people a great and blessed nation through whom God would one day bless the entire world.  In essence, God promised that one day He was going to set everything right again in the world through Abraham’s descendants.[3]


Of course, Abraham could not have even begun to understand how all this was going to unfold.  He trusted God anyway.  He left his land and his family and, as you know, gave his life to following God even though he had no way of knowing that thousands of years later one of his descendants named Mary would give birth to a child in a manger one night who, in fact, came from heaven to bless the entire world.  Though Abraham didn’t know these details, the idea that somehow this would happen filled Abraham with abundant joy.


This is what Jesus means.  But the crowd doesn’t get it.  All they can say in response is, “You are not even fifty years old and you have seen Abraham.”  The truth is right there in front of their eyes and they are completely unable to see it, and that’s when Jesus drops the hammer.  “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham, I AM.”


You know how there are certain words you just cannot say in certain conversations with certain people unless you want to cause a fight.  You might have a lot of leeway to say a lot of things but if you say this particular word, or use this particular phrase, or make this particular insinuation, the gloves come off.  The time for reasonable dialogue is over.  You know what I’m talking about?


As soon as the crowd hears Jesus say these words, the time for talking was over.  Now it was time for violence.  Immediately, we’re told, the people run to pick up rocks and move in to stone him to death.  They don’t get a rope to hang him.  They don’t get a sword to run him through.  In this case, Jewish law was very clear and specific.  As God’s law commanded in Leviticus 24, if anybody ever blasphemed the holy, unspeakable name of God, that person was to be immediately stoned to death.[4]  In their minds, the law was about to be justly applied.


All along I suspect these people didn’t want to believe that what it sounded like Jesus was saying was really what he was saying.  Now they had no choice.  They could not deny it.  Neither can we.  With these two words, “I AM”, Jesus takes the highest expression of divine self-reference ever given, the name which God first used for himself to Moses at the burning bush, the name which no Jew would ever speak, or write, or even spell, Jesus takes this name and not only speaks it aloud but claims it for himself.


The Gospel accounts are filled – every page! – with proclamations that Jesus is God.  If you want to take out all the parts of the Gospels that either claim or suggest Jesus’ divinity, you are going to be left with very, very little.  That being said, there is perhaps no other statement in all the Gospels which contains a more profound and succinct declaration of the deity of Christ than this one statement made by Jesus to the crowd that day.


As one commentator put it, this is either megalomania of the highest order, or this is an altar call.[5]  This is a life and death declaration.  Jesus is saying, “I am the Lord of all creation.  I am uncaused.  I am eternal.  I am the center of all there is.  I am existence itself.  Everything exists because of me.  I am the source and sustainer of all of life.”  Another commentator writes that when Jesus says “I AM”, he is saying, “Where I am, there is God, there God lives, speaks, calls, asks, acts, decides, loves, chooses, forgives, rejects, hardens, suffers, dies.  Nothing bolder can be said or imagined.”[6]


In the end, this claim demands, both from the crowd back then and from us today, it demands that we either accept his claim and center our lives around Jesus, offering him undivided worship and total allegiance, or we reject his claim and, in doing so, choose to cut ourselves off from God and from all that is good and life-giving.


Of course, we know how the crowd that day received this claim.  They flatly rejected it and tried to kill him.  A more important thing to consider, is how we receive this claim.  For let’s be honest here, there is a great tendency in our world, and even among those of us in the church, to accept Jesus as a friend who faithfully walks by our side, or a counselor we can turn to when we need a shoulder to cry on, or a role model after whom we can pattern our lives, or a life guard we can call upon when we get in over our heads.


Is Jesus a friend?  Does he offer us counsel and help?  Is his life a model for us?  Of course.  Jesus is all this but he is not primarily this.  In the end, Jesus Christ is Lord and if we claim him as anything less we must not claim him at all.


I cannot help but be reminded at this point of the words C.S. Lewis once famously wrote,


A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.[7]


Pastor and scholar Tim Keller puts it this way.  Imagine that the distance between the earth and the sun, 93 million miles, was just the thickness of a single piece of paper.  That would mean that the diameter of our galaxy would be a stack of paper 310 miles high.  But that giant stack of papers would be like just a piece of lint when set beside the whole universe which is filled with more galaxies than there are grains of sand on the seashore.  The scope of the universe is grander than we can ever begin to imagine.


Now consider that the scriptures claim that Jesus Christ created every last atom in this seemingly endless universe and that it is only in him that it all is held together.  Christ holds the universe together with his pinky finger, with simply a word from his lips.  Speaking about Jesus, Colossians 1 says, “By him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[8]


Is this the sort of person you are going to ask into your life to be your assistant?  Is this the sort of person to whom you will say, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you”, or “I’ll do this for you as long as you do that for me.”  Is this the sort of person you will imagine that you can just relegate to the edges of your life?  Is this the sort of person you can question when he gives a command?  Is this the sort of person about whom you can say, “I like some of what he teaches but not all of what he teaches.”[9]


If Jesus is truly who he claimed to be, if he is the eternal I AM, the same one who spoke to Moses from the burning bush that day, if he is the Creator and Ruler of the universe, if this is who Jesus is than there is nothing we can do but take all limits off our allegiance to him.  If this is who Jesus is all we can do is offer him our complete and undivided devotion.


Let me stop here and be completely transparent with you.  As I was preparing this message this week it occurred to me that I was preparing to preach today the same sermon I’ve been preaching over and over again this year.  In many ways I am.  As we’ve been going through John’s Gospel, it feels to me as if Jesus just keeps saying the same thing over and over and over again.  Does it feel that way to you?


This past year it’s felt to me like almost every sermon ends the same way, with this life and death choice, this monumental claim that Jesus puts before us, this demand that He, and He alone, be Lord of our life.  And it stuck me that Jesus keeps calling us to worship Him alone because Jesus knows our great tendency is to do otherwise.  We’re like the crowds that day.  We like Jesus.  We like a lot of what Jesus stands for.  We value his friendship.  We hope that along the way he can do some good things for us.  We want to be counted among his followers.  We’re willing to give him some of our time, some of our attention, some of our possessions, some of our choices.  But when he gets greedy and starts demanding it all we turn on him.


I know you’ve heard me ask this question a hundred times in a hundred ways.  In light of the scripture before us, I don’t know how else to end this sermon other than to ask it one more time.  Perhaps today is the day God uses it to cut your heart.


Is Jesus your Master?  Have you submitted to his Lordship in your life?   Are you ready and willing to take the limits off your allegiance to Him?  As he helps you to do so, are you willing to go wherever he goes, do whatever he does, say whatever he says, give away whatever he gives away, love whoever he loves?  Jesus does not want half your life.  He won’t take half your life.  You can’t serve Jesus part time, worship Jesus some of the time.  He is either your Master or he is your enemy.  There is simply no space in between.


Of course, the good news is that if we trust Him, if in faith we bow before Jesus Christ as the uncaused, pre-existent, eternal, sovereign, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving and gracious and compassionate Ruler of the universe that he is, if we give all of ourselves to him we will find that what he has to give us in return is life.  “Very truly,” he tells us, “whoever keeps my word will never see death.”







The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application


Read John 8:48-59.  What sticks out for you in this passage?


The Jews here think that Jesus is possessed by a demon.  Why would they think such a thing?


In verse 50 Jesus says, “I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge.”  What does Jesus mean here?


Jesus claims in verse 58, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I Am.”  What claim is he making here?


The Jews of Jesus’ day would not even speak the name of God.  Has there ever been a time in your life when you felt like the name of God was so holy it could not be spoken?


Lots of people in our culture today say something like, “I don’t believe Jesus was the Son of God but I do believe he was a great and moral teacher.”  What response would you give to this statement?




Do you think of Jesus as the uncaused, eternal God who has no beginning and no end, transcendent above all, the source of all existence, fully and completely divine just as the Father is fully and completely and fully divine?  Why or why not?


If Jesus is truly God then we owe him nothing less than our absolute allegiance.  Does Jesus have your absolute allegiance?



Further ScriptureReadingsfor the Week:


Monday:               Exodus 3:1-15 – I AM WHO I AM

Tuesday:               Leviticus 24:10-23 – Stoning the blasphemer

Wednesday:         Psalm 90 – Our eternal God

Thursday:             John 1:1-18 – The Word in the beginning

Friday:                   Colossians 1:15-23 – Supremacy of Christ

Saturday:              In preparation for worship tomorrow, read John 9:1-41



[1] Exodus 3:1-15, selections.

[2] Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 549. Notice, by the way, that while Jesus denies association with the devil, even though he’s not a Samaritan he doesn’t deny being associated with them.  Even here we glimpse the wide grace of God Christ came to extend.

[3] Genesis 12:1-3.

[4] Leviticus 24:10-23.

[5] Bruner, p. 553.

[6] Ethelbert Stauffer, as cited by Bruner, p. 559.


[7] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Glasgow: Collins, c. 1942), p. 52.

[8] Colossians 1:16-17, NIV.

[9] From a sermon by Tim Keller at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhNcejQsNhk