“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” – John 8:58
We have all heard somebody make a bold claim a time or two. Perhaps you yourself have even been the guy or gal making such a statement. “I can totally hit a hundred free throws in a row!” “I bet I can eat this entire extra-large, fifty-topping pizza all by myself.” “Psh…I can jump that far!” Sometimes people live up to their impressive claims. Often they wind up making fools of themselves when they fail to live up to their big talk.
One of Jesus’ disciples, a man named John, wrote an account of Jesus’ life. We call this the Gospel of John. Because John wrote his Gospel account later than Matthew, Mark, or Luke, he supplements a lot of what they wrote with completely new stories, miracles, and sayings of Jesus. In the previous passage, John is recording a statement of Jesus that can only be described as incredibly bold. It is, in fact, so bold that Jesus must either be the biggest liar in the history of the world or else the one he actually claims to be—God himself.
In the situation at hand, Jesus has already made some bold claims. In John 8:51 he tells the Jews who had come to listen to him, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
Can you imagine somebody telling you that? “Hey, buddy, come here. Yeah, I need to tell you something. I’ve discovered how to stop death! You just drink a little bit of this potion, and…” You would roll your eyes and walk away.
The Jews to whom Jesus said this ridiculed him in the same way. They called him “demon-possessed” and said, “Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” The Jewish people considered Abraham to be the father of their nation, the ultimate ancestor. God talked to Abraham, and God led Abraham to live in Canaan—a land that would ultimately become the country called Israel and inhabited by the Jewish people. And here was this Jesus guy saying that he had the secret to immortality! Even Abraham, their great forefather, had died! And so did the other great prophets in their history—people like Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah! Only a crazy person would make the claims that Jesus did!
Jesus replied to them: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Jesus puts both these Jews and Abraham in their proper place. As great as Abraham was, he was not the greatest. Abraham, in fact, longed to see the day when his descendant would destroy sin and defeat death. He saw this happen—not in person, but with the eyes of faith which trusted that God’s promise to him was as good as done! If their ancestor had done so, shouldn’t they?
Here’s where everything starts to get really testy. The Jews start to openly mock Jesus. “You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” Jesus was still a young man in his early thirties at this point. But Abraham had lived two-thousand years earlier! How preposterous of Jesus to make the claim that Abraham had seen him! What nerve this guy had!
Then Jesus drops the hammer. What he says next can only be interpreted one way. Understand now that this is the boldest claim that any individual in the history of humankind has ever made.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
At first glance, this only seems like a logically or grammatically awkward statement. “Before Abraham was born, I am” doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Using a present tense verb form like that to make a claim thousands of years in the past—well, it doesn’t really add up.
But when Jesus said “I am,” he was ascribing to himself a name—and not just any name, either. Jesus was claiming not that he was superhumanly old.
Jesus was claiming that he is God himself.
If the people had thought that he was just a crazy person talking crazy talk, they would not have reacted as they did in the following verse. At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.
The Jews hearing Jesus became enraged at Jesus—so much that they were ready to execute him on the spot with no trial and no defense. Such was the case for one who blasphemed—that is, one who claimed to be God. They were about to give him his just punishment, and they would not have risked their own lives under penalty of Roman law to do so, unless they were absolutely sure that Jesus had made that claim. Anybody who says that Jesus was claiming anything else is preposterous, and those who do are liars.
This leaves us with the two options. Either Jesus is a liar and a devil—possibly a madman—or Jesus is God.
The English writer C.S. Lewis, a man who became a very devout Christian later in life, said this about Jesus: “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 … 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 some patronising nonsense about Him being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity, 52).
You see, when Jesus uttered that little phrase “I am,” he used for himself the name that was reserved only for God. This was a name so revered by the Jewish people that they would not even speak it, for fear that they would do so unworthily.
Either Jesus is a liar, or Jesus is God. He gives no other alternative. He cannot only be a great moral teacher as so many in this world believe, for no great teacher can be a habitual liar. Jesus never intended for us to consider him as such. He intends for us to consider him God.
Now if your friend claims that he can make a hundred free-throws in a row and can’t even make ten, he is a liar. He has nothing to back up his claim. That’s a harmless example where your friend might be full of himself, but is otherwise probably pretty harmless.
But if Jesus doesn’t back up his claims, the harm done is tremendous. For then he is a liar who is leading the Jewish people away from the True God. He is a liar who is leading people not to heaven, but to hell.
I believe—along with Christians everywhere—what the Bible teaches: that Jesus is exactly who he claimed he was. I believe that Jesus is the One and Only True God. But I don’t believe this simply because Jesus said so. In fact, not a single one of his followers did.
They believed—and I believe—because Jesus did everything to back up his claim.
In the next lessons, we will see how Jesus backs up his claims to be God in a series of speeches that have become known as his “I AM” statements. As Jesus makes these statements, he backs up his words with actions, thus proving that he is indeed God and the one who saves all people from their sins.