Curious Grammar? Glorious Truth!
Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you,
Before Abraham was, I am.
The first time you read it, you might be caught off guard. You might even have to study the sentence a bit further, because the English seems right curious.
“Before Abraham was, I am.”
With all reverence, it strikes us as odd that Jesus would phrase his statement thus. Why not, “Before Abraham was, I existed”?
Because Jesus’ choice of words makes all the difference between heaven and hell for you and me.
Theologians warn us that you and I can’t base our theology on the finer points of grammar, and this caveat is true – most of the time. Not here, though.
Jesus chose those words – “I am” – for a particular reason, and it’s our duty this morning to understand what it means and, second, why it matters that Jesus said of himself, “I am.”
Given our studies in recent weeks, you and I might have expected Jesus to say, “ I am the … .” All he says, however, is “before Abraham was, I am.”
And that’s all that need be said.
First, let’s examine what Jesus meant when he said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” To understand Christ’s self-description here in John’s Gospel, we must investigate God’s calling of Moses in Exodus 3, where the Lord first referred to Himself as I AM.
For one, the Name “I AM” refers to God’s (the Father’s, the Son’s and the Spirit’s) self-existence. He is the ground of all being – the One, as St. Paul says in The Acts 17, in whom we “live and move and have our being.” Or as theologian Douglas F. Kelly has argued, God’s existence is not derived from anyone and needs no explanation.
The Lord God had revealed Himself to His people Israel with increasing depth through the Old Testament, but by the time of Moses, the Israelites had been enslaved by the Egyptians and seemed far from Him. God then called to Moses to lead His people out from under the thumb of the greatest military power in the world at that time. You probably know how things went: God called – and Moses offered excuse after excuse.
Yet when Moses asked God for His Name so he could tell the Israelites who sent him, God revealed a special, covenantal Name to him: I AM THAT I AM. In part, God was comforting Moses and Israel by assuring them that they worshipped the one, true God who alone was self-existent and could conquer any foe. “I AM” as God’s Name means He is the basis for all life, and to know Him personally is to know the Maker of all things.
When Jesus (rightly) told the unbelieving Jews this was his Name too, he was saying what St. Paul would later write to the Colossians: all things were made by and hold together in the Lord Jesus Christ. While Jesus and the Father are not one Person, they are of one glorious and divine essence. Jesus has existed from all eternity, just like the Father (and the Spirit).
There is a second aspect to the Name “I AM”: God’s covenantal faithfulness in delivering His people from their enemies.
As we read the passage from Exodus 3, you might have noticed that God was calling Moses to do the unthinkable: to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of God’s people. In revealing Himself to Moses as YHWH (or the Germanized “Jehovah”), God was telling Moses not only that I AM THAT I AM but also I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. The Hebrew verbs could be translated “I will be what I will be,” which was God’s way of assuring Moses, “I will be whatever I need to be as Deliverer of my people.”
When Christ calls himself “I am,” he’s telling all who will hear him that he will overcome the enemies that face his people – namely sin, death and hell. Just as the Lord delivered His people from massive pagan armies in Old Testament times, so Jesus would conquer our true enemies as only the Son of God could.
Grammar makes all the difference. By saying “I am,” Jesus is harking back to the Old Testament assuring you and me that he is the eternal God who alone can deliver us from the hands of the enemies that threaten to overwhelm us.
Why, though, does it matter that Jesus is the great “I am?” It matters immensely – not only for this life, but also for the life to come.
If Jesus is of equal substance with the Father and therefore the One “by whom all things were made,” as we confessed in the Nicene Creed this morning, then you cannot understand this world – or yourself! – rightly if Christ does not live in your heart. How did Bach compose such magnificent works, or James Clerk Maxwell understand electromagnetic theory? By knowing the Maker of all things, by whom all things consist.
You cannot know yourself either if you do not know Christ. Without him, anthropology is worthless. In our lengthy passage today, Jesus continually challenges his hearers to own up to the hard truth about themselves – that they are slaves of sin and children of the devil, hopeless apart from him. Jesus isn’t speaking hyperbolically here; he is proclaiming the words of truth to desperately wicked sinners like you and me who love to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Rather than diagnose our spiritual disease, you and I would rather live a lie … even to our death. But you can understand this world, and your own nature, only as you know the Son of God who is your Maker and your Judge.
The ultimate impact of Jesus being the great “I AM,” though, is found in salvation. If Jesus is not “I AM,” he cannot be your Savior.
Jesus begins our text this morning by challenging those who, St. John writes, “believed on him.” Here, interestingly, we must do theology at the conceptual level and not at the linguistic level. St. John is employing the verb “believed” not in the salvific sense of knowing the facts about Jesus and believing them to be true personally, but instead in the sense of giving mere mental assent to the facts about Jesus. Simply acknowledging a set of truths about Jesus doesn’t mean a person is saved, and that’s the point at which Jesus is driving.
Jesus challenges their understanding of themselves as sinners in need of his redeeming grace by saying that the person who accepts and keeps his word will be free from sin’s condemnation. When they – true to their evil nature – reject his teaching and insult him, Christ says they are of their father the devil and can’t tolerate the truth. Yet Jesus pushes further, challenging their near idolatry of Abraham and forcing them to ask if he is greater than Abraham.
And there they are, those words that take our breath away and provoked his original hearers to want to stone him for blasphemy (although they actually were the blasphemers for rejecting the Son of God): “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
If Jesus were not a true man, yet without sin, he couldn’t represent you and me to the Father. He would not have been a proper substitute for us sinners in his life of obedience or in his death on the cross.
Yet if he were not fully God – the great I AM – Jesus couldn’t have interceded for you and me in heaven. He would have had no right to stand before the Father, and he wouldn’t have been able to pay the infinite price for our offense against our infinite God. If Jesus were simply a “good man” rather than possessing both human and divine natures in his one Person, you and I would be hopeless.
Because he is “I AM,” Jesus – fully man, eternal God – is uniquely qualified to deliver you and me from our enemies.
The terminology Jesus uses in today’s text isn’t what you and I would anticipate.
Thankfully, it’s so much greater.
Now, his words put you and me on the spot if we claim to know and to believe on him as our Savior. Those crowds that day claimed to believe on him, but when Christ forced them to come to terms with his Word and with what it taught about themselves and about him, they couldn’t stand it. Like so many people today, they wanted to pass Jesus off as merely a “good man” – but as CS Lewis once wrote, Jesus can’t be simply a good man. He’s either a lunatic or a wicked man claiming wrongly to be God, or he is who he claimed to be: the Son of God, deserving of your worship and love.
These words challenge your claim to believe on Christ; but they also comfort those of you who trust in him as your Savior. Jesus, as “I AM,” is the eternal God who alone is qualified to redeem you and me from all our sins. In a life when your sins sometimes can attack your conscience, and in which doubts about your forgiven-ness before God can seep in, Jesus silences those sins.
He is “I AM.” And he has visited and redeemed his people from their sins – as only God can do.