Before Abraham was born, I AM

by Dr. Brent A. Thomason, DBU Faculty

Day 10 of Advent

Today's Reading

John 8:58-59

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.’ Therefore, they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.”

(John 8:58-59 NASB)

The text invites us into the climax of a conversation-turned-heated-debate between Jesus and the Jews. The story begins back in verse 31 stating that some Jews had believed Jesus and started following Him. To them, Jesus explained how to continue in discipleship and obey His words, thus setting them free from slavery to sin. This represents only one group of Jews there that day though. Another group opposed Jesus. They did not believe Him nor obey His words. This setting frames the entire dialogue that follows.

The logic of the opposing Jews was that because they were descendants of Abraham, they were not slaves to sin, since Abraham was righteous. Jesus dismantles this logic by showing that they were slaves to sin because they were not doing the righteous deeds which righteous Abraham did. In fact, Jesus accuses them of being complicit in attempted murder (v40), deaf to God (v43), sons of the devil (v44), and liars (v55)! As you can imagine, the shepherd-like instruction with which Jesus began His discourse to the Jews turned unsavory quickly culminating in a slaughter-hungry mob. But the hostile Jews didn’t want to kill Jesus because He insulted them. Rather they wanted to kill Him because He said, “I am.”

Before we jump to the implications of that statement for us today, let us first try to figure out what it meant to them then. Immediately after hearing Jesus’s statement, the Jews picked up stones to kill Him. Why? What crime had Jesus committed?

The Old Testament commanded stoning as a form of capital punishment for a host of sins, including sorcery (Leviticus 20:27), Sabbath violation (Num 15:35-36), and adultery (Deuteronomy 22:24). Nothing of that sort is taking place here. But there was another reason Jews stoned, blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16). Those who opposed Jesus that day believed He had no legitimate grounds to speak like God spoke. After all, these were the very words uttered by God to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). And they did not understand Jesus to be quoting from Exodus, but appropriating God’s words to Himself, as if He spoke them! The Jews wasted no time responding to such a scandal. This blasphemer would be executed swiftly!

Jesus’s statement, “I am” meant something egregious to the ears of those Jews. But what was egregious to them, can be edifying to us. Let me explain.

First, Jesus was not confused about His identity. Jesus didn’t have an identity crisis. Thank God for that! He knew He was the Son of God. Think of it: our savior is no less than God Himself! We don’t follow a simple moral teacher or good philanthropist or wise sage. We follow the eternal God, who was and is and is to come (Revelation 1:8)! He knows who He is. Do you know Him?

Second, Jesus is not God’s Plan B. Jesus is claiming to have been around during the time of Abraham and before (v58). But though He was there, it was not time for Him to ‘tabernacle among us’ (John 1:14). Rather, in the fullness of time, God sent His son (Galatians 4:4). Right on time! He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). This was God’s plan from the beginning. And that plan includes you (Jeremiah 29:11). Rather than make Jesus your backup plan, make Him your only plan this Advent season.

Third, Jesus was in control of His life and His death. Did you notice that though they picked up rocks to stone Jesus, He evaded their grasp? Yet chapters later He willingly turns Himself over to execution. Jesus knew when to lay down His life and nothing would stop Him, nor did no one kill Him before that time came. If Jesus had complete control over His life, His death, and even His own resurrection (John 2:19), how much more control does He have over our life to work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28)? How much more power can He exert to raise us back from the dead!

Fourth, seeing Jesus made Abraham rejoice. In the midst of the dialogue, the Jews bring up how important Abraham was. Jesus counters by showing that He is more important because Abraham got giddy seeing Him (v56), not the other way around. Whether Abraham saw a vision of Jesus that is not recorded in Scripture, or he personally encountered the pre-incarnate Jesus in Genesis 18, or he observed a foreshadowing of Jesus through the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), we don’t know. But this we know: Abraham was happy to see Jesus. And yet hatred is a more fitting term to describe the way the Jews saw Jesus. So, what makes the difference between happiness and hatred? Whether or not we believe Jesus, that He is God! I pray that you don’t just believe in but believe Jesus. And that upon seeing Jesus this Advent season, you too would be as happy as Abraham was.