In John 8, Jesus finds himself in a long, protracted conversation – or we could probably say debate – with the Pharisees. The conversation was primarily over Jesus’s identity, although it turned into a conversation as well over the identity of the Pharisees. In short, the question was:
Who is your father, and where do you come from?
In Jesus’s case, he spoke of God being his Father. He labored to help them understand that he was doing the will of God the Father, his Father.
But he also turned the question around on the Pharisees as they claimed Abraham as their father. Abraham was the father of Isaac who was the father of Jacob whose name was changed to Israel, so the Jews looked back to Abraham as their father.
But there were two problems. First, Jesus wasn’t referring to a physical family lineage. Instead, he was talking about a spiritual lineage. The Jews were referring to the flesh. Jesus was referring to the lineage of the Spirit.
Second, Jesus pointed out that if they were sons of Abraham, they would do what Abraham did. What did he mean by that? Abraham was declared to be righteous because he believed God. But these Jews wouldn’t believe God. Here was Jesus standing before them, but he wouldn’t believe that he was who he said he was. He was claiming to be God in the flesh, but they wouldn’t believe, neither that was what he was actually saying, nor that he was actually God.
That is, right up until Jesus said that he had known Abraham, and then the scene played out like this:
“You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.John 8:57-59
The Jews are incredulous: You have seen Abraham! Come on, man…
But Jesus lands the knockout punch in this conversation. He says, I was around long before Abraham. In fact, he calls himself “I am.”
What did he just say? Excuse me?…the Pharisees must have thought.
And what do the Pharisees do? They pick up stones immediately so that they can kill him.
But wait a minute. Why are they so upset? Jesus is just making this claim that he somehow knows Abraham, right? Maybe he is talking in some metaphysical calling upon Abraham, or trying to live the life that Abraham lived.
No, that’s not it. Instead, the problem, as far as the Pharisees are concerned, are these last two little words. Jesus said:
Before Abraham was born, I am!
The “I am” part here is the problem from the perspective of the Pharisees. Why? Because they just understood Jesus to say something very clearly. He just said that he is God! Jesus knew it and the Pharisees knew it. They were now speaking the same spiritual language, and because of this, they want to kill him, and immediately come with rocks to get the job done.
To understand this, we have to go back to the book of Exodus. This is a book that the Pharisees would have known extremely well. It is a part of the Torah, written by Moses, and speaks of the story of Moses. The books of Moses contain the Law, so this is the source. These are the original books from which everything is drawn.
In Exodus 3, God approaches Moses in the wilderness. There is a bush that looks like it is on fire but it isn’t really burning up so Moses goes over to see what is happening with this bush. God tells Moses that He wants him to go back to Egypt to free the Israelite people from their slavery.
But Moses is skeptical. Why would the Israelites listen to him? Why would the Egyptians listen to him? Hmm… he isn’t even a good speaker. How is he going to get this job done?
So Moses asks an important question, and God gives an important answer. Here is that exchange:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”Exodus 3:13-14
God identifies Himself as I AM. That is the name that He wants Moses to use when the Israelites ask him the name of the God who sent him.
So, let’s return now to the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus says:
Before Abraham was born, I am!
What did the Pharisees hear? They heard that Jesus just used the same name that God used to identify himself to Moses and the Israelites as Moses would go to release them from captivity.
Yes, that is exactly what they heard, but they couldn’t stand it. And because they couldn’t stand it, they immediately picked up stones to kill Jesus.
Like Moses, Jesus was there in Jerusalem to lead the people out of their slavery to sin. Jesus had even said this to the Pharisees:
“Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.John 8:34-36
But as he went on to say, they had no room for him. They didn’t want Jesus’s words. In fact, they didn’t want God’s words. They only wanted their own, and so they remained a slave to sin, and their father was not Abraham, but Satan himself.
Yet it is clear that they understood what Jesus was saying. There is no doubt. They knew precisely what Jesus was saying when he said before Abraham was born, I am! They knew that Jesus was calling himself God, because that is who he is.