THE PASSION OF OUR LORD:
DETAILING THE EVENTS OF OUR LORD’S SUFFERING AND DEATH
Session #30 (Most quotes are NIV)
JOHN’S “I AM” PASSAGES (ἐγώ εἰμι)
For centuries, people have argued about the “I am” passages in the Gospel of John. What do they mean? Why did he use this phrase? The other Gospels do not exhibit the barrage of passages with this odd Greek phrase.
There are two types of “I am” passages in the Gospel of John: predicated and absolute. The “predicated” passages are ones such as “I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life” or “I AM the Good Shepherd.” In other words, the “I am” points to something. The “absolute” passages are ones in which “I AM” is standing by itself and the sentence seems unfinished. The most famous (and obviously most difficult to argue with) is John 8:58 “Jesus answered them, ‘I speak the truth—before Abraham was born, IAM.”
I AM what? Where’s the rest of the sentence? Does it mean simply “I am in existence” or does he mean to say “I AM God?” Or is he actually using the Greek version of God’s name?
JOHN’S “I AM” PASSAGES IN JOHN 8
As it turns out, Jesus says ἐγώ εἰμι (“I am”) THREE TIMES in John 8, and they are all “absolute” (stand-alone) versions.
The first occurrence: 8:24 “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am.” (Forget your English translations—they change it to “I am he” but the “he” isn’t there in Greek!) Jesus’ audience is the Pharisees, and their reaction to this (read 8:25) is “Huh? What did you just say?” Of course, the more formal way of saying that is in your English Bible: “Who are you?”
The second occurrence is 8:28 “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am.” (Again, there is no “he” after “I am”) The reference to “lift up” is the cross, although the Greek verb can also mean “praise, glorify, etc.” The greatest glory Jesus can receive is His sacrifice for you and me on the cross. 8::27 reminds us: “They didn’t understand.”
The third occurrence is 8:58 “Before Abraham was born, I am.” THAT they understood. 8:59 tells us they gathered rocks to stone Jesus. Stoning was not a sign that the “mob was out of control.” These are Pharisees—the experts in the Law! And the Law required that anyone guilty of blasphemy must explicitly be stoned. Jesus’ blasphemy is that He is claiming to be God! The Pharisees’ interpretation of “I AM” is that Jesus is saying I AM GOD.
That settles it: “I AM” means God’s name and Jesus is claiming to be God! There can’t be any doubt.
JOHN 9: HERE’S THE “ANY DOUBT”
Just about the time we have no doubt about what John is doing, here comes a monkey wrench in the machinery! John 9 tells us that Jesus healed a man who was born blind. After the man was healed, there was a big argument among the people about whether he was the one whom Jesus healed, or he just looked like him.
John 9:9 says “Some of the people said ‘This is the guy,’ and others said ‘No, he just looks like him.’ That one (the healed man) said ‘I am.’” Yes, he uses ἐγώ εἰμι (I am) just the way Jesus did. Is this deliberate confusion by our author?
Well, that settles it. “I am” doesn’t mean anything special. It’s just a way of emphasizing a statement. We find a certain amount of “I am” use in the other Gospels, and once even in Acts. It isn’t good Greek, but it must just be a colloquialism (slang), just like our current phrase “most definitely.”
JOHN 18: LET’S ADD TO THE CONFUSION!
John 18:5 is another example of Jesus saying “I am.” This chapter tells us of the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. When Judas and the temple guards come to arrest Jesus, He says “Who are you looking for?” 18:5 reports as follows: “They answered him ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ He tells them ‘I am.’” And verse 6 tells us that when Jesus says “I am,” they all fall down.
What? They all tripped? Hardly. The entire group (quite a large number according to 18:3) is knocked backwards. Why—because Jesus said “I am?” We can interpret this as Jesus using God’s personal name, I AM, and they are knocked to the ground because no man can stand in the presence of God!
That sounds great, but what about the man born blind in chapter 9? He said “I am” and he didn’t claim to be God.
You see what the Gospel of John is doing to us? The minute we think we understand—that we have the real explanation—he pulls the rug out from under us! We are on trial. What will you make of this?
“I AM” THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
One of those “predicated I AMs” comes in John 11:25. Here at the tomb of Lazarus Jesus says to His dear friend Martha “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” He says this, and then proceeds to prove it by raising Lazarus from the dead.
There is more than just the raising of a dead man going on here. This is a climatic hint that Jesus is quite serious about that He says. As the saying goes, “Talk is cheap.” So, what did He say that He needs to prove? In the previous chapter, in explaining “I AM the Good Shepherd (yes, this is another I AM), he says 10:17-18 “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”
The Greek word for “authority” means more than that. It is closer to “power” but not really that either—we don’t have an English word for it. But “power” comes closer: Jesus says that the Father has authorized him to use his power to give up His life (on the cross) and the power to come back to life by Himself. He is, after all, The Resurrection and the Life!
Echoes of our Prologue: John 1:1-18 which says, verse 4, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Oh, but it gets better! Remember how John wants us to think about Genesis 1 and the creation of the world? “In the beginning was the Word….” What does the creation story tell us about our lives? Genesis 2:7 “Then the Lord God formed a manfrom the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Focus on “Lord God.”
God always WAS my “life.” He proposes to become not only the source of life, but the source of our resurrection from the dead. Our Bible tells us that “The Lord God” was the one who created me, who breathed life into me, and who will now save me!
THE “LORD GOD”
Your English Bible (no matter the translation) may have an “odd look” to it in Old Testament passages where the words “Lord God” are found. That is because “Lord God” is a special phrase used for God: The Hebrew יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים (Yahweh Elohim—”the Lord God”) is saying that the true and only God is Yahweh (I AM). This is His special designation and personal name.
Genesis 2:7 “Then Yahweh Elohim formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…” John 11:25 “I AM the Resurrection and the life…” And the nay-sayers all holler “Oh, that doesn’t mean that!” Are you sure?
TOMORROW: Doubting Thomas and the Conclusion!