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Jesus - I AM

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Readings:  Exodus 3:1-22
Text:   Jn.8:58
"Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am."

Jesus – I AM

Sunday evenings we’re taking some time to think about the way the Bible uses names to teach us truth about God and about the Lord Jesus.

A number of weeks ago we looked at the Tetragrammaton – YHWH – from which we derive the name Yahweh or Jehovah. This name was considered so special that the Jews did not like to pronounce it at all and substituted another word every time they came across this particular name in their texts.

The word they used means "Lord" and that practice was followed when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek. Our English Bibles have generally followed this practice too and so we are well used to referring to the God of the OT as the Lord/LORD.

Last week we thought about how the NT uses this name/title to refer to Jesus of Nazareth. While the word sometimes means little more than a respectful "Sir" it becomes increasingly clear that in speaking of Jesus it signifies much more than mere formal politeness. As the NT develops it becomes obvious that Jesus – the Lord of the NT – is being identified with YHWH – the LORD of the Old.

This evening we will pursue this a little further.

The Meaning of YHWH
You’ll remember, I trust, that while this personal name of God is rendered Lord in our Bibles it actually derives from the verb "to be". When God called Moses he made this very clear:

Ex.3:14 "God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’" God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations."

Now we will see this evening that this use of the verb "to be" is taken up by Jesus himself in the NT and used to great effect.

I AM...
You will be familiar I’m sure with that list of familiar sayings to be found in John’s Gospel where Jesus describes himself in a number of very special and important ways. This is the list I’m referring to:

Firstly Jesus refers to himself as the Bread of life:

Jn.6:35  Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
Jn.6:41  So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven."
Jn.6:48  I am the bread of life.
Jn.6:51  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

Then he describes himself as light:

Jn.8:12 ¶  Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

Next, he uses a couple of sheep related descriptions:

Jn.10:7  So Jesus again said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.
Jn.10:9  I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.
Jn.10:11  I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Jn.10:14  I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

At the time of Lazarus’ death we have:

Jn.11:25  Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,

Then there is that evangelistic text

Jn.14:6  Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Finally Jesus calls himself the vine:

Jn.15:1  I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.
Jn.15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Now I hope to return to these sayings in future weeks looking in particular at the second half of the declarations. This evening it is the opening words are form the focus of my attention: "I am".

In each of the statements that Jesus then went on to complete what he predicated could only be accomplished and fulfilled by someone who was more than a mere man. Each statement which directs the attention firmly upon the one making the claim, namely himself, can only be properly satisfied by someone who has nothing less than divine qualities.

These various statements particularly when taken together are strongly suggestive. The common element – the "I AM" – is striking because of the emphatic form that Jesus used as he spoke. The "I AM" recalls, and it is meant to do recall, the "I AM..." declaration of God in the OT! It looks very much as though Jesus was making claims to be divine, claims which are made in a variety of ways during his ministry.

Other "I AM" Declarations
John records in his gospel one of the discussions that Jesus had with some of the Jews who were somewhat sympathetic towards him. As time went on it became clear that their sympathy had clear limits – they did not feel any personal need of his help and they did not agree with what he had to say. In fact as time went by they became increasingly critical of him going so far as to accuse him of being demon possessed.

In this we note something that remains true to this day. Many folk will speak favourably of Jesus until his truth is made more specific and then the gloves tend to come off. Men and women may agree with much of what Jesus stands for as long as that is is applied to others and not to themselves. When Jesus’ teaching starts to become personal their true colours begin to be revealed. They may be happy to consider Jesus relevant for others but not for themselves.

You’ll remember how the conversation developed. Abraham is introduced into the discussions. Jesus’ antagonists don’t like it being implied that they need to be set free, they are after all descendants of Abraham or so they claim. Jesus responds by suggesting that if they really did belong to Abraham they would imitate their illustrious ancestor’s behaviour and honour him. They won’t have any of this: who do you think you are? Jesus isn’t yet 50 years old so nowhere near old enough to have even seen Abraham!

Jesus’ response was stunning. You know what he said don’t you?

Jn.8:58 "Before Abraham was, I am."

It would have been bad enough if he had said something like "I was before Abraham". It might have sounded arrogant and the grammar might have sounded more normal but Jesus said something that to his hearers was far worse:

Jn.8:58 "Before Abraham was, I am."

Speaking of the time before Abraham Jesus did what no Jew would dare do – he spoke the divine name! And, if worse can be imagined than that, he applied it to himself!

The truths that Jesus was expressing were these:

  • I am eternal

  • I am God

He knew what he was doing and he knew what he was saying. He even introduces his words with those words designed to focus attention on what is to come: "Amen, amen," "truly, truly," "verily, verily". He knew that he was declaring himself to be the ever-existing, self-existent God.

And his adversaries knew it too. They reacted with extreme violence. For them Jesus was guilty of blasphemy. And if what he said hadn’t been true he would have been! Consequently they picked up stones and would have killed him on the spot. The Jews had no right under Roman rule to take human life but what Jesus had just said was so heinous to these men that they didn’t hesitate they would kill him but he was able somehow to slip away. He wasn’t afraid to die but he wouldn’t die like that; he would die an innocent man condemned unjustly; he would die crucified upon a Roman gibbet lifted up for all to see.

And this was by no means the only occasion he spoke like this. It was no slip of the tongue, it was no aberration of the moment. He knew who he was and as the end approached he identified himself so that those who had ears to hear might hear and those who had eyes to see might see.

Let us quickly take a look at a couple more examples.

Let’s go to the Garden of Gethsemane just as Judas arrives with a band of soldiers who intend to arrest Jesus.

It was dark and shadowy when they arrived so Jesus stepped forward and asked who they were looking for. Then we read how the conversation panned out:

Jn.18:5-8 "They answered him, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus said to them, "I am he." Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, "I am he," they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, "Whom do you seek?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go."

At least that is how it reads in most of our English translations where the English has been smoothed out to sound right to English ears. The word "he" has been added three times - it makes for better English but spoils the effect of the divine revelation "I AM".

Jesus did not say "I am he" he just said "I am" and by this affirmation he claimed both to be: Jesus the Nazarene as to his human identity and also God as to his divine. He use of the simple yet profound "I am’ recalling once again the "I AM THAT I AM" of Ex.3:14.

Is this fanciful? Not a bit of it! We are meant to feel the force of this. His words must have been charged with some kind of supernatural power for they produced a stunning effect upon the soldiers come to arrest him. And what was that reaction?

v.6 "they drew back and fell to the ground."

This is a typical reaction when men are confronted by the divine. Back in Ex.34 we read the important account concerning the renewal of the Covenant. In that same setting the LORD revealed more of his name to his servant Moses. At that time Moses spent 40 days in God’s presence during which time he received God’s law. The encounter caused Moses’ face to shine. When the people saw his face shining because he had been speaking with God, what did they do? They drew back! God’s presence is an awesome thing. The soldiers in the Garden hearing God’s name "I am" being pronounced were stunned – the recognised for a brief moment the presence of God and they too drew back! But Jesus’ presence didn’t destroy them – he had come to seek and to save that which was lost!

An earlier but similar example is to be found when Jesus met a woman by a well in a Samaritan town. The account is found in John ch.4. Little by little the woman is brought to realise that she is in the presence of someone out of the ordinary and she wonders whether Jesus might be the Messiah so she says to him:

Jn.4:25 "I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things."

Jesus replied to her as follows:

Jn.4:26 "Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am he."

Only, guess what, the English has been smoothed out again. More literally he said:

"I am, the one who is speaks to you".

On each of these occasions (and there are a few more) Jesus uses this "I am" formula in a way that the context does not demand. He therefore used it with special intent – he wanted to make plain his claims; he wanted us to know to his full identity.

And knowing that he is both man and God gives us great assurance:

  • He can fully represent us for he is one of us

  • He can sympathise with us for the same reason

  • He is able to resolve every problem we have because he is God

  • His sacrifice has sufficient value and worth to deal with the size and scale of our debt

  • He can and will be able keep us safe to the end

Sometimes folk challenge us and say that Jesus never claimed to be God and they ask us to show us a verse here or a verse there. And sometimes we flounder because there is no verse where Jesus says "I am God" but he did say and repeat "I am" and if we understand that we have enough for this says it all!

Praise his Wonderful Name.


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