51Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ 52The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” 53Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ 54Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, 55though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. 56Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ 57Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’* 58Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ 59So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Several years ago, the author Bruce Filer produced a book entitled Abraham, about the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The book soared to the New York Times Bestseller List for more than six months.[i] Abraham is a very important name today, as it was in Jesus’ own time. For Jesus to claim what we hear in this gospel passage – “before Abraham was, I am” – was two strikes (or we might say, two stones [sic]) against him: it sounded both preposterous and blasphemous. Preposterous because it was through Abraham that a nation had been formed and God’s everlasting promises were made many centuries prior to Jesus. Everyone knew that. Jesus is a nobody from Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” they used to say.[ii] Jesus is preposterous. Secondly, Jesus’ saying, “before Abraham was, I am,” seemed blasphemous because this sounded very much like the conversation Moses had with God, recorded in the Book of Exodus, who identifies himself as “I am.”[iii] The Hebrew actually translates, “I will be who I will be,” nevertheless Jesus’ saying “before Abraham was I am” was too close for comfort.[iv] The crowd was prepared to stone him, they thought quite justifiably.
We here have the benefit of hindsight (as did the author of the gospel according to John, which was not written until the latter half of the first century) as we all try to make sense of Jesus’ words and Jesus’ life. Jesus did not say, “before Abraham was, I was,” i.e., this is not about Jesus’ chronology in linear time. Jesus is talking about importance, which we as Christians accept. As Christians we use the revelation of Jesus in the New Testament as a lens through which to read and understand the Old Testament. We look backwards and see the case building for the coming Messiah, whom we recognize as Jesus. It took the early church more than three centuries to clarify Jesus’ identity: was Jesus divine or was Jesus human? The gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” and we recognize Jesus as the Word, very much divine.[v] The gospel of Matthew and Luke begin very differently, with Jesus as a lowly child born in Bethlehem, Jesus very much human. Between the first and fourth centuries the church set forth creeds that affirm Jesus as both human and divine. Not human or divine, but both.
The reason this matters to us as individuals depends on the day, depends on our sense of need. Some days you may draw incredible comfort in meeting Jesus as one of us: Jesus facing the same kind of loneliness, fears, temptations, need to be understood, craving to belong, desperation to get away… all of that and more that we know in our own lives. In Jesus we see God stooping to us to meet us on our own plane. Athanasius, the fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, said that Jesus cannot save what Jesus did not assume, i.e., that Jesus assumes a normal earthly life, Jesus takes on our full humanity.[vi] Jesus is as human as we are. Jesus even calls us his “friends.”[vii] What a friend we have in Jesus. And then Jesus is also God Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus does come to save us, in the name and power of the God with whom he identifies himself as “one in the same.”[viii] Jesus comes to forgive us, to bind up our wounds, to give us hope for all eternity. Some days we need to know God as someone not groveling on the same plane in which we live, but someone lifted up, revealing the glory of the God whom he calls “Father.”
What may seem more important to you – Jesus’ humanity or Jesus’ divinity – may depend on the day. Both are true. Call on him.
[i] The full title of Filer’s book is ABRAHAM – A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (HarperCollins Publishers).
[ii] John 1:46.
[iii] Exodus 3:14.
[iv] Jesus may simply have used the present tense of the verb “to be.” The very same Greek construction occurs in Jn.9:9. The neighbors of the blind man who was cured asked each other whether he was the same man who used to sit and beg: “Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am (he).”
[v] John 1:1.
[vi] St. Athanasius (c. 293 – 373), Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.
[vii] John 15:14-15.
[viii] John 10:30, 17:11, 17:22.
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