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“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)
If you type this statement, “before Abraham was, I am”, into Grammarly or any grammar checking app, it will show you an error message. Any person who has some idea of grammar can immediately tell that something doesn’t sound right with the tenses. So, is this a writing error or did Jesus make a grammatical mistake while saying that statement? What did he really mean by that statement? Did people who listened to him understand what Jesus really said? How did they respond to that? In this article, we will explore what Jesus meant by saying, “Before Abraham was, I am”.
It might not make any sense if that statement is just perceived in a grammatical sense. However, understanding it from a theological perspective will make a whole lot of difference. We can see from the context of this verse that Jesus was speaking to the Jews as he was uttering these words. Jesus did not just alter the grammar of his statement, but also the whole worldview of the Jews.
Jesus, Abraham and the Jews
In John 7, we can see that Jesus enters Jerusalem and openly teaches in the temple knowing that the leaders in Jerusalem are trying to arrest him and kill him (7:1, 25, 30, 44). Then in John 8, a lengthy heated conversation takes place between a group of Jews and Jesus, and as Jesus spoke many “believed” in him (vs. 30). However, after hearing more from him some of them immediately changed their minds and turned against him. They did not continue to believe him, but instead accused him of being a Samaritan and a demon-possessed man (vs. 31).
It is in this context, that the topic turns toward Abraham; out of whom the nation of Israel came into existence. Indeed, Abraham is a great patriarch to all the Jews who identify themselves with him. God had chosen them to be a channel of blessing to this world. Responding to them, Jesus compared himself to Abraham and made many claims which made the Jews very angry. He said that anybody who keeps his word will never see death (Jn. 8:51). To such a statement, the Jews questioned him saying that their father Abraham and the prophets died, so what makes Jesus superior to them? “Who do you make yourself out to be?” (Jn. 8:53) Even the Jews who spoke directly to Jesus, realised that Jesus was showing himself to be someone greater than Abraham.
In response to that, Jesus makes an astonishing statement saying, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” (Jn. 8:56). To that, the Jews got furious and said, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” It is to this question Jesus makes an even greater astounding statement saying “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am”. Those Jews who were listening to him had no more words, instead, they took up stones to throw at Jesus. They perceived Jesus’ statement as blasphemy that deserved punishment by death according to the Jewish law. Now, this raises a few important questions: How did Abraham see Jesus’ day and rejoice? How was Jesus before Abraham? What did Jesus mean when he uttered the words “I Am”?
Jesus, The Joy of Abraham
In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham and promises to make him a blessing to many nations. But, Abraham wonders how? In Genesis 15, God promises him a son through Sarah, his wife. “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Talking about Abraham seeing Jesus’ day and rejoicing in it, William Hendriksen says that it was possible because God promised him a son through Sarah. Asking the question why, Hendriksen says that there is a deeper reason to it, Abraham interpreted that promise to mean,
that in the line of Isaac that Blessed One would at length arrive through whom God would bless all the nations. Thus, as is stated specifically in Heb. 11:13, he (and others before and after him) died in faith, not having received (the fulfilment of) the promises, but having greeted them from afar. It was thus that Abraham saw the day of Christ and rejoiced.1
So, it is in this sense that Abraham rejoiced. “He saw it and was glad” seems to point to Abraham’s foresight which resulted from his faith”, says Donald Guthrie.2 By faith in God’s promise, Abraham saw and believed even though Jesus was not present in the bodily form before him. Yet, the Jews could not see the promise being fulfilled even when Jesus was physically present before them. It is because they lacked the faith that Abraham had. However, the question remains, where was Jesus in Abraham’s day?
Jesus, Unlike Abraham
When Jesus made that extraordinary claim by saying “before Abraham was, I am”, he is not simply saying that he came into being before Abraham did or that he was created before Abraham was created. We are here dealing with two different categories of existence. One was a created being and the other uncreated being. Robert Jamieson et al. puts it well by saying, “The words rendered “was” and “am” are quite different. The one clause means, “Abraham was brought into being “; the other, “I exist.”3
Jesus never came into being like Abraham, but was always there, eternally existing with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He is unlike Abraham in this sense. That’s the divine side of Jesus in his pre-incarnate state. While on earth, Jesus was truly divine and truly human in his personhood, which the Jews couldn’t grasp. It was necessary for him to be so in order to be a mediator between a Holy God and a sinful people.
The Jews were only looking at Jesus as a mere human being. But Jesus on the other hand was revealing his eternal and divine personhood by equating himself with God the Father. Even though Jews understood Jesus’ claim, they could not digest the thought of looking at Jesus, who grew up in their neighbourhood right before their eyes. They understood what Jesus said, but could not believe him. They could not see him as more than a human being.
Jesus, More Than Abraham
Looking at the grammatical construction of the sentence, Hendriksen comments on it saying, “To emphasize this eternal present he sets over against the aorist infinitive, indicating Abraham’s birth in time, the present indicative, with reference to himself; hence, not I was, but I am… his existence transcends time”.4 In other words, it can be put simply like this, ‘before Abraham came into existence (aorist infinitive), I exist (present indicative)”. That really puts Jesus in a position where he is infinitely greater and eternally superior to Abraham. Indeed, he is the Creator who created Abraham.
The Jews could no longer tolerate Jesus for they regarded his statement as blasphemy. No wonder they picked up stones to kill him. Guthrie commenting on this says that: “In no more dramatic way could Jesus have claimed superiority over Abraham. The Jews could think of no other treatment but stoning for anyone so indisputably claiming pre-existence to Abraham”. However, that’s what Jesus claimed!
In conclusion, Jesus made an extraordinary claim which the Jews understood as equating himself with God. We see this through Jesus’ grammatical construction of his sentence, his claiming of the divine name, the contrasting of his eternality with that of Abraham’s brevity of life, and the reaction of the Jews who wanted to kill him. There might be people today who say that Jesus never claimed himself to be God, but we see that is not true.
So, who do you think Jesus is? Do you believe what Jesus claimed himself to be – the God-man who can save you from your sins? It would do you good to believe so!
1 William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Hendriksen-Kistemaker New Testament Commentary; 2 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1953), p.:64-65.
2 Donald Guthrie, John, ed. D. A Carson et al., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 1043-1044.
3 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, 1871, Accordance electronic ed. (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 1996), paragraph 19058.
4 William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Hendriksen-Kistemaker New Testament Commentary; 2 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1953), p.:66-67.
5 Donald Guthrie, John, ed. D. A Carson et al., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 1043-1044.