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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

More Than a Man


 

“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“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 8:56-59


In the previous two messages that I have done, we have looked at statements made by Jesus Christ. He said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25) and, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). In John’s Gospel, there are a total of seven of these metaphorical, ‘I am’ statements, where Jesus uses a figure of speech to compare himself to other things. These claims of Jesus help us to understand something about his mission – the reason why he came to our world.


They also shed light on his character – who he was. Actually, more accurately, they shed light on who he is. It was my initial intention to look at another one of these seven claims today. It is the one found in our main reading today. In verse 12, Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world’. I suspect that we will look at this when I next do the message, but I have actually decided to focus on another declaration of Jesus this time. It is found in our text. It also contains the words, ‘I am’, although it isn’t considered as one of this group of seven, more figurative, ‘I am’ statements, where Jesus paints a helpful picture with words to aid our understanding.


As I have mentioned before, there are several more times in John’s account of the life of Jesus, where John records him saying ‘I am’. We will look at several of these today, because they can also be linked together into another group, I believe. Essentially, they are all making one great claim about Jesus Christ. In the NIV, we have a heading to this section. It is, “Jesus’ claims about himself.” Jesus was involved in a dispute. He had just told the people that he was, ‘the light of the world’. Some of them strongly disagreed with him. They told him, ‘your testimony is not valid’ (v.13). These opponents were religious people. They weren’t people who rejected the notion of God. No, these people believed in the existence of God. But their views were prejudiced.


What is prejudice? Well ‘judice’ is similar to the word ‘judge.’ It means to be subject to the decision of a court or judge. ‘Pre’ means before, as in ‘previously’. ‘Prejudice’, means to ‘judge before.’ It is when we have already made our minds up, when we feel we don’t need to listen to what another person, or party, has to say, because we already know the answer. Prejudice is harmful. It can be harmful to other people. It is harmful to the truth. When we are prejudiced, we harm ourselves. If we have already decided the answer beforehand, how can we learn anything more? This group, who opposed Jesus, were called Pharisees. They believed that God had revealed himself to the nation of Israel and had given commandments for them to follow, through the writings of the prophets, in what we call the Old Testament.


They were descendants of one of the main characters in the Old Testament, a man named Abraham. Abraham had a very special relationship with God. The Pharisees thought that, because they were descendants of Abraham, they also, almost automatically, were viewed by God as being right, or righteous, people. Jesus believed that these people had missed something. He believed that there was an underlying message in those Scriptures that spoke of the coming of a Saviour – someone who would rescue people from the consequences of their sin. Jesus claimed to be that saving person. Previously, he had told these people, ‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5:40).


If the Pharisees had only listened to Jesus, and taken his claims back to the Old Testament writings, to test his words against God’s previous revelation, they may well have reached a different conclusion. But they refused. In their minds, they already knew the answer. In their minds, the claims of Jesus didn’t fit. Jesus himself didn’t fit into their thinking about God. At the end of this debate, Jesus says something which shocks them. It cuts right across everything that they believed. They see it as an outrageous, blasphemous claim. Of this we can be sure. In those Old Testament commands, given to Israel, we read this, ‘anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death’ (Leviticus 24:16). That was the Pharisees response to the words of Jesus.


In verse 59 of John 8, we read, ‘at this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.’ What was it that Jesus said that was so offensive? It was this, ‘‘before Abraham was born, I am!’ On the face of it, this doesn’t seem so shocking. But that was the effect it had. There is a reason for this. Jesus knew what he was saying. The Pharisees understood the implication of his words.

Again, we need to look at the Old Testament scriptures and, this time, at the book of Exodus. The word ‘exodus’ means a mass departure of people. Does anyone know what the book of Exodus is about? It’s the story of a mass departure of people! As a collective, these people are known as ‘Israel’. At the start of the book of Exodus, they have become slaves within the country of Egypt. They are being harshly treated and want to leave. God has promised to lead them to freedom, and to a land that will be their own. He chooses a leader for them called Moses. When human beings choose leaders they tend to look for particular characteristics. We want someone who is charismatic, who has motivation, and energy, and abundant enthusiasm. We tend to choose people who sense their own importance.


God is not like us. Numbers 12:3 tells us this ‘... Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth’. The Lord God Almighty speaks to Moses and tells him to go to the Israelites and let them know that he, Moses, has been chosen for this role. To say that this was not easy for Moses, is something of an understatement. Moses, understandably, has questions. We read, ‘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). When Jesus told the Pharisees, ‘before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58 (AV)), he was linking himself, absolutely, to the God of Israel.


Hebrews 1:3, tells us this, ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.’ Jesus was stating just that. He is the very image of God stamped upon human form. He is exactly God. When we read this claim of Jesus, it reads awkwardly. The past and present tenses are mixed in a way that is very unusual in our language. It seems somewhat jarring. But it isn’t the language that needs changing. It’s our perception that needs to move. Jesus is not saying that he ‘was’ before Abraham ‘was.’ He is saying that he is (present tense), ‘I am’, before Abraham was (past tense). How can something be in the present, now, at some point in the distant past? Well, this points to the ever-present nature of God, which Jesus possesses. When we began this mini-series, by looking at the claim of Jesus to be the ‘resurrection and the life’, I mentioned a particularly favourite verse of many Christians, from Hebrews 13 :8, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.’ What Jesus is, he always was. Perhaps I should rephrase that – What Jesus is, he always is. In Exodus 3, ‘God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’. Jesus, in his use of language, is confirming this truth about essential God-ness. He is telling us, in effect, ‘I am who I am’, ‘I am always who I am’.


This is so different to us. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and just don’t feel myself. I want to get going, be helpful to others and be generally amenable. Instead, I’m just slow and grumpy. Our Lord is not like that. He is always the same. His love and faithfulness are not affected by mood. We might consider it irreverent to ask a question such as, ‘What is God like on a morning?’ But actually, the Bible gives us the answer. ‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:22-23). This claim of Jesus to be the great, unchanging, ‘I am’ God, is found in other parts of John’s gospel record. In our English translations they are not always as obvious as this one recorded in today’s text. That is because there are often additional words added to make the sentence read in a more expected way. I want to remove some of those additional words as we look at a few verses. In the original, Greek language of our New Testament, there are two words used which translate into, ‘I am’. This ancient Greek language used a different alphabet to our English. Ours starts with ‘A’ and ends with ‘Z’. Theirs started with a character called ‘Alpha’, and ended with ‘Omega’. We have to transliterate, which means to convert those letters used into the closest letters within our alphabet. This gives us two words. They are ‘egō’ and ‘eimi’. ‘Egō’ means ‘I’, or ‘myself’. ‘Eimi’ means ‘am’, or ‘exist’. ‘I exist as this’ – ‘I am’.


In John 18:2-6, Judas Iscariot leads a crowd to the Garden of Gethsemane. He was, ‘guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees.... Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.’ We then read, in our NIV, ‘“I am he,” Jesus said.’ Actually, in the original Greek, we have simply ‘egō eimi’ - ‘I am.’ The NLT also adds the word, ‘he’, but has a footnote to inform us that the ‘Greek reads I am’. Usually, the AV has any words that are added, written in italics, so that the reader knows that they are added, which can be very helpful. Indeed here, the AV reads ‘I am he’, but the ‘he’ is in italics. So, we could, and perhaps should, read this passage as ‘Jesus... asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. Jesus said, “I am”.’


Now I could understand, at this point, that some might argue differently. Some might conclude that Jesus was simply answering a simple question by telling them ‘I am... Jesus of Nazareth’. But that fails to explain what happens immediately after he says, ‘I am’. Verse 6, with the added word, ‘he’, removed, reads like this, ‘When Jesus said, “I am”, they drew back and fell to the ground.’ When Jesus declared himself to be the great, ‘I am’, these men were forced to fall back from his presence.


In our chapter today, John 8, we can apply this principle of translating ‘egō eimi’ as, simply, ‘I am’ in two other verses, verse 24 and verse 28. In verse 24, Jesus gives a serious warning to those that opposed him. He says, ‘I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.’ Again, this is ‘egō eimi’, ‘I am’. What a message is here, if we simply render this as, ‘if you do not believe that I am, you will indeed die in your sins.’ It is of vital importance that we recognise Jesus for who he is. In John 4:26, Jesus instructs the Samaritan woman at the well in a similar way. Here again we find another, ‘egō eimi’. Jesus had patiently walked this lady on a journey towards the truth in their conversation together. Towards the end, ‘the woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”’ ‘Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you – I am he.”’ If we render this at its most literal then we have the declaration of Jesus as, ‘I, the one speaking to you, am.’


But, back to today’s chapter, John 8. In verse 28, Jesus is speaking about the unity between him and God the Father. He talks of being ‘lifted up’, which we have considered in the past. Jesus is telling them about his crucifixion, where he would be ‘lifted up’ from the earth on that wooden cross. Jesus says, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that “egō eimi”, “I am.”’ How true this was. Following the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the New Testament Church began. Even some of these people, who had taken part in that crucifixion, came to understand the truth about Christ. They realised that he was, indeed, ‘Immanuel’. This man, Jesus, was also God, ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:23). There is a very similar ‘egō eimi’, ‘I am’, in John 13:19, where Jesus predicts his betrayal by Judas. The statement of Jesus there, could rightly be rendered as, ‘I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am’.


In John 6:16-21, the disciples of Jesus are rowing a boat across the lake to Capernaum. ‘A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened.’ The sight of Jesus walking on the water must have told them something about the extraordinary character of their friend. And Jesus confirmed it with words. ‘He said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”’ ‘It is I’. I bet you’ll never guess how that reads in the original Greek!!!! Yes, it’s ‘egō eimi’. Jesus is effectively saying, ‘I am... and because I am who I am, you have no need to fear.’ We read, ‘then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.’


This is so relevant to us in the various ‘strong winds’ that life throws our way. I suspect that the disciples embarked on that crossing with great confidence. After all, several of them were very experienced with boats. But then the weather changed unexpectedly and they found themselves in a situation that was out of their control. They were frightened that it wouldn’t end well. I suspect they felt very small in that moment. But then Jesus arrived. He pointed out that it wasn’t so much about them, and their ability to deal with the matters at hand. The end result depended on him and who he was, and who he is. And he is the great, eternal, ‘I am’. Are we seeking a relationship with this Jesus? Can we have a relationship with this Jesus? In Revelation 22, Jesus (see v.16) tells us this, in verse 13, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.’ Verse 17 contains a wonderful invitation. ‘“Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.’ This seems to be an echo of the message found in Isaiah 55:1-3. ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.’


What do we have to do? We have to not be like the Pharisees. We have to listen - to Jesus. Isaiah 55 continues with this, ‘Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.’ And what will we receive? ‘I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love (as) promised to David.’ We may well ask the question, ‘Who is the God who would do such a thing for a person like me?’ Jesus says, ‘I am’.

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