Before Abraham Was, I Am!

John 8:48-59 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 But you have not known him. 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. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.


Once again, all of John 7 and 8 is set in Jerusalem during the Jewish Feast of Booths. This particular Feast took place around six months before the Passover Feast at which Jesus would be crucified. Almost the entire section describes different interactions between Jesus and various groups of Jews and Jewish leaders. The exchanges all followed a familiar pattern: (1) Jesus appeared in public, (2) Some truth-claim was put forward (either by Jesus or one of the Jews), (3) A debate took place between Jesus and the Jews over the truth-claim, and (4) Jesus explained the consequences of the Jews/Jewish leaders’ hardness of heart. More than once, John records that some who heard Jesus came to believe Jesus. Unfortunately, however, John also indicates that their belief was mostly misguided and insincere.

In this last section of that longer passage, we find that the pattern holds. Jesus was in public, several truth-claims were offered, debates ensued, and Jesus pronounced judgment on His unbelieving audience.

Within that pattern, there is one main claim made by Jesus, three subsequent claims that flow from it, and a single response from the Jews. The main claim is that Jesus is God. The three subsequent claims that flow out of that are that (1) there is no immorality in Jesus, (2) the Father and Son conspire for one another’s glory, and (3) eternal life comes from keeping Jesus’ word. And the single response from the Jews was complete rejection. This morning we’ll look at the main point (that Jesus is God) and then we’ll get to the rest next Sunday.

Some of what we cover today will be familiar to many and some will be newer. New or old, however, combined it all helps us see the glory of Jesus in its highest and clearest form since John’s introduction. Jesus is God, the eternal, perfect, second person of the Holy Trinity. Our main takeaway, then, is awe, wonder, marvel, and worship. Let’s pray that God would grant us all eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to love these things.


If you were paying attention when Heather read our passage, you’ll quickly notice that I’m beginning with the end. In fact, as I mentioned before I prayed, we won’t get to the beginning until next Sunday. The main reason I’ve chosen to go out of order like this is because everything else Jesus said in the first ten verses is rooted entirely in the one main claim He made in the second to last verse.

Jesus is God – John’s Introduction

As I work through Jesus’ main claim, then, that He is God, I’d like to invite you to consider something that I’ll come back to several times throughout the sermon: Everything, everything, everything hinges on whether or not that’s true. Every other claim Jesus makes in this passage hinges on it. But more significantly, everything from every corner of creation hinges on it as well. If Jesus is God, there is no aspect of reality untouched by that truth. And in the same way, if He is not God, that too has implications for every part of our existence. In other words, the claim we’re about to consider presents every one of us with the most important, all-encompassing question we’ll ever encounter: In claiming to be God, was Jesus telling the truth or not? How’s that for a wakeup call?

With that, to help us best appreciate the meaning and magnitude of Jesus’ claim, let’s begin at the beginning of John’s Gospel and then go back up even further to the beginning of God’s covenant promise.

John 1:19 to the very end of the Gospel contains a narrative account of much of Jesus’ life and ministry. It begins with John the Baptist, who was sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus, and ends with the resurrected Jesus speaking to His followers just before ascending back into heaven.

The first eighteen verses of the Gospel are quite a bit different. They serve as John’s introduction. In it, John basically framed up (explained and interpreted) much of what he would cover in everything that followed. In particular, he used the introduction to explain who Jesus really was and what difference that makes.

To those ends, in his intro, John cut straight to the chase on the most important aspect of Jesus’ nature. In the very first verses of the very first chapter, John stated in no uncertain terms exactly what Jesus claimed for Himself in 8:58: that Jesus is eternal God in the flesh.

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.

To make sure no one missed the fact that he was referring to Jesus (the Word), in v.14 he was even more explicit.

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

What was immediately clear and explicit in John’s introduction, however, has been anything but (clear and explicit) to this point in the narrative portion of his Gospel. There are definite hints and suggestions. Knowing what we know, it’s not hard to recognize Jesus’ divinity in John 1:19-8:48. And yet, an important aspect of Jesus’ ministry was His gradual revelation of who He really was. That gradual revelation built and built, reaching a new and significant climax in our passage for this morning. In other words, what was clear to John by the time he wrote his introduction, and what is clear to us now (that Jesus is God), was not as clear to those experiencing Jesus’ ministry in real time…until the point in His ministry described here, that is.

Jesus Is God – The Abrahamic Covenant

With all of that, if you’re not already familiar with our passage or with the OT, you might be wondering what I’m talking about. Nowhere in John 8:48-59 did Jesus say the words, “I am God.” Why, then, am I claiming that Jesus clearly and explicitly did so? Understanding the answer to that question requires us to go way back in the OT, from Abraham to one of his offspring several generations later.

Back in Genesis 15 we read of the covenant promise that God made with Abraham, the one held onto so tightly by the Jews in Jesus’ day (especially those in our passage and throughout 7-8). In it, God promised to be Abraham’s God and to give him a land to possess. In Genesis 17, God expanded on His covenant promises to Abraham. There, in addition to the land, God also promised to make Abraham into a “father of a multitude of nations.” God even went so far as to declare, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your offspring after you.” Again, that’s why the Jews kept insisting to Jesus that they were children of Abraham.

By God’s design, the covenant promise was carried on through Abraham’s son, Isaac; and then through Isaac’s son, Jacob. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel and blessed him with twelve sons. From these sons came the tribes of Israel. As you may know, God especially blessed Israel’s son, Joseph, to the point that he became the second most powerful man in Egypt. And because of that, Joseph’s father (Jacob/Israel) and the rest of his brothers eventually joined him in Egypt and in God’s abundant blessing there.

That brings us to the second book of the Bible, Exodus. In the very beginning of Exodus, we’re told that eventually Joseph, his father, and all his brothers died in Egypt. But it also tells us that “all the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly stung, so that the land was filled with them” (1:7). Within a few short generations, God’s covenant promises were starting to bear very visible fruit.

At that point, things take quite a turn. The next few verses in Exodus tell us that “There arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph,” that he was intimidated by Israel’s numbers, blessing, and might, and that he commanded his people, therefore, to “deal shrewdly with them” (1:8-10). The result was an ever-increasing enslavement and oppression of Abraham’s burgeoning offspring. In a flash they went from prosperous and joyful to beaten down into severe subjugation.

After some time (of being enslaved), God raised up another of Abraham’s offspring, a man named Moses, to free His people in keeping with His covenant promise. After miraculously preserving Moses’ life as a baby, and miraculously allowing Moses to be raised by the daughter of the king of Egypt, when Moses was older, God miraculously appeared to him in the form of a burning bush. Insodoing, God revealed His most holy name for the first time.

After explaining to Moses what He intended to do (free His people) and Moses’ role in it (use his influence with Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt), God had this brief exchange with Moses.

Exodus 3:13-14 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 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.'”

“I AM” is a translation of the Hebrew word, “Yahweh”. Never before had God revealed this name to any man, not even to Abraham. It came to be so revered by the Jews that they wouldn’t even write out all the letters. If you’ve spent any time in the OT, you know that God has many names, but Yahweh is His most holy name.

Jesus Is God – John 8:58

More than a fun history lesson or a bit of trivia knowledge, all of that is necessary for us to truly make sense of and appreciate Jesus’ shocking words in John 8:58. After a bit more round and round with the Jews concerning the nature of their relationship with Abraham (in John 8:48-55),

58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Even with the background I just shared with you, that probably doesn’t shock us like it should. To Jesus’ hearers, however, to those steeped in generations of reverence for this name of God, it hit like a ton of bricks (as is evidenced by their response recorded in the final verse). We saw in vs.24 and 28 that Jesus hinted at this, likely claiming Isaiah 43:13 (“I am he”). Here, though, Jesus took what was implicit and made it explicit and added to Isaiah 43, Exodus 3 (“I AM”)! That is, in John 8:58 Jesus took for Himself God’s most holy name. Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the same God who appeared to Moses in a burning bush 1300 years earlier, the God of the covenant promise that shaped their entire lives, the God of whom the Jews said “He is our God” (54).

So what are we to make of this?! It is truly the most staggering claim of all time. Most of us have become so used to hearing that Jesus is God, that we miss how staggering it really is. To even begin to get our heads around this we need to take the things I’ve already shared with you and then use them to put ourselves into the shoes of those listening to Jesus speak in this passage.

Picture it… some guy comes to Minnesota. He starts teaching things about Christianity that don’t sound quite right, or at least it’s not immediately obvious what he’s talking about. Some aspects of his life seem to line up in strange ways with the Bible and there are rumors swirling concerning his ability to do things no one else has ever done. At the same time, though, little of what he says and does fits into any normal understanding of Christianity.

After a couple years of this taking place all around the area, you find yourself hearing him speak in person. He shows up at our farmer’s market and starts talking loud enough for everyone to hear him. For the most part, he starts off saying the same kinds of unusual things he’s known for, but then takes it to another level. He’d claimed certain prophecies for himself, reinterpreted Bible passages in ways you’ve never heard, and repeatedly challenged just about every aspect of the authority of those in power, but then…then, he has the audacity to take his audacity to an entirely new level. He clearly and emphatically claims to be God; not to be merely from God or godly or on God’s mission, but to actually be God.

This man—who looks like every other man, who is less educated and has less money than many, who has almost nothing notable about him other than his provocative teaching, unusual boldness, and possibly some exceptional acts—publically declares himself to be the God who made the heavens and earth.

As others have pointed out, that claim is so shocking that it immediately removes all but three possibilities. No longer can he be considered a mere revolutionary, or trouble maker, or teacher, or man of God. None of those kinds of people claim to actually be God. That claim means that he is either a liar of the most heinous kind (knowing full well that he is not who he claims, but calling in people to give their lives to it anyway), he’s a lunatic of the most pitiable kind (he wrongly, but genuinely believes himself to be God), or he is who he said he is.

That’s in essence exactly what the Jews in John 8:48-59 were faced with, and their response proves it. They immediately recognized the magnitude of Jesus’ claim and decided quickly that rather than a lunatic, and certainly rather than God, Jesus was a liar. Therefore, according to v.59, … they picked up stones to throw at him…

The God-prescribed penalty for blasphemy, which this certainly was if it was not true, was throwing stones at the person until they died (Leviticus 24:14). Therefore, (rightly) certain that Jesus claimed to be God and (wrongly) certain He wasn’t, Jesus’ hearers were (again wrongly) certain that they needed to execute Jesus if they were to honor God’s decree.

Again, Grace, what are we to do with this? Before anything else, we must decide for ourselves if Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, or God. If He is a liar or lunatic, the Jews were right and we should join them. If He is God, though, AND HE IS, it changes and effects everything.


Grace Church, please hear me when I tell you that all of this means there is no corner of the universe, no thought, no feeling, no relationship, no purchase, no moment, no orientation, no anything over which Jesus is not God. Because of that, Jesus could make the claims He made and call people to the things He called them to. At the same time, it was because they rejected that larger claim, that the Jews couldn’t possibly believe Jesus on the smaller ones. And in that we get a small glimpse of the difference between a life lived in genuine faith in Jesus and every other life.

In conclusion, then, my challenge to you all is to ask the Holy Spirit to help you decide once and for all whether or not to hang everything on that central claim. As we’ve seen, the only real options are to reject it outright and everything that goes with it or accept it fully and obey all that Jesus commands. What is not an option is that which so many in our culture have chosen…to dabble in some watered-down, domesticated, counterfeit version of Christianity that has large chunks of reality untouched by Jesus. May God’s grace wash over us this morning, opening our eyes to behold this wonderful, eternal-life-changing truth: Jesus is God!