Thursday, August 12, 2021

John 8:48-59

John 8:48–59: Before Abraham Was, I Am

This passage is part of a larger conversation Jesus is having in 8:12–59 with some of the Jews—I believe they’re religious leaders.

There have been numerous instances up to this point in John where people have been divided on who Jesus is, and whether he could be the Prophet and/or Elijah and/or the Messiah, but one sticking point has been where he’s from. He has spent a lot of time in Galilee which leads a lot of people to think he’s from there, but they know that the three personages mentioned above won’t come from Galilee. Then, in verses 12–59 of this chapter Jesus has flustered his listeners more and more, by claiming:

  1. To be the light of the world in verses 12–30
  2. That the truth will set people free (and that being a child of Abraham—in other words, being Jewish—is not enough to be a child of God), in verses 31–38
  3. That his listeners are actually children of the devil in verses 39–47

So it’s fair to say that his listeners have had enough of him. They’re ready to dismiss him. So they ask him in verse 48, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Which… if this was a message in an internet chatroom, there would be a dozen people piping in at this point to say, “that escalated quickly!” They’re back to the whole Galilee thing—if Jesus was really someone who had the authority to be saying the things he’s saying, his listeners are pretty sure he wouldn’t be from there!—but they’re finally catching on to something else: These are big claims being made by Jesus. He can’t be just some regular teacher with whom they disagree on some legal issues; the claims he’s making are too big. As C.S. Lewis famously said, given the claims Jesus made there are only three options: 1) he could be a liar, 2) he could be a lunatic, or 3) he could be Lord. Jesus’ listeners have settled on an Option 2a: He must have a demon!

In verses 49–51 Jesus answers them:

V. Quote Thoughts
49 “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.” There’s a subtle shift happening here. Jesus has been talking about whether his listeners honour God, but now he’s talking about whether they honour Jesus—and making it seem like Jesus and God are equal with each other. Again, he could fully be a liar, he could be crazy (or have a demon), or…
50 “Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge.” This comes up over and over in the life of Jesus in the Gospels. He’s not here for glory; he’s here to save us, so that we’ll glorify God. Isn’t Jesus God, though? Yes he is! But if he didn’t save us from our sins, we wouldn’t be able to give God—including Jesus—the glory, because our sins would prevent us.
51 “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Without even reading the rest of the passage, we know that this is going to cause confusion. We know (or at least we should) that Jesus isn’t claiming Christians won’t die; everyone dies. And yet, Christians have eternal life; our current bodies will die, but we will always be with the Lord. In fact, when our bodies die, we’ll be closer to Him.

And as we’d expect, his listeners don’t accept this teaching. They say in verses 52–53, “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.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?”

In a sense, this is a valid question. Jesus is claiming that his followers won’t see death, yet every single Israelite who ever lived—including all of the prophets, and even Abraham himself—have all died. On the surface of it, it’s silly for Jesus to claim that his followers won’t see death! So, “Who do you make yourself out to be?” is, in a sense, a valid question. Which Jesus has been explicitly answering all along, except that they’re not accepting what he’s saying. Jesus doesn’t really answer this time, though; he goes back to the fact that whatever he says about himself is meaningless, unless he is glorified from God:

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.’ 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. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” (verses 54–56)

About that last part, Abraham seeing Jesus’ day, the ESV Study Bible notes say this:

Jesus is possibly referring to a whole pattern of joyful and confident faith in Abraham’s life, rather than one specific event. If the reference is to one event, some possibilities are Gen. 12:1–3; or 17:17, 20; or 22:8, 13–18; cf. Rom. 4:13–21.

His listeners take him very literally, and, in this instance, I can’t blame them: “You are not yet fifty years old,” they say, “and have you seen Abraham?” And then Jesus really shocks them:

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

This is another quotation from Jesus for which modern-day readers won’t feel the full impact. We know that it’s weird, Jesus seems to be taking a break from grammar when he says this, but we might not understand the full impact of this. But it goes right back to God speaking to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3; God calls Himself “I AM” in that instance, and that becomes His name for the rest of Israelite history. Any time Jesus uses that phrase, “I am,” he’s not just stating a fact, he’s quoting from Scripture in a very particular way which would cause the Jews of his day to react… well, exactly as these people react in verse 59 of this passage: pick up stones to stone him for blasphemy. He is, in fact, claiming to be God. Whenever Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” or, “I am the shepherd,” or anywhere else that he says “I am,” he’s doing the same thing. It’s only here in 8:58 that it really strikes the modern, English reader, because “before Abraham was, I am” is obviously bad grammar.

As a side note, this isn’t just “a name” that God has chosen for Himself, it’s also a way of specifying that God has always existed, and will always exist; that He is not confined by time, the way that humans are. It’s not just that Jesus always has existed, and always will exist—though that’s true—it’s that he’s so totally outside of time that he simply… is.

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