Question Box: "Before Abraham was, I am"

Question or Topic Scripture
"Before Abraham was, I am" John 8:58

"Jesus said to them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). What did Jesus mean and how do we explain this comment?

Answer


This statement was a response to the Jews, and in particular to the Pharisees, who had become familiar adversaries to his teachings. The words are difficult to understand without considerable qualification. "I am" is a very common phrase that is used many times, and in many different circumstances.

"Am" is translated from the Greek word eimi {i-mee'} which means either "I exist", "have been" or "was". The Strong's number is 1510, but we are told to "see also" at least 12 other Strong's numbers with a variety of similar connotations. It would be an exercise in futility to attempt to pin down an exact meaning for this word (in this verse) without resorting to a conclusion based on our understanding of other scriptural truths.

The Yahweh Name?

It is always tempting when we approach this verse, (from our understanding of the name of Deity), to link the words "I am" in John 8 to the name of God given to Moses at the bush, when he said – "I AM THAT I AM" (Exodus 3:15). This connection is almost too convenient. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence to positively link the words in Exodus to the words in John. In fact, it would be wise to keep in mind that the incident at the bush came after Abraham; a fact that makes it difficult to clearly explain, in this case, why Jesus would say "before Abraham was, I am".

Pre-Existence?

We know that some would claim that the words from John are proof that Jesus was alive before Abraham. This conclusion would be inconsistent with the context, and with the entire council of God. Jesus was the seed of Abraham, a fact which is clearly demonstrated by Galatians 3:16. Jesus could not have preceded Abraham. The birth of Jesus is described in the gospels as occurring 2000 years after Abraham's day. We are told that "when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law." (Galations 4:4) Jesus was not alive before he was born. He did not pre-exist and there is not enough evidence in the words from John 8:58 to prove otherwise. There must be another explanation for the words that Jesus spoke.

Internal Evidence

Any conclusion that we arrive at in this case must take into account the context of the answer that Jesus gave to the Jews. Jesus initiated the conversation in verse 12 of John 8 by telling them: "I am the light of the world." They responded by telling him that his claims were false because he had no witness to verify his claim. Jesus then told them that his Father bore witness of him. He continued with several comments about his origin. In verse 23 he states: "I am from above", and then adds – "I am not of this world". He continued further by saying simply – "I am (he)" (in verse 24).

They would not believe in him or accept his claims. They countered with – "Who art thou?" The entire conversation is centered on the issue of his identity. In fact, one of the central issues in the Gospel of John concerns who he was and where he came from. In his effort to describe his origins, he continued to use this very common phrase. In verse 28 he again states simply "I am."

The Issue of Heritage

The discussion soon became one of heritage, not only for Jesus, but also for his adversaries. The Jews eventually began to boast that Abraham was their father. Jesus responded by telling them that they did not act like the children of Abraham. It is interesting that Jesus places them on the defensive. They would not accept his claims of identity so he used their own logic to question their roots. The Jews decided it was time to introduce a greater authority by claiming that God was their one Father (v. 41).

Jesus told them that they did not hear Gods words and therefore they cannot be of God. They could in no way measure up to his own claim that he "proceedeth forth and came from God."

Climax

The final arguments are initiated by a statement that Jesus made in verse 51: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death." They responded by asking: "Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?" We see again that the issue of identity is still unresolved.

The dialogue continues with Jesus saying – "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad." "Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?"

We note that Jesus did not claim to have seen Abraham. He said only that Abraham had been able to look forward to his own day.But, they were not really listening, as is often the case when there is a controversy. (Abraham's faith in the future was supported by both vision and experience. Consider Genesis 15 and 22 as examples.)

"Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am." This claim was the final straw, they were unable to accept the implications of his words, and they proceeded to try to stone him.

"Before" in Status, Not Time

Some have suggested that Jesus was attempting to express his preeminence above Abraham. It is interesting that earlier in the gospel of John we read:

  1. John 1:14-15
  2. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
  3. John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.

John understood that Jesus was born 6 months after him, but he was still preferred before him. Jesus understood that in the purpose of God, he was also preferred before Abraham. That he would be exalted to a greater position than Abraham. Jesus also recognized that he would have preeminence over his father David. David, (like Abraham), had also rejoiced in vision to see the day of Jesus.

Through the influence of the Spirit in Psalm 110, he stated: "The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool" (Psalm 110:1). Jesus utilized this prophecy on another occasion to ask his adversaries: "David therefore calleth him Lord, how is he then his son?" (Luke 20:44). Jesus called attention to the fact that in status, he was before David.

The defenders of the pre-existence of Christ assume that the word "before" has reference exclusively to time. In reality the word can refer either to time or to status. In the context of the passage in question, the real meaning of the word "before" has reference to status. Jesus was simply stating the fact, that he was greater than Abraham. Saying, in effect, "I am" before Abraham in power and authority.

Identity

We have mentioned that the main issue throughout the gospel record is to establish the identity of Jesus. In fact, near the end of the book, we are told that "these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:31).

In his effort to establish his identity Jesus had several times used the same expression – "I am".

The entire gospel is filled with similar claims: (His claims to be the "bread of life", "the door", "the Good Shepherd", "the resurrection and the life", the "son of God", "the way, the truth and the life", the "true vine", – are all preceded by the phrase-"I AM".

When we consider the number of times that he used this same phrase, his statement in verse 58 is no longer an isolated remark. It is actually the focal point of his argument. It is a logical expression of his identity.

Conclusions

As we attempt to conclude this discussion, we suggest the following possibilities for his use of the expression "Before Abraham was, I am."

  1. Jesus may have been saying very simply – "Before Abraham was even brought into this discussion, I am the one who you were trying to identify. I was trying to tell you who I was and where I came from."
  2. He may have been talking about being "preferred before" Abraham. That he was greater than him in position, (as discussed earlier).
  3. Jesus may have been saying – "Yes, I came forth from God. I was destined to be the savior of the world, the light of the world, even before Abraham was called out. I was in God's plan as the promised seed of the woman, long before your father Abraham existed. Now, I am the promised word made flesh. I stand here as your Messiah, but you are unable to accept me. I am what I am. I am what I have claimed to be."

We would appreciate any comments from our readers on this subject. We all approach these questions from a different prospective. I would hope that there are some better answers out there.

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