Jesus Second Clear Claim to Deity
One of Jesus’ most persuasive claims to Deity was made in Jerusalem about six months before his death. He had come to the Temple secretly for the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jewish authorities were still seeking to kill him and tried to seize him on the previous day. Now, on the Last Great Day of the Feast, a Sabbath holy day, the Pharisees came seeking to find a cause to discredit and perhaps to kill him without causing a tumult among the people.
John 8:58 NASB Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.”
The words “was born” are from a single Greek word ginomai (G1096) and is the same word used for the word became (man) in John 1:14. Jesus used the phrase ego eimi (G1473 and G1510 respectively), meaning, “I am.” Clearly, the very least Jesus was saying is that he existed before Abraham was born. In John 8:59 the Jewish authorities picked up stones to cast at Jesus, but he hid himself from them. Why would they do such a thing? Why would someone saying he was at least 2000 years old be a threat to them? If they thought Jesus was mentally unbalanced, they could have just grinned and walked away. They would have discredited him by showing he was mad. If they thought some action was required, they could have done, as some tried to do in Galilee when friends said Jesus was “beside himself.” That is, they could have taken him and delivered him over to his family for care, until he regained his wits (Mark 3:21, 30-32). Instead, these men tried to kill Jesus. Why?
Some will try to play down the force of Jesus’ phrase, ego eimi, in John 8:58 by showing other places in Scripture where the exact phrase Jesus used is utilized by other people mentioned therein. For example, in some Greek manuscripts Paul used this phrase while speaking to King Agrippa in Acts 26:29. He said that he wished all men “might become such as I am, except for these chains.”
On the same day Jesus’ critics tried to stone him, Jesus healed a blind man. This man also used the phrase ego eimi (G1473 & G1510). After Jesus healed him, some people who knew the man who had been blind wondered if it was really him (John 9:8-9). While they disagreed over his identity, the blind man said, “I am (he).” The word he is not in the Greek text, but it is understood and so translated into English. Therefore, the Gospel writer has the blind man saying the same words Jesus spoke in John 8:58, “ego eimi.” The point being that these men are not God and don’t try to make themselves out to be God merely by saying “I am!”
Arguments such as this one are used often in efforts to deny Jesus was claiming to be God. Nevertheless, this is a very weak argument against Jesus’ claim. Paul and the blind man used the phrase in a manner that fit the context of the rest of the sentence. The blind man answered the query of his neighbors saying, “I am” with the word he understood. We do this all the time in English. If someone asks, “Who is coming with me,” I might answer, “I am” with the words, “going with you,” understood. We don’t have to speak the words for people to understand what we are trying to say. In Paul’s case, he answered a statement made by King Agrippa in Acts 26:28. Paul said he wished everyone were as “I am” with the word Christian understood, the very word used by the king in the previous verse.
These things being so, what word or phrase would be understood in Christ’s words “ego eimi” in John 8:58? “Before Abraham was, I am” (KJV)! “I am” what? “Before Abraham came to be, I am…” What word or phrase would we add for the sentence to make sense? Jesus spoke of Abraham in the past. In fact, he spoke of a time preceding Abraham’s existence. Yet, he spoke of himself in the present, but in a relationship to the time before Abraham. How would we make sense of this statement?
It is evident that Jesus was claiming more than preexistence in John 8:58. He was claiming to be God in the flesh. Had he been claiming that he merely preexisted Abraham (such as an angel), the verb to be (eimi G1510) would have been expressed in the imperfect tense or: “…before Abraham was born, I have been.” Yet, Jesus didn’t phrase his reply this way. He said, “…before Abraham was born, I AM,” putting his answer in the present indicative active and 1st person singular of the verb to be, (G 1510). Compare this with the following verses where the verb to be is used in various ways:
Mark 12:32 KJV And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:
“There is” (G 2076) is repeated in this verse, both instances in the present indicative active of the verb to be and is in the third person singular. Using the verb to be the scribe said that God exists and no other god exists with him.
Acts 19:2 KJV he said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.
“There be” is the present indicative active of the verb to be and is in the third person singular. Using the verb to be the disciples of John the Baptist announced their ignorance of the existence of the Holy Spirit.
Hebrews 11:6 KJV But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
“he is” (G2076) is the present indicative active of the verb to be and is in the third person singular. In this Scripture the writer of Hebrews uses the verb to be to express that people must believe that God exists before they can come to him.
John 17:5 KJV And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.
The verb was (G1511 – “before the world was”) is the present infinitive of the verb to be. In this Scripture Jesus declared by using the verb to be that he existed before the creation of the world.
Clearly, therefore, Jesus is not claiming in John 8:58 that he is like an angel who existed before Abraham was born. When Jesus used this verb to be in the present indicative active and in the singular form, he was referring to his eternal existence, which claim he repeated with his apostles in John 17:5 when he said he existed before the world came to be.
Yet, some will say that none of the above could be true, because ego eimi would be a mistranslation of the Hebrew in reference to Exodus 3:14, assuming the argument that Jesus referred to his being I AM THAT I AM. These people like to say that the Hebrew text should read in English, “I will be what I will be.” This is the manner in which some Hebrew scholars traditionally thought the verse should be rendered. However, this is not necessarily true with all scholars, today. Nevertheless, without getting into a quarrel over which scholar is the best, I would just as soon refer to the Septuagint. This Bible had been used often by the New Testament writers and is a translation by ancient Hebrew scholars. The Septuagint uses ego eimi to translate the first part of the Hebrew phrase “I AM THAT I AM” in Exodus 3:14. For the second part of the phrase a different tense of the verb to be is used. Therefore, this argument against my present argument is invalid, because it appears the translators of the Septuagint certainly felt free to use ego eimi to render the first half of the Hebrew phrase in Exodus 3:14, and there is no controversy over what ego eimi means in English!
If, however, we insist the phrase should be “I am he” as it is often translated elsewhere, how should we understand this phrase in John 8:58? “I am he” refers to whom? In Deuteronomy 32:39 the Septuagint uses the same phrase to indicate the LORD saying “I am he and there is no god with Me.” Isaiah 41:4 also uses the phrase to indicate the LORD, as does Isaiah 43:10, 25; 46:4; 51:12 (used twice for the LORD), and 52:6. The same phrase is used without the pronoun he and still refers to God (Almighty, LORD etc.) in numerous places including, Genesis 17:1; 26:24; 31:13; Exodus 3:6; 7:5; 8:22; 14:4, 18; 15:26 and in Exodus 20:2 as the LORD began thundering the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. This phrase is used frequently in other Scriptures in the Septuagint to refer to the LORD God. To say that Jesus was using the phrase ego eimi to indicate something else is pure speculation without any Scriptural ground for support. Where is the Scripture to support any other reason for Jesus’ statement?
Therefore, even if the use of ego eimi cannot be applied to Exodus 3:14 (a highly unlikely thought), the phrase, as used by Jesus, is used so often in the Septuagint to refer to the LORD God or God Almighty that Jesus may very well have been referring to this very common phrase showing that he claimed to be God. In fact, this phrase is used so commonly in reference to the God of Israel that the authorities immediately recognized what Jesus was saying, and they took up stones to kill him as a blasphemer. May God help us to see the truth of his word.