Through seven great “I am” metaphors, John powerfully communicated Jesus’ purpose. Jesus’ claims are readily recognizable: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the door of the sheep, I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth and the life; and I am the true vine.
Yet, these are not his only “I am” assertions in John’s Gospel. On several other occasions Jesus simply said, “I am” without completing the predicate. Perhaps the most well-known example of these is “Before Abaham was, I am” (John 8:58).
When Jesus made this claim, the crowd’s reaction revealed they understood Jesus to be uttering blasphemy. Not only had he claimed a greater than human existence, they likely understood Jesus to be using the language of Exodus 3:14 to identify himself with God.
The crowd understood his claim. From the start of this Gospel, John had developed the theme of Jesus’ divinity (John 1:1,14,18). This phrase “I am” provided John with one more tool. And so, we find it popping up in other stories as well.
On his final night Jesus crossed the book Kidron to enter a garden. As the evening progressed he would encounter a cohort of soldiers sent to arrest him. Jesus acknowledged to them that he was ‘Jesus the Nazorean’ by simply asserting, “I am” (John 18:5). At this the whole band of soldiers, perhaps around 600, retreated and fell to the ground (John 18:6).
This powerful scene reveals the truth of Jesus’ previous claim about his authority (John 10:18). No one would take his life from him, including a whole cohort of soldiers. Rather, he would choose to lay it down.
In the original language Jesus simply pronounced two words, “I am.” Yet, our Bibles typically render this as “I am he.” They are correct doing so because this expression can convey a simple acknowledgement. Accordingly, the man born blind said “I am” to confirm who he was (John 9:9).
John can use “I am” on Jesus’ lips with a dual function. They can serve an overt declaration of his divinity as well as identify him as the Nazorean. The lines can become blurry.
In the dialogue leading up to this claim that before Abraham was born ‘I am,’ Jesus taught the crowd: “you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). Based upon their response, the Jews clearly did not understand this as a claim to divinity (John 8:25).
While we can certainly agree that people must acknowledge Jesus is the Christ to be forgiven, did John also hint at more? Should we be surprised that commentators understand Jesus’ words in two ways, especially when Jesus’ claim parallels a similar claim by God? Isaiah 43:10?
Stepping backward through the Gospel we arrive at the stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples had rowed several miles into the sea when Jesus came to them walking on the water. Stepping upon the water, Jesus said, “I am. Do not be afraid (John 6:19-20).” Should we be surprised that commentators understand Jesus’ words in two ways?
Even closer to the Gospel’s beginning we encounter Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. After she revealed that she knew the Messiah was coming, Jesus responded, “I am, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). Jesus clearly indicated he was the Messiah.
Is this all that John was communicating? Perhaps. And yet in view of God saying to his people, “I am the one who says” (Isaiah 52:6), perhaps an initial soft drumbeat has struck that will grow into a crescendo with a band of soldiers falling down before Jesus.
Overstatement is not good. We must be careful. Repeatedly, Jesus did identify himself as being the person in question – just as any other person would do. John also used this same phrase to reveal much more. Given the highly thematic nature of this Gospel, John’s Gospel can draw us in to ponder.
Perhaps John intended us to spend time pondering Jesus of Nazareth who looked like any other human being, but who was at the same time the Son of God. What we can be certain is that if we will believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, we will have life in his name.