THE GOD OF JESUS: PART FOURTEEN
The “I Am” Statements
In the NT Scriptures, the Greek phrase ego eimi is translated into English 141 times as “I am” or some equivalent. Ego eimi is the first person singular present tense of the verb “to be” in the Greek language. Being in the present tense signifies a present happening or circumstance. Ego eimi is a common Greek clause often found with a predicate. The predicate in a sentence tells us what the subject of the sentence is doing.
For example we see Jesus making such statements as “I am (ego eimi throughout) the bread of life, “I am the good Shepherd,” “I am the light of the world.” In these statements the phrase “I am” refers back to the subject Jesus and the rest of the sentence forms the predicate which identifies what it is that Jesus is doing. Such a sentence could be read as, “I, Jesus, am presently the bread of life, the good shepherd or the light of the world.” If a predicate is not present, the context must be consulted to determine who or what ego eimi is referring to.
Trinitarians argue that where ego eimi is associated with Jesus, and there is no predicate connected with this phrase, ego eimi identifies Jesus as YHWH Elohim, the God of Israel. It is believed Jesus is saying he is God. This perspective is based on what God told Moses to tell the Israelites if they questioned who it was that was sending Moses to them.
Exodus 3:14: God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”
The common English rendering of “I AM WHO I AM,” is translated from the Hebrew words ehyeh asher ehyeh. When translated into English, many translators fully capitalize this phrase. Therefore, it is often seen as a proper name for God. This phrase, however, is not capitalized in the Hebrew text of the OT. Ehyeh asher ehyeh is often found to be in the future tense in Hebrew texts of Exodus 3:14. Some scholars have noted that in some ancient Hebrew texts of the OT, Ehyeh is in the first person singular imperfect tense where the imperfect is used to indicate incomplete but ongoing action. In more modern Hebrew texts, ehyeh appears in the future tense.
Because of the grammatical way ehyeh asher ehyeh is found in the Hebrew texts, some Hebrew scholars believe ehyeh asher ehyeh is better translated “I will be what I will be.” Some English translations of Exodus 3:14 render ehyeh asher ehyeh as “I will be what I will be” and others footnote this phrase with “I will be what I will be.” The word asher, as seen in Exodus 3:14, is a pronoun which can mean “that,” “who,” “which” or “where.” The word ehyeh is used in a total of 43 places in the Hebrew Scriptures and is usually translated as “I will be.” Here are a few examples:
Genesis 26:2-3a: The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be (ehyeh) with you and will bless you.”
Exodus 3:12a: And God said, "I will be (ehyeh) with you.”
Because ehyeh is most often used in the Hebrew Scriptures to indicate a future action, some Hebrew scholars believe ehyeh asher ehyeh is not intended as a name for God but identifies God as the one who will be with Israel in fulfilling His covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Ehyeh asher ehyeh is seen more as a title for God, describing how God will relate to Israel, than it being a name for God. The name whereby God identifies Himself and whereby He wants Israel to remember Him is found in Exodus 3:15.and a number of other OT Scriptures.
Exodus 3:15: God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, `The LORD, (YHWH) the God (Elohim) of your fathers--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob--has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.
Isaiah 42:8: I am the LORD; (YHWH) that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.
Psalm 83:18: Let them know that you, whose name is the LORD (YHWH) -- that you alone are the Most High over all the earth.
Psalm 96:2; Sing to the LORD (YHWH), praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.
Jeremiah 16:21: Therefore I will teach them-- this time I will teach them my power and might. Then they will know that my name is the LORD (YHWH).
Jeremiah 33:2: This is what the LORD says, he who made the earth, the LORD who formed it and established it--the LORD (YHWH) is his name:
In Exodus 3:13, Moses asks God by what name He is to be identified before Israel. God begins His answer by saying ehyeh asher ehyeh and proceeds to tell Moses it is ehyeh who is sending him to Israel. God then proceeds to tell Moses it is the name YHWH whereby He is to be identified to Israel. YHWH is used 6,823 times in the OT to reference God. YHWH is the name God wants Moses to use in identifying Himself to Israel.
YHWH is the one and only proper or personal name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. All others descriptions or designations ascribed to YHWH are titles that define certain aspects of who YHWH is and what He does.
Both YHWH and ehyeh are derived from the same verbal root hayah. As discussed in Chapter Three, the precise meaning of hayah is much debated. It appears to mean “to be” or “become.” YHWH came to be defined as the ever living or ever becoming one. Because hayah is the root word for both ehyeh and YHWH and appears to mean “to be” or “become,” ehyeh asher ehyeh and YHWH are often seen as meaning the same thing. The Greek (Septuagint) rendering of the Hebrew in Exodus 3:14 is ego eimi ho on which in English means “I am the being” or “I am the one being.” Ego eimi means “I am” and ho on means the being. Ho on is used to translate the third appearance of ehyeh at the end of verse 14 as “the being.” Most English translations render the third appearance of ehyeh in Exodus 3:14 as “I AM.”
It is apparent the translators of the Hebrew into the Greek saw this passage as God telling Moses to tell the Israelites that He as “the one being” is sending Moses to them. Nowhere in the “I am” statements associated with Jesus is the Greek ho on attached to ego eimi to signify Jesus was identifying Himself as “the being” or the “one being” who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. As already discussed, ehyeh asher ehyeh is better translated as “I will be what I will be" and ehyeh, when used by itself, is frequently translated as “I will be with you.” Ego eimi is nowhere used in the NT to mean “I will be what I will be" or “I will be with you.” Ego eimi is translated as “I am” and can be seen to be associated with a person who is explicitly or implicitly identified somewhere within the context of where ego eimi appears. It is in this manner ego eimi is used throughout the NT. When seen in association with Jesus, ego eimi identifies Him as the man Jesus or the Christ. Nowhere is ego eimi seen to identify Jesus as YHWH.
Both ehyeh and ego eimi are verb forms meaning “to be” which means they point to the existence of something or someone. Context must determine who or what that something or someone is. In the case of Exodus 3:12, the context clearly shows it is YHWH who is being referred to. Whether ehyeh asher ehyeh is to be understood as God saying He will be with Moses and Israel or as identifying God as the self existent Being, ehyeh asher ehyeh and ehyeh both point to YHWH as the subject of the passage under consideration. In the NT, ego eimi is a Greek “to be” verb which points to the subject associated with it as seen by direct reference or by context.
Ego eimi is used in the NT to identify Paul, Peter, John the Baptist and others. It is used to identify Jesus dozens of times. When Jesus walked on the water toward the boat the disciples were in and they expressed great fear at what they were seeing, Jesus said, "It is I; (ego eimi) don't be afraid" (John 6:20). Jesus is not identifying Himself as YHWH but simply telling His disciples it was He, Jesus. Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus told the Jews, “You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, (ego eimi) you cannot come" (John 7:34). Here Jesus uses “I am” to identify Himself as being in a place they won’t find Him. When Jesus was speaking to the Samaritan women and she spoke of the coming Messiah, Jesus said "I who speak to you am (ego eimi) he" (John 4:26). Here Jesus is simply saying He is the Messiah. When Jesus spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, He said “I am (ego eimi) Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” (Acts 9:5). Ego eimi is used dozens of times to either explicitly or implicitly identify Jesus as being Jesus.
Sometimes translators add “he” to clarify who ego eimi is referring to as seen in John 4:26 above and in John 13:19 below. Some translations, such as the NIV, insert phrases such as “the one I claim to be.” Those who believe Jesus claimed to be YHWH believe the NIV supports that perspective.
John 13:19: I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am (ego eimi) He.
John 8:24 Jesus says: I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am (ego eimi) [the one I claim to be], you will indeed die in your sins.
John 8:28: So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am (ego eimi) [the one I claim to be] and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.
Who is the “He” and the one Jesus claimed to be? Jesus claimed to be the promised Messiah and the Son of God. Nowhere does Jesus claim to be YHWH or Elohim. As seen above, when the Samaritan women spoke of the Messiah coming, Jesus identified Himself to her as that Messiah. When Peter was asked by Jesus who he thought Jesus was, Peter answered and Jesus responded in the following manner:
Matthew 16:16-17: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”
Jesus confirmed that Peter gave the right answer in identifying who Jesus is. Peter identified Jesus as the Christ (Messiah), Son of the living God. Nowhere in Scripture is Jesus identified as the living God. The few Scriptures that speak of Jesus being God are not teaching Jesus is the Supreme Self-Existent Living Creator God identified as YHWH in the OT and as the Father in the NT. Jesus revealed the Father as the one and only God as did Paul and other NT writers. The few NT references to Jesus as God will be discussed as we go along. Now let’s look at a passage in John eighteen.
John 18:4-8: Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, "Who is it you want?" "Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "I am (ego eimi) he," Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, "I am (ego eimi) he," they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, "Who is it you want?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." "I told you that I am (ego eimi) he," Jesus answered. "If you are looking for me, then let these men go."
Some claim that when those coming to arrest Jesus drew back and fell to the ground, they did so because Jesus was representing Himself as the ehyeh asher ehyeh of Exodus 3:14 when He answered “I am” (ego eimi). It is believed those arresting Jesus were stunned by the power of His proclamation of being YHWH. The overall context of this passage, however, does not support such a conclusion. Jesus asked “Who is it you want?” They said “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said “I am.” The translators add the word “he” to support the intended meaning of ego eimi. Jesus asked them a second time who they were looking for and He responded by saying “I told you that I am (ego eimi) he so if you are looking for me let these other men go.”
It must be kept in mind that soldiers had come to arrest Jesus and Jesus told them He was the one they were looking for. They probably drew back and fell to the ground simply in response to Jesus offering Himself to them without resistance, something they probably weren’t use to. The recorded interaction between Jesus and the crowd after His initial identification of Himself makes it evident ego eimi is not being used to identify Jesus as YHWH. In response to the second inquiry by the arresters, Jesus is seen as virtually saying “I have already told you I am the one you are looking for so let’s get on with it.” Furthermore, as already discussed, ego eimi does not match the Hebrew ehyeh asher ehyeh in meaning or the Greek translation of ehyeh asher ehyeh which is ego eimi ho on and in English means “I am the being” or “I am the one being.” Jesus was not saying “I am the being” or “I am the one being.” He said “I am” which can be seen by context to mean Jesus was identifying Himself as the “Jesus of Nazareth” His arresters were looking for.
Some have looked at Mark 13:6 and concluded Jesus is identifying Himself as the ehyeh asher ehyeh of Exodus 3:12. When Mark 13:6 is compared with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ same statement, it is clear He is identifying Himself as the Christ. Identifying Himself as the Christ is to identify Himself as the anointed of God and not that He is God.
Mark 13:6: Many will come in my name, claiming, `I am he,' (ego eimi) and will deceive many.
Matthew 24:5: For many will come in my name, claiming, `I am (ego eimi) the Christ,' and will deceive many.
Not only is it evident from Matthew 24:5 that Jesus is saying “I am” in reference to Himself as the Christ, it should be apparent that many coming and claiming to be the Christ does not mean many would come and claim to be YHWH. Therefore, Jesus’ use of “I am” in this passage does not identify Jesus as YHWH. Now let’s look at a passage that is often touted as proving Jesus is YHWH.
John 8:58: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (ego eimi).
After Jesus made this statement, it is recorded the Jews tried to stone Him. It is often concluded this attempted stoning took place because Jesus identified Himself as YHWH by using the phrase “I am” (ego eimi). Is Jesus identifying Himself as YHWH in this passage and is this why the Jews tried to stone Him?
A careful reading of John chapter eight shows the Jews placing great stock in their being descendants of Abraham. Jesus tells them this means nothing in view of the way they were behaving toward Him. Jesus proceeds to make statements that make him out to be greater than Abraham. The Jews recoil at this and actually accuse Jesus of having a demon. When Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56), it incensed the Jews even more. Jesus saying “before Abraham was born I am” was the last straw. The Jews couldn’t take any more of Jesus promoting Himself as being superior to Abraham and at that point they try to stone Him. In reading John 8 you can virtually feel the tension building up between Jesus and the Jews leading to the attempted stoning.
As already discussed, ego eimi is a verb form meaning “to be.” It virtually means to exist in some manner as opposed to not existing. When ego eimi is used in a narrative, it attests to the existence of the person, place or thing this phrase points to. Therefore, when Jesus says before Abraham was born “I am,” He is saying He existed before Abraham was born. Was Jesus saying He literally existed before Abraham was born and, if so, is He saying He existed as YHWH before Abraham was born. Is Jesus identifying Himself as YHWH? If Jesus is saying He is YHWH in this passage, He is contradicting statements He made about His Father being the one and only true God (YHWH) and similar statements made by Paul and John (John 17:3. 5:43-44, Romans 16:25-27, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Timothy 2:5, 1 John 5:20).
Jesus is not contradicting Himself and neither is He saying He literally existed before Abraham was born. Jesus is speaking proleptically. Proleptic language speaks of things as already existing though they have not yet come to actually exist. This kind of language is commonly found in the Biblical Scriptures.
For example, the Scriptures indicate Jesus was slain from the time of the earth’s creation even though He wasn’t actually crucified until the first century A.D. (Revelation 13:8). Paul speaks of the grace that was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time (2 Timothy 1:9). This grace was not made effective, however, until the Christ event actually occurred. Jesus speaks of the Kingdom having been prepared for us since the creation of the world (Matthew 25:34). The Kingdom wasn’t actually available to enter into until the Christ event. Paul told the Ephesian Christians that God “chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4). This didn’t come to fruition until the first century.
A review of the NT Scripture shows the sacrifice of Christ, salvation, establishment of the Kingdom and other events were in the purpose of God from early on but first became manifest through Christ who, Himself, was in the purpose of God and became manifest in the first century as the begotten Son of God. Paul, in addressing Christians of His day, says in Ephesians 2:6, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Christians were proleptically seated in heavenly places. This is anticipatory language which is found throughout Scripture. Christ is using this kind of rhetorical mechanism when saying He pre-existed Abraham. In view of what we have discussed to this point, it is highly problematical to conclude Jesus pre-existed His human birth. To maintain consistency in the Scriptures, it is much more reasonable to conclude Jesus was in the purpose of God from early on and this purpose was revealed to Abraham and in this manner Jesus could say He existed before Abraham.
Anglican Bishop Samuel Parker (1640-1687) wrote in 1667, “It was a proverbial form of speech among the Jews to express matters of great moment, resolved upon only in the divine decree, as they were really existing. Thus they say that the Messiah is more ancient than the sun and the Mosaic order older than the world, not as if they understood them really as such, but only to express their absolute usefulness and necessity… The glory which Jesus prayed for in John 17:5…was that honor with which God had from eternity designed to dignify the Messiah.”
Grammarians who have studied John 8:58 find that in the Greek construction of this verse the phrase ego eimi is in the perfect indicative tense which expresses a past action that is still going on. Therefore, the actual meaning of this passage is that “before Abraham came to be I have been.” The grammatical construction of this passage gives the sense that ego eimi covers the entire period from some time before Abraham to the time Jesus was speaking to Jews standing before Him. Various translations render this passage with this understanding of the Greek grammar. For example, one Greek scholar, K. L. McKay in his A New Syntax of the Verb in the New Testament Greek, renders this passage as “I have been in existence since before Abraham was born.” This rendering portrays the sense of continuing existence from before Abraham up to and including the present. Some translations, such as the 1971 edition of the New American Standard Bible, footnote “I AM” with (or, “I have been.”).
We know Jesus was in the purpose of His Father God from early on and in that respect was in existence before Abraham was born. The key to understanding Jesus’ statement in John 8:58 is John 8:56.
John 8:56: Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.
This is a proleptic statement. Abraham is portrayed as seeing in advance the day of Christ. Abraham saw the day of Christ in the promises made to him at the time he was told to leave his homeland and travel to the land of Canaan. John writes that Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing the day of Jesus. This tells us Abraham didn’t literally see Jesus or that Jesus literally existed in Abraham’s day. Abraham saw Jesus in thought in being given the Gospel in advance.
Galatians 3:8: The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you."
Galatians 3:16: The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ.
Abraham saw the day of Christ in advance because God revealed to Abraham that through his seed (Christ) all nations would be blessed. When Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, he was told that because he was willing to do this, all nations would be blessed through his offspring (Genesis 22:15-18). Jesus is that one seed of Abraham that became the Christ through whom salvation from God the Father was facilitated. It was in the plan of YHWH to provide a human sacrifice for sin from the time of the creation of the world (Revelation 13:8) and actually from before the creation of the world (1 Peter 1:18-20). This plan of YHWH’s wasn't actuated until the appearing of Christ in the first century as Peter makes clear.
1 Peter 1:18-20: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
Jesus wasn’t actually crucified until the end of His ministry. In the purpose of God, however, Christ was as good as crucified from the time God determined to engender a Son who would become the Savior of the world. Christ was before Abraham in the purpose of God and Abraham was made privy to God's plan and able to see the day of Christ in advance and rejoice over it.
The “I am” statement in John 8:58 is not Jesus announcing to the Jews He is YHWH. Jesus is saying “I am He.” “I am the one.” I am the one who was prophesied to come. I am the promised Messiah who was in the purpose of YHWH before Abraham was born and Abraham was allowed to see my day. Israel was not expecting YHWH as the prophesied Messiah. There is nothing in the prophetic writings that would lead Israel to believe the prophesied Messiah would be God in the flesh. What they did see in the prophetic writings was that God would raise up a prophet from among their brothers who would be like Moses. In Acts, Peter shows this prophet was Christ Jesus.
Deuteronomy 18:15: The LORD (YHWH) your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.
Acts 3:22: For Moses said, `The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you.
The Jews didn’t believe Jesus was the prophet Moses wrote about. They looked upon Jesus as an impostor. When Jesus kept insisting He was the promised Messiah and how this made Him greater than Abraham, they became incensed to the point of wanting to stone Him. To postulate John 8:58 shows Jesus to be YHWH contradicts Jesus’ own statements about His Father being the one and only true God. It contradicts Paul and John’s statements about the Father being the one and only God. It contradicts the dozens of Scriptural statements which show YHWH to be the God of Jesus.
In Deuteronomy 32:39, YHWH is quoted as saying, “I am He.” There are similar statements found in Isaiah 41:4, 43:10, 13; 46:4, 48:12 and 52:6. In these passages, “I am He” is translated from the Hebrew ani eua and in the Septuagint, the Greek words ego eimi are used to translate the Hebrew ani eua into English. Since the Greek words ego eimi are used to translate the “I am” statements found in these Hebrew passages and are also found in the NT narrative in association with Christ saying “I am,” some theologians believe Jesus is identified with the YHWH of the Deuteronomy and Isaiah passages.
As covered above, ego eimi is a Greek “to be” verb which points to the subject associated with it. In the NT, when associated with Jesus, it simply identifies Jesus as the one being referred to in relation to some activity. The same is true of its usage in the Septuagint version of the OT. In Deuteronomy 32:39, YHWH says, "See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me" (KJV). YHWH is simply saying He is the one God and there is no other. This passage goes on to quote YHWH as citing His various attributes.
There simply is no Scriptural reason to believe the “I am” statements associated with Jesus in the NT correlate with the “I am” statements associated with YHWH in the OT passages in such manner as to identify Jesus as YHWH. “I am” statements associated with YHWH, either implicitly or explicitly identify YHWH as the one and only God. “I am” statements associated with Jesus, either implicitly or explicitly identify Jesus as the Christ of YHWH, the promised Messiah to Israel.