By Sam Shamoun
We come to the final section where we briefly examine the “I Am He” sayings of the Lord Jesus.
The “I Am He” Becomes Flesh
In John’s Gospel, Jesus employs the phrase “I Am He” (Gr. ego eimi – also rendered simply as “I AM/Am” in various translations) in ways that are reminiscent of Yahweh’s “I Am He” statements, which are found throughout the Hebrew Bible (cf. Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; 52:6). See pt. 1 for further details.
Christ not only employed this term to affirm his heavenly origin,
“He said to them, ‘You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins. For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.’” John 8:23-24
But to also highlight his timeless existence, an existence that he contrasts with Abraham’s temporal life:
“‘Your father Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to my coming. He saw it and was glad.’ The people said, ‘You aren’t even fifty years old. How can you say you have seen Abraham?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I am!’ At that point they picked up stones to throw at him. But Jesus was hidden from them and left the Temple.” John 8:56-59
a. 8:57 Some manuscripts read How can you say Abraham has seen you?
b. 8:58 Or before Abraham was even born, I have always been alive; Greek reads before Abraham was, I am. See Exod 3:14. New Living Translation (NLT)
The Lord explains to his Jewish interlocutors that the reason why he could have personally seen their ancestor who had been dead for approximately two thousand years is because, unlike Abraham who came into being at a specific point in time, the divine Person of Christ is uncreated. As such, the Son has personally existed not just before Abraham was created, but even before the world itself came into existence:
“Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created.” John 17:5 Common English Bible (CEB)
The late NT expositor William Barclay brings out the import of our Lord’s words:
The Jews, although they knew better, chose to take this literally. "How," they demanded, "can you have seen Abraham when you are not yet fifty?" Why fifty? That was the age at which the Levites retired from their service (Numbers 4:3). The Jews were saying to Jesus: "You are a young man, still in the prime of life, not even old enough to retire from service. How can you possibly have seen Abraham? This is mad talk." It was then that Jesus made that most staggering statement: "Before Abraham was, I am." We must note carefully that Jesus did not say: "Before Abraham was, I was," but, "Before Abraham was, I am." Here is the claim that Jesus is timeless. There never was a time when he came into being; there never will be a time when he is not in being.
What did he mean? Obviously he did not mean that he, the human figure Jesus, had always existed. We know that Jesus was born into this world at Bethlehem; there is more than that here. Think of it this way. There is only one person in the universe who is timeless; and that one person is God. What Jesus is saying here is nothing less than that the life in him is the life of God; he is saying, as the writer of the Hebrews put it more simply, that he is the same yesterday, today and forever. In Jesus we see, not simply a man who came and lived and died; we see the timeless God, who was the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, who was before time and who will be after time, who always is. In Jesus the eternal God showed himself to men. (William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, “John”; bold emphasis ours)
In the next examples, Jesus utters this phrase in the context of displaying both his omniscience and omnipotence:
“I do not speak concerning all of you. I know whom I have chosen, but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me.’ Now I tell you before it happens, that when it does happen, you may believe that I am He.” John 13:18-19
“Jesus fully realized all that was going to happen to him, so he stepped forward to meet them. ‘Who are you looking for?’ he asked. ‘Jesus the Nazarene,’ they replied. ‘I am he,’ Jesus said. (Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.) As Jesus said ‘I am he,’ they all drew back and fell to the ground! Once more he asked them, ‘Who are you looking for?’ And again they replied, ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ ‘I told you that I am he,’ Jesus said. ‘And since I am the one you want, let these others go.’” John 18:4-8
a. 18:5a Or Jesus of Nazareth; also in 18:7.
b. 18:5b Or “The ‘I am’ is here”; or “I am the Lord”; Greek reads I am; also in 18:6, 8. See Exod 3:14.
and he said unto them, Who are you looking for? And they answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. And he said unto them, I am (John 18:4-5)
It is obvious that John wants us to see that the soldiers fell backwards as a result of the divine power which issued forth from Jesus’ “I Am He” declaration, thereby confirming what the Lord had stated earlier in the Gospel:
“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I received this command from My Father.” John 10:17-18
Christ voluntarily forfeits his life since, as the eternal Word Incarnate through whom the entire creation came into being, there is no creature that could take it away from him. Therefore, in knocking the soldiers backwards to the ground by the power of his sovereign voice, the Lord was showing them and his disciples that no one would be able to lay a hand on him if he didn’t want it to happen. As this next commentary puts it:
You"ll notice that the word he is in italics, which means that is was added by the translators. Jesus just said, "I am." That divine name of the eternal God. When Jesus said, "I am," there went forth, no doubt, a blast of power, divine power.
And as he said unto them, I am, they fell backward to the ground (John 18:6).
Now, at that point, Jesus could have just walked off and left them lying there. It is interesting that Jesus is in control of the whole situation. He is the Master. And though they have come to arrest Him, He is the one that is giving the orders. Notice,
He asked them again, Who are you looking for? And they said, Jesus of Nazareth. He said, I told you that I am: if therefore you are seeking me, then let these others go (John 18:7-8):
He ordered them to let the disciples go, which they did. He was in control; He was calling the orders at this point. Perfect command of the entire situation! (Chuck Smith Bible Commentary; italic and underline emphasis ours)
Hence, Jesus identifies himself as the “I Am He” in the exact same way that Yahweh does, obviously because he believed himself to be Yahweh God in the flesh, even though he personally distinguishes himself from both the Father and the Holy Spirit.
This is further confirmed by the fact that in one OT passage, the “I Am He” saying is coupled with the phrase “I am the First and I am the Last,”
“Listen to Me, O Jacob and Israel, whom I called: I am He; I am the First, and I am the Last.” Isaiah 48:12
A title which the risen Lord applies to himself!
“When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though I were dead. Then He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, though I was dead. Look! I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.’” Revelation 1:17-18
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The First and the Last, who was dead and came to life, says these things:’” Revelation 2:8
This leaves absolutely no doubt that the Lord employed the phrase “I Am He” to equate himself with the God of the Old Testament, the eternally existing Creator who chose to become flesh for the redemption of his people.
The following Evangelical NT scholar sums up Jesus’ “I Am He” sayings quite nicely:
“It has been argued that the background to the expression lies in pagan religious descriptions of ‘heroized mortals’, human beings who became much like pagan deities because of some great achievement. Quite apart from the numerous flaws in the alleged parallelism, the entire context of John 8 is Jewish, not least in the repeated references to Abraham and his children. More plausibly, some have suggested that ego eimi depends on Exodus 3:13-14. There Moses asks God to identify himself with a name, a name he can use when he tells the leaders of the Israelites that the God of their fathers has sent him. God replies, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’ In the LXX, the Greek version of the Old Testament, the text reads: ‘“Ego eimi ho on [‘I am the one who is,’ or ‘I am the existent one’]”; tell them “ho on [‘the existent one’, or ‘the one who is’]” has sent me to you.’ If the Evangelist had intended a direct reference to Exodus 3:14, one might have expected ho on instead of ego eimi.
“That is why the majority of interpreters today rightly see that, however ambiguous the expression remains in vv. 24, 28, (but not in v. 58), the proper background to ego eimi in John 8:24, 28, 58 is the use of ego eimi in Isaiah 40 – 55 (cf. especially Is. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; cf. also Dt. 32:39). In the Hebrew original, God discloses himself in the repeated declaration, ‘I am he’ (Heb. ’ani hu’);1 it is this expression that the LXX consistently renders by ego eimi, formally ‘I am’. Isaiah 43:10 is especially close to Johannine usage: ‘“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.”’ In Isaiah, the contexts demand that ‘I am he’ means ‘I am the same’, ‘I am forever the same’, and perhaps even ‘I am Yahweh’, with a direct allusion to Exodus 3:14 (cf. Is. 43:11-13). For others to apply this title to themselves was blasphemous, an invitation to face the wrath of God (Is. 47:8; Zp. 2:15). For Jesus to apply such words to himself is tantamount to a claim to deity, once it is clear that the other potential meanings of ego eimi are contextually impossible. This does not mean that Jesus and Yahweh of the Old Testament are identified without remainder, since v. 28 (where this title next occurs) is immediately followed by v. 29, where Jesus again distinguishes himself from the Father (similarly 13:19-20). But this tension between unqualified statements affirming the full deity of the Word or of the Son, and those which distinguish the Word or the Son from the Father, are typical of the Fourth Gospel and are present from the very first verse (cf. notes on 1:1, 18; 5:19-30).” (Donald A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC)) [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Reprint edition (December 20, 1990)], pp. 343-344; bold emphasis ours)
The words ‘I am he’ (Heb. ’ani hu’) are probably the origin of a late and rather strange variation on the divine name, lit. ‘I and he’ (Heb. ’ani wehu’), a variation used at the Feast of Tabernacles when the priests chanted Ps. 118 (cf. Dodd, IFG, pp. 93-96). Instead of singing ‘I am Yahweh’, they sang ‘I and he’, apparently as a mark of the close identification of the God of Israel and his covenant people. It is not obvious, however, that a similar association should be read into John. (Ibid., p. 343)
Our examination of the God-breathed Scriptures has shown that the historical Jesus applied and assumed the very title and position, which Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible refuses to ascribe to any creature. We saw how Yahweh was angry with the kings of Assyria and Babylon for making themselves out to be the “I Am he,” and was further upset at the Babylonian ruler’s desire to exalt himself to the throne of God. And yet according to the NT writings, Jesus is the “I Am He” that became flesh and who now reigns over all creation from the very throne of God himself.
Now the only way that Christ could identify himself with this phrase and share in God’s exalted status over the entire creation, without arousing the righteous anger of Yahweh (specifically the Father), is if he too is truly God in essence, and therefore coequal to the Father in nature. There is simply no way around this fact.
This is just some of the Biblical revelation which drove the early church to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. The people of God could clearly see that the inspired Word explicitly and unambiguously identifies Jesus as God Almighty in the flesh, while also differentiating him from both the Father and the Holy Spirit. They rightly concluded that, since the Scriptures testify that there is only one eternal God, while also confirming that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all fully God in essence, even though they are not the same Person, God must therefore exist as a tri-Personal Being.