John 8:45-59, “Before Abraham Was, I AM”

[December 5, 2010] This year I am taking a fresh look at the Gospel according to John, certainly the most exciting of the gospels because it crystallizes the Gospel so clearly under the theme of “Life,” i.e., the eternal life of God. In the first half of the gospel, Jesus comes as Life, and in the second half He becomes communicable, undergoing a process by which He as Life can dwell in us and become our own Life—the gift of eternal life—through the Holy Spirit. He truly becomes the Holy Spirit whom He then breathes into us—not by losing the integrity of His own personhood (hypostasis) but by the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity (their coinherence), analogous to how in the first half of the gospel the divine Son becomes flesh without losing the integrity of His divinity. So, in the first half of the gospel, the Son becomes incarnate; in the second half of the gospel, the Incarnate One becomes the indwelling Spirit.

For this Sunday of Advent I just want to consider a passage at the end of John 8 that brings out the pre-existence of the Son. I chose verses 45-59, which is exactly half (excluding verse 59) of the larger piece that begins in verse 31, choosing it mostly for size. It has led me, however, to reconsider the larger context of chapter 8.

Background: Chiastic Structures in the Gospel according to John

The first thing I noticed was a remarkable parallelism with chapter 7. In the past I linked chapter 6 and 7 (eating and drinking) and chapter 8 and 9-10 (freedom from sin and freedom from the “fold”), but I am no longer satisfied with this. First of all, 6 and 7 are barely comparable, and secondly, as I said, 7 and 8 are remarkably parallel. I also noticed that 10:22-42 markedly parallels 7-8. This led to my recognizing the chiastic structure of chapters 7-10: that together they form a unit. A little research showed me that there was nothing original about this find, but it is interesting to work it out on one’s own.

Chiasms are a natural and usually unconscious phenomenon that goes back to how we saw text in our minds before the twelfth century when the “page” (and the idea of the index) was invented. Before that, in the days of the scroll, people thought of texts as more continuous, like a musical score. A chiasm flows in towards a center and out again, like a wave (it is often compared to moving into concentric circles and out again), though the outgoing wave is often transformed by the impact. In the Gospel according to John the elder who wrote the gospel seemed very conscious of what he was doing, yet even in his case, some of the chiasms may have been unconscious.

The simple chiasm of chapters 7-10 looks like this:

A             7:1-13
     B             7:14—8:59
          X             9:1—10:21
     B’            10:22-39
A’            10:40-42

Within that, 7:14-8:59 and 10:22-39 form their own chiasms:

A             7:14
     B             7:15-24
          C             7:25-36
               D             7:37-39
                    E              7:40-52
                         X             7:53—8:1
                    E’            8:2-11
               D’            8:12
          C’            8:13-30
     B’            8:31-58
A’            8:59

And

A             10:22-23
     B             10:24-26
          C             10:27-29
               D             10:30
                    E              10:31-32a
                         X             10:32b
                    E’            10:33a
               D’            10:33b
          C’            10:34-36
     B’            10:37-38
A’            10:39

For our present purposes, 8:31-58 forms its own chiasm:

A             8:31-36
     B             8:37-41a
          C             8:41b-42
               X             8:43-47
          C’            8:48-50
     B’            8:51-53
A’            8:54-58

None of this claims to be exact, just helpful as a guide.

Hearing and Knowing

In chapter 9 a blind person’s eyes are open, and this is treated both literally and figuratively (see 9:39-41). Figuratively, blindness is related to sin. In chapter 8, rather than speaking of seeing, Jesus speaks of knowing the truth by means of hearing, though in 8:56, just prior to the story of the blind man, we read that “Abraham exulted that he would see My day, and he saw and rejoiced.”

Knowing and believing are connected, as in 8:24 and 28: “Unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins,” and “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM, and that I do nothing from Myself, but as My Father has taught Me, I speak these things” (compare this to 13:19). But in 8:45 and 47 believing is connected to hearing: Jesus says, “Because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me” because “you do not hear.” By hearing we know, and when we know we believe. And to know is to see.

To know the truth and to keep the Word, then, is to have one’s eyes opened and to be set free from sin. On the other hand, it is to be granted something so that we shall never see death, both of which are negative formulations referring to the gift of the divine life. To know the truth, that is, to see reality, is to be given this life.

The Gospel according to John is probably arguing against the proto-Gnostics, and we can see that here. Later the Gnostics will contrast knowledge and faith. The catholic Christians have faith but they have knowledge. But John argues that true faith only comes by knowledge—the kind of immediate knowing that is the result of “seeing” reality—and is, in practice, identical.

This knowledge is the spiritual perception of Christ, i.e., of who He is—which is what this and the previous chapter are so much concerned about. In chapter 7 the question was, “Is He the Christ?” Or, “Is He the Prophet (like Moses)?” In 8:25, after hearing the first “I AM” statement, they ask, “Who are You?” Then in 8:53, “Who are You making yourself [out to be]?” This is the central question. Ignorance of the answer means that one remains in sin and death, but the knowledge of the answer gives eternal life (see 17:3).

The “I AM” Statements

In the gospel Jesus seven times identifies Himself with YHWH using the words, “I AM” without a predicate: 4:26; 6:20; 8:24; 8:28; 8:58; 13:19 and 18:5, 6, 8 (treating these last three as a single saying repeated). Seven time He also says “I am” with a predicate (the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way and the truth and the life, and the true vine). This shows how carefully John writes. Regarding the first set, three of the occurrences occur in chapter 8. It is a major motif here.

We tend to think of the significance of Jesus’ saying “I AM” in relation to the burning bush, but it would be more accurate to think of it in relation to Deuteronomy 32:39, “Behold, I, even I AM; there is no god besides Me,” and the several times it occurs in Isaiah 40-55 (for example, 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, God’s “I AM” occurs seven times (Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4; 51:12), just as in John. God is the absolutely unique and exclusive divinity who just as absolutely and uniquely and exclusively saves.

Notice that Jesus says that He is the “I AM” in relation to two things: the Father sending Him and the process of His death. While saying “I AM” implies His unique identity with the only God, it is also related to the revelation of God. He reveals the unique God but He does so as no other than this God. He is this God revealing Himself. But He does so as the Son of the Father, both of whom share this identity with the one unique and exclusive God who will share His glory with no other.

Moreover, He does this through the offering up of Himself to death. Just as in the passages from Deuteronomy and Isaiah, YHWH reveals Himself in the act of salvation, so Jesus reveals Himself as the “I AM” by going to the cross and obtaining our salvation. He arises on Easter with the gift of salvation—imparting the Holy Spirit to His disciples with His breath and fulfilling His promise to Himself dwell in them. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the one God and are revealed to be so through our Lord’s death and resurrection and imparting of the Holy Spirit.

For God to say, “I AM,” and for Jesus to do the same, speaks of the eternity of God’s nature as well as the exclusivity and uniqueness of His being. “Before Abraham came into being, I AM.” The Son became Jesus in time. The unique personhood of Jesus is none other than the eternal Son who exists in eternity but who while doing so travels through time to become incarnate and glorified. He departs from eternity (without departing it) to enter time and become a creature, and then He gathers Himself up as a creature and returns to eternity. His own “acquired” createdness thus becomes eternal in Him. Moreover, by union with Him (through the gift of the Holy Spirit), we join with Him on His return journey. In this way, the creature becomes divinized (see 10:34-36), that is, we participate in Him in His own eternal nature. This is the gift of eternal life that He gives us. We can enter into union with Him, however, only because He underwent the judgment of God in His death. Thus the relevance of His eternal nature is inseparable from His death.

Apart from a New Genesis We Cannot Hear

We return now to the chiastic structure of this little section of John’s gospel. The Father of Jesus is God. He speaks the words of God. We cannot hear them because we are not of God (47). Our Father is the devil (44). The devil destroys life (he is a murderer) and speaks falsehood. As a result, we want to kill Jesus and also we cannot hear Him. This characterizes the world, but it also characterizes the false self—which is part of the world—with which our soul is indelibly identified. The whole world is characterized by falsehood, and therefore so are we. It seeks to be independent of God, to cut itself off from God, to seal out God—God who is life. This whole attempt is anti-life, or murderous. It can only do this by denying reality and creating a lie, a false “reality” or world, based on falsehood. So Jesus says we cannot hear Him because we are not of God, and therefore we do not believe (verses 45-47). Instead of loving Christ (42), we dishonor Him (49).

Because we cannot hear Him, we will die in our sins (24). But if we heard Him, and kept His word, we would never see death. We would already be participating in eternity by participating in the divine life that overcomes death. We would be born from above, born of God, instead of being born of the devil. Obviously, in order to hear Him, we cannot do this on our own. We have to already be “of God” (see 10:27-28). It can only happen because the Word itself gives us this gift of life, of a new birth. To know Christ is itself a gift from the Father (8:54).

The revelation of salvation given to Abraham was already the revelation of Christ. For who Christ will be He already was because His existence in time was taken up into eternity. Whatever is eternal has no beginning or end. Who Christ became in time—through His death and resurrection—in eternity He always was and will be. Thus Jesus Himself, Incarnate though He be, is none other than the exclusive and unique God.

This, however, was too much for them. In fulfillment of their origin in him who was a murderer from the beginning, they take up stones to kill Him, foreshadowing His crucifixion. His hour had not yet come (7:30; 8:20), and so He is hidden from them. When His hour does come, they will kill Him, and through His death He will be revealed to His own, and eventually to all (8:28). Praise the Lord!

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