Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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The Seven I AM Statements in John

Jesus made seven I AM statements in the gospel of John. Not only is the pronoun I not necessary, making the statement emphatic, they assert things that are cosmic, even perhaps grandiose, in scope:

In the first century, the Greek Septuagint was considered an infallible translation of the Hebrew Bible, and in fact, when the New Testament, which is in Greek, quotes the Old Testament, it quotes the Septuagint, which is in Greek.

In Exodus 3;14 in the Septuagint, God told Moses from the burning bush that His name is ἐγώ εἰμι (I am), and ἐγώ εἰμι is used as God’s name after that. In the Greek text of Revelation 16:5, it says ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν, ὁ ὅσιος (the one who is, who was, and who will be), which is another way of saying it. If Jesus says, ἐγώ εἰμι to us, so we can we refer to Him as ὁ ὢν.

In Orthodox iconography, Jesus stands in front of a special halo on which there a cross and the words ὁ ὢν.

Why I AM is the Name of God

Our existence is contingent on our parents’ existence, on the various circumstances that led to our conception, as well as the success of fetal development, but God’s existence is not contingent. He not caused by anything. God is the the only self-causing being in the universe, and the one who brings all other things into existence—what theologians mean when they say that God is the first cause. Hence the appropriate name for God in Greek is ἐγώ εἰμι or ὁ ὢν.

The Seven I AM Statements in John

Jesus made seven I AM statements in John that all begin with the pronoun I, which is not grammatically necessary and therefore emphatic. I AM is the name of God in the Septuagint, and since these statements are cosmic in scope, they can only be true if Jesus is God. In other words, these are seven instances in which Jesus indirectly claims to be God.

The First I AM Statement

I am the bread of life

Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
—John 6:35, NRSV

Jesus preached to crowds gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It got late, and they were far from settlements where they could buy food, so Jesus had His disciples feed the 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. This stupendous act had not gone unnoticed, so the people wanted to hear more of what Jesus had to say. However, by now it was night and they had to wait until morning to travel.

The next morning, they discovered that Jesus was gone. They hitched rides on boats that were going to Capernaum and found Him there. Jesus chastised them for coming just because they had eaten the bread, which was ordinary bread. He went on to say that they should not work for that kind of bread, which gets moldy and stale, but for the bread that leads to eternal life.

They reminded Jesus that Moses had given their ancestors manna in the wilderness to keep them alive, thinking that Jesus meant that sort of bread. Jesus clarified that the manna in the wilderness actually came from God, not from Moses, but it was not the bread of life, it was ordinary bread, because the people who ate it all eventually died. If they want the bread that gives eternal life, they need to ask His Father to send it down from heaven.

Okay, they must have thought, we have to go to the source.

Then Jesus said, I am the bread of life. In other words, God already sent the bread down from heaven in the person of Jesus.

In John 6:41, it says in most translations that the Jews complained about what He had said, which gives ammunition to anti-Semitism. However the words Jew and Judean are identical in the original Greek text. This event took place in Galilee, which means the crowd consisted of Jewish Galileans. The exceptions were the rabbis who had come up from Judea, and they were the ones who complained about what He had said. Therefore the translation should read that the Judeans, not the Jews, had complained.

The Judean rabbis complained that since Jesus claimed to be the eternal bread that comes down from heaven, He was claiming an eternal, divine origin. In the ensuing conversation, Jesus affirmed that He meant just that.

The Second I AM Statement

I am the light of the world

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.
—John 8:12, NRSV

In Exodus 25:31-40, God commanded the design and construction of the Menorah, which most of us associate with Hanukah, but its original purpose was to serve as a sort of eternal light to show God’s presence in the Temple. Today, you can also find one in every synagogue. It is always lit.

During the Maccabean War, which for the people in the New Testament was in the recent past, Judah successfully revolted against the Seleucid Empire to preserve the integrity of Judaism. During that time, the Menorah had gone out. After the revolt was over and all the dust had settled, the priests in the Temple could only find a single sealed jug of oil for the menorah in the Temple, just enough to keep the Menorah lit for one day. It lasted eight days, long enough to get more oil, which mean the eternal light of God did not go out.

When Jesus said, I am the light of the world while He was at the Temple, it had the effect of saying, That is the light of the Temple, but I am the light of the whole world.

I have a challenge for you. Go around telling people that you are the light of the world and see how they react. Then you will understand the impact of Jesus’ words.

The lights in the Temple are the presence of God, thus Jesus is claiming to be the presence of God in the world.

The Third I AM Statement

I am the gate

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
—John 10:9, NRSV

Back then, a shepherd built a sheepfold to keep his sheep safe from thieves and predators during the night. He found a suitable area and made a circular fence of stones, with a gate so the sheep could go in and out. Thieves might come at night to steal sheep, but they had to take them out the gate, since it is too hard to lift a sheep over a wall. The shepherd slept across the front of the gate so that a thief could not sneak out a sheep without him knowing about it. Jesus says He is the gate to an abundant eternal life. People can only enter the sheepfold, that is, eternal life, if they go through Him.

Since God is the only being who is eternal, and Jesus claims to impart eternal life, He is claiming eternal existence; in other words, He claims to be God. Not any old god like Molech or Baal, He claims to be the eternal God, the God of the Hebrews.

The Fourth I AM Statement

I am the Good Shepherd

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
—John 10:11, NRSV

God is their shepherdIsaiah 10:10-12.

When Jesus said, I am the Good Shepherd, it had the effect of saying, I am the shepherd that the prophets foretold.

Jesus also said, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his lifeJohn 10:11 for the sheep. This foreshadows His crucifixion.

At this point, we get the Sunday-school question, How could Jesus know about His crucifixion in advance? Jesus didn’t need a house to fall on Him to know that. It was obvious. He was going around making claims to be the bread of eternal life, the light of the word, the gate to eternal life, and things like that, which rabbis are going to interpret as blasphemous, and eventually, they will lose their patience. The penalty for blasphemy is death, but under the terms of the Roman occupation, they could not carry out a death sentence. They would have to manipulate the Romans into doing it, and crucifixion was the standard Roman method of execution.

Jesus didn’t need any special knowledge of future events to figure that out.

By saying that He is the Good Shepherd, a metaphor for God in the Old Testament, He was not only claiming to be God, He was also revealing how His earthly ministry would end.

The Fifth I I AM Statement

I am the Resurrection and the Life

Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. —John 11:25-26a, NRSV

Jesus said this to Martha while she was grieving the death of her brother Lazarus.

Jesus told her that Lazarus would rise again from the dead. She affirmed that she already believed that Lazarus would rise in the resurrection of the dead on the last day, which was normative Pharisaic teaching in the first century. Jesus clarified what He meant. He did not mean that Lazarus would rise on the last day, but in the next few minutes. He said, I am the resurrection and the life, and proceeded to prove it by raising Lazarus from the dead in the presence of Martha and her sister Mary.

When Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life, it had the effect of saying, I am the one who resurrects the dead on the last day.—which is something only God can do.

The Sixth I AM Statement

I am the way, the truth, and the life

And you know the way to the place where I am going. Thomas said to him, Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Jesus said to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.
—John 14:4-7, NRSV

This is part of Jesus last discourse with His disciples, which took place at the Passover seder that we call the Last Supper, since it was Jesus’ last meal before His crucifixion. In it, we see Jesus using the Socratic method to teach His disciples.

In the Socratic method, instruction takes the form of a series of questions and answers. The teacher says something provocative that leads the students to ask a question. The teacher phrases the answer in a way that provokes the students to ask another question, and the answer to that question provokes still another question, and so on. The lesson proceeds as a conversation, and the answers all pile up to be the lesson. In our modern method, the teacher gives a lengthy presentation, after which there is a question and answer session. Our method is less effective. The teacher’s presentation is so long that the students either zone out from passivity or forget the questions that arose in their minds during the presentation—which is something I’m sure you have experienced, either in school or in a business meeting.

Jesus says, You know the way, which is deliberately incomplete. That prompts them to ask just exactly what He means. He says, I am the way, the truth, and the life. In other words, if they follow Him, not with their feet but with their spiritual development, they will end up where He is going. He adds that He is the truth and the life. Since absolute truth and eternal life can only be found in God, this is a claim of deity.

The Seventh I AM Statement

I am the vine

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
—John 15:5, NRSV

In the first six I AM statements, Jesus establishes His nature and identity. The seventh I AM statement what expectations He places on the disciples.

This verse is an excerpt from a larger discourse in John 15:1-11, and it alludes to a metaphor Isaiah 5:1-7. In the metaphor, God’s beloved plants a vine. On its branches, it bears wild grapes instead of wine grapes. Wild grapes are not desirable. They are smaller than wine grapes, they are not as sweet, you can’t make wine out of them, and they tend to choke out other vegetation. The vineyard is useless, so God destroys it.

Jesus interprets God as the Father whose beloved Son plants a vine. In His interpretation, He is both the planter of the vine and the vine itself. The disciples are the branches of the vine, because their spiritual growth comes from His teachings. Jesus expects them to produce good fruit. The only way that branches can produce good fruit is when they are connected to the rest of the vine. Abiding is not some sort of pious day dreaming, Jesus defines it in John 15:10 as obeying His commandments.

When Jesus said, I AM the vine, it had the effect of saying, Obeying my commandments is the only way that you will be okay at the end of time.

The seven I AMstatements are the basis of our Christology, our understanding of the deity of Jesus Christ.