Who Do You Think You Are?

outstretchedarms_image2Jesus constantly did and said things that nobody else ever had the nerve to do or say. Pretty much everyone who spent five minutes or more with Jesus wound up wondering, “Who do you think you are?” One time, in a conversation recorded in John 8, folks actually asked Jesus that question out loud.

“Conversation” is probably too gentle of a word; the exchange included more name-calling than an argument on an elementary school playground. The religious leaders called Jesus an illegitimate child (v.41), and he replied that at least he wasn’t the devil’s kid like they were (v.44). Then they called him a demon-possessed Samaritan, which was a pretty sick burn in first century Jerusalem (v.48). Jesus retorted that they were liars who didn’t know God (v.55).

Jesus filled the conversation with audacious claims about himself – claims that he was the light of the world, and the Son of God, and the source of freedom. When he added that people who did what he said would avoid death, the religious leaders finally got fed up and said,

“Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”  – John 8:53

Though meant to be rhetorical, the question on the lips of Jesus’ verbal sparring partners was an excellent one. Who did Jesus think he was? What was his self-understanding? If he had had to go inside from his playground argument and write a paper for his teacher describing himself, what would he have said?

We will come back to John 8 in a moment to see the audacious answer he gave in that instance. But first, let’s take a detour through Matthew 12 and look at a couple of other times when he told people who he thought he was.

“I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.”  – Matthew 12:6

For first century Jews, nothing was greater than the temple. The temple was the very center of their faith. It was the place they offered sacrifices to stay on God’s good side. It was God’s HQ, his address on earth, the location of his throne. It was the great cosmic belly button – the place where the umbilical cord of heaven connected with earth. But Jesus said he was greater than the temple. He said he was a new and better connection point between God and people.

“Something greater than Jonah is here… something greater than Solomon is here.”  – Matthew 12:41-42

Jonah was a prophet who endured a close encounter with fish intestines and then saw a 100% response rate from a very hostile congregation, but Jesus claimed to be greater than him. Jesus said that if folks thought it was impressive to emerge alive from a fish after three days, they should wait and see what he was going to pull off. And Solomon was a world-renowned source of wisdom, but Jesus claimed to be greater than him, too. To put it mildly, Joseph and Mary’s boy had a rather high opinion of himself.

Now let’s head back to the playground squabble in John 8. When the religious leaders asked Jesus if he was a bigger deal than Abraham, and just who he thought he was, here is how he responded:

“‘Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am.'”  – John 8:58

Jesus used some seriously weird grammar to make an audacious claim. “Born” is a translation of the Greek word genesthai. It means that Abraham was made – that he came into existence. The word “am,” which Jesus used of himself, is the Greek eimi. It points to essential existence, to timeless being. Jesus didn’t say, “before Abraham came into existence, I came into existence.” He said, “before Abraham came into existence, I AM.” Abraham was a created being – there was a time that he wasn’t around, and then a time that he was. But Jesus said that he himself has always been around. He just IS.

Of course, Jesus didn’t just make up the phrase, “I am.” He plagiarized it from God Almighty. God had used the phrase as an introduction when Moses asked him who he was. At the burning bush, God pointed to the sticker on his chest that said, “Hello, my name is I AM.” And in the scene recorded in John 8, Jesus peeled the nametag from God’s lapel and placed it on his own.

As soon as the words left Jesus’ lips, the religious leaders started reaching for stones to chunk at the blasphemer before them.

It turns out that when Jesus’ opponents asked him if he was greater than Abraham, they were setting the bar way too low. Of course he was greater than Abraham. And Solomon. And Jonah. And the temple. The real question was not who he was greater than, but to Whom was he equal.

We hear the audacious things Jesus said and did, and we ask, “Who do you think you are!?”

And Jesus answers, “I AM.”


Want to explore further?

  1. Read John 8:12-59 and underline all the things Jesus said that strike you as audacious.
  2. Read each of the 23 verses in John in which Jesus used the phrase “I AM” (4:26; 6:20, 35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 18, 24, 28, 58; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 13:19; 14:6; 15:1, 5; 18:5, 6, 8)
  3. Who do you think Jesus is? Ponder your answer to that vital question.


This Cup is the What!?


When you hear “Communion” or “Lord’s Supper,” I bet the word “audacity” doesn’t come to mind. It is just that nice worship ritual where you eat a bland bite of cracker and swallow a sip of wine (or grape juice if you are a Baptist like I am), maybe praying a prayer of gratitude, or a prayer of confession, or a prayer that the people serving the elements don’t drop them all over the floor. That last one might be just me, I’m not sure. But anyway, the experience doesn’t necessarily have an overly revolutionary flavor.

But the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper was one of the most audacious things Jesus ever did.

Matthew (26:17-30), Mark (14:12-26), and Luke (22:7-23) all tell the story. In order to be properly offended by what Jesus did, we need to realize that he did it at no ordinary meal. He was eating the Passover with his disciples. It is so important for us to get this point that the Gospel writers practically beat us over the head with it. Luke’s account, for example, mentions four times in a span of eight verses that they were eating the Passover meal – in verses 8, 11, 13, and 15. We get it, Luke. It’s Passover.

Passover was a big deal. It was the celebration of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery. It looked back to the time when God worked amazing miracles to rescue them and to make good on his promise to make them into a great nation. It pointed to the highlight of their history, and to the clearest demonstration the world had ever seen of the nature and power of their God. Every year, the Passover celebration grounded them in their relationship with God, reminding them of God’s most dramatic saving act.

Every year, they celebrated Passover the same way. There was a right way to do it, with most of the instructions dating all the way back to Exodus chapter 12. Each element of the meal told part of the story: the lamb reminded them of the lamb slain so that the blood could be put on the door frames so that the death angel would pass over their homes and spare the lives of their firstborn children. The bitter herbs reminded them of the bitterness of their slavery. The unleavened bread reminded them of the haste with which they had to eat before making a quick exit from the land of slavery, with no time for the bread to rise. The wine reminded them of the blessing and joy of the deliverance God was providing for them, and it was red to remind them of the blood of the lamb. Each year at Passover, the head of the family or the host of the meal would have the privilege of reminding everyone at the table of what God had done for them. There was basically a 1500 year old script to guide the proceedings.

That night with his disciples, Jesus went radically off script.

“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you.'” – Luke 22:19

Wait, what!? The bread represents the haste with which their ancestors high-tailed it out of Egypt, right? Your body? What do you mean, Jesus? And what are you talking about your body being “broken” and “given” and “for us?”

“Do this in remembrance of me.” – Luke 22:19

Huh!? I thought this was supposed to be in remembrance of the Passover, of that big saving act for our ancestors! You are making it all about you!

“In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.'”

What!? Your BLOOD!? Gross. YOUR blood!? I thought it was about the lamb’s blood! And a new covenant? I thought we were celebrating the covenant God made with us through Moses? What’s going on here!?

It is impossible to miss the audacity of Jesus’ words and actions.

Imagine if I showed up at the church I serve as pastor one Sunday and announced that we would be changing curriculum for all of the church’s classes. Instead of studying the Bible, we would begin studying my autobiography. Instead of singing songs of praise to God, we would have new songs written – about me! We would devote the month of December to celebrating my birthday. The church would rightly run me out of town for having the nerve to suggest something like that!

Jesus did something just as bold. He made the Passover celebration all about himself. He said, “If you want to see the clearest picture of the saving power of God, don’t look at the Passover and the Exodus. Look at me. God’s mighty deliverance of his people from Egypt is about to get bumped down to number two on the list of amazing acts of divine rescue. Because my body is going to be broken – for you. And my blood is going to be spilled – for you. And through my death God is going to establish a new and better covenant, a new foundation for his relationship with people.”

Jesus hijacked a centuries-old celebration. He said that the biggest thing God had ever done was nothing compared to what he was about to do through him.

What marvelous audacity!


Want to explore further?

  1. Read all three Gospel writers’ versions of the Lord’s Supper scene. What commonalities do you see? What are some distinct emphases you notice from each writer?
  2. Read Exodus 12 to get a fuller picture of what the disciples thought they would be celebrating that night.
  3. How does an understanding of Passover, and that Jesus believed he was doing something even bigger than Passover, inform our understanding of Jesus?
  4. How will your next experience of the Lord’s Supper be different?