Jesus 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?
- Read John 8:12-59 and underline all the things Jesus said that strike you as audacious.
- 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)
- Who do you think Jesus is? Ponder your answer to that vital question.