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.


What Jesus Said


Jesus said some audacious things. Let’s take a quick look at a few examples. We’ll grab one from each Gospel just to be fair.

“Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” – Jesus, Matthew 13:17
Jesus was speaking to his disciples, and he basically said that Isaiah and Ruth and all of their other favorite faith heroes would have loved to switch places with them, because they got to hang out with him. He boldly claimed to be the high point of history, God’s feature attraction after centuries of previews. Pretty audacious, huh?

“Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.” – Jesus, Mark 9:41
Those words are pretty audacious, too. Jesus claimed the title “Messiah” for himself, which is no small thing. And he said that he is so important that people will receive rewards and blessings for treating his friends well.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Jesus, Luke 23:43
Jesus spoke these words to the terrorist dying on the cross next to his. He had the audacity to declare himself in charge of the heavenly guest list, and to announce that heaven was open to a guy whose only qualification for entrance was that he had asked Jesus to put in a good word for him.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.” – Jesus, John 8:51
That statement was so audacious that the people who first heard Jesus say it immediately accused him of being demon possessed. They pointed out that some pretty swell folks like Abraham and the prophets died, so Jesus would have to be pretty crazy to claim that doing what he said would make people death-proof.

Audacious words, huh? But none of those statements are really the point of today’s post. We’ll come back to those specific audacious sayings in the future and examine them in further detail. But for now, I’d like for you to notice something about the way Jesus said all of them. Did you catch the repeating phrase? Look again, and notice how Jesus began each of the four statements:

“Truly I tell you…”

In the Gospels, that phrase is the drumroll before several of Jesus’ major announcements and pronouncements. It was a catchphrase of Jesus, a way that he signaled that people better be paying attention because it was about to get good.

Even people who are skeptical about how reliable the Gospels are in conveying the actual words of Jesus have no doubt that he really used that phrase. It shows up too many times in too many independent sources to be made up. And it is not a phrase that any follower of Jesus used later in the New Testament, so we know it is not just a “church saying” that somebody wrote into the Jesus story.

The phrase shows up 79 times in the Bible. All 79 times are in the Gospels. All 79 times, the phrase is on the lips of Jesus.

The word translated “truly” is the Greek word amen. That’s right – Jesus started all of these sayings with the word we usually use when we are wrapping up a prayer and we want to let God know we are bringing it in for a landing. The Greek language actually just hijacked the word amen from Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament. It comes from a word meaning “confirmed” or “verified.” It is a word normally used at the end of a statement to affirm its validity. Jesus distinctively used it to begin his statements.

So what Jesus does with the word “truly” in that unique phrase is unprecedented. But what is really mind-blowing is what he does with the “I tell you” part of the phrase. Jesus uses the phrase to claim an audacious amount of authority.

Other rabbis of Jesus’ day buttressed the authority of their words by quoting other recognized experts. Their teaching would be full of “Rabbi Hillel tells you…” or “Moses tells you…” or “the teaching of the elders tells you…”

Jesus came along and simply said, “Truly I tell you…” No need to quote any other authority. There was no higher authority he could quote. Jesus just quoted himself.

He didn’t even say, “thus says the Lord” like the Old Testament prophets did. He just said, “thus says ME!”

Jesus used a phrase 79 times in the Gospels that made it clear that he believed that his words had weight and value and impact and importance simply because he was the one saying them.

“Truly I tell you…”

Don’t you love the audacity of that?


Want to explore further?

  1. Grab a Bible (one with Jesus’ words in red would make things easier). Pick a Gospel, and scan Jesus’ words until you find an example of him beginning a statement with the phrase, “Truly I tell you…”
  2. Go to biblegateway.com and type the phrase “truly I tell you” in the search bar. Scroll through several examples of Jesus using the phrase, and notice the variety of statements with which he used that unique prelude.
  3. Read the audacious claim Jesus made about his words in Mark 13:31.
  4. Ponder what it means for your life today that Jesus claimed that his words have such authority.