Today Jesus says something utterly absurd, unreasonable, and illogical, at least to us.
Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
It’s impossible for us to speak this way and be understood. In American English, the closest we come is when we say stuff like, “Before you were, I was (or wasn’t).”
To my knowledge, there’s no acceptable situation where you can say (and still make sense), “Before/after (something), I am.”
“I was” or “I will” makes sense there but not “I am.”
What Jesus says is baffling, because He’s defining Himself as not being bound by space and time.
But since we’ve heard these words all our Christian lives, we hardly attempt to understand the depth of what “I am” means.
For it to be true that Jesus is “I am” even during past events, it must be true that He’s outside time.
This is what it means when we say that God is eternal.
God was never “past tense,” because He always is.
He’s immutable, unchangeable, always the same.
And that’s remarkable, because at this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus is thirty-ish years old.
And He’s been around literally forever.
“Before Abraham was,” Jesus says, “I am.”
There’s three things that we have to say about that.
First, “I am” is a title for God. The Jews present show how seriously they take God’s name when they pick up stones to throw at Jesus. He just identified Himself as being God, and the Jews freak out.
God’s name being “I am” comes from the book of Exodus, when God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, saying: “I have…seen the affliction of my people…and I have come…to deliver them…and to bring them up…[to a land flowing with milk and honey]” (Exodus 3:7-8).
God’s plan is to bring His people out of captivity.
But Moses says to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13).
Moses wants the people to believe this message, the Gospel, so he has to speak with authority greater than his own. It’s not just that “Moses says…” but “Thus says the Lord…”
Moses knew that if God puts His name to it, then it’s a done deal.
Then, thus said the Lord, “I am who I am…Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).
When Jesus says, “I am,” it’s as if his name tag says, “Hello, my name is God.” So when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” He’s identifying Himself as God in the Flesh. Here to help, save, comfort, and redeem us.
Second, and at this point, this is just a reminder, calling Himself “I am” is defining Jesus as eternal.
Always present tense.
If you’re always present tense, if you’re eternal, you never change. God’s immutability means also that He’s unable to be changed. The author of the book of Hebrews says it this way: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Along those lines, our third point, is this:
If Jesus has ever cared for you – if He’s ever desired your salvation – if He’s ever asked His Father to forgive you—if He’s ever said that no one will be able to snatch you from His hand—if Jesus ever loved you—then it’s still true.
Because Jesus doesn’t change. Consider what that means: God’s promise, His Word, is always true.
Have you been baptized? Have your children?
That’s where God’s Word is applied to you, saving you according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, poured out richly through Jesus Christ our savior (cf. Titus 3).
Logically, Holy Baptism doesn’t look like much, but God has put His name on you, marked you as one redeemed by Christ. He claims you there and then as His own.
And as much as we change in our lives, as often as we unfortunately lie and deceive with our words, God remains true to all His promises.
If God puts His name on it, it’s a done deal.
Do you ever eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ your Lord?
Reason tastes bread and wine, there’s no bloody, iron aftertaste. But Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body…Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).
God is faithful to His Word and promise. He said it once, and He still means it.
As often as we say one thing and mean another—God speaks—and He is true to His word forever.
What He says once applies always.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…[and] God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8).
Inconceivably, for us to have life eternal requires a dead Messiah who, three days later, lives again. But since that was God’s plan when Jesus was thirty-ish, and God never changes, then that was God’s plan all along. From Revelation, where Jesus is called the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (cf. Revelation 13:8) and from Genesis chapter three where we’re told that the serpent will strike Jesus’ heel and Jesus will crush the serpent’s head.
And thus says the Lord in Exodus chapter three: “I have…seen the affliction of my people…and I have come…to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7-8).
It was true then. It’s true now. God shows His love for the world in the gift of His only-begotten Son.
God is faithful. He is merciful. He is our comfort and our deliverance. Because He is.
Because “Before Abraham was, I am,” Jesus says.
Utterly inconceivable to our ears and impossible for us to say of ourselves.
But there’s no more comforting a thought than that Jesus knows every trial and tribulation that we’ll face, that he’s already there, in love, destroying evil — that we’re never alone.
That God, even knowing our every sin, is yet merciful and forgiving.
That even when we sin, even when we hurt, even when we’re afraid, or just mad, when we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, forgives us sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness (cf. 1 John 1).
All because He is.
Merciful. Forgiving. Loving. Present.
Eternally. To win us away from death and hell. Tro bring us with Him into eternal life.
He sees our affliction. Hears our cries. Knows our sufferings. And He’s with us every step of the way.
Not only that, He comes to deliver us and bring us up to a land flowing with milk and honey.
When Jesus says, “I am,” we know that He is for us always and we are His forever.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Judica (Lent 5), 2019
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt