When Christ declared: “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58), was he referring to the statement in Exodus 3:14, “I am that I am,” and therefore identifying himself with the “Jehovah” of that context? This is the question we will explore in this article.
In John, chapter eight, there is an animated exchange between the Lord and a certain element of the Jewish community. He announced himself as the “light of the world” (v. 12), and the Pharisees denied that his witness was true (v. 13). Christ responded to their charge and contended that his witness was true, and that he came forth from the Father (vv. 14-20). He continued by charging them with sin, a disposition in which many would continue until death (vv. 21-24). The Pharisees pressed him as to his identity; he again affirmed he had been sent by the Father. Additionally, he subtly foretold his own death. Nonetheless he affirmed that God was with him (vv. 25-29).
Jesus’ claims produced faith in many (v. 30). The Savior encouraged these believers to remain in his word; in so doing, they would know the truth, and by it be set free (vv. 31-32). Some of these Jews vigorously protested, appealing to their own lineage from Abraham (v. 33).
In a blistering rebuke Christ contended they were slaves of sin, and that only the “Son” possessed the ability to “free” them. He rebutted their claim that they were Abraham’s seed, declaring that their determination to kill him negated their boast. If they were the “seed” of Abraham in spirit, they would not be on the bloody course they currently were pursuing. Their ambition in seeking to kill him clearly revealed that their actual father was the devil, who himself was a murderer from the beginning. Jesus challenged them to convict him of sin. They could not, of course, document such an accusation. He concluded by suggesting that their unwillingness to listen to him, as he spoke on behalf of God, was evidence of the fact that they were not “of God” (vv. 34-47).
The Jews lashed out at him in rage, accusing him of being a Samaritan and demon possessed. Earlier they had hinted that he was “born of fornication” (v. 48; cf. 41). Christ again affirmed an intimate relationship with the Father, and claimed that those who kept his word would never see death (vv. 49-51). The Pharisees heatedly retorted with the argument that Abraham died. Did Jesus claim to be greater than the founder of the Hebrew nation (vv. 52-53)?
The Lord again affirmed his relationship with the Father; he accused them of not knowing the Father, and labeled them for what they were—liars (vv. 54-55). He then contended that Abraham rejoiced to see “my day; and he saw it, and was glad.”
Abraham saw Christ’s day in promise and in hope (Genesis 12:7). In addition, however, the patriarch communicated personally with the pre-incarnate Christ at the time of Isaac’s offering (see “the angel,” i.e., “the messenger” of Jehovah in: Genesis 22:11, 15-16; Hengstenberg n.d., 80-91; Funderburk 1975, 162-163). The Jews thus concluded, and rightly so, that Christ was claiming an existence contemporary with Abraham (v. 57).
Jesus then announced: “Before Abraham was born [an aorist tense verb, showing the commencement of Abraham’s existence], I am” [ego eimi—the latter being a present tense form, suggesting timeless existence]. Lenski observed: “As the aorist sets a point of beginning for the existence of Abraham, so the present tense ‘I am’ predicates absolute existence for the person of Jesus, with no point of beginning at all” (1943, 670).
The contrast between the verbs was dramatic. Abraham had a beginning; Jesus, as the eternal Word (John 1:1), never did. The hostile Jews grasped the significance of the Lord’s claim, and so took up stones with which to kill him. His “hour” was not yet come, however, and they could not take him (vv. 58-59).
It is almost certain, therefore, that Jesus was identifying with the Old Testament appellation, “I am that I am,” when he used ego eimi in John 8:58. As Kostenberger observed: “Jesus’ language here echoes God’s self-identification to Moses in Exod. 3:14” (2007, 459; cf. Tenney 1981, 99; Wallace 1996, 531). Coffman noted that Jesus “presented himself as one with Almighty God no less than a dozen times” in this chapter (1974, 242).
I think it is eminently fair to say that Exodus 3:14 is the most elaborate and emphatic declaration of God’s affirmation of his eternal self-existence to be found in the Old Testament (cf. also Psalm 90:2). While other “I am” texts in the Old Testament are important to this point, especially scattered in the latter portion of Isaiah (41-52), they are not as pronounced as this hallmark declaration in Exodus.
It is quite reasonable, therefore, to conclude that when the Jews responded to Christ’s affirmation with such intense hostility, with the intention of stoning him if possible, that his words ego eimi had brought to their minds Exodus 3:14, and they immediately drew the correct inference that the Lord was identifying with the divine nature.
The fact is, a compelling case can be made for the view that the divine Being who addressed Moses from the burning bush as the “I am,” was the pre-incarnate Christ himself. In this very context the speaker is identified as “the Messenger of Jehovah,” “God,” and “Jehovah” (see above with reference to Genesis 22:11ff; see also Rawlinson 1961, 55ff; Laetsch 1956, 409-410).
If the Lord was identifying his use of ego eimi with Exodus 3:14, the abbreviated expression alone, lifted from the longer construct, was sufficient to make his point.
What many do not recognize is that when Christ (and the New Testament writers), quoted from the Old Testament, they were at liberty to: (a) quote from the Hebrew text; (b) cite the Greek translation (LXX); (c) paraphrase either; (d) employ a combination of both; or, (e) abbreviate a text.An excellent study of these procedures is found in The Quotations of the New Testament from the Old Considered in the Light of General Literature. This scholarly work was written by Professor Franklin Johnson of the University of Chicago in 1895. A modern counterpart has been edited by Beale and Carson (see Sources).
The New Testament writers could and did at times frame an altogether new translation, intentionally changing words from the Old Testament text to make a special point within a New Testament context. It was not uncommon at all for an inspired person to extract a limited phrase from a longer context when such was sufficient to make his point. It ever must be emphasized that they were operating under the supervision of the Holy Spirit, who can modify his own words as he pleases.
If, therefore, it was the case that Christ extracted a segment from Exodus 3:14 and made the application to himself in John 8:58, it was not required that he explain to his audience that his use of ego eimi did not reflect the full complement of words found in the Exodus passage.
When, therefore, a preacher calls attention to the fact that the expression ego eimi is found in both Exodus 3:14 and John 8:58, with the same design in both passages, i.e., a declaration of the eternal self-existence of deity, he has not erred. He is quite within the framework of respectable biblical interpretation.