ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
- English and Greek.
In correct English, if you want to say, “I am” you need to use both words. In New Testament Greek you only need to use one, εἰμι (eimi)because that part of the verb “to be” includes the idea of both the person doing the action as well as the action itself. However you can use two words, ἐγω εἰμι (ego eimi) if you want to emphasise the “I”. Jesus used this emphatic form on many occasions, most of which we will explore in this paper.
The Old Testament was mainly written in Hebrew and certainly not in Greek, but even so we can trace the origin of our phrase back to the book Exodus. Moses, who had fled from Egypt after killing an Egyptian who had been maltreating an Israelite, was living as a shepherd. While he was tending the sheep he saw a burning bush which, strangely, did not burn away (Exodus 3:1-3). He went to see what was happening and was confronted by God Almighty. Moses was told that he had been chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses, amazed but reluctant, tried to find reasons why he could not accept the task. At one point he asked God for His name. “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). So here we see “I am” as the very name of God, a name suggesting that God does not depend on anyone or anything else but is self-existent.
Maybe the same thought can be seen in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God” but it is in Jesus that the idea becomes so important as Jesus applies the title to Himself therefore claiming to be God.
- John’s record.
Many of Jesus’ sayings involving “I am” are to be found only in John’s Gospel. On most occasions Jesus is recorded as saying “I am xxxxx” but just a few times Jesus merely says “I am” and these can actually be the most expressive.
In John 8:58, Jesus says, at the end of a dispute with the Jewish authorities, “I tell you the truth…before Abraham was born, I am!” The authorities immediately reacted to these words, which were a claim to divinity by picking up stones to kill Jesus as a blasphemer but Jesus “hid Himself”, His time to die had not yet come. This claim of Jesus, that He was there before Abraham and therefore long before Moses, used the same words as Almighty God used to Moses, is nothing less than a declaration of divinity, of Jesus’ oneness with the Father and of His eternal nature.
Earlier in the same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus twice uses ἐγω εἰμι on its own, but in each case the translators of the NIV have added “the one I claim to be” to help make the meaning clear. (If you look very carefully at the text you may see two half-brackets at the beginning and the end indicating that the words are not in the Greek.)
In verse 24, the Jewish authorities are warned that they will die in their sins if they do not believe in Jesus (as will every human being) and in verse 28 Jesus first speaks of the crucifixion that He knows He will eventually suffer and then of His unique relationship with His Father God. Each of these statements underlines the divine nature of Jesus – that He can save sinners, that He knows what will happen in the future and that He is in total unison with God the Father.
On another occasion the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee and tired from rowing and aware that a storm was building up, they suddenly see Jesus coming towards them walking on the water (John 6:17-21). We are told that they “were terrified” and one can see why! Jesus shouts to them, “ἐγω εἰμι” – but the translators have chosen to put “It is I…” This calmed their fears, they helped Jesus into the boat and miraculously the boat reached its destination immediately.
4.0 The seven “I am xxxxx”
We are probably more aware of the seven times in his Gospel where John records Jesus as saying, “I am xxxxx” so let us turn to those now.
4.1 I am the bread of life (John 6:35)
When Moses was leading the Israelites through the desert after their escape from Egypt and on their way to Canaan, they complained bitterly about the lack of food and claimed that they would starve to death. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ’I will rain down bread from heaven for you’” (Exodus 16:4) and for forty years (verse 35) that is exactly what God did. That bread came from heaven and Jesus interpreted this as He said, “For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33) and He goes on to say “I am the bread of life” (verse 35). So just as bread will satisfy the needs of those who are truly hungry, so Jesus will satisfy the spiritual hunger of those who are truly seeking for God (compare Matthew 5:6).
This idea is also at the heart of the service of Holy Communion, as we take and eat the bread we should be remembering that Jesus Christ is the true bread and that He nourishes our spiritual being.
4.2 I am the Light of the World (John 8:12)
In my years as a physics teacher, I have learnt and taught a great deal about light. From simple experiments needing only a mirror and a couple of pins, to more elaborate ones needing a laser and an adjustable slit, the various properties of light have been shown to many a pupil. Nevertheless the most important thing about light is known to nearly all human beings – light enables us to see – in a pitch dark room one can see nothing and sadly neither can those who are totally blind.
So Jesus enables us to see the things of God. One of the major achievements of His time on earth was to reveal to humankind something more of the nature of God than can be gleaned from a study of the natural world God has created for us (Romans 1:19-20). Later John was to say that “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). So once again as Jesus says that He is the light of the world, He puts Himself on a par with God the Father. Also we may note that just as in God the Father there is “no darkness at all,” so in Jesus there was no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) until He took on His shoulders the sins of all people – your sins and mine.
After Jesus had said that He was the light of the world, He added “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So if we follow Jesus, He will shows us what He wants for us and what He wants from us, but we have to be careful not to “shut” our spiritual eyes and wander off into the darkness.
4.3 I am the gate for the sheep (John 10:7,9)
To understand this we need remind ourselves of something about shepherding in Jesus’ day. At night several flocks of sheep could be driven into the same walled pen and one shepherd/watchman would lie across the entrance so that the sheep could not get out and wild animals could not get in because the only entrance was controlled. In the morning the various shepherds would collect their flocks and take them to the chosen pasture.
So the shepherd who formed “the gate” controlled the entry and exit of the sheep. Jesus, as the gate, both protects His people and lets them out to pasture – to learn about and to worship Him.
4.4 I am the good shepherd (John10:11,14)
In the Old Testament the picture of a shepherd caring for his sheep is used to illustrate the way God would care for His people Israel, “See the Sovereign Lord comes with power…..He tends His flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:10-11. God also sends leaders, such as King David to act as shepherd, “He chose David His servant…..to be the shepherd of His people…..” (Psalm 78:70-71), but sometimes the chosen shepherds failed to “take care of the flock” (Ezekiel 34:2).
Jesus also speaks of a hired shepherd who “abandons the sheep” (John 10:12), but He distinguishes Himself as “the good shepherd”, the One who will lay down His life for His sheep, as he did on the cross at Calvary. He also says that He knows His sheep (John 10:14). To us a flock of sheep may all look the same but the shepherd will know his sheep individually. So Jesus knows His own “sheep”, including those who “are not of this sheep pen”, that is Gentiles (non-Jews) as well as Jews.
In one of His parables, Jesus told about a lost sheep, one from a flock of one hundred (Luke 15:3-7) and how the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in safety while he searches for the lost one and then rejoices when he finds it. He interprets the parable to show that there is heavenly rejoicing over the sinner who repents and is therefore “found”. Such is the work of the Good Shepherd.
4.5 I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is one of the great foundation stones of Christianity. Paul makes this crystal clear, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Jesus had come to Bethany where He had spent many hours with the family of Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. But Lazarus had died and the sisters were mourning their loss. Martha admitted to Jesus that she believed her dead brother would “rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24). Jesus replied that He was “the resurrection and the life”. This means more than just that Jesus Himself would experience resurrection, it implies that this is what Jesus will give to all who genuinely trust in Him.
However resurrection for us is not for this life. Lazarus was called out from the tomb by Jesus (John 11:43-44) but Lazarus was not resurrected. He came back to the existence he had had before, he was not changed, he had to be freed from the graveclothes in which he had been bound according to local custom. Lazarus was resuscitated, a great miracle indeed, especially after a delay of four days, but it was not resurrection. Only Jesus, so far, has been resurrected and revealed to us something of what resurrection is like. We must wait for the next life to experience it for ourselves, now we must wait and trust Jesus’ promise. Life will continue though our present mortal bodies must eventually fail.
4.6 I am the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6)
Jesus had promised His disciples that He would prepare a place for them in heaven and come back to escort them to that place. Then He told them that they already knew the way. Thomas challenged Jesus, saying, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) Jesus replies that He is the way.
There are many who have claimed to know the “way” to heaven – in whatever form they see heaven taking – but as Christians we have to believe that only Jesus knows the true way, and that way is belief in Him. (Acts 4:12).
In the Jewish Temple the Most Holy Place was separated from the rest of the Temple by a curtain through which the high Priest could only go once a year (Hebrews 9:7). When Jesus died on the cross, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). This symbolised that Jesus was the way into the very presence of God, the tearing of the curtain (by God’s hand as it was from top to bottom) showing that the way is now open to humankind.
In early days Christianity was indeed called “The Way”. When Paul, before his conversion on the road to Damascus asked for letters of authority to persecute believers in this new religion, he was intending to find “any there who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2). Thus Christianity is indeed the Way to God through Jesus Christ.
This is truth, Jesus added. If Jesus was who He claimed to be, God incarnate, God in human flesh, He could only tell the truth. If God were to lie the surely the whole universe is in danger!
Also Jesus is the life, the source of eternal life which we begin to know now and will know fully in our post-resurrection time (see 4.5 above).
4.7 I am the true vine (John 15:1)
In the Old Testament the vine or the vineyard is often used as a symbol for Israel with the added thought that the Israelites have often failed to produce good fruit., “And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress” (Isaiah 5:1-7, especially verse 7).
Jesus reveals Himself as the true vine whose branches are the Christians. Long ago at a Crusader (Bible) class, I remember a speaker producing a dead vine twig, dead because it had been separated from the vine. He went on to repeat what Jesus had said, “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine” (John 15:4) and then to apply it just as Jesus did, “Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (verse 4 continued).
Jesus also makes the point that the vine, like any productive fruit tree needs pruning, and that the Father will act as the gardener, removing dead wood and trimming back the living so that it is even more productive. This must also apply to us. We may well be pruned, stopped from doing something so that we can concentrate on something else. It may not feel pleasant, it may not be what we would have chosen, but it is God’s way and so must be right. The essential thing is that we “remain in me [Jesus] and my words remain in you” (John 15:7).
- Jesus Arrested.
Judas Iscariot, in his betrayal of Jesus, had led his motley band of soldiers and officials to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus had wrestled with the thoughts of His forthcoming crucifixion and what it would mean to bear the sins of the world. When Judas arrived, Jesus confronted him and asked, “Who is it you want?” (John 18:4). Three time Jesus replied “I am He” (John 18:5,6,8) before He was arrested. He did this first to exert His authority and second to protect His disciples. There is no doubt that Jesus could have resisted arrest. He says He could have called on the Father to send Him “more than twelve legions of angels” (that is more than 72 000 angels – presumably in full heavenly combat gear!!) (Matthew 26:53) but this would have destroyed His and His Father’s plan to redeem humankind. However He even stopped Peter from the continued use of one sword (John 18:10-11) and meekly submitted to arrest.
However notice what happened the first time Jesus stated that “I am He”, the soldiers “drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6). This was the awesome presence of God in human form overwhelming human folk, and as on the other occasions embodied in the powerful words “έγω είμι”.
- First and Last.
In the opening vision of the book of Revelation, John sees someone “like a Son of Man”, who says to him, “I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!” (Revelation 1:17-18). This “Son of Man” must be Jesus Himself who says that He is “the First and the Last”, that is He spans all time.
This concept is used of God in the Old Testament (eg. Isaiah 48:12) and in Revelation 1:8 we read “ ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God…” Now as alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and omega is the last this is the same as saying “The First and the Last”. Then in Revelation 21:6 we have “He [God the Father] said to me ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End’.” So Jesus as the First and the Last is once again claiming equality with God the Father.
- Jesus on trial.
After His arrest, Jesus was brought before the High Priest who asked Him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62).
Jesus openly affirms that He is indeed the Christ, something He has been reluctant to do before because it could have been misunderstood by the people who wanted a Christ to lead them against Roman rule. And He adds two tremendous statements, that He will sit in the position of honour at the right hand of the Father and that He will come again on the clouds in all His heavenly glory.
So once again we see the power and majesty that lies behind the two simple words ἐγω εἰμι (I am).
- Paul on the Damascus Road.
Paul (originally known as Saul) had received authority to arrest Christians in Damascus but on the way he was thrown to the ground by a vision of Jesus. He was asked why he was persecuting Jesus. Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5)
The reply was, “I am Jesus.”
This perhaps sums up all that I have been trying to say, the great “I am” is simply Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of human kind and our Lord and Master.
“ἐγω εἰμι” – “I am”
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.