Before Abraham Was, I AM
Fifth Sunday in Lent| March 21, 2010| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. John 8, 46-59
“Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.” Then the Jews answered and said to Him, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. And I do not seek My own glory; there is One who seeks and judges. Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” Then the Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon! Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death.’ Are You greater than our father Abraham, who is dead? And the prophets are dead. Whom do You make Yourself out to be?” Jesus answered, “If I honor Myself, My honor is nothing. It is My Father who honors Me, of whom you say that He is your God. Yet you have not known Him, but I know Him. And if I say, ‘I do not know Him,’ I shall be a liar like you; but I do know Him and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. St. John 8:46-59
The Gospel of St. John contains some of the most comforting and encouraging words in the whole Bible. It records Jesus’ meeting with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. She had a chip on her shoulder. She knew that Jesus was a Jew and that Jews despised Samaritans. She’d been married five times and was now living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. In front of her stood a Rabbi – a pastor. Jesus shows masterful compassion in winning the heart of this sinful woman. Instead of condemning her, Jesus offers her eternal life. He says, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14)
It is in St. John’s Gospel that Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd and says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.” (John 10:27-30)
It is in St. John’s Gospel that Jesus comforts Martha at the death of her brother, Lazarus, with the words, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
St. John’s Gospel contains some of the most comforting words of the whole Bible. It also contains some of the harshest language. In today’s Gospel, the Jews call Jesus a Samaritan and say that he is demon possessed. Jesus says to them that they are liars who do not know God. Wherever Jesus offers divine comfort, controversy follows.
Jesus makes controversial claims. He claims that he can give eternal life to everyone who believes in him as if eternal life is his to give. But is it not God and God alone who can give us eternal life? Who does Jesus make himself out to be? Look to the final words of our text: “Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’ Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.” (John 8:58-59)
“Before Abraham was, I AM.” When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush he identified himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses asked God his name. God replied, “I AM WHO I AM.” When Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” he was claiming to be the God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. He was claiming to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
What is to the Christian believer a wonderful mystery of the faith that brings great comfort is to others an offensive teaching that should not be taught. A man, not even fifty years old, claims to be God. He calls God, “My Father.” He says that he honors his Father. He claims to know the Father and to keep the word of the Father. He is not boasting. He has no need to boast or to glorify or honor himself. The Father will do that. As Jesus keeps his Father’s word he also promises that those who keep his word will never see death. Jesus claims an eternal relationship with the Father. Those who honor him honor the Father. Those who dishonor him dishonor the Father. There can be no dividing the Father from the Son. While the Father and the Son are distinct Persons, they cannot be separated into two gods. Jesus is equal to the Father as touching his deity, while he is inferior to the Father as touching his humanity. So the Church confesses in the Athanasian Creed.
But the Jews could see only his humanity. They were deeply offended that this man would lay claim to deity. They picked up stones with which to kill him. In Leviticus 24:16 we read, “And whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death.” To blaspheme is to speak evil of God. The Jews believed that when Jesus claimed God’s name for himself he was blaspheming God’s name. This was a capital offense. While the Jews did not have the right under Roman rule to put anyone to death, they were enraged by Jesus’ claims and were about to take the law into their own hands and apply to him the punishment that the Law of Moses prescribed for blasphemy.
Either Jesus is God or he is . . . what? Is it possible that Jesus could be a great man and a faithful prophet and yet not be God? Many hold to this opinion. The Muslims, for example, teach that Jesus was a great man. They teach that he never sinned. They do not even claim this for Muhammad. They teach that Jesus was a great prophet. But they agree with the Jews concerning Christ’s deity. They say that this claim is blasphemous. They deny that Jesus is God.
But if Jesus is not God, what does this make him? What do you say about a man who claims to be God, but is not? Would you call him a liar? A lunatic? Demon possessed? You might call him all of these things, but I doubt you’d call him a great prophet. He would be a false prophet of the most evil sort to claim to be God when he was not. Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word he shall never see death.” (John 8:51) Is this true? He would have to be a religious con man of the first order if he made such a claim and it wasn’t true.
If Jesus speaks the truth, he must be the Lord God almighty because that is who he claims to be. If Jesus speaks the truth, he must have words that give us eternal life because that’s exactly what he says. If Jesus speaks the truth, he must be one with the Father. It all depends on Jesus speaking the truth. Jesus speaks the truth.
The Jews claim Abraham as their father. The Muslims claim Abraham as their father. But in fact, Abraham is the father of the Christians. Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ day. He saw it. He knew Jesus. He knew Jesus through the same faith that we know Jesus. According to the Epistle Lesson for today, Jesus is the Mediator of a new covenant. We read, “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” He shed his blood. For centuries during the time of the worship of the Old Testament, the priests would slaughter animals for sacrifice. Blood was shed again and again and again. It was a very bloody religion.
But God never required the shedding of human blood. Abraham was prepared to do just that. He bound Isaac, according to God’s command, and took him up on Mount Moriah to sacrifice him there to God. He was prepared to kill his son and offer him as a bloody sacrifice to God. But as he raised the knife to do just that, God stopped him. Specifically, the Angel of the Lord stopped him. The Angel of the Lord is a title given to Jesus in the Old Testament, before he became flesh and blood. By stopping Abraham from killing his son, the Angel of the Lord – Christ Jesus before his birth of the Virgin Mary – was giving Abraham a promise. Jesus would shed his blood.
The only sacrifice of a human being that God ever required was the sacrifice of his eternal Son become flesh on the altar of the cross. He died and rose. This is the proof that what Jesus said was true. This is the evidence that Jesus was no lunatic. He was not demon possessed. He was who he claimed to be. He suffered. He died. He bore the sin and guilt of the whole world. He rose from the dead. He does have life to give, eternal life, and he gives it in his holy gospel and sacraments to unworthy sinners like you and me.
When we see ourselves in the clear light of God’s law we see that we are guilty of sinning against God. We haven’t loved purely. We have despised God’s word. We have misused God’s name. We have taken what we had no right to take and we have failed to defend our neighbor’s good name. All of this comes from the idolatry that clings to our sinful hearts. When we see ourselves as God’s law reveals us to be we see how much we need Jesus.
Yes, Jesus is controversial. After all, he claims that he alone can bring us to God and that without him we have no life. But it’s true! Without Jesus we are like Abraham in Ur, blindly stumbling around in idolatrous delusion. With Jesus, we know the Father and we are blessed with faithful Abraham. We enjoy the life that comes only from God. Knowing Christ where Christ shed his blood for us and entered once and for all into the Most Holy Place to set us free is to know that our many sins are washed away and forgiven.
We don’t run away from the controversy Christ causes. We welcome it. For with it comes great comfort. It is the comfort of knowing the truth that our sins are forgiven and that we enjoy eternal life. To know Christ is to know the truth. Amen
Rolf D. Preus