“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’[c] 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”[d] 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” (John 8:51-59)
The key phrase is “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” As we can see, this statement provoked a strong response. The Jews picked up stones intending to kill Jesus. The reason this statement was so offensive to the Jews is that by saying I AM, Jesus is referring to the divine name of God. This goes back to the Old Testament and how God revealed himself to Moses (Exodus 3). As God was calling Moses to lead his people through the burning bush incident, Moses is doubtful about his abilities to lead the people and the credibility of the message that God has spoken to him.
13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.[c] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Ex 3:13-14)
God assures Moses that this will be enough to convince the people. This phrase is significant because it is revealing more about God. In Old Testament times, the name of a person revealed much about who that person was; specifically, their personality and characteristics. In the Bible, there are many names used for God each revealing something about his character and nature. The name I AM is revealed here in Exodus for the first time in the Bible. This name is the root of the name Yahweh.
“Unlike previous names, ‘Yahweh’ does not limit God’s nature to any particular characteristic: he is what he is. Furthermore, his nature does not change. He is the God worshipped by earlier generations (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob) and generations yet to come (this is my name for ever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation).”
Because this is the core name used for God, Jews would not pronounce the name, in order to avoid the possibility of misusing the name of God as per the 10 commandments.
With this background, we can start to see why this usage by Jesus was so significant. “…when Jesus said to ‘the Jews’, ‘before Abraham was born, I am’, he was identifying himself with God. He was not only pronouncing the name of God, which Jews normally did not dare to utter, but, even worse, he was claiming to be God.”
For an orthodox Jew, this was blasphemy, punishable by death. Many rejected Jesus’ claim outright. For those who are familiar with the Bible and Christian teaching, this does not seem so far fetched, as it is understood that Jesus is God and as God has existed in the Trinity for all time. However, for the Jews present that day it surely seemed to be a fantastical statement. How could this ordinary looking man be God? Yet, is this not the challenge we face today? Can we take the Bible at face value? Do we believe the statements that Jesus gives? Both in Exodus as God reveals his name, and here in the gospel of John as Jesus reveals that he is God; people are challenged with the revelation of God.
What does this passage mean for people today? First, we see that the name of God reveals that he is the same throughout all of history. He is eternal and unchanging. He is the steady foundation.
Secondly, we see that Jesus reveals himself to be God. Jesus is not ‘a god’ he IS God. By identifying himself with the divine name of God, Jesus reveals that he is God, eternal and unchanging. John reveals this in the very first words of the gospel “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
The rest of the I AM statements make sense as we view them through this lens. Jesus is not directly using the divine name in the 7 I am statements, but he is making clear reference to God and revealing more of who he is. Understanding this, we can see that each of the I AM statements is filtered though the revelation of Jesus as God.
As only God can be the I AM, so Jesus who is himself God, is the only one who can be:
- The Bread of Life: The spiritual food that leads to eternal life. (John 6:35, 41, 48, 51)
- The Light of the World: The light that reveals the meaning and purpose of life. (John 8:12; 9:5)
- The Door of the Sheep: The door to security and fellowship (John 10:7,9)
- The Good Shepherd: The guide and protector (John 10:11,14)
- The Resurrection and the Life: The power over life and death (John 11:25)
- The Way, and the Truth and the Life: The only way to the Father (John 14:6)
- The True Vine: The vital connection for life (John 15:1,5)
 Arrington and Stronstad eds, Life in the Spirit New Testament Commentary, 1999 pg 55
 Alexander, T. D. (1994). Exodus. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 97). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
 Kruse, C. G. (2003). John: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, p. 140). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.