Today Jesus says something that sounds absurd.
He says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
It’s impossible for us to speak this way, because it’s never true. In American English, the closest we can come is to say, “Before you were, I was (or wasn’t).”
It makes no sense to say, “Before/after (something), I am.”
“I was” or “I will” makes sense—but not “I am.”
What Jesus says is baffling, because He’s defining Himself as not being bound by space and time.
We’ve heard these words all our Christian lives, so 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 we mean when we say that God is eternal.
God is not “past tense,” because He always is.
I’m not 100% at doing this, but maybe you’ve picked up on this. Most of the time, when quoting Scripture, I’ll say, “Jesus says…” not “Jesus said…” He said it—but He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. What He said still matters—it still applies. So—even today—Thus says the Lord…
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 act as though He has blasphemed.
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 save His people.
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 the message of salvation, the Gospel, so he has to speak with authority to match, authority greater than his own.
Who cares if only Moses said it…or Pastor Holt for that matter. But if “Thus says the Lord…”
Then—the Word has power to save, and we need to hear and do.
Moses knew that if God put His name to it, then the salvation, help, and comfort of the people was certain.
So, 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, the third thing 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 He still thinks those things and has and will forever.
Jesus doesn’t change.
Consider what that means:
God’s promise, God’s Word, is always true.
Have you been baptized?
That’s where God’s Word was applied to you, saving you according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, poured out on you richly through Jesus Christ our savior (cf. Titus 3).
Logically, Holy Baptism doesn’t look like much, but when God put His name on you and marked you as one redeemed by Christ, He claimed you there and then as His own.
He stands behind His Word and promise for all time.
As much as we change in our lives, as often as we unfortunately lie and deceive with our words, God remains true to what He says.
If God puts His name on it—it’s certain.
Consider, also, the Sacrament of the Altar, the eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Reason tastes bread and wine, there’s no bloody, iron aftertaste. Nor is there the taste of fingernails or flesh.
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).
He said it once, and He still means it. Not simply so He can be right—but so that even we can be justified.
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 that was God’s plan all along.
Since Jesus was thirty-ish—and since God never changes—that was the plan all along.
In Revelation, Jesus is called the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (cf. Revelation 13:8).
And in Exodus chapter three, thus says the Lord: “I have…seen the affliction of my people…and I have come…to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7-8).
God has used time to His advantage.
He is faithful and merciful. He is our comfort and our deliverance.
Because He is.
That’s not circular reasoning.
That’s a statement regarding God’s eternal love.
“Before Abraham was, I am,” Jesus says.
That’s utterly inconceivable to our ears and impossible for anyone to say of himself.
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. Never forgotten.
That God, even knowing our every sin, is yet merciful and forgiving. Never vindictive. But always vindicating.
That when we sin, when we hurt, 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.
To bring us with Him into eternal life.
He sees our affliction and hears our cries.
He knows our sufferings, and He’s with us every step of the way.
And 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), 2021
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt