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Who, Indeed

June 16, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

John 8:48-59

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation this Trinity weekend is from our Gospel text, where John records, the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

That’s a bit extreme, don’t you think? Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” and the Jews around Him are incensed! They are outraged to the point that they want to put Him to death by stoning, right then and there! Why on earth do they have this visceral reaction? I mean, what’s their beef? What is it about these words that Jesus has just spoken that prompts such an attempt at violence?

Well, the answer to that question is found far, far earlier in the witness of Scripture. In Exodus 3, Moses has come into the very presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This God has tasked him to go before Pharaoh and lead the people of Israel out of the midst of Egypt and the slavery in which they languished. Now Moses asks a reasonable question: “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?” God’s response is beautiful, powerful, majestic, and glorious in its simplicity: “I AM THAT I AM.” This God has no need of pretensions; He doesn’t need to list His accolades or declare His mighty deeds in order to receive reverence and honor and worship. He’s not the god of thunder, or fertility, or death. He’s above all that. YHWH simply is, and He needn’t say more than that.

That’s what YHWH means – I AM THAT I AM. Now, when the Greeks translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek (the Septuagint), they translated this phrase as Ego eimi ho own – “I, I am the Being (One), the One Who Is.” Not surprisingly, because of the Hellenization of Judea that took place during the time between the Old and New Testament, the Jews knew exactly what Jesus was saying when He said, Ego eimi, that is, “I, I AM.” He was equating Himself with YHWH, the God of their fathers! El-Shaddai, the Almighty God! Yet, He was just a man, according to their eyes! So obviously, this was blasphemy that Jesus was speaking … unless, of course, He were telling the truth.

The real question at the heart of this pericope is not, “Why were the Jews so angry at Jesus?” The question is, “Who is Jesus?” That is the question that the Jews had been asking since the last chapter. And it’s a question that is still asked today. Is Jesus a prophet, as some people both then and now seem to think? Is He a mere teacher, a great rabbi who taught great truths? Is He merely a creature, albeit the perfect creature, as Arius opined? Is He a lunatic or a demoniac, as many at Jesus’s time (and ours) speculated? Is He a figment of our imaginations, as many in our time question? Or is He … who He says He is? Is He “I AM”? Is He the LORD, YHWH incarnate? Is He the Creator, the eternal Logos that spoke creation into existence? The witness of both Scripture and history reply with a resounding, deafening, “YES.”

The opening words of John’s Gospel account make it abundantly clear: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. Jesus was in the beginning, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He was with God, and He was (and is) God. As the Eternal Logos, He spoke all things into existence; there is not one thing, either visible or invisible, that Jesus did not have His hand in creating – yes, even man. When YHWH spoke and said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” Jesus was speaking along with the Father and Spirit. John’s opening words tie Jesus inexorably to the creation of … well, creation.

Now, in the defense of those gathered to hear (and stone) Jesus, they apparently didn’t know this. They thought He had a demon. They thought He was a heretic, a Samaritan, one who doesn’t rightly understand theology. In reality, they were the ignorant ones. Jesus says as much, saying they don’t know the Father at all; if they did, they would recognize Him for Who He is without even having to ask. They would have known that He was not only Messiah, but Creator. They would have known He formed Abraham in his mother’s womb, knew him even before he was a twinkle in Terah, his father’s, eye. Indeed, they would have known that Jesus had formed all of them in their mothers’ wombs. But they did not. They heard His words as blasphemy. They heard His words as fraud. They heard His words as falsehood, even though He spoke the truth. He knew the Father – He knows the Father, and He was here going about His Father’s business.

They wanted to know who He was, He told them, and His answer sent them into a fit of murderous rage. But Jesus’s time had not yet come, so He hid Himself from them and left the temple to continue going about His Father’s work. This incident, however, would come up later during His trial before the Sanhedrin. They ask Him straight-up, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus’s response is the same as before: “Ego eimi, I, I AM.” He did not hide this time when they sought to lay hands on Him. He didn’t stop them from flogging Him. He didn’t push their hands away as they pressed the crown of thorns into His brow. He didn’t beat them back as they stretched His arms out on the cross to nail Him thereto. Because He is not just the Creator, co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. He is the Redeemer, the Person of the Trinity Who took on human flesh in order to be destroyed by poor, miserable sinners, for poor, miserable sinners.

Who is Jesus? He is God, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. Even as He was putting the cosmos in order, He knew that He would die this way. Before He created the dry land as distinct from the seas, He knew that that ground would quake and the very rocks would crack at His death. Before He created the beating heart of Man, He knew that His would be pierced for the sake of Man. Who is Jesus? Who, indeed? He is the One Who testifies to the Father, Who did the work He had been sent to do. He is the One Who reigns from the right hand of the Father. He is the One Who, with the Father, sent the Holy Spirit to give the gift of faith. For that matter, He is the One to Whom the Holy Spirit points. He is the One Whom Abraham saw and rejoiced – indeed, He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Who is Jesus? He is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and this day and every day, we believe, teach, and confess about the Great Three-in-One and One-in-Three, “Before Abraham was, I AM.”

+ In the Name of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.