Study 7: The Origin of Jesus
Old Testament Prophecies of Jesus | The Virgin Birth | Christ's Place in God's Plan | "In the beginning was the word" | Digressions (The Historical Jesus, "I came down from Heaven", Did Jesus Create the Earth?, "Before Abraham was, I am", Melchizedek) | Questions
Digression 25: "Before Abraham Was, I Am" (Jn.8:58)
These words are often misapplied to teach that Jesus existed before Abraham did. However, closer investigation reveals the opposite to be true:
1. Jesus does not say 'Before Abraham was, I was". He was the promised descendant of Abraham; we make a nonsense of God's promises to Abraham if we say that Jesus physically existed before the time of Abraham.
2. The context of Jn.8:58 is Christ's discourse with the Jews concerning Abraham. As far as they were concerned, Abraham was the greatest man who would ever live. Jesus is saying "I am now, as I stand here, more important than Abraham". As they stood there, Jesus was the one to be honoured rather than Abraham. He is saying 'I am now, more important than Abraham ever was'. It is possible to understand "before" in Jn.8:58 with some reference to time, in the sense that before Abraham existed, Christ had been in God's plan right from the beginning of the world. It was because Jesus was "before" Abraham in this sense that he was "before" him in terms of importance.
3. Proof of this is found in Jn.8:56: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad". The only time Abraham is recorded to have laughed and be glad was when he was given the promise that he would have a seed; he understood that ultimately that promise had reference to Jesus (Gen.17:17). Abraham "saw" ahead to Christ through the promises made to him concerning Jesus. He cryptically commented about the future sacrifice of Jesus: "In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen" (Gen.22:14). It was in this sense that Jesus speaks of Abraham as having seen him. It is in this context of speaking about the promises that Jesus could say "Before Abraham was, I am". He appreciated, as we have explained in Section 3.1, that God's promises to Abraham were revealing the plan about Jesus which God had known from the beginning of the world. That purpose, which had been "before Abraham was", had been revealed to Abraham in the promises to him, and was now being fulfilled in the eyes of the Jews of the first century, as they stood in a ring around Jesus, "the word (of promise) made flesh".
4. It is often claimed that Jesus is alluding to the Divine Name when he says "I am". We explained in Digression 3 that Jesus and indeed ordinary men can carry the Name of God, without this meaning that they are God Himself in person. However, it may be that Jesus is simply using the present tense of the verb 'to be'. The very same Greek construction occurs in Jn.9:9 a few verses later. The neighbours of the blind man who was cured asked each other whether he was indeed the same man who used to sit and beg: "Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am (he)" . You will notice that in the A.V. the word "he" is in italics. This means that it is not found in the original Greek text, but has been added by the translators. The blind man is saying "I am", just as Jesus said "I am" in Jn.8:58. If we say that the fact Jesus said "I am" proves that he is very God, then we have to conclude that the blind man was also "very God". However, it is worth noting that Yahweh, the Divine Name, really means "I will be who I will be" (Ex.3:14 R.S.V.mg.; R.V.mg.) rather than "I am".