Where in the Bible Does Jesus Claim to be God?
Mars Hill Forum #128, July 28, 2007: Internet Live Debate with Egyptian Muslim Da’wahist, Wesam Abd Allah.
Prepared Text by John C. Rankin
In this debate, the dialogue was only allowed to be one-way – questions posed by a Muslim to challenge the Bible, but no questions allowed to be posed of the Qur’an or Islam from a Christian perspective. I was free to address such a lopsided arrangement because of my confidence in the nature of the Bible on its own terms. Wesam Abd Allah chose the question, thinking that the Bible nowhere says that Jesus himself claims to be God. My prepared comments, below, speak for themselves (with some minor editing).
Greetings, and thank you to Wesam Abd Allah for the question posed: “Where in the Bible Does Jesus Claim to be God?” Since Wesam has debated some 400 Christian priests and ministers in his goal “to guide people to the right path,” I look forward to his well studied and probing questions.
The answer is simple – in the Greek text of John 8:58, where Jesus answers his sworn enemies – transliterated: eipen autois Iesous Amen amen lego umin prin Abraam genesthai ego eimi. In English, it says – “Jesus said to them, in truth, in truth, I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM.”
The Greek construction, ego eimi, “I AM,” is a deliberate claim on the part of Jesus to call himself by the name of the LORD God in the Hebrew Bible, that is, Yahweh Elohim. His Pharisaical enemies knew this well, and this is why immediately the text of John 8:59 continues, “they picked up stones to stone him.” They knew he was claiming to be God, and for this they charged him with blasphemy.
In fact, John 8:58 is the apex among at least 31 times that Jesus formerly calls himself, ego eimi, I AM, in the Gospel of John, as we will see. It is a major thrust of John’s gospel – Jesus is God in the flesh.
But to grasp the simplicity of this answer, we need to know the whole Bible on its own terms, and all that precedes the narrative and theology of John’s gospel.
In the biblical order of creation, Genesis 1-2, the Creator reveals his crucial two names in the Hebrew, Yahweh Elohim. The name Yahweh is close in the Hebrew to the infinitive tense of the verb “to be,” and can be translated as “I AM” or the “Divine Presence.” It means that all which exists comes from Yahweh, and accordingly, he is greater in nature than all space and time. The name Elohim in the Hebrew is the masculine plural of a word for god, el. Some have mistaken this for a polytheistic concept, a reference to many gods, but not so. Rather it is something known as the “honorific plural.” It means that the true Creator, Elohim, is greater than all the so-called gods.
In the NIV translation, we can note two of many passages where the language is clear in this regard. In Deuteronomy 4:39, we read: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD (Yahweh) is God (Elohim) in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.” And again in Isaiah 45:5: “I am the LORD (Yahweh), and there is no other; apart from me there is no other God (Elohim).”
The honorific plural was used throughout the ancient Near East as a means of showing honor. To call a king by the word, “kings,” meant he was greater than all other kings combined. Elohim in the Hebrew Bible is the One True Creator who is greater than all so-called gods, and Elohim is greater than the concept of number itself. He cannot be limited to a single space, a single concept, or a single number. To sum it up, the Hebrew name Yahweh Elohim refers to the One True Creator who is greater than space, time and number – greater than the universe and all our means to measure it.
This prepares us to understand what Jesus was saying so often in John’s gospel, and at the epicenter of John 8:58, something all the Jewish rabbis knew immediately. They had the entire Tenach – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings – memorized in both the Hebrew and its Greek translation, the Septuagint (LXX).
In Exodus 3:6, when Yahweh Elohim first spoke to Moses in the burning bush, he says, “I am the God (Elohim) of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” In the LXX, the Greek says, ego eimi ho theos, “I am the God.” And in his debate with the Sadducees (Matthew 24:32), when Jesus, speaking in Aramaic, translated into Greek, he reflects the same Hebrew with ego eimi ho theos, “I am the God.
Back in Exodus, we read in 3:13-15:
Moses said to God (Elohim), “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them,
‘The God (Elohim) of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?’ ”
God (Elohim) said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM (ehyeh asher ehyeh). This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
God (Elohim) also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD (yahweh), the God (Elohim) of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – he sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.”Now, both the name for I AM (ehyeh) and for the LORD (yahweh) are the first person verbal form, then the nounal form, for the verb “to be,” used here for the One True Creator who is greater than space, time and all existence.
When Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” he was using the exact language from the revelation of Yahweh Elohim to Moses. Jesus was claiming to be God in the flesh, and his enemies took up stones to kill him for calling himself God, but failed, for the text in John 8:59 continues, “… but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” In other words, there he was, talking with them eyeball to eyeball in the midst of a crowd of people, calls himself God, the eternal I AM, they immediately pick up stones to throw at him, and he disappears before they know it.
The Jews were expecting the Messiah, the “anointed one,” a “prophet” which Moses promised would come (Deuteronomy 18:18); and the apostle Peter specifically said this prophet was Jesus (Acts 3:17-23). As all the Gospels show from their multiple eye-witness perspectives, Jesus was the Messiah, Son of God, Son of David and Son of Man. The prophet Isaiah, describing the Messiah, said that “he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). This language is part of the backdrop to the explicit New Testament understanding of God’s Trinitarian nature. Jesus was saying to the Jews, that as the Messiah, “I am Yahweh Elohim in the flesh, I am God.”
The prologue to John’s Gospel begins with the Trinitarian reality of Jesus as God, and John 1:1-5 is a deliberate parallel to Genesis 1:1-5: First, Genesis 1:1-5:
In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God (Elohim) was hovering over the waters. And God (Elohim) said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God (Elohim) saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God (Elohim) called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day.
Now, John 1:1-18:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been
made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the
darkness, but the darkness has not understood (overcome) it.
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ” From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
The Greek word for Word is logos, and refers to Jesus. It means that Jesus is the full communication of God in human forum, who is God himself at the same time. The parallels between Genesis 1:1-5 and John 1:1-5 are clear, as John is making a claim from the outset – in the beginning, God and light. Jesus was at the beginning, Jesus is God, and Jesus is the Light of the World. All the relationships in the Trinitarian nature of God are here in these two passages – God, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The rest of John’s Gospel follows through on this assumption. Jesus refers to himself as the Son of God and the Son of Man again and again, and first in his discussion with Nicodemus in John 3:1-21. To be the Son of God means in his incarnation he has only one Father, God himself, and he is fully divine; to be the Son of Man means that by his human lineage through Mary, he is fully human. To be a “Son” is to be the heir of both God’s power and nature, and an heir of the promises made by God to man and woman as his image-bearers. Jesus is the bridge between the Creator and humanity, the one true Mediator.
This balance of Jesus being both Son of God and Son of Man is needed to reconcile us back to God. We are made by the One True Creator who is greater than the whole universe; and in his power to rule the universe in spite of our sins, he is great enough to come to us in human form and relate to us in the person of Jesus. Since Yahweh Elohim is greater than space, time and number, Yahweh Elohim is great enough to pull this off, and Jesus calls himself Yahweh Elohim, the I AM, in John 8:58. We have three choices: a) a god who is great, but not great enough to come into our human presence fully; b) a god who can come into our presence, but not while being fully the true God at the same time; or c) the triune God of the Bible – Yahweh Elohim the One True Creator who comes to us in the flesh as Jesus, to redeem us, and into our lives as the Holy Spirit, to transform us.
Another way of looking at this is to consider the question of unity and diversity, and thus, the health of human society. If a god is a monad, a singular unit – with no one else to relate to before creation, then we have unity with no diversity, and this leads to a social order of imposed conformity. If there are many gods, each with their own agendas, then we have diversity without unity, and thus, chaos in the social order. In Yahweh Elohim, we have diversity in service to unity, the Three who are One, and this is the basis for ordered liberty in society.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus reflects this Trinitarian reality with the repeated declarative use of ego eimi, the “I AM,” and as he calls God his “Father.” In John 4:26, when Jesus answers the question concerning the coming Messiah, he says, “I am (ego eimi) the one speaking to you.” In John 5:19-32, in clear language Jesus links his activity and nature as being the same as the Father. Then, in John 6:35-51, Jesus declares, “I am (ego eimi) the bread of life,” sent down from heaven, using ego eimi four times here in the same context (vv. 35, 41, 48, 51). In John 7:29, 34, 36, Jesus speaks of being the I AM (ego eimi) in terms of his presence with God (“I am from him and he sent me”; and “Where I am you cannot come”).
In John 8:12, Jesus says “I am (ego eimi) the light of the world.” In 8:16 he uses ego eimi; in terms of his presence with the Father. In 8:18, he says, “In your Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am (ego eimi) one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” In 8:21 Jesus twice speaks of himself as the I AM who is “from above” and “not of this world.” In 8:28, “Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am (ego eimi) the one I claim to be, and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.’ ” All this leads toward his apex declaration in 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I AM (ego eimi).”
In John 9:5, Jesus again says, “I am (ego eimi) the light of the world,” and in 9:9 he says, “I am (ego eimi) the man,” claiming responsibility for healing the man born blind.
In chapter 10, Jesus uses ego eimi four more times, saying twice each, “I am (ego eimi) the gate” (vv. 7, 9) and “I am (ego eimi) the good shepherd” (vv. 11, 14). When the Jewish leaders asked him in v. 24, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” Jesus answered in a discourse where he said “I and the Father are one” (v. 30) and “the Father is in me, and I am in the Father” (v. 38). Then the text continues, “Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.” In 11:25, Jesus says, “I am (ego eimi) the resurrection and the life.” In 13:19, when Jesus predicts his betrayal, he says, “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does you will believe that I am He (hoti ego eimi).”
In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am (ego eimi) the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In 15:1, 5 Jesus says, “I am (ego eimi) the true vine” and “I am (ego eimi) the vine.” In 17:14, he says “they are not of the world any more than I am (ego ouk eimi) of the world”; and in v. 16, “They are not of the world, even as I am not (ego ouk eimi) of it.”
When Jesus was arrested, three times he says in 18:5,6, 8, “I am he” (ego eimi). In answering Pilate during his trial, Jesus said, “You are right in saying I am a king (Su legeis hoti basileus ego eimi). In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (18:37).
In other words, rooted in the prologue to John’s gospel, Jesus’s declarative words in John 8:58, calling himself God (Elohim), the eternal I AM WHO I AM (eyheh asher ehyeh), the I AM, (yahweh), ego eimi, is the high point of a relentless theme and use, cited here 31 times, of ego eimi, or explicit cognate.
We have one of two ways to deal with this claim by Jesus to be the I AM:
- First, a skeptic can say that the Bible is untrustworthy in this regard, and thus, this claim does not to be considered. Okay – but if the text is untrustworthy, why bother to begin with? There would be no reason to debate it.
- Second, we can consider Matthew 16:13-17:
[Added note: The Gospel of John, beginning with the prologue, and carrying through all the uses of ego eimi, is written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you may have life in his name” (20:31). And just before this summary conclusion by John, the doubting Thomas, in meeting the risen Jesus, said to him in v. 28, “”My Lord and my God!”, to which Jesus says to him in the affirmative part, “you have believed.”]
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; other says Elijah; and still others,
Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked, “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed
to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”
We have but touched the surface of biblical theology, and if we were to learn the Bible on its own terms, its beauty would be immensely rewarding, and shows that Jesus is the incarnate God. Jesus made this claim especially in a debate with many Pharisees who challenged him. As a disciple of Jesus the Messiah, Lord of lords and King of kings, the Alpha and the Omega, the Second Person of the Trinity, God in the flesh, I embrace a level playing field for all questions that any skeptic might wish to pose.
“Where in the Bible Does Jesus Claim to be God?” you ask. At least 31 time in the Gospel of John.