Question: "What is the significance of Jesus saying, "Before Abraham was, I am!" in John 8:58?"


In John 8, Jesus makes a couple of His “Verily, verily” statements. In one, He tells a group of people, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58, ESV). Just prior to this, those who heard Jesus seem to have a favorable response to what He has said. However, their response is not genuine and lasting. They take great pride in the fact that they are Jews—descendants of Abraham.

Jesus challenges their confidence in the flesh. They may be physically descended from Abraham, but they do not have Abraham’s character. They are not his spiritual descendants: “They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did’” (John 8:39–40, ESV).

Then they say that they are not illegitimate children but claim God as their father (John 8:41). Perhaps this is meant as a backhanded insult of Jesus—an insult that becomes more direct in verse 48.

The crowd gets more offended as the discussion progresses. Jesus tells them the devil is their father as evidenced by their works, and they claim that Jesus is demon-possessed (John 8:42–48). Jesus goes on to say that whoever obeys Him will never see death (verse 51), and the conversation heats up:

At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”

Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” (John 8:52–57).

The whole argument is coming to a climax. How can Abraham have had any thoughts about Jesus when Jesus was born some 2,000 years after Abraham?

Jesus gives the final statement that ends the discussion: “Very truly I tell you, . . . before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58).

Here, Jesus is not simply saying that He is older than Abraham. This is not just a claim to pre-existence before birth. He does not say, “Before Abraham was, I was” or “I was there before Abraham.” Jesus uses a particular formulation that is God’s name in the Old Testament as revealed to Moses at the burning bush. Moses asked God for His name in case the Israelites inquired who had sent him. God replied, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

The significance and the perceived audacity of Jesus’ proclamation can be found in the response of the people who heard Him say it: “At this, they picked up stones to stone him” (John 8:59). From their response, we can see that they considered Jesus’ statement to be blasphemy.

In all the other things that Jesus had said to them, nothing caused them to take up stones to stone Him. It was not until he claimed to be “I AM,” the God of the Old Testament, that they attempted to stone Him. For a mere mortal or even some sort of heavenly being to claim to be I AM was blasphemy, for that name can only be used of God. Jesus is claiming not only to exist before Abraham, but to be self-existent before Abraham—something that is true of God and God alone.

John gives us one other glimpse of the significance of the statement “I am” in John 18, when the guards come to arrest Jesus:

So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground (John 18:3–6, ESV).

Most modern translations supply the word he, and in versions like the King James and older editions of the New American Standard Bible, the word he is in italics, meaning it has been added by the translators. In the original Jesus simply says, “I am,” and when He said that, the guards fell back. Their involuntary reaction is an indication of the significance of Jesus’ statement.

Jesus, however, does not attempt to escape arrest: “So he asked them again, ‘Whom do you seek?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he’” (John 18:7–8). At this point Jesus is arrested. John’s inclusion of this incident seems to be a further indication of the significance of Jesus’ claim to be I AM in John 8:58.

Jesus’ claim that “before Abraham was, I am” is a declaration that He should be identified with the God who spoke to Abraham and the God who revealed Himself to Moses as I AM.