Judicial

The Johannine Jesus and the “I am”

Introduction

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is an enigmatic figure, making tantalizing claims about his ultimate identity. His so-called “I am” statements, sprinkled throughout John, are no exception. Allusive and oblique, they are nonetheless freighted with cosmic significance. This essay will argue that the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel constitute an implicit, yet definite, claim to deity, and that this can be substantiated via an exploration of Old Testament ideas latent within the formula. Unfolding in three stages, it will first survey the two main ‘types’ of “I am” statements Jesus employs, demonstrating the formula’s verbal reliance upon key OT texts, and arguing for their fundamental reference to God’s unique covenantal character. The essay will then build upon those preliminary conclusions, offering a broader theological and salvation-historical account of Jesus’ claim, and highlighting several interlocking thematic links between the Johannine Jesus and previous instances of God’s redemptive-revelatory activity. Finally, it will attempt to properly nuance the “I am” formula, sketching out the distinctiveness of Jesus’ divine identification – particularly in light of its relationship to John’s overall Christological-theological presentation.

“I am” in Context

John’s Gospel uses “I am” on several occasions. Some are conventional forms of self-identification (e.g. 1:20). Others, however, carry weightier significance. I will identify two such categories of “I am” statements: those where Jesus used the “I am” formula absolutely; and those where he combined it with a predicate, or vivid image. One shouldn’t force the distinction: a common bed of theological meaning underlies any apparent division. Moreover, the latter unfurls what is latent in the former.

The Johannine Jesus uses the absolute “I am” statements in the Fourth Gospel without any qualifying predicate. John 8:58 is the classic example. In a steadily escalating debate over his identity and origin, Jesus boldly asserts that “before Abraham was born, I am!” His interlocutors understand this seemingly truncated turn of phrase: immediately, they attempt to kill him (v.59). Their hostility indicates an implicit interpretation of blasphemy. Jesus’ opponents, it seems, invested his pronouncement with the kind of meaning that would have led them to conclude he was, remarkably, claiming deity. John 8:24, 28 are also pertinent, as is 18:5-6. The latter passage, where Jesus confronts a detachment of arresting soldiers, is further indication of claimed deity. The party’s prostrating response – after the evangelist emphasises Jesus’ distinctive reply – certainly implies a theophanic experience.

These are inferences, of course. But why did Jesus’ statements arouse such reactions? What kinds of associations would his contemporaries have made? Here, overtones become echoes – deliberate allusions to a rich stream of OT thought, capturing foundational disclosures of God’s utter uniqueness and covenantal faithfulness. Jesus’ judicial and religious opponents, it seems (particularly in 8:58-9), understood this connection. Indeed, abundant evidence for antecedent OT usage exists, which reveals the burgeoning development of “I am” as a divine name.

Of the various OT texts that might be surveyed in this regard, Isaiah 40-55 is especially important, employing self-referential statements linguistically similar to Jesus’ “I am” formula. In the second major section of Isaiah, repeated promises of divine redemption and covenantal faithfulness appear amidst doubts about Yahweh’s willingness, or ability, to rescue his people (aroused by the calamity of exile, and the apparent triumph of pagan “gods” over Israel’s sovereign). The term, “I am [he],” and its cognates, are used to reveal, among other things, Yahweh’s absolute uniqueness – Israel’s sole guarantor of salvation. Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10-13 are prime examples in this regard. Chapters 44-46 are also apposite, where the “I am” formula is employed several times in a similar context, with similar import (cf. 44:6; 45:5-6, 18: 46:4, 9). In addition, Jesus’ “I am” utterances arguably rely upon Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh disclosed his character to Moses with the appellation, “I am who I am.” Like Isaiah 40-55, Exodus 3:14 is set within a larger, covenantal-redemptive context (which the Fourth Gospel echoes). Divine self-disclosure points again to Yahweh’s matchlessness and loyalty. Jesus’ “I am” statements reverberate with sounds of Yahweh’s titular declarations in Isaiah and Exodus. Recalling such expressions, Jesus deliberately appropriated the divine name, perpetuating a historical pattern characterised by Yahweh’s repeated self-revelation (cf. Jn. 17:11). Jesus’ opponents rightly interpreted these “I am” statements as references to a sacred-divine unveiling.

This OT verbal background applies equally well to the seven instances of the predicated “I am,” fleshing out the absolute form, and underpinning various facets of Jesus’ salvific relationship to humanity. For instance, Jesus claimed to be the “resurrection and the life,” prefacing that declaration with “I am” (Jn. 11:25). In so doing, he appropriated something that, ordinarily, belonged to God alone – and in the process, implicitly presented himself as the locus of resurrection life. Sometimes, Jesus clearly drew from OT images and threads. He claimed to be the “bread of life” (6:35), plainly alluding to the feeding of the Israelites after their flight from Egypt (Exodus 16) – and the source, the enfleshment, of true life. His declaration to be “light” (8:12), it seems, echoed the OT’s use of light as a metaphor, not just for illumination, but for salvation (e.g. Isa. 42:6, 49:6). Similarly, as the “true vine” (15:1), Jesus claimed to be the divine reality to which OT Israel – frequently depicted in these terms (e.g. Ps. 80:8-11; Isa. 5:7) – pointed.

John 10:1-21 is a particularly good example of these realities. By declaring, “I am the good shepherd” (vv.11, 14), Jesus consciously alluded to Ezekiel 34 (cf. 37:24-28), boldly contrasting himself with Israel’s false leaders. In that passage, Israel’s “shepherds” are castigated for their predatory ways (vv.2-10); Yahweh vows that he himself will come and shepherd his people, whilst paradoxically promising the advent of a Davidic figure to reign over the nation (vv.11-24). Jesus re-applied Ezekiel’s promise to himself, asserting that he was that “shepherd,” and that he would provide security and comfort for God’s afflicted (albeit leaving the relationship between the Davidic ruler and Yahweh ambiguous). In so using the “I am” formula, Jesus identified himself with past instances of revelatory activity. Moreover, he frequently combined them with known scriptural images to substantiate his claim to be the consummating distillation of the salvific promises to which he alluded.

“I am” – Thematic Resonances

As the foregoing analysis implies, the “I am” statements signalled more than appropriation of the divine self-appellation. Indeed, they went beyond an abstract, metaphysical assertion. The “I am” formula’s OT grounding suggests that Jesus situated himself within a salvation-historical narrative, identifying (climactically) with a particular god, via particular acts – Yahweh, whose past revelations provided the boundaries for his own self-disclosure. The formula is pregnant with several interlocking theological themes and motifs, once more linking Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus to the Johannine Jesus. Three in particular stand out: the cosmic lawsuit; the revelatory-redemptive nexus; and the seminal significance of the image of exodus itself. They form a triadic relationship, having been woven together to inform a deeper understanding of the significance of the “I am” formula.

To begin, Jesus’ “I am” utterances are part of a scriptural-historical pattern of judicial contests between Yahweh and his adversaries. Both Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus feature what could be called the cosmic lawsuit motif, pitting God and false claimants to deity against each other in a supra-natural trial. Indeed, the question of knowledge of God’s identity hangs over both these portions of the OT. In Isaiah, Yahweh repeatedly reveals himself against a panoply of lifeless idols; in Exodus, he’s unveiled as the authentic Lord, over and against Pharaoh and his pantheon. The key link is the polemical unveiling of the true God in a judicial conflict, where his acts yield knowledge of his character (Exod. 6:2, 6-7, etc.). “I am [he]”, whether in Exodus 3:14, or Isaiah 40-55, hooks into this divine self-identification, and is achieved amidst controversy over who the true, universal sovereign is (cf. Exod. 5:2).

This trenchant disclosure does not, however, stand in isolation. As noted, these passages are part of a broader covenantal framework. In God’s effort to redeem Israel from slavery, or draw it out of exile, the cosmic lawsuit gives way to a deeper redemptive thrust. Yahweh’s exposure of false deities and his own, contrasting claims – by virtue of the evocative “I am” – are in the service of his desire to faithfully save his people. Thus, divine knowledge and divine redemption merge, and are twin components of the logic of Exodus and Isaiah 40-55. Finally, the exodus itself constitutes a seminal link: its founding reality becomes paradigmatic for future liberation by the time of Isaiah 40-55. Indeed, the references to the exodus in Isaiah are particularly vivid, establishing continuity between God’s salvation-historical acts.

The Johannine Jesus, by way of his “I am” pronouncements, relied upon this scriptural edifice, even as he presented himself as its capstone. “I am” is an allusion to a multi-faceted, redemptive narrative. The Fourth Gospel’s cosmic lawsuit, for example, is a well-known motif, reaching a crescendo in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Adversarial-legal passages, such as Jn. 5:16-47 or 8:12-59, offer glimpses, as do the frequency of words such as “testimony” and “witness,” references to judgment and divine verdicts (e.g. 3:19ff; 5:22, 28-30; 11:31; 16:8-11), and the Holy Spirit’s depiction as counsellor or advocate.

The Johannine concept of truth takes on a decidedly judicial “hue” in this context, seen most clearly in the repeated disclosures of authentic deity. Jesus’ “I am” pronouncement in 8:58 (and 8:24, 28) is rooted in this environment, and is a particularly clear reflection of the wider cosmic contest, built into the Fourth Gospel’s narrative, between the true God and his opponents (cf. 1:4-5; cf. 19:15c). Controversy over Yahweh’s rightful status as universal Lord is transmuted into a trial over Jesus’ kingly identity (e.g. 19:15). Echoing those crucial portions of Exodus and Isaiah, Jesus offered himself, polemically, as true deity – Yahweh’s unique representative. The “I am” formula, so allusive in its brevity, encapsulates this fundamental (and exclusively authentic) unveiling (8:28). But, also like those OT passages under examination, such revelation was indissolubly linked with salvation: Jesus adopted the “exclusive soteriological function” claimed of Yahweh, where acknowledgement of the “I am” meant life (8:24, 51, 58; esp. 11:25-26; cf. 17:3). Conceiving of truth as revelation, John’s Gospel uses the “I am” statements to encapsulate the authentic character of God, as revealed in Jesus. It is in this regard that John’s frequent use of glory as a metaphor for divine light/truth, explicating Jesus’ identity as its ultimate channel, is relevant: “I am” reflects an understanding of redemptive enlightenment – the already-surveyed conjunction of divine knowledge, communion and salvation. The culmination of that nexus, of course, occurred at Calvary, the paradoxical site of Jesus’ ultimate unveiling as Israel’s true saviour-king (8:28). “I am,” as used by Jesus, is the functional, verbal equivalent of the image of Yahweh’s radiance.

The Fourth Gospel also employs the key motif of exodus as an overarching framework, using its seminal influence to flesh out the nature of Jesus’ salvific ministry. Features include: echoes of the tabernacle’s establishment, a key plank in Yahweh’s salvific-covenantal project (1:14); the corresponding use of divine glory to communicate a key dimension of Jesus person and ministry (e.g. 1:14; cf. 40:34-38); various Mosaic comparisons (1:15; 3:14); the wider import of Isaiah 40:1-3 in John 1:23 (trading, as the former passage does, on exodus imagery); allusive references to the paschal lamb (1:29); imagistic overtones of the exodus in Jesus’ “born again” declaration (esp. 3:5); typological use of the Israelites’ feeding in the wilderness (John 6); salvation as freedom from slavery (8:31, 34); Jesus’ crucifixion at Passover, consummating that event’s anticipatory significance; and, of course, the “I am” formula itself (given its already-noted provenance). Passing the exodus through an Isaianic prism, Jesus obliquely claimed to be the same “I am” who had already achieved redemption for his people, and vowed to do so again. He deployed the formula to identify himself intimately with the God of the exodus – signalling the inauguration of a new exodus, as promised in the Isaianic literature. Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus 3:14, then, should be combined as part of a layered backdrop to Jesus’ own claim – which his “I am” statements reflect – to be the salvific God’s climactic self-revelation.

“I am” God?

One shouldn’t conclude from the above account that Jesus was baldly claiming to be Yahweh/God, without remainder. His pronouncements were, it must be said, far more subtle. Whilst he appropriated uniquely divine prerogatives (bestowal of life, judgment, etc.), and implied unity with God (10:30), Jesus paradoxically distinguished himself from the Father, explicitly referring to this difference at several points (e.g. 4:34; 5:19). It’s important, in this final section, to nuance his solemn assertion of deity found in the “I am” formula.

Importantly, Jesus’ “I am” statements can be viewed in light of John’s unique Christological-theological presentation, particularly as it is found in the prologue (1:1-18). The notion of the divine logos (or Word/wisdom/mind) is pertinent, underpinning the distinctiveness of Jesus’ “I am” utterances. John 8:12 (bookending Chapter 8 with v.58) recalls the prologue’s characterisation of the Word as light, and coheres with allusive references to Jesus-as-Temple, the “site” of Yahweh’s resplendence (= glory, above p.5; see 1:14; 2:12-25; cf. Exod. 40:34-38). Tapping into a rich vein of Jewish theology about the transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence, John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as God’s embodied wisdom, identified with his nature, yet distinct (cf. Isa. 55:11; Prov. 8:22ff). The “I am” statements link Jesus with Yahweh’s activity and being, echoing the prologue’s portrayal of the divine Word as supervening agent in creation. Yahweh’s kingship, to which this essay has already referred, is of a piece with the Johannine picture of God’s presiding over creation: he is the universal sovereign, to which authorship of creation attests. Furthermore, this identity is “concretized,” so to speak, in Jesus and his “I am” claims. John 8:58 is especially apposite, strongly implying Jesus’ pre-existence, and contrasting it with creation’s contingency and finitude (represented, in this case, by Abraham’s qualified existence [cf. 1:1-3]). Functions attributed to Jesus are attributed to the logos, and these connections reflect the Gospel’s conviction regarding his co-inherence, his ontological identification, with Israel’s – and the world’s – God (14:10). Jesus is seen as, and declared himself to be, God’s mediating presence in the creation (1:9-10), witnessing to humanity as the climactic bearer of the divine name (cf. Heb. 1:1-3).

As can be seen, then, this isn’t merely a matter of later theologizing. In the aforementioned use of Ezekiel 34, Jesus himself fused the paradoxical combination of a divine-human shepherd in his own person. John 14:6, where Jesus claims, “I am the way…”, touches upon the enigma of his twin-status as the supreme revelation of Yahweh and the distinct channel, mediator – even enfleshment – of divine truth; indeed, to know Jesus is to know the Father (Jn. 14:9-10), and Yahweh’s singular reality is “devolved,” in a sense, to his uniquely qualified representative. “I am” functions as a subtle reference to Jesus’ divine status, whilst discouraging facile attempts to baldly equate him with Yahweh. Therefore, although he claimed deity, Jesus did so in a way that didn’t exhaust the Godhead. “I am” isn’t a totalizing declaration of godhood, but points to Jesus’ status as God’s true “image” – the incarnation of Yahweh’s wisdom. The Johannine picture of God’s manifold nature calibrates the import of Jesus’ statements, holding in tension his dual identity as Yahweh’s manifest presence and a discrete personage. “I am,” in this environment, successfully preserves the Son’s essential deity, but without collapsing it into the being of the Father.

Conclusion

It is apparent that the Johannine Jesus, according to his “I am” statements, sought to (obliquely) claim divinity. The formula bears clear linguistic parallels with OT instances of God’s self-identification – found, above all, in places such as Isaiah and Exodus – encompassing his uniqueness and covenantal loyalty. Moreover, Jesus’ declarations captured a complex web of fundamental salvation-historical themes and motifs, building upon those striking verbal similarities. The cosmic lawsuit, the coalescence of revelation and salvation, and the use of exodus as a defining image for that process, form a coherent backdrop to Jesus’ “I am” statements. More than an inert, metaphysical assertion, his declaration signalled the climax of God/Yahweh’s redemptive-revelatory activity, to which the surveyed background pointed. Past acts of self-disclosure converged in Jesus, crystallized – in abbreviated form – in the “I am” formula. Importantly, Jesus remained within the confines of monotheism, utilising Jewish categories to explicate his own, distinctive claims to deity. Rather than offering up an exhaustive declaration of godhood, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel presented himself as God’s supreme self-expression: participating eternally in divine life, embodying divine truth, but retaining a distinct identity. Properly contextualised, Jesus’ “I am” statements buttress this paradoxical portrayal.

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The Manifold Significance of the Resurrection (Part One)

Once completed, these will be companion pieces to my earlier essay on the cross. This first one is a little late, since Easter has already come and gone. But as the saying goes, “better late than never”.

Christians know well how to celebrate the crucifixion of Jesus. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the resurrection. Whilst we rightly proclaim the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin, as a triumph over the powers of evil, and as a demonstration of God’s holy love (cf. Romans 5:8), it seems that many are much less certain about the significance of Christ being raised from the dead. Indeed, beyond the vague notion that it means we can now possess eternal life, or that it was God’s way of publicly vindicating his Son (both true, of course, but they need to be worked out in more detail), Christians are unsure quite what to do with the resurrection.

Hopefully, these posts can offer a kind of corrective. There are many ways in which the resurrection of Christ is a vital belief for his followers. What I want to concentrate on are four different dimensions of this great event:

1)    The resurrection as a vital element in the justification of believers – that is, their being declared righteous before God despite their sin.

2)    The resurrection as a necessary foundation for sanctification.

3)    The resurrection as the ground upon which people can claim membership in God’s family.

4)    The resurrection as the first step in new creation.

There is not enough space to consider each of the fours aspects in the one post. So I shall simply focus on how the resurrection is a necessary part of our justification.

Resurrection and Justification

We normally think that our being justified before God rests upon the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross. That is certainly – and gloriously – true. What I didn’t say clearly in my post on Christ’s crucifixion is that it was an act of substitution, of penal substitution. In other words, Jesus paid the penalty for sin that was ours to pay, as our substitute and representative. When he walked the road to Calvary and was put to death at the place called Golgotha, Jesus “stood” in our place under sin’s weight and God’s condemnation of it. Indeed, he died the death that we were due to die (“For the wages of sin is death” – Rom. 6:23). God in Christ managed to do for us what we could not do ourselves, by shouldering the price of sin and forgiving us justly (ie. without condoning sin).

Consequently, when we place Spirit-impelled faith in Christ’s work, we trust in his once-and-for-all death as the means by which we can come into a right relationship with God. That right relationship is closely identified with our justification, which is a legal term that is used often by writers in the New Testament (not least, Paul). We are justified by faith because God reckons us to be righteous. And he reckons us to be righteous precisely because we have, via the work of the Spirit, appropriated the benefits of Christ’s gracious, representative work on the cross. Our sins are no longer counted against us, and we are no longer separated, alienated, from God.

This is a wonderful truth, which has been secured by the cross. However, it is not the cross, in isolation, which has secured it. In fact, I would go as far as to say that by itself, the cross would have been a monumental failure. That may seem a trifle overblown, but we have to remember that in God’s redemptive economy, Jesus’ shameful death was always – of necessity – going to be followed by his triumphant resurrection. And this has important implications for our justification. What may not be apparent to many Christians, in their commendable zeal to ground our righteous standing before God in Christ’s sacrificial work, is that this legal position also hinges upon the certainty of the empty tomb. Indeed, the cross and the resurrection are indissolubly linked, forming one saving event. This is true, whether we are referring to our initial standing before God or to our ultimate glorification. Unfortunately, the resurrection is invariably neglected when it comes to explaining the ground for a Christian’s justification before God, even though the link is made explicit at several points in the NT.

Romans 4:25 is a prime example of the relationship between the resurrection and justification. It is also, out of interest, a clear example of how the NT often considers the death and resurrection of Christ as one event. Let’s take a look:

“He [Jesus Christ] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification[emphasis mine].

They cannot, nor should they, be seen as ultimately separable acts. This is important as we move on. In any case, reading the above verse suggests one very important fact: Christ was raised so that we might be justified. Our justification would not have occurred had it not been for his triumph over death. Now, it is possible to read this verse a little differently. That is, some might reverse the causal order and argue that because justification had already been achieved (presumably through the cross), Christ was raised from the dead. The act of raising Christ from the dead becomes, then, the public demonstration of something that had already been accomplished. In other words, the cross alone opened up the possiblility for the justification of sinners; the resurrection was the outward, tangible sign of what was already the case. Views to the contrary notwithstanding, I think it best to say that what Paul is arguing in Romans 4:25 is that Christ’s resurrection in some way secured our justification. It’s not that the cross was unimportant in this scheme – far from it. However, it would have been incomplete, and therefore futile, without triumph over death three days later.

Understanding the judicial significance of death is important at this point. Our death is a consequence of sin, to be sure. But to be clear: it is also a sign of God’s judgment upon it and those who participate in it (which is to say, everyone). Indeed, in sinning, we alienate ourselves from the very source of life; death is the inevitable (but not to say, impersonal) implication of this estrangement and divide. I noted earlier that in taking on the burden on humanity’s sin at Calvary, Jesus also bore God’s wrathful condemnation of it. He did so as our representative, bearing punishment on behalf of others. But without the resurrection, Christ’s substitutionary offering before God would have been a rejected one. By taking the place of sinful humanity, Christ had to be raised. For only then could it be said that he himself had been justified as the representative man (bearing the divine punishment for sin before being vindicated) and that death, as a judicial consequence of sin, had been defeated.

Christ’s vindication – his being raised from the dead publicly – was necessary, in that without it, the guilt that he shouldered on behalf of humanity would not have been removed. The penalty of death would still have been in place, sin’s reign unbroken, and God’s condemnation upon us. Or, as I. Howard Marshall, a NT scholar, puts it:

“…The resurrection is God’s release of Christ from the punishment of sin that he is bearing; he remits any continuation of the punishment. Hence, there is now the possibility of a new relationship between God and the man whom he has judged in death, and so God can now forgive sinners” (“Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity”, p.86).

The new relationship of which Marshall speaks is the new legal status of human beings, who because of Christ’s successful and accepted offering, can now escape sin and its divinely-ordained penalty, death, thereby enjoying a right relationship with the God who has forgiven them on the basis thereof. Insofar as we participate in Christ (through Spirit-impelled faith and union), we are counted as righteous before God. But that could only come about with the raising of Christ after his death. That is why Paul can say, in 1 Corinthians, that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). He is pointing to the very thing I have suggested in this essay: that if Christ has not been raised, then he is still dead; and if he is still dead, then his offering was unsuccessful in paying the penalty for sin, since God did not remit the condemnation that befell Jesus as our representative. If that is so, then we are still locked in our sins, apart from God and facing the consequence of death.

“But”, Paul declares, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). All who are in Christ “will be made alive” in him (v.22). It is the fact of the resurrection that completes the sin-bearing work of Christ on the cross. More than that, it brings us assurance of our own vindication – our own acquittal, our own triumph over sin and death – as we are brought into union with him.