This statement, made by Jesus while he was engaged in what some might call a “lively conversation” with religious rulers at the temple in ancient Jerusalem, is one of the most controversial statements he made.
What does this statement mean? Why is it controversial?
The religious leaders engaging Jesus in a discussion about his identity became so angry at the “Before Abraham was born, I am” statement they picked up stones and determined to kill him on the spot. The text says he “hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.”
You can read the text of the entire debate in the Gospel of John,chapter 8, beginning in verse 12.
Ancient Jewish religious leaders understood the use of the term “I Am” to mean the speaker is making him or herself equal to, or the same as, God. That’s why they became enraged when Jesus said “I Am.” It was considered blasphemy for any person to say they were the same as God. Some would say it was even an outrage because most of us instinctively know we are not in possession of the qualities associated with deity (unlimited knowledge, unlimited power, immortality, etc.)
It is absolutely true Jesus claimed to be God. His claim was accurate and completely true.
It has been popular in some circles to say Jesus never claimed to be God, but that his followers later attached this quality to him to make his teaching more distinctive, more powerful, or more unique. Not so.
He worked miracles for those who came to him and asked for his help, but obviously these people already trusted in his ability to do something supernatural and unusual. At the very least, they were open to the possibility he could do what others could not. For those individuals, Jesus showed his power.
Others accused him of being “mad” and of “having a demon.”
There really was not a lot of middle ground in response to Jesus while he lived on Earth.
Today, there is a lot of middle ground. Some have said Jesus was a great teacher and storyteller, a radical rabbi, a political subversive, a deluded mystic. The list is endless.
For those of us who are Christian, Advent reminds us God decided to become like us for a while in order to do something that could be accomplished in no other way.
For ages some have cried out “If there is a God, why doesn’t He show himself?”
God did just that. God answered the request to “show Himself.” He picked a place and a time and he was there. If you are disappointed he didn’t decide to physically show up during your lifetime, I have nothing to offer except this: He will be real to you now if you seek Him now.
That is the good news.