“Before Abraham Was, I Am.”
The argument with the Pharisees really heats up in vv. 48-59. The Pharisees begin to call Jesus names. They could not refute the Lord’s statements so they attacked His person. Verse 48 reads, The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” To call Him a Samaritan was as great a reproach as one Jew could make against another. The Samaritans were half breeds of Jewish stock that had intermarried with pagan gentiles that had been deported to Palestine by Assyria after the Northern Kingdom had been deported and resettled. This was a common practice. Some Jews were left in the land at that time. It was also completely against the Law of Moses. So the Jews detested the Samaritans.
Did they accuse Him of being possessed of a demon on any other occasion? (John 7:20; John 10:20; Matt. 12:24.)
John 8:49-53 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death (Cf Heb 2:9) 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?”
Heb 2:9 But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.
If they spoke this way of our Lord what may we expect if we are loyal to Him? (Matt. 10:25.) Ought we to dread this reproach? (Matt. 5:10–12.)
Matt 5:10-12 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Of what was this treatment a fulfillment? (Is. 49:7; 53:3.)
Isa 49:7 Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “ Kings shall see and arise;
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Isa 53:3 He was despised and rejected(Or forsaken) by men; a man of sorrows,(Or pains) and acquainted with( Or and knowing) grief;( Or sickness)and as one from whom men hide their faces (Or as one who hides his face from us)he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Notice her that Jesus was not seeking His own glory before these Pharisees. He clearly states that he is seeking the Father’s Glory (v 50). In verse 51, Jesus goes on to say,
John 8:51 “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
And the Pharisees immediately ask Him are you making yourself greater than our father Abraham and the prophets? They are all dead.
Jesus declares that Abraham saw His day and rejoiced to see it. When Jesus said to the Jews that Abraham rejoiced to see his day, he was talking language that they could understand. The Jews had many beliefs about Abraham which would enable them to see what Jesus was implying. There were altogether five different ways in which they would interpret this passage.
- Abraham was living in Paradise and able to see what was happening on earth. Jesus used that idea in the Parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:22–31). That is the simplest way to interpret this saying.
- But that is not the correct interpretation. Jesus said Abraham rejoiced to see my day, the past tense. The Jews interpreted many passages of scripture in a way that explains this. They took the great promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves,” and said that when that promise was made, Abraham knew that it meant that the Messiah of God was to come from his line and rejoiced at the magnificence of the promise.
- Some of the Rabbis held that in Genesis 15:8–21 Abraham was given a vision of the whole future of the nation of Israel and therefore had a vision beforehand of the time when the Messiah would come.
- Some of the Rabbis took Genesis 17:17, which tells how Abraham laughed when he heard that a son would be born to him, not as a laugh of unbelief, but as a laugh of sheer joy that from him the Messiah would come.
- Some of the Rabbis had a fanciful interpretation of Genesis 24:1. There the Revised Standard Version has it that Abraham was “well advanced in years.” The margin of the Authorised Version tells us that the Hebrew literally means that Abraham had “gone into days.” Some of the Rabbis held that to mean that in a vision given by God Abraham had entered into the days which lay ahead, and had seen the whole history of the people and the coming of the Messiah.
From all this we see clearly that the Jews did believe that somehow Abraham, while he was still alive, had a vision of the history of Israel and the coming of the Messiah. So when Jesus said that Abraham had seen his day, he was making a deliberate claim that he was the Messiah. He was really saying: “I am the Messiah Abraham saw in his vision.”
The Jews, although they knew better, chose to take this literally. “How,” they demanded, “can you have seen Abraham when you are not yet fifty?” Why fifty? That was the age at which the Levites retired from their service (Numbers 4:3). The Jews were saying to Jesus: “You are a young man, still in the prime of life, not even old enough to retire from service. How can you possibly have seen Abraham? This is mad talk.” It was then that Jesus made that most staggering statement: “Before Abraham was, I am.” We must note carefully that Jesus did not say: “Before Abraham was, I was,” but, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Here is the claim that Jesus is timeless. There never was a time when he came into being; there never will be a time when he is not in being.
What did he mean? Obviously he did not mean that he, the human figure Jesus, had always existed. We know that Jesus was born into this world at Bethlehem; there is more than that here. Think of it this way. There is only one person in the universe who is timeless; and that one person is God. What Jesus is saying here is nothing less than that the life in him is the life of God; he is saying, as the writer of the Hebrews put it more simply, that he is the same yesterday, today and forever. In Jesus we see, not simply a man who came and lived and died; we see the timeless God, who was the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, who was before time and who will be after time, who always is. In Jesus the eternal God showed himself to men.
As we have seen before this statement uses the same Greek words that are used in the LXX to translate the personal name of God (YaHWeH). The Jews understood exactly what Jesus meant when He said, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” He was claiming to be Jehovah! It was for this reason they sought to stone Him, because to them this was blasphemy. They were unwilling to accept the fact that the Messiah was standing in their midst. They would not have Him to reign over them!
The Gospel of John : Volume 2. 2000, c1975 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.). The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. (35). Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
MacDonald, W., & Farstad, A. (1997, c1995). Believer's Bible Commentary : Old and New Testaments (Jn 8:59). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.