Before Abraham was, I am, John 8:58
13th August 2011, hej
1) Before Abraham was, I am, John 8:58
“Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) is one of the passages in scripture that is not easily understood. And it ought not to be easily understood because, in linguistic terms, it is awkward at best. So why did Jesus make a statement that was hard to understand? The context explains why.
Before we begin, we should note a curious fact about the complexity of language and communication. It is possible to write a sentence that does not communicate. A statement that defies the rules of grammar may communicate due to context but one that complies with grammatical rules may not. Clever people may be able to make statements which are obscure to less astute people.
Literally Yeshua is recorded in Greek as saying, “ before Abraham to-became I am.” This is not a case of an untranslatable idiom, as the original Greek translation does not suggest it obeys grammatical rules either.
The short five word phrase also, in addition, defies conventional logic. As they were all physical descendants of Abraham, it would be as if he had said, “before our grandfather came to exist I am.” He does not say that, “before Abraham became, I was.”
His logic in using “I am”, features his present situation of that day or era in C.E., as being before Abraham came to be. It is linguistic time travel, where the past ends up in the future: imagine time travel from 30CE going back to 2000BCE. If he had said 'Before Abraham came to be I was', it would place both in the past and mean somehow he existed before his ancestor. But he did not say that, rather that he, as he was then in that day, was before Abraham came.
So what is Yeshua getting at? One thing we may be certain of is that everything he said is purposeful and is understandable communication. The context of what Yeshua says is part of what became a particularly vindictive argument on one part and most likely was very heated.
It began with Yeshua teaching in the temple and his neat defeat of the plot of certain scribes and Pharisees over the matter of the woman taken in adultery.
Yeshua then says as he was teaching,
“I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
The Pharisees therefore said unto him, “You bear record of thyself; your record is not true.” (John 8:12-13)
In context he had just proved his great wisdom, and there was the evidence of the miracles. The Pharisees had made a serious accusation. This was a question of authority. Again Yeshua comes back and uses the law to make his point that he has authority.
“I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me bears witness of me.”
Then said they unto him, “Where is thy Father?”
Jesus answered, “You neither know me, nor my Father: if you had known me, you should have known my Father also.” (John 8:18-19)
The argument then shifts to a key point
Then said Jesus again unto them, “I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come.”
Then said the Judeans, “Will he kill himself? because he said, 'Where I go, you cannot come.'”
And he said unto them, “You are from beneath; I am from above: you are of this world; I am not of this world. I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if you believe not that I am , you shall die in your sins.” (John 8:21-24)
In context, they had to believe he was the son of God. If they do not believe this, they will die for ever and not inherit eternal life. He makes the point that they will seek him. But they will not find him because they are 'earthly' or 'humanist' in their thinking. Becasue he says 'if you believe not I am', they then question his identity.
Then said they unto him, “Who are you?”
And Jesus said unto them, “Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning.” (John 8:25)
John records that He understands Yeshua, but that the Pharisees did not.
Then said Jesus unto them, When you have lifted up the Son of man, then shall you know that I am , and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father has taught me, I speak these things. (John 8:28)
When he is crucified as 'the son of man' then they shall know he did nothing of himself, and that he is the son of God. At this point John records a curious fact that some of the audience believed he was the son of God and that some did not.
“And he that sent me is with me: the Father has not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.”
As he spake these words, many believed on him. Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, “If you continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:29-32)
It was a truly great debate at the Temple with the two sides seeking to sway the audience. At this point the Pharisee opposition could sense this, just as John did.
They take up a new argument regarding Abraham,
They answered him, “We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how say thou, Ye shall be made free?” (John 8:33)
Note in the following how Jesus acknowledges that his accusers are descendants of Abraham, but not his children in their works.
“If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word has no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father.
They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father.
Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that has told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father.”
Then said they to him, “We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.”
Jesus said unto them, “If God were your Father, you would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.
Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the slanderer, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. “ (John 8:36-44)
It is an insult to God to say that Yeshua was born of fornication, when there was a witness given at the time of birth, at his baptism, and the miracles of his ministry. The key point is that they willingly will not understand that he is the son of God, but are trying to twist Yeshua's words. They even claim suddenly that God is their Father. They would shortly submit a false accusation to Pilate, as Yeshua knew, as it was already in their heart.
Note that he was pleading and arguing so that they would understand as he knew if they did not they would die. Some understood but some would not. At this point he knew those who did not would deliberately not understand. The key point throughout is that if they believe that Yeshua is ('I am') the Son of God, they will be saved from eternal death.
The Judean Pharisees then call him a liar,
“Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a demon?”
Yeshua answered the key point, and comes back to the fact that belief in him and valuing his words is an issue of life and death,
“I have not a demon; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeks and judges. Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, by no means will he taste of death unto the age.” (John 8:48-51)
The Judean Pharisees in this dispute now come back,
“Are thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom make thou thyself?” (John 8:53)
The answer to that is “the son of God” as he had proven, as had been evidenced. But this is not the answer Yeshua gave, rather he undermined their argument,
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.”
Then said the Jews unto him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”
And then Yeshau suddenly ended the entire argument with those Judean leaders determined to twist his words, with an unanswerable, impossible, imponderable five word statement
Jesus said unto them, “Amen, Amen, I tell you, Before Abraham to became, I am.” (John 8:56-58)
Curiously Yeshua replies Amen, “so be it” to their question. Firstly this must be understood as an answer to make blind those who would not see. He said outright to his disciples
For whosoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that he has. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. (Matthew 13:12-13)
Over the whole complicated two and fro of this argument there is one point only: that people had to believe Yeshua when he said “I am the son of the Father” to gain eternal life. Now Abraham indeed is dead an buried, as is testified in Hebrews,
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13)
But Yeshua had proved his point regarding Abraham before, most likely, to these same people,
And Jesus answering said unto them, The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection. Now that the dead are raised, even Moses shews at the bush, when he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.
Then certain of the scribes answering said, Master, thou hast well said. (Luke 20:34-39)
Abraham is sure to be resurrected to receive the promises, therefore Abraham is spoken of as if living while still dead. Resurrection is 'to live again', 'to exist', come 'to pass' or 'to-become.' When will Abraham to-become? It seems logical that it be when he is resurrected. The question the Pharisees asked was 'how old you need to be to see Abraham?' Before Abraham is to be resurrected, born again and made immortal and seen by his sons, what had to happen to achieve his redemption? What was Eve in effect told? That her seed would destroy the seed of the serpent. Abraham had faith in the role of this seed of Eve, his seed,
By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
Abraham's own salvation was in looking forward with belief in Yeshua. Yet there is a very curious point that Paul proves which makes sense of what Yeshua said.
And if you be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:29)
Paul says that after people believe Yeshua's claim 'I am the son of his Father', then they are heirs of a promise made to Abraham which as yet has not come to pass for Abraham.
Paul therefore might have put it this way in a literal translation, “before Abraham to-became Christ is,” which is better expressed in English as “before Abraham becomes (alive) Christ is.”
Underneath the to-and-fro of each part of that argument at the Temple there was one important point that people had to believe. They had to believe Yeshua's claim that 'I am the son of the Father.' This is required before any person may hope to inherit eternal life, even from the time of Adam. From the beginning all people had to believe in the salvation through 'the seed' which was to be given by God. As Paul says,
And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: (Acts 26:6). In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began; (Titus 1:2)
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. (1 Corinthians 4:5)
This may be one of the most misunderstood passages of the Bible. Paul is notorious for long sentences of connected thoughts, and this is part of a complex wide ranging thought which lasts 2 chapters, and includes what seems opposite advice:
But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. (1 Cor. 5:11-13)
As I was thinking to write this article, having just read Psalm 46 as I do each year on that day, on January 25th a Bible was found untouched after a tornado hit Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
We have been given many time periods to prophetic events in the Bible. Many people think it too hard, and do not make an effort to understand them. However, if they were not to be understood, why were they given? And the Bible says the wise shall understand (Daniel 12:10).
In the light of the findings of science, how literally do we take what the scriptures say about the power of the God of the Bible, Yahweh Elohim (literally He who will become Mighty Ones)? Science at its best is a measurement of observable and repeatable phenomenon wrapped up in explanations which abound in analogy. There is no doubt in the benefit of investigating phenomena of the natural world. The surprising thing is that the more we investigate natural phenomena, the more it fits the explanations recorded over 2000 years ago.
The God of Israel is approachable and reasonable. He often speaks directly to his people. The following will seek to understand a passage where he speaks via the prophet Amos which has a few variant translations.