Search RJ's Blog

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The "I am" of the Old Testament In the New Testament

Since the day I became a Christian, the perplexing "I am" statements of Jesus in John’s gospel have always interested me. I always had a hard time trying to understand what Jesus meant by his unique references, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt he was referencing he was in some way he was “God in the flesh” (cf. John 1:18). 

As I grew stronger in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, I began to understand the theological significance of the claims of Christ. I understood the “I am” statements to reference Jesus as the all satisfying providential caregiver for all who believe in him, and only through faith in his gospel can anyone be saved.

Once I started Bible teaching on a regular basis at my church and later went to school to be educated in the Scriptures, I began studying the topic of the "I am" statements from an exegetical and canonical approach. As a result, I was exposed to the massive context of references in the OT. It became apparent that Jesus used the OT references and applied them to himself because he is God in the flesh, the self-revelation of God the Father. 

The "I am" of the Old Testament In the New Testament
All of the “I am” statements fundamentally teach us what Jesus does for those who believe in him. Yet, the purpose of the “I am” statements is to teach us who Jesus is in the gospel of John.

In John’s gospel, there are multiple “I am” sayings. For sake of clarity, distinguishing them into two categories helps constructive interpretation and minimizes confusion. For that reason, John’s gospel reveals there are primary “I am” statements, and secondary “I am” sayings. Categorizing does not in any way minimize the importance of the sayings because all of them are equal in significance, meaning, and purpose. The statements are theological and exegetical referents to OT themes (i.e. bread/light/door/shepherd/vine). The sayings are biblical referents to OT titles of God (i.e. Pentateuch/Isaiah passages). There are seven primary "I am" statements, and seven secondary "I am" sayings in John. Nevertheless, both the “I am” statements and “I am” sayings directly reference OT theological titles and themes in the Pentateuch, and servant-oriented messianic functions in Isaiah to showcase a glorious literary rendering of the promises of God fulfilled in the Messiah Jesus.

The "I am" Revealed In the Pentateuch
Genesis is where the "I am" is revealed as the creator of the heavens and the earth, and the covenant maker with Abraham for all nations. Beginning with the John 8:58 "I am" reference in John's gospel, the theological titles in Pentateuch begin with God speaking to Abraham as his “I am.” Thus, God is the “I am” to Abraham and his sons in throughout the patriarchal narrative in Genesis:

Genesis 15:1, "I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

Genesis 15:7, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess."

Genesis 17:1-2, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.”

After the “I am God Almighty” reference, the Pentateuch uses this as a referent to remember the “I am” as the God of Abraham (just as Jesus alluded to in John 8:58):

Genesis 26:24, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham's sake.” 

Genesis 35:11, “I am God Almighty:1 be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.”

Genesis 46:3, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.”

Exodus reveals God himself as the “I am who I am.” Thus, God revealed himself as the "I am" of Israel:

Exodus 3:6, “And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Exodus 3:14, “God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”1 And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

Exodus 6:2, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord’” (cf. 6:6, 7, 8, 12, 29; 7:5, 17; 10:2; 12:12; 14:4, 18; 15:26).

Exodus 16:12, “I have heard the grumbling of the people of Israel. Say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread.’ Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”

Exodus 20:2, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Exodus 29:34, “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.”

Leviticus speaks in covenantal language and references the nature, work, and commandments of the “I am” during the exodus/wilderness period. The references do not allude to the “I am” sayings in John, but rather echo the “I am” sayings in the Pentateuch as a whole, and teach God’s people must be holy as he is holy (cf. Lev. 11:44; 18:2, 5, 6, 21, 30; 19:3, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 25, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 36, 37; 20:7, 8, 24; 21:12, 15, 23; 22:2, 3, 8, 9, 16, 30, 31, 32, 33; 23:22, 43; 24:22; 25:17, 38, 55; 26:1, 2, 13, 44, 45).

Numbers does the same thing as it refers back to the work and commandments of God during the exodus/wilderness period to remind Israel why they are in judgment and what lays before them if they keep the covenant with the “I am” (cf. Num. 3:13, 41, 45; 10:10; 15:41).

Deuteronomy recounts the history of the exodus/wilderness period and how the “I am” was faithful to his covenant. There are only a few references that are explicit:

Deuteronomy 5:6, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Deuteronomy 29:5-6, “I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet. You have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that I am the LORD your God.”

The Pentateuch ends with the words of the “I am” which definitely translate to the words of Jesus in the secondary “I am” sayings in John:

Deuteronomy 32:39, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”

Isaiah is deeply rooted in the Pentateuch’s revelation of God as the "I am." The nature, works, and commandments of the “I am” are revisited yet reinterpreted for Israel to experience a new exodus by a promised Messiah who is of the "I am." The major passages are in the servant songs of Isaiah 40-66.
Isaiah 41:1-20 revisits the “I am” in the Pentateuch: “Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment. Who stirred up one from the east whom victory meets at every step? He gives up nations before him, so that he tramples kings underfoot; he makes them like dust with his sword, like driven stubble with his bow. He pursues them and passes on safely, by paths his feet have not trod. Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he. The coastlands have seen and are afraid; the ends of the earth tremble; they have drawn near and come. Everyone helps his neighbor and says to his brother, “Be strong!” The craftsman strengthens the goldsmith, and he who smooths with the hammer him who strikes the anvil, saying of the soldering, “It is good”; and they strengthen it with nails so that it cannot be moved. But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Behold, all who are incensed against you shall be put to shame and confounded; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish. You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be as nothing at all. For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not,I am the one who helps you.’ Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge, new, sharp, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff; you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. And you shall rejoice in the LORD; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory. When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.”
The "I am" Revisited In the Book of Isaiah.
This text clearly indicates God as the “I am” of the Pentateuch and will restore Israel by a new exodus (cf. Isa. 45:8, 18, 19, 22). In Isaiah, however, there is a more direct antecedent that are grounded monotheism reserved only for God. These Isaiah passages go back to Deuteronomy 32:29 where describes God saying, “I am he.” Isaiah writes in this fashion and emphasizes that the phrase serves as a divine title:
Isaiah 43:10, “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.’”

Isaiah 43:13, “Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?”

Isaiah 43:25, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

Isaiah 46:3-4, “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”

Isaiah 48:12, “Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last.
Isaiah 51:12, “I, I am he who comforts you.”

Isaiah 52:6, “Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am.”

The biblical data in the Pentateuch and Isaiah passages suggest John's message is to declare Jesus as the "I am" of the OT in the NT. The fulfillment of God's saving promises in the NT have come through the Messiah, who personifies divine equality and eternality of the "I am" in the OT.

The "I am" Statements In John's Gospel Point to the Messiah Jesus
Using all of the hermeneutical and biblical data, the "I am" statements and sayings of Jesus have a greater theological significance and meaning. The primary and secondary "I am" allusions all point to Jesus as God in the flesh. In John's gospel, the primary "I am" statements are pronouncements by Jesus to claim equal authority of God from the OT, when the "I am" sayings are pronouncements by Jesus to claim divine authority as the Messiah. This chart helps map out the connections Jesus makes to claim he is the “I am” of Scripture:

Old Testament Allusions To the seven “I am” Statements In John’s Gospel
I am the bread of life (John 6:35)
Manna From Heaven (Exod. 16:1-36)
I am the light of the world (John 8:12)
Light of nations (Ps. 27:1; Isa. 9:2-7; 49:6; 60:19)
I am the door [gate] (John 10:9)
Gate of salvation (Ps. 118:19-24)
I am the good shepherd (John 10:11)
The true shepherd (Ps. 23; Isa. 40:11; Ezk. 34:1-25)
I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
Valley of dry bones (Ezk. 37:1-14)
I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)
Salvation references (Ps. 139:24; Isa. 40:3, 65:16; Gen. 2:7, Job. 33:4; Ps. 56:13)
I am the vine (John 15:5)
Vineyard song (Isa. 5:1-10/Ps. 80:1-19)

Note: Also notice the OT canonical motif among the sayings (i.e. bread/manna; light/pillar of fire; shepherd/Moses-Joshua; Vine/David). I will post another blog entry on the new exodus/wilderness motif among the literary structure of John and the placement of the "I am" statements to declare Jesus equal to YHWH, and point to the new exodus he has come to fulfill.

It is interesting to note the secondary “I am” sayings are pronouncements by Jesus to claim divine authority as the Messiah as self declarations of Jesus' identity in John's gospel. There are implicit and explicit, primary and secondary ways John uses the "I am" statements and sayings. The secondary "I am" sayings are directly referencing his messiahship in conjunction to his authoritative teaching and miracles, pointing to his true identity (John 4:26, 6:20, 8:24, 8:28, 8:58, [9:9?], 13:19, 18:5). These sayings of Jesus are reminiscent of the Isaiah passages where God says “I am he” because Jesus declares the same identity for himself as the Messiah.

No comments:

What is your favorite subject in Christian Studies?