Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog


Trinitarian or Henotheistic in Nature? Pt. 9

Sam Shamoun

We continue our examination of Jesus’ “I AM” statements.

The Eternally Existing I AM Who Appeared To Abraham

Jesus as the “I AM” also transcends the dimensions of time.

“‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, AND HAVE YOU SEEN ABRAHAM?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham came into being, I AM.’ Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.” John 8:56-59

As can be seen from v. 57, the Jews understood that Jesus claimed to have personally seen Abraham. And instead of correcting them, Jesus explains how someone whom they thought wasn’t even fifty years old could have actually seen a person who had been dead for nearly 2000 years. The explanation? Unlike Abraham, who came into existence at a point in time, Jesus has always been since he is an eternal being! The late Evangelical scholar Leon Morris explained it rather well:

“So we reach the climactic point in this chapter with Jesus’ magnificent affirmation, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’ John began his Gospel by speaking of the preexistence of the Word. This statement does not go further than that. It could not. But it brings out the meaning of preexistence in more striking fashion. Before the great patriarch, who lived centuries before, Jesus’ existence went on. His ‘I tell you the truth’ marks this out as an important and emphatic statement (see on 1:51). Whether we translate ‘before Abraham was’ (KJV) or ‘was born’ (NIV, etc.) the meaning will be ‘came into existence,’ as the aorist tense indicates.116 A mode of being that has a definite beginning is contrasted with one that is eternal. “I am” must here have the fullest significance it can bear. It is in the style of deity (see on vv. 24 and 28), ‘a reference to his eternal being’ (Haenchen).117 It is not easy to render into Greek the Hebrew underlying passages like Exodus 3:14, but the LXX translators did so with the form we have here.118 It is an emphatic form of speech and one that would not normally be employed in ordinary speaking. Thus to use it was recognizably to adopt the divine style.119 In passages like verses 24 and 28 this is fairly plain, but in the present passage it is unmistakable. When Jesus is asserting his existence in the time of Abraham there is no other way of understanding it.120 It should also be observed that he says ‘I am,’ not ‘I was.’ It is eternity of being and not simply being that has lasted through several centuries that the expression indicates.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel of John (New International Commentary on the New Testament), pp. 419-420; bold emphasis)

117. ego eimi in LXX renders the Hebrew ani hu which is the way God speaks (cf. Deut. 32:39; Isa. 41:4; 43:10; 46:4, etc.). The Hebrew may carry a reference to the meaning of the divine name hayah (cf. Exod. 3:14). We should almost certainly understand John’s use of the term to reflect that in the LXX. It is the style of deity, and it points to the eternity of God according to the strictest understanding of the continuous significance of the present eimi. He continually IS. Abbott: “taken here, along with other declarations about what Jesus IS, it seems to call upon the Pharisees to believe that the Son of man is not only the Deliverer but also one with the Father in the unity of the Godhead” (2228). (Ibid; bold emphasis ours)

119. “That is a supreme claim to Deity; perhaps the most simple and sublime of all the things He said with that great formula of all, the great ‘I AM’… These are the words of the most impudent blasphemer that ever spoke, or the words of God incarnate” (Morgan).

120. E. Stauffer has an important examination of the I AM formula in Jesus and His Story (London, 1960), pp. 142-59. The mention of Abraham, he thinks, “recalls the insertion of the figure of Abraham in God’s speeches in the rabbinic Targum on Isa. 40-55. This is certainly not an accident. It agrees with the evangelist’s report that the opponents only at this point grasp the monstrous meaning and claim of Jesus’ ANI HU–and at once set about to do away with the blasphemer by stoning him on the spur of the moment” (p. 154). Of the I AM formula he says, “It is Jesus’ boldest declaration about himself. ‘I AM’. This means: where I am, there is God, there God lives, speaks, calls, asks, acts, decides, loves, chooses, forgives, rejects, hardens, suffers, dies. Nothing bolder can be said, or imagined” (p. 159). See also N. Walker, ZATW, 74 (1962), pp. 205-6. Jesus is not saying that he is identical with the Father, but his claiming that this expression which is used of the Father may also be used of him. (Ibid, p. 420; bold emphasis)

Moreover, the language of John 8:58 seems to be deliberately echoing the following Psalm:

[A Prayer of Moses the man of God.] Lord, you have been our refuge in all generations. Before (pro) the mountains existed (genethenai), and [before] the earth and the world were formed, even from age to age, YOU ARE (su ei). Psalm 89[Eng. 90]:1-2 LXX

If so then this simply provides further confirmation that Jesus is claiming to be an eternal being since, not only does the Psalm proclaim that Jehovah has existed before the mountains were created, it even uses the same Greek verbs and prepositions found in John 8:58 to do so!

As Robert M. Bowman Jr. puts it:

“The word pro, like prin, means ‘before,’ and some manuscripts of the Septuagint actually have prin instead of pro. The verb introduced by these prepositions in both cases is ginomai: in Psalm 90:2 genethenai is the aorist passive infinitive of ginomai, while in John 8:58 genesthai is the aorist active infinitive. The use of the active voice instead of the passive voice, of course, does not affect the parallel between the two texts in terms of the created-eternal contrast. These aorist infinitive phrases are then set in contrast to a present indicative main clause in each case: in Psalm 90:2 LXX it is su ei, while in John 8:58 it is ego eimi. These two clauses are identical in terms and meaning except for the fact that the former is second person while the latter is first person; and again, this difference does not affect the parallel in question.

“Thus the tense mood forms are identical, the syntactical relations between the two verbs in each passage are identical, and the verbs themselves used in each passage are identical. In other words, it is as if John (quoting Jesus’ words in Greek) had taken the relevant words from Psalm 90:2 LXX, perhaps substituted prin for pro, replaced ‘the mountains’ with ‘Abraham’ and changed su ei from second person to first person and genethenai from passive to active. One could hardly ask for a more exact parallel, unless the passage itself were actually quoted. Since the parallel in question is fundamentally one of tense (since the issue is the significance in relation to the time of the present tense of eimi in John 8:58), and since none of the differences between the two texts affect that parallel, it would be safe to conclude that eimi has the same force in John 8:58 that ei has in Psalm 90:2 LXX. In Psalm 90:2, the Septuagint rendering su ei is clearly intended to assert the eternal preexistence of Yahweh in contrast to the created origin of the mountains… To be consistent… John 8:58 just as clearly affirms the eternality of Jesus.

“Once again, it must be understood that the position taken here is not original. A multitude of scholars have recognized the parallel between Psalm 90:2 LXX and John 8:58 and noted its significance as confirming that Jesus' words connote eternality. Among these should be mentioned Barnes, Barrett, Brown, Bultmann, Godet, Hengstenberg, Hoskyns, Lindars, Milligan and Moulton, Plummer, Robertson, Schnackenburg, and Winer. Not one biblical scholar has ever disputed the parallel or denied that it confirmed the traditional interpretation. Unless some important considerations have been overlooked, this exegetical conclusion would seem to be as well established as any could be.” (Bowman, Jehovah's Witnesses Jesus Christ &The Gospel of John [Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI 1995], pp. 117-119 bold emphasis ours)

The context of John 8 provides further support that Jesus was in fact saying that he and Abraham actually saw each other face to face:

“They replied, ‘Our father is Abraham.’ Jesus responded, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would do Abraham’s works. Instead, you want to kill me, a man who has spoken the truth I heard from God. ABRAHAM DID NOT DO THIS.’” John 8:39-40

Here, Christ says that the Jews were trying to kill him which is something Abraham did not try to do! The implication of his words seems obvious since the only way that Jesus could contrast the response of the Jews to him with the way Abraham responded is if he is assuming that he and Abraham actually met and spoke with each other.

This interpretation also makes sense in light of Jesus’ statement in John 8:56 that Abraham rejoiced to see Christ’s day and was glad when he did he see it, i.e. unlike the Jews who wanted to kill Jesus out of their hatred for him Abraham was elated when Christ came to visit him.

Interestingly, Greg Stafford himself uses John 8:52-59, specifically 56-58, on pp. 223-225 of the third edition of his book, to refute the attempt by Unitarian apologists Anthony F. Buzzard & Charles F. Hunting to deny Jesus’ personal prehuman existence. Stafford argues that John 8:56-58 establishes that Jesus actually saw Abraham, and therefore proves that he must have existed during that time.

Yet here is where the problem lies for Stafford since both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly affirm that it was Jehovah whom Abraham saw and spoke with!

Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’ So Abram went forth as the LORD had spoken to him; and Lot went with him. Now Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.” Genesis 12:1-7

“After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’ And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. And he said to him, ‘I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.’ … Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’ When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.’” Genesis 15:1-7, 13-21

“Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless.’ … When He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.” Genesis 17:1, 22

"Now the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day… Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the LORD... As soon as He had finished speaking to Abraham the LORD departed, and Abraham returned to his place.” Genesis 18:1, 22, 33

“Now Abraham arose early in the morning and went to the place where he had stood before the LORD;” Genesis 19:27

But God said to him, ‘Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.’” Genesis 21:12-13

“Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, 'Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.' He said, 'Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.'” Genesis 22:1-2

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land.’ God spoke further to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the LORD; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD, I did not make Myself known to them.’” Exodus 6:1-3

“The high priest said, ‘Are these things so?’ And he said, ‘Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran,’” Acts 7:1-2

Thus, if Jesus and Abraham saw each other, and if the Holy Bible says that Abraham actually saw Jehovah God, then this means that Jesus is none other than Jehovah God!

With the foregoing in perspective, it is quite clear that Jesus’ “I AM” sayings are meant to identify him as Jehovah God (even though he is not the Father or the Holy Spirit).

Jesus applying an OT expression for God to himself shouldn’t come as a surprise in light of his claims elsewhere that he bears the very name of the Father, i.e. he and the Father are one in essence and ability which is why the Son is able to do whatever the Father does and perfectly manifest him to others:

“Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and the Father will show Him greater works than these, so that you will marvel. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, EVEN SO the Son also gives life to whom He wishes. For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son EVEN AS they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him… But the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very works that I do—testify about Me, that the Father has sent Me. I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him.” John 5:19-23, 36, 43

“Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’” John 10:25-30

“Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled… and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”” John 17:5-12, 26

The following liberal NT scholar goes so far as to say that the Father’s name which the Son bears is the “I AM”!

“… The name ‘I am’ that Jesus bears is the Father’s name, and the Father gave it to him because he is the Father’s agent. In John’s account of the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus speaks the divine name ‘I am,’ overpowering those who had come to arrest him (John 18:4-9). He does this, we are told, in order to ensure the release of his followers, thus fulfilling that which he prayed for in the previous chapter.

“Designations for personified divine attributes, such as, for example, ‘Name’ and ‘Word,’ were often used interchangeably in first-century Jewish writings. Therefore, in considering these references to Jesus as a bearer of the name, viewed through the lens of the prologue, it would probably not be far off the mark to suggest that the author of the Fourth Gospel viewed Jesus not just as one who bears God’s name, but as God’s name ‘made flesh.’ That is to say, Jesus and the name are identified to a far greater extent in the Gospel of John than appears to be the case with the angel Yahoel in Apocalypse of Abraham…” (James F. McGrath, The Only True God – Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context [University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2009], Chapter 4. Monotheism in the Gospel of John, pp. 62-63; bold emphasis ours)

Jesus himself said that men will come to realize that he is the I AM who only speaks the words that the Father gives to him and who always does what pleases the Father:

“So Jesus said to them, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM (gnosesthe hoti ego eimi), and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.’” John 8:28-29

This also helps us understand why Jesus could say that to see him is to see the Father since he came into the world to perfectly manifest his beloved Father to mankind:

“And Jesus cried out and said, ‘He who believes in Me, does not believe in Me but in Him who sent Me. He who sees Me sees the One who sent Me.’” John 12:44-45

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, AND THE LIFE; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.’ Philip said to Him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves. John 14:6-11

As John explains both in the prologue to his Gospel and in his epistle:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being that has come into being. In him was life and the life was the light for all men… The Word became flesh and pitched his tabernacle among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who resides in the bosom of the Father, has made him known.” John 1:1-4, 14, 18

“And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” 1 John 5:20

Noted NT scholar Murray J. Harris helps bring this all together:

“Central to the Christian tradition is the belief that God as he is in himself cannot be seen by the physical eye; he is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; 1 John 4:12). No one has seen him or can see him (1 Tim. 6:16). But equally central is the conviction that, in Christ, God the Father has revealed himself perfectly. Jesus Christ has accurately and comprehensively made visible the invisible nature of God:

No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is God and who resides in the Father’s heart– he has revealed him. (John 1:18, my translation)

Only the Son who shares the divine nature (cf. John 1:1) is qualified to reveal the Father personally and completely. John’s compound verb (exegesato, ‘he has revealed’) implies the perfection of God’s self-revelation in Christ. In response to Philip’s request. ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us’ (John 14:8), Jesus remarked, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9).

“It is not only the apostle John who expresses this view of the role of Jesus. Paul depicts Jesus as ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15). That is, he is the exact and visible expression of a God who has not been seen and cannot be seen. Then there is the author of Hebrews, who declares that ‘the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’ (Heb. 1:3). The two Greek terms in this verse are colorful. Apaugasma (‘radiance’) pictures Christ as the ‘outshining’ or ‘effulgence’ or ‘irradiated brightness’ of God the Father’s inherent glory. Charakter (‘exact representation’) points to Christ as the flawless expression of God’s nature, one who is indelibly stamped with God’s character.” (Harris, Three Crucial Questions about Jesus [Baker Books, Grand Rapids MI, 1994], pp. 70-71; bold emphasis ours)


“… John’s point in the verse [John 1:18] is that, although no person on earth can claim to have gained knowledge of God as he is in himself, Jesus Christ, the only Son, has accurately and fully revealed God to humankind, since he himself is God by nature and intimately acquainted with the Father by experience.” (Ibid, p. 94; bold emphasis and comments within brackets ours)

Thus, it only makes sense that the One who is himself the eternal I AM and in perfect union with the Father became flesh in order to reveal the I AM to the world.

We have a lot more quotations and statements from both the early Church Fathers and modern day Biblical scholars concerning the implications of Jesus’ “I AM” statements and his prehuman appearances to OT saints such as Abraham in the following appendix.

It is time now to proceed to the next part of our analysis.