Here’s the way it goes in arguments. We get mad. We start spouting angry words — words that in our calmer moments we might easily recognize as exaggerated, one-sided, or patently false. And we’re not listening, not really. Oh, sure, we hear the words. But we’re not trying to understand the other person’s point of view. We’re listening for anything that will give us more ammunition for the fight. And when we find it, we pounce.
That’s how many spouses go at it. But surely, nobody would ever do that to Jesus.
As we saw in the previous post, when Jesus told his opponents that they were following the ways of their father the devil, they blasphemously shot back that he was demon-possessed. He coolly denied the charge, warned them of the seriousness of what they were saying, and gave them a gracious invitation: “Whoever keeps my word will never die” (John 8:51, CEB).
But they miss the invitation entirely. They were listening for ammunition, and think they’ve found it:
Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham and the prophets died, yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never die.” Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died and the prophets died, so who do you make yourself out to be? (vss. 52-53)
We’ve got you now, Jesus. What man could be greater than Abraham or Moses or the prophets? You’re not claiming to be greater than them, are you? But they all died. And you have the gall to claim that anyone who keeps your word won’t die. Hah! Just who do you think you are?
I can imagine Jesus sighing as he repeats what he’s already told them: he’s not trying to glorify himself, that’s his Father’s job; but the problem is that they don’t know his Father even if they think they do. But then he adds a statement that really confuses them: “Your father Abraham was overjoyed that he would see my day. He saw it and was happy” (vs. 56).
There’s no clear precedent in the Old Testament for what Jesus says, but tradition suggests that Abraham knew something of the day of God’s Messiah. This was a fulfillment of God’s promise that the Israelites would be a blessing to the nations, and Abraham was glad.
But what Jesus’ opponents hear is that he’s claiming to be Abraham’s contemporary. Preposterous! They pick a nice round number that indicated fullness of years: Come on, Jesus, you’re not even 50 yet. You’re just a pup. And you’ve seen Abraham?
Then, the clincher. Jesus replies, “I assure you, before Abraham was, I Am” (vs. 58). In other words, Before the moment in time at which Abraham was born, I already existed. In saying this, Jesus takes to himself the divine name by which God revealed himself to Moses: “I Am.”
Whatever else his opponents had understood up to this point, there was no mistaking what Jesus was saying now. He was claiming divinity. And that was all they needed to do what they wanted to do anyway: kill him.
Throughout the chapter, Jesus speaks the truth — hard truth — but does so in love, and with grace. But his opponents can’t hear him. They won’t listen to anything that threatens to change their self-understanding.
Surely, we’re not like that, with God or with others?