John 8 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Jesus Clearly Reveals Both His True Identity and His Opponents' Identity
Jesus' critique of his opponents here reaches its clearest expression, revolving around the theme of Abraham's children. Jesus makes it clear that they do not have the freedom they claim as children of Abraham nor do they reveal the characteristics of the children of Abraham. Instead, their attitudes and actions reveal that they are really children of the devil (v. 44). This is the deepest glimpse into the heart of his opponents, and it occurs in the context of Jesus' clearest revelation of his own identity. He is the unique Son of God who can use the divine I AM of himself, even though he is also distinct from God.
Many are now putting their faith in Jesus (v. 30), and his following seems to be growing again after its low point (cf. 6:66). Whenever people put their faith in Jesus he immediately tests that faith. In this case he begins by explaining what is behind such testing. Those who are really his disciples hold to his teaching, they remain in it (meinete, v. 31). Jesus tests his disciples by giving them further revelation that stretches them and requires them to put their trust in him, rather than in their understanding of all he is saying and doing. They need to understand him well enough to recognize that he is from God, but the very fact that he is from God means he is going to speak and act in ways that are not in keeping with this world. Being able to humbly remain in Jesus' teaching is a sign of a true disciple because it is evidence of openness and loyalty to Jesus.
Jesus promises that if they do remain in his teaching, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free (v. 32). This is surely one of the most abused texts in the Bible, for it is often cited with no regard for either the condition attached (remaining in Jesus' teachings) or the sort of freedom in view, namely, freedom from sin (v. 34). In Judaism it was the study of the law that set one free (Ps 119:45; m. 'Abot 3:5; 6:2), so Jesus is claiming for his teaching that which is recognized as true of God's own teaching. This implicit claim to divinity will be spoken clearly when he uses the divine I AM of himself at the end of this chapter. To know Jesus is to be liberated from all error and evil, for it is to know God himself, who is truth and purity and life.In Jesus' teaching and in the teaching of Judaism obedience to God is true freedom. This truth is quite different from the thinking of most people today, for it takes God, rather than our own personal feelings and ambitions, as the one good. The freedom in view is not a freedom to do whatever we wish according to the dictates of our own fallen selves, but a freedom from our fallen selves and the power and guidance to act in accordance with God himself, the source of all goodness and life.
The Jews who have believed in Jesus do not respond as true disciples. Instead of receiving with docility, they question see note on 2:20). They do not react to the implications of Jesus' identity (although they will do so before too long) but to the implications concerning their own condition (v. 33). At first their claim to have never been slaves of anyone (v. 33) seems delusory, since they probably said it within sight of Roman soldiers. In addition to Rome, Israel at one time or another had been subject to Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Syria. Yet though these nations had ruled over them, they "had never accepted the dominion of their conquerors or coalesced with them" (Westcott 1908:2:15). They had maintained their national identity as children of Abraham throughout, so their claim is not entirely groundless.
Their response is a typical example of their misunderstanding. They think Jesus is speaking of national freedom, but he is speaking of inner freedom, which he now makes clear (v. 34). Spiritual freedom is the freedom from sin, and sin, at its heart, is an alienation from God. This alienation is caused by sin in the sense of both error and evil. The antidote, faith, corresponds to both of these aspects since it is the appropriation of knowledge of God (which replaces the error) and of forgiveness for our rebellion against God (which overcomes the evil). Jesus is offering a restored relationship of intimacy with God, which brings life in place of death.
Jesus continues to work with them and give them revelation despite their misunderstanding, just as he did with the woman of Samaria (4:13, 16). As always in this Gospel, the focus comes back to Jesus' own identity: Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (vv. 35-36). Jesus clearly contrasts his status in the family of God with that of the rest of humanity, which is enslaved to sin. Given this unique status he is the one who has freedom in God's household and is able to offer it to others. Only God can liberate us from sin, yet here Jesus says that he, the Son, can do so. Once again we see the implied claim regarding his unique oneness with the Father (cf. Chrysostom In John 54.2).
After he says the truth will liberate (v. 32), he says that he, the Son, will liberate (v. 36). In fact the Son is the truth, and as such he is the way to the Father (14:6). The freedom he is offering is, precisely, union with the Father, the source of all true life. The way to receive this life, with its freedom from sin's alienation and death, is to remain in his teaching. This involves an actual remaining in the Son himself, which includes remaining in his commands (15:1-17). In order to receive the power to become children of God we must receive the Son of God (1:12). We share in the Son's own relationship with the Father (17:20-26), a thought that Paul develops (Gal 4:6) with the same implications regarding freedom (Gal 5:1).
Jesus then returns to their claim to have Abraham for a father. They are indeed Abraham's descendants (sperma, v. 37), but they are not Abraham's children (tekna, v. 39) because they are seeking to kill Jesus (vv. 37, 40). Jesus is telling them what he has seen in the Father's presence (v. 38) and heard from God (v. 40), but they are not receptive because, he says, you have no room for my word (v. 37). In other words, once again we understand that they reject Jesus because of their inner disposition. Their problem is a form of spiritual heart disease. Their heart has no room for Jesus' revelation; there is no room at their inn, as it were. Since he is telling them what he has seen and heard from the Father, their inability to accommodate his word means they have no room for God himself in their lives. Yet again, we see their alienation from God.
The Great Physician is diagnosing their disease, and they are not happy about it. They have put faith in Jesus (v. 30), yet they rebel as he tries to help them become true disciples. When confronted with their inner disease they should have accepted his assessment and repented. This is what each of us must do as a disciple of Jesus, for each of us has inner disease that he desires to cure and that must be cured. His diagnosis is perfect, and he knows how to heal us. He does not have to leave us waiting while he goes in the next room to consult his medical books. Nor does he lack the resources to effect our cure. He lacks nothing except our signature on the permission slip to get on with the process. Discipleship includes allowing Jesus to deal with our inner brokenness and deadness. He will not be satisfied until we come out entirely clean and whole, a fact that is part of the good news. To be a disciple one needs not only the humility to receive what Jesus reveals about himself but also the ability to receive what he reveals about oneself. He always reveals in order to redeem. The judgment the light brings is meant to lead us to salvation, not condemnation. The sin is condemned in order to reveal it as sin and lead us to repentance. If we reject the diagnosis or the cure, then the light does indeed bring condemnation, for we have chosen to remain in our state of alienation from God, who is the one source of life.
Jesus sets his revelation of what he has seen in the Father's presence in opposition to their own activity of doing what you have heard from your father (v. 38). This obviously creates a contrast between his Father and theirs. They claim Abraham as their father (v. 39), to which Jesus responds by comparing their attempt to kill him with what Abraham did (vv. 39-40). This refers, most likely, to Abraham's reception of the heavenly visitors (Gen 18), since in this interchange Jesus is addressing his would-be disciples' receptivity.
The imitation of Abraham was discussed within Judaism in terms very similar to what we find in John. For example, the disciples of Abraham are said to have "a good eye and a humble spirit and a lowly soul," while disciples of Balaam have "an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a proud soul" (m. 'Abot 5:19 [5:22 in some editions]). These descriptions correspond to John's description of the characteristics of Jesus' disciples and Jesus' opponents. Furthermore, at a later date some of the rabbis seem to explicitly compare Jesus to Balaam (b. Sanhedrin 106a-b). Thus, it is possible that the charges Jesus brings against these Jewish opponents are the same charges the Jewish opponents bring against Jesus and his followers. Both are claiming humbleness of heart in loyalty to Abraham and God, and both see in their adversaries those who are haughty and false to God, like Balaam, the archetypal false prophet in the Old Testament (Num 22--24; 31:16, Deut 23:5-6; Josh 24:9-10; Mic 6:5; 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11; Rev 2:14; cf. Kuhn 1964a).
Behind the claim to have Abraham for a father is the claim to have God as a father, which becomes clear as we now approach the heart of the polemic. After Jesus says these folk are not behaving like Abraham, he adds, You are doing the things your own father does (v. 41). This obviously suggests someone besides Abraham is their father, and they take this, rightly, as an attack on their loyalty to God. They reject the charge, saying, We are not illegitimate children (v. 41). Literally, they say they are not born "from unchastity" (ek porneias). Instead, they claim that the only Father we have is God himself, which indicates their reference to unchastity alludes to the Old Testament notion that the covenant with God is like a marriage, and, correspondingly, idolatry is like unchastity (Deut 31:16; Jer 3:14; Hos 1:2; 2:1-13; 5:3; Philo De Migratione Abrahami 69; Numbers Rabbah 2:15-16). Central to the covenant was the idea that Israel was God's son (Ex 4:22) and that the Lord was Israel's father (Deut 32:6), "a theme reiterated constantly in the prophetic preaching (Isa lxiv 8; Mal ii 10)" (Brown 1966:364).
Jesus proceeds to attack precisely his opponents' claim to have God for a father (Jn 8:42-47). Here is the heart of the polemic between Jesus and these Jewish opponents: Jesus is one with God the Father, expressed here once again in terms of his origin and obedience (v. 42). It follows that anyone who rejects him is rejecting God the Father who sent him and to whom he is obedient. The rest of this section (vv. 43-47) works out the implications of this point. Jesus has said the opponents have no room for his word (v. 37), and now he says that they are not able to hear his word (v. 43). This inability (ou dynasthe) indicates that something is radically wrong with them. The next verse is the central accusation: they have the wrong father--they are of their father, the devil. The centrality of this verse is signaled by its place at the center of a chiasm:
AThe Jews and God (v. 42a)
B The Jews and Jesus (vv. 42b-43)
C The Jews and the devil (v. 44)
B' The Jews and Jesus (vv. 45-46)
A' The Jews and God (v. 47)
The reason Jesus gives for their rejection of him and their alienation from God is their relation to the devil.
John portrays the devil as exactly the opposite of Jesus. Here the devil is described with respect to a beginning (v. 44), as is Jesus also (1:1). But Jesus is life (14:6) and has life in himself and gives life (1:4; 5:26), whereas the devil is a murderer (v. 44). Furthermore, the devil was not holding to the truth (more literally, "did not stand in the truth," en te aletheia ouk esteken), because there is no truth in him (v. 44). In John's thought "truth" (aletheia) "means eternal reality as revealed to men--either the reality itself or the revelation of it" (Dodd 1953:177). These two aspects of truth are united in Jesus who both is the truth (14:6) and speaks the truth (8:40). Just as it is Jesus' very nature to be the truth, so it is the devil's very nature to lack the truth and speak lies, for he is a liar and the father of lies. So John depicts the devil as the personification of what is the exact opposite of Jesus.
The three main characteristics of the devil in this verse move from the exterior to the interior, as it were. The first description is of the devil's external activity as a murderer. This is followed by a general reference to his alienation from the truth. The description concludes with the assertion that this alienation from the truth is thorough; to his very core there is no truth in him, but rather lies. Thus, John is pointing to the inner core of the devil just as he points to the heart of the opponents.
When the devil lies he speaks his native language; more literally, he speaks "from his own things" (ek ton idion). Since this expression is the equivalent of ex heautou, "from himself," again we have the exact opposite of Jesus, for he never speaks from himself: "For I did not speak of my own accord" ("from myself," ex emautou; 12:49). This chapter has emphasized that Jesus always speaks from the Father (8:38) and that his activity and teaching are dependent on the Father (8:28, 38, 42, 50). In this context the conclusion that the devil is a liar is a statement of his very being. He speaks lies (that which is contrary to God and his revelation, especially his revelation in Jesus, the truth) because he is a liar (one whose being is characterized by separation from God, who is the truth). This contrast between Jesus' dependence on the Father and the devil's independence from the Father is the crucial distinction between them. Indeed, Jesus' dependence and the devil's independence are their chief characteristics.
What does it mean that the devil is the father of Jesus' opponents? Many scholars think this refers to their origin in the sense that a father is one you "draw your being from, and so reproduce in your character" (Westcott 1908:2:21). On this interpretation the devil begets children in a sense analogous to the begetting of Christians by God. But the devil does not have a spiritual power at work in the lives of individuals analogous to God's power. The danger to avoid here is a concept of cosmic dualism that includes a strict determinism. John uses dualistic language and has a strong view of divine sovereignty (for example 1:13; 6:37, 44), but he also affirms a role for people (for example, 1:12; 6:40, 45). The opponents have not been forced to reject Jesus; it is something they themselves will--they want [thelete] to carry out the devil's desire (8:44). A simplistic dualism that sees people as mere puppets who only act when prompted by God or the devil is not a Christian worldview. In fact, such fatalistic determinism characterized much of pagan thought (cf. Dillon 1992) and was one of the reasons the good news was good.
The NIV gives Jesus' words to the opponents as You belong to your father, the devil (v. 44), but a more literal translation reads, "you are of your father, the devil" (hymeis ek tou patros tou diabolou este). In John's language, to "be of" speaks of both "origin and type of being" (Schnackenburg 1980a:371). Instead of the devil being the source of sin in some deterministic sense in the lives of individuals, he is the source of sin in a more general sense, as the first sinner. And he is father in terms of providing a type of being; that is, he provides the pattern of sin. So there is a spiritual relationship, a unity of mind, in that sinners, including these opponents, imitate the devil (cf. Augustine In John 42.10). Indeed, it is possible that the first part of verse 44 means, "you are of your father, the devil; that is, you will to do his desires" (epexegetic kai).
The crucial point is that in seeking to kill Jesus the opponents show that their wills are in tune with the devil, who is a murderer, and in rejecting the one who has told them the truth of God they show that their wills are in tune with the devil, who is a liar. The devil was a murderer from the beginning and has no truth in him, which is to say, he is thoroughly alienated from God, evil to the very core. By saying that he is the opponents' father Jesus implies that they are at heart alienated from God as well. It is loyalty to God as they know him that leads them to reject Jesus. Because their rejection is based on what is deepest within them Jesus asserts that at heart they are not related to God at all but to the devil. They have nothing in common with God. In a sense they are being accused of "unchastity" in its religious sense of idolatry. But they do not have to remain in this alienation. Paul was a Jewish opponent similar to these people when Jesus met him. But whereas Paul accepted the revelation, these earlier Jewish opponents do not do so.
Many people today, at least in Western cultures, find the language Jesus uses here rather extreme. It leads many to see the Gospel of John as anti-Jewish (see comment on 19:11). There is no doubt that John and other parts of the New Testament have led members of the church to hate and vilify Jews. This is a cause for genuine grief on the part of the church, for such hatred is certainly not God's view! Such ungodly views and passions are not derived from sharing in Christ. But what are we to make of such language? Three considerations might help interpret this language aright. First, though the opponents are often referred to in this Gospel as "the Jews," this is not a reference to all Jews of that time, let alone throughout history afterwards. Jesus was a Jew, as were John and all the first disciples. "The Jews" is a summary title for the opponents of Jesus, and it probably reflects the conflicts with the synagogue in John's own day and may also be associated with Judea (see comment on 1:19). There were quite a few forms of Judaism before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, but after that time, especially later in the first century, the Pharisees, in the name of Judaism, were trying to eliminate all forms of Judaism other than their own. Thus, the use of "the Jews" in John has the insinuation "the supposed true Jews."
Second, while this language may seem extreme to many of us it was quite common in the first century. This is simply how people talked about their opponents (cf. Johnson 1989). And third, although this polemic goes back to the time of Jesus himself, John is most likely telling the story of Jesus late in the first century at a time when the relations between followers of Jesus and their fellow Jews were coming to a breaking point. The passionate witness of Jesus and his first followers is all the more intense late in the first century as the expulsion from the synagogue of Christians is more widespread and settled. With these considerations in mind we can distinguish the substance of what is being said from its form. There is no doubt that John used strong words to convey the deep differences between Jesus' followers and his opponents. But Jesus' condemnation is not addressed to all Jews, and the language he uses should not be read as expressing hatred. Indeed, he uses very strong language in an effort to break through their closed minds and hearts. He had spoken in gentler terms before, with great patience (for example, v. 49). But there are times when a jarring intervention such as this language represents is the best way to effect change, as Paul might testify given his experience on the road to Damascus.
On a different level, Jesus' use of language teaches us very valuable lessons in meekness and zeal. Jesus uses forceful language here where he is attacking their false pride and perilous position. But when they call him demon possessed (v. 48) he responds not with vehemence but with gentle correction, "thus teaching us to avenge insults offered to God, but to overlook such as are offered to ourselves" (Chrysostom In John 55.1). This pattern may be traced all the way through the Gospels. In the present situation Jesus and his opponents both believe the truth of God is being challenged by the other.
After revealing the opponents' situation, Jesus returns to their relation to himself and his Father. Unlike the devil, Jesus speaks the truth and is not guilty of any sin (vv. 45-46). When Jesus asks, Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? (v. 46) they could have responded that, according to their interpretation of the law, he had broken the sabbath and that he was a false prophet at best (v. 48) or a blasphemer at worst (v. 59). They would charge him with such sins, but he claims to have the better case and in fact be innocent.
Since he is telling them the truth, why do they not believe (v. 46)? He answers his own question: He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God (v. 47). This is a clear statement summarizing the flow of his argument up to this point. They do not belong to God, or, more literally, they are not "of God" (ek tou theou) but of the devil (v. 44). Their identity is clear. Jesus' identity is also clear in that he said one who belongs to God hears "what God says," not "what I say." When Jesus teaches, God is speaking.
Instead of accepting his testimony to himself and his judgment of them and then repenting, they accuse him of what he has just accused them. In saying he is a Samaritan and demon-possessed (v. 48; cf. 7:20) they are saying that he, not they, is the one who is a foreigner to the covenant with God and is in fact in league with the devil. Similar charges are thrown back and forth.
Jesus rejects their charge and continues to insist on his relationship with his Father: I honor my Father and you dishonor me (v. 49). In failing to honor Jesus they are disobedient to God's will, which is that "all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father" (5:23). The Father himself is seeking the glory of the Son (v. 50), just as the Son is seeking the glory of the Father. Jesus and his opponents have traded accusations, and now he warns them that the one who will pass judgment in this dispute is the very Father to whom he is bearing witness and whom they are rejecting (v. 50).
Then, as he frequently does, Jesus increases the scandal by saying, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death (v. 51). This simply follows from the fact that Jesus' word is in fact God's own word, as we have just seen (v. 47). It recalls his earlier word that asked them to hold to his teaching and be set free from sin (vv. 31-32). The idea of abiding or remaining in his teaching (v. 31) is now complemented by the motif of keeping it. This refers to remaining watchful, attentive and focused so as not to disregard it (Westcott 1908:2:24) but rather to continue to obey it (Louw and Nida 1988:2:468). These verses indicate that it takes work to keep in touch with Jesus' teaching. The disciple must expend energy to remain true to his teaching.The promise that the faithful disciple will not die (v. 51) is a theme already introduced in John (5:24; 6:40, 47) and one that will be developed more fully (chap. 11). It does not mean the disciple will not physically die; it means that he or she will not enter that state of "selfish isolation which is the negation of life" (Westcott 1908:2:25). The very fact that the disciple remains in contact with Jesus, the source of life, suggests such communion, with its death to self and life to God.
Just as Jesus' promise of life had scandalized an earlier group of would-be disciples (6:60), so it does here as well: Now we know that you are demon-possessed! (v. 52). They have heard something that they cannot understand. Instead of receiving it with humility and awaiting further insight, they question and reject it. They question whether Jesus is claiming to be greater than their father Abraham (v. 53), a question similar to the Samaritan woman's question of whether Jesus is greater than their father Jacob (4:12). Jesus' claim to offer life goes beyond anything that Abraham or the prophets could offer or even had experienced themselves, since they had all died (vv. 52-53). So the question once again boils down to who Jesus is making himself out to be (v. 53). The translation Who do you think you are? misses the point of the question, which is literally, "Who are you making yourself out to be?" In other words, the issue is not just what Jesus thinks, but what he is promoting. Since only God is the giver of life, they are beginning to perceive the enormity of Jesus' claims. In asking for clarification they are almost acting like a jury, giving the defendant a chance to be condemned with his or her own words. Jesus is happy to oblige since this is what he has come for--to bear witness. So Jesus, as he did with the woman of Samaria, goes on to answer their question.
First, he speaks plainly of the Father. He refuses to glorify himself but says his Father will do so. He clearly and explicitly identifies his Father: My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me (v. 54). Earlier they did not know he was referring to God (v. 27), but Jesus has now said it plainly. God is focused upon Jesus, seeking to glorify him (vv. 54, 50). This is the truth revealed in dramatic form in the Synoptics, for when the Father speaks from heaven at the baptism he speaks of his Son; he repeats this at the transfiguration and adds a call to pay attention to him: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Mt 17:5; see also Mt 3:17; Mk 1:11; 9:7; Lk 3:22; 9:35).
Second, Jesus continues to speak plainly of their ignorance of God. He had spoken of the devil as a liar (v. 44), and now he calls these opponents liars (v. 55), since they claim to know God when in fact they do not.
Third, he speaks of his relationship to God. The language used at the end of verse 55 is striking: I . . . keep his word. This phrase had just been used by Jesus as he spoke of his own disciples (v. 51), so this repetition indicates that Jesus is our model of discipleship. The idea of keeping God's word picks up many of the themes of discipleship developed in this Gospel, such as docility, humility, receptivity, perseverance, loyalty and obedience. Here, in a passage where Jesus is about to claim divine prerogatives in the clearest terms, we have this reminder that he is both distinct from God and submissive to God. As disciples, we are to share in his relationship with the Father through the Spirit. As we keep his word we are joining him in his own keeping of the Father's word.
Finally, we also have a clear word about his own divine identity. The topic has been the identification of the true children of Abraham. Now Jesus spells out clearly what he has already implied in many ways, namely, that his own identity is far beyond such a category. This revelation comes in two parts. First, Jesus says, Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad (v. 56). The day that Jesus refers to is his whole advent, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension--the total event of salvation that he has brought.
It is uncertain which of Abraham's experiences is referred to here. It could be something Abraham experienced during his lifetime or something that he has experienced in heaven. Either view would resonate with Jewish traditions. Some traditions spoke of Abraham's seeing the future during his own lifetime (Genesis Rabbah 44:25). In this case the joy of Abraham would most likely refer to his experience at the promise of Isaac's birth (Gen 17:17), which was joy at the goodness of God and in anticipation of the fulfillment of his promises. Philo stresses the anticipation evident in Abraham's laughter (De Mutatione Nominum 154-165), and Jubilees 16:15-19 (second century B.C.) says that Abraham and Sarah "rejoiced very greatly" when the divine messengers made the promise to Abraham and spoke explicitly of a "holy seed" who would come from the line of Isaac and produce for God a people from among the nations. According to this tradition the joy was linked to the fulfillment of God's promises through one who would come through Isaac. Jesus would be claiming to be the ultimate fulfillment of that promise.
The alternative, the idea of a heavenly rejoicing, might be similar to Testament of Levi 18:14 (second century B.C.), which speaks of Abraham's rejoicing at the coming of the eschatological priest who brings God's salvation. Perhaps Jesus is saying Abraham rejoiced in the recent past, as he saw from heaven the coming of the Word made flesh, the dawning of the light of salvation.
In saying, You are not yet fifty years old . . . and you have seen Abraham! (v. 57), the opponents focus on Jesus' vision of Abraham, not Abraham's of him. It could be that they are simply pointing out that Jesus is not several thousand years old. This seems to be a stupid response to Jesus' cryptic saying, but the opponents are not the only dull ones in this Gospel, for similar responses are given even by Jesus' true disciples (for example, 11:12). But it could be that they are saying that Jesus "cannot have seen Abraham in paradise because he is too young for such a (mystical) vision" (Schnackenburg 1980b:223). Rudolf Schnackenburg objects that the tense of have seen (heorakas, a perfect) suggests "a long-standing relationship between Jesus and the ancestor of the Jews" (Schnackenburg 1980b:223). Yet the perfect tense need not suggest this at all, and, on the other hand, such an interpretation would fit quite well with the concern throughout this Gospel with the claims of the Jewish mystics.
In any case, not only has Abraham seen Jesus' day (whether during his lifetime or from heaven), but Jesus is aware of this fact, which means he has seen Abraham either in heaven or during Abraham's lifetime, whether by mystical vision or through his existence at the time of Abraham.
Jesus' reference to Abraham sounds to the opponents like an incredible claim to spiritual experience. His reply to their incredulity pushes his claim far beyond the idea of vision whether mystical or otherwise, whether of the past or through ascents into heaven: I tell you the truth . . . before Abraham was born, I am! (v. 58). He is not just making a statement of his age, for then he would have said something like, "Before Abraham was born, I was" (Carson 1991:358). Rather, he is now using in an unambiguous way the divine I AM (Harner 1970:26-30). The I AM was the name of God revealed to Moses, though the Greek expression (ego eimi) is not that used in the Septuagint in Exodus 3:14 (ho on). The phrase ego eimi is used of the divine name in Isaiah (41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4; 47:8, 10; 51:12; 52:6). Isaiah 43:10 is a particularly significant passage since it includes a reference to the Lord's chosen servant (pais) who is his witness, "so that you may know and believe and understand that I am he [hoti ego eimi]. There was no other god before me nor will there be after me." This strong statement of monotheism is the very thing the opponents think Jesus' claim is denying.
By using the I AM Jesus is claiming to have existed not just at the time of Abraham, but from eternity. This is not only a statement about his salvific work, though that is implied here as it was in God's self-identification at the bush (Schnackenburg 1980b:224). Rather, he is saying that his words and deeds are not about God; they are in fact God's own words and deeds. He speaks in language of oneness, though he has just clearly expressed distinctness also (vv. 54-55). Jesus is God, though not simply by way of identification with Yahweh, for there is also distinction. He is not simply a human being who has been taken up into the divine counsels and made an agent of God unlike any other, but neither is he simply God in a suit of flesh. Rather, as the later church counsels said, he is fully God and fully man. Such formulations are based on revelation such as found in this passage.
Clearly this is the climax of the revelation that has been unfolding during the Feast of Tabernacles. People have been wondering if Jesus is the Prophet or the Messiah. "But messianic categories are transcended when Jesus offers Himself as the source of living water, and as the light of the world, and finally pronounces the ego eimi which affirms the mystery of His own eternal being, in unity with the Father" (Dodd 1953:351).
The opponents have understood nothing Jesus has said about himself or his Father. They seek to stone him (v. 59), presumably for the same reason they do so at other times (5:18; 10:31-33)--on a charge of blasphemy (cf. Lev 24:16; m. Sanhedrin 7:4). But they are not able to carry out their desires, the desires of their father, who was a murderer from the beginning (v. 44). Jesus slips away from the temple, leaving it secretly, as he came at the beginning of this section (7:10). This hiddenness has a double significance. Jesus is still a marked man. He came to the temple secretly because of death threats, and now this danger has intensified. On another level, his approach to the temple and now his departure from it in a hidden fashion, corresponds to the emphasis in these chapters that the opponents do not know where he comes from or where he goes, meaning the Father. The main points of these two chapters have been Jesus divine identity, his role as the bringer of God's salvation as water and light and the opponents' utter alienation from God. This alienation has been stated explicitly, depicted dramatically in their questions and behavior and is now expressed symbolically in Jesus' leaving in hiddenness. Jesus has claimed to be I AM, the divine presence. So when he leaves the temple it is nothing less than "the departure of the Divine Presence from the old `Holy Space'" (Davies 1974:296). He will not return again to the temple; he will come only to its outer precincts (10:23). His formation of a community apart from the temple will now become more apparent.