By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Of the four gospels, John is clearest in proclaiming the divinity of Christ. In the opening verses of chapter one, he writes,
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2)
For John, it’s clear: Jesus and God are one and the same. As Jesus told his disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
Jesus is the divine Word from which all things were created. In the fullness of time, he came into the world to redeem us from our fallen state and show us how to live in peace and harmony with each other. In the classic words of John,
“The Word became flesh, and lived among us.
We saw his glory,
such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father…
From his fullness we all received grace upon grace.” (John 1:14-16)
It’s not that the other gospels deny the divinity of Christ; it’s just that John emphasizes it so. And he does so in a cryptic sort of way so that, if we’re not paying close attention, we might miss it altogether. It’s embedded in the phrase, “I AM.” In a word, this is the Old Testament name for God – Yahweh – the Lord God Almighty, creator of the heavens and the earth.
We find this in the book of Exodus and the story of the burning bush. According to scripture, Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, when he saw a strange sight – a bush was on fire, except that it didn’t seem to be consumed. He went over to take a closer look. As he stood before the bush, he heard a voice: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Moses took off his sandals and fell on his face, and the voice said,
“I am the God of your father,
the God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob…
I have surely seen the affliction of my people…
have heard their cry…
for I know their sorrows…” (Exodus 3:6-7)
Moses didn’t say a word. Then God said,
the cry of the children of Israel has come to me…
and I will send you to Pharaoh,
that you may bring my people, the children of Israel,
out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:9-10)
At first Moses resisted. He said, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11) Besides being a poor shepherd, Moses had a speech impediment. He said,
“O Lord, I am not eloquent,
neither before now, nor since you have spoken to your servant;
for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)
But God wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, Moses asked,
“‘Behold, when I come to the children of Israel,
and tell them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you;”
and they ask me, “What is his name?”
What should I tell them?’
God said to Moses,
‘I AM WHO I AM,’
and he said, ‘You shall tell the children of Israel this:
“I AM has sent me to you.”‘
This is my name forever,
and this is my memorial to all generations.” (Exodus 13-15)
So, Moses took his brother, Aaron, and they went before the mighty Pharaoh to plead their case, and the rest is history, as they say.
What I want to emphasize is God’s name: I AM, because this is what John has picked up and placed throughout his gospel: Jesus is the great I AM of the Old Testament – God Almighty in human form.
We see this in the lesson for today:
“I am the good shepherd.
I know my own, and I’m known by my own…
I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)
But this is only one of many examples. He also says,
“I am the light of the world.
He who follows me will not walk in the darkness,
but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father, except through me.” (John 14:6)
“I am the vine. You are the branches.
He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit,
for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
“I am the resurrection and the life.
He who believes in me
will still live, even if he dies.
Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25- 26)
John would have us to know that every time Jesus says, “I am” – and these are only four of fourteen examples in John’s gospel – he is referring to himself as Yahweh, Creator of the heavens and the earth, the Word made flesh.
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Here’s an even better example. In the 8th chapter of John’s gospel, John tells of a conflict that arose between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s seed, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How do you say, ‘You will be made free?'” (John 8:32-33) And Jesus answered, “Most certainly, I tell you, before Abraham came into existence, I AM.” (John 8:58) When he said this, they picked up stones to stone him to death. Why? Because to claim God’s name for yourself is blasphemy, an offense punishable by death.
But the best example comes in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prays to God to take this cup – this certainty of death – from him, then he hears the footsteps of the soldiers coming to arrest him. He asks them, “Who are you looking for?” And they reply, “Jesus of Nazareth.” And he answers, “Ego eimi …I AM.” When he said this, the soldiers drew back in fear and fell prostrate on the ground before him.
Here’s the point: I AM is the holy name of God, and, throughout his gospel, this is how John refers to Jesus. He wants us to make no mistake about it: Jesus is the Word made flesh, God Almighty in human form.
The reason this is so important is because knowing who Jesus is helps us to be clear about who we’re not. We’re not God, not even close. And knowing that we’re not God opens the door for us to receive the fullness of God’s peace and love.
Back some time ago I preached a sermon on John the Baptist and how a group of Jewish leaders came from the Temple to ask him, “Who are you?” And he said,
“I am not the Christ…
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'” (John 1:19-23)
Knowing who you’re not is the first step to experiencing the fullness of God. For example, instead of having to have all the answers and be totally self-sufficient, we can look to God to lead and guide us and supply our needs along the way.
Go back to the story of the Exodus and how Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Can’t you just hear the nay-sayers standing on the banks of the Red Sea? “How are we going to get across? If we get to the other side, how are we going to know the way? Do you have a map? And what are we going to eat, for heaven’s sake? We don’t have enough food to last a month, much less forty years.” Sounds like a bunch of Presbyterians, doesn’t it?
God calls us to trust him and live by faith. Jesus told his disciples not to worry about such things as food and clothing, that God would provide. He said:
“For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness;
and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
Knowing the great I AM means we don’t have to have all the answers. We can live with a certain amount of ambiguity and mystery. Paul said it best, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) Only in the light of God’s eternal kingdom will we ever see the fullness of God’s glory. For now, we must walk by faith. The Good News is God will walk with us and guide our steps if we let him.
Knowing the great I AM also means it’s not up to us to call the shots. We can be responsible without feeling like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. I love what Jesus said to his disciples,
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,
for I am gentle and lowly in heart;
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy,
and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
In Jesus’ day the Pharisees so emphasized the letter of the Law that no one could possibly measure up. They also put the burden on the individual, so that salvation was up to sinners like you and me. Instead, Jesus emphasized the spirit of the Law and taught his disciples that the secret to life in all its abundance is to live in community with each other.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” Paul told the Galatians. (Galatians 6:2)
“When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
Knowing the great I AM helps us keep our lives in perspective to the whole. Each of us has an important role to play in the building of God’s kingdom on earth, but it’s not all up to us, individually or collectively. The creation is in God’s hands, not ours.
Finally, knowing the great I AM relieves us of the temptation to stand in judgment of others. There’s a scene in the 21st chapter of John’s gospel that especially speaks to me. It’s where Jesus asked Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” And, of course, Peter said, “Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection for you.” “Feed my lambs,” Jesus said.
You know the story. But what you might not remember is that after he said this, Jesus went on to tell Peter that he would die a martyr’s death. He said, “…another will dress you, and carry you where you don’t want to go.” At this point Peter looked over at John, who was standing off in the distance, and he asked Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” And Jesus answered,
“If I desire that he stay until I come,
what is that to you?
You follow me.” (John 21:15-23)
It’s easy to look over your shoulder and compare your lot in life to others. This can be a fatal trap. It leads to resentment, the feeling that others are getting a better shake than you. It also leads to passing judgments – that others aren’t getting the punishment they deserve. Either way, it amounts to playing God, and that’s a no-no. Jesus said,
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.
For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged;
and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
It’s not for us to say who’s righteous and who’s not; who’s deserving and who’s not; who’s in and who’s out of God’s kingdom. That’s for God, and God only to say. Next time you catch yourself thinking, “Lord, what about this man, or this woman, just remember what Jesus said to Peter,
“If I desire that he stay until I come,
what is that to you?
You follow me.” (John 21:22)
O.K., here’s where I’d like to conclude: Jesus is the great I AM, God Almighty in human form. And knowing who he is can make all the difference for us in availing ourselves of the power of his grace and love. I’ll end with just one more example: Jesus said,
“I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me will not be hungry,
and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the saving grace of our Lord’s death, until he comes again. As we come to the Lord’s Table, may we commune together with him confident that, in so doing, the risen Lord, God Almighty, is with us, we are not alone.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.