Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
John 8:58 (NRSV)
In yesterday’s post, I got to thinking about the events John describes in the context of our own contemporary presidential election in the United States. I’d like to extend the metaphor today because you can’t truly understand the context of the events in today’s chapter without understanding that there is an on-going political debate taking place. The issues being debated are the very two questions with which I ended yesterday’s post:
- Who is Jesus?
- What do we do with Him?
It’s also important to understand that the party officials, the Jewish religious leaders, were all lawyers. They acted much like Supreme Court justices interpreting our Constitution, only they were legal experts interpreting the Law of Moses (all the religious rules and regulations in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, et al). These lawyers were also in political, social, and economic control of the Jewish people under Roman occupation, and of the Temple. These legal, religious, political officials were threatened by Jesus for a number of reasons.
First, Jesus was highly critical of these political, religious lawyers (in today’s debate Jesus calls them children of the Devil). Second, Jesus’ teaching and actions were a tectonic paradigm shift that cut against the grain of the ruling party’s conservative, narrow interpretation of what God desires and expects of His followers. This threatened their thought control over the populace. Finally (and getting to the real crux of the matter), Jesus was also extremely popular and it was creating social unrest that threatened these lawyers political and social control. Their power, authority, and economic cash cow was threatened (think of it like one of our political parties who might lose their control over Congress).
And so, as Jesus is in the Temple teaching, these legal/political/religious party officials send waves of lawyers to debate Jesus on a variety of issues. Their goal is to trap Jesus into saying something that would give them authority, according to their almighty law, to arrest and kill the young troublemaker from Nazareth.
First, they send a woman caught in adultery who, by law, should be stoned to death for her crime. The legal team, however, seemed to forget that the law calls for both the woman and her adulterous lover to be condemned. Jesus, however, refuses to debate the jots and tittles of the legal issues. He simply highlights the accusers own sin and hypocrisy, publicly shaming them into abandoning their blood fury.
The next legal team questions the claims Jesus has been making about Himself on the grounds that the law requires two witnesses. Jesus counters that God, the Father, is His second witness. He adds that if the lawyers would get their heads out of the law and sought to know the Father (author of the law), they would understand this.
Finally, the lawyers ask Jesus point-blank who He is. Jesus once again offers cryptic answers to the direct question, stating that they will know for sure “when you have lifted up the Son of Man” (a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus’ own crucifixion).
The audience is impressed with Jesus’ dismantling of the lawyers’ arguments. The debate is going Jesus’ way, and many of the Jews in the audience decide to switch their party affiliation and join Jesus’ camp.
The debate now shifts and Jesus goes on the offensive. Like all good politicians, the ruling legal officials liked to align themselves with the beloved, historical pillars of the party. They were known for calling themselves “children of Abraham” and draping the mantel of Abraham’s legacy around their shoulders. Jesus questions their hypocrisy, asking why they have been in their smoke filled back rooms plotting to kill Him.
The debate quickly spirals into back and forth name-calling (sound familiar?). The lawyers hold fast to their “Children of Abraham” branding. Jesus counters by accusing them of being murderers. The lawyers raise their own Abraham claim and double down, claiming that God is their father. Jesus counters that the devil is, in fact, their father because, like the devil, the evidence proves they are all liars and murderers. The lawyers, now really pissed off, counter by calling Jesus a demon and then throw in a racial epithet by throwing out rumors (from the internet, no doubt) that Jesus is a actually a half-breed Samaritan.
Jesus then shifts the debate once more, this time claiming that He personally knows their beloved Abraham (to wit: “I knew Abraham. Abraham is a friend of mine. You, sir, are no child of Abraham.”), and that Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ take up His campaign. The legal team scoffs. This is ludicrous and insane. Abraham lived over a thousands years ago. How could Jesus actually know Abraham?
Jesus ends the debate with the most headline grabbing, jaw-dropping, topic trending statement of all. Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Only, in the Hebrew language Jesus used the word that is transliterated into English: “Yaweh.” Yahweh is the name God gave to Moses on the mountain when Moses asked who He was (See Exodus chapter 3). Yaweh was the unutterable, sacred, holy name of God. To the Jews, Yaweh was forever to be considered “He-who-must-not-be-named.” In saying “Yaweh” Jesus both directly claimed that He was God and gave his political opponents their legal grounds to pounce. And, pounce they did. The lawyers suddenly became executioners. They immediately picked up the stones (perhaps the dropped stones intended for the adulterous woman) to carry out swift justice.
Today, I am reminded that I am reading the testimony of a member of Jesus’ own inner circle, John, who was a first-hand original source witness of this debate. I am struck by the fact that Jesus seemed to foreknow the way these events were going to play out, and ultimately contributed to their outcome. I am, once again, reminded that Jesus claimed to be God. If Jesus wasn’t lying, and if He wasn’t crazy, then I’m left to accept that He was exactly who He claimed to be. And, I’m left to make up my own mind about the second issue of the debate: What am I going to do with Him?