Jesus Before Abraham by Anthony Buzzard
In John 8:58 Jesus claimed superiority over Abraham. His supreme position, however, depends on the Father who glorifies His Son (John 8:54). He stated that Abraham rejoiced to “see my day” (John 8:56) — that is, Abraham by faith saw Messiah’s coming in advance of its actual arrival. The day of Messiah “preexisted,” so to speak, in Abraham’s mind. The Jews misunderstood what Jesus had said, believing that he had made a claim to be actually a contemporary of Abraham (John 8:57). Jesus reaffirmed his absolute preeminence in God’s plan with the astonishing claim, “Before Abraham was, I am [he]” (John 8:58).
To grasp the meaning of the phrase “I am” in this text, it is essential to compare it with John’s frequent use of the same phrase, which is in several places connected with the Messiahship of Jesus:
John 18:5: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am [he]’” (identifying himself as the one they were looking for).
John 6:20: “Jesus [walking on the water] said to them: ‘It is I’” (literally, “I am”).
John 9:9: “[The man healed of blindness] kept saying, ‘I am [he]’” (i.e., “I am the one.”)
John 4:26: “Jesus said to [the woman at the well], ‘I who speak to you am [he]’” (i.e., the Messiah, verse 25).
John 8:24: “Unless you believe that I am [he], you shall die in your sins.”
John 8:28: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you shall know that I am [he].”
John 13:19: “I am telling you before it comes to pass so that when it does occur you may believe that I am [he].”
John 9:35-37: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?…The one talking to you is [he].” Cp. John 10:24, 25: “‘If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe me.’”
John 8:58: “Before Abraham came to be, I am [he].”
At this point John’s expressly stated purpose for writing the whole of his Gospel must be kept in mind. His aim was that we should “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). The fact that in the Old Testament God speaks of Himself as “I am [He]” does not lead us, as often thought, to the conclusion that on Jesus’ lips “I am [he]” means “I am God” in the Trinitarian sense. Jesus’ “I am he” declarations in John can be satisfactorily explained as a claim to be the Messiah. As such Jesus presents himself as the unique agent of the One God and empowered by the latter to act on His behalf.
Even if one were to connect Jesus’ ego eimi (“I am”) statements with the words of God in the Old Testament, there would still be no justification for identifying Jesus with God in the Trinitarian sense. Jesus, as Messiah, may bear a divine title without being God. Once the Jewish principle of “agency” is taken into account, it will be readily understood that Jesus perfectly represents his Father. As agent he acts for and speaks for his principal, so that the acts of God are manifested in Jesus. None of this, however, makes Jesus literally God. He remains the human Messiah promised by the Scriptures. Trinitarian theology often displays its anti-Messianic bias, and “overreads” the evidence of John, failing to reckon with his simple monotheistic statements defining the Father as “the only true God,” distinct from His Son (John 17:3; 5:44). This procedure sets John against Matthew, Mark, and Luke/Acts. It also blurs the New Testament’s central point which is to proclaim the identity of Jesus as the Messiah.
The evidence before us (cited above) shows that the famous phrase ego eimi means “I am the promised one,” “the one in question.” The blind man identifies himself by saying “I am the person you are looking for”; “I am the one.” In contexts where the Son of Man or the Christ are being discussed Jesus claims to be “the one,” i.e., Son of Man, Christ. In each case it is proper (as translators recognize) to add the word “he” to the “I am.” There is every reason to be consistent and to supply “he” in John 8:58 also. Thus in John 4:26, “I am” = “I am [he, the Messiah].” In John 8:58 likewise Jesus declares: “Before Abraham was, I am [he, the appointed Messiah].”
It is important to notice that Jesus did not use the phrase revealing God’s name to Moses. At the burning bush the One God had declared His name as “I am who I am” or “I am the self-existent one” (Ex. 3:14). The phrase in the Greek version of the Old Testament reads ego eimi ho hown, which is quite different from the “I am he” used by Jesus. If Jesus had indeed claimed to be God, it is quite extraordinary that in a subsequent encounter with hostile Jews he claims not to be God, but the unique agent of God bearing the title “Son of God” (John 10:34-36).
It is fair to ask how someone can “be” before he actually is. Is the traditional doctrine of the Incarnation of a second divine being the only possible way of dealing with the Johannine preexistence statements? The pattern of foreordination language found in John’s Gospel does not require a literal preexistence of the Son. Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Messiah’s day was a reality to Abraham through the eyes of faith. So also the Messiah “existed” as the supreme subject of God’s plan long before the birth of Abraham. “Before Abraham came to be, I am [the one]” is a profound statement about God’s original plan for the world centered in Jesus, whom John can also describe as “crucified before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). We have no difficulty grasping how this is to be understood: Jesus was the one appointed — and appointed to die — long before Abraham, as the supreme agent of God’s plan. If Jesus was “crucified before Abraham,” he himself may be said to have “existed” in the eternal counsels of God. In that sense he was indeed appointed as Savior of the world before the birth of Abraham.
In support of this interpretation we cite again the comments of Gilbert. Of John 8:58 he says:
Jesus has been emphasizing his Messianic claim. He does not say that before Abraham was born the logos existed; he says “I am.” It is Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the man whom the Father had consecrated to the Messianic work who speaks. Just before this he had spoken of “my day,” which Abraham saw (John 8:56), by which we must understand the historical appearance of Jesus as Messiah. Abraham had seen this, virtually seen it in God’s promise of a seed (Gen. 12:3; 15:4, 5) and had greeted it from afar (Heb. 11:13). And now it is this one who consciously realizes the distant vision of Abraham who says, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” Jesus, therefore, seems to affirm that his historic Messianic personality existed before Abraham was born. If that be the case, then its existence before Abraham must be thought of as ideal.
 Rabbinic traditions state that Abraham saw a vision of the whole history of his descendants (Midrash Rabbah, XLIV, on Gen.15:18). IV Ezra 3:14 says that God granted Abraham a vision of the end times.
 The Revelation of Jesus, A Study of the Primary Sources of Christianity, 214, 215. The point that the ego eimi statements of Jesus have to do with his Messiahship is made also by Edwin Freed in “Ego Eimi in John 8:24 in the Light of Its Context and Jewish Messianic Belief,” Journal of Theological Studies 33 (1982): 163-167. Cp. also Barrett, Essays on John (London: SPCK, 1982), 71: “Jesus’ ego eimi is not a claim to divinity; John has other ways, both more explicit and more guarded, of making this claim.”