The second half of verse twenty-five, in the original Greek, is very hard to decipher, and the version I have given comes from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Other versions include:
(a) I declare to you that I am the beginning.
(b) Everything I am saying to you is only a beginning.
(c) Primarily, essentially, I am what I am telling you.
(d) How is that I even speak to you at all?
I am not qualified to offer an opinion as to which of these is more likely to be correct. I will merely note that versions (a) and (c) seem to fit in quite well with the theme of Jesus’ assertions, both before and after this verse, that He is the ‘I am’, and that the ‘I am’ is the route to salvation.
3 The betrayal by Judas
In order to convince His disciples that He was ‘I am’, Jesus told them, after washing their feet prior to the last supper, that one of them would eventually betray Him: ‘I tell you now,’ He said, ‘before it takes place; that when it does take place you may believe that I am.’ (13:19)
Later, when Judas, the one who betrayed Him, brought the soldiers and priests to arrest Him, Jesus twice identified Himself as ‘I am’:
18:4 Jesus came forward and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’
18.5 They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. Jesus said to them ‘I am… ‘.
18.6 When he said to them ‘I am,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.
18.7 Again he asked, ‘Whom do you seek?’ and they answered ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.
18.8 Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am’.
Most versions of the Bible have Jesus say ‘I am he’ in verse five even though the original merely says ‘I am’ (ego eimi). Many commentators have noted that the literal answer, ‘I am,’ gives added significance to verse six. The soldiers are overawed by this declaration of Godhood and fall to the ground. An ‘I am he’ answer, meaning, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you seek’, would not have produced such an extreme response.
What was the purpose of these repeated identifications? One reason was that Jesus wanted to establish His credentials as God incarnate, sent to earth to redeem suffering humanity. ‘I have manifested Thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world,’ says Jesus to God in John 17:6. That is to say, the divine Name, ‘I am’, became incarnate for the sake of those in the world who needed salvation. It can also be argued that in repeatedly identifying Himself as ‘I am’, Jesus wanted to make the Name of God more widely known so that It could be used, believed in or focused on as a means of experiencing God:
O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; … I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:25-6)
Jesus Himself prayed to God, ‘Father glorify thy name’ (John 12:28) and taught His disciples to revere the Name in their own prayers by saying, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name’. (Matthew 6:9)
The early Christians accepted that the Name of God had great power, and that it could be used as a means to salvation, but the name they adopted was not the ‘I am’ that God and Jesus both revealed. It was Kyrios, a Greek word that means ‘Lord’ in the sense of being a king. To understand how this came about one needs to trace the development of the Name through its various mutations.
God originally revealed Himself as ‘I am’, adding that this was the name by which He wanted ‘to be remembered throughout all generations’ (Exodus 3:15). ‘I am’ was too holy a name for the Jews to use so they recorded it as Yahweh, meaning ‘He is’ or ‘He who is’ in their written texts. But when they spoke of God they used a further euphemism, Adonai, which merely means ‘Lord’ or ‘my Lord’ because it was prohibited to say the name of Yahweh out loud. Instead of using the name Yahweh or ‘I am’ for God, the authors of the New Testament used the word Kyrios, meaning ‘Lord’ because that was the word that the Septuagint, the already existing Greek translation of the Old Testament, had used as a translation of Yahweh.
By adopting the word Kyrios, the early Christians were using a term that they felt conveyed the idea of Jesus’ kingship. Psalm 110:1 says, ‘Yahweh said to my Lord, ”Sit at my right hand”’. The early Christians took this ‘Lord’ to be Jesus in His risen, ascended state, and they believed that after His ascension He sat next to God in heaven, exercising, like a king, spiritual dominion over the world. The word Kyrios was originally only meant to describe the risen Christ, but slowly, over time, it became the accepted Greek word for the God of the Old Testament.
By these progressive mutations – ‘I am’ to Yahweh to Adonai to Kyrios – the impact and significance of God’s original Name, ‘I am’, was lost. By this change in vocabulary, He became in the eyes of the early Christians not ‘I am’ but a Divine King who received homage from His subjects. When Paul, for example, wrote to the Phillippians that ‘God has highly exalted him [Jesus] and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,’ he was not referring to ‘I am’, as he makes clear in the succeeding lines: ‘That at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord [Kyrios].’ (Phillippians 2:9-11) The statement ‘Jesus is Kyrios‘, rather than ‘Jesus is ”I am”’ became one of the earliest and most widespread affirmations of Christian belief.
The change from Yahweh to Kyrios was a deliberate and calculated one, and even Old Testament verses were adapted to conform to the new terminology. When the author of Acts wrote, ‘And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord [Kyrios] shall be saved,’ he was merely changing the vocabulary of an almost identical Old Testament quote: ‘And it shall come to pass that whomsoever shall call on the name of the Lord [Yahweh] shall be delivered.'(Acts 2:21 and Joel 2:32) Sometimes, especially in Acts, the name of Jesus Christ alone (that is, not even Yahweh or Kyrios) is proclaimed as being the ultimate and most powerful name. It was by calling on this name that the earliest disciples performed miraculous cures. When Peter saw a lame man begging outside the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, he told him:
‘I have no silver and gold, but I will give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ And he took him by the hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.’ (Acts 3:6-8)
When he was subsequently asked, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ he replied:
Be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. (Acts 4:7, 10, 12)
I have noted on several occasions that the Name had a special significance for the Jews. It was not merely a title, it was a manifestation of God Himself. The earliest Christians, who were all brought up in the Jewish tradition, took this conception, applied it to Jesus, and taught that salvation could be attained through His Name. When Christianity spread to the non-Jewish world, it encountered people, countries and whole civilisations that had no tradition of regarding names in such a holy and powerful way. So, as Christianity spread and evolved, the early emphasis on the Name became sidelined and was increasingly replaced by another teaching, which had always been present in and central to the Church’s beliefs: that salvation could be attained merely by accepting that Jesus was the son of God and that He died in order to save mankind from the consequences of its sins. Anyone who accepted this became reborn spiritually. It is worth noting that in the first decades of the Christian era some of the most popular competing pagan cults were the mystery religions of the Greek world that generally revolved around the death of a god and the concomitant idea that his death or sacrifice enabled his devotees to be spiritually reborn. It was in these surroundings and against this background that the importance of the crucifixion grew and the significance of the Name of God diminished.
John, who wrote his Gospel around AD 100, must have witnessed these developments with interest, and perhaps even concern. The synoptic Gospels, Acts and virtually all the epistles were in existence and were being circulated prior to the writing of the final Gospel, and it is reasonable to assume, though it cannot be proved, that John had gone through much of the Christian literature that preceded him. Many scholars feel that John recorded his own experiences with Christ not merely to supplement the existing literature, but to correct some of the mistaken ideas that he felt had sprung up about Christ and His teachings, and to express what he felt were the real truths of Christianity in philosophical terms and structures that the Greek civilisation he lived in would understand. While writing his account, he refuted some of the unchristian heresies that were being put about by the newly emerging Gnostics; he played down the importance of John the Baptist, who was beginning to develop a cult of his own; and on a more positive note he stressed the divinity of Jesus, His status as the Son of God, the glory of God, and Christ’s union with Him. Only in John does Jesus Himself say that He is the Son of God (10:36) and it is John alone who records Jesus’ famous remark, ‘I and the Father are one’. (10:30) The various ‘I am’ proclamations I have given are part of this pattern. They affirm that God has incarnated in the form of His Son, and indicate that though the Two (Father and Son) are separate as Persons, in essence they are the same ‘I am’.
There are several other occasions in which Jesus alludes to Himself somewhat indirectly as ‘I am’. These are known as the I-am-with-predicate statements, and they include such famous remarks as, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ ‘I am the light of the world,’ and ‘I am the bread of life’. These statements usually appear in carefully constructed stories that often begin with a miraculous event or a deep spiritual analogy and end with a majestic ‘I am’ pronouncement by Jesus.
Take, for example, the story in which Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes. On the following day He told His disciples, ‘Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life… I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst.’ (John 6:27, 35)
The I-am-with-predicate comment gives a spiritual interpretation to the miracle, affirms Jesus’ divine nature as ‘I am’ while simultaneously proclaiming that through Him salvation can be attained.
Here are a few more example of similar narratives:
(a) At the beginning of chapter nine Jesus saw a blind man and cured him. Before doing so He commented, ‘As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ (9:5) The man’s blindness was a metaphor for the spiritual blindness into which the world had been plunged. By giving sight to the man and by saying ‘I am the light,’ He was indirectly saying that the Son of God, as ‘I am’, could banish spiritual darkness. The idea that Jesus is Light is a major and recurring theme in John. He began his Gospel by saying that Christ, as the Son of God made manifest, was the ‘light of men’ come to earth to dispel spiritual darkness, and the metaphor reappears at regular intervals. In chapter eight, for example, He announced, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’. (8:12)
(b) In chapter two Jesus compared Himself to the door that opens into a sheep pen: ‘He who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.’ (10:1-4) In explaining the analogy Jesus said, ‘I am the door of the sheep … I am the door; if anyone enters by me he will be saved … I am come that they might have life, and have it abundantly … I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ (10:7, 9-11, 14-15) The message of the repeated ‘I ams’ in the explanation is that Jesus, ‘I am’ incarnate, is the sole route to union with the Father.
The I-am-with-predicate statements are not to be found in the synoptic Gospels, though there are passages there, called ‘the parables of the kingdom’, which serve a similar purpose. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,’ says Jesus in Matthew. ‘It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs.’ (13:31-2) In other places He compared the kingdom of heaven to the leaven in dough and to a sower who sows seeds. The kingdom-of-heaven parables are similes, for they say what heaven is like. John’s ‘I am’ statements, on the contrary, are metaphors that say what God really is: ‘I am the bread,’ ‘I am the light,’ ‘I am the door’.
A comment by Bhagavan is appropriate here:
The only permanent thing is Reality, and that is the Self. You say ‘I am,’ ‘I am going,’ ‘I am speaking,’ ‘I am walking,’ etc. Hyphenate ‘I am’ in all of them. Thus, I-AM. That is the abiding and fundamental Reality. This truth was taught by God to Moses: ‘I am that I am,’ ‘Be still and know that I-am God’ So, ‘I-am’ is God. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 503)
So, if one follows Bhagavan’s advice and hyphenates ‘I-am’, one comes up with: ‘I-am’ is the bread that will dispel all hunger; ‘I-am’ is the light that will dispel spiritual ignorance; ‘I-am’ is the door through which one must pass if one wants to attain union with the Father.
(c) In chapter thirteen Jesus tells His disciples that He is going to leave them physically and that ‘Where I am going you cannot come’. (13:33) Later He said that He was going to His Father’s house, that He would prepare a place for the disciples there, and that eventually they would join Him. Thomas then asked, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.’ (14:5-6) This phrase, when given the hyphenation treatment suggested by Bhagavan, ceases to be a statement that the historical Christ is necessary for all those who want to journey to the ‘Father’s house’, and becomes instead a non-sectarian announcement which states that abidance in the ‘I am’, the reality of God and Jesus, is the route for all those who are seeking union with the Father.
(d) When Jesus was informed of the death of Lazarus, He went to his house and brought him back to life. In the same way that the blind man whom Jesus cured symbolised the darkness that could be overcome by the spiritual light, the raising from the dead of Lazarus symbolised the resurrection that was available to anyone who believed in Jesus as ‘I am’. ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ said Jesus, shortly before He performed the miracle. ‘He who believes in me though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’. (11:25-6) ‘I-am’ is the resurrection. Whoever reaches that state and abides in it transcends bodily death.