(e) There is one more I-am-with-predicate statement that appears in isolation, unconnected with a miracle or a prior teaching story:
I am the real vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (14:1, 3-5)
When Jesus proclaimed Himself to be ‘I am’ without adding a predicate, He was signifying His identify with God, the ‘I am’ who revealed Himself in Exodus. But when He added a predicate, He was not just announcing His Godhood, He was giving Himself a role and a function and was demarcating a relationship between Himself and humanity. He was saying, in effect, that ‘I am’ is the light that would illumine man’s journey to God, the bread that would sustain him spiritually, the door through which he must eventually pass to reach the Father, the vine, uniting him with the Son, on which his spiritual fruition depends, and the final resurrection which is independent of ordinary bodily existence.
There is one other interesting characteristic of John’s Gospel that is worth noting. In the synoptic Gospels Jesus performs healing miracles without any apparent motive other than a compassionate desire to aid the victim. But in John, the few miracles that are reported are performed to manifest the glory of God. The first miracle at Cana in Galilee ‘manifested his glory’ (2:11); He raised Lazarus from the dead ‘for the glory of God so that the Son of Man may be glorified by means of it’ (11:4); and in the story of the blind man I have already cited, Jesus noted that he had been brought before Him so ‘that the works of God might be made manifest in him’. (9:3) Often the miracles are accompanied by long teaching discourses that culminate in one of Jesus’ famous ‘I am’ statements. For John, these miracles were not casual, random events, or merely occasions to show off Jesus’ or God’s power, they were what he called ‘semeia,’ which means ‘signs’. They were teaching demonstrations whose primary purpose was to show ordinary people the glory of God as He manifested His power and authority through His Son. For those who had the discrimination to understand the true import of the discourses, there was an additional bonus: Jesus would give the ultimate ‘sign’ by saying in various metaphorical ways, ‘The ”I am” whose power you have just witnessed is among you now. Turn to it and salvation is yours.’
For John, Jesus was the reality of God come down to earth in a human body. There is a Greek word alethinos, meaning ‘real’, which he applies to Jesus on several occasions, sometimes in conjunction with the I-am-with-predicate statements. Jesus is the ‘real light’ (1:9), He is the ‘real bread from heaven’ (6:32), He is the ‘real vine’ (15:1), and to Him belongs the ‘real judgement’ (8:16). Jesus, for John, was the ‘I am’ made manifest, the incarnate reality, whose function was to become a human beacon, shining the ‘real light’ in a shadowy world whose spiritual darkness would otherwise prevent man from being able to perceive God. (1:5)
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding to know him [God] who is real. And we are in him who is real, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the real God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourself from idols. (I John 5:20-1)
Through Jesus Christ, the reality, God as ‘I am’ can be known. To approach Him through other forms, other names, is, said John, tantamount to idolatry, because it sets up for worship an unreal image of God.
I noted earlier that one of the factors that motivated John to write his Gospel was a desire to write a spiritual and interpretative account, rather than a merely biographical narrative. His intention was to stress the real teachings of Jesus and to refute erroneous ideas about Him. When John talks about the Name of God, he is, like all Jews of his generation, talking about God Himself, the Yahweh who revealed Himself in Exodus. It must have saddened him to see Yahweh transmuted into Kyrios, a different concept altogether, and for the ancient tradition of the Name to wither in the inhospitable soil of the non-Jewish world. Jesus had declared Himself to be ‘I am’ a few times in the synoptic Gospels, but His declarations there did not appear to have had much significance for the early Christians. It was left to John to resurrect the tradition. He had Jesus identify Himself as ‘I am’ more times than in the other three Gospels combined, and in his I-am-with-predicate statements, none of which can be found in the synoptic Gospels, he simultaneously identified Jesus with the Old Testament ‘I am’ and mapped out a path by which Christians could approach the Father and become one with Him.
John’s efforts did not meet with much ultimate success. Little attention was paid, either then or subsequently, to his attempt to put Jesus’ identification with ‘I am’ in the centre of Christian beliefs. Nowadays, if one looks for an explanation of the ‘I am’ statements in Bible commentaries, one finds that they are often ignored or relegated to footnotes and appendices. They tend to be regarded as a minor puzzle rather than a major revelation.
So far as I am aware, only one Christian group has given pride of place to Jesus’ revelation that He is ‘I am’, and that is a modern twentieth century organisation, ‘The Infinite Way’, which was founded by the Christian mystic Joel Goldsmith. After many years in the Christian Science movement, the inner ‘I’ revealed itself to him. By abiding in it he came to realise that this inner ‘I’ was God Himself. This gave him new insights into the nature of Christ’s teachings, particularly those that were revealed in the Gospel of John. He eventually started his own group, teaching all who came to him that God is within, shining as the ‘I’. More than twenty books appeared under his name, most of them being edited collections of his teachings. I have selected a few of his statements on the nature of God as ‘I’ or ‘I am’ and given them below. All of them have been taken from The Mystical ‘I’, a book that relates the author’s own experience of ‘I am’ and also gives his explanations of the ‘I am’ statements that appear in John’s Gospel. Readers will note that his exegesis of the biblical texts is very similar to my own, and that his teachings on the nature of ‘I’ and the means by which it can be experienced are very similar to those propounded by Ramana Maharshi:
‘I stand at the door and knock.’ Who is this ‘I’ standing at the door? And at what door is this ‘I’ standing? At what door but the door of your consciousness? ‘I’ stand at the door of your consciousness and knock, but you must open the door and admit Me, for ‘I am the bread of life … I am the way, the truth and the life … I am the resurrection and the life … I am come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly.’
The ‘I’ that is standing at the door of your consciousness and knocking is the ‘I’ that has come that you might have life more abundant. When you admit that I’ into your consciousness, you have admitted life eternal: the bread of life, the water of life, and the wine of life. You have admitted into your consciousness the power of resurrection …
Close your eyes and within yourself, silently, sacredly, secretly and gently say the word ‘I, I’. That ‘I’ in the midst of you is mighty. That ‘I’ in the midst of you is greater than any problem in the outside world. That ‘I’ in the midst of you is come that you might have life and have it more abundantly. That ‘I’ has been with you since ‘before Abraham was’, waiting your recognition and your acknowledgement. ‘Know ye not ye are the temple of God?
Know ye not that the name of God is ‘I’ or ‘I am’, and that you are the temple of God only when you have admitted ‘I’ into your consciousness and held it there secretly, sacredly, gently, peaceably, so that at any moment you can close your eyes and just remember ‘I’? …
When Jesus speaks of the Father within and when Paul speaks of the Christ that dwells in him they are speaking of the I AM, the very ‘I’ that you are, the ‘I’ that you have just announced, that is in the midst of you. (pp. 1-2)
It may take a month or a year, or ten years before you can break the crust of personal sense and finally hear that still small voice within yourself, but when you do it says to you, ‘Be still and know that I am God’. It does not say that Joel or Mary is God. No, no! It does not say that William or Robert is God, or Mildred. It always says ‘I’. And do you know what else it says? ‘Fear not for I am with thee … I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.’ Fear not. Though your sins be scarlet, in the moment of your recognition of ‘I’ in the midst of you, you are white as snow. (p. 20)
To be sure that no one misses the way, we caution our students never to say, even to themselves, ‘I am God’. It is not even wise to voice such a statement as ‘I am the son of God’. The ideal way is just to say ‘I’. And think what It means. Then in time, as the listening ear is developed, you will hear the voice say, ”’I” in the midst of you am God. ”I” who am closer to you than breathing am God.’ When you hear this, you have made contact with your source. (p. 21)
The unveiled truth in every age has always been the revelation that ‘I’ am He: there is no other. There is only one Ego, only one Selfhood, the AM THAT I AM, that ‘I’ in the midst of us, the divine Selfhood of you and me.
Abide in the word ‘I’. Let this ‘I’ abide in you and recognise its identity. Never let anyone veil It for you again. Keep it sacred and secret. (p. 23)
The minute you have an image of God in your thought, you are personalising, and you are expecting that concept to be God, and a concept cannot be God. Only ‘I’ can be God, and you cannot have a mental image of ‘I’. That is the one word that defies description. Try as you will, you cannot make a mental image of ‘I’. (p. 80)
Whether you say that God is Omniscience, Omnipotence and Omnipresence, or that Jesus is Omniscience, Omnipotence and Omnipresence, really makes no difference, because in either case you have set up God and Jesus as separate and apart from the Self which you are, the ‘I’ which you are. When, however, you bring it all down to ‘I and the Father are one’, and know that ‘I’ is Omniscience, Omnipotence and Omnipresence, in the oneness you are infinite in being. In this oneness the ‘I’ of you is immortality. (p. 34)
One of the most important statements in the New Testament is the passage, ‘I am the way’. The incorrect interpretation of these few words has kept the world in spiritual darkness for seventeen hundred years …
Rightly interpreted, the words ‘I am the way’, mean what they say. The way, the truth and the life more abundant are to be found in ‘I’, the ‘I’ that I am, the ‘I’ that you are, for you have been told that you and your father are one … It is in his word ‘I’ that you find the entire secret of the spiritual message given to the world by Christ Jesus. (p. 39)
God is not a person … God is not localized as the mind of some one person: God is being. But God is infinite being; therefore God must be your being and my being. That is why we can accept ‘I’ as the name of God because I have the name ‘I’ and you have the name ‘I’. Each of us is ‘I’ … Each one of us is ‘I’ and God is that infinite ‘I’ in us. (p. 68)
When you know the secret of ‘I’, you abide in stillness and let ‘I’ do its work; not you – ‘I’, that ‘I’ that is in the midst of you. You need no thoughts, since you cannot and need not enlighten God. (p. 65)
The idea that Jesus indirectly taught a sadhana of concentrating on God as an inner feeling of ‘I am’ will probably sound strange and even a little dubious to most Christians. They would, in response, more than likely point out that Jesus never directly asked his followers to be aware of God in themselves as ‘I am’, and add that the only practice he overtly endorsed was that of bhakti. This, they would probably go on to say is clearly pointed out in Mark’s Gospel: