Before Abraham Was: John 8:48-59

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”  Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.  Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.”  The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon.  Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’  Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?  The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?”  Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’ though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”  Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

John 8:48-59 (NRSV)

Who are the real children of Abraham?

This has been the point of discussion immediately prior to this passage, which is part of a longer discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees in which the Pharisees are trying to discredit Jesus after he creates a schism in the crowds – some of whom are claiming that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  The Pharisees are trying to show that this isn’t the case.

By the time we get down to this passage, the Pharisees have asserted their pedigree and the inapplicability of Jesus’ judgments and warnings because they are descendants of Abraham.

Jesus argues that they are not, because when Abraham heard from God, he believed what God had to say and acted in accordance with that.  Instead, they are more like descendants of the devil because they are lying to the people about Jesus and trying to kill him.

This is important.  The Pharisees who can claim a biological connection to Abraham are portrayed as not true descendants because they do not share Abraham’s faith.  Their physical birth is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not they truly share Abraham’s faith and, therefore, truly inherit the promises made to Abraham.  We see this theme crop up back when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus in John 3 – saying that ethnic Israelites must be “born again” to see the kingdom.  Nicodemus gets confused, stuck on the idea of a literal birth rather than the holistic renewal of the nation.

Then we get to our passage, where Jesus reiterates that God will confirm his message, that God is the judge, and those who believe Jesus as a Word from God will not be destroyed by God’s judgement.

The Pharisees of this chapter, much like Nicodemus five chapters earlier, get really hung up on the literal meaning of “taste death.”  Because Abraham died.  The prophets all died.  Is Jesus saying that he is greater than these patriarchs and prophets who died?

Jesus makes it clear that he is not trying to proclaim his own greatness, but rather that God glorifies Jesus.  The Pharisees claim to follow this God, but by trying to discredit Jesus, they are showing their true allegiances.  Jesus, by contrast, is being faithful to God and “keeps his word.”

In this sense, Abraham rejoiced to see this day.  Abraham received the promise and the covenant, but Abraham did not see these things fulfilled in his day – during his literal existence on the earth.  As the author of Hebrews tells us of the patriarchs: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”

Abraham begins God’s great work of new creation and is the man whose family became a nation who were meant to be all the things God hoped for it.  He did not see this actually happen, however.  He died looking forward to that day.

Jesus has come to make that day happen.  He is the one who will restore the fallen kingdom.  He is the one who will resurrect a nation where YHWH will be their God and they will be His people.  And, strangest of anything, all the old boundaries that defined ethnic Israel as this people will be torn down, so that even Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith will be welcomed into the people of God.

Think about the ramifications of that.  Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith will receive the fulfillment of his promises, but ethnic descendants of Abraham who do not share his faith will not.

Jesus has brought about this great, new day of the kingdom.  He is about this work, and God the judge will vindicate and glorify him.  Abraham longed for this.  And Jesus asserts his superiority in that great statement:

“Before Abraham was, I am.”

Jesus places himself before Abraham.  He is more important, more prominent, because he is bringing about the great day that Abraham longed to see – the fulfillment of the promise.  Abraham died without seeing it, but Jesus will bring it to completion, ushering in a new age of Israel’s survival, growth, and dominion under Jesus as the king.  God the judge will rule in favor of Jesus and faithful Israel and against her oppressors.  God’s faithful will burst all boundaries, rolling out of Judea and throughout the Greco-Roman world, and as we have witnessed, the entire globe.  Jesus is the keystone of this whole, great, apocalyptic rolling forward of God and His people in history.

The Pharisees beg to differ.  You don’t get to say that you’re everything Abraham hoped for, and therefore are greater.  They pick up stones to kill him for blasphemy, and he sneaks out.  These are the charges that will follow Jesus from the religious power structure in Jerusalem.  He speaks against Moses.  He speaks against the Law.  He speaks against the Temple.  He speaks against our traditions.  At every turn is Jesus making the claim that he has brought the fulfillment of these things, and at every turn his opposition wants to cling to them and exalt them.  They have gotten these people to where they are, after all.

But God is behind this movement of history, and He will not be stopped.  Abraham and Moses died (although they will live again).  The Temple will fall.  The Law will pass away.  But what Jesus will accomplish will stand forever.

Consider This

  1. What were the promises made to Abraham?  How did they end up being fulfilled in the actual history of the world?
  2. If, like me, you are a Gentile, consider that Abraham’s story is your story.  Consider that you got here because of Abraham’s faith and the faithfulness of his descendants.  Consider that God did not have to include you in His people, but He chose to out of love for you, humanity, His creation, and being faithful to His promises to a man long ago.  This is something to be thankful for.