A major theme of the Gospel of John in the Bible’s New Testament is that it relates incidents in which Jesus was asked who he was. For example, Jesus was asked, “Who are you?” “Who do you claim to be?” “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (Jn 8.25; 8.53; 10.24). Sometimes, he answered (Jn 10.24-30; 18.33-38; cf. Matt. 26.63-64).
One such incident is recorded in John 8. (Bible quotations are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted). We read that Jews asked Jesus, “‘Who are you, anyway,’ they asked. ‘Just what I have been claiming all along,’ Jesus replied” (Jn 8.23 NIV). He here refers to early in his ministry when Nicodemus—a Torah teacher and Sanhedrin member—came to Jesus with a humble attitude of inquiry, even saying to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3.2).
Jesus then told Nicodemus he needed to “born again” (Jn 3.3 NIV). He explained, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (v. 13). He referred to the incident recorded in Num 21.9 as a symbol of his imminent crucifixion. Jesus herein combined two Old Testament motifs that refer to himself—the Son of Man in Dan 7.13-14 and Yahweh’s suffering Servant in Isa 52.13. So, in John 8 Jesus says of his crucifixion, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he” (John 8.28), that is, the Son of Man. (The “he” is supplied and therefore is not in the Greek text. And Jesus meant that a person will be born again by truly believing in Jesus dying for his or her sins.)
Many traditionalists–Christians who believe Jesus was and is God–claim Jesus saying “I am he” in John 8 alludes to God’s declaration “I am” in Exodus 3. This text is about Moses seeing a burning bush at Mount Horeb that miraculously did not burn up, and God spoke to him from it. Moses then asked God his name. God replied, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex 3.14). This is the meaning of God’s name, which is given in the next verse as “YHWH” (v. 15). This name for God appears in the Hebrew Bible nearly 7,000 times. English Bible versions usually substitute the word “LORD” for it in full caps. The pronunciation of YHWH is uncertain, but it likely is “Yahweh” or “Yehvah.” So, traditionalists insist that Jesus saying“I am” (Gr. ego eimi) without a predicate, in John 8, alludes to Ex 3.14 and thereby indirectly identifies himself as Yahweh.
This interpretation is skewed because it divorces these “I am” sayings in John 8 from their immediate context, which is that Jesus claimed to be “the light of the world” (Jn 8.12; 9.5) and “the Son of Man.” So, Jesus’ answer to their question, “Who are you?” was what he had been telling them, starting with Nicodemus from the beginning, that he was the Son of Man of Dan 7.13, who, as the suffering Servant, would be lifted up by crucifixion. Thus, Jesus means in John 8.28, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he”—the Son of Man.
Jesus said more to them which included, “whoever keeps my word will never see death” (John 8.51). He meant they would not remain dead forever but would receive eternal life at the resurrection (e.g., Jn 3.16, 36; 5.21; 17.2). These Jews did not understand this and retorted, “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?” (v. 53). Jesus concluded his answer by saying, “Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad” (v. 56). We read next, “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’” (vv. 57-58).Traditionalists believe this last declaration of Jesus indicates he preexisted Abraham. But it more likely means Abraham experienced something about Jesus. It could have been the very important incident in which Abraham obeyed God by going to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar (Gen 22.1-10). As Abraham lifted the knife to slay Isaac, demonstrating his faith in God, “the angel of the LORD” stopped him (vv. 11-12). Then we read, “Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (v. 13).
The New Testament book of Hebrews has a chapter that recounts brief histories about heroes of faith in God mentioned in the Old Testament. One is Enoch. The author of Hebrews states, “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him.’ For it was attested before he was taken away that ‘he had pleased God’” (Heb 11.5).
The author obviously refers to Gen 5.24. He then recounts other heroes of faith in God, including Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and then concludes, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (v. 13). This statement requires that Enoch being “taken” does not mean he did not die, as is commonly thought. Thus, the fact that “he did not experience death,” probably means he did not experience the pain of death. For this author of Hebrews had written earlier, “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb 9.27 NIV).
Accordingly, neither Enoch nor Elijah (2 Kgs 2.1, 11) escaped death. And they certainly did not experience resurrection, for Paul says Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor 15.23). And they must have been taken up into the atmosphere, not the heaven where God dwells. For Jesus said, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man,” referring to himself (John 3.13)
The author of Hebrews continues, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb 11.17-19). This author means that Abraham’s offering of Isaac, and the ram caught in the thicket, are a type referring to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Plus, I explain in my book, The Third Day Bible Code (pp. 123-32), that this Abraham-Isaac incident occurring on the third day of their journey is also a type of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day. So, Jesus saying, “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8.58), may refer to Abraham’s experiencing this incident in which his son Isaac was a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which further indicates that Jesus outranks Abraham in the kingdom of God.
In conclusion, Jesus’ “I am” sayings in John 8 must be interpreted according to their context, which provides no evidence that Jesus therein identified himself as Yahweh. See similar “I am” sayings of Jesus and their contexts in the Gospel of John. E.g., Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “I am he,” which refers to her remark about the “Messiah” (Jn 4.25-26). (Cf. Jn 9.35-37). Also, Jesus predicted in his Olivet Discourse, “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he'” (Mk 13.6), which will not be a claim to the “I am” of Ex 3.14 but a claim to be Jesus. And Jesus’ thrice saying “I am he” in John 18.5-8 refers to his previous self-identification “Jesus of Nazareth” in v. 5.