Saturday, 1 August 2009

Examine the “I AM” sayings in John’s Gospel and the insights they give into Johannine Christology.

The Background

The question of the authorship of this gospel remains unclear: it is traditionally attributed to the Beloved Disciple in much the same way as other books in both Old and New Testaments are attributed to authoritative figures as in the book of Psalms. Consequently the date and location of the writing remains largely guesswork: somewhere between 90 and 100 C.E. but most likely in Palestine. Kanagaraj argues that John was written following the calamity of 70 C.E. for a group of Christians who were following a form of Jewish mysticism called “Merkabah mysticism” based very much on the themes of Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7. (P 179) which was common in Palestine.

It is suggested that this gospel was written at a time when Christians were being forced out of the Synagogues and that the writing reflects conflict with the Jewish communities. Shnackenburg goes as far as to suggest that the gospel is sectarian (P36). John 1:10 speaks of Jesus’ own, the Jews, not accepting Him, whilst others do. “The Jews”, probably a term referring to the ruling class in Jerusalem, the very people who were supposed to be waiting for the messiah, repeatedly fail to believe in Jesus. This fits neatly into Merkebah mysticism where the secrets of God are revealed to the chosen while others misunderstand them.

What is clear is that John does not contain a great deal of material found in the Synoptics: there are no narrative parables and no account of the transfiguration or temptations. At the same time John contains a great deal of material not found in the Synoptics including much private instruction to the disciples. Only in John is Jesus explicitly identified with God and only in John do we find the “I AM” statements. (egô eimi)

There is some discussion – Bultmann particularly - that John may have come from a pre-Gnostic background: with fully formed Gnosticism not appearing until the second century there are suggestions that pre-Gnostic and mystic ideas were current in first century communities such as Qumran. Kysar argues that without accepting its theological worldview, John engages with it and uses the developing language of Gnosticism to subvert such theology as he writes about the intimate relation of the self to the transcendent source of all being. However, there is a tantalising hint about the nature of the gospel in the writings of Clement of Alexandria who argued that John had composed a “Spiritual Gospel”, an idea supported by both Origen and Augustine. This certainly does not mean spiritual as opposed to historical and is likely to refer to an understanding of John’s Gospel as allegorical or symbolic. (Wiles P13-14).

Others argue that John is heavily influenced by Hellenistic thinking, particularly Platonism and Stoicism which emphasised the Logos and is found in the Hermetic literature of the second and third centuries. The Logos was God but it became seen as the ideal man who is the image of God. What current thinking appears to argue is that John’s theology was based on a Judaism in ferment and going through a deeper process of rethinking and searching. The gospel of John was written, therefore, with certain Jewish assumptions, but also in response to and reaction against other Jewish ideas.

The Judaism we are seeking to unearth behind the gospel was rooted in the Old Testament and related to the rabbinic movement, but also swayed by sectarian features which might have included apocalyptic, mystical and Qumranic characteristics. Kysar P 242

It seems that John has filtered and synthesised virtually the whole spectrum of Jewish contemporary writing and thought which itself in turn contributed to developments such as Gnostic and Hermetic literature.

John’s Christology

John was aware of the starting point of the Synoptic Writers in relation to Jesus’ baptism and the descent of God’s Spirit which were to prepare the reader for understanding the following narrative: Jesus can only be understood as Messiah and Son of God. But to John that starting point seems to have been inadequate:

John alone gives the narrative about Jesus an absolute theological framework … The only perspective in which the work of Jesus, and his relation to the Father, could be truly seen and estimated was that of eternity. John’s use of a cosmogony as a background for his message of salvation is paralleled in other Hellenistic literature. Barrett P149

John’s opening verse is intended to echo the opening to the book of Genesis: what is beyond the world and time is known in Jesus. “Logos” was a familiar word in the Greek rendering of the Old Testament: “The Word of the Lord” is the means by which God communicated his message to his people (Jer 1.4: Now the word of the Lord came to me”). John asserts that the timeless word became an incarnation. In the New Testament the Word of God is frequently the message of salvation: the gospel Paul proclaimed was nothing less than Christ himself. John’s Christology is condensed in the word “Logos” – The Word: The Word incarnate.

Merkabah mysticism seems to be particularly important in understanding John’s Christology. The goal of this form of mysticism was to encounter God on his heavenly throne: John taps into this kind of mysticism by depicting Jesus as the doorway to Heaven (Jn 10.7-9 – an echo of Gen 28.17). It is by seeing Jesus that one sees God (Kanagaraj P188-189). For John, the place where Jesus is exalted – his throne – is the cross. Jesus’ death then becomes his exaltation and the effective means of communicating God’s love and saving power. The place in which God supremely shows his glory is the cross of the King of the Jews just like Ezekiel’s chariot-throne is the seat from which God revealed his glory before.

John’s Logos Christology holds together Jewish, Hellenistic and primitive Christian strands in a new unity.

The “I AM statements”

One of the most characteristic forms of speech in John’s gospel is the egô eimi (I AM) sayings. At frequent intervals the Johannine Jesus employs the self-authenticating formula but there are seven specific I AM statements with predicates that I wish to examine:

• "I am the bread of life" (6.35)
• "I am the light of the world" (8.12)
• "I am the door for the sheep" (10.7; cf. v. 9)
• "I am the good shepherd" (10.11, 14)
• "I am the resurrection and the life" (11.25)
• "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14.6)
• "I am the true vine" (15.1; cf. v. 5)

One may presume here a classic oral principle in operation according to which the speaker of words is as important as the message he delivers. In a comparable, though extravagant sense, Jesus of words of revelation acquires the status of revelation himself. Woll P 150

In the early Christian tradition it was primarily prophets who employed this self-authenticating form of speech. It is fair to assume that the egô eimi style in John carries similar implications. The Jesus who legitimates himself by way of egô eimi speaks not only authoritative language, but specifically prophetic language. This formula designates him as the prophetic representative and mouthpiece of God. In prophetic fashion he acts as spokesman of the One who sent him, and as dispenser of the divine Spirit. Those who hear his words are invited to believe not only the speaker, but the One who sent him: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes Him who sent me, has eternal life” (5:24).

It was not enough for John to portray Jesus as mere prophet, however. In his discussion with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus articulates his own authority in the following manner: “And no one has ascended into heaven, except he who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (3:13). The God of the Old Testament, the God of the universe calls Himself I AM. In Exodus 3:14, we read, "And God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM .... Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you." (NRSV). In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the same expression, "I AM”, seven times. This is a deliberate strategy on John’s part to reinforce his belief in Jesus-as-God. The “I Am” statements must thus be seen as an integral part of John’s Christology. Early Jewish Christians were certainly familiar with the Septuagint's pronouncement, "Ego eimi ho on," and likely would not have missed the symbolism of the Gospel of John's use of "Ego eimi," when spoken by Jesus John.

• I AM the Bread of Life (John 6.35)
The first of the "I AM" sayings, in John’s Gospel, is "I AM the bread of life" (6:35). This statement is found in the passage which follows the feeding of the multitude. Jesus says to the crowd, "Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you" (6:27). Here Jesus is building up to the key statement and is leading the crowd to the point where they may recognise his divinity and come to faith. The sceptics in the crowd, not unreasonably, ask for a sign: “What work are you performing so that we may see it and believe you?” (v30) adding "Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert, as it is written: 'He gave them bread from Heaven to eat'" (v31). Jesus responds by pointing out that God provided the manna "My father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (v33). This is not something which happened in the past but is something which is continuing to happen in the present: indeed Jesus himself is that bread from Heaven. How far at this stage the crowd have fully understood is not clear but there seems to be some spiritual awareness as they ask “Sir, give us this bread always.”
It is in response to this request that Jesus makes the claim, "I AM the bread of life, he who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (v35). This is, in effect, the summary of Jesus ministry and it is deeply personal, referring as it does to human yearning which Jesus will fill – and it will be universal because it “gives life to the world” (v33). Morris, interestingly, points out that the definite article, before the word bread, indicates the fact that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one who is the bread of life (P 110). While Milne states that, "the bread of life also points to the satisfying nature of Jesus." (P 111) as can be seen in the supplementary phrase, "never be hungry … and never be thirsty." Jesus alone supplies the spiritual needs of his hearers: this is not about mere physical hunger, where bread leaves people dissatisfied and wanting more. Indeed this idea can be applied in a wider spiritual sense where other approaches to God leave the supplicant ultimately empty: a direct challenge to those who are already seeking. Jesus is making a plain statement about his Heavenly origins here: in the following verses Jesus refers to a descent from Heaven (a Merkabah motif) and explicitly states that “.. all who see the son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”.

• I AM the Light of the World (8.12)
The theme of light is another Merkabah motif which would have had resonance for at least some of John’s audience. Shining light represents the glory of God and it is the source of the destruction of the enemies of God (Dan 7.11).
John begins his prologue with a reference to the Incarnate Word as "the life," and "the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (v4- 5). That this I AM of Jesus is placed during the Feast of the Tabernacles is no coincidence: at this feast several large candles were lit as part of the ritual. The metaphor of Light for Yahweh is found throughout the Old Testament: Isaiah 49.6, for instance tells us that the Servant of the Lord would be appointed as a “Light to the Gentiles” that he might bring salvation to the ends of the earth. Carson argues that "In the context of such powerful ritual, Jesus' declaration must have come with stunning force" P 338. What is important to grasp here is the universality of the statement. Jesus is not just the Light of the Jews but of the world and this Light is not just physical or moral: it is spiritual. It is in the context of this understanding that we need to read a later statement of Jesus: "Those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them" (11.9-10). In short, Jesus is the only Light and therefore a response is required.
• I AM the Door for the Sheep (10.7)
This I Am arises out of a dispute with the religious authorities who had ill-treated a man Jesus had recently cured of blindness. Jesus contrasts himself with them who he refers to as “thieves and robbers”
The tradition of the shepherd of the ancient near-east was to use a pen with one entrance where he would sleep: he was effectively the doorway. Jesus therefore states that he is the means by which the “sheep” may enter into the promised fullness of life. Again this is THE door, not A door; it is exclusive. There is no other door. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus also said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture" (v9). Although He does not explain what He means exactly by "saved", we can take it as meaning having "eternal life." For we find the two concepts of being "saved" and having "eternal life" linked in Jn 3.16-17, therefore, hermeneutic consistency requires a similar understanding here.
"Once again we encounter the thought of an exclusive salvation, exclusive in the sense that it can be entered only through the door, Jesus Christ. If there is one door for all the race, then once more we are reminded of something very important about Jesus. Like the other I AM sayings, this one leads us to think of deity." Morris P114
It is, nevertheless, interesting to speculate whether, while this is the theology of John, it represents a faithful recounting of the theology of Jesus.
• "I am the good shepherd" (10.11, 14)
This I AM” is, of course, closely linked to the preceding statement: the metaphor of sheep, sheepfold and shepherd continue and is developed further. In a further contrast with and challenge to the religious authorities Jesus is not just the Shepherd but the GOOD shepherd. Those same religious authorities are dismissed as “hired hands” (v13) who’s sense of responsibility for their sheep is limited. They do not “care for the sheep”, a statement which must reflect Jesus’ sense of their stewardship of the people of God thus far. The Good Shepherd, on the other hand, protects, leads, guides and nourishes the sheep. Jesus is also referring to His mission: on three occasions he speaks of "laying down" His life for the sheep (v15,17,18). The Shepherd, who protects the sheep, will protect them to the point of death. It was not just for the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" for whom the Shepherd would die, but also for the "sheep of another fold" (10:16), the Gentiles. John puts a mission to unite the peoples of the world under one Shepherd into the mouth of Jesus and this too is in the context of a prediction of his death. The impact on the hearers must surely be inescapable: this can only be another signpost to Jesus’ divinity.
• I AM the Resurrection and the Life (11.25)
This I AM is delivered in a much more intimate setting. Jesus has arrived at the house of Lazarus, only to find that he had died. Jesus consoles Martha, telling her that Lazarus would rise again. This is not, as Martha supposes, the resurrection of the dead on the last day. Rather Jesus is referring to something far more immediate. Before raising Lazarus to life Jesus explains to Martha that “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha, and presumably a number of other witnesses to this conversation, comes to understand this strange assertion of Jesus in the light of the subsequent sign: words and actions together to underline the point - death is no obstacle to Jesus because he has ultimate power over it. Again the conclusion John seeks in his audience is inescapable: this man must be divine.
• I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life (14.6)
This statement is also intimate: it takes place at the Last Supper where Jesus is meeting with his closest friends and is, in effect, part of his farewell speech. To some confusion among his disciples Jesus talks of the path he must follow: “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (v4) They clearly do not, which causes Jesus to rebuke them: “Have I been with you all this time and you still do not know me?” (v9) Jesus’ statement “I am the way, and the truth and the life” is followed by: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In talking of “the way”, we see in the way John uses Jesus’ words that there is another challenge to those who are seeking through other approaches. It is an overt challenge, followed by “the truth” which has in it echoes of the Logos section of the prologue. John piles on the pressure: his evangelistic aim is very clear. As Carson points out,

Jesus is the truth, because he embodies the supreme revelation of God - he himself 'narrates' God (1.18), says and does exclusively what the Father gives him to say and do (5.19ff; 8.29), indeed he is properly called God (1.1, 18; 20.28). He is God's gracious self-disclosure, his "Word", made flesh (1.14). P491

Thirdly, Jesus states that he is “the life”. This, as Morris states:
..takes us into the same area as the saying, "I AM the resurrection and the life". (18) Once again we observe Jesus associating very closely with life. "It is he alone whose life is unique, self- existent like the life of the Father (5.16). He is the life and the source of life to others (3.16). P119

In how many other ways are John’s readers to understand this statement?

• I AM the True Vine (15.1)
The image of the vine serves the 'mission' theme in two important ways. In the first place, it was the supreme symbol of Israel. A great golden vine trailed over the temple porch, and the coinage minted during the revolt against Rome (AD 68-70) also bore a vine symbol. The Old Testament has many pertinent allusions. Possibly the most important in connection with Jesus' claim, I am the true vine (v.1), is Psalm 80, which blends talk of Israel as 'the vine out of Egypt' (v8) with 'the son of man you raised up for yourself' (v 17). Milne P219

During the Last Supper Jesus twice makes the statement that He is "the vine". On the first occasion he links Himself with the Father, when He says “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower” (15.1). On the second occasion He links Himself with the believer, when He says, “I AM the vine; you are the branches” and relates this to the mutual indwelling of the Saviour and the saved (15.5).


John is very keen to show that the only preparation for entering the Heavenly Realm is a life transformed by the Spirit rather than aesthetic types of practices as performed in the mystical circles of his day. The revelation of God’s character in John is very much bound up with Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus John seems to strengthen Christian belief on the one hand while attempting to persuade the mystics on the other to come to faith by showing that communion with God is possible through Jesus as both Son of Man and Son of God: Jesus who, for the very purpose of bringing people to faith, reveals God in his Kingly Glory on the cross.

In many ways John’s context is not so different from our own: we too deal with people who have a spiritual hunger but who, like the seekers of John’s day express it in other ways. The Christian’s aim is to present the uniqueness of Christianity but uniqueness alone is not enough: all religious expressions claim uniqueness. What the Christian needs to assert is the exclusive nature of Christianity, not just as one of many faith systems but as the only way to approach God in the confidence of salvation. John's Gospel sheds a unique light not only on the ministry of Jesus Christ, but also on the nature and his relationship with God and this is particularly achieved through the I AM sayings.

While the rest of the New Testament speaks more to those who recognise Jesus as Lord and Saviour in the fullest sense of divinity, John has in mind those that do not. He is not known as John the Evangelist for nothing: he selects and presents the most convincing words and works of the man who claimed to be the Son of God to those who need eternal life: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name." (John 20.30-31)

There are no more universalistic sayings in the New Testament than in the fourth Gospel: ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12.32). In these passages John is identifying Jesus with the eternal realm and specifically with God Himself.

One might hope that John’s Gospel had included the famous “Who do men say that I am?” question of the Synoptics in relation to his own I AM sayings: nevertheless, while that link is not available within John it is a valid approach for the one who seeks to share Jesus with others. If these extraordinary statements that Jesus is reported by John to have made are true, then the conclusion that Jesus is God would seem inescapable. It is the role of the evangelist to help others to see that they are.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to see that there is a spiritual hunger in many we meet. Grace Davie talks about spirituality in a “post Christian” age. That hunger is still there, just not expressed in a Christian context. Equally there are many who feel they have lost their way; who feel in the dark, alone, on the wrong track in life and so on: each of the I Am statements could be a simple lead in to a conversation. But the nature of these statements is, in itself, a pointer to the need for responsible evangelism: to use them effectively a Christian would have to have heard a person’s story in order to recognise a need. This is about the knowing-and-caring-for approach to evangelism as true personal work: the approach so often despised and dismissed as “friendship” evangelism by those who prefer the hit-and-run approach to evangelism. “Don’t waste time building relationships. They may die before you get to the meat and then their spiritual death would be on your conscience.” No, this approach involves the core conditions of genuineness, empathy and respect and is most certainly part of relationship building.

Evangelism is a vexed issue but Jesus’ own model of working with individuals was personal. He built relationships. He got to know people. In the end it is not the Christian who convicts and converts but the Holy Spirit. It would seem to me totally appropriate that the I AM statements of John’s Gospel and their obvious resonance in the experiences, needs and aspirations of many today would be a channel for the Spirit to use.

Kanagaraj J.J: Mysticism in the Gospel of John, Sheffield Academic Press, 1998

Kysar R: John, 1986, Augsburg Press.

Wiles M.F: The Spiritual Gospel, the Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel in the Early Church, Cambridge University Press, 1960

Schnackenburg R: The Gospel According to St. John, Burns Oates, 1982

Barrett C.K: The Gospel According to St. John, Westminster John Knox Press, 1978.

Woll D.B: "The Departure of 'the Way': The First Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John," Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980):

Morris L: Jesus Is The Christ (Studies in the Theology of John), Eerdmans 1989

Milne B: The Message of John, Intervarsity Press, 1993.

Carson D.A: The Gospel According to John, Eerdmans, 1991

Davie, G: Christianity in Britain sinc1945, Blackwell, 2006

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