11. Jesus is God's Saving Presence
More than once in this book have I had occasion to speak of Judas. The reason is clear. Judas figures quite prominently in John's Gospel because he was a problem. How could something so atrocious have happened that one of Jesus' trusted associates betrayed him to his enemies? One element of the problem was: had Jesus not known? John replies by reminding his readers that Jesus had foretold Judas' betrayal during the Last Supper (Jn13,21-29). And he makes Jesus say in this context:
"I tell you this now before it happens so that, when it does happen? you may believe that I AM." Jn13.19
Judas' treason did not take Jesus by surprise. It is a theme in John's Gospel. He knew right from the beginning that Judas was going to betray him (Jn6,64; 13,21-30; 18,4). John explains the reason for his concern. If Jesus had not foretold that it would happen, the disciples might have taken him for a fool, a teacher deceived and handed over to his enemies by one of his own pupils. In fact, this may well have been a form of ridicule aimed at the early Christians by John's contemporaries.
But the question of Jesus' foreknowledge was not, in my view, the greatest problem about Judas. The real shock was the fact itself that Jesus had failed as Saviour. Judas had followed Jesus initially with enthusiasm. In spite of interpretations as found in "Jesus Chirst Superstar" we know little of his motivations. But we may surmise that, like the other apostles, he had been looking for the Messiah and he thought he had found him in Jesus. Perhaps, like the many who left Jesus (Jn6,66) he was disappointed by Jesus' predominant interest in spiritual salvation. But unlike them he stayed on for his own reasons (Jn6,70-71). John tells us that Judas had begun to take money from the common fund (Jn12,6). Judas opted for material profit and for favour with the Jewish leaders rather than for Christ. He thus became the model of so many other Christians who are baptised but then turn to the ideals of this world for their 'salvation'. Is this why Jesus appeals to his other disciples not to be put off by this example, but to "believe that I AM?" How do we believe that He is?
I am who I am
In John's Gospel Jeus applies the absolute "I AM" statement to himself at least four times.
"You will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM" (Jn 8,24)
"Then you will realise that I AM" (Jn8,28)
"Before Abraham was I AM" (Jn8,58)
"That you may believe that I AM" (Jn13,19) (1)
Every Jew knew that "I AM" was a circumscription for God, an interpretation of the name Yahweh. Moses had asked God, "When the people ask me for your name, what shall I tell them?" God had answered: "I AM WHO I AM Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you"' (Ex 3,14). We know therefore that Jesus was referring to his unity with the Father, but what precisely did he want to express by the phrase "I AM"?
There has been a long tradition in the Church that interpreted the expression as speaking of God's essential nature. In the wake of Plato and Aristotle the Greek speaking world was well aware of the special claim divinity has on "being". From the fourth century on the Fathers of the Church followed this philosophical interpretation. "By calling himself 'I AM' while giving other names to other beings, God taught us that only he himself is Being, and nothing else besides" (Ephraem; 306 - 373 AD) (2). "Nothing can more rightly be said about God than that he IS" (Hilary, 315 - 366 AD).(3) "God was always: he is and shall be. Rather he IS always. For 'he was' and 'he shall be' are segments of our time and passing nature. But he IS always and thus he called himself Being when he spoke to Moses on the mountain" (Gregory of Nazianze; 329 - 389 AD).(4) "When God said 'I AM WHO I AM' he did not just give his named he expressed his nature. For nothing is so proper to God as the fact that he always IS" (Ambrose; 333 - 397 AD)(5) "Everything else takes its being from God. But God, who always is, does not have his source from elsewhere. He is both his own origin and he cause of his nature. Whatever he is, has not been derived from outside his Being" (Jerome; 342 - 419 AD)(6)
When John makes Jesus say "I AM", is he saying that Jesus share "Being" with the Father in a metaphysical sense? What is the meaning of the phrase? What does it tell us about Jesus? Does it have any special significance for us today? These are the questions we will be examining in this chapter. And, as usual, we will begin our investigation by tracing the origin of the expression in the ministry of Jesus himself.
Countering false claims
Did the historical Jesus ever use the absolute "I AM"? The synoptic material contains some intriguing passages that give food for thought. On a number of occasions Jesus said, "I AM" where it could be a simple "it is I", but where the context does suggest a divine self-revelation. Jesus said "I am" before the sanhedrin (Mk 14,62), when walking on the water (Mk 6,50) and when appearing to the disciples after the resurrection (Lk 24,36). In all these cases it is difficult to establish whether Jesus himself used the expression and even more so whether he used it in the sense of a divine "I AM" statement. It shows, perhaps, that the evangelists were sensitive to the implications of a divine "I AM".(7)
More promising is an ancient warning from the eschatological sermon in which Jesus is reported to have said: "Take heed that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, 'I AM' and they will lead many astray" (Mk 13,5-6; Lk 21,8). Who are these false prophets who will pretend to come in Jesus' name? What exactly will they claim to be? When Matthew supplies the fuller text, "They will say 'I am the Christ"' (Mt 24,5), he gives us an interesting clue. For we know from contemporary history that many pseudo-prophets claimed to be the Messiah. "I am" would then be equivalent to "I am the one you are expecting.
A comparative study of the "I AM" formulas in Hellenistic sects and cults has revealed that it is not found so much in the absolute form, as in combination with divine images. The formula normally contains the self-predication by the divinity, an invitation to convert and a promise of salvation. For instance, "I am the light. Surrender yourself to me and I will save you" (8) Since this way of speaking is not really at home in the Old Testament or in rabinnical writings, the image words of John that are introduced by "I AM" must be interpreted against this Hellenistic background.(9) This means that when Jesus says, "I am the light of the world" (Jn8,12), "I am the bread of life" (Jn6,35), "I am the good shepherd" (Jn10,11), etc., he is asserting these claims against the false pretensions of Isis, Mithras, Poimandres or any other Gnostic divinities. Or, to state the case more precisely: while these self-revealing statements do express different aspects of Jesus' salvific function, they assert at the same time that such salvation is found with him. and not with any other Pseudo-Prophet or cult divinity. The eschatological warning can then be understood to mean: "Certain preachers will come, sometimes even using my name, who will make spurious salvific claims, saying: 'I am this!' 'I am that!' Do not be led astray by them!"
But there is a tremendous difference between the predicated statements and the absolute "I AM". When Jesus says, "I am the Way,: the Truth and the Life" (Jn14,6) he ascribes a unique position to himself, and implicitly rejects the claims of all pseudo-prophets and saviour gods. But when he says, "I AM", he seems to be making a far more specific statement. What does it mean?
The God who acts
If we want to understand the full impact of the expression we have to go back to its Old Testament connotations. Remember the context in which God's designation as "I AM" was mentioned first. The Jewish people were suffering slavery and oppression in Egypt. God appears to Moses and commissions him to lead the people out of that hostile country. When Moses asks for his name God replies bv saying, "I AM WHO I AM", precisely to indicate that he will prove who he is by his vigorous action. "Tell the people, 'I AM has sent me"' (Ex 3,14).
The meaning of this emphatic "I AM" should not be sought in a philosophical definition of God as one who has Being in himself, Both the context and the genius of the original Hebrew expression require that it has a dynamic sense. The "I AM" of God is a "being with others" or a "being for others". It implies a powerful openness to others, a mighty presence. It means that God is able and prepared to act on behalf of the people whose God he wants to be. The "I AM" of Yahweh is no condition of rest, no passing by society or the world; it shows itself in a repeated intervention in history to save his own. This "I AM" contrasts strongly with the "non-being" of Baal and the other idols who are powerless and worthless.170
We find the same meaning of "I AM" in the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah (Is 40 - 55). These prophecies were words of consolation to the Israelites who had been taken to Babylon as prisoners of war after the destruction of Jerusalem. They were few in number, ill-treated, surrounded by hostile strangers. Who was going to help them? The gods of the nations among whom they found themselves?
Some Israelites in exile to whom Deutero-Isaiah preached were apparently tempted to join in the idolatrous practices of the nations whose captives they were. The prophet ridicules such idolatry by describing how idols are fashioned from waste material and then considered divine (Is 44,9-20). How stupid are the people who hire a goldsmith to make them a god, then bow down to it and worship it! It will never answer them or save them from misfortune (Is 46,6-67). The fate of idols can be measured from what happened to the statues of Bel and Nebo. Once they were the divinities of Babylon. After Babylon's fall they were loaded on donkeys and carted off (Jn46,1-12). One should never compare God to such an idol, to an image made by mortal men. God is the creator of the whole world (Is 40,18-26). Precisely because he is God, he alone can save his people.
The "I AM" statement in Deutero-Isaiah is a strong affirmation of Yahweh being the only Saviour because he is God. No less than six times we find the assertion: "I am Yahweh and outside me there is no other God" (Is 45,18.104.22.168.22; 46,9). The same claim is repeated again and again. "I alone am Yahweh your God. No other God will share my glory; I will not allow any idol to share my praise" (Is 42,8). "I alone, Israel, am Yahweh your holy God. I created you. I am your king" (Is 43,15). "Only I, Yahweh, am the God who saves my people. There is no other God'' (IS 45,21). It is in this context that we read: "Know and believe and understand that I AM. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am Yahweh. Apart from me there is no saviour" (Is 43, lO-l 1) .
From these Old Testament passages we discover that the phrase "I AM" is a strong affirmation of God as the one who proves his divinity by what he does. He is a God who proves his worth by acting. The "I AM" thus comes very close to the divine promise: "I shall be with you" (Ex 3,12; Jos 1,5; 3,7; cf. Mt 28,20). This is also the way it should be understood in John's Gospel. By saying "I AM" the Johannine Jesus asserts that the Father's saving work has become a reality in himself. The Father reveals himself just as much as a saviour through Jesus' presence as he revealed his saving power by liberating his people in Eygpt and Babylon. The present tense in "I AM" stresses stresses the actuality. God saves now. 171
Only those who recognise Jesus as "God who saves" understand who he is. This can be seen from the fact that the "I AM" statement is usually the object of faith. "That you may believe that I AM";(13,19); "unless you come to believe that I ~" (8,24); "you will realise that I AM" (8,28)172. In fact, we may not be far wrong in saying that "believing" in John's Gospel simply stands for accepting Jesus as the saving presence of the Father. The contents of our belief in Jesus is: he is the Messiah, the Son of God (Jn11,27; 20,31); the Holy One who comes from God (Jn6,69); 16,27.30); the one sent by the Father (Jn17,8.21); the one who is the "I AM" (8,24; 13,19); the one who is totally in the Father and the Father in him (14,10-11).
Although believing is sometimes used of the Father ("you may believe in God"; 14,1), it normally is applied only to Jesus (10) Moreover, believing is always an act for John; he often uses the verb (98 times), but never the noun "faith" or "belief". Believing is the act of commitment to Jesus. It means coming to Jesus (Jn6,35; 7,37)' receiving him as the one sent by the Father (Jn1,11-12; 5,43; 13,20), admitting that his witness is true (Jn3,11), and accepting his words (Jn12,48; 17,8). In short, it is surrendering to him as the final and decisive revelation from God.
The 'Gods' of our World
We have seen how the "I AM" proclamation of God always demands a rejection of spurious saviour gods. In John's time some of these were actual idols, divinities worshiped in various cults. But John was well aware of the fact that the more pernicious idols were the ideals of the world of darkness: "the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and the pride of life". That means: comfort, property and power (1 Jn 2,16). If Christ is able to help us, we have to disown these material and social idols that compete for our allegiance. We should not allow them to monopolise our attention and worship. John's Gospel exposes some of these 'false gods' more in detail.
It may be that all we worry about is our food and material comfort. "You ate bread and had all you wanted" (Jn6,26-27; see also Jn4,31-34). Or it may be that we sacrifice everything in order to gain a respected social position in our society. "Let the whole world know about you" (Jn7,3-4; see also 3,26). Our highest goddess may be our intellectual pride. "This teaching is too hard. Who can listen to it?" (Jn6,60; see also Jn3,9-13). Or we may worship a licentious, irresponsible freedom. "Everyone who sins is really a slave" (Jn8,31-36). Then again, among our idols we may find an exaggerated nationalism, even racism. "Our father is Abraham" (Jn8,37-41; see also Jn7,52). Or we may be attached to religious observances that dominate our whole life, making us religious fanatics. "Do not judge by external rules, but by interior norms" (Jn7,22-24); see also Jn5,16; 7,49; 9,16). Or we may yield our principles for the sake of political power and social influence. "The only king we have is the emperor" (Jn19,15; see also Jn11,47-48; 18,14; 6,15). We may consider violence and the force of arms the true basis of our security. "Put your sword into its sheath" (Jn18,10-11; see also Jn18,38).
The tragedy is that, in following these 'false gods', we hope to become happy; while in actual fact we are destroying our true happiness. God does not want to deny us the joys of human nature; he does not crush our autonomy; but he knows that we will not be fulfilled as persons - in our body, in our feelings, in our relationships and our higher aspirations, - if subordinate needs are pursued as ultimate goals. Only by turning to Christ and by accepting the priorities of his kingdom_ can we receive the "abundance of life" (see chapter Jn15), can we become truly autonomous (chapter Jn16), give a meaningful service (chapter Jn17) and be loved (chapter Jn18). It is not out of petty pride but for our sake that he says, "You will die in your sins unless you come to believe that I AM" (Jn8.24).
We are not alone
The "I AM" statement of Jesus also tells us that we never need to feel alone. Loneliness is one of the evils of our metropolitan-style of living. But loneliness is also a deep void in every human heart. The void is filled by loving people who surround us. But, on a deeper level, the void can only be filled by experiencing that God, our origin and destiny, the one who ultimately made us a person, loves us and cares for us. The brave humanist who believes that "man is on his own and that this life is all there is; that man himself is responsible for his own life and the life of all mankind",(11) is standing alone in a universe dominated by cold, mysterious and often hostile powers.
The "I AM" of Deutero-Isaiah reassures us. "Don't be afraid for I am with you. Do not worry for I am your God" (Is 41,10). "Fear not, you puny Jacob, you people of Israel I will help you" (Is 41,14). "When the poor and needy look for water, I Yahweh will come to their rescue...." (Is 41,17). "I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know" (Is 42,16). How can you say I have forgotten you?! "Can a mother forget the baby sucking at her breast? Will she not feel sympathy for the child she has borne? But even if a mother would forget her child, I will never forget you. See, I have written your name on the palm of my hand" (Is 49,14-16).
We find similar reassurances in John. "Do not be anxious and worried" (Jn14,1). "Do not be worried or anxious. Do not be afraid. I am leaving peace with you. It is my own peace I am giving ycu" (Jn14,27). "I have told you all these things to make sure you will have peace, based on me. Yes, you will undergo hardships in the world. But don't lose courage: I have won the victory over the world!" (Jn16,33).
For reflection. A threefold denial
Peter was committed to Jesus. He admired Jesus and had repeatedly stated he was prepared to die for him. But when Peter was put under pressure in the highpriest's courtyard, he told lies rather than risk his safety (read 18,15-27). It raises the question of how deep our convictions lie.
I claim to be a Christian, but do I really believe that my fulfilment and happiness are with Jesus? Have my Christian convictions been put to the test?
What are the idols, the "rivals" of worship, that tempt me to defect from total allegiance to Christ? Am I aware of this temptation? How and where does it manifest itself?.
What am I really after when I turn to other things for satisfaction and happiness? Is there a conflict between what
God wants for me and what I want for myself? Have I ever confronted him with my real wishes?
Does Jesus' "I AM" assurance confirm me in my search for security and peace? Could I express my need for such fulfilment in a personal and explicit prayer? Can I also verbalise what Jesus is saying to me?
1. There are two more texts with an "I am" declaration (6,20 and 18,5). In the context they could simply mean: "It is I".
2. Adversus Haereses, Sermo 53.
3. De Trinitate, L 1, n.5.
4. Orationes 45,3.
5. Enarrationes in psalmos 43,19
6. Commentarium in Epistulam ad Ephesios 2, 3, 14. (All quotations (in notes 162-166) are from M. J. ROUET DE JOURNEL, Enchiridion Patristicum, Herder, Rome 1958 .
7. R. SCHNACKENBURG, Commentary (see note 35), Vol II, excursus 8. "Origin of the E/W CUpC formula" pp.59-70.
8. "I am Poimandres, the mind of Absolute Sovereignty", Hermetica I,2; "I am the Emissary of light whom the Great One sent into the world", Ginza II,3 (Mandaean); "I am the light that is above them all. I am the ALL: the ALL has emerged from me.. . Cleave a piece of wood - I am there; lift a stone up - and you'll find me there", Gospel of Thomas 77. Ph. B. HARNER' The "I Am" of the Fourth Gospel, Fortress Press, Philadelphia 1970, p.28. The classic discussion can be found in K. KUNDZINS,Charakter und Ursprung derJohanneischen Reden' Riga 1939.
9. Some isolated parallels in the Old Testament, "I am the first and the last" (Is 41,4; 44,6; 48,12), "I am your shield" (Gen 15,1) etc. really belong to a different kind of statement. Cf. SCHNACKENBURG, ibidem (note 10).
10. "Believing in" occurs 36 Times (twice regarding the Father; 31 times regarding Jesus; 4 times regarding the name of Jesus).
11. H.J.BLACKHAM, Humanism, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1968, p.13.
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