Throughout John’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ life and ministry, one key question is asked of Jesus again and again: “Who are you?” From the Samaritan woman to the Pharisees to the crowds in Jerusalem, everyone is trying to understand who Jesus is. Sometimes the answer is given by those around him. John the Baptist told his disciples that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (1:29), and the crowds on Palm Sunday declared that Jesus was the king of Israel (12:13). More often, however, Jesus answers that question by declaring emphatically who he is through his “I am” statements.
In this issue, we turn to that distinctive feature of John’s Gospel, the seven “I am” sayings. These statements, so familiar to those who love this Gospel, are clearly implied declarations of divinity—familiar, scholars tell us, to anyone in Jesus’ time who had read the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). They would have heard Jesus’ words and immediately connected them to the covenant name of God, who had declared it to Moses this way: “I Am Who I Am” (Exod. 3:14).
The seven “I am” sayings all refer to something known to Jesus’ original audience: bread, light, doors, shepherds, resurrection, the way, and vines. But like the parables of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus doesn’t use these familiar word pictures to make himself more accessible. By using the predicate statement “I am,” Jesus draws our attention, as New Testament scholar Leon Morris puts it, to “something otherwise unknown and inaccessible.” The wonder of John’s Gospel is that this unknown and inaccessible deity has drawn near in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
People in our own day are still trying to answer the question first posed to Jesus: “Who are you?” The responses are just as varied as we find in John’s Gospel. Some say he is a great teacher, a prophet, a miracle worker, a divine figure. Few of our contemporaries, however, take Jesus at his word. Few allow Jesus the exclusivity he claims in his seven “I am” sayings. They prefer their “own personal Jesus” to the one attested to by John.
Sadly, Christians are not immune to the temptation to redefine Jesus. Like our unbelieving friends and family, we often imagine a Jesus who grants our wishes, comforts our sorrows, or inspires our life, but who bears little resemblance to the one who proclaims himself to be the Son of God enfleshed.
As you work your way through this issue, prepare to be reintroduced to Jesus—on his own terms. If you have an unbelieving friend or family member, invite them to read along with you. Jesus shattered the illusions of the religious and nonreligious alike. May he do so again!
Eric Landry executive editor