Jesus - I Am
Fr. Thomas Hopko · April 10, 2009
Where and why in the Scriptures is the term "I Am" used to refer to Christ and why is it so critical to His identity?
We have been meditating and reflecting on the names and titles of Jesus in the Scripture: that he is named Jesus which means the savior. He is confessed as “ho Christos” the messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. He is confessed as the son of God, the literal son of the one true God who is his Abba Father and that he is confessed as the Lord. And when we were reflecting on the title “the Lord” for Jesus, which is throughout the New Testament, we pointed out as, of course we must, that according to the Scripture that only God is the Lord: that the Lord is a title for God. There is no other Lord but God. God is the Lord over all creation. And then we saw that Jesus is called the Lord and that he is given the very name which the Scripture gives to God. Not simply a lord, but the Lord: the one who has authority over all things, the one to whom all things belong, the one who can rule and govern and order and command his subjects. This title is given to Jesus. He is the Lord. So much so that in the New Testament it becomes a kind of a formula: the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ the Lord, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with savior being the very word for Jesus.
So, the Lord, Christ is the Lord. Jesus is the Christ, the Christ is the Lord. But we said last time that it isn’t only the case that the Lord in Scripture is God, but we noticed that an extremely important thing. Critically important. And that is that the name that God gave to Moses in the encounter in the burning bush is the name Yahweh. The Lord says to Moses, God says to Moses, I was known until now as the Most High, the El Shaddai, but from now you shall know me as Yahweh. And we said that that term Yahweh literally means “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or “I do what I will do” or “I cause to be what I cause to be”, “I act how I act.”
It’s a hard word to translate, but we said that in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible done by Jews, not by Christians, but by Jews, the expression of the translation of that word in Greek was “Ego eimi.” I am. So, it is simply in the Scripture, very often called “I am.” And sometimes, even like for example, in the prophet Isaiah, you have these expressions that “you will know that I am”, that I am He. You have that expression used in the prophetic writings as well about God being the great I Am, the ego eimi.
Now, what we said last time also was that when that word was written in Hebrew, and was read in synagogue, and was read in Scripture, and chanted in Psalms, the people did not say “I am.” They did not say the word Yahweh. Only the great high priest said it, only once a year. It was a protected word, it was a numinal word, it was a holy word, not just be taken in vain, not to be said at all, practically, on the lips of creatures and sinners. So when the text had that word in it, the reader said instead of saying the word literally, the reader would say instead of it “the Lord.” In Hebrew, Adonai, the Lord. So they would say the Lord is God, Adonai elihanu, elohim, which means God in Hebrew, theos, is kurios. So that the term kurios became actually in the Scripture, especially for Greek-speaking Jews and then for all Christians, and then practically for the whole world, the word “the Lord” was the divine name. It was the name given Moses is what you said.
So whenever anyone said the Lord, the heard the name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush that he is to be called the Lord. Again I’ll say it in Hebrew, Yahweh, the tetragrammaton, the four consonants there, the Y, the H, the W, and the H, in Latin letters. What we want to see now is that as we mentioned when we were thinking about the term the Lord and realizing that it is the divine name. It is the name given to Moses to Mt. Sinai. It is the holiest most numinal title for God that you find in the Bible, almost 5400 times in the Old Testament. I think it’s 5329 or something like that or 321, but it’s well over 5000 times that you have this the Lord, which in Hebrew, would be the Yahweh word, which means I Am. We mentioned that in St. John’s gospel, you have Thomas confessing Jesus, the risen Jesus, as “the Lord of me and the God of me.” Ho kurios kai ho theos mou. The Lord and the God. We’ll speak about that later, how Jesus is even called God, not simply son of God, but the Lord, but God. We’ll get to that.
But focusing now on this Lord, and the I am, what we want to see is that in St. John’s gospel, you have a very clear teaching in St. John that this I Am, which is the Greek translation. In Greek, it’s ego (that’s I), eimi (means am). I Am. Jesus uses that relative to himself. And it runs through the gospel especially the Gospel of St. John. And here, I would suggest that it’s probably the truth, the fact of the matter is, that you don’t have the term the Lord being used so much in John’s gospel because you have the expression I am itself, that very expression being used many, many times in very critical ways throughout the gospel. But before we get to St. John, we want to see one use of that expression in Mark.
There are some scholars by the way that think that there’s a special connection between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John, strangely enough because Mark is the shortest and the starkest, and that gospel no creature calls Jesus the Son of God, whereas in John’s writing, the Son of God is all over the place. Jesus is the only begotten Son of God. We thought about this when we considered that expression the Son of God. But in Mark, before we go to John, let’s just see one very important passage that has to do with this expression. It would be in the 14th chapter of Mark, and it would be the 62nd verse, and it’s at the time of the trial. It’s at the time of the passion.
This is what we find there. During this court case, during this trial, the high priest stands up in the midst of the assembly, and he asks Jesus have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you? And then it’s written, “but he was silent and he made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, Are you the Christ, the son of the blessed.” Are you the Christ, the son of the blessed? And in St. Mark’s gospel it is written, “and Jesus said, I am.” Ego eimi, in Greek. And then he continued, “and you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven. And the high priest tore his garments and said why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision? And they all condemned as deserving death.” And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him.
Now, he says I am. And then he refers to that Psalm line that we mentioned when we considered the expression Lord. “The Lord said to my lord, sit at my right hand.” He says I am. And I Am is the name of God. Every Jew knew that. The high priest knew that. When he heard coming out of Jesus’ mouth the expression “I am”, and then continuing “you will see the son of man”—that’s a reference to Daniel 7—who sits at the right hand at the ancient of days who is God and is co-enthroned with him, and he says “coming on the clouds” then that for them is a blasphemy. And we should hear it in Greek. It sounds so interesting. When the priest says to him, Su ei ho Christos? Ho huios tou eulogetou. Are you the Christ, the son of the blessed? Ho de Iesous eipen, Ego emi. And Jesus said, I am. That’s the divine name. And then he continues, and you will see the son of man sitting enthroned at the right hand of power, and coming with the angels on the clouds of heaven. So Jesus claims his divinity there, and he uses the divine name.
Now this is even more explicit in the Gospel According to St. John. So, let’s look at St. John’s gospel to see how that expression I Am is used and how Jesus uses it for himself always remembering that I Am is Yahweh. I Am is the name that God gave to Moses, and always remembering that it is the Lord, that the word Lord and the word “I Am” are exactly the same. Even when the reader saw I Am, they would read the Lord in Hebrew. I can’t repeat this enough because it is so important.
Now it is also important because very often in English, they don’t simply write “I Am” like we just heard in Mark, but they say “I am he.” They put a he on the end. Well, there’s no “he” there in Greek. It doesn’t say “I am he.” They say “I am.” It is the same thing in Isaiah. Very often in Isaiah, when you have that expression being used, that expression “I am” being used, they will add a “he”. I am he, but in the original Greek there is no he. It is simply just “I am.” I am the one who dwells in the heavens. I am he, there is no other. This is the kind of expression that you find in the prophet Isaiah and in the Scripture. They shall know my name, it says. The people shall know my name and that day they shall know that it is I who speak. Here I am, I am he, there is no other. This is how it sounds in the prophet Isaiah. I, I am he that comforts you. If you read Isaiah, you will see how often that particular expression is used.
But getting back now to John, let’s begin just by his conversation with the Samaritan woman. In St. John’s gospel, Jesus has this encounter with the Samaritan woman. Of course, that even invokes some memories of even the patriarchs and even Moses in the Old Testament who met their wives by a well. Well, Jesus meets this fallen, sinful Samaritan woman by a well, and some commentators and the holy fathers think that that’s even to show that he’s meeting his bride there. His bride is the sinful world, the Gentiles, the heretics, all those who will come to believe in him. He meets her at a well. But the point that we want to see here now is when Jesus is talking to this Samaritan woman, this Photini—because she’s called the enlightened one. The woman says to him I know that messiah is coming who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will tell us all things. And then in the English translation of the King James, it says “Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.” I that speak unto thee am he.
Now in the Revised Standard Version, the way that it is translated, the woman comes, they have the conversation. The woman says to him, I know that messiah is coming, he is who called Christ. When he comes he will show us all things, and then the RSV writes, Jesus said to her “I who speak to you am he.” But if you read it in Greek, Jesus says to her “Legi aute, ho Iesous, ego eimi ho lalon soi.” So if you translated it literally from Greek, it would say “Jesus says to her ego eimi, I am he, the one that’s speaking to you.” I am he, the one who is speaking to you. It doesn’t say “I who speak to you am he.” It is ego eimi. I am, the one who is speaks to you. It’s just “I am.” There’s no he. Ego eimi. Put that phrase in your brain. I am. Ego eimi. Because this is what it says in the original: I am.
Now, when you go through St. John’s gospel further, you get to the 8th chapter where you have this incredible conversation between Jesus and the leaders of the people about who their father is and Jesus tells them that their father is the devil, and they say that he has the devil because he’s calling God his father, and it’s a big clash. Read the 8th chapter of the Gospel According to St. John. Now in this chapter though, what we want to see now is that there are three sentences there that are very important for what we are now talking about, OK? There are three that are very important that we are talking about. First of all, in this 8th chapter of St. John, you have the 24th verse, the 24th, well actually the 23rd and the 24th verse. I will read it to you in the King James Version. “He said unto them, you are from beneath, from below. I am from above. You are of this world. I am not of this world. I said therefore unto you that you shall die in your sins if you believe not that I am he. You shall die in your sins.” Now, in the Revised Standard Version, this is how it reads. “He said to them, you are from below, I am from above. You are of this world. I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he. Then they said to him, who are you?”
So, he says unless they believe that he is the “I am”, they’re going to die in their sins. Because in Greek, that’s what it says. He says, I am from above, you are from below, and it’s ego eimi you see from above ek ton aino eimi, and then he says I said therefore to you, you shall die in your sins if you believe not, if you do not believe, that I am. You shall die in your sins. And here is how it sounds in Greek. Ean gar me pisteusete hoti ego eimi apothaneisthe en tais harmartias humon. Unless you believe that I am, ego eimi, you will die in your sins. So he says if people don’t believe that he is the I Am, then they’re going to die in their sins. They’re going to perish. They’re going to perish. And that’s why they say to him who are you anyway? Well, what he is telling them is that he is the “I am.” He has the title “I am,” and unless you believe it, you’re going to perish.
And then he continues a few verses later, the 28th verse. In the King James it says “then Jesus said unto them, when you have lifted up the son of man, then you shall know” and then in English it says “that I am he and that I do nothing of myself, but as the Father has taught me, I speak these things.” Now if you read that in Greek again, there is no “he” there. It simply says when you have lifted up the son of man, which means, when he’s crucified, when he’s crucified and lifted up, and then in John’s gospel, this lifting up always has a double meaning. It means lifting up upon the cross, and then being lifted up into the heavens because he’s going to return to where he was before in St. John’s gospel. But notice what he says. He says when you see, you lift up the son of man, when you have lifted up the son of man, when you have crucified him, tote gnosesthe hoti ego eimi. You will know that I am. And there’s no “he” there in English. You will know that “I am.” Or we might that you will know that I am the I am. That he is the I am.
So this is the title, but the most striking passage in that same 8th chapter comes when they start discussing Abraham because they claim that they are children of Abraham and that Jesus is the son of God, and they say we have Abraham as our father. So they’re arguing with him about Abraham. So he says to them, your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and he was glad. So when they say they have Abraham as their father, Jesus just says Abraham’s not your father. If you really were children of Abraham then you would know who I am. You would accept me as the Son of God, the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, the I Am, but you’re caught up in your own delusions. You’re actually in the power of the devil is what he tells them. So when they make reference to Abraham, Jesus says these words, King James Version, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and he was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, thou art not yet 50 years old and hast thou seen Abraham?”
Now in the RSV, the Revised Standard Version, the way it is written is the following The Jews said to him, you are not yet 50 years old and have you seen Abraham? Then Jesus said to them, amen, amen lego humin. And we spoke about this before on the radio. When Jesus says “amen, amen” it’s very often translated truly truly. In the RSV, in the King James, it’s verily, verily. There’s an altar gospel up at the monastery where I serve, it says “assuredly”, most assuredly. In Greek, it just says amen. And that’s very important because in the time of Jesus, a rabbi was supposed to speak, and the people were supposed to say amen. So if a teacher began speaking to the people saying amen, amen I say to you, what he’s really saying is this isn’t negotiable. I don’t care about your amen. I’m giving you my amen before I say it.
So Jesus is speaking with total authority. Amen, amen I say to you. This is it. No negotiation, no question, I don’t care about your amen. This is the truth. So he says amen, amen, I say to you, he says. “Amen, amen I say to you before Abraham was, I am.” Amen, amen, lego humin, prin Avra’am, genesthai ego eimi. Literally, amen amen, I say to you, truly truly, verily, verily, without any discussion, this is it, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, genesthai, became, ego eimi, I am. Listen to that sentence. Before Abraham was, it says in the RSV, before Abraham came to be, I am. And then it says, they took up stones to cast at him and Jesus hid himself, went out of the temple in the midst of them, and passed by. In other words, they’re going to stone him to death. It’s blasphemy because what Jesus is saying here is before Abraham even existed, I am, and that means he’s God. That’s God’s name given by God to Moses in the fiery bush. When Moses asked him his name, he said my name is Yahweh, I Am. And Jesus takes that very same name to himself. It’s just amazing.
Now it happens two more times in St. John’s gospel that you have that ego eimi, that I Am, being used. It happens in the 13th chapter, the 19th verse in St. John’s gospel, and this is what it says there. It says Jesus is speaking about being betrayed by Judas. He said the Scripture has to be fulfilled that he who eats bread with me has lifted up his heel against me, and then Jesus says this. Now I tell you before it comes that when it comes to pass, you may believe, hoti ego eimi. I’m telling you these things before they happen so that when they do happen you will know that I am. Now again, in the English, it says that you will know that I am he, but again, in Greek, it doesn’t say it. Here’s how it’s rendered in the RSV. He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me. I tell you this now before it takes place that when it does take place, you may believe that I am. And then it even continues again, amen, amen I say to you. Amen, amen, lego humin, truly truly I say to you. He who receives anyone who I send receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me, namely God the Father. But here you have the I Am being used again. I am telling you this before it happens so that you will know that I am.
Now that is pretty much the same kind of a sentence that we heard already in the earlier chapters. Like when he says, they have lifted me up, they will know that I am. Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins. Before Abraham was, I am. I’m telling you things before they happen so that when they do happen, you will know that I am, and every single time he uses the expression, I am. Then it’s used the one more time in St. John’s gospel, and we see also it’s very strange, very strange, some people don’t understand this passage at all, and that is when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s in the 18th chapter. When Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, they come out to get him. They come out to arrest him. And when they come out to arrest him, I’ll just read the RSV here now, it says Jesus knowing all that was to befall him, he knew everything that was going to happen, he came forward and said to them, whom do you seek? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. And then it says, “Jesus said to them, ego eimi.” I am. Again in the English, it says I am he, but there’s no he there in Greek. Jesus said to them, I am. Judas who betrayed him was standing with them.
When Jesus said to them, I am, again in English they have a he there, but there’s no he in Greek, when Jesus said to them, ego eimi, I am, it says they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, whom do you seek? And they said Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus answered, I told you that ego eimi, that I am. That I am. So, again, you have this expression “I am.” And then he said, if you seek me, let these men go and the disciples run away, and they arrest Jesus and take him away. But you could ask the question, why would they fall back on their face. Why would they draw back and fall on the ground when they say, which one is Jesus and he says I am? Because when they hear in their ears that word ego eimi, and don’t forget they’re speaking Aramaic or Hebrew or something or rather, he’s saying the divine name. He’s saying the divine name. While at the same time saying who he is, he is saying the divine name which the Jew never said. And when that name was written, as I said already several times, they would even say the term the Lord, but in John’s gospel, he doesn’t say the Lord, he says I am. He uses actually the Old Testamental term, and that’s why they fall on their faces. You know, some people might ask, why did they fall on their faces when he answered the question? And the answer is because he said I am, and I am is the name of God.
Now, in St. John’s gospel, you not only have these passages where he says to the Samaritan woman I am the one who is speaking to you, or when he says when I am lifted up, you will know that I am, or unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins, or before Abraham was, I am, but he uses the “I am” nine times with a predicate nominative where he says not simply I am, but he’ll say “I am ho artos tes zoes”, I am the bread of life, the living bread that comes down from heaven. So when he speaks about this bread that when you eat it you will never die, he says that it’s him. I am this, ego eimi, again. Ho artos tes zoes.
When he speaks about the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, again you have the expression I am. I am the good shepherd. So you have it also the very same structure, the very same wording, ego eimi ho poimen ho kalos. Ego eimi, I am the good shepherd. He says also, I am also the door of the sheep, ego eimi he thura ton probaton, ego eimi he thura, I am the gate. I am the door. So he says, I am the bread of life. I am the living bread. I am the bread that came down from heaven. I am the good shepherd who lays his life for the sheep. I am the door of the sheepfold. I am the door of the sheep.
Then he also says in the 11th chapter when he’s raising Lazarus from the dead, and he meets Martha and Mary, he uses exactly the same formula again. He says, ego eimi he anastasis kai he zoe. I am the resurrection and the life. In the 14th chapter, I am the way, the truth, and the life. He doesn’t just speak about the way, or show the way, or tell the truth, or speak about how to live. He says I am the life. I am the truth. I am the way. How does it sound in Greek? You hear the ego eimi again. He says, ego eimi, he hodos, kai he aletheia, kai he zoe. I am the way or the road. I am the truth. I am the life. Then he says also in the 15th chapter, I am the true vine. Ego eimi he ampelos hi alethine. I am the true vine. You have in that same chapter, this expression of using the expression I am. And then of course, earlier in the gospel, back in the 8th chapter where he has this confrontation with the leaders of the Jews, and he says before Abraham, I am. In that very same chapter, he also says, speaking about the light of the world and as long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world. So you have that expression also of Jesus saying not only I am the resurrection and the life, but I am the light of the world, ego eimi ho phos tou kosmou. I am the light of the world.
So Jesus calls himself the bread, the bread of life, the living bread, the bread from heaven. He calls himself the good shepherd. He calls himself the door of the sheepfold. He calls himself the way, the truth, the life, the true vine, the light of the world, and the resurrection and the life. So there are actually nine things that he calls himself each time beginning with the expression ego eimi. I am. So this I am is the divine name again, to repeat again, over and again. We can’t repeat this too much. The I Am is the divine name. The I Am is the equivalent of the name Yahweh. It is what the people were meaning when the people said, the Lord, when they read the Scripture and said the Lord, they meant the I am. And we Christians, every time we hear the expression, the Lord, which you hear also in our mind, ringing in our heart and our mind, I am. I am. I am he. I am who I am. The Ho On.
And in our Eastern Orthodox churches, as many people probably know, that expression is put on the icons of Jesus. If you ever see an icon of Jesus in the Orthodox Church, there’s like a nimbus around his head and you have four Greek letters: ho, which is a definite article, and then an omega and then an N, an English N. Ho On. A Nu. So you have ho, the, existing one, on, Ho On. And that’s the divine name in participial form. I Am is the literal and Ho On is the participial. So, I am, or he who is. And by the way, in the dismissal services at vespers and matins in the Orthodox Church, at the end of the service where the final dismissal formula, the service is dismissed like this: the deacon or the celebrant says wisdom, and then the people say Father bless, give your blessing, Father bless. And then he’ll say, the priest says, Christ our God, and sometimes in English we say the existing one, or Christ our God, sometimes the translation says He who is, Ho On, but that is the divine name that’s there. Christ our God, Yahweh, you see, the Christ our God, the I am from the I am, the Lord from Lord, the God from God. So what that sentence is saying: Christ our true God, He who is is blessed always forever and to ages of ages.
And of course that would make us think of the line in the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ, exactly same, existing the same, yesterday, today, and forever because he is the I am. He is the I am together with God the Father who sits on the throne with him at his right hand. He is the Lord, to whom God the Father who is the Lord, the Lord says to my lord sit at my right hand. So we confess that Jesus is I Am and is deserving of the very name and title of God himself because he is God’s son, begotten of the Father, and everything that God the Father is, he conveys to him, and everything he has, he gives to him. So if the Father is I Am, the Lord, so the Son is the Lord, I Am, and even the Holy Spirit as St. Paul said, is the Lord, as the creeds all say, the Lord and the life-giver, the giver of life.
So, in St. John’s gospel, we have a very sparse use of the term the Lord, but we have it Thomas’ confession, and we have it in other places. Martha says it is the Lord. When he’s risen from the dead, it is the Lord. When he reinstates Peter into the apostleship by asking him three times if you love me, Peter addresses him, Lord you know. So he is called Lord, but John’s gospel, which is the theological gospel, the divine gospel, the wisdom literature gospel, where Jesus is the Logos incarnate, the only begotten Son, begotten of the Father, begotten before all ages in St. John’s gospel. In that gospel, he is revealing himself as ego eimi, as I Am. And that “I Am” is the divine name. It is the name that most people said “the Lord.” It’s a synonym of God. It’s a synonym of the Lord. And it’s the name that God gave to Moses at the encounter at the burning bush. So, it is certain for ancient Christianity that Jesus is I Am in exactly the same way God the Father is I Am. There are three who are I Am, and the I Am is identical in each one.
This is our faith, and so let’s say it one more time. The leaders of the people say to Jesus, we have Abraham as our father. You’re not yet 50 years old and you say that Abraham saw this day and rejoiced? Are you insane? And in St. John’s gospel, Jesus answers and says “truly, truly, amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” At that point, they picked up stones to throw at him for blasphemy. Hopefully, when we hear those words, we fall down on our knees and worship him. Before Abraham was, I am. These are the words of Christ in St. John’s gospel.