These were the words of Cassius Clay (soon to change his name to Muhammad Ali) after defeating then-Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston in 1964. They would prove prophetic, as Ali is widely considered as “the Greatest” boxer of all time. His words identified him.
There are countless examples of people boldly proclaiming their identity, from the braggadocios Clay to President John F. Kennedy declaring, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” in support of West Germany to Darth Vader infamously telling Luke Skywalker, “I am your father.” But today I want to talk about the boldest of the bold, the greatest proclamation of self-identity the world has ever seen or heard.
But first, some context. In John 8, we find Jesus debating with the Jews over His identity and authority. The Jews claim to be children (physical descendants) of Abraham. Jesus responds by telling them they are not Abraham’s children (spiritually, that is, possessing Abraham’s faith) but are actually children of the devil. They go back and forth until the Jews think they have Jesus trapped when he states that Abraham anticipated seeing His (Jesus’) day and rejoiced when he saw it. To which the Jews point out that Jesus was not even fifty years old. How have you seen Abraham? they ask. It is at this moment that Jesus pronounces some of the most powerful, jam-packed, consequential words ever spoken as He makes the greatest claim of identity of all time:
“I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM!” (John 8:58)
On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be that spectacular. It would also appear grammatically incorrect. But let’s unpack this a little. There are four major elements to this statement:
1) “Before Abraham was born . . .” Jesus is establishing preeminence by outdating Abraham. The Jews had claimed he was less than fifty, so to have been in existence before Abraham, either Jesus had aged remarkably well and found the secret to extraordinary long life, or He possessed some sort of supernatural ability. At the very least, He was capable of time travel. The Jews insisted that he was just a regular man. Just this part of Jesus’ statement, if true, would counter that argument. But we’re only getting started.
2) “I AM” was the name God gave to Moses when speaking to him from the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). It was the most holy name the Jews had for God. It was so holy, in fact, that they wouldn’t even speak it. John Phillips, in his book Exploring the Gospels: John, writes the following: “It is said that when a scribe was copying the Scriptures and came to this name for God he would take a new pen just to write that name. It is said that when a reader in the synagogue came to this name in the sacred text, he would not read it; he would bow his head in worship, and the congregation, knowing he was thinking the ineffable name, would bow in worship too.” Yet Jesus not only uses the name (imagine a pastor or priest taking God’s name in vain . . . that’s what this was to them) but uses it to describe Himself. Talk about a shocking statement.
3) “I AM” Remember, this is the name with which God Almighty identified Himself to Moses. By using this term, Jesus was claiming to be the very God the Jews esteemed, the God of Moses, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was not a parable, nor was Jesus speaking in unfamiliar terms to them. There could be absolutely no mistaking what He meant. After a long dialogue, Jesus essentially says, “Let me make this real simple for you: I am the Lord God Almighty.”
4) “I AM” not “I was.” As I mentioned earlier, at first glance, Jesus’ statement seems grammatically incorrect. Had He said, “Before Abraham was born, I was,” His words would have still been powerful. But by speaking in the past tense regarding Abraham (“was born”), and then in the present tense regarding Himself (“I AM”), Jesus is stating His eternal nature. He transcends time and space. He is not limited by human, earthly measurements. He did not come into being. He was not created. Before Abraham was born, even before the world was formed, “I AM.” We speak of all things in the past in past tense, and all things in the future in future tense. So we could say, Jesus was (past), is (present), and will be (future). But to be accurate, we should say, Jesus is, is, and is. As the author of Hebrews put it, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (13:8)
This simple statement has drastic consequences. The Jews saw it. They tried to stone Jesus. And, were His claims not true, they would have been justified in doing so. Either Jesus was committing the most brazen, blatant blasphemy of all time, or He was making the greatest truthful claim of all time.
C.S. Lewis is famous for his trilemma regarding Jesus, claiming He must be either “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord.” Calling Jesus a “Liar” doesn’t make much sense. If He was just a guy seeking attention, maybe a little full of Himself, don’t you think He would have pulled the plug somewhere around the first lashing of the flagellum? Maybe sooner. Similarly, “Lunatic” doesn’t hold up either. A close examination of the words and works of Jesus give no indication that He was clinically insane. He didn’t foam at the mouth. He didn’t convulse. He didn’t talk nonsense. Instead, He befuddled people with the logic of His arguments. He taught with authority that their teachers of the law did not possess. He never gave the slightest suggestion that He lacked mental faculties. If “Liar” and “Lunatic” don’t pan out, what does that leave us with?
It was a critical question to the Jews of Jesus’ day, and it is equally critical to all of us today. If Jesus was a liar, he deserved the wrath of the Jews and to be scorned by us. If Jesus was a lunatic, a wacko who talked about time travel and made claims of deity, then He should be pitied. If, however, He was accurate in His claim, if He IS the Lord God Almighty (in infinity past, at present, and in infinity future), then the only rational response is to listen to His words and obey His teaching. The choice is yours. As Jesus famously asked Peter, so He asks you:
“Who do you say I am?”
Phillips, John. Exploring the Gospels: John. Loizeaux Brothers, Inc. 1988