Jesus – who is he? (John 8.48-59)

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“A Samaritan and demon-possessed”? (8.48)

The bad-mouthed suggestion that Jesus was a Samaritan clearly reflected the racial and religious antipathy which burned at that time. Such mutual hatred between races goes right against Jesus’ teaching in his story of the Good Samaritan – it was a Samaritan who helped the Jew in need! We are called to love our neighbour. But in John 8 Jesus does not answer such an obviously malicious accusation.
He does, however, reply to the terrible calumny that he has a demon. This he denies categorically (8.49) and goes on to proclaim just the opposite. He does not belong to the devil, but on the contrary he says “I honour my Father”. His accusers were therefore guilty in dishonouring him. In dishonouring Jesus, they were actually dishonouring God the Father himself. The ultimate purpose in life lies in glorifying Jesus and through him bringing glory and honour to the Father.
Self-glory? (8.50, 54)
So, does Jesus glorify himself? All glory does rightly belong to him, but it is his Father who seeks Jesus’ glorification and who judges us all (8.50). Several times in the Gospels Jesus is accused of glorifying himself, but he always rejects it. He never seeks his own glory, for the whole purpose of his coming to earth is that his Father in heaven might be glorified. In our life today, we too need to make sure that our life and worship is not solely directed to Jesus, but through him culminates in glorifying the Father.
None of us have a right assessment of ourselves. Some of us proudly think more highly of ourselves than we should. Others of us face personal insecurity and tend to underestimate our own worth. All of us need and enjoy other people’s loving reassurance that we are worth loving. How important it is therefore to verbalise our appreciation of each other! Above all, true self-worth comes through the assurance that Jesus has washed away all our sin through his cross and has imparted his amazing righteousness to us, so God himself sees us as his own beautiful children. We need to see ourselves through God’s eyes – and then, like Jesus himself, we shall not need to glorify ourselves.
Knowing God and keeping his word? (8.51, 55)
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From all eternity Jesus basked in the glorious presence of his Father in heaven. He therefore enjoyed an intimate relationship with his Father. He knows God personally. With such a close relationship with his Father Jesus also knows the Father’s will and desires. In his love for the Father he keeps the Father’s commands and precepts. Loving personal relationships include willing obedience. As we by faith come into such a relationship with the Father through Jesus, we too will earnestly seek to keep his word. So Jesus asserts that he does indeed know his Father and does keep his word.
Jesus unhesitatingly states of these Jewish leaders that they “do not know God”. In our multi-faith society we would hardly dare to say that such pious religious leaders might not know God. So I remember being somewhat surprised when a Muslim leader declared publicly that he could not understand what Christians mean when they claim to know God personally. In his experience worship, obedience, service and prayer to God characterised his relationship to God, but he felt that God was so akbar/incomparably great that no personal relationship was possible. Another Muslim leader also once said to me “an ant cannot know an elephant”. How right he was that a mere little human being cannot enjoy an intimate relationship with God in all his unattainable glory, power and holiness.
It is true that no religion can reach such heights. But how wonderful that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1.15). God is so glorious that he is indeed “invisible”, indescribable and unknowable. But amazingly we have Jesus as his “image”. And Jesus has come down to this world, been born as a human like us and so has made the invisible God visible. The unknowable God has become accessible to us and in union with Jesus we can enter into an intimate relationship where we “know God”. What fantastic good news!
Greater than Abraham? (8.52-57)
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Jesus’ audience totally misunderstood his teaching that “if anyone will keep my word, they will never see death”. Although the Greek words translated as “never” specifically refer to eternity, the Jews were only thinking of ordinary death. But Jesus was referring to eternal life which awaits us beyond the grave. These religious leaders rightly point out that Abraham and the prophets died. So does Jesus’ promise mean that he is claiming to be greater than Abraham, the great forefather of the Jewish people? The answer to that question is a categorical “yes”. In fact, Jesus adds to it by declaring that “your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day” (8.56). And Jesus affirms that Abraham did in fact see it and rejoiced. Jesus’ words “your father Abraham” underline the stark contrast between Abraham and his audience. By faith Abraham did see Jesus’ day and rejoiced. In contrast,  while the Jewish leaders actually saw and heard him face to face they still rejected him!
“Before Abraham was, I am” (8.58)
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This great teaching passage (8.12-59) begins and ends with a major ‘I am’ statement. In 8.58 we have the amazing word of Jesus “Before Abraham was, I am”. In later translations this old King James version translation is improved by such versions as “Before Abraham was born” or “Before Abraham came into existence”. The Greek verb used for ‘was’, ‘was born’ or ‘came into existence’ relates closely with creation. In the Septuagint Greek translation of the creation story, as also in John 1.3 and 10, it is used repeatedly for ‘made’ and ‘created’. Although this verb is also used quite ordinarily for anyone’s birth (e.g. 9.1), one wonders whether it is significant that it is used too in John 1.6 for the coming of John the Baptist and now in 8.58 for the coming of Abraham. Both Abraham and John the Baptist ushered in a radically new era of history. Their coming was like a new creation.
What a contrast 8.58 presents between Abraham and Jesus! The aorist tense of ‘was’/’was born’ with its significance of a once-for-all past event contrasts sharply with the continuous present tense in Jesus’ “I am”. Abraham was limited within a time frame, but Jesus lives eternally. He was with the Father before all time and returns to share the glory of the Father eternally. He was, he is, he will be – no time limitation.
A further contrast is seen in the fact that Abraham was obviously a created human being, while Jesus just ‘is’. The historic creeds of the church struggle with the apparently contradictory facts that Jesus always was, uncreated from eternity unto eternity, and yet Jesus and the Holy Spirit both come from the Father. So the creeds affirm that Jesus was ‘begotten’ of the Father – not ‘born’ which assumes a moment in time. We rejoice and worship the Father who is above all and source of all, while at the same time we praise and worship Jesus as our eternal Lord and Saviour.
Living as we do in the 21st century, we are aware that eastern religious thought infiltrates into the thought patterns of many around us. In Buddhism people seek to attain the state of anatta/non-being which climaxes in Nirvana, the absolute freedom of total nothingness or emptiness. Jesus presents us with a strong contrast. He is and the Father is eternally; he created the universe and each one of us personally. God intends us to be, to exist, and gives us an identity that is real. We are in him. The world and we personally are created with the divine purpose that we should be like our God who is. Let us never seek to escape from reality.
I am” – what glory!
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