Jesus' Assertion of Divinity
by Lawrence W. Hilliard

"Without Jesus Christ the world could not continue; for it must needs be destroyed or become a very hell."
—Pascal, Pensees 12

Foremost among the dominical sayings of Jesus is his assertion of Deity. In John 8:53-59 Jesus asserts his supremacy to Abraham. He unequivocally declares that he is by nature greater than Abraham, as to preexistence [before Abraham] and futurity [Abraham saw his day]. This assertion shocked his contemporaries, for Abraham was accorded the highest accolades and status in all Jewish literature. To a Jew who gloried in the truth that he was a "son of Abraham," this was a heinous declaration of blasphemy deserving of execution by stoning. The Patriarch Abraham was considered the stellar personality of all Judaic history. Though God was the maker and possessor of all the world [Gen. 14:19, 22], Abraham was considered a special possession of God, "Five possessions the Holy One, blessed be He, made especially His own in His universe, the Torah, heaven and earth, Abraham, Israel, and the Temple." (Pirke Aboth) The earth and mankind were created for the sake of Abraham. R. Joshua b. Karha and R. Azariah said: "The world was created for the sake of Abraham. As to this great mass [i.e., the earth], for what end is it here? For the sake of Abraham, as it is said, 'Thou hast made the heaven and the earth, and thou didst choose Abraham.' [Neh.9:6, 7]." (Gen. R., Ber., XXII, 9.) "God created man for the sake of Abraham." (Gen. R., Ber., XV, 4.) Because Abraham was a great maker of proselytes, he was esteemed by God as a co-partner in the creation of the world. So God said to Abraham, "My name was not known to my creatures: as you made me known to my creatures, so I regard it as if you had been in partnership with me in the creation of the world." (Gen. R., Lek leka XLIII, 7.) Abraham was said to have established God's kingship over all the world. "But since the time our father Abraham entered the world, he made Him King over the earth; as it is said, 'I make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth.'" (Sifra Deut. section 313;134b.) Abraham keeps the whole Torah as yet unwritten. (Jub. 16:28) He belongs to the righteous who have not sinned. "So thou, Lord God of the righteous didst not appoint repentance for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were righteous and did not sin against thee." (Prayer of Manasseh, 8).

For each act of obedience to God and suffering endured by Abraham, merit was treasured away for future generations in Israel, in need of salvation and deliverance. "If thy children were even [morally] dead bodies, without blood vessels or bones, thy merit would avail for them!" (Ber. R. 80b) All Israel had part in the world to come because of their racial descent from Abraham. (T. B. Sand. 10.1) So great are the merits of suffering of Abraham, that he can atone for all the vanities committed and lies uttered by Israel in this world. (Pes. K. 154a) Abraham was represented as sitting at the gate of Gehenna, to deliver any Israelite who otherwise might have been consigned to it's terrors. "In the Hereafter Abraham will sit at the entrance of Gehenna and will not allow any circumcised Israelite to descend into it." (Gen. R. 48.8) (Ber. R. 48) By their descent from Abraham, all the children of Israel were nobles. (Baba Mez. VIII.1) The ships on the sea were preserved through the merit of Abraham. The rain descended on account of the merit of Abraham. (Ber. R. 39) For his sake alone had Moses been allowed to ascend into heaven, and to receive the law. For his sake the sin of the golden calf had been forgiven. (Shem. R. 44) Abraham's merit availed even for the wicked. (Shabb. 55a)

In the face of such panegyric glorification of Abraham, Jesus said without equivocation that he was superior to the Patriarch in all respects. Abraham's sole focus of hope was upon Him and he rejoiced to see his [Messiah] day. "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." (John 8:56) In a rabbinical commentary on Genesis 15:18, when God made the covenant with Abram, He revealed to him both this olam (dispensation) and the olam to come (days of the Messiah). (Ber. R. 44) In connection with Genesis 24:1, "Abraham was old, stricken in days;" the literal Heb. is, "gone into the days." Rabbinic exegesis understands this to mean Abraham entered into all the days of the future. Abraham saw outstanding days in the future history of Israel; the Red Sea crossing, the giving of the Law, the building of the Temple, and the age to come, the Messianic era. (Gen. R. 59.6 on Genesis 24:1.) Even in Rabbinic literature the Messiah is elevated above the Patriarchs and angels. "The Messiah will be more exalted than Abraham, more extolled than Moses and more high than the angels." (Midrash on Isa.52:13, Tanhuma (Buber's ed.) Toldot 134-135.)

Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am." (John 8:58) Jesus says that his nature is immeasurably greater than Abraham's. Christ introduced this monumental statement with the double, "truly, truly," (lit. Gk. amen, amen). This was a form of speech that was used to introduce a statement reserved only for God. No rabbi or prophet would introduce their discourse with the single or double "amen". In the Old Testament God is called "the God of Amen" in Isaiah 65:16, signifying rock-like stability, truthful, faithful, dependable, firmness, enduring, unshakeable, a continuous support. Amen indicates the integrity of God, that His words endure forever. Jesus constantly used this manner of speech to introduce his teaching. (Matt. 5:18, 26, 6:2, 5, 16, John 5:19, 6:47, Rev. 3:14), thus guaranteeing the origin, validity, and fulfillment of his words. This use of amen has the force of "I, as God, say to you." "Jesus' characteristic use of the word amen, implies a finality and an authority of his message quite unparalleled elsewhere... the entire range of Jewish literature knows of no example of a scribe or rabbinical teacher prefacing his remarks with the expression, "Verily (amen), I say to you..." this solemn formula, however, appears 30 times in Matthew, 13 times in Mark, 6 times in Luke, and 25 in John..." (Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament, It's Background, Growth and Content, p. 156) No rabbi, scribe or prophet in the history of Israel ever introduced his teaching with the word amen, only Jesus. "The point of the amen before such sayings is to show that their truth is guaranteed because Jesus himself, in his amen, acknowledges them to be his own sayings, thus making them valid..." (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, Vol. 3, p. 82) Jesus' use of amen was an asseveration that no mortal could ever make. It was a promise that He would stand behind all his words as their perfect guarantor. He was speaking as the God of the Old Testament. This was a divine oath. "Yet He was more than a prophet, for in opposition to the ossified religion and anthropocentric morality of His contemporaries He did not set the 'Thus sayeth the Lord' of the prophet, but His own 'I say unto you,' which made it plain to his listeners that He was associating Himself directly with God, not as a mouthpiece, but as the responsible Bearer of His will who is one with Him." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 156)

Abraham had a beginning in time, "was born," (lit. trans. "came into existence") in the aorist tense, and died. (John 8:53, 58). But Jesus said, " I Am." Gk. "Ego Eimi," the LXX translation of the August name of God, "Yahweh Ashere," (Ex. 3:14). It is the divine style of speech in the most emphatic form. Eternity of Being is declared. "Am" (Gk. eimi), is a verb in the present tense active voice, indicating continuous existence. He continually is! Timeless life is conveyed. "The isness is expressive of both his presence and his existence." (Theological Wordbook of O. T. Vol. I, pg. 210-214.) The contrast between the created (Abraham) and the uncreated (Jesus), the temporal and the eternal was unmistakable, and the crazed crowd was looking around for stones, as Christ's self-appointed judges (John 8:59). "Jesus claims that He is the eternal 'I AM'; His life partakes of the timeless quality of diety. The Jews realize the significance of His claim: absolute pre-existence means equality with God. This to them is blasphemy, so they take up stones to kill him." (A. J. MacCloud, The Gospel According to John, p. 883) In John's gospel other "I Am" analogies occur: John 6:35, 8:12, 10:7, 9, 11, 19, 11:25, 14:6, 15:1, 8:23ff, 28, 13:19. "But as for God the Son, apart from the incarnation, scriptures never suggest any contrast in glory as between Father and The Son. The following passages make this abundantly clear; John 1:1, 18, 8:58, 10:30, 14:9, 17:5, Rom. 9:5, Col. 2:2, Titus 2:13, Heb. 1:8, I John 5:20." (Gleason Archer, Bible Difficulties, pg. 375.) Jesus, without hesitation affirmed that He was the eternal God. Such an affirmation would transcend the simple category of a moral teacher or a rustic rabbi. He placed all the prophets, priests and kings of Israel in a subordinate position to Him. "…he ever was, and will be what he now is; he is immutable, the same today, yesterday, and forever; in his nature, love, grace and fullness, he is the invariable and unchangeable I AM." (John Gill, Notes on John 8:58.) In the profound simplicity of the august name "I AM," Jesus claims the prerogatives of Yahweh. No devised category can contain Jesus. He leaves no one in a moral no man's land. A rubicon decision is demanded by Christ, "But who do you say that I am?" (Matt. 16:15)

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