Lesson Four - According to John
Jesus as the I AM
John’s Very Different Gospel
As the author of the study points out, John’s Gospel is very different. It is different in the stories it tells (for example, only john offers us Nicodemus and the woman caught in adultery). It is different in the chronology of Jesus ministry (an example is that Jesus goes to Jerusalem three times in John and only once in the other Gospels). It is different in its understanding of who Jesus is (Jesus is the Word made flesh rather than a human leader). It is different in its understanding of the relationship between Jesus and “the Jews” (much more antagonistic).
John’s Complete focus on Jesus
This Gospel intends to tell us who Jesus is as much as, or more than, what he does. The other Gospels spend considerable time focusing on Jesus’ teachings and miracles, but John spends more time focused on the essence of the person of Jesus. Even Jesus miracles are “signs” of who Jesus is rather than illustrations of the in-breaking Kingdom of God.
The Word made flesh
The Gospel of John makes a radical claim. That claim is that Jesus is more than human. That he is in fact the “incarnation”, or “in-fleshing”, of the God of the people of Israel. While we might take such a concept for granted, that Jesus was divine, it was anathema to the Jews. God was one. God was other. God would not take on human form. Even so, John and his community make this claim throughout the Gospel. Jesus says things such as “When you have seen me you have seen the Father” and “The Father and I are one.” This human/divine combination is not found in the other Gospels…though it is not precluded by them.
The “I AM” sayings
The basis for the “I AM” sayings comes from the book of Exodus, where Moses encounters God in the burning bush. Moses wants to know God’s name, to which God answers, “I am, who I am” (or I will be who I will be). By using the “I AM” Jesus is linking himself directly with God.
Each of the I AM sayings allows us to see one dimension of the person of Jesus as the Word made flesh, or as the fullness of God become human. These sayings draw upon the great festivals and images of Judaism, thus becoming road signs intended to point people to the reality of Jesus’ identity. We will look briefly at each of them.
“I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger.” John 6:35
The context of this saying is Passover (6:4) and the feeding of the five thousand. Part of the Passover remembrance is that God fed the people in the wilderness with manna. This is replicated by Jesus in the feeding of the five thousand, which points to him as one sent from God to provide for the people. Yet this is not enough. Jesus wants people to see that not only does he provide the bread, but that he is the bread…meaning he is the giver of life; meaning that he is the fullness of God who provides all that the people need.
“I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12
The context of this saying is the feast of the Tabernacles. One of the great ceremonies of this festival was the lighting of sixteen large golden bowls filled with oil. The bowls were placed outside the Temple where they blazed at night illuminating all of Jerusalem. The light from them was to remind the people of God as the light of the world; as the one who made light, provided light to guide them in the Exodus and then continues to be the light of truth. In the midst of this ceremony Jesus claims that he is the light who demonstrates the very truth or wisdom of God. Thus he is the wisdom and fullness of God.
“I am the gate; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” John 10:9
The context of this saying is a story that Jesus is telling about sheep (which the people would understand to mean God’s people) and shepherds (which can be seen as either God as shepherd or God’s leaders as shepherds). When Jesus refers to himself as the gate he claims to be the one who decides which sheep are allowed in and which are kept out. In some sense this equates Jesus with God in that it is God who chooses particular people to be saved. It was God who not only chose Israel but will continue to choose (see Ezekiel 34:20-22). By being the gate then, Jesus becomes the one who chooses the new Israel. Jesus is the fullness of God because he chooses the sheep to be saved.
4. Good Shepherd
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” John 10:11
The context of this saying (as with the previous saying) is a story that Jesus is telling about sheep (which the people would understand to mean God’s people) and shepherds (which can be seen as either God as shepherd or God’s leaders as shepherds). The image here is not of Jesus meek and mild holding a lamb. It is of Jesus as the shepherd mentioned in Ezekiel 34:23/Jeremiah 23:1-6 who will truly care for the sheep rather than either abusing or abandoning them. What is interesting about the shepherd image is that it is sometimes a Davidic king and at other times it is God as shepherd. Jesus I believe, in John’s telling of this story, has Jesus as the fullness of God as shepherd of the people.
5. Resurrection and Life
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies.” John 11:25
The context of this saying is the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. When Lazarus had become gravely ill, his sisters, Mary and Martha, had sent for Jesus. Jesus did not arrive until after Lazarus had died. In his conversation with Martha, Jesus does not tell her that he can raise Lazarus from the dead (something which both Elijah and Elisha had done) but that he is the resurrection and the life. This is perhaps one of the clearest claims of Jesus to be the fullness of God because it is only God who gives life (whether it is life now or later). Jesus is thus asking Martha to believe that he and God are inextricably linked.
6. Way, Truth, Life
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” John 14:6
The context of this saying is the Upper Room where Jesus is preparing his disciples for his death. He has told them that he is going to prepare a place for them when Thomas says, “How can we know the way, when we do not know where you are going?” In some ways we can see this as Jesus taking precedence over both the Torah (written and oral Law) and the Temple (ceremonial practices). Each of these claimed to offer the way to God, the truth about God, and the life God offers. In a sense they were the portals, given by God, through which people could encounter God. Jesus now claims to have taken their place. He, as the fullness of God, has become the one portal through which people can discover the fullness of God’s desires for humanity.
7. True vine
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser…you are the branches.” John 15:1, 5
The context of this passage is perhaps (John is not always clear about these things) that when Jesus and his disciples left the upper room they walked by the Temple where they would have seen the great golden vine at its entrance. The vine represented Israel and the vine metaphor had been used by most of the great prophets during their ministries. We can see this clearly in Isaiah 5:3-5. The claim by Jesus then is that he is the new Israel (vine) and thus the connection between God and the people (branches). Of the “I AM” sayings, this one is probably the most difficult to tie to Jesus as the fullness of God, yet one can still see the intimate connection here between God and Jesus.