I have heard it said that Jesus never actually called Himself God. Even if the Gospels recorded those exact words in Jesus’s mouth, I believe many would find ways of discounting what He said. It was no different in Jesus’s day.
Jesus did not say, “I am God” in those exact words, but what he did say could not have been misunderstood by his audience. Jesus made many statements, but one in particular strikes me as the most significant. Before I get to that one statement, a little background is helpful.
In John Chapter 8, Jesus is confronted directly by the Jewish leaders. Prior to that time, he had already raised quite a stir. Performing miracles on the Sabbath had piqued the ire of the Pharisees who confronted Jesus about “working” on the Sabbath in violation of the law. Jesus did not endear himself to them by his response, indicating that he was only doing as his Father directed, obviously referring to God as his father and setting himself as an authority higher than the leaders who confronted him. (John 5:16-30) The response not only set off the Pharisees, who then plotted to kill Jesus, but it also triggered people to begin questioning who Jesus was. (John 5: 31-47)
Jesus “laid low” after that, steering away from the crowded marketplaces, but the crowds of regular people followed him. In this context, he gave the Sermon on the Mount, fed the five thousand and walked on water when the disciples tried to follow him as he wandered off to be by himself. Jesus called himself the “bread of life”. That statement turned off even some of his followers, who stopped following him after he made that claim. (John 6:60-66)
Even Jesus’s own brothers did not believe who he was claiming to be and challenged him to show himself in public to prove what he was saying. (John 7:1-5) In response, Jesus went to the Festival of the Tabernacles, where the whispering about his identity continued, with some saying he was a “good man” and others saying he was a deceiver. (John 7:10-13) He continued to make statements like, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God….”; and “[N]ot one of you keeps the law [of Moses); to which people called him “demon-possessed”. (John 7:16-20)
From there, the buzz got bigger. People began to ask if he was the Messiah. People began to note that the Pharisees, who were previously trying to kill him, seemed to be letting him speak in public, and, therefore, maybe they believed he was the Messiah. (John 7:25-27) In this context, Jesus referred to himself as “living water” for the thirsty. (John 7:37-39) That statement prompted the Pharisees to confront Jesus again to quell the rumors. They sent temple guards to arrest him, but the guards would not do it, reporting, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.” (John 7:46)
And the fervor was heightened when Jesus claimed to be the “light of the world”. When the Pharisees asked him who was his father, Jesus responded to them, “If you knew me you would know my father also.” (John 8:19) Jesus went on to say that God was his father and added that people who did not believe him were children of the devil. (John 8: 42-47) In that context, the following exchange took place (John 8:48-58)(emphasis added):
The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”
“I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
“You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
In that final statement, no one listening could have been mistaken what Jesus meant. Every Jewish person of that time, and even today, knows the reference to the phrase, “I am!”
Those words were spoken by God when Moses was confronted by God at the burning bush. God instructed Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. God used these words to refer to Himself.
To understand this, a little context is important. Moses was born at a time when the Pharaoh had given orders to kill the newborn male babies of the Israelites. His mother , learning of the Pharaoh’s plot, put Moses in a basket in the Nile where he was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter who took pity on him. Pharaoh’s daughter rescued him and raised him.
Moses was not known by the Israelites as a result of his upbringing in the Pharaoh’s household. Thus, Moses asked God how the Israelites would know Moses was sent by God to led them. They didn’t know Moses as one of them. God responded with these words:
“This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
No one but the Israelites would know this profound reference to the God of gods, Lord of lords. Thus, when Jesus echoed the same words, “[B]efore Abraham was born, I am!” there could be absolutely no doubt what he meant.
The response of the Pharisees leaves no doubt that they did, indeed, understand: they picked up stones to stone him. (John 8:59) Stoning was the penalty for blasphemy. Jesus left no room for the people in his day to question what he meant when he referred to himself as I AM.
Today, we are given the same choice. We cannot accurately dismiss Jesus as just a good teacher, or a profound moralist even a saint or a prophet. C.S. Lewis puts it this way in his classic, Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”