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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Believe in I AM and never see death
Text:John 8:48-59 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God The Son

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 7

Psalm 25:4 (after the law)

Psalm 116:1-5

Hymn 79

Psalm 92:1,2,6,7

Scripture reading:  Exodus 3:1-15

Text:  John 8:48-59

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

A couple of years ago, I picked up a new book on fly-fishing.  That’s one of my hobbies and I’m always trying to learn more about it.  In fly-fishing, one of the things you do to catch fish is to watch what they’re eating.  You watch what the fish might be eating and then you try to select a fly which matches the food.  It’s called matching the hatch.  But what about when you can’t figure out what the fish are eating?  What if there’s no hatch to match?  Well, this book says its purpose is to help you still catch fish, even if there’s no hatch to match.  The book states its purpose right out front – it’s even on the front cover.  You pick up the book and you know right away what the purpose of the book is.  And you read the book with the purpose in mind. 

Of course, this morning we’re not reading a book about fly-fishing.  We’re going to be looking at the Gospel According to John.  But like that book about fly-fishing, John’s gospel has a clear purpose attached to it.  It’s stated quite clearly.  You need to read and understand John’s gospel always with that purpose in mind. 

So what’s the purpose of the book of John?  It’s stated in the second last chapter, in chapter 20:30-31, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  That’s the purpose of John:  to bring people to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and have eternal life in him.

We have to keep that purpose in mind this morning as we’re looking at the end of chapter 8.  Here we see this back and forth between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders.  And it’s all centered around who Jesus is and what he’s about.  Jesus makes two remarkable claims about himself.  In verse 51, he says that if you keep his word, you won’t see death.  In verse 58, he says that he has an existence which goes before and beyond that of Abraham.  He is the “I am” who revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 3.  These are stupendous claims and they trigger a hateful backlash from the Jews listening.  And the reason why these verses are in our Bible is to challenge and to call us again to place our trust in Jesus Christ.  So I’ve summarized the message here like this:  Believe in “I am” and never see death.

We’ll consider how:

  1. The Jews denied and attacked Jesus
  2. Jesus disclosed himself

I want to be clear that the way this passage is presented, it has this back and forth between these two points.  There are three moments where the Jews deny and attack Jesus and then three moments where Jesus responds and discloses himself.  So the two points of the sermon aren’t just one, two and then we’re done.  We’re going to go back forth between them as we go through these verses.  So it’s a little bit different than the way we might normally go through the points of a sermon. 

You may remember that John 8 has this lengthy encounter between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders.  In the verses right before this, Christ told them something confronting:  they’re not of God.  They don’t belong to God.  They claim to be God’s special people, but their lives are revealing something different.  It’s especially in the way they’re reacting to Jesus, the Son of God.  Jesus tells the truth.  He brings the Word of God.  Yet they refuse to believe and that’s the proof that they’re “not of God.”  That fires the Jews right up. 

In verse 48, we see their first attack on him in this passage.  They ask a snarky rhetorical question:  “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”  So it’s a rhetorical question, a question for effect.  Of course, they’re right, at least in their own minds.  In their own minds and among themselves they’ve reached the conclusion that Jesus is basically a Samaritan.  That doesn’t mean they think he’s literally or ethnically a Samaritan.  To the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were religious heretics.  They made up their own way of worshipping God.  The Samaritans had mixed the Jewish religion of the first five books of the Bible with various pagan beliefs.  They were what we call syncretists.  The Jews considered the Samaritans to be heretics, and Jesus was a heretic too, so basically a Samaritan. 

And not only that, but they also say he’s demon-possessed.  Rather than being “of God,” Jesus is Satan’s tool or instrument.  He’s under Satanic control.  Because Satan is a liar, you can’t trust anything Jesus says either.  

The Jewish religious leaders were doing their best to discredit Jesus by attacking him like this.  They were trying their utmost to make it clear to anyone listening that no one should take Jesus seriously or believe in him.  He’s not only wrong in what he teaches – a Samaritan, a heretic.  He’s also evil because he’s possessed by a demon.  Take both of those together and you definitely can’t trust him.   

Talk about a strong reaction!  This is the kind of response sinful human beings naturally make to Jesus Christ.  When he exposes their sin, instead of acknowledging their sin and repenting and turning to him, they turn against him.  They turn against the one who is pointing out their problem.  It’s like attacking the doctor who’s told you about your deadly disease.  It makes no sense.  That shows the irrationality and stupidity of sin, the same sin living in you and me.

In verses 50-51, Jesus replies to these malicious claims.  Rather than having a demon (and therefore being untrustworthy), Jesus honours his Father.  He honours the trustworthy God.  But they dishonour him by refusing to hear what he says, refusing to believe in him. 

To be clear, he says in verse 50, that it’s not about him seeking his own fame.  Jesus isn’t looking out for his own self-interest.  God will take care of those things, and God will judge.  He’s also going to judge their malicious accusations about being an evil heretic. 

Then, in verse 51, we find Christ’s first great claim in these verses.  He uses the familiar words, “Truly, truly” – that tells us to pay attention to this solemn declaration.  This is vitally important.  Jesus says, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”  Let’s flesh that out and see what he’s saying here.  What does it mean to keep Jesus’ word?  It first means to believe everything Jesus teaches, most of all, to believe in him, to trust in him.  It means to hold on to his teaching.  It means to treasure it and study it, to hold on to what he says as being of the greatest importance .  To keep the word of Jesus also means to then obey it as well.  It’s not enough to just say “Lord, Lord,” you also have to do what he teaches.  A disciple who believes in Jesus also must follow what his Master teaches and imitate his way of life.  Basically, if you want to summarize it, to keep the word of Jesus is to be a disciple, to be a Christian in the truest sense of the word.  So this isn’t talking about people who just claim to be Christians, but who ignore the teachings of Jesus completely.  This isn’t talking about people who claim to be Christians, but who pick and choose which teachings of Jesus they’ll follow.  This isn’t talking about people who claim to be Christians, but just think Jesus is a moral example, without regarding him as the Saviour from sin and its consequences.  No, we have to have this straight:  when Jesus speaks about keeping his word, that’s a comprehensive expression that covers holding to everything he teaches, including what he teaches about himself. 

If someone does that, Jesus says, “he will never see death.”  The original Greek is super emphatic here.  More literally it reads, “Death he will certainly not see into eternity.”  Death won’t be part of your story, if you keep the words of Jesus. 

Notice how Jesus says, “if anyone keeps my word…”  “Anyone” means exactly that.  It doesn’t matter who you are.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past.  You can leave that all behind by keeping the word of Jesus, hear his teaching, believe him, follow him as your Lord and Saviour.  Anyone can receive what’s promised here: never seeing spiritual death.  Anyone can physically die peacefully resting in the Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that death is a defeated enemy and for Christians, it’s simply a portal from one life to the next.  Believe in him and you’re alive forevermore! 

Now we’re at verse 52 and here we see the Jews resuming their denials of Jesus and attacks on him.  To their minds, what Jesus has just said confirms that he’s possessed by a demon.  His words are evil and false.  Now they’re going to lay out the proof.  They think they have a nifty argument to lock it down. 

See if you can try and follow the argument.  Jesus said that if anyone keeps his word, he won’t taste death.  In their minds, Jesus was talking about physical, biological death.  They didn’t understand that he was speaking about eternal, spiritual death.  So, in their minds, they understand Jesus to be saying that anyone who keeps his word won’t see their heart stop beating.  Now there’s another unspoken assumption that they read into this.  They assume that Jesus thinks he keeps his own word, thus he thinks that he isn’t going to physically die.  And if he can keep other people from dying, surely he keeps himself from dying too.  He thinks that his own heart won’t stop beating.  But the greatest and most faithful Jews in history died.  Abraham and the prophets, they all experienced physical death.  So Jesus thinks, or at least he should think because this is where his thinking logically ends up, Jesus thinks that he’s greater than Abraham, the first and greatest Hebrew.  He thinks he’s greater than all the prophets.

Notice what’s going on here.  Notice what sin does.  Notice how sin doesn’t seek to understand, doesn’t ask for clarification about what “death” means.  Notice how sin just makes assumptions about what Jesus means.  Then notice how sin jumps to conclusions based on those assumptions.  They’re doing it all for the crowds, “Look everyone, Jesus is saying he’s greater than Abraham and the prophets!  You can’t listen to someone like that!  Instead, you need to keep listening to us.”  As we’ll see in a moment, there’s irony in this.  But there’s also sin, sinful hatred for Jesus, and sinful pride in themselves.  Yet they say, “Who do you make yourself out to be?”  Who do think you are?  In other words, “Jesus, you’re nothing, but you’re making yourself out to be a big shot.  Why do you do that?” 

Now we flip back to how Jesus discloses himself in response.  This is in verses 54 to 56.  Christ says he’s not making himself out to be anyone.  He doesn’t glorify himself.  If he did that, his words would be worthless.  No human being should glorify himself and Christ is speaking here as the Son of God incarnate.  The Father glorifies him.  The Father makes much of the Son of God.  You can think of the words at his baptism, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  That was God glorifying his Son, making much of him, amplifying his fame and renown.  The Jewish religious leaders claim to have the Father as their God, but the reality is different. 

They may be religious people.  They may be falling over themselves trying to out-Pharisee one another.  But Jesus says the reality is that there can be a great difference between outward religiosity and a true knowledge of God.  In verse 55, he says, “You have not known him.”  What he really means is:  you don’t have a relationship of intimacy and fellowship with God.  You are not reconciled to God.  You might be religious, but you’re not connected relationally to the true God.  They may be God’s covenant people descended from Abraham, but they don’t know God.  They may have received the sign and seal of God’s covenant, but they don’t know God.  Loved ones, that’s a warning for us too.  Ancestry doesn’t make you know God.  Covenant status doesn’t make you know God.  Religiosity doesn’t make you know God.  There’s only one way to know God and that’s through faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the one who knows God in the most intimate way possible.  As the Son of God incarnate, he has the closest possible relationship to the heavenly Father.  He knows him deeply and intimately, fully and completely.  If Jesus were to deny this truth, that would be the thing that would make him a liar.  That would give the real proof that he’s untrustworthy and maybe even demon-possessed.  But that’s unthinkable.  Jesus would never deny the truth about who he is.  He knows God and he keeps his word.  He believes what God says and follows him faithfully.  That takes us to the end of verse 55.

Then in verse 56, Christ gets back to Abraham.  He does this to address the question of whether he’s greater than Abraham.  We saw already that the Jewish religious leaders think it’s impossible for Jesus to be greater than Abraham.  Their question in verse 53 was rhetorical.  “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?”  That question expected a negative answer.  “Of course you’re not greater!”  But here in verse 56, Christ comes back and says, “Well, actually…” 

Actually, Abraham rejoiced that he would see the day of God’s Messiah – the anointed one who would come for the rescue of God’s people.  He saw it and was glad.  Now there are different interpretations of what that means.  Some commentators think Jesus was referring to one particular event in Abraham’s life.  For example, some commentators see this as a reference to either the promise of the birth of Isaac or the actual arrival of Isaac.  Why Isaac?  Because he represented the partial fulfillment of God’s covenant promises for a coming Redeemer.  In studying this, I’d have to say that it’s possible, but we also have to recognize that Christ himself doesn’t specify.  He leaves it open-ended and there aren’t any strong clues as to whether a specific moment is in mind.  I appreciate the suggestion of the ESV Study Bible here:  “Jesus is possibly referring to a whole pattern of joyful and confident faith in Abraham’s life, rather than one specific event.”  I think that’s probably right.

At any rate, the main thrust of verse 56 is simply this:  yes, I am greater than Abraham.  Abraham was looking forward to my arrival and, now that I’m here, Abraham rejoices.  Jesus essentially says, “Abraham recognized that the Messiah would be greater than him and I am that Messiah, I am the promised one.  I am the fulfillment of all the promises that were delivered to the patriarchs.”

Loved ones, that reminds us not only that Jesus is greater than Abraham – which I think is obvious enough to us as Christians.  It goes further and reminds us that the whole Bible is centered on Christ.  It’s all about him.  It’s all pointing to him.  Everything you read about Abraham is ultimately not about Abraham, but about the one for whom he was waiting and hoping.  The entire Bible is about pointing us to the one in whom we need to believe so we can live.  So, I urge you:  when you read your Bible, when you study your Bible, always do that with an eye for how it points you to Christ.  What Christ says about Abraham here reminds us of that great truth.

Of course, when Christ talks about Abraham seeing his day, that triggers the Jews again.  We see that in their attack in verse 57.  They say, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  There’s an unspoken assumption here too.  They assume that if Abraham has seen Jesus, then Jesus has seen Abraham.  And Jesus isn’t even fifty, which was often considered to be the edge of being elderly in those days.  One commentator (Marsh) paraphrases their question really well:  “Are you, still not retired, old enough to have seen Abraham?”  By this point, Abraham had been dead for some 2000 years.  Did Jesus see Abraham?  To their minds, this is just unbelievable.                                

Christ’s response in verse 58 sees one of his boldest and clearest claims about who he is:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  To Jewish ears, this was unmistakable.  Jesus says that before Abraham existed, he was there.  More than that, the words “I am” are directly connected to what we read from Exodus 3.  God reveals himself to Moses as “I am who I am.”  And in verse 14 of Exodus 3, Moses is instructed to say to God’s people, “I AM has sent me to you.”  God is the “I am.”  God is pure, ever present, eternal existence.  And so is the Son of God.  Abraham came into existence at a certain point, when he was conceived in his mother’s womb.  The Son of God always is, always has been, always will be.  In fact, he transcends, he goes beyond time itself.  Why?  Because he is God himself. 

The Jews in Jesus’ day understood what he was saying, but couldn’t accept this.  But there are many today who can’t accept it, but also misunderstand or misconstrue what he says.  Think of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and how their New World Bible version perverts that verse.  They make it say “and the word was a god.”  They do that because Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that Jesus Christ is God.  They deny his divinity.  They deny that he’s the second person of the Trinity.  So they twist John 1:1.  They do something similar with John 8:58.   The JW New World “translation” says, “Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”  Not “I am,” but “I have been.”  I can assure you that the Greek word means “I am.”  It’s the present tense, not the perfect.  It’s present, “I am” and it’s a clear indicator Jesus was revealing himself to be God, and not some pre-existing spirit creature as the JWs claim.

If Jesus Christ is the great “I am,” then certain things follow.  If Christ is the “I am,” then he deserves our worship.  If Christ is the “I am,” then he deserves our love.  If Christ is the “I am,” then he deserves our unreserved trust and commitment.  In short, if Christ is the “I am,” he deserves everything God deserves.  Because he is God.      

The Jews in front of Jesus understood exactly what he was saying.  He was claiming to be God.  They misunderstood him on many other things, but when he said “I am,” they caught that right away.  They knew right away that he was saying, “I am the eternal God, I am who I am.”  That registered instantly, but it provoked the wrong reaction in them.  Instead, of bowing down before him and worshipping, they decided he had to be put to death.  They spontaneously picked up stones.  God’s law had commanded that blasphemers had to be stoned.  They weren’t going to wait for a trial.  They were just going to do it there and then in the temple.  Since the temple was under construction, there were plenty of stones lying around.  But this wasn’t his time, so Jesus escaped and left the temple.

Now I don’t think any of us would hear Jesus claim to be “I am who I am” and respond with a desire to stone him.  I also don’t think any of us would be inclined to twist the Scripture here and, like the JWs, make it say something it doesn’t.  We’ve been taught well that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, that he is God himself, the Son of God incarnate.  If anything, the danger facing us is treating these familiar teachings with indifference.  The danger is that we fail to be in awe of our Saviour as the great I am, and fail to respond to him appropriately.  The danger is that we know who he is, we know things about him, but we don’t keep his word.  Which is to say we don’t really have a saving relationship with him. 

Loved ones, hear again the call of the Gospel According to John.  Believe with all your heart in the great “I am,” Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Keep his word.  In other words, hold to everything he teaches.  Hold to what he teaches about himself.  Hold to what he teaches about you and your need for him.  Hold to what he teaches about believing in him.  Hold to what he teaches about following him.  Study what he teaches daily.  Ask for his Holy Spirit to give you strength to believe what you hear from the Saviour in the Scriptures.  Ask for the Holy Spirit to help you hold on to Christ and follow him, so that when your physical heart finally fails, which it will, you will never see death.  AMEN.    


Our Lord Jesus Christ,

You are the great I am.  Because you are our God, you deserve our worship, our love, our trust, our commitment.  With your Holy Spirit, help us to keep your Word so that we would never see death.  Please give us strength to hear your teaching in all the Bible, believe it, maintain it, and live according to it.  With your Holy Spirit, help us steadfastly to hold on you as our God and Saviour. 

We also pray to you about those who don’t acknowledge you as the great I am.  We think especially of the Jehovah’s Witnesses this morning.  Some of us know Jehovah’s Witnesses personally.  We pray for your mercy regarding them.  We pray for your Holy Spirit to open their eyes to the truth of your Word about who you are.  We pray that the true gospel would reach them and that they’d know you truly and so also experience eternal life in you.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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