Jesus—His Life and Message: The “I Am” Sayings
January 23, 2018
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The “I Am” Sayings
The Bread of Life (Part 1)
Within the Gospel of John, we see how Jesus uses various metaphors to describe Himself: “I am the bread of life,”1 “I am the light of the world,”2 “I am the door of the sheep,”3 “I am the good shepherd,”4 “I am the resurrection and the life,”5 “I am the way, the truth, and the life,”6 and “I am the true vine.”7 These sayings, along with Jesus’ other uses of the phrase “I am,” are significant in that they show that Jesus was God incarnate and that He bears the divine name.
In Exodus, when Moses asked God what His name was, He replied:
“I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’’’8
“I Am” was the personal name of God in Israel’s faith, and was represented by the Tetragrammaton YHWH, (pronounced Yahweh).9
In other places in the Old Testament, we read of God using the phrase “I am” followed by a description of Himself, such as:
I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.10
I am the LORD, your healer.11
I am your salvation!12
I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.13
So in the Gospel of John, when Jesus used the phrase “I am,” it was understood to mean that He was the Lord incarnate and carried the divine name.14
It’s clear in John 8:28 that those listening to Jesus in the temple understood the implications of what Jesus meant when they said to Him:
“You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.15
They considered it blasphemy that He would identify Himself with God.
Jesus’ purpose was to bring God’s presence into the world. All that Jesus did was done in His Father’s name, in order to manifest His Father and bring Him glory.
I have come in my Father's name.16
The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me.17
I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.18
I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known.19
Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.20
Jesus’ usage of “I am” sayings was unprecedented. As one author explains:
In the many “I am” sayings, Jesus is publicly applying the divine name of God—and God’s authoritative presence—to himself. No prophet or priest in Israelite history would ever have done this. For Judaism it is the most severe Christological affirmation of all, leading audiences in the Gospel either to believe in Jesus or accuse him of blasphemy.21
In this and other upcoming articles, we’ll look at Jesus’ “I am” statements and what He was revealing about Himself and His Father to His listeners both then and now.
“I Am the Bread of Life”
In John chapter 6, we read of Jesus feeding five thousand people with bread and fish.22 After that, He withdrew to a mountain by Himself, while His disciples got in a boat and started off to Capernaum. After rowing three or four miles, it was dark, and the lake became rough due to the wind, which made it difficult to make headway. Then the disciples saw Jesus walking on water and coming near the boat. They took Him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached land.23
The next day, when some of the people who had partaken of the loaves and fishes saw that Jesus wasn’t there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”24
Considering that the crowd had wanted to make Jesus king after having eaten the bread He had provided, it’s not surprising that they sought Him out the next day. Jesus didn’t respond to their question, but instead exposed their motives. They weren’t interested in the meaning of the miracle He had performed, or who He was; they were focused on the fact that He had provided them with bread. This is similar to how people responded to Roman emperors in Jesus’ day. Roman emperors and other politicians kept the Roman people pacified with free food. Like Roman clients, the crowds joined Jesus’ “entourage” just for “a handout of food.”25
Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.26
Seals were used in various ways in antiquity. They were often affixed to things to attest ownership; to authenticate a document; and rulers sometimes gave a seal to those who were commissioned to act on their behalf. This passage seems to convey that the Father had verified Jesus through the signs and miracles which Jesus did. As an alternate interpretation, some Bibles translate this phrase as: “On Him God the Father has placed His seal of approval.”
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”27
As Jesus had told them to labor—or work—for food that endures to eternal life, they wanted to know how Jesus defined work. Jewish tradition didn’t isolate works from faith, as faith was often one “work” among many.28 Whereas here, Jesus defined faith differently—He stated that the work that was necessary for eternal life was belief in Him. They asked about what works (plural) they needed to do, and Jesus told them that the work (singular) that they must do was to believe in Him. As one author put it:
The only “work” of God that counts is God’s work in them so that they might “believe” in Jesus, whom God has sent.29
Jesus made the point that God doesn’t require that we do works in order to gain merit in heaven, but rather that we believe.
So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 30
It seems rather odd that they would refer to the sign of manna which God gave the Hebrews in the desert, when just the day before, Jesus had multiplied five loaves of bread to feed five thousand. It seems like they are asking for a sign when they had already received it. Perhaps the difference was that Jesus fed them once, while the manna in the wilderness was supplied for forty years. In Judaism, there was an expectation that, like Moses, the latter redeemer would cause manna to once again descend and feed the people.31 Since they had already seen the feeding of the five thousand, their asking for a sign so they could believe showed that they didn’t really want to see and believe, but rather were interested in receiving more free food.
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”32
Jesus reminded them that the manna in the wilderness was not from Moses, but from God. Manna was not “the true bread” from heaven, but rather an earthly, material type of that bread. It gave life to the people of God for forty years, and also served as a foreshadowing of the “bread of God” which gives “life to the world.”
Within this Gospel, we see a number of mentions of Jesus with reference to the world: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”33 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”34
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”35
Those listening understood that the bread was a metaphor for a divine gift of some kind, and responded positively. They were no longer asking for normal bread to eat, or even manna. They began to recognize that in some way Jesus was offering them “life,” even eternal life, as He had earlier told them not to work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life.36
Jesus unambiguously stating that He is the bread of life is the first of the seven “I am” statements in this Gospel. Considering that He had just said the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, it’s clear that He was stating that He came from heaven and from His Father. Having told them earlier that they were to labor for the food that endures to eternal life, He is now telling them that He is the way to that life.
The “bread of life” is the same as the “bread of God” mentioned earlier. The term “bread of God” identifies God as the source of this bread, and the term “bread of life” identifies this bread as the source of eternal life. Jesus then stated that He is this bread, that He is the one who gives this life. This in a sense changes the focus from what Jesus does to who Jesus is, as we’ll see in more depth in the latter part of this chapter.37
(Continued in Part Two.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 John 6:35, 41, 48, 51.
2 John 8:12, 9:5.
3 John 10:7, 9.
4 John 10:11, 14.
5 John 11:25.
6 John 14:6.
7 John 15:1, 5.
8 Exodus 3:14.
9 In English translations of the Old Testament, whenever the word Lord is written LORD, with all capital letters, it is the translation of the Tetragrammaton and is referring to God’s name.
10 Genesis 28:13.
11 Exodus 15:26.
12 Psalm 35:3.
13 Deuteronomy 32:39.
14 Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 355.
15 John 8:57–59.
16 John 5:43.
17 John 10:25.
18 John 17:6.
19 John 17:26.
20 John 14:13.
21 G. M. Burge, “I Am” Sayings, in Green and McKnight (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 353–356.
24 John 6:24–26.
25 Keener, The Gospel of John, A Commentary, Volume 1, 676.
26 John 6:27.
27 John 6:28–29 NIV.
28 Keener, The Gospel of John, A Commentary, Volume 1, 677.
29 Michaels, The Gospel of John, 367.
30 John 6:30–31.
31 Michaels, The Gospel of John, 321, footnote 88.
32 John 6:32–33.
33 John 1:29.
34 John 3:16–17.
35 John 6:34–35.
36 John 6:27.
37 Michaels, The Gospel of John, 373.