Questions about whether Jesus ever identified Himself as God continue to be raised in our day. The surest way to answer these questions is to look at the words of Jesus Himself. Today’s passage gives perhaps the clearest answer, as it is the most explicit claim to deity that our Lord ever made. In saying, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58), Christ asserted that He is Yahweh, the one true creator God and covenant Lord of Israel.
Jesus made this statement in the midst of an argument with the Pharisees. He had asserted that freedom is only for those who abide in His teaching, the implication being that the Pharisees were not free because they rejected Him (vv. 31–32). Jesus was talking about spiritual freedom, for He had been talking about sin and death in the same argument (see v. 21). But the Pharisees misunderstood Him to be speaking of physical bondage, and they claimed to be Abraham’s descendants who had never been owned by another nation or person (v. 33). So, Jesus clarified that He was talking about slavery to sin, and the Pharisees picked up the implication that He believed they were sinners. That is why they reasserted their relationship to Abraham, for according to the Pharisees, only Gentiles and perhaps many common Jews were properly called sinners (vv. 34–39a).
Christ never denied the Pharisees’ physical ancestry (v. 37), but He refuted their claimed spiritual heritage. They could not be Abraham’s true sons because they did not do Abraham’s works. Instead of trusting the Lord and obeying His Word as Abraham did, they tried to kill the very Word of God Himself. That meant only one thing—spiritually, the Pharisees were really the devil’s children (v. 39b–47).
The Pharisees became incensed at such a charge, and accused Jesus of being demon possessed. But Jesus pointed out that this was impossible for the One who is the source of life (v. 48–51). At that point, the Pharisees demanded to know who they were really talking to, and Jesus said that He is greater than Abraham, and that Abraham wanted to see Christ and rejoiced when He did (vv. 52–57). The proof for this claim is found in this statement of Jesus: “Before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58). The Pharisees’ attempt to stone Him proves they understood Jesus was claiming to be the very God who revealed Himself to Abraham and to Moses (Ex. 3:14). Were that a false claim, the Pharisees would have been just; but Christ proved the truth of His claim by doing what only God can do (Mark 2:1–12).