Some time—we do not know how long—passed between Jesus’ proclamation of Himself as the light of the world (John 8:12–20) and the dialogue between our Lord and the Pharisees that begins in today’s passage. This exchange begins with Jesus’ telling them that He would be going away and that they could not come because they would die in their sin (v. 21). The reference here is to Jesus’ returning to heaven, their dying in sin making it impossible for them to join Him there. Coupled with other passages that use similar language (such as Ezek. 3:18; 18:18), we see that to die in sin is to die under the punishment for sin, under the curse of sin, under the condition of not benefiting from atonement and forgiveness. To die in sin is the worst thing that can ever happen to a person.
There is a way not to die in sin, however, and that is to believe Jesus when He says, “I am he” (John 8:23–24). What does this statement mean? It entails believing everything that our Lord says that He is, including, for example, that He is the light of the world (v. 12). But there is more. “I am he” in verse 24 actually translates the Greek egō eimi—“I am”—for there is no corresponding “he” in the Greek. Egō eimi is the phrase used in the Greek translations of Exodus 3:14 and Isaiah 40–55 at various points where God refers to Himself. Essentially, Jesus says that to escape our dying in sin, we must believe that He is God. If we die in faith, believing that Jesus is God incarnate, then we will be saved and therefore go where He is going (John 14:1–3). Dr. R.C. Sproul explains in his commentary John: “When the Bible speaks of being in sin or in faith, it is talking about the state of our souls before God. A person who has no faith, the unconverted person, remains in sin, and the worst calamity that could ever befall a human being is to die in that state. But for those who die in faith, there will be eternal blessing.”
We learn in John 7:30 that Jesus’ statement that the Pharisees would die in their sins was not absolute, for many of those to whom He spoke believed Him. We will learn that not all of these people had true saving faith. Nevertheless, those who did were among those who began to know who Jesus was during His earthly ministry and then when He was lifted up (vv. 28–29). This lifting up refers to the Savior’s death by crucifixion, which in John’s gospel is part of our Lord’s exaltation. On the cross, Jesus is seen for who He is, the God-man who suffered as a man for the sins of His people and to whom we owe all glory and honor.